~Captain Jeffry Kilgore.
The Black Hawk helicopters raced through the night. The ground raced below them, not that anyone inside of them other than the pilots, could see it. It was dark outside, with just a sliver of a moon and good cloud cover to mask the helicopters approach.
Captain Kilgore muffled a curse once more as he checked his map. Everything about this mission was FUBAR, fucked up beyond all recognition, as far as he was concerned. Not that his concerns meant much when it came to trying to argue with the Chief of Staff, or the President for that matter.
"Sir? ETA is five minutes. Romeo is already starting its pass."
Kilgore grunted in response and nodded to Sergeant Banergee. The dark-skinned mountain of a man got the squad of men who rode along with Kilgore moving through their final preparations. Men and women, Kilgore once more noted with more than a little irritation.
Bad enough the Tiri had stripped every Armed Force they could get their hands on. It was even worse to see the shortage of manpower up close, and the Captain was quite conscious of how short-handed they were. The two women in his team were clear enough reminders of that.
"Jeff, you really think this is going to work?"
There was only one person who was allowed to call him by his first name, and Kilgore glanced at his second in command with a sigh. Frank Alexander was a small man but he had a keen intelligence.
Lowering his voice as well, he watched the other Spec Ops do a double check on equipment and weapons.
"Hell if I know, Frank. Doesn't much matter now, we'll be down once Romeo does its stuff."
Both men sighed at that and looked back at the map spread between them, using red lenses to dim the small flashlight that they used to illuminate the parchment. God only knew if Romeo would work, and if it didn't, they were going to have a rough landing.
Jeffery Kilgore glared at the darkness outside of the helicopter and sighed. After President Blake's assassination, the U.S. military's stance on the Tiri, and the Empire, had changed. President Fairchild had been sworn in officially two days after President Blake's death. The relationship between the U.S. and the Empire had gone from polite to near outright name calling after that,†††† with President Fairchild doing everything short of accusing the Tiri of orchestrating the death of President Blake. Which the Tiri had been fairly scandalized by, and had reacted to by bluntly saying that the American President was out of his mind if he thought that they had anything to do with it.
Which left one Captain Jeffery Kilgore in the middle, trying to find evidence that he wasn't even certain existed. It was going to be one of those kinds of nights; he just knew it.
The raucous snarl of a priority hail woke her up.
Emily wearily opened her eyes, and wondered what time it was. The answer of course came immediately from her link with her ship self.
Dear Maker, three thirty in the morning. No wonder I feel like crap.
Swinging her legs over the edge of the bed in the guest quarters she'd been given at Longbow, and punched on the com panel. Wincing at the bright light, she glared at the young Imperial Marine Lieutenant on the screen.
Even to her, her voice sounded pissed off. Bad enough waking up this early after no sleep for the last forty-eight hours, even worse to wake up not holding a certain redheaded Guardian.
"Umm, First Guardian? We have a problem up here, and the Major wanted me to alert you."
The last of her sleep was already fading from her system by the time he finished speaking. Reaching for her discarded uniform, it wasn't a far stretch since she had tossed it on the ground, she kept an eye on the Lieutenant.
"What sort of problem?"
"We've got some American Air Force Hercules aircraft coming up on our airspace, Ma'am. We're also showing some helicopters at under a hundred feet, about four minutes out."
"Lovely. Have Major Whitehall put the base on alert. I'll be right there."
Killing the circuit, Emily stood and dressed with the quick efficiency of one who had been putting on uniforms at odd times of the day since she was young.
She made it to the command center two minutes before the first of the large turbo prop-driven airplanes entered the base's ten-kilometer airspace. Major Whitehall was waiting for her as she stepped off the lift, accompanied by her Honor Guards. Emily wished that Angwar had come down planetside as well, but her Provost had stayed onboard North Star.
"Major, what do you have for me?"
"Ma'am, I've got ten fighters up to intercept the Hercules. I have ground forces on standby in case the helicopters try anything, but they seem to be holding position outside of our airspace."
"Right at the ten click mark?"
"Hmmmm... they'll probably land and try to sneak troops in on foot then, if that's what they're up to. Make sure that those damn Hercules don't start dropping paratroops though, that could get messy."
"Yes, Ma'am. They can't know how big Longbow has grown or they wouldn't be coming in with only six dagger's worth of troops."
The First Guardian watched the Major stalk away, then turned and headed towards the com station. The same young Lieutenant was there and she grinned slightly at the wariness in his eyes as he spotted her headed his way.
"Lieutenant, get me a secure link to North Star, then prepare to send a priority one fleet wide message."
"Yes, Ma'am, I'll have the secure link in a second."
The black-haired Guardian nodded absently at that and turned to regard the tactical holo tank installed in the center of the large room. She wondered what the men onboard those Air Force craft thought they were doing.
Unfortunately, the First Guardian had a pretty good idea why they were doing it.
"Ma'am, I have a secure link to North Star."
With one last scowl she turned from the holo tank to face her Provost, who was looking a bit concerned at her through the com screen.
"Angwar, we seem to have some uninvited dinner guests on the way down here. I'm going to warn the other bases to keep an eye out, but they are probably only doing a single raid. I figure they think they can try and find information about President Blake's assassination somehow. Keep the fleet on alert, and pass the word to the other Guardians to stay on their toes. Get a hold of Julie for me and let her know what's happening. I don't want her getting caught up in this somehow."
"Very well, Emie, anything else?"
"Keep my marine's on standby, incase we need reinforcements down here. It doesn't look like we will, but you never know."
"I'll get right on it."
††††††††††† "Unidentified aircraft, this is Imperial Base Longbow. You are entering restricted airspace. Leave this area at once or you will be forced to."
††††††††††† The two pilots glanced at each other, and then studiedly ignored the continued calls for them to abandon their course. They had their orders, and they would follow them. Even if they were more than a bit nervous about what those orders had them doing.
††††††††††† The Imperial fighters had their own orders, and they formed up alongside the American Hercules aircraft. The Hercules was only twice the size of those fighters and there was no chance in hell of them outrunning the Tiri craft.
††††††††††† Pilot Erik Mathews glared out of his armored transparasteel cockpit of his Tiri fighter at the larger craft besides his. He didn't know what these guys thought they were doing, but they didn't seem to understand that it was over.
††††††††††† "Come on guys, you know it's over. Don't make us take this to another level."
††††††††††† When there was no answer he switched to the command channel, keeping a close watch over his fighters and their positions near the American planes.
††††††††††† "Longbow, this is Falcon One."
††††††††††† The face that appeared on his display was not one that he had been expecting, and he found himself straightening his shoulders.
††††††††††† "Longbow here, what do you have for us, Falcon One?"
††††††††††† "First Guardian, I have a negative on the warn off. Requesting further instructions."
††††††††††† The First Guardian's eyes narrowed and Mathews was very glad that he didn't seem to be the target of that anger.
††††††††††† "They are not to be allowed to cross the five kilometer mark, understood Falcon One? You stop them before they get there, or we force them to land."
††††††††††† "Yes, Ma'am. Are you authorizing me to use force?"
††††††††††† There was a slight pause at that, and Mathews nearly sagged in relief as she finally answered.
††††††††††† "I don't want any fatalities Falcon One. Try to disable their aircraft if necessary, but no fatalities."
††††††††††† "Understood, Ma'am."
††††††††††† Former Air Force pilot Erik Mathews sighed and flipped channels, to address the rest of his daggers worth of fighters. It still amused him how the Tiri counted military units in terms of weapons, a dagger's worth was ten, a sword was ten daggers or a hundred, and a lance was a thousand, or ten swords worth. Still, his amusement vanished as he glanced out his cockpit at the dimly visible Hercules.
††††††††††† He had no intention of shooting at what a large part of him still considered his people's aircraft. Still, he had a new duty now, and he was beginning to understand how much it meant.
††††††††††† Slowly, day-by-day perhaps, humans were starting to understand what was going on. Not only with their intellect, but also with their hearts. The torn loyalties were still there, but he was seeing less of that these days. People knew what was at stake, or were starting to anyway.
††††††††††† He only hoped that the pilots in the Hercules wouldn't force him to make them land their planes.
††††††††††† There were, he reflected as he started giving orders to the other pilots, always a few stupid ones.
††††††††††† "Always have to be a few stupid ones."
††††††††††† "What's that, Sir?"
††††††††††† Captain Kilgore ignored the slightly confused special operations man besides him and continued to forge his way through the surprisingly high grass. His men were spread out around him, and he made a note to continue his cursing about this stupid plan mentally.
††††††††††† Unfortunately, however stupid it was, it was up to him to come up with a way to make it work.
††††††††††† "The Hercules' have turned back, Ma'am, seven kilometers out."
††††††††††† Lady Windstar breathed a sigh of relief at that, but not much of one. The helicopters, as expected, had left a few minutes ago as well. She studied the crimson dots slowly moving in the holo tank before her. Each of those represented American spec ops, or perhaps a Marine, or even a SEAL she supposed. They were making their way in the darkness towards the base from East, through the grass.
††††††††††† "Whoever's leading them knows his stuff, Ma'am. Look at the way they've got the main body out here, as a decoy I bet. Trying to get us to focus on it, so this one can slip through."
††††††††††† Emily's lips twitched slightly in what could have been a slight grin and nodded in agreement with the Major standing besides her.
††††††††††† "It probably would work, if we didn't have each and every one of them pegged on sensors. Who do you have available to wrap these guys up and get them to surrender without too much fuss?"
††††††††††† The Major considered that with a small frown then grinned. It was all the more disturbing a grin, Emily thought, since the Major's face was one, which was naturally inclined to frown.
††††††††††† "I think I have the perfect team already on base Ma'am. They're here waiting for transport to Mars Base for more training. I think they would do very well indeed."
††††††††††† Deep blue eyes narrowed as the First Guardian looked up from the Holo tank at the grinning Major.
††††††††††† "Oh? Who exactly is in charge of this team of yours?"
††††††††††† Emily couldn't help but join the Major in grinning at that.
††††††††††† "Oh yes, that will do perfectly."
††††††††††† Katya was completely unaware that she was grinning fiercely as she moved her powered battle armor through the dark night. Her sword of troops was deployed behind her and to her flanks in a perfect semi circle. High overhead, her suit's sensor suite tracked the fighters, which were keeping station high above her. Air cover, she was positive, was not going to be a problem this time at least.
††††††††††† "Hey, God, I've got them on my sensors. Two clicks and closing."
††††††††††† Katya's grin widened as she looked at the sensor data being relayed to her.
††††††††††† "Got it, Mark. I'm taking Wolf and Bravo dagger with me. Take the others and wrap up the diversion, I'll take care of the sneaky ones."
††††††††††† "Gotcha. Good huntin'"
††††††††††† Mark was good folk, she had decided a while ago, and she had no doubt he would be able to wrap up the diversion force. She was more worried about the Americans who were obviously the true assault force. Her orders had come from Emily herself, and she was not going to get on the First Guardian's bad side by mucking this up. After all, her interest in the First Guardian's ever so eligible brother might take a beating.
††††††††††† "Wolf, Bravo, you guys are with me. No mess-ups or you'll answer to me and the First Guardian. Hold your fire unless I order it, and for the love of God, don't push them or they'll probably start firing at you. I want this tight, got it?"
††††††††††† The chorus of ĆAye's' and ĆYes, Ma'ams' chimed through her headset even as she was moving. She loved the feel of full powered armor, a lot. The weapons were impressive enough, but added to that was the fact that the thrusters on the back gave her the ability to "leap" a good fifty feet in a bound.
††††††††††† Then there were the neural impulse controls which made the suit become something like a second skin to her.
††††††††††† She put the ability to leap to good use as her and her much smaller group began their trek across the plains towards the approaching Americans. God was paying close attention to how her people were handling this; it was their first real-life assignment. The Fourth Mobile Cavalry had only been officially active for two months now after all.
††††††††††† "Craig, take your dagger down around to the south. I want a tight seal around them, got it? No one gets out unless they surrender. You stand back though, don't push them, I know exactly how they would react if we did. This is not going to turn into a firefight if I can help it."
††††††††††† "Yo, God, no prob."
††††††††††† God gave her screen an odd look. Craig's accent, even when speaking Tiri, drove her insane.
††††††††††† "Margaret, take Bravo and go north, meet up with Wolf and make sure you get a tight seal. I'll take care of getting them to stand down before anyone gets hurt."
††††††††††† I hope.
††††††††††† She didn't add that last part though, as her people spread out and began moving towards the positions she had selected for them. God waited for the last of her people to get into position, forming a large perimeter around the moving Americans, before she moved.
††††††††††† Using her suit's sensors, she moved forward to stand directly in the path of the coming Americans. Katya carefully made certain that the plasma rifle mounted over the right shoulder of her suit was pointed upwards, in the inactive position. The pulsar dart gatling cannon which made up the right arm of her suit, she kept pointed downwards. Then she waited, as patiently as the sniper she had been in what seemed like a previous lifetime.
††††††††††† The Americans moved swiftly, and she noted with approval the way that they were keeping to cover as they came, even though it was pitch dark out. God waited until they were well within hearing range, and inside of her trap before opening up.
††††††††††† Not with weapons, but with her power armor's external speakers.
††††††††††† "American troops, you have entered a restricted area. You are ordered to lay down your weapons and accompany us to the base."
††††††††††† The hail of bullets ripped through the night air before her heavily accented English speech was even finished. Katya rolled her eyes as bullets sprang off of her armor. Why had she even thought she could manage to do this with just a warning?
††††††††††† Fine, they want to do it hard, I will do it hard. Emie can't fault me for not trying at least.
††††††††††† "Wolf and Bravo, all units activate your plasma rifles and fire one shot upwards, forty five degree angle should work well."
††††††††††† The plasma bolt would deteriorate into nothing towards the end of its range, two kilometers away. The fighters prudently peeled away from the ground at that.
††††††††††† Twelve seconds later the night sky became day as twenty plasma rifles fired skywards. The hail of bullets ceased, and she watched in amusement as the Americans formed a defensive formation.
††††††††††† "Americans, once again, you are surrounded and outnumbered by a superior force. Surrender your weapons and you will be accompanied to our base."
††††††††††† One of the figures on her heads up display shifted towards her, and spoke up for the first time.
††††††††††† "What will happen then?"
††††††††††† "That will depend on the First Guardian."
††††††††††† There was silence for a moment, then she watched carefully as the man rose and tossed aside his rifle.
††††††††††† Good, I didn't even have to kill anyone this time.
††††††††††† "Hey, you ok?"
††††††††††† Julie stretched and shook her head, wearily trying to find a more comfortable position in her seat.
††††††††††† Strong hands began to slowly massage her shoulders, and she nearly purred in approval as those fingers found the tension spots.
††††††††††† "You can stop that in a few years."
††††††††††† A low laugh next to her ear brought a different sort of tension to her body, and Julie craned her neck around to look up at the First Guardian. Emily was standing behind the chair she had collapsed in as soon as she had arrived, smiling fondly down at her.
††††††††††† "How goes the hunt?"
††††††††††† Julie glared, or tried to anyway, at the taller woman then let her head fall forward as Emily's hands worked their magic.
††††††††††† "We've got a lead, a good one. Don't know what we'll find when we get to New York though."
††††††††††† "How long are you staying here?"
††††††††††† "Hmmmm... oh that's good, what? Oh, we're here just for the night, the Major wanted to talk to a few of his contacts and see if they knew anything."
††††††††††† Emily pressed her thumbs into a particularly tense muscle and began trying to get the tension to leave. Guessing by Julie's groans, she would say she was doing a good job. Which rather surprised the First Guardian, since she hadn't thought of massages being high on her list of skills.
††††††††††† "You think the Bak'ra had something to do with the Human Genome Project?"
††††††††††† Emily could feel her friends half-hearted shrug in response.
††††††††††† "I don't know, Emie, but Betty sent some pretty strong evidence to suggest that the Bak'ra on Earth had spent a lot on it. I don't know why either, but we're talking billions of dollars here."
††††††††††† The First Guardian's mind was trying to sort through the possibilities of what that could mean, but she kept on getting distracted by the smooth skin under her fingers.
††††††††††† "They're probably trying to develop another viral weapon, like the one they deployed against us on Tiri Prime."
††††††††††† Emily slid her hands further down the smaller woman's shoulders, marveling at the feeling of touching. The skin under her hands was warm and pliant, and she leaned forward to place a kiss on the nape of Julie's neck.
††††††††††† Sighing in pleasure, Julie tilted her head away, allowing Emily more access, and raised a hand to slide her fingers through Emily's hair. Something which the blue-eyed woman definitely appreciated.
††††††††††† "As much as I am going to hate myself tomorrow for saying this, can we go to sleep now?"
††††††††††† Emily smiled against her skin and nodded, rising and holding out a hand to help the smaller woman to her feet.
††††††††††† "We're both too tired to take this further, but..."
††††††††††† Keeping her eyes locked with the sleepy green eyes in front of her, Emily slipped her hands down around Julie's slim waist. Drawing the petite woman closer, she ducked her head and pressed her lips against the warm inviting ones waiting for her. The kiss grew from a series of nibbles to a heated open-mouthed dual of tongues which left them both gasping when they finally drew back for air.
††††††††††† "Dear God."
††††††††††† Julie whispered, burying her face in Emily's chest, even as the First Guardian held her tightly. Not trusting her voice at the moment, Emie nodded shakily, her knees still feeling a bit weak from that one.
††††††††††† Sweet Maker, what she does to me, and we haven't even made love. I think she's going to kill me when we do though; I'll die of pleasure. They'll have to spend days trying to get the smile off my face.
††††††††††† Gently, Emily pulled back and touched the dark circles under her friend's eyes. She knew there were similar circles under her own; both of them had been pushing their bodies hard the last few months.
††††††††††† "Let's go to sleep, ok? We're both too tired for what we want to do. When I make love to you for the first time, I want to make positive that it's an all night affair."
††††††††††† Wiggling her eyebrows suggestively, she even managed to get a smile out of Julie and a light poke at her stomach.
††††††††††† "Hmph, careful what boasts you make, First Guardian. I'm going to keep you to that one, you know."
††††††††††† Emily was about to reply with a sassy remark when Julie yawned, which of course, she caught. They both shared a tired grin and laced their hands together, the smaller woman tugging her towards the bed in Emily's guest quarters.
††††††††††† "Come on, giant, let's get some sleep or you're going to have to carry me to bed."
††††††††††† "I could."
††††††††††† That earned Emily a chuckle and Julie just tugged her a bit faster towards the bed.
††††††††††† "I know you could."
††††††††††† They both hung up their uniforms and slid under the covers clad in underwear only. Neither one of them felt up to trying a shower, and Julie certainly wasn't up to sleeping in the nude no matter what Emily herself would have preferred.
††††††††††† "Hey, I forgot to ask, why was the base on alert earlier?"
††††††††††† Settling onto her side with a warm length of body pressed up against her front as they spooned together without any conscious decision on their part, it took Emily a moment to remember.
††††††††††† "Oh, that."
††††††††††† Grinning she nuzzled the red hair just in front of her face and happily let her body relax.
††††††††††† "We had an American Special Ops team try to get inside of the base."
††††††††††† Emily tightened her hold to keep Julie from sitting up and soothed her with a kiss.
††††††††††† "Don't worry, no one got hurt. They're being held in guest quarters right now, under guard of course. We'll release them to the authorities tomorrow, er, I mean later today, after I have a talk with their leader."
††††††††††† †"Stupid idiots, what the hell did they think they were going to do? Waltz inside of the base?"
††††††††††† "I have a fairly good idea of who wanted them to try anyway."
††††††††††† Julie was silent for a moment, and Emily closed her eyes. Sleep was already calling to her, and it was already four-thirty, local time. She'd have to be up in about three and a half hours to have a talk with the head of the Spec Ops team. Then make certain that the release went well. The Imperial press relations people were having a field day coming up with the best way to do the release, not that Emily was going to listen to them if they wanted her to do something differently than she had already planned. Not unless they had a really good reason.
††††††††††† "You think President Fairchild is behind it?"
††††††††††† Emily nodded tiredly, squeezing the body she held in way of a hug.
††††††††††† "I'm sure he is, this must have had his approval, if not his direct orders. I'll see what I can find out tomorrow."
††††††††††† With one more yawn, she closed her eyes and gladly let sleep overtake her.
††††††††††† Her companion stayed awake for a while longer, trying to piece together something that she knew she should understand. There was something about this which prodded at her, and Julie sighed when it wouldn't come. Finally though, she too let her eyes close and followed her larger friend into sleep. They stayed in each other's embrace until duty dragged them from bed a few short hours later. For that time though, each of them slept well, untroubled by dreams.
††††††††††† Julie watched in amusement as the crowd below surged forward, or tried to anyway. The Marines in full, unpowered body armor did a very good job of holding them back.
††††††††††† "You sure this is a wise idea?"
††††††††††† The reflection of the First Guardian nodded, her eyes drawn to the scene below as well.
††††††††††† "Yes, I had a good long chat with Captain Kilgore this morning. He didn't say much of course, but what he didn't say was as important as what he did."
††††††††††† Julie smiled at that and shook her head. That hadn't been what she meant, but Emie was thinking only in terms of military tactics and information. Something which she was beginning to understand that the First Guardian always did.
††††††††††† "I meant, are you sure you want to release them like this? To the State Police?"
††††††††††† A low chuckle sounded behind her, and the warmth that Emily's body always seemed to give off radiated along her back. Almost unconsciously, she found herself leaning backwards into that warmth. A glance at the other watchers in the tower cured her of that response though.
††††††††††† "Yes, it seemed poetic. We're releasing them and pressing charges of trespassing. Handing them over in front of the media circus was someone else's idea though."
††††††††††† That someone else was currently paying more attention to a spiky-haired blond than anyone else.
††††††††††† "Well at least God won't be complaining about your brother not being around for a little while."
††††††††††† Emily simply snorted at that, and Julie grinned, looking back down towards the unfolding drama below them. She and the others were in one of the taller buildings which had hastily been constructed above ground at Longbow. Like the other Tiri base's which were scattered across the globe, Longbow had been built to avoid detection. Now that avoiding being spotted by humans was no longer an issue, the base had exploded in growth. It was now one of the main command stations in the rapidly forming Global Defense Force.
††††††††††† "How many reporters do you think are down there?"
††††††††††† Julie asked out loud, but she kept her eyes focused on the reflected blue ones. The redhead had no doubt that even if Weston had heard her, he was far too busy talking to Katya to respond.
††††††††††† "My brother does seem taken with her doesn't he?"
††††††††††† Julie did turn at that, putting the armored transparasteel to her back, and grinned as she looked at the other two.
††††††††††† "Yeah, he does. Is that bad?"
††††††††††† Blue eyes flicked towards Imperial Prince Weston the Fourth, and then back towards the smaller woman standing just inches away from her.
††††††††††† "No, even if she is a bit odd."
††††††††††† Green eyes met blue and both smiled at the same time.
††††††††††† "You know..."
††††††††††† Both of them finished at the same time, already laughing in perfect understanding.
††††††††††† The odd looks that they were getting from both Weston and Katya only made them both laugh harder. Months of stress had built up to that and they were leaning against one another by the time that they got themselves under control.
††††††††††† "If you are both quite finished?"
††††††††††† Weston did his best to glower at the two of them, but Julie personally thought that Emily did it better.
††††††††††† "I guess, even if the two of you make it far too easy to make fun of you."
††††††††††† Julie elbowed the taller Guardian trying to get her to behave herself, even as she grinned.
††††††††††† "Don't worry, I'll protect you both from this one."
††††††††††† "Oh really? "
††††††††††† Katya licked her lips and, Julie noted with a bit of a sigh, leaned against Weston's side with no reservation at all.
††††††††††† "Yeah, wanna go at it, God?"
††††††††††† "Don't make me put the fear of God into you, American."
††††††††††† Emily was laughing again by then and Weston sighed, shaking his head.
††††††††††† "Children, Children... Ow!"
††††††††††† Katya grinned unrepentantly after elbowing him, much as Julie had done to Emily earlier and the Prince tried to glare at her as well.
††††††††††† The roar of the crowd drew them all around toward the scene below again.
††††††††††† The Marines had just officially handed over the captured American Spec Ops to the State Troopers. Everyone knew that nothing would come of the charges being laid against them, but that wasn't the point.
††††††††††† Julie studied the chaos below and had to admit it probably was a good move, politically wise. Great publicity for the Empire, and it showed exactly what they thought about the U.S. attempt to invade one of their bases.
††††††††††† "When do you have to leave again?"
††††††††††† Julie did sigh at that one and leaned back against the warm length of the First Guardian.
††††††††††† "In about an hour. We're due in New York City by this afternoon. Betty did some more sifting through the financial records, and managed to track down the accounts to a firm with its office there. You wouldn't believe the number of shell companies she went through to get it."
††††††††††† "Remind me to speak to you about Betty when we have a bit more time. Come on. Let's see about getting some lunch. Weston, Katya, you want to join us in scrounging up some food?"
††††††††††† Emily stretched her six-foot frame and winced as her back realigned itself. Lunch at least had been fun, as had this morning. The day had steadily gone downhill from there.
††††††††††† "Are you positive?"
††††††††††† The large man shifted uncomfortably in a seat which seemed dwarfed by him and shook his head.
††††††††††† "Not a hundred percent."
††††††††††† Emily closed her eyes once more and massaged a temple with her fingers. She'd come back up to North Star shortly after lunch, and had been sifting through reports for most of the afternoon.
††††††††††† It's not fair. We should have another two years, not four months. Sweet Maker, help me, how are we going to do this?
††††††††††† "Darrien, can we be ready by then?"
††††††††††† The other Guardian hesitated, and Emily could almost feel the large man's mind whirring as he thought through everything once more.
††††††††††† "Not with the current battle plan, no."
††††††††††† That's what she had thought as well.
††††††††††† Shit, I hate being right sometimes.
††††††††††† "We'll have to use one of the contingency plans then."
††††††††††† Neither of them mentioned that the contingency plans weren't as likely to succeed.
††††††††††† "Four months give or take a few days, that's the best we can firm it up so far, Emie. They have to have gotten another signal that narrowed down their search patterns a lot. The Bak'ra are heading in a nearly straight line toward us now."
††††††††††† "Well, shit."
††††††††††† "As the humans say, Amen to that."
††††††††††† The sound of liquid being poured caused her to open an eye to see what the other Guardian was up to. She grinned faintly as she watched him pour two shots of Vodka and wordlessly accepted the glass that he offered to her.
††††††††††† "Maker, that's awful stuff."
††††††††††† "Put hair on your chest, First Guardian."
††††††††††† "Oh yeah, that's a real good selling point, Darrien."
††††††††††† They were both silent for a moment, each taken up in their own thoughts. Emily herself was thinking of a certain red-haired human, and wishing she was nearby. Sighing, Emily sat upright and held out her glass for a refill, eyeing the other Guardian.
††††††††††† I miss you, Julie, and you've only been gone a few hours. How can that be?
††††††††††† "So what do we have?"
††††††††††† "Orbital forts should be up and running by then. We'll have the first graduating class of human Guardians, along with of course the Tiri Guardians. There's going to be some serious holes in our formations though, only a few of the support ships are finished."
††††††††††† The First Guardian closed her eyes again as the headache returned. The vodka, she admitted, probably wasn't helping in that regard.
††††††††††† I'm just picturing our battle plans going right out the airlock.
††††††††††† "We can't wait for them to come to us, Darrien. We need to go meet them."
††††††††††† The silence that stretched after that was eloquent. Emily did her best to avoid thinking about what that silence meant.
††††††††††† "I can honestly say that I hate New York City."
††††††††††† Julie laughed at the disgruntled expression on the Major's face and looked back out the window of the Tiri shuttle.
††††††††††† "You just have to get used to it, Major. I liked it when we were stationed here a in the late nineties."
††††††††††† Major Sims ran a hand over his bald head and glared out the same window.
††††††††††† "Every time we come here, something goes wrong."
††††††††††† Julie grinned and shook her head.
††††††††††† "Getting superstitious, Major?"
††††††††††† "Nope, just stating facts, Guardian."
††††††††††† Stretching her legs as much as the small seats would allow, Julie eyed her long-time friend at that.
††††††††††† "Oh yeah?"
††††††††††† "Yes, every time we come here something goes wrong."
††††††††††† "We didn't have any problems last time we were here."
††††††††††† At least she didn't think they had any problems when they were stationed here in the nineties.
††††††††††† "I lost that promotion."
††††††††††† Julie scowled in confusion at that.
††††††††††† "What promotion?"
††††††††††† "I was going to head up Majestic, but Whittecker got it instead."
††††††††††† "Major, you can't blame that on being stationed in New York."
††††††††††† "Oh yeah? Watch me, Julie."
††††††††††† Julie watched the shadow land with a bemused expression. The Major had odd ideas on occasion, but he was a good man.
††††††††††† "Who are we going to visit?"
††††††††††† "A company that Betty sent us some info on. It's called Gentech. Judging by its tax statements, it's a pretty big company. Headquarters are downtown, near the twin towers."†††††††††
††††††††††† Seeking the link to her ship self was not instinctive yet, but it was getting there. She wasn't as quick as the First Guardian to search through that link from far away, but that would come as well. The amount of information stored in Southern Cross's data banks still surprised her though.
††††††††††† "It's going to be a bitch getting down there through the traffic."
††††††††††† "Ha, traffic? Who said we were going by land?"
††††††††††† The shuttle gently touched down at Newark airport before Julie could ask what he meant by that. She gave him a slightly confused look though as she followed him out of the shuttle's hatch and down to the tarmac below. An army helicopter a few hundred feet away began to spin its blades as she watched. Julie glanced at the Major with a questioning expression and he grinned.
††††††††††† "I called in a few favors."
††††††††††† "Oh yeah, and we all know how much I love helicopter rides. Those stupid Osprey's are bad enough."
††††††††††† Grabbing their bags, they both hunched over against the wind and hurried towards the waiting helicopter, her four Honor Guard members grimly falling in behind her.
††††††††††† "Ecuador was a fuck up, no way around that one, Julie
††††††††††† Julie winced at that one, and decided to ignore the memories that comment stirred up.
††††††††††† "Let's just get this over with."
††††††††††† A half hour later, Julie emerged from the helicopter, shaky, but not too much worse for the ride. Thankfully, she hadn't had to use her airsickness bag this time, but it had been close once or twice. She truly had no problem with traveling by airplane, but helicopter rides were not fun at all.
††††††††††† "You going to live?"
††††††††††† Julie groaned and resisted the urge to try and wipe the smirk off the Major's face.
††††††††††† I promised, Emie, I would be good. Sometimes though, being good sucks.
††††††††††† "Nice landing spot."
††††††††††† The police, who had roped off the intersection that they had used as a helipad, were watching them with a mixture of awe and resentment. She decided she didn't even want to know how the Major had gone about getting them to do that.
††††††††††† "Not too subtle though was it?"
††††††††††† The intersection in question had been located a half block from the front of the building that they were headed towards. Gentech owned the top fifteen floors, and through a series of shell companies, owned the rest of the building as well. A nice non-descript thirty-story skyscraper didn't look much different from any of the others in the area.
††††††††††† "The point wasn't supposed to be subtle. We're here on official business, Julie. We're going in with trumpets blaring. The rest of the team should have been in place an hour ago."
††††††††††† A glance at the four Marines in full battle-dress trooping behind them settled that point at least.
††††††††††† Yeah, I guess I can't be too subtle with these guys following me around everywhere.
††††††††††† The guards at the front desk barely had time to gawk at them as the Major flashed a badge and strode right past them as if they were little more than statues. Julie did her best not to grin as one of those guards tried to intercept her. Her Marine Honor Guards intercepted him smoothly, and not so smoothly brushed him aside.
††††††††††† "I'm jealous, you got a badge?" she quietly muttered as she followed the major towards the banks of elevators.
††††††††††† "Imperial Intelligence, all neat and fancy, I. I. People are already having fun with the acronyms."
††††††††††† Julie's shoulders were shaking as she made her way into the elevator behind the larger Major. The four Honor Guards filled the rest of the large elevator, and her contingent leader, a large fellow from Ohio named Chris Ryes, held up a hand to stop an accountant from following them in.††††††††
††††††††††† "Sorry, Ma'am, but I think you want to take the next one."
††††††††††† There were, Julie admitted, some advantages to having heavily armed Marines following her around everywhere.
††††††††††† "What floor we going to?"
††††††††††† The Major double-checked the hard copy he had printed out and brought with him then punched the twentieth floor button.
††††††††††† "Might as well start at their reception area and work our way up. See what we can ferret out. The rest of the team should be in position by now, and they'll nail anyone who tries to get out."
††††††††††† "Lovely plan, you think it'll work?"
††††††††††† The Major grinned and patted his sidearm with a shrug.
††††††††††† "Eh, if it doesn't, we'll come up with something else."
††††††††††† "Oh great, we're winging it again aren't we? You know I hate it when we do that."
††††††††††† "Yeah, yeah, whine, whine."
††††††††††† Julie grinned and leaned back against the back of the elevator, blinking her eyes as she focused on the Major. Her mind was having a hard time sticking to one thought, and she frowned as she wondered if the lack of sleep was finally catching up to her or if she was coming down with a cold. The constant travel of the past few days, despite the lay over at Longbow, was starting to wear on her, but she was usually better able to cope with it.
††††††††††† Frowning as she steadied herself against another dizzy spell, she found her thoughts once more wandering. The past few days, chasing down leads with the Major and his team, had been almost like De-ja-vu.†
††††††††††† Just like old times again, except we actually have the full backing of a government now.
††††††††††† Almost as if he had read her thoughts, the Major nodded towards the heavily armed and armored Marines.
††††††††††† "Nice to have such capable back up isn't it?"
††††††††††† "For a change, yes."
††††††††††† "Speaking of† capable back up, how's the First Guardian doing?"
††††††††††† The question came a bit out of nowhere, and Julie wondered if she was the only one having problems keeping her thoughts straight. With an irritated glance towards the floor indicators above the door, she wondered how much longer the stupid elevator ride was going to take. They seemed to be moving pretty darn slow. Something about that should have raised alarm bells in her mind, but the odd dizziness kept getting in the way. She focused on the Major's question.
††††††††††† "Stressed, but pretty good. Hard to tell how she's really doing since I get all of like five minutes alone with her, on a good day that is."
††††††††††† The slight edge in her voice was not lost on the Major, and to tell the truth she was a bit surprised by it as well. She was not in the habit of letting her emotions show while on assignment. With a sigh, she shook her head, ignoring the slightly puzzled look being shot her way, and immediately regretted the move. The dizziness got worse, and she leaned back heavily against the back of the elevator. The Marines thought far too much of themselves to actually look like they were paying attention, but she was more than aware of their presence at the moment. This wasn't the place for that kind of conversation.
††††††††††† "Don't worry, Major. It's just kind of..."
††††††††††† She blinked as one of the Marines wavered.
††††††††††† "Steffens? You ok?"
††††††††††† "Umm, yeah, just kind of dizzy I think I'm..."
††††††††††† Whatever the rest of his sentence was going to be, she'd never find out. The Marine swayed one way, then the other and kept right on going, falling sideways into the Marine next to him. The elevator slowed to a halt, then began going down, fast. The alarms which had been silent before began ringing full tilt in her mind.
††††††††††† "Shit, Major, it's a trap!"
††††††††††† The Major nodded grimly, trying to pry open the control panel under the elevator controls. His movements had the studied carefulness of someone who did not totally trust his body to do what he wished it to do. Chris was trying to raise someone, anyone, on his communicator, but he managed only a disgusted snarl before slumping forward as well. Julie was starting to feel more than a bit dizzy and blinked as she focused on staying upright. Something which was becoming quite hard.
††††††††††† Her last memory was the Major cursing and the remaining Marine trying to get the doors open as they went below the sub basement listed on the glowing buttons mounted above the elevator doors. Her fading thought was to wonder why they were still going down. Then the world went black.
††††††††††† I tried to stay out of trouble, Emie, I swear I did...
††††††††††† She'd managed to carve some time out for a nap late that afternoon, ship time. She had a formal dinner to attend later on that evening, with her father in China. A political show of force, she thought anyway. Something she was just required to show up to and do her usual update on the military side of things.
††††††††††† Her dreams though, those were disturbing. She dreamed of a dark space closing in on her, suffocating her and dragging her down into its depths. Dark, shark-like shapes waited for her in those depths, and she tossed and turned.
††††††††††† When the shrill call of a priority com signal dragged her from her dreams, she woke up feeling uneasy and on edge. The dreams still clawed at the edge of her consciousness.
††††††††††† Licking her lips, the First Guardian ran a hand through her sweat-drenched hair and then reached for the com panel. Her heart slowed from its wild pounding as she instinctively tested the link with her ship self. Everything was fine aboard North Star, and she felt a bit of her tension leave. Punching the accept key, she waited for the unit to acknowledge her identity and then light up. The worried face of her Provost greeted her.
††††††††††† "Angwar? What's wrong?"
††††††††††† Even before he spoke, she knew.
††††††††††† Julie...Oh, dear Maker, no, not again.
††††††††††† "I'm sorry to wake you, Emily, but there's been a problem I think you should know about."
††††††††††† Sitting up, she reached for her discarded uniform jacket with one hand, her eyes never leaving the screen. Angwar swallowed and hesitated a moment, before continuing. A fist of fear formed in her stomach.
††††††††††† "We've just lost contact with Major Sims' team. Southern Cross switched to manual controls and secondary systems twelve minutes ago."
††††††††††† Blue eyes hardened at that. If Julie's ship body had reverted to manual and secondary controls, it meant that the Guardian was not able to keep up the link. Which meant she was unconscious, or...
††††††††††† No, she's not dead. I would know if she was dead, I would feel it inside me.
††††††††††† "Get the rapid reaction team on it, Angwar. I'm taking a shuttle out there right now. I want her last location and the details of her movements routed to me en route."
††††††††††† Blue eyes, pale already with rage at anyone who would dare try to hurt Julie, narrowed dangerously as her Provost cleared his throat.
††††††††††† "We just got a transmission a few minutes ago Ma'am. President Fairchild has declared that any unauthorized flight into U.S. airspace by an Imperial vessel will be viewed as an act of war."
††††††††††† Emily stared at her Provost as if he had gone insane.
††††††††††† Angwar swallowed and did his best not to flinch from the sheer fury staring at him. A Lieutenant sitting a few feet away from him shifted away from the screen nervously. The first Guardian's tone promised pain, and lots of it, to whoever had raised her ire.
††††††††††† "We just relayed the message to the Emperor and Prince Weston. Do you want to send the rapid reaction team still?"
††††††††††† Emily ground her teeth together in mute fury.
††††††††††† "No, but I will be returning to Longbow. From there I will be taking land transport to New York City."
††††††††††† Angwar straightened and prepared to salute and carry out her orders when the frozen slice of fury that was her voice stopped him.
††††††††††† "Angwar, tell the President that if something happens to a Guardian because of his orders, I will consider it an act of war."†††††††††
I'm on my way, Julie. I swear, I will turn the entire city into rubble if someone hurts you.
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