View Full Version : The Seed Unplanted
01-17-2006, 01:41 AM
Those hollow, frightened eyes peered up at her again. Hundreds of small children, between the ages of six months to 6 years, crowded around her, grabbing at her clothing, holding their hands out in supplication, crying. Their swollen bellies were in sharp contrast to the pronounced relief of their ribcages. “Please, miss, food. Please? Grace, please.” thousands of young, raspy voices called to her, in languages she did not know, but she could understand. They called her by name, they knew her. They were crying out for Grace. Mothers with skeletal babies at their sagging, milkless breasts looked at her with a quiet and resigned plea. Hope was absent here, and despite her divine mandate, Grace could not feed them all. She could not even feed one.
The sound of the alarm clock ripped her back to Founders Falls. Grace’s eyes fluttered open and she squinted in the morning light, slapping the alarm button. Her heart was heavy with despair upon waking, for the fifth time this week.
She swung her legs over the side of the bed, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. Dominic lay next to her, in peaceful slumber, his breathing even and deep. Grace could not rid herself of the afterimages of suffering in the world. Night after night, the goddess saw fit to carry her to the places in the world where she would witness horrible human suffering: starvation, terror, abuse, war, disease. What was worse, she was beginning to feel what these people were feeling. Coupled with the overwhelming sensations of helplessness and despair that assailed her upon waking, it was enough to make her not want to sleep at all. And yet deep inside herself she knew that her presence in their misery was a comfort to them. They seemed to know her on sight, despite the fact that they had likely never heard of Paragon City or its superpowered inhabitants. It was not Alumette they recognized. It was Grace.
She had told no one about these dreams, for a while thinking they were simply related to overwork and stress. But as time went on, they became more vivid, and more emotionally entangling. She felt compelled to experience them and at the same time was loath to go back to that despair. Grace glanced back over her shoulder at Dominic once more, peaceful and comfortable, enjoying a well-deserved sleep. He was the last person she wanted to tell.
And so it was fortuitous that she ran into Enigmus while on patrol. Enigmus was an old friend; one she didn’t see often, but when she did, it was always meaningful somehow. Almost eerily so. After a few runs through the city sewers, rounding up criminals, Grace asked Enigmus to meet her at a café to talk. There she told him about the dreams, her eyes red from tears. He listened attentively, and then gently formed his thoughts.
01-17-2006, 04:13 AM
"It's alright…", Enigmus said warmly, gently placing his hand on the side of her head.
"I know this must be very hard for you, as is every first step ever taken.", he added, after a minute of reflection.
"These dreams are very important. They are a sign that this is the right time to become closer with the Goddess. Now you simply have to show that you are ready to accept the implications of that.
The path you were destined for is not an easy one, but it bears great importance.
As unpleasant as they may be, you need these dreams to prepare you for what is to come.
Like the steel of a scalpel, you must be hardened before the doctor can use you to save lives."
Enigmus knew what Alumette's reply would be, but he preferred to hear her say it.
01-17-2006, 07:32 AM
"I don't understand," she said. "I know She wants me to protect and give comforting sanctuary to the hurt, the lost, and the forgotten. That is Her mandate, and my purpose. How can she possibly expect me to do that for the whole world?"
Alumette's face took on an expression of grim frustration. "I hate Her, Enigmus," she said through gritted teeth. "If she's this goddess, why doesn't she just fly around fixing everything? Why does she have to use me? Take away my choice? Make me do her bidding? I'm only human! This body, for all its strength, will die before I've even made a dent in what she's showing me! She never asked me if I wanted to do this! She just hopped right on into my body when my mother died." By now Grace was near tears, and the few patrons in the sparsely-populated coffee shop were beginning to glance in her direction. "I don't understand what she wants me to do, or how she can expect me to be able to do it."
01-17-2006, 11:52 PM
"If she didn't deem you capable of performing this task, she would not have brought this onto you.", Enigmus replied.
"You are leaving the forest and entering on a clear path, and the vast sky can be overwhelming." he said to the fear hidden in Alumette's eyes.
"Yes, it is likely that she could take away the suffering from this world, but wouldn't that trivialize our lives? As you very well know, there is no light without shadow. So is the case with struggle and accomplishment.
Keep in mind that even if you never had these dreams, their theme wouldn't be any less of a fact. You need to learn to remain calm when faced with these realities, before you can take the next step.
Your recent moves have shown that you are able to take care of mass-scale problems such as the ones you dream of.
"And you do have a choice," Enigmus smiled. "You chose to be born into this family."
As he spoke, he felt Alumette's growing frustration and gently placed his hand on hers. "This is a good thing," he said. "Perhaps we should talk about this somewhere more private?"
01-19-2006, 04:20 AM
Gritting her teeth, Grace shook her head. She knew Enigmus was right. She knew what he was going to say even before he'd said it. Her training at MAGI had taught her as much, and Belisama's mythology was rife with references to those very ideas. Still, she didn't have to like it.
"It's all right," she said, "we can stay here." Most of the patrons had gone back to their own conversations, by now relatively inured to references to avatars, ancient goddesses, and magical powers. Or at least, if not inured, sufficiently weirded out to want to feign ignorance. Enigmus nodded and considered his petite, Provencale friend. "You know, I'm surprised you haven't gone to MAGI with this," he said gently.
"I don't trust anyone at MAGI except the Dream Doctor," she said. "Arguably he would be the ideal person to go to with this, seeing as how Her mythology is one of his hobbies. Unfortunately he's on sabbatical right now." Alumette fiddled with a sugar packet that had been left on the table of the cafe. She bit her lower lip in thought and added after a pause, "What do you mean, I chose to be born into this family?" She gazed at him with her maple-colored eyes, almost challenging him to tell her more.
01-20-2006, 01:30 AM
"Yes, it was your decision.
The Beforelife is much like a turbulent ocean filled with unborn spirits.
The weaker ones feel lost in it. They drift, thrown about by the waves without a purpose, eventually ending up on the shores of birth that the currents carried them to.
The stronger spirits, however, can swim on their own. They are able to defy the waves and select the family they will be born to.
You, Grace, are most certainly a strong spirit." Enigmus smiled and let that idea sink in before he continued.
"The Dream Doctor is on a sabbatical, you say? Perhaps his absence wasn’t coincidental…" he thought out loud. "Yes, this is fortunate. With his relative lack of insight into the Plan, he could have made a mistake, and this time we cannot allow ourselves for mistakes."
"What plan? What do you mean? Why couldn’t the Dream Doctor help?" Grace asked.
"The Dream Doctor knows what’s in front of you by looking back at the path that you and your ancestors have treaded. Meanwhile, your particular situation is unique." Enigmus replied.
"But you still haven’t said what is this ‘Plan’ you talked about, though." Grace said anxiously.
Enigmus calmly tented his fingers. "The Plan is your purpose here. It is as much your final goal as it is the journey that leads to it. "
"Why do you always have to talk in riddles? I swear, it’s as if you and the Goddess had some sort of a conspiracy!" Grace exclaimed. There was a brief pause in the conversations of the patrons nearby.
"I’m only here to provide guidance." Enigmus said serenely. "Trust me, you’re doing very well so far."
01-20-2006, 06:45 AM
The words sank in with increasing gravity. His implication that she was destined to be the avatar she was was not a new one for her. That her role was predestined had been made plain to her from the beginning of her training: from the moment she met the Dream Doctor there outside the smoldering Empire nightclub, still handcuffed but standing outside the police car, and he'd looked at her more intensely than any other human being ever had and said simply, "Ah. She is found." Still, the idea that her destiny had been of her own choosing before birth was a new one, and she was still trying to wrap her brain around it.
Even so, it wasn't the air of destiny about it that bothered her, rather it was the phrases Enigmus used: this time we cannot allow ourselves mistakes, and your situation is unique, gave Grace pause. How could he possibly know? There was no way he could. No one knew. She hadn't told Dom, she'd been too afraid to. And the Dream Doctor didn't know--judging from the conversations they'd had when he seemed to take certain aspects of her future as a foregone conclusion. As far as Grace could tell, there were two people in all the world who knew: Grace herself, and Dr. Ann Hubbard.
Yet she knew Enigmus could see the future.
She thought better of bringing it up in any case.
"I'm only here to provide guidance..." Enigmus said. Grace chuckled a little, tilting her head to the side and appraising him.
"What, are you some kind of guardian angel or something?"
01-22-2006, 10:17 PM
"That's a pretty way to call it." Enigmus smiled. "Let's just say I'm a friend...
But this is all very sudden. It was a lot of information to take in for one conversation. I’m sure you could use some time to think about it." He looked at her warmly.
"I’ll see you soon." He smiled once more and left the table, slowly walking towards the exit, but fading out into air before he touched the door.
01-22-2006, 10:25 PM
The lapping of the Red River’s current against the quais accompanied Grace’s footsteps as she walked home. She mulled over her conversation with Enigmus. He had lived up to his name, to say the least. She still couldn’t decide if he was being enigmatic because he had some sort of inside track information on the goddess that she didn’t, or if he didn’t fully understand Grace’s situation. Perhaps unwisely, she made an assumption of the latter, and tipped her hand a bit. No matter, it was very likely he already knew anyway. She replayed the conversation in her mind, trying to recall his reaction to the truth she’d revealed.
“She is preparing you, Grace. For the next level.”
“And what exactly is that?!” Grace asked, exasperated. It felt like they were going around in circles.
“Her work must continue,” he said. “As it has for centuries, one generation to the next, as your mother passed it on to you.”
Grace shook her head. “It can’t, Enigmus,” she said. “Not anymore.” He gave her a questioning look but said nothing. “It can’t because… I’m infertile.”
His reaction to this news was entirely unreadable, and not unexpectedly so.
She rounded the corner to her building and punched the entry code into the keypad. The setting sun cast a rosy glow over the flagstones on the walkway, playing off of the mist that rose from the fountains nearby. Grace sped up the stairs to her apartment. Dom was meticulously inspecting his rifle when she walked through the door. “Hey babydoll!” he grinned, pausing in his inspection to kiss her on the cheek. Despite her preoccupation, Grace gave him a warm smile. “How was your day?” he asked, suiting up into his armor.
She shrugged, nosing around in the fridge and the cupboards. “The usual,” she said. “Saved the water supply from Rikti contaminants, stopped half a dozen muggings, raised $2,000.00 for the Foundation, and rescued a kitten from a tree.” Notably there was no mention of dreams, meetings with precognitive beings, or the mysterious “next level.”
“Are you hungry?” Grace asked.
“Nah, I already ate,” Dom replied, gesturing towards an empty lasagna pan. He finished his preparations as Grace poured herself a glass of red wine. “The Major wants me to check out a Crey shipment that’s scheduled to come in to Independence Port later tonight,” Dom said, clipping a few gadgets onto his tac-belt and shouldering his rifle. He caressed her cheek and pulled her into a passionate kiss. “I’ll be home late,” he said, pulling his face mask down and activating the cloaking mechanism on his body armor. “Sweet dreams, babydoll,” his disembodied voice said as he vanished from the apartment and teleported across Williams Square.
Grace continued to replay the conversation with Enigmus in her mind. He was only speaking in riddles, not really telling her anything she didn’t already know. But he seemed to know so much more than he was letting on. Sipping her wine, she thought it was time to get a second opinion. She grabbed her comm. and called Alex King. If anyone would have insight into the magical detritus of her subconscious, it would be The Scarecrow King.
“Alex? It’s Grace. Do you have some time? I’d like to hear your opinion on something.”
Alex agreed, and after about an hour or so he was comfortably ensconced on her couch, sipping a glass of wine and listening to her recount her dreamtime events of the past week or so. She also filled him in on Enigmus’s theory, as indefinite as it was.
She deliberately failed to mention her infertility.
01-24-2006, 03:55 PM
"Truth be told, Grace.... I know we've differing views on theology. It's just a consequence of how we've lived our lives." Alex was almost apologetic in tone... which was'nt an everyday occurance. "That in mind... you still interested in my opinion on the matter."
Grace gave him a grateful nod. "I could really use someone less.. involved."
Alex smiled, and then scowled a little as he began. " You know, Grace, that, as beloved as she is to you, your goddess does'nt exactly enjoy popular worship. It still amazes me that she's not convincing you to do more missionary work in tandem with these acts of kindess you're so into. Then again.." He pasued for a second. ".. I suppose that's why I've always trusted your judgement more than some of the other heroes with.. divine connections. She seems more interested in helping others than being worshipped for it. Still...."
"Still.... she's not mortal. She's a goddess. And that means, frankly, that she isn't of this world. She's of the Hereafter... the Beyond.. Astral Plane.. whatever you want to label it as." Pause. Sip. "My point being, she..like all beings from the Great Beyond, requires us to do their 'bidding' for them, if they're to have any impact. Because, frankly... it's our world. Not theirs." He gave her a rather pointed look. Alex's views on theology were rather... complicated.
"Her restraint in gathering converts aside, she's shown little qualm in stearing your life for you, when it suited her needs... Jackson, for example. Although, one could hardly complain about the results. But, I fear...." Another pause, less apologetic.
"Out with it."
"Grace, I'm afraid your patron is growing greedy."
"What do you mean by...."
"I mean, she's got little to no worship base to speak of, and she's living vicariously off an avatar that was her's through a bloodline agreement. You're close to her only outlet into this world, and now that she's gotten you firmly in her grasp, like some mortal bag of potato chips, she can't eat just one."
Alex sighed. "She's chipping away at you, bit by bit. Taking more and more of YOU, and adding more and more of HER. I'm sure you've gotten plenty of speeches about how the two are the same thing... but it's nonsense. There's only so much room.. up here..." he tapped his forehead, ".. and the mansions of our mind are'nt made with much in the way of guest rooms, if you catch my drift."
He continued. "As for Enigmus... frankly, it just makes clear what's going on here. When it became obvious that you might balk at having your... well, your life yanked out from under you, your patron apperantly decided to have him come along and feed you various kiddy bible camp lines about how this is all for the best, and destiny, and yada yada yada. I've seen used car salesmen with less obvious and simpering tactics. He may mean well, but a guardian angel he is NOT. He's got an agenda... either one handed to him.. or his own... and somehow, I gert the feeling neither of those possibilities involves you and Jackson growing old and happy together, driving each other nuts till eternity."
An odd look of warmth on his face. "Which, if you two are still engaged, is a goal that, by now, you should realize is the only one that really counts in this world."
01-24-2006, 06:22 PM
In between the physical world and the realm of the subconcious, It drifted. It was hungry. It was always hungry. However, not much out there could satisfy It. Since It had been released into the world, Its tastes had grown...more refined. It longed to feed off the being of light that had driven It off in Its first attempt to feed. The small amount of energy It had gleaned off her before she had expelled It from her mind had been the only thing It could remember to take the edge of the hunger. Her fear had tasted sweet, her anger delicious. But she had been too stong, It too weak. The imprisonment had kept It from feeding for many a long century. In Its haste to satisfy the hunger, It had made a costly mistake. Still, It had grown stronger in the months following Its failed attack. This city was full of so many motions, so much vitality. Each was unique and exotic to Its palate. It had just finished feeding off of a young woman. Though blind from birth, she had been gifted with the ability to see what was hidden from others. The future, the past, even the present were as open windows to her. It had been far too easy to corrupt her sight. She feared some of what she saw, It had caused that fear to grow and to consume her. In her final moments she had seen through his deceit and through his guile, but what was revealed to her had proved to be far worse then anything It had shown her. Her final pangs of fear had been exquisite.
But the hunger was not satisfied. It stretched Its awareness through the subconcious minds of the people of this city. Searching, seeking the next meal. What It found proved far more pleasing then It had anticipated. She was dreaming. No ordinary dreams these, however, but divine messages. If It could have smiled it would have. Already It could envision the emotions that would pour out of her. It could see the end of Its hunger. Her fear of what her patroness was showing her would be easy to manipulate. It settled into position, lurking in the deepest recesses of her subconcious mind. There It began to loose the corruption, like a squid shooting ink, it began to obscure, and tweak the visions. Ever so cautiously, ever so carefully. Then It waited.
01-29-2006, 07:41 PM
--TWO MONTHS LATER--
“Ms. Courbier?” the suit asked. An ID was briefly flashed, although for what agency or organization, Grace could not tell. “May we come in?” The two men looked at her gravely. Grace nodded gently and stepped aside, gesturing them into the foyer. “Please.”
The men in nondescript navy-blue suits stepped past her awkwardly. Making social calls, or even visits that could remotely pass for them, were obviously outside their regular skill set. “I’m Kurt Yahn,” the talkative one said. “And this is Agent Torrance. We’re here on business. Perhaps you should sit down, Ms. Courbier.”
Grace was a bit bewildered, but she did as Kurt suggested. “What’s this about?”
Kurt pulled up a chair across from her, without being invited to sit, and leveled his gaze at her. The other agent remained standing. “Ms. Courbier, I regret to inform you that Dominic Jackson is dead.”
Grace stared at him blankly. “He—what?”
Yahn slipped a manila envelope out of his briefcase as he spoke. “He’s dead, Ms. Courbier. Killed in the line of duty while on an assignment for us.”
The room started to spin, and Grace began to tremble. She swallowed hard and blinked back tears, willing herself to maintain her composure. “Glass of water?” Yahn offered.
“Please. Thank you.”
Torrance crossed to the kitchen and procured a glass of water, which he brought to her and presented mechanically. Grace sipped. Torrance proceeded to examine the room for listening devices. “It’s not bugged,” Grace said dully. “Dominic was always very careful.” Yahn eyed her carefully, with a slight smile, and then added. “Standard operating procedure, Ms. Courbier,” he said. “I’m sure you understand.” Grace nodded, numb.
Yahn opened the envelope and slipped out a sheaf of papers and a large tabbed folder. “We are here to carry out Jackson’s last wishes, outlined in his will, that you are entitled to full disclosure of the details of his life and his activities.” He slid the folder towards her, and for the first time in her life she saw the Watchlight logo. “It’s all in there,” he said. Grace flipped open the folder, her eyes lingering on the steely grey eyes in the ID photo on the cover page.
“Jackson, or rather, Fletcher, was one of our best agents.”
Grace was unsurprised at the mention of Fletcher. Tom had told her his real name ages ago; and the fact that he lived at least a double life was not a surprise to her either. What was a surprise, was that he had still been working for Watchlight all this time. “How did he die?” she asked quietly.
“He was on a mission to investigate a substance known as Vitriol. He had followed the trail to South America, Europe, and then Asia. We lost him in North Korea. We believe our operative within Crey compromised him.”
01-31-2006, 01:46 AM
"Please, take it easy, grace." Alex said, handing her a glass of ice water.
"Are you sure there isn't anything I can help Lara with?"
"No, no... she's determined to prove to her idol just what a domestic diva half a year of marrige has made her."
Grace gave him a look. "I thought you said you still did the coo..."
Alex gave her a slashing throat motion. *She wants you to think she's the ideal wife. Who am I to ruin it?*
His mental stammering got a smile. *She isn't?*
*Oh, she's more than adequate, trust me.*
Grace waved frantically. "No mental pictures! I concede."
Alex grinned. He had nearly soiled himself when the Dawn Patrol had called him in to inform them of the bad news. Alex had'nt known Jackson fantastically well. The man was less than verbose when he WAS around, which had'nt been much at all, since Alex had joined the DP. Still, Grace WAS his friend, and he could'nt help but feel her loss. Especially when he tried to contact her mentally.
Sitting down next to her, he put a hand on her knee. "Grace... is there anything Lara or I can do to help you?"
01-31-2006, 02:20 AM
Grace chuckled somewhat weakly at Alex's attempts to cheer her up; the first sign of mirth since she'd invited Agents Yahn and Torrance into her apartment. She glanced in the direction of the kitchen, where Lara was busy bustling about, and bittersweetly noted the slice of domestic bliss she observed.
She gazed at her engagement ring, still feeling a touch and hearing a voice that was no longer there; that would never be there.
"Grace... is there anything Lara or I could do to help you?" Alex asked kindly.
Grace stifled the tears that welled up in her eyes. It seemed she had been crying nonstop for days; and she was almost surprised that she had anymore tears left in her. "I don't know, Alex..." she stammered, sniffling. "It's just all so-- I can't believe he's gone."
Alex handed her a tissue, which she accepted gratefully. "I just... I have this feeling..."
Alex looked at her intently. 'Having a feeling' was something he, as a psychic, took somewhat more seriously than most. "What is it, Grace?" he asked.
She looked up at him. "He can't be dead," she said, with a resolution that surprised even her. "I just, I'd feel it. If he were really dead, I'd have known it even before those suits showed up."
Alex considered her comments. "Grace, I know this is hard, but you just have to accept it." He took her hands in his, trying to comfort her. "You know what kinds of risks both of you took in your jobs as heroes. He's gone. We'll be here, all your friends, to help you with whatever you need. But Dominic..."
It was striking that Alex had used Dom's real name--or at least the realest name he knew for Grace's fiance--as opposed to his usual epithet, "Buckethead."
"...he's not coming back, Grace." In all his years counseling the bereaved, in carrying out the King family business of maintaining Moth Cemetary and being caretakers to the deceased, this was one of the most difficult cases. If anything could be said about Grace and Buckethe--Dominic, they had something together. Theirs was the real deal, the stuff poets write about. Still, something about his death bothered Alex too. Something felt "off."
"Tell you what," he said. "If you'd like, I can see; I can try to contact him..." Alex tapped his temple, indicating his intention to try to reach Dom mentally. "Korea... that's way too far. I don't know if I'll be able to detect anything. But I'll give it a shot."
01-31-2006, 08:14 AM
"Don't bother..." an echoing voice scattered across the room.
The armchair in the darker corner of the room started to burn, and the fire's purple flames slowly took on a humanoid shape. It was Enigmus.
"Hello, Grace, Alex." he nodded to them. Lara didn't even seem to realize he was there.
Enigmus looked at Alumette's face. She was tortured, her eyes filled with sorrow and mourn.
Millions of questions, all wanted to be asked at once, but she didn't have to say one word. "I would have told you, had I known." Enigmus replied to Grace's thoughts. "I must have been too preoccupied working on your dreams. Either that, or someone knew exactly what they're doing."
Alex gave Enigmus a concerned look. "This may not be the best time for you to visit. The…"
"I'm not here on behalf of the Goddess." Enigmus stopped him. "I came here as a friend, just like you. I also have information.", words which gave way to a minute of heavy silence. Everyone knew what it meant when Enigmus came with 'information'.
"Well?" Grace inquired finally.
"Dominic isn't anywhere on the material plane. Something which is not at all surprising for someone departed.
The unusual detail, however, is that he has shown no presence on the other side either.
Neither alive, nor dead, Dominic simply isn't." Both Alex and Grace raised an eyebrow at the same time.
"I don't fully understand it myself" Enigmus added. "It could mean many things, and there are ways of fooling me, but I believe it is too early to say anything yet.
Except maybe, that there still is hope…"
01-31-2006, 11:22 PM
Alex gave him a rather disbeleiving look. "You'll forgive me if I don't take you at your word. I'm not very accustomed to folks stopping by uninvited..... I think I'll keep my own council on this one."
He closed his eyes, and focused. Over the next five minutes, his face contorted slightly. After seven, he began to sweat.
At the ten minute mark, his body began to tremble. Lara put her hand to his cheek. *Alright, overacheiver. Wakey wakey.* The clarity of their mental bond cut through his focus.
Opening his eyes, he shook his head. "I can't find him in the realm of the living... which does'nt say much. All it means is that he's not close by... I'm only able to probe slightly as far as the outskirts of the city. If he was supposed to be in Korea, I doubt it's a big surprise I can't sense him. And as for the realm of the dead.... I'm not finding him there either. But that might just be my limitations." His face fell slightly. "I'm sorry Grace... my powers can't find one soul amongst the billions yet. I'm not as strong as my mother. If we had a grave..." He trailed off.
"So I suppose that leaves us exactly where we were. it appears none of us know anything, conclusively."
He squeezed Grace's hand gently. "if you want your answers... and I think you know this... I don't think you'll find them in Paragon. Or with us." He gave the entire room inclusion in this. "Dominic is the focus of your life. This isn't a job for Alumette, grand high muckity muck of the goddess... this is a job for Grace... Dominic Jackson's fiance."
02-01-2006, 12:17 AM
Alumette stood before the Dawn Patrol in the large conference room. Almost the entire roster was present, and all of the command staff. It was obvious that Grace Courbier hadn't slept all night. Her eyes were rimmed with dark circles and her skin was pallid.
"Fellow patrollers," she began, her voice cracking with emotion. "It is with a heavy heart that I break the news to you that Leftenant Dominic Jackson, aka Stalking Shadow, was killed during an investigative mission in North Korea." Grace gripped the sides of the podium to steady her emotion. She still wore her engagement ring.
She looked around the room at the assembled heroes, her family; their family--in their blue and white uniforms. She had so much to say to them, but the words caught in her throat. The silence seemed endless. Tears welled up in her eyes and she finally said simply, "He will be missed," and stepped away from the podium, into the sisterly embrace of Shan, aka Endless One, one of Dominic's best friends.
Shan's red eyes found the Major's and for a moment they were simply their natural deep brown seen only when deep emotion overpowered the effect of the mutation. There was so much pain the Major had to look away to keep from jumping up and going to her. His position required him to be in control, for the moment.
Shan closed her friend in her arms resting her cheek against the woman's shoulder. I will not break down, not here, not yet. So many people were watching. It did no good to grieve publicly, they all share my grief, mine wasn't special...She caught Chance's knowing gaze and she couldn't lie to herself anymore. One of the most important people in her life was gone. She was about to skip denial.
It was calm in Shan's arms; peaceful and loving. Grace was grateful for Shan's friendship and she knew she understood how she felt. Suddenly Shan was yelling. She was angry. It was overwhelming for Grace; for whom just getting out of bed and getting her uniform on to speak to the Patrol had been a Herculean effort. She was still numb from the shock, still too coccooned in an ocean of sorrow to be able to process any kind of information beyond the minimum to keep her body functioning.
Shan had released Alumette and kissed her cheek very calmly before she turned to the room, eyes once again deep brown and filled with fury. "He will be missed? That's it? I'm sorry for your loss but its part of the job? Next someone is going to tell me he was brave and wonderful and...f*@k that beaurocratic bulls@%t! I want to know why and who was responsible and I want them to answer to us personally and when they're done I want my crack at whoever was responsible for killing him."
"Shan, please..." she croaked, looking up at Shan with hollow eyes. "That's not it..." she said wearily, choking back sobs. Grace didn't know how to tell Shan that she had said so little, not because she didn't have anything to say, but because she had so much; so many things to tell them about what a light he had been to her, what a hero. How he was her sine qua nihil... things to tell them about Provence and the sound of heavy boots and a morning routine and a stone in a shoe. How he'd thrown up after she'd proposed. How he took his coffee. And the exquisite balance between the order of his life and the chaos of hers, that still seemed a miracle to her. There were so many things she wanted to say about the unshaven feel of him and the intensity and the messy handwriting and even the silence.
But it all just caught in her throat every time she tried to articulate it.
"Shan, all I know is, he's de--" she still couldn't bring herself to say it. "I don't know how or why or..." she cried again; having stopped only just long enough to break the news to the Dawn Patrol. It had been less than 24 hours since Yahn's news had shattered her world. She was still trying to make sense of things.
And yet, a doubt lingered. Alex King and Enigmus both had had difficulty contacting Dominic in either the material or the spirit planes. From that standpoint, he had, Enigmus said, simply ceased to exist. Yahn had told her...what was it that he'd said, "We lost him in North Korea"? True, he was not in the material plane, so he wasn't alive; but he was not in the spirit plane either, so he may not be dead. Still, Enigmus had been careful to point out that while there was hope, there were also a lot of possibilities as to why; not all of them favorable or pleasant.
There were definitely other things Grace wanted to say, but not until she could be sure, and not until she could get the sucking, painful void in her heart to ease.
Those hollow, frightened eyes peered up at her again. Hundreds of small children, between the ages of six months to 6 years, crowded around her, grabbing at her clothing, holding their hands out in supplication, crying. Their swollen bellies were in sharp contrast to the pronounced relief of their ribcages...Thousands of young, raspy voices called to her, in languages she did not know, but she could understand. They called her by name, they knew her. They were crying out for Grace. Mothers with skeletal babies at their sagging, milkless breasts looked at her with a quiet and resigned plea. Hope was absent here, and despite her divine mandate, Grace could not feed them all. She could not even feed one.
Grace tossed in her sleep; feeling overwhelemed and fearful and helpless and...
...in her livingroom. Yahn slid the folder towards her, and for the first time in her life she saw the Watchlight logo. “It’s all in there,” he said. Grace flipped open the folder, her eyes lingering on the steely grey eyes in the ID photo on the cover page.
“Jackson, or rather, Fletcher, was one of our best agents..."
The scene played itself out again in her mind: Yahn delivering the news, the glass of water, the disbelief.
Grace’s eyes skimmed the contents of the folder, not really reading. The silence became awkward. Yahn shifted in his chair and cleared his throat, reaching into his breast pocket. “We also found this in his locker at headquarters,” he said, proffering a small box towards her. “I can only assume it was intended for you.”
02-01-2006, 02:35 AM
It had come close to sleep, hiding in the deepest reaches of her mind. However, even there the pain reached It. It awoke with a tingle of excitement. Next to fear, pain was the most delicious thing it had ever tasted. This pain far exceeded any It had sampled before. The pain reached deep inside her, filling her up until she seemed ready to explode. It couldn't control itself any longer. There was too much, and It was so very hungry. It began to gorge itself, swallowing vast amounts of her pain. For a long while there seemed to be no end to the emotion, she just kept generating more and more of the hurt. It thought that it may not even have to wait, perhaps it had finally found a never-ending food supply. The hunger was actually abating, but as It gorged, the pain slowly began to lighten, then slow, then stop coming all-together.
Then the pain was gone, sucked into the vastness that was It. Satisfied by It's meal, It suddenly realized that It's greed may have comprimised It's plans. Swift as thought, It raced back to It's hiding place in the deep recesses of her mind. There It began to craft suggestions and thoughts, covering the absence of pain with doubts and hopes. Then It settled down again to await the fruits of It's labor. The hunger had returned.
02-03-2006, 02:06 AM
LONDON, SEVERAL MONTHS PRIOR
The hawklike man bent over his phone, speaking quietly into the receiver. He idly smoothed a crease in his Dawn Patrol officers' uniform, waiting for the call to be picked up. “Kurt? It’s Meursault.” A slow smile crept across his features. “You may be interested to know what one of my Patrollers turned up.” Meursault thumbed through a stack of papers on his desk, trying to find the notes from Dr. Umber, of Dawn Patrol’s UK medical staff. “That superdrug we’ve been trying to pin down? It’s lying on a gurney in one of our infirmaries right now.”
A pause. Kurt was definitely interested. “Of course, Yahn,” Meursault continued. “We’re going to wait until all of the tests are completed, but at this point the profile is dead-on: the aggression, the way it replicates; we even had our agent follow it through a Crey front…well, initially speaking.”
Meursault allowed himself a small triumphant laugh. “Luck must be smiling on you, Kurt,” he chuckled at his longtime associate. “The handoff will be cake. Our agent is also one of yours.”
A short pause.
“No, Kurt. It’s Jackson. Yes… Dominic Jackson. I’m returning him to active duty at our Paragon HQ as soon as I get the green light from our medical staff. And I’ve also authorized him to head up a task force to investigate Vitriol production.”
PARAGON CITY, ONE WEEK FOLLOWING THE EVENTS IN LONDON
The task force Shadow had assembled since his return from London had done well. Heroes from all parts of the city had come forward to help Dominic in his investigation. They had questioned, cajoled, pummeled, and examined shred after shred of evidence. And still there were huge pieces of the puzzle missing. Tom sat back from his desk and rubbed his eyes.
The clock said 3:20 a.m. Grace was sleeping soundly in the bedroom down the hall. Tom glanced at the photo on his bulletin board of the two of them at the Dawn Patrol holiday party a few years back, when they were still tentative around one another. The photo depicted Grace and Tom standing under a sprig of mistletoe at HQ; nervously leaning towards one another for a modest kiss, at the goading of the other Patrollers. They had only barely admitted their feelings towards one another at that point, but you’d never know it by seeing the way they looked at one another in the photo. Tom gave a contented sigh, considering just how far they’d come; and that in a few… well, after a time… she would actually be his wife. As soon as this damned Vitriol case is wrapped, he told himself.
Suddenly he winced in pain, gripping the sides of the desk and gnashing his teeth. It felt as if his veins were on fire. “Grah!” he growled, tearing open a drawer and procuring a hypodermic syringe and a small vial. His hands were shaking as he prepared to inject himself with the temporary counteragent the doctors had given him. The solution was only temporary, and could not be considered an antidote by any stretch. Over the long-term, the counteragent would kill him just as easily as the Vitriol itself. He hated that he had to inject himself like a lab rat; buying a few moments of comfort at the price of accelerating the Vitriol, robbing Peter to pay Paul. Easing the needle out of his arm and pressing a cotton ball to the injection site, Dominic inhaled sharply to try to ride out the waves of pain until the counteragent took effect.
He hunched over the reams of information once more. It had to be Crey. Had to be; with the way things were panning out: the results of the task force investigations, the shipping manifests, the pattern of the transactions. Given his experiences in dealing with them over the course of his career as an operative, this had Crey written all over it. But something wasn’t right. He rubbed his temples, eyes blurring from fatigue, trying to let the missing piece jump out at him. So far the puzzle pieces only pointed to more questions. All he had to go on at this point was that there was a shipment in storage bay 227-A in Independence Port awaiting clearance from customs. Something about its paperwork not being in order delayed the inspection. Dominic had a hunch, and a hunch only, but it was better than nothing.
The pain dulled for the time being, he stood and stretched, then shut down his computer. The clock said 3:42. He’d better get to bed if he planned to be at the Port at sunrise. He armed the apartment’s dual redundant security systems, and applied his stealth training in the most unlikely, but endearing way imaginable: trying not to awaken Grace as he climbed into bed.
02-05-2006, 07:10 PM
“And so you provide access to education for the homeless?” Paige Parker asked, leaning forward, her hands folded on her desk. Grace smiled demurely at the camera, cradling a warm cup of coffee in her hands.
“Yes, that’s right,” she said. “Often these children have a hard time achieving in school, despite their capabilities, because they’re worried about finding food and shelter.” Grace paused, setting the coffee mug on the edge of the news desk and leaning forward in the cushioned chair that was part of the cheery set of “Paragon Morning,” a local a.m. newsmagazine program. “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that we can’t focus on certain aspects of being human, such as learning and being an agent of change in the world, until more basic needs, such as food and shelter, are met.” Grace winced a little as the remnant of a dream from the night before pierced through her mind: a family burying their child, a victim of starvation, in a wintry warzone.
“Grace? Are you all right?” Paige asked.
Grace forced a smile, “What? Oh yes,” she said reassuringly. “I must just need my morning coffee,” she chuckled, picking up her mug and taking a sip.
“So what you’re saying is, it’s unreasonable to expect these children to concentrate on learning the causes of the Civil War, or memorizing the quadratic equation, until we can stabilize their home lives?”
Grace nodded. “Yes, that’s precisely it. The Courbier Foundation is working to address the achievement of poverty-stricken students from both fronts: by providing access to food and shelter through the heavy subsidizing of area shelters; and also by providing continuity of education by providing transportation to school, no matter where the students’ families move within the city. We also will bring the education to the students by providing tutors.”
Paige smiled. “A fine program indeed, Grace.”
Paige took on a more serious tone. “Grace,” she began tentatively, patting Alumette’s hand. “It’s been a month since you lost your fiancé, Dominic Jackson. You seem to be holding up quite well: the Foundation is growing marvelously, and you’ve been seen out on patrol in the city. How have you managed?”
Grace took her time formulating a response. Paige nudged the Kleenex box towards her; tears always boosted ratings. “Well, I think the Foundation has helped a lot,” she began, trying to maintain her composure. “It’s been… comforting…to work on something larger than myself. It helps with the grieving process, it keeps me busy.” Grace clenched and unclenched her fists. Paige smiled gently. “Of course,” she said. “And I imagine Dominic would be very proud.”
Grace smiled bittersweetly. “Yes, I imagine so,” she said softly. And then without realizing what she was saying, she added, “We’re in the process of developing a global program.” Paige looked at her in astonishment.
“So soon after the start of the city program?”
“Yes,” Grace said with absolute certainty. “Our global program will focus on food distribution and public health education to address issues such as malaria and AIDS. As usual, our primary focus will be on working with children. We plan to work closely with UNICEF and focus on addressing their areas of greatest need immediately.”
The crowd erupted into applause. “Wow,” Paige said with a winning smile, addressing her studio audience. “A hero in every way, isn’t she?” She turned back to the camera. “More on Grace Courbier’s wonderful Foundation after this commercial break.” The show’s catchy theme music blared over the speakers and Grace stood, unclipping her microphone.
“Excuse me, Paige,” she said. “I need to make a quick phonecall during the break.”
She called Alex, who didn’t answer, and left him a message: “Alex? It’s Grace. I need your help. I’m saying all sorts of stuff on television that I never planned to say. Call me as soon as you can.”
Her next call was to Enigmus, who did answer. “Enigmus? It’s Grace. Are you watching ‘Paragon Morning’?”
“Of course I am,” he said with a kind smile. “What’s wrong?”
“E, that stuff about the global program, it’s not me,” she began. She was very nearly in a panic. “I don’t have any idea where that idea even came from! The Board of Trustees is going to be very confused. We never discussed a global program. We don’t have the resources… we don’t have the… our local program is still getting on its feet. What the heck is going on?!”
“Easy, Grace,” he said in his typically serene fashion. “I’m sure there’s an explanation. I’ll meet you for coffee at the XP Grind after the show. This is definitely an interesting development.”
The stage manager came by to usher Grace back to the set. “We’re on in two,” he said. Grace followed him to her seat and re-clipped her microphone. A makeup artist hovered over her, dabbing a powder puff to her face while a wardrobe mistress adjusted Grace’s elegant red and purple silk scarf.
Paige and Grace made more small talk until the segment was over, and Grace, after signing a few autographs and smiling for some photos, made her way to the coffee shop. Enigmus was waiting for her.
02-06-2006, 06:01 AM
Upon entering the coffee shop, Alumette spotted Enigmus right away. Not that he was hard to spot. On the contrary. In a somewhat eery way, his white suit seemed to almost emanate light.
"Greetings." he said, and pulled a chair for her.
Alumette smiled and sat down. It was clear that she was tense. "Hi." she replied.
"You've seen it..."
"Yes, I was there."
"Oh, you were? Well, you know what happened. But that wasn't me, and I don't know what's going on.
Thoughts of a global program did vaguely cross my mind, but it was more of a 'one day' thing. It's much too early for something like this right now. The local program is hardly on it's feet, and with Dominic being gone..." her eyes watered.
Enigmus put his hand on her arm and looked at her with sadness.
"Yes, it is early." he admitted. "The entire situation is quite unique. I can tell you that we are far from the best possible scenario, but we have to make with what we have."
Alumette chuckled bitterly. "And what is it that we have, exactly?"
"Support from the higher powers, for one." Enigmus said calmly. "I know, he smiled, that it may seem as interfering at this point, but you are destined for great things, and this is the path that leads to them."
Alumette looked at him questioningly for a minute.
"You know, you keep telling me that, but how can making things harder possibly help in this 'mission' of mine? If it was so important for the Goddess, why did She let Dom..." she felt a weight in her throat and her lips started shaking. She took a deep breath. "...it doesn't make any sense."
Enigmus' face suddenly became very serious, yet still warm. "Your assumptions are completely understandable, but what if we couldn't locate him in the afterworld because She kept him from dying?
The truth is, we don't know what happened to Dominic, and as I'm sure you know, worrying is as useful as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum." he blinked.
"As sudden as his departure was, I believe it would be wise to put that problem aside until we gather at least some information.
In the meantime, you can focus on your projects and continue to fight for the well-being of millions. May I use this opportunity to congratulate you on your progress so far..."
"Thank you." she replied, somewhat absent.
"Plunging into work did help a little, but my fear for Dominic isn't something I can just fend off. It doesn't work that way... I love him..."
"I'm not saying you should forget about him. Just don't let it take over." he replied.
"Do you remember the reaction of the audience when you mentioned the global program? This planet needs you."
02-16-2006, 06:40 PM
“Grace, the Foundation doesn’t have the resources to start a global program. What are you doing?” Max asked. They were in the Courbier Foundation’s modest conference room.
“I don’t know, to be quite honest,” she said quietly.
“Is this another one of those ‘the Goddess will provide’ things?” he asked skeptically. He was the Foundation’s director of finance for a reason.
Grace shook her burgundy-hued curls. Since Dom’s death she’d taken to wearing her hair in its natural state, since he’d always preferred it that way. “No,” she said.
“Good. So now we need to simply work out how PR is going to fix your on-air blunder. You know we can’t move too quickly.”
“Max…” a college-aged accounting intern poked his head in the door. “You should take a look at this.” The go-getter crossed to where Max was seated and handed him a file folder. “Since Ms. Courbier’s announcement, donations are up 500%.” Max raised his eyebrows in surprise. “They’re still coming in,” he said. “We’ve had over $10,000 in walk-in donations just this morning.”
See? Grace heard a voice in her head. It was Enigmus. You inspire people.
You know I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that, Enigmus.
What? The inspiring, or me in your head?
Yes. She smiled.
“Max,” she began, as he and the intern were going over the figures. “I need to get some air. And I have an assignment with Dawn Patrol. I’ll have my pager on if you need me.” Max nodded and waved her off. Grace headed to Dawn Patrol HQ, if only to reacquaint herself with simpler times.
VENEZUELA, SEVERAL MONTHS PRIOR
Stalking Shadow clung invisibly to a crossbeam in the warehouse. His hunch on the shipment in Independence Port a few weeks prior had been right. Operatives, from which organization he could not tell, paced around inside the warehouse. Likely they were just hired thugs charged with protecting the crates. They have no idea what they’re guarding, Shadow thought. It was worth millions, billions, quite possibly: a serum that could make any man into a total killing machine. Governments and criminal organizations would pay a premium.
He winced, gritting his teeth. The Vitriol burned his veins once more. He had been trying to stave off the frequency of the injections, to put up with the pain for as long as possible since, despite the relief they provided, the injections only served to speed along his demise. He had to find an antidote soon. The Watchlight lab crew, for all their expertise, wasn’t exactly coming through with breakthroughs on the subject. Shadow realized a lot depended on what he could dig up for them, though; and up until now, when he had traced this shipment to Venezuela, he hadn’t had a lot to give them.
He gripped the crossbeam, knuckles white, trying to steady his breathing and get control of the pain without revealing his position. The diesel purr of a forklift starting up provided a very temporary distraction.
“Muevelo!” a voice called out. “Es el momento!” The milling personnel sprang into activity, getting into position and loading boxes, some standing guard. Shadow knew it was time to act if he were to keep on the trail. If he let this shipment go now, who knows how long it would be before he’d find it again? He took a deep breath and thought of Grace, and then let himself succumb completely to the Vitriol.
He picked off 6 of the guards with ease: on full auto it was cake, although full auto was hardly necessary under the circumstances. He took advantage of the momentary chaos his overkill of raining bullets provided to swing down off the crossbeam and land in the center of a group of very surprised mercenaries. “Just doesn't look like your day now, does it?” he asked, a disembodied voice from the shimmering, vaguely man-shaped translucent form that was Stalking Shadow with the stealth mechanism activated on his ARES suit.
A momentary rain of bullets and grenades later, the warehouse was silent. Shadow had beaten them to the man in less than 7 minutes. The euphoria that had come from inflicting wanton violence on them, with the aid of the drug, was short-lived. Shadow fell to his knees, grimacing in pain, momentarily blinded by the pain and fire in his veins. “Graah!” he grunted, clutching at his tac belt to find the syringe of palliative serum the Paragon doctors had given him.
“Nicely done, soldier,” a cool, feminine voice cooed. She stepped out from the shadows and put a hand on his shoulder. Shadow froze, ready to snap her neck if need be.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice impassive even as his body tensed against the pain.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Don’t let me distract you. Do what you need to do.” She nudged the syringe towards him gently. “I know how much it hurts.”
Stalking Shadow looked up at her through the blur of his pain, and saw an elegantly-featured blonde in what looked like a high-tech field medic’s uniform. He examined her out of the corner of his eye as he administered the injection, trying to locate and identify any insignia she may have worn.
“It’s really something, isn’t it?” she asked, as Shadow completed his injection and let the soothing salve make its way through his body. “The Vitriol? Not many people can handle the rush. Most of our test subjects die within a few months. It was a failsafe that the client wanted, actually. To keep the infected troops from taking over completely.”
Shadow snapped his gaze to meet hers, getting to his feet. “Who’s the client?” he asked, not really expecting her to answer.
“Someone who pays very well,” she said, pressing a sheet of paper into his hand. “Look in docking bay 42,” she said. “And good luck,” her voice echoed as she vanished, the air around her popping with the familiar signature of a teleportation device. Shadow looked at the paper in his hand. It was some kind of chemical formula.
He loped to docking bay 42, formula in hand, keeping an eye out for stragglers and surveillance equipment. The crates in this bay were smaller than the ones in the rest of the warehouse. He grabbed a crowbar and pried one of them open. Raw materials. He rifled through the contents, noting the components and searching for any corporate logos on any of the vials. It looked as if they were supplied from various sources; nothing in the crates, by itself, was unusual. Very likely the organization bought directly from chemical companies that supplied universities and pharmaceutical companies; but in such broad spectrum and to such varied destinations that it couldn’t be traced. He pocketed a couple of shipping manifests, and a few vials of some kind of compound.
He scanned the chemical formula in his hand. Most of the components listed in it were in the crates. Shadow slid to the ground, resting his back against the wall. This case was turning out to be so huge he had no idea if he would ever find the end of the rabbit hole. He pulled off his mask and scanned through his PDA, decrypting a few files to compare the formula in his hand with the Vitriol formula Meursault and Kurt had given him for the investigation.
It was similar… but not quite.
“Está aquí!” a voice could be heard outside the warehouse. The dockworkers who had been waiting for the warehouse to be unloaded onto the waiting boat had caught on to the fact that the crates were taking a while to emerge, and that this might have something to do with the sounds of bullets and explosions that had, moments earlier, echoed from within the warehouse. Shadow slipped his mask back down and activated his cloaking device.
“Señor Black,” the bellhop smiled, setting the room service tray on the table in Shadow’s room. Dominic, in his hotel bathrobe, handed a few bills to the porter and gave a curt, “Gracias.” Dom tucked into his dinner, missing Grace’s cooking terribly. He downed half of his gin and tonic in a swallow, reviewing the day’s events in his mind. He took another glance at Doctor Spellman’s message on his PDA:
I can’t tell you conclusively without analyzing the compound myself, but from what you’ve told me it’s a safe bet that this is, indeed, the basis for an antidote. We have McCormick’s people analyzing our archives for a match on the scientist you ID’ed. Yahn has been briefed. Proceed as per mission protocols.
Shadow took cold comfort in the message. Antidote or no, he’d have to head back to the warehouse once more to try to get more clues. He was starting to learn plenty about Vitriol—more than he ever really wanted to know, frankly—everything, it seemed, except for who was behind it all.
DAWN PATROL HQ, LATER TODAY
Grace continued to file her mission reports for the day. Alex was in her office, helping her fill in details as they’d been teamed on assignments for most of the afternoon.
“Yes, I saw, Grace,” Alex said. “You definitely got people enthused about all this do-gooding. But don’t you think you’re biting off more than you can chew?”
She paused in her paperwork and rubbed her temples. “Alex, I didn’t want the Foundation to be global for another 10 years. She’s rushing things along for some reason.” Grace suspected she knew full-well the reason, but she wasn’t about to share that with Alex. Given his mind-reading abilities, he probably already knew, but still.
“I have a feeling I know why,” Alex ventured. “And it’s got a little something to do with an immortal suddenly getting a taste of mortality, and being rather put-out by it all.”
02-16-2006, 07:05 PM
Alex drummed his fingers lightly on the desk. Alexander King had so many nervous habits that if you blended the sounds from all of them together, it would probably rival a philharmonic orchestra in complexity.
"Lord, Grace.... I realize this must be rough to listen to, but think about this... she MADE you say something you had SPECIFICALLY not planned to say. No dreams to the effect, no 'leaves blowing in the wind to form the pattern of words'... she just hitched a ride and shoved her way into the driver's seat." His lips were practically twitching with rage.
"... does it really bother you that much?" Grace's usual calm look was getting a little incredulous.
"Of course! I mean, there's the moral aspects to it... she infringed on your free will. I don't care how pleasing the short term effects might be... what happens if your new, generous donors find out your expansion plans for the Foundation are TEN YEARS away from where they think they are? Not to mention the other aspect of the issue."
"You know what I mean. My family is specifically charged with keeping the barriers between this world and the Beyond firmly in place. No one goes between the two beyond the usual channels of life and death, and the OCCASIONAL exception."
"Well, how do you know this isn't one of those exceptions?"
"Because if it was, it would'nt be so.. blatent! She's not suggesting.. she's DOING. SHe's making the call, and using you as an outlet. This is the realm of mortality...Outsiders are supposed to PERSUADE mortals to do their biding, not just take over when they're feeling like doing a slapdash job of it. I... just a second."
His cell phone was beeping frantically with the tune of the tv series "Kung-Fu". Only one person that ring could belong to.
He smiled faintly as he talked into the phone for a few minutes, quietly... then said goodbye to the person on the other end.
Grace gave him a little grin. "So how is Lara?"
Alex gave her a mock glare. "Who's the mindreader here?", he said, before breaking into a smile. "She's doing fine... I just need to leave in an hour to take her to the doctor's."
"Nothing serious, I hope?"
"No, no... just a little prenadle checkup. Maybe an ultraso.... crud." It took him a second to realize what he had said.
02-19-2006, 10:05 PM
112 WILLIAMS SQUARE, FOUNDERS FALLS, TODAY, EARLY MORNING
Grace tossed and turned. The dreams were more intense now. As she walked among the children, she could feel every ounce of their fear, their loneliness, their hunger. It pulled at her, something she could not deny; something she could not ignore. It had been hard-wired into her since birth. Their eyes, she saw them; saw them like no one could. She knew each and every one of them as if they were her own children.
She knelt beside one who lay on the sand in the makeshift clinic, too weak to move, and too dehydrated to even cry tears. She placed a hand on his shoulder. "It will be all right," she said. No, She said. It was the goddess who spoke now, not Grace. And yet it was Grace. The line between the two was blurred now, particularly in the dreams. As the child stared up at her, Grace saw a glimmer of hope in his eyes...just the faintest spark, but it was enough.
If there was hope, there was life.
"It will only hurt for a moment," he said. Grace turned and saw...an old friend.
"RoboMD?" she whispered, tears catching in her throat. "Is it you?"
He turned to look at her, pausing in his preparation of the IV line, and nodded. "Grace," he said. "I've missed you."
She awoke with a start. Within seconds it had all vanished: Robo, the sand, the dying children--everything but the sinking ache in her heart at the devastation she'd seen in her dreams; the same ache that accompanied most of her waking hours since the dreams started. But this time... Robo was there.
After discovering he had a soul, he'd sort of...vanished. And yet in her dream, he had been Real. Grace hadn't realized how much she'd missed his presence, and she wept. For a glimmering moment, all her challenges of 'saving the world' as the goddess seemed to want her to do, seemed a step more possible.
It had to be a sign. The big question in her mind was, had he seen her too? Had she really gone there in her dreams?
She needed to track him down; and soon.
MAGI HEADQUARTERS, PARAGON CITY, LATER THAT SAME DAY
The Dream Doctor embraced her warmly. “Grace,” he said with a smile. “I got your message. It’s good to see you.” He held her shoulders for a moment and gazed at her. “I’ve been following your recent work in the news,” he said. “It is more than I could have dreamed for you.” He gestured to a chair in his office and closed the door. “Why this urgency? You knew there would be visions. You’ve had them before.”
Grace recounted everything: the dreams, Enigmus’s talk of prophecy, that the goddess was becoming more aggressive in her use of Alumette as an avatar… even her inability to conceive. The Dream Doctor steepled his fingers.
“I see,” he said pensively. “Then perhaps I was wrong in my re-interpretation of the texts.”
“What do you mean?” Grace asked, a little panicked. She had the feeling she was on a train that was pulling away from the station just at the moment she’d realized she’d boarded the wrong one.
“Emptiness and Fullness, Grace,” he said. “Surely you remember. In your training, I told you that She is the fulfillment of what is Empty.” Grace nodded, recalling the years of meditation—that in the earliest days of her use of her powers, the focus of her meditation had been an empty vase. “Then when you and Dominic fell in love…” Grace winced. His death was still too fresh, too recent. The Dream Doctor patted her hand, “…and She suspended your powers briefly, we reinterpreted her response to that. Remember?”
Grace nodded, a bit fragile. “Yes, you said that it was a question of Fullness; of Abundance.”
“Yes, and it seemed to fit. I always had a problem with the classic interpretation of the texts, which said that a goddess of the Hearth, of Familial and Maternal Protection, should be characterized by emptiness, but there is enough in the literature about feminine energies being symbolized as vessels… I digress. In any case, it makes sense in light of this information.”
“What does?” With the sum total of her education having been high school (barely passing), MAGI training, and the school of hard knocks, Alumette needed a lot of help here.
“The line ends with you, Grace. She has no one to pass to when you die. So She is attempting to fully manifest in you. When that happens, there will be no other room for anything in your life except Her will. You will become immortal.” His eyes glimmered at the possibilities. “She will be here, on this earth, working through you, for eternity.”
His articulation of what she had suspected made her worst fears more potent. “But, what if I don’t want… what about my life? What I do to help children isn’t enough for her?”
“It’s Her will, Grace. Your destiny is to become the hand that executes her work. It’s why She removed Dominic from your life. There isn’t room for him.”
Grace stood abruptly. “I’ve heard enough,” she said.
“Sit down!” his voice boomed. Grace knew he was using a glamour to make himself more imposing; but it still had its effect. She sat.
“You can’t possibly tell me you’re going to turn your back on millions of suffering children because of a petty romance.” Grace said nothing. “These dreams, Grace, they’re messages from Her. She is sending you where She needs you to do Her work. You can’t tell me you don’t feel the power in those dreams; the need that’s out there.”
“I can,” she said coldly. “And it’s not like I’m not going to do anything about it. Don’t sit there and tell me what it feels like to be there. It tears me to see. Lastnight alone I watched 6 children die. I sat with their parents and comforted them until I woke up. I can’t stop thinking about what I see in my dreams. You have no idea what it’s like,” she hissed. The vehemence in her demeanor was enough to cause a small flash of apprehension glimmer in the Dream Doctor’s eyes. “Damn right I’m going to do something about it,” she said with a conviction that surprised even herself. “But I’m going to do it my way, and on my terms. And hell if I’m going to abandon Dominic’s memory for it. She wants an instrument to do her bidding, fine. I guess it’s me. The ends will be the same. But the means are going to be all my call. Not Hers.” By now Grace was leaning over the desk. “I’ll be in touch, if you need more material for your research. I’m quite certain this isn’t anywhere in the prophecies.”
She turned on her heel and left. It cut her to leave things with her mentor this way; she owed him so much for having saved her years ago. But she felt this was the only way.
Grace peered out the window. The plane was still somewhere over the Atlantic. She fidgeted with a wad of Silly Putty. She’d always been an impatient person, a fidgeter. Being stuck on a transatlantic flight for hours was testing her limits. She’d already tried to pass the time by meditating, but found it difficult given her current conflict with the uppity deity occupying her persona.
The flight attendant brought her another sparkling water. “Thank you,” Grace said with a smile. “How much longer until we land in Benin?”
The flight attendant checked her watch. “It should be at least 5 more hours,” she said. Grace gripped the silly putty tightly in her hands. “We have a good tailwind, and we should be starting our in-flight movie soon,” she smiled and pushed the beverage cart along to the next row.
She didn’t even know if Benin would yield what she’d hoped. But from what she could derive from her dreams, it seemed that was her best bet. Malaria was rampant there, and RoboMD had been appearing more and more in her dreams, treating what seemed, to her anyway, to be malaria. And the goddess had seemed pretty insistent, during meditation, that Benin was where to start. So Grace had booked her flight.
Alumette sighed, took a sip of her water, and settled back in her seat. She gazed at her engagement ring, remembering happier times, many months ago in Rio…
RIO DE JANEIRO, SEVERAL MONTHS PRIOR
The sunlight filled the sky with brilliant midmorning light. Birds made their morning music, filling the still sky with a tropical cacophony as they greeted the day. Tom and Grace’s fingers were loosely interlaced as they lay in a large hammock on the quiet beach. The worries surrounding their work were miles away. Grace gently traced a finger along the scars on the inside of Tom’s elbow, where he’d had to give himself injections to stave off the effects of the Vitriol. He smiled down at her. “Good morning, sunshine,” he said, kissing the top of her head.
He had never been more grateful for that antidote than when he’d greeted Grace at the airport in Rio. Major Britain had granted her leave, once Shadow had finally wrapped up the first phase of the investigation and was able to come out from the covert shadows for a brief vacation during the downtime. Most of the investigation at this point was in Jerry’s hands anyway: until Jerry had cracked the code he’d found hacking that IP address Shadow had traced, there wasn’t a lot to do. Even so, Tom couldn’t shake the feeling that the organization behind Vitriol was bigger and more sinister than even he, at his most cynical, could imagine. Grace, thankfully, seemed oblivious as far as Tom could tell. And with the Vitriol finally neutralized in his system, he was simply going to enjoy their time together.
“Hey, you two!” a voice called out from the house. It was Elena, Luiz’s sister, coming down the walkway towards the beach. “Coffee?”
03-02-2006, 04:58 AM
It was growing impatient. It had stayed hidden within the mind of the one It had come to know as 'Alumette' and felt no closer to that hunger-quenching power it had felt before. Her emotions are..were sweet, but as one that feasts on only chocolates will grow to hate those same chocolates, so did It come to despise the devouring of her feelings, her emotions. Their sweetness became an unbearable taste to It. So It wondered aimlessly in the deepest reaches of her subconcious.
It had been wondering like this for days, when It spied something, she was dreaming again. This was not one of It's distortions, however, but a 'True Dream' of sorts. Someone was sending her messages. Intrigued, It watched in anticipation. Perhaps this was what It had been waiting for. Perhaps this would lead It to that final feast, the one that would end the hunger. Then something caught it's attention.
The form of Alumette in this dream was more then Alumette. Someone else was there with her. It looked at her closer and could distinguish to distinct shapes. There was Alumette, and another female form, hovering over Alumette like a second skin. She was hazy, etheral in a way. Even in this dream she was not a distinct form, if not for what It was It could not have seen her. The scene began to break up, It could feel the coming of awareness. It watched the final moments of the dream and prepared to go back to It's wonderings, but at the very last moment between slumber and awareness, she looked at It, not towards It, but at It. And the two sets of eyes joined in one and It felt as though it had been pierced. Then the dream was over, all having transpired in such a short amount of time that science had not a name for it. It slunk back into the far reaches of Alumette's mind, and pondered. It had been seen, but had It been detected?
04-09-2006, 08:46 PM
Alumette stepped away from the baggage claim with her moderately-sized duffle bag in hand. She slung it over her shoulder and proceeded to customs. Her hero ID had certainly made travel easier; particularly in the case of her being able to carry two of Dominic's pistols in her luggage. She wrapped her long purple scarf around her shoulders and over her head like a hood, and stepped out into the afternoon brightness. Under the blazing heat of the city and the desert, Grace started walking.
She simply picked a direction and started to move forward, not really knowing where Robo would be, or even if he was there at all. Regardless, there was work to be done no matter where she was, the world being what it was.
Several days passed. Grace had been wandering in the desert; finding shelter at night among small groups of nomads, or alone under the stars, as circumstances dictated. She never felt afraid or alone. On the contrary, she felt completely serene. She was no longer tormented by the dreams that had possessed her in recent weeks. Occasionally she dreamt of Robo...and once, she dreamt of... she thought... a being of shadow and darkness. All she could sense from it was a Hunger, and it puzzled her. Still, rather than feel fearful, she felt an overwhelming compassion for It.
On the eighth day, Grace spied a series of what looked like field hospital and relief tents in the distance. She closed the distance in short order, and peered around to find children and families in various states of treatment, and then, a familiar armored form in the distance. She quickened her pace. "Robo?" she called out, pulling her scarf from her head to reveal her face. "Robo, is it really you?" Tears of joy pricked at her eyes as she approached, emotion catching in her throat.
CRACK! General Wing's meaty hand clocked Dominic's jaw with a powerful backhand once more. Did he have to wear so damn many rings?
"I admire your persistence, Mr. Jackson," Wing smirked, looming over Dominic imposingly. Stalking Shadow looked up at him coldly and replied with utter detachment, "Thank you." His eyes were flat, empty, and icy cold. Their grey emptiness resembled the surface of the moon. Wing returned the stare for a moment and then crossed over to the drab steel Mao-era desk. He flipped open a file folder. "Our intelligence places you in Cuba, Hungary, Afghanistan, Chechnya..." Wing tossed grainy black-and-white surveillance photos of Dominic onto the floor in front of Shadow as he listed off the countries. "What are you looking for, Stalking Shadow?"
Emotionless but for a tinge of sarcasm, Dom replied, "A mail-order bride?"
Wing guffawed, "Like any woman would have you." He levelled his gaze at Shadow once more and strode across the room to stand over him. "Now, let's try this again: what brings you to our fine country?"
05-29-2006, 04:57 PM
FOUNDERS FALLS, PARAGON CITY
“…so you see, authentic Beninese ingâme pile is très facile to make, and can add a delicious dimension to roast lamb or chicken. Thank you for joining us, and bon appétit!”
The camera panned back, showing the kitchen that was the set of Bonjour Cuisine before fading to the show’s logo and credits. Alumette took off her apron and set it on the counter as the crew began striking the set for the day and preparing it for tomorrow’s taping. “Where are you off to now, Grace?” Pamela, the show’s assistant director asked.
“I thought I’d head in to Dawn Patrol HQ for a bit, get a couple of assignments out of the way. My caseload is huge since I’ve been gone.”
Pamela nodded. “Understandable, but I really think you should get some rest,” she said as the two women headed towards the green room where Grace could gather up her things and take off her makeup. “Since you’ve gotten back from Benin you’ve hardly had a chance to catch your breath. The press has been all over you, wanting details of your trip and the Foundation…you’ve hardly had a moment to yourself.”
Grace smiled, “Of course, Pam,” she said. “And that’s okay. People need to know what’s happening in the world, and hopefully they’ll be motivated to try to do something about it, no matter how small. In the meantime, crime hasn’t stopped in Paragon just because I’ve been gone delivering medical supplies to a third-world country.”
LOADING DOCKS—MISSION COMPLETE
“Ick! How….how can you….” Grace sputtered, spitting, her face turning a little green. “I’ll…be right back.”
Alumette dashed to the shoreline, rinsing her mouth out with seawater from the Port, letting its saline astringence wash the bitter taste from her mouth. She willed herself not to throw up.
“Here,” Torrance said, handing her a flask. “Vodka. Might take the edge off.”
“Thanks.” Grace sipped daintily, regaining her composure, and wincing at the bite of the vodka. She handed the flask back, still getting her bearings.
“Well, now I know that’s something I don’t need to try ever again,” she said with a self-conscious laugh.
“I’d imagine not, sister,” Torrance said with a smile, placing another wad of chewing tobacco in his lip. Chew, Grace had just learned, was not something she enjoyed. As a matter of fact, it was beyond her how anyone could choose to put that in their mouth. And the spitting was gross. But despite that, Torrance, aka Corner Stone, was good people and he’d already saved her bacon three times against Malta. He was competent in battle, which she could respect, and he seemed to “get it”—why they did what they did. Why Grace had gone to Benin; why she ran the Foundation. It meant a lot to her, and talking to him about it, she didn’t feel so damned Pollyanna; the way she often did talking to other people. He’d been all over the world, seen things, worked in war zones as a UN Peacekeeper… he knew what it was about.
“Well, thanks again for your help,” she said, her face returning to its normal color.
“Of course,” he said. “Take it easy, sister.”
She watched his teleportation signature fade across the horizon, and was happy.
A SECRET GOVERNMENT PRISON IN A REMOTE MILITARY OUTPOST
Dominic lay on his Spartan cot, not knowing if it was day or night. The darkness was always the same. The only way he knew what time it was, was when the food slot opened at the bottom of the door, and a half-rusted metal tray of sludge was shoved inside his cell. Dominic had learned long ago not to even bother trying to fight the rats for it. He simply lay on his cot, staring at the ceiling, emotionless.
They were going to let him die here. He knew it. They were going to keep him just alive enough to talk, and hell if he was going to do that. Suck it up, Tom, he told himself. You knew the job was hard when you signed up. He had lost hope of rescue within days of being captured. Watchlight would have declared him dead—to them he was as good as dead anyhow, compromised as he was—and by now they had surely delivered the news to Grace, per the instructions in his will, and transferred his estate to her. At least now she knew the truth: the full truth. A small wave of guilt washed over him for abandoning her. He swallowed it, shoved it down inside, and replaced it with bitterness: You should have known it was too good to be true, Tom. You’re a sucker to have thought you might have had a chance to be happy. This is your lot in life—to be alone. Might as well accept it once more and do what you do best: get the job done.
Besides… he could no longer imagine what Grace looked like. She was an abstract concept in his mind; a ghost, a shadow of herself, caressing the edges of his memory, just out of reach. Try as he might, Dominic could not conjure up the softness of her eyes or the curve of her smile. So he just stopped trying.
FOUNDERS FALLS—WILLIAMS SQUARE—THE COURBIER/JACKSON RESIDENCE
Grace placed her toothbrush in the holder and switched off the bathroom light. The clock said 11:42. She slipped between the sheets and settled down to sleep, reviewing the day in her mind. Her life was full again: the Foundation’s leap to international humanitarian aid was going more smoothly than she had anticipated, her cooking show was developing a program to deliver meals to homeless shelters and shut-ins, the Goddess seemed pleased. She was even finding a renewed interest in her day-to-day heroing assignments, as her new friendships with Chain Lightning and Corner Stone were beginning to develop. Chain Lightning seemed to “get it” too, and when he’d told her that his father’s company, Sterling Wonder, had chosen the Courbier Foundation as the featured charity at its annual stockholder’s dinner, she was overjoyed.
She smiled and snuggled down under the crisp sheets. She glanced up at the photo of Dominic on her bedside table, illuminated softly by the moonlight and the blue-green glow of the clock radio’s display. “Dom, things are going so well,” she said, her voice bittersweet. “I so wish you could be here to see it. I miss you.”
“Dominic?” Grace was standing in a dingy warehouse. It was nighttime. Dom turned to look at her, putting a finger to his lips, and then pointing. Grace turned to look. Three men stood in a tight circle, discussing something furtively. What snatches of conversation wafted over to Alumette’s ears sounded like an Eastern European language, but she was no expert. She hovered in the air and edged closer to Dominic, lying prone atop a large crate in a lofted storage area out of direct line of sight. He would have been utterly invisible to her, too, were it not for their years of working together and her complete knowledge of his tactics, given their closeness. “What’s happening?” she whispered, trying to make sense of their surroundings. Dominic said nothing and simply pointed once more to the trio of individuals discussing something nearby.
“…Vitriol…Korea…Wing…” the words floated up towards them. Dominic turned to look at Grace. “Yahn,” he whispered, and then put a finger to his lips once more, gesturing for silence.
“…and it’s a beautiful day in the Falls, Paragon! The time is 7:02, and the temperature is already 60 degrees! Expect clear skies and temperatures in the low to mid 80s today and tomorrow. Speaking of hot, here’s the latest from ‘Frigid Bitch,’ the band of babes fronted by registered heroine Hart…”
Grace opened her eyes groggily as the DJ summoned her from Chechnya. She sat up slowly, rubbing her eyes, and picked up her phone.
“Hello, Mr. Yahn? It’s Grace Courbier…”
“…I’m doing well, thank you; well, considering…I was wondering if you’d be available to meet me for coffee,” she said. “I have some questions I’d like to ask you.”
06-04-2006, 08:41 PM
Yahn stepped into Grace's kitchen, looking uncomfortable. Clearly this was not his domain. But he had said she could call him with any questions, after all.
"Thank you for coming," she said. "Coffee?"
She poured him a cup, and then procured a plate of mocha chocolate truffle cookies, setting it before him. "They were Tom's favorite," she said with a small smile. Yahn mechanically took one and gave a curt, "Thanks," as he sat down. "What is it you wanted to talk to me about, Ms. Courbier?"
Grace sat and folded her hands on the table before her. She leveled her gaze at him. "There are gaps in your file, Mr. Yahn." He seemed unsurprised.
"Security, Ms. Courbier, I'm sure you understand," he said, gesturing subtly to the framed certificate of hero registration that hung on the wall. "I would have imagined you would have an easier time understanding that than most."
"I do," she said. "But Tom's will was clear," she began. "I am entitled to full disclosure."
Yahn smiled. He had expected as much. "Fair enough," he said. "What is it you want to know?"
"How did he die?"
"Fletcher was on a mission, investigating Vitriol--"
"Yes, I'm familiar with the case," she said flatly. "I was on the task force assigned to the investigation."
Yahn held up a conciliatory hand. "I'm aware, Ms. Courbier. Meursault worked closely with Watchlight to see that it was arranged."
"Our Meursault?" Grace was taken aback.
"None other. He has been part of our organization almost as long as he's been a part of Dawn Patrol. It shouldn't surprise you, Ms. Courbier. Dawn Patrol is coalitioned with a number of hero and law-enforcement groups. Why should this be any different?"
Grace opened her mouth to reply, but found none. "Continue," she said simply.
"The trail led Fletcher to North Korea, where he was--" Yahn paused, debating how to frame his words. "...compromised."
"Compromised?" Tom was always so careful. The idea that he could have been compromised was alien to her.
"It happens to all agents sooner or later," Yahn said. "So, protocols were followed."
"Protocols?" Grace narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean, 'protocols'?" she asked, although her mind was already forming the answer. Still, she wanted to hear it from Yahn.
"Standard security protocols, Ms. Courbier. Surely you're aware of the fact that the mission is more important than any one agent. No doubt Dawn Patrol has similar protocols in place."
"We do. But you still haven't answered my question. How did Tom die?"
"I told you. When we discovered he was compromised, we followed protocols."
"And those are...?"
"None of your business, Ms. Courbier." He fixed her with a powerful stare. She stared right back, and let a pause develop.
"When will his remains be returned to Paragon City?" she asked, grateful that she and Tom both had their dental records, DNA samples, and fingerprints on file at City Hall. She wouldn't put it past Watchlight to try to pass off some poor schmuck's corpse as Tom's. Tom himself had done the very same thing when he became Dominic Jackson.
"Ms. Courbier, I told you, we are working with North Korean officials and the embassy to see that it's taken care of." His face took on a practiced, but insincere, look of compassion. He patted her hand clinically. "I know you need closure," he said. "I know it's hard to accept--but he's dead, Ms. Courbier. We're doing everything we can."
"You're lying." Grace said, her eyes betraying the anger that was welling up inside her. She took a deep breath and gave Yahn a penetrating stare. "Who is General Wing?" she asked.
For a moment, Yahn's eyes flashed a bit of panic. It was almost imperceptible, but it told Grace enough. "I'm sorry, who?" he asked, feigning ignorance.
"General Wing," she said. "My information says he's an official in the Chinese military. What's he doing in North Korea?" Grace pulled a file from a nearby desk drawer and held it up.
Yahn had the look of a man debating whether or not to sacrifice his queen in a game of chess for a chance at evading a checkmate. He looked at Alumette appraisingly. "As far as we can tell from the intel that Fletcher gathered, Wing is the enforcer for the organization producing Vitriol,"
"And that organization is...?"
"We don't know. Tom wasn't able to find out. We still have agents in the field trying to determine that."
Grace nodded. "So, General Wing found out that Tom was after him, somehow?"
Yahn replied, looking a little nervous, "Yes."
"Surely Watchlight has protocols to prevent something like this from happening," she said matter-of-factly. "Were those followed?"
"Ms. Courbier, I assure you, every effort is taken to ensure that our agents have reliable intel from trusted sources when in the field."
"I see. So how did Wing find out about Tom?"
"He was compromised, Ms. Courbier, and we made a command decision to put the mission above the agent, as per protocols."
She leveled her gaze at him, her eyes filled with a power that was ancient and awesome. "You don't know for sure if he's really dead, do you?"
Yahn stared at her, speechless for a few moments. "No, Ms. Courbier, we don't. But as far as we're concerned, he is no longer our responsibility. If he's dead, he's dead. If he's still alive, he's a liability. So to us, he's dead either way."
"Thank you, Agent Yahn," Grace said, getting to her feet and crossing to the door. She held it open. "Have a lovely afternoon."
06-08-2006, 06:10 PM
Alex King toed the water of the lake, hoping stubbornly, aginst reason, that his mystic heritage would give him some sort of vision within it's swirling depths.
Unless panicked tadpoles were the most important thing in Grace's future, the lake was continuing to be obstinate.
"...and, all things considered, I thought it might be best if I asked you about this. Prophetic dreams are "your bag", right?"
Grace was definetly looking a lot more stable these days, that was certain. Or rather, she had been, until she stopped by MAGI earlier that day, meeting him outside city hall on his way home, asking him if they could talk about Jackson.
All things considered, it was proving to be a tricky proposition.
"Grace... you know I'd love to help. Seriously. And I'm glad you came to talk to me... but I don't know how much help I can offer here. I mean, if I was in contact with you when you had the dream, that might be one thing... but as it is, all I can do is guess."
She gave him a frustrated look. "You're skating the issue, Alex. Do you think Dominic was talking to me through my dreams? If he's till alive, then, maybe..."
Alex hated this part. His reputation in certain circles was impressive.... maybe moreso than he deserved. People expected him to provide some sort of Yoda-esque insight into the realm of magic and dreams... but in truth, his powers were much more limited than that of his mother. Half of it was all educated guesses... and he let her know that.
"I know you and Jackson were close, Grace... and losing him's been hard on you. It's possible you were just... dreaming of someone close to you who you've lost."
Grace was trying to put on a tough face, and it did'nt take telepathy to see how shaky it was.
"Then again... maybe he was reaching you in your sleep. You two share a very strong bond... if you felt like it was really him, then who am I to say yay or nay?"
Grace seemed to brighten. At least a little. Which was little more than he had expected, so score. "He and I are destined to be together, Alex. The goddess..."
Alex rubbed his eyes. "Grace, can we keep the talk about meddling patrons to a minimum this time around? You and Jackson love each other. Seriously... that's enough. You don't need the rubber stamp from soem diety to make love special... it's already unique enough as it is, wherever you find it. "
Alex had been making WAY too many of these speeches lately... it was going to ruin his image. Still, he glanced back over his shoulder, at his house, where his pregnant wife was going through her morning stretches, he forgavve himself. A little.
"Listen, Grace...love is love. It's an ideal worth persuing, even if it never comes to what you want. If you think Jackson is alive, then I suggest you find Agent Yani, or whatever his name was, and beat the information out of him. Stop being so refined, and hesitant, and moping around here while the single heroes of the world look to "ease your pain"... and go find your god damn fiance. He's out there somewhere, alive or dead. You keep telling me how what's-her-face is a goddess of protection.... so go protect what's yours. Otherwise.. what's the point of even putting on the tights?"
06-10-2006, 06:00 AM
GRACE COURBIER'S PERSONAL JOURNAL
The sentence still feels alien in my mind; wrong somehow. But I don't think he's coming back. The hope I held out, that he might still be alive... I don't know; it's still there. I don't think he's really dead. He can't be. I'd know. If nothing else, She'd know. I see him in my dreams... he's trapped somewhere; it's dark, he's uncertain. I can almost feel him building all those walls around himself again. I should have listened to him all those many months ago; when he went into hiding after they firebombed his apartment in Skyway. When he told me not to get involved, not to care. Selfishly, I followed my heart anyway, and I guess so did he. But in the end I hurt him beyond anything I could have imagined. All those defenses he spent years carefully crafting...all those walls in place to protect Tom from Dominic, from the truth, from those who were after him...I selfishly tore them down, naively thinking my love would be enough to protect him. I gave him a false sense of security. I should have trusted his judgment. He is a man who will always be running. His life depends on it.
During the day, I can push it to the back of my mind; his absence becomes small, temporary; a mere circumstance of my busy life. Almost like it was before when we both had the busyness of our work to occupy our time--the price for the blissful treasure of the few moments of domestic life we shared. I try to fill up the time with those things: Dawn Patrol assignments, the cooking show, work for the Foundation. I occupy myself with others' pain, to avoid addressing my own. It feels good to hit the streets again; to settle back into the familiar rhythm of protecting the streets, feeding the hungry, sheltering the poor...giving hope to the hopeless. For once, She is pleased with me. And the joy of bringing Her light to the unfortunate is immeasurable. But when I, Grace, can no longer carry out Her work--when my strong but still human body is tired, is yearning for home--the only thing that fills me is the pressing weight of his absence.
I am starting to forget things... the scent of his cologne is starting to fade from the sheets. The sound of his voice now teases at the edges of my memory, its delicious subtleties fade by the hour: his tone, his laugh, the bitter edge behind the wit.
I miss having someone to just talk to, to just be Grace with. The people I see now, it's all business: people wanting me to make a statement about the homeless in the city, or medical access in third-world countries; people wanting me to promote their kitchen ware or their knives; city hall officials wanting me to file paperwork on my assignments, Dawn Patrol overseas officers asking for data on field hours vs. arrests made...I just don't know anymore.
I'm really grateful for Torrance. He's easy to talk to, he has no expectations, and he's being exceedingly patient. And he has a wisdom about things... a sense of place. I know She likes him. I think I would have gone crazy by now if it hadn't been for him.
I just need to get the Foundation to a place where it can run without me for a few weeks. Thankfully, Aaron (crossed out) Chain Lightning was able to really step up the investigation using his resources at Sterling Wonder. We managed--or rather, he managed--to uncover some pretty extraordinary stuff. He really is something.
Foundation work aside, I also need to get the courage to request an indefinite leave of absence--and an uncertain expense account amount--to go find Tom.
KINGS ROW, COURBIER FOUNDATION SHELTER
"...okay, now what's the next step?"
Katie crinkled up her nose and chewed on the end of the pencil. "I'm not sure," she said, staring at the math problem.
"Go slow," Grace encouraged. "You know what to do. Think it through," she smiled a little and pointed to a section of the problem on Katie's paper, giving her a little hint.
Lightbulb. "I divide by two!" Katie said happily.
"That's right, Katie. Good job." Grace gave her a little pat on the back and felt the poor girl's bony shoulderblades through her thin sweater. She frowned. "Katie, finish this problem and then go grab some soup from the line. You must be hungry, as hard as you're working!"
Katie nodded happily and set to work on her math. Grace threaded her way through the small crowd of students, aged 7 to 17, as they worked with tutors. There were even a few of their parents there, working on learning to read or finishing their GED requirements. Many of them smiled at her, having been coming to the shelter regularly since the Courbier Foundation had made improvements to the building and expanded its services to include educational support as well as nourishment and shelter. She scanned through her text messages. There was one from Chain Lightning, updating her on his investigation into the bad bread that had been recently donated by Market's Pride, a new bakery company... and asking her to meet him for coffee, again. She smiled a little. Although his attentions were flattering and it was clear he was keeping a respectful distance, she still missed Dominic terribly. Her fiance was never far from her mind.
As if it were fate, there was another text message from the office in City Hall that was arranging for her upcoming trip to North Korea. The North Korean government was skittish about America sending registered heroes onto its soil, and so Alumette had had to couch her visit in a humanitarian effort. Sadly, the North Korean government was also too proud to admit that almost its entire population was starving. So even that was a difficult angle, but City Hall, and US Senator Filburton, were doing their best. It seemed that a few more puzzle pieces had fallen into place, although she would have to make it down to City Hall to fill out some more forms. She sighed, brushing a stray strand of hair out of her face.
Suddenly her Dawn Patrol comm beeped, on the emergency frequency. Grace's hand flew instinctively to the receiver switch. It was Endless One, Dawn Patrol's new Field Commander since Major Britain's retirement: Every member of Dawn Patrol is to report to the conference room immediately. She sounded strong, but Grace knew her enough to hear the tinge of nervousness behind her voice. If only Shan knew how strong the rest of the team knew she was.
"On my way, Commander. I'm at the shelter. ETA 10 minutes."
With a wave of her hand and a whispered incantation, Grace's jeans and t-shirt melted away to Dawn Patrol blue and white leathers. The kids stared at her wide-eyed.Her identity as a heroine was no secret. The kids had seen her at the shelter in her heroing garb before. Still, it wowed them nonetheless. "Trouble, Ms. Alumette?" one of the older boys asked. Grace had long suspected he was hiding an emerging mutation, but it was too early to tell. "Yes, Tyler," she said. "Hold down the fort," already she was powering up her speed. "You're in charge of the tutoring center and the kitchen until I get back."
She sped towards HQ as fast as the goddess would let her.
06-10-2006, 07:09 AM
NORTH KOREA, ONE MONTH AGO
Dominic lay in his cell. He closed his eyes and went to Provence. His escape. They had almost broken him last time: in his despair he could not conjure up Grace in his mind. It had been like that for days, or perhaps weeks--in the darkness he had no way of being sure of time's passage--and his fear of forgetting her gave way to the bitterness that had served him well in his life so far.
But she was coming back to his consciousness again. It started out small. A bit of broken glass in his food tray glimmered momentarily in the light as the guard passed the sludge into his cell. In Dominic's state, he thought he saw Grace's engagement ring. And suddenly he could picture their odd mutual marriage proposal as clear as day. He held that image in his mind for the rest of the day. When they took him in for another round of painful, demeaning questioning, Dominic gave them the same obstinate, bitter bastard he'd given them every other time. But this time Grace was there with him, in his mind, and it didn't hurt as much.
He was soon able to recall memories of her that he'd long forgotten--small things like the way she tilted her head when tasting a recipe, or the sound of her laugh. He kept her constantly in his thoughts.
And in that small pocket of memory, a seed of hope was planted. She'll come for you, Tom, he thought to himself. She'll know. And she'll come for you.
06-11-2006, 08:51 PM
"I know you're retired, sir," Grace began tentatively, after the pleasantries were out of the way. "And I know Shan is now Field Commander. But I just felt like I needed to talk it over with you first," she said, looking up at Major Britain.
Her former commander and good friend smiled. Retirement seemed to have taken years off his demeanor. "Of course, Grace," he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I think you should go find out what happened to him. As long as it's in an unofficial capacity, of course."
Grace nodded, procuring some papers from a nearby desk drawer. "Of course," she said, handing the papers over to him. "This is what City Hall, the State Department, and US Senator Filburton were able to get for me. It's completely unofficial. I'm going over there as Genevieve DuPont, an international arms dealer. Apparently there's a combat-tech conference there next week. They're having me travel as a French citizen, and I will have no support from hero infrastructure while I'm there."
The Major looked at her gravely as he listened, scanning the falsified visas and documentation. He handed them back to her and breathed a heavy sigh. "Grace, there's a lot of risk here," he said. She nodded. The Major continued on. "I realize why you can't have any association with the heroing community while you're there, and why you can't go over there as a heroine. But...you're really going to be on your own." He placed a protective hand on her shoulder. "You sure you're ready for this?"
Grace nodded. "I have to do this, sir."
"I understand. Here..." The Major fumbled at his belt and procured a small device that looked somewhat like an iPod. "Take this, at least," he said, pressing it into her hand. "Unofficial mission or no, I can't just let you go all the way out there with nothing." Grace looked at the small device in her hand. "It's a cloaking device," the Major clarified. "Standard issue to all Patrollers ranked Leftenant and above." Grace nodded, remembering hers from when she was a Leftenant. Except she could never get hers to work, and looking at the one the Major had just given her, they had significantly improved the design.
"Thank you, sir," she smiled. "I'll bring him back to us." She gave him a proud salute, even though it was no longer necessary.
"Take care of yourself out there, Grace," he said.
Grace looked around her apartment. Everything seemed in order. She went through her checklist once more. It was beginning to become clear to her why Dominic took such care to go through such regimented rituals when preparing for an assignment. She examined the high-caliber pistols and clips once more, as well as the knives, hooks, recording devices, stealth activators, cameras, and gadgets that would accompany her on her lonely journey. Dominic had long ago taught her how to use these items, for her own safety, he'd said; but she had never before put them into practice--particularly not in such a place as North Korea, and not without being able to count on additional hero support.
Still, everything seemed in order.
*Ready to go, Grace?* Alex asked, inside her head
*Warn a girl next time, King* she smiled.
*Sorry. Lara and I were just out for a walk in the area, and I wanted to say hello*
*I appreciate it. Yes, I'm ready as I'll ever be* she thought back.
*Good. You'll find him, Grace. I know you will. Be safe.*
Grace nodded slowly, zipping up her duffel and patting the small gold bunny pin that adorned her jean jacket. Chain Lightning had said it would bring her luck, and knowing the story behind it like she did, she was honored that he had given it to her for this mission. She sniffed the single iris that bloomed in a vase on her kitchen counter and smiled, heading out the door towards the elevator.
The cab was already waiting at the curb. She glanced up at the sky before settling in to the back seat, and saw the energy signature of a teleportation device. It reminded her of Torrance, and she smiled. Watch your ass out there, sister, he'd said the other night. She was going to miss him a lot.
"Paragon City Airport, please" she told the driver, a nervous smile at her lips.
06-28-2006, 03:43 PM
"Right this way, Mademoiselle DuPont," the slender cadet said in heavily-accented French. It was difficult for Alumette to understand him. Clearly the learning of a Western language was a rare privilege. The young officer must have had a relative in a high-ranking government position. He took her arm and led her through Sunan airport, towards the baggage claim and customs. Alumette's throat tightened as she handed her false passport and visas over to the customs agent. Her heart pounded as she tried to remember the cover story and legend details that Senator Filburton had managed to procure from the CIA on her behalf, to go along with her phony documentation. She had called in every favor she had to get to this point, and those from whom she requested favors had called in favors of their own. Failure was not an option.
The customs agent glared at the documents she handed him. He proceeded to question her through the sketchy interpretive skills of Goh Heunsul, the cadet who now accompanied her.
“Your reason for being here?”
Alumette swallowed hard, her voice cracking, “Arms…conference…region,” Cadet Goh looked at her skeptically, and Alumette tried again, “The arms dealer conference in Kaesong Industrial Region,” she said. “I have an invitation here from the SAC.” She handed him another official document with trembling hands.
The agent scanned the document, taking his time as he did so, glancing from the papers back up to Alumette and back again. After what seemed like several eternities, he stamped her passport and gave a wooden smile, "Welcome to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Mademoiselle DuPont." He handed her her documentation, and Cadet Goh led her through to baggage inspection.
As the baggage handler questioned her on the several pistols, rifle, boxes of ammunition, smoke grenades, and other unconventional traveling items in her luggage, Alumette was put through the paces of reciting her cover: she was Geneviève DuPont, government liaison for Giat Industries, a French arms manufacturer. In truth, most of the gear in her bag belonged to Dominic. They were mostly prototypes he’d picked up from Intel or Watchlight; souvenirs he’d “requisitioned” during the course of his career. Few if any of them would be registered on Giat’s inventory lists. She was counting on their unique prototype status to be able to pass them off as new models, adding credibility to a story that was clearly beyond her experience. Still, saying the cover details out loud gave her confidence, and helped her believe in them more strongly herself. An official stamp and seal later, and she was on her way.
“If you’ll excuse me, Cadet Goh,” she began, “I need to visit the powder room for a moment.”
“Of course, Mademoiselle,” he said. “I’ll wait near the car.”
Grace nodded politely and stepped into the ladies’ room. It was sparse and in disrepair. Sunan airport had been built in the 1950s, and hadn’t been maintained much longer than its first week of operation. Grace picked her way through the litter scattered about the floor, taking care to avoid chipped floor tiles and exposed pipes, towards the rearmost stall. She reached behind the running toilet tank, feeling around for what she hoped would be there. Her fingertips brushed past a crisp scrap of paper, which she carefully removed, her heart pounding in her ears. Allowing herself the tiniest indulgence of hope, she turned the paper over in her hands and examined it, nearly crying out in tearful joy as she did so.
Goddess bless Torrance, she thought to herself. He had come through. Or rather, an old acquaintance of his in South Korea had come through. Torrance had told her about a contact he used to rely on during his days as a NATO Peacekeeping soldier. Before she left, he had given her the contact’s name and how to contact him, “in case things go sour,” he’d said through the ubiquitous wad of chewing tobacco in his lip. He had also offered to see if this contact had any helpful information, and it was clear he had. On the slip of paper was a list of names and map coordinates. Grace wasn’t sure what they were for exactly, but it was a piece of the puzzle. She slipped the note into her sleeve and stepped out to the sink to splash some water on her face. It came out brown. She didn’t bother.
Before stepping out, she caught sight of herself in the wobbly, moderately-reflective unbreakable mirror. It was strange to see herself without the necklace that had adorned her throat since she’d learned to control her powers all those years ago. A sense of fear washed over her: she was utterly alone, in hostile territory, without her powers. All she had was her struggled-for high school education, and whatever she’d managed to glean from Dominic’s insistence that she learn at least the basics of his trade, “for her protection, just in case.” He was always one to have plans A, B, C, and D thoroughly detailed and prepared in advance, whereas Grace acted on what her heart told her. It struck Tom as impulsive; it made him crazy, gave him grey hairs. “Well, here goes,” she said under her breath, and strode out to meet Cadet Goh.
06-29-2006, 12:55 AM
“Would you mind meeting for a drink later?” the handsome ValorCorp representative asked, leaning casually on the edge of the table in Alumette’s booth at the arms conference. Grace smiled with a nervous graciousness, regretting the necessity of having to leave her engagement ring behind in addition to her necklace. “I hear there’s a nice place near the river with a killer martini,” he added, giving a sharklike grin. That was the phrase she had been listening for all day, and the nervousness behind her smile softened a bit. “Can’t be better than the martinis at Hudson’s in Albuquerque,” she replied, confirming the contact with the scripted line from her legend.
“You’ll have to find out for yourself,” he grinned and turned back to his booth.
Across the room, a janitor observed the exchange quietly for a few moments before pushing her cart further down the hallway into a storage closet, muttering quietly to herself as she did so.
“Here, let me get that,” Trevor Dalton said as the waitress set their bar tab on the table. He reached into his wallet to pull out the ValorCorp company credit card, and in so doing, palmed another slip of paper.
“No no, let me,” she said, reaching for the bill. Their hands met over the check, and Trevor surreptitiously passed her the note in his hand. “No, I insist, mademoiselle,” he said rakishly. “It’s the least I can do for the delightful company you’ve provided this evening.”
“All right. Merci. C’est gentille, monsieur,” she said graciously, slipping the note into her handbag.
“You know,” he began as the waitress disappeared with the credit card, “Kaesong is a great place for business. It’s an experiment in capitalism for them. But if you really want to find what you’re looking for in North Korea, you have to go northwest, towards Chongju.” He fiddled with the olive in his glass. “That’s the best place to go to experience the real country.”
Grace nodded. “Merci, Monsieur Dalton. I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Je vous en prie, mademoiselle DuPont.”
Grace peered through binoculars at the prison camp several kilometers below. She was having a hard time not just rushing the door and asking, with her fists, if Tom was inside. It had been several hours since she’d taken up her position in the foliage above the camp, and she was getting antsy. It always mystified her how Tom could do his job—just settling in somewhere and remaining absolutely still for hours, hidden and waiting. It was so not her style. But it was the style the situation called for, and getting him out required her to discipline herself to it. Besides, without her necklace, her fists weren’t going to be terribly convincing to anyone. Here, she was just a petite Française, nothing more.
She checked the slip of paper that Dalton had given her against the slip of paper she’d found in the bathroom at Sunan airport. The map coordinates were the sites of the known prison camps where Dominic, if he were alive, would likely be held. Dalton’s information confirmed the existence and location of the camps, and also included other details like how many prisoners each camp likely held, and who some of the more high-profile inmates were. One, at the camp Alumette was currently observing, was listed as “The Shadow.” It was her best lead so far; and the date listed for his incarceration was a few days prior to the official date of Tom’s death as reported to her by Watchlight.
If he was alive, he was most likely here. But Grace had no idea how to find out for sure. She activated the stealth device Major Britain had given her prior to her departure and crept through the brush for a closer look.
>SNAP!< The stick crackled noisily under her foot. Grace froze, her heart pounding as the spotlight swung around in her direction, sweeping over her and back in wide arcs. She could hear voices from the camp carrying over the still night as the guards went on alert. Just stay still, they’ll settle down eventually, she thought to herself. The spotlight settled right over her, and her breathing grew fast and shallow. OhgodI’mdeadI’mdeadI’mdead…. she thought, panic washing over her like the pale blue-white mothlight of the spot. Her translucent silhouette shimmered against the terrain, making odd lines in the landscape, although for all practical purposes she was invisible.
A dog barked fiercely somewhere in the camp, picking up her scent, amplified now by the fear that coursed through her. Grace could do nothing but await the inevitable.
06-29-2006, 08:48 PM
Geebus, didn't Dom teach her anything about sneaking??? Mikoto thought as she slowly crept up on Grace.
With all the hubbub over at Dawn Patrol headquarters with the Major stepping down and Shan taking over it was easy enough to slip out with none the wiser. after that, following Grace was simplicity itself. Dominic had shown her how to deal with the security system at his place, and since she didn't need sleep as much as others ,she could keep 24 hour tabs on Grace and her location.
After what the Jade Lotus Society had put her through, following the plane to Korea was a snap. Keeping close enough to the plane meant that she didn't even show up as a seperate radar entity, and the cloaking technology and training took over after landing.
Staying cloaked though the arms conference, she had dogged Grace's trail, until at last, it all came down to Grace trying to sneak into what was obviously some kind of Prison Camp.
With the snap of a twig, Graces fear pheremones started to shoot through the roof. Even a Noseblind greyhound would be able to pick that up, something had to be done, and quickly.
In a sotto voice Mikoto whispered "Chamberpot" It was one of the "safe words" that Dom made her memorize during her rehabilitation, it should be enough to let Grace know she could trust the voice. It's Me Grace. Don't Move
06-30-2006, 10:44 AM
SEVERAL DAYS EARLIER….
The two of them stood outside the small coffee shop in Founders Falls. The sun was just starting to set and amber flecks of light danced off the surface of the water at the dock nearby. She had called Aaron earlier that day and informed him that she was going to do it; she was going to go to North Korea, and try to get some answers into Dom’s death.
“There’s just too many questions, too many loose ends for me to live with.” She said. Aaron nodded his head. “I agree, Grace. Based on everything you’ve told me, the whole scenario is, sketchy. Listen, I know you have to a lot of preparing you have to do, so I won’t keep you long, thanks for coming out here to meet me.” He said. She nodded to him as he spoke. “I wanted to give you something before you leave.” He said. He stepped up a little closer and started to unzip the shirt on his costume. Grace’s eyes widened and she leaned back a bit. “Whoa, Aaron….”
Before she could finish her sentence, he had reached inside his shirt and pulled out a piece of jewelry. It was a gold bunny pin. It was obviously a piece of cheap costume jewelry, and in several places the fake gold plating had worn off revealing the cheap nickel underneath. He held it in his palm, not looking at her as he began to speak. “This used to belong to my mother. One day while we were on vacation I had been afraid to go into the water on the beach. She took this off her jacket and told me it was her lucky charm and that it kept her safe, and that it should work for me also. Now, to you and me, we see it for what it truly is, just a cheap piece of costume jewelry that probably didn’t cost more than ten dollars. But when you’re five years old, and you believe in everything your parents tell you, well, you get the idea.” He stopped talking for a moment, cleared his throat. Grace could tell that what he was telling her was hard for him, and that he probably rarely if ever shared it with anyone. “I was still wearing it later that evening when the hurricane hit. It seems she had told the truth after all, it was a lucky charm, at least that day it was, for me, not so much for her.” Aaron’s started to have trouble speaking as he went on, and she could see that he trying to not cry. “For years after she died, I thought to myself, ‘if only I had given it back to mom after we got back from the beach, then maybe she’d……”
Grace reached out and grabbed his hand. “Aaron, don’t think that way.” she said. He regained his composure quickly. “Anyway, I still put it on whenever I’m about to go out on a case that could be particularly dangerous. Under my costume of course, the bad guys seem to not take you quite so seriously if you’re wearing a bunny pin on your shirt when you fight them.” He said. She grinned at him. He took her hand and placed the bunny pin in it. “You’ve already told me that She protects and looks after you, and that She also knows that my mother watches over me even now. I figure, you’re about to go into a hostile environment a million times worse than anything I’ve ever seen, a little extra protection can only help.”
Grace took the pin and held it in her hands. “Aaron, I can’t take this……I….”
He held up a finger cutting her off. “Yes you can. Grace, I don’t have many friends, I’ve always been the guy in the back of the room. The one joining up for a big fight, the one that everyone considers to be a ‘good guy’ but never really spends time with outside of work. Granted that’s been by my own choice mainly, but you’re the one that’s encouraged me to get out here and meet and talk to the other heroes in the city. I owe you a debt bigger than you know. Besides, I’ve gotten used to the two of us kicking asses and taking names.”
She smiled and put the pin on her jacket. “Thank you. I’ll bring it back in as good a shape as you’ve given it to me.” Aaron looked at the street clock mounted on the corner of the building as the sun took back the last bit of light it had lent the city for the day. He finished the last of his coffee and threw the cup into the waste basket. “Be careful out there.” He said before he raced off in his familiar flash of blue and yellow.
Aaron sat at a table in the Pocket D, his laptop open and his cell phone beside it. He was hoping that some of his informants had found anything on Arnold Janst after his sudden disappearance the other day. He really wanted to have a solid lead on the contaminated food situation they had been working on. They had managed to stop Crey’s initial shipment, but every day that they didn’t shut it down completely was just one more day that Crey had to start up again. He noticed the bartender waving to him. “You want the usual, Aaron?” he asked. Aaron nodded as he picked up his cell phone. “That’ll be fine, Danny. Thanks” He flipped open his cell phone and accessed the priority Defenders channel. It had no messages. That was either good or bad. He turned back to his computer as Danny set down his order. He turned to grab his drink and noticed his Baileys and a glass of Erath Pinot Noir.
Danny was already heading back to the bar. “Oh no, Danny, Grace isn’t…..” but he didn’t hear him and kept on walking. He sighed, looking at the glass.
06-30-2006, 02:44 PM
"It's me, Grace. Don't move." Grace was absolutely frozen in her tracks. Her new companion had absolutely nothing to worry about there. "Mikoto?" Grace sounded surprised through her whisper. "How...?"
She was relieved to hear a familiar voice, but scared to her core. The State Department had made it clear that any hero presence in North Korea would not be considered positive by the North Korean government. The delicacy of Alumette's situation, and just how far people were sticking their necks out for her, was made clear to Grace before her departure. She hoped Mikoto had gone through channels to get there, but knowing Mikoto, it wasn't likely.
"What do we do now?" she whispered. The spotlight had swung away from her, but it was clear from the sounds coming across the fence that the dogs had been brought out. The guards shouted to one another, coordinating their search.
07-02-2006, 08:48 PM
"I see," Agent Yahn said, pursing his lips and ruminating on this new bit of information. "Well, we'll just have to wait and see how she does. Keep tabs on her, and let me know if anything arises."
He should have guessed she'd try to go after him. Grace Courbier was hardly a stay-at-home trophy wife type. That she had hero registration and enjoyed a relatively high security clearance meant it wouldn't be too far of a stretch to assume she'd pull something like this. It made things interesting; but difficult for Yahn. She had already had at least two meetings with him about Fletcher, and now this. Why would she not let them just forget about him? The success of their operation, since Fletcher'd been compromised, depended on that. It depended on the world understanding that he was dead. It depended on him completely disappearing once more.
Still, Yahn was an old hand. This wasn't the first time, and likely wouldn't be the last. Watchlight had the resources to make the both of them disappear for good if necessary. It was all a matter of watching and waiting.
"So, it seems she's forgotten about you, Mr. Jackson," Wing said to Dom triumphantly, tossing a stack of old newspaper articles before him. The articles detailed Grace's work on the Foundation: her recent extended trip to Benin delivering medical supplies, the opening of two new shelters and a tutoring center in Kings Row, and other activities. There were also several pictures of her and Chain Lightning about town, working together on assignments.
Dominic sifted through the articles, skimming them, scanning the pictures. By now he was sufficiently weakened and sufficiently separated from life in Paragon City that he couldn't make too much coherent sense of what he was reading. But the pictures sent a jolt of emotion through him. Wing had intended to use these articles to break him, to make him lose hope. Instead, getting to see her, however obliquely through old news clippings, brought into sharp focus all the wispy memories that had been sustaining him all this time. He chose to keep that to himself. He gazed at the clippings and said nothing, his face a mask of detachment.
"So, we start again," Wing said. "Why are you so interested in Vitriol?"
07-03-2006, 08:17 PM
"What we do now is the easy part, hold out your hand. feel that?" Mikoto asked as a small lump dropped into Grace's hand. "Take that and stick it in your ear, it's a small receiver so you can hear me without all this whispering."
There was a soft clicking sound as Alumette woodenly did as Mikoto asked.
"There, now I don't have to talk for you to hear me." Sounded from the tiny speaker. "What were you thinking? that you'd just put on a cloaking field and waltz right through?!?!?!?! I don't mind if you decide to try and sneak into a heavily guarded prison camp, but..."
as Grace opened her mouth to speak she was immediately cut off "But this isn't the place to be having this conversation. With those dogs out, we need to get you out of here."
As the spotlight slid away, two grey handholds shimmered into view. "I had Robo install these in case I needed to move some injured people, they're as far from anything sharp on my body as it gets. I can't fly while you're holding on, but at least there won't be your feet clomping around leaving footprints and a trail for those dogs to follow."
07-03-2006, 09:03 PM
Alumette was in no position to argue. She inserted the comm pod into her ear, listening to the harangue she was due. Truth be told, the answer to "What were you thinking?" was that she wasn't. She actually was just planning to walk in, cloaked. It wasn't that Alumette was stupid; far from it. It was simply her tactical style: try something and see what happens. She was too impatient to spend time analyzing details and weighing what-ifs.
She grabbed onto the handles nervously. Alumette had heard what Mikoto was capable of before her rehabilitation sessions with Dominic, and Grace knew that without her powers, one small glitch in that process would spell the end of her life. Grace had been largely absent during Mikoto's rehabilitation; working on her assignments, seeking out a board of directors for her fledgling charity, and other personal projects. She didn't want to be in the way, and it was clear that helping Mikoto made Dominic happy. As such, she had no idea the extent of the success of the rehabilitation, but she had little choice in the matter now. Mikoto's sudden appearance at a moment of crisis was more blessing than she was willing to question, and she had to have faith in the fact that Dom was nothing if not thorough.
"I'm ready, Mikoto," she said quietly. "Where are we going?"
07-04-2006, 04:53 AM
First we're going a bit further out from here, around 10 miles, that should give us some breathing room to at least think of a plan, now hold on tight, I can think and run at the same time
On silent feet, Mikoto raced off away from the camp Alumette gripped the handles as tightly as she could.
So spill it, what kind of intel do you have on this place anyways?
07-11-2006, 06:09 PM
As their conversation progressed in the dark of the trees, it became clear to Mikoto that the sum total of Alumette’s intel for her mission included the scrap of paper she’d picked up in the restroom at the airport, and the slip of paper that Trevor Dalton had handed her over drinks at the hotel.
“Why did you even think you could do this yourself?” Mikoto scolded.
“I had to, Mikoto,” Alumette countered. “It was made very clear to me when I first tried to secure documentation, that pretty much any government was leery of sending a hero to North Korean soil. They feared that would be seen as an act of aggression, and nobody wants to wake the sleeping dragon. He’s a light sleeper as it is.”
Mikoto clearly didn’t buy that line of logic. “That didn’t seem to matter much when you sent me onto that Crey boat in Independence Port.”
“That mission you sent me on, just after I was recruited to Dawn Patrol,” Mikoto replied.
Grace looked at her, puzzled. “I didn’t order that mission,” she said. “It was Stephen’s idea, and I fought his decision as far as I could without getting myself into trouble.” Grace recalled with a broken heart the mission in which they discovered the hard way that Mikoto wasn’t ready to stop her rehabilitation.
“I assure you that between the two of us, I have the more accurate memory,” Mikoto said, referring to the parts of her brain that were machine. Her eyes faded out of focus momentarily as she replayed the pre-mission briefing for that assignment in her memory, projecting it holographically through her cybernetic eye.
Grace and Stephen, aka Umbra Knight, stood in the Dawn Patrol briefing room with Mikoto, a series of slides showing a loading bay in Independence Port flickering behind them.
“So you see, Mikoto, we just need you to infiltrate the boat and neutralize the crew so we can send in a strike team to confiscate the goods,” Grace pointed to a satellite photo of the boat, with a red circle outlining the crates they were after.
Grace observed the projected scene with puzzlement. That wasn’t how she remembered it playing out. She remembered fighting with Umbra Knight over the decision for days, before finally backing down when he’d pulled rank. In the briefing, he had been the one giving Mikoto the mission specs, not Alumette, who’d simply sat there fuming the whole time.
“I don’t understand, Mikoto,” she said. “That isn’t how it happened.”
“I have the recorded meeting right here,” she said. “I just played it for you.”
Grace shrugged. This was a puzzle to be worked out later; although it niggled at the back of her mind. How could Mikoto’s memory be off? Or maybe Grace was remembering it wrong. Had she really ordered that tragic charge? She shook the questions out of her mind.
“This isn’t helping us get Dom,” she said with some authority. Although she had long since resigned her commission as an officer, many in Dawn Patrol still regarded her as a leader, or at least considered her opinions to carry a lot of weight. Independent of that, this mission was hers and hers alone—a fact which had been made abundantly clear at every step of the process to get her to North Korea. She’d had to leave behind her powers, her comrades, and even her name.
“So what do you have, exactly?” Mikoto asked, scanning the two slips of paper containing essentially the sum total of Alumette’s acquired intel for the mission. Grace knew that Mikoto was committing the information to memory, which in her case was a formidably reliable action…or at least it was supposed to be.
“Just what’s on those two sheets of paper,” Grace began. “It’s map coordinates for all the known prison camps in the country; and then a bit more information on each camp. It’s not a lot, but it’s something. It’s what I was able to get when I arrived.”
“You didn’t get this information before you left?” Mikoto asked, incredulous.
Grace shook her head.
“You mean you just… got on a plane and went to North Korea, without a plan, without any intel, nothing?”
“I had a plan. I was going as Genevieve DuPont, a French arms dealer, for a conference. While under that identity, I was going to find out if he’s alive or dead, and if he’s alive, bring him home.”
Mikoto just stared at Grace. “That was your plan?” she asked. Grace shrugged. “I knew you weren’t much of a planner, but I figured for something like this you’d have at least—it’s not important.” Mikoto glanced at the papers once more. “So what have you found out so far?”
“Well, this facility here,” Grace said, thumbing over her shoulder in the direction of the camp they’d recently fled, “is the last one on the list. He’s got to be there. He’s not in any of the others. I already checked.”
“You did?” Mikoto asked. “There are 7 camps on here. You actually stealthed into all of them and didn’t get caught?”
Grace nodded proudly. “Yup. Did two sweeps of most of them. It took me the better part of the week, but I did it.”
“So there really is something to your ‘plan’ of just sneaking in, taking a look around, and sneaking out.”
“Yeah, when I don’t make noise.”
Mikoto smiled, “Mind if I take a look around for you on this one? You’ve kind of already blown your cover.”
“Be my guest,” Grace said. “And Mikoto, I’m really grateful you’re here.”
Mikoto handed her a small microphone. “Here,” she said. “Clip this onto your molars. That way we’ll be able to communicate while I’m inside.”
Grace took the microphone and nodded. It really was no surprise that Mikoto would be here, seeing as how Dominic had had the biggest hand in her rehabilitation. In a way he was like a father-figure to her. It occurred to Grace that this whole ordeal was probably affecting Mikoto just as deeply as it was affecting her; if not moreso in some ways. She clumsily clipped the mic onto her molars. “It’s uncomfortable,” she said.
“You’ll get used to it,” Mikoto’s voice sounded tinny in the earbud in Alumette’s ear. She had already shimmered from view and was speeding back towards the facility to infiltrate and search. Grace sat on the ground and waited, hopeful.
07-13-2006, 05:58 PM
Mikoto sped through the underbrush, the 3D (http://www.creyindustries.com/viewreport.php?id=2616) field keeping her from even brushing the surrounding foliage. It was a quiet sprint back to the camps perimeter, that gave her plenty of time to think about the past few weeks. Grace would definately not be happy to know that she had been tagging along to those other camps. If anything HAD gone wrong, Mikoto would have gotten her out somehow. But saying so wouldn't have helped Grace's nerves one bit.
she slowed as she got closer to the camp, so that she could conserve some energy, she shut the 3D down and let her cloaking technology take over. There was a kill zone setup between the edge of the woods and the actual camp fence, her advanced sensors picked up readings of incendiaries and explosives liberally scattered throughout the clearing. the only clear space to make a line of attack was the dirt road leading up to the main gates. It was very formidable defences. Grace was lucky that she'd stopped when she did, a bouncing betty was enough to ruin anyones day, and the trip wire was about 3 more feet closer to the camp than where the snapped twig lay.
Luckily, this sort of defensive pattern was what Mikoto was built to deal with. Wrapped in the shroud of her cloaking device, She prepared to head in. Starting Demi bras, with her feet in Fourth position she started moving, Pas de basque . With a Grand jeté her augmented musculature easitly cleared the electrified fence. A short vision of applauding crowds flickered through her mind, but was quickly dealt with. It was time to be serious, no more playing around.
1.) Locate target Dominic Jackson aka:Stalking Shadow
1a.) If Objective #1 complete Attempt rescue
2.) Return to Grace Angélique Courbier Aka:Alumette Aka:Mom Aka:Genevieve DuPont
3.) Remain undetected
As the objectives scrolled past her field of vision, she slipped through the battlecomps backdoor and convinced it that the best way to complete objective 3 was to not kill. Like a petulant child it grudgingly agreed.
As the Battlecomp started it's assessment of the area, based off of it's in depth assessment of Dominics profile, it came to the conclusion that the most likely place for storage would be in an individual area, away from the other prisoners. As the 3D kicked in, her optical scanners rode the 3D field to penetrate into the buildings outer layers.
Now that's strange, no caverns or tunnels underneath that I can see... I wonder...
She tapped a reticulated toe against the ground, her seismic sensors confirmed what her optics revealed.
Looks like we do this the hard way then...
"Grace! I'm going to have to take a closer look around here. I'm going to see if I can find the head honcho's office"
The response of "Be careful" was almost responded with a "Well Duh" but Mikoto kept her thoughts to herself. To avoid setting off a power spike, she decided against just phasing through the base. At the very least, she'd save power that may be more useful elsewhere.
She softly leaped to the roof, the negative sound device built into her torso dealing with the sounds of her feet on the concrete.
Slipping through an air access vent, she used her slight frame to good advantage. Crawling silently through the ductwork, she carefully observed the various rooms until she came to what was obviously an office of sorts. After her optics scanned the room, The 3D kicked in and she phased through the vent and dropped to the floor. Nothing here but a large desk phone and a large filing cabinet.
Working silently, she scanned through the documents in the filing cabinet, commiting them to memory. If somethigng happened it wouldn't hurt to have a fallback of blackmail.
Twice a guard passed the room, after the second time, she phased through the door, following silently after him. with all the noise he was making it was easy to follow him as he passed through the halls. in time, he brought her to where she wanted to go.
The guard room had banks of televisions showing the prisoners in different cells throughout the compound she took careful note of the positions of several of the cameras. If dom was here, it'd be easiest to take him out where the cameras wouldn't see him.
Time to go...
She slipped up the wall and onto the ceiling. Her prehensile feet easily grabbed the wiring and pipes that ran along the hallway. She slipped along upside down, "peeking" into each cell but none of the occupants matched Dom's medical profile, nor pheremonal reigstry. unless the Koreans were so skillful as to be able to change someones scent, Dom wasn't here.
Mission objective 1.) Locate target Dominic Jackson aka:Stalking Shadow Status= Failed
"Crap, that about covers it." thought Mikoto.
"Grace, no luck, he's not here."
07-14-2006, 06:20 PM
"Grace, no luck, he's not here," Mikoto's voice came over the comm bead. She sounded so far away. Grace's heart sank. "Wh-what?"
"He's not here," Mikoto repeated. I'm coming back to your location. Stay there; we'll get you back to your hotel."
Grace couldn't think straight. How could he not be here? This was the last place on the list. He had to be here. Unless... unless he really was dead. She let that thought sink in for a few moments. She leaned back against a tree and closed her eyes, letting the tears spill over her cheeks.
Mikoto shimmered into view, "Oh dear; Alumette...Grace..." she said. Despite the amazing technology of the battlecomp, and the action she'd seen in the field, Mikoto was still a thirteen-year-old girl. It scared her a little to see Alumette so fragile. "We'll--we'll get you back to your hotel. Come on," she said tentatively. After a pause, she added, "We can try another investigative tack tomorrow. I saw some recent tire tracks near the entrance of the place; looks like they came from a troop transport or a bus or something. Maybe they're moving prisoners." Mikoto knew it was a longshot but she had to say something to encourage Grace. Plus, aside from standing at an arms booth and smiling and nodding all day, what did "Genevieve DuPont" really have to do with her time? Tracking a North Korean troop transport was as good a mission as any.
"Let's get you some sleep." Grace wiped her eyes and nodded, getting to her feet, grabbing onto the handles on Mikoto's frame. "I'll take you back, and keep an eye on you while you sleep, okay? We'll tackle this tomorrow." Grace nodded mechanically, numb.
Trevor Dalton sipped his martini. "So, any luck, Mademoiselle DuPont?" he asked when they were in the hotel bar. "Did you get that big contract you were hoping for?"
She looked exhausted. "No, not yet. It seems it might already be too late," she said, fiddling with the olive in her glass. "I think my potential client might have...moved on," her voice cracked a little. Dalton ignored it.
"Well, they do that sometimes, just to keep you on your toes. But they often don't move too far," he smiled.
Grace looked up at him, "You mean there's still a chance?"
"Trust me, as long as I've been in this business, I know what I'm talking about. There's definitely still a chance. They generally let you know in no uncertain terms when the contract is off. So the way I see it, if you haven't gotten a definitive 'no,' by now, there are pretty good odds there's still a 'yes' out there somewhere." Grace brightened a little. "I'd suggest you follow your gut on this one, Mademoiselle DuPont."
"Merci, Monsieur Dalton," she said with a gentle smile.
It was late afternoon. Grace was wandering around the shops in the Kaesong Industrial Region, "buying souvenirs" to maintain appearances for her cover. She stood outside a souvenir shop whose cheap goods spilled out onto the sidewalk: racks of postcards, t-shirts, keychains... none of them terribly well-made, even as souvenirs went, all of them made in China. She browsed through the rack of t-shirts idly, wondering how Mikoto's investigation of the tire tracks went.
"Please, miss..." a small voice nearby said, in a language she could not understand. She turned to see a small child, no more than 10, all elbows and ribs, with his hands held out in supplication. Her heart broke. He was sickly, and obviously starving. She knelt down to speak with him, putting a gentle hand to his cheek. "Comment tu t'appelles?" What's your name? she asked, knowing full-well he wouldn't understand her.
"Please, miss..." he repeated again in Korean, holding his hands out to her. She smiled and took his hand, leading him to a small noodle stand on the corner. His eyes grew wide and eager. He looked up at Alumette, almost not believing she was real. The stand worker handed Alumette two steaming cups of noodles in broth. Each had just a few shreds of meat, and cost a relative fortune. Grace paid for them and handed them both to the boy, closing her eyes and whispering a small prayer in Old Provencal as she did so:
Goddess bless this food. May this child receive its nourishment in body, mind, and spirit; and in so doing receive also your love and protection.
He took the cups greedily, looking up at her oddly as she prayed, rapidly slurping down the noodles and broth. She sat down on the curb next to him. She knew there was nothing more she could do for this boy, or the millions like him in this country. The goddess was needed badly here. Grace felt hopeless and frustrated.
A commotion down the road caught their attention. Grace turned to see a military convoy making its way through the street. People scattered, clearing the way for the two jeeps and a moderately-sized rumbling diesel truck. Soldiers positioned in the jeeps and on the sides of the truck looked menacing, their weapons held low, but not unready. The boy's eyes grew wide as they approached. He slurped down his second cup of noodles, almost choking, and pitched the cup into the street. "Thank you," he said in Korean, and kissed Alumette's cheek with a smile before running off.
Grace got to her feet, squinting in the sunlight as the convoy approached, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. A breeze picked up, catching her hair. She tucked a few strands behind her ear and watched as the trucks slowly passed. The soldiers looked at her as they swept the crowd with hawklike eyes. The wind picked up a corner of the canvas flap over the diesel truck bed, and Grace peered inside, her gaze landing squarely on a pair of steely grey eyes. Her heart caught in her throat.
His eyes flickered with a moment's light of recognition as the truck rolled slowly by. Grace took a few steps forward, her gaze never leaving his. "I love you," she mouthed. A soldier inside the truck reached over and tied down the flap, and the truck rolled on.
Grace was shaking with fear and joy. She ducked down a sidestreet, "Mikoto, he's alive. I found him. I saw him. He's alive!"
PARAGON CITY, THE NEXT DAY
Chain Lightning sat in the common area at the Defenders HQ, sifting through some files on his current case. He had the secure comm channel up and running, in the event of emergency. Since Grace had been gone, he'd checked the channel daily; usually every hour or more. So far, so good.
Given the information she'd left with him, she should be home in a few days, hopefully with good news. He scanned his yellow notepad, going over his notes from the most recent Defenders meeting: the security protocols for use of the network had been upgraded, several of the heroes had been working on some difficult Crey assignments and were sharing intel, and they were switching coffee vendors. Aaron tapped his pencil against the notepad, edgy. In addition to his meeting notes, which were minimalist, the margins of the page were filled with doodles; most of them spelling out the name Grace. Aaron stared at the doodles for a moment, then tore off the page and crumpled it into a tight ball, pitching it into the trash can across the room.
<blip * blip * blip> The secure comm channel was receiving a signal, on the frequency that he'd given Grace before her departure. Aaron quickly moused over it to receive the hail, but it had stopped before he could establish contact. The channel was no longer picking up her frequency.
"Ms. Courbier, you're lucky we were able to get you out of there when we did," Senator Filburton looked at her sternly. "As it is, this creates a PR nightmare for the State Department. Fortunately, the North Korean government can't conclusively confirm it was you, but it's going to be dicey for a while."
"Yes sir," Grace nodded. "I appreciate all you've done for me. For us," she said smiling, looking at her engagement ring. The senator put a hand on her shoulder. "Of course, Ms. Courbier. I wish there were more I could do."
"Is there any hope of trying to get him out? I know where they're keeping him. They moved him to--"
The senator shook his head, cutting her off. "I know where they're keeping him too, Ms. Courbier. Our whole extraction team knows. At this point it's too risky. I don't know that there's much more we can do. I mean, you were caught snooping outside a maximum-security military prison, Ms. Courbier, miles outside of where 'Genevieve DuPont' was supposed to be. Even sticking to your cover, it's going to be difficult for us to convince them. The French government is working on it on our behalf, but even so, you're lucky to still be alive."
"Senator Filburton?" his secretary said, peering in through the half-open door. "Representative Mullins is here to see you." The Senator nodded, and began to walk Grace out. "I'll be in touch, Ms. Courbier," he said. "In the meantime, keep fighting the good fight."
"I think that's the last of them," Alumette said, activating the teleportation devices on the Malta operatives that lay groaning at her feet.
"Nice work, sister," Corner Stone grinned. "Good to have you back."
07-16-2006, 04:29 AM
Corner Stone looks up from his coffee and moves the chew in his lip around. He spits into an empty paper cup next to his cup of joe. Alumette looks at Corner Stone, Torrance to her, and then to the looks he is receiving from the other inhabitants of the coffee shop. She chuckles to herself thinking, “If these people only knew, they would not fear him.”
Torrance speaks up, “alright sister here is the gig, as I see it. This isn’t no job fer any of yer chums that ain’t ready for blood-shed. This is gonna be a military action, not partollin’ the streets and wearin’ tights.”
Alumette looks pained for a brief moment than steels her face… “ok, I am going to make the final call on the tactics we use Torrance, but how would you do this job?
Torrance smiles “ I hear ya and agree, I am willin’ to offer up options, but I ain’t goin into no death trap. I have lost troops under my command, I ain’t gonna loose no more cause of a bad plan. This ain’t Paragon, there will be killin’. North Korea plays hardball always have, and likely gonna have a few down-low Chinese tryin’ to make sure things go real bad fer us. We ain’t gonna be in a place that has the same world view as us, our rules are out the door. I got a couple of options dependin’ on what yer intel source comes up with. What was that cat’s name.. Gravity-pull.. Dead weight err something like that.”
Alumette smiles “Gravity Law, Torrance, that was his name.” She grimaces as she thinks back to her experience with chewing tobacco, as Corner Stone spits into a cup and looks up, “ahh ya that’s right, Gravity Law.”
“Ok sister I think we come up with a couple of plans and contingency plans, you get me yer points ya ain’t compromising’ on, and we’ll see how things fit. Also, I need details about who we are bringin.”
Alumntte nods “yes that sounds good Torrance, I know you are experienced with this kind of thing, but I have some moral obligations to uphold. I think we can do both, but this is something I will have to think about.”
Torrance replies, “ I hear ya sister, and I agree. The less bloodshed the better, but hell this ain’t gonna be no cake walk.”
Alumette is assaulted briefly with images form the mind of the man sitting across from her. Ghastly images of war. For a moment she allows herself to drift and think, “no one should carry these things inside them,” she quickly refocuses and says, “We will get this done Torrance, now lets talk options.”
Corner Stone takes a drink of coffee through a mouthful of chew, “ya now we are talking sister, no man left behind.”
Alumette smiles, “ the government will not take well to this you understand that right, but this needs doing?” She thinks to herself, “if the government thinks they have their hands full with the recent North Korea missile testing, wait till they get a load of this!”
07-16-2006, 04:52 PM
She had called him early that morning and asked if he’d meet her at Samantha’s coffee shop which was just down the corner from his apartment. They had been there for about ten minutes, sipping coffee and making small talk. He set his coffee down. “Grace, come on, spill. I gave you a couple days once you were back from North Korea to have some privacy. But I assume you calling me this morning means you’re ready to tell me what happened.” Grace looked down at her coffee cradling the cup in both her hands. Her grin faded from her face. “He’s alive, Aaron. I saw him.” She said, lifting her eyes back up from her coffee cup.
“But something’s not right, I’m assuming?” he asked. She let out a heavy sigh as she quickly relayed to Aaron all the prisoner camps she infiltrated, the final encounter where she almost got caught and Mikoto’s arrival in time to help. The Korean market where she saw Dom in the back of the truck, and finally her eventual capture and release.
“Did he see you?” Aaron asked. She looked up at him. “I’m positive he did. His face didn’t change, he didn’t react physically, but I could tell by his eyes, he saw me.” She looked away at the boats moored to the docks.
“Grace, from what you’ve told me, you do realize this thing is a lot bigger then just what Dom was investigating, right?” She looked back at him. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Come on, the State Department got involved to yank you out? One lone heroine acting on her own? Even Dawn Patrol told you were on you own when you took off.” Aaron shook his head. “I don’t buy it. You and Dom are getting too close to something bigger than just what he was there for.” He said and Grace put her face in her hands. “Of course, nothing with Dom and I could ever be easy, could it? “
“So now what?” She looked around the area, then leaned over to get closer to Aaron’s ear. “I’ve been talking to Corner Stone. You met him once, he’s former military.” Aaron just nodded as she spoke. “I can’t get into specifics yet.”
He held up his hand. “Just tell me when you need me. I’m on board.”
07-18-2006, 12:40 AM
A FEW DAYS FOLLOWING GRACE'S RETURN TO PARAGON
"You're not certain it's her?" Yahn asked in his darkened office. The lone lamp on his desk cast a harsh glow across its surface, illuminating his features sharply, and little else. He seemed perturbed.
"It's hard to tell," the agent on the other line said. "The cameras picked up someone about her build, but the resolution is poor. She had some sort of stealth device activated--we only saw her on infrared. She also didn't seem to be working alone. Our sensors picked up quite a bit of electronics around her, but nothing that can be confirmed."
"So you've mentioned," Yahn said dryly.
"What we do know is that 'Genevieve DuPont' was called home early from the conference for a 'family emergency.' The French government is reticent about her current whereabouts. But she received the message from hotel staff mere hours after the alarms were activated at the prison."
"Does Ms. Courbier have an alibi?" Yahn asked, "For the time period coinciding with this arms conference?"
"The State Department isn't very forthcoming, and Paragon City Hall is claiming she was on an investigative mission in deep cover. They're hiding behind national security."
"Which wouldn't exactly be a lie if it was her," Yahn concluded.
"No, it wouldn't. But there's very little we can do at this point. I have my field agents on high alert for anyone matching Ms. Courbier's description, and she's been added to our security staff's vigilance lists."
"Does he know?"
"Good. Keep it that way. And increase the pressure. We have to find out how much he knows. I'll be in touch, Wing."
TUMEN DETENTION FACILITY
NORTH KOREAN/RUSSIAN BORDER
MAXIMUM SECURITY WING
Dominic paced around his cell, his expression cold and impassive as the stone walls that surrounded him. But inside, his heart was swelling with hope. She was here. She had come for him. His mind skimmed along the possibilities, wheels in motion, going over plans and contingencies as he used to; parts of his mind creaking back to use after being sublimated by the base survival instinct that had taken over from the first moment of his capture. He had to help her rescue him somehow, using the only weapon he had available to him: information.
The door opened, throwing a sickly purple-green light across his cell. A Chinese guard grabbed him, "General Wing wishes to see you now," he said flatly, leading him down the hallway. Dominic took care, in his new digs, to count the doorways between his cell and the interrogation room; to notice the spacing and condition of the lightbulbs that illuminated the hallway, any markings on cell doors...anything that could be of use in the eventuality of his escape.
The guard shoved him into a room roughly. General Wing was waiting.
"Welcome to your new home, Mr. Jackson," he said matter-of-factly.
"Can I get a wakeup call at nine?" Dominic replied sarcastically.
"Very funny, Jackson. You'll get a wakeup call any time our mission calls for you to be awake. Now... aside from other such 'useful' information as the number of the apartment you used to occupy in Steel Canyon, what else do you have for us?" Wing cracked his knuckles, making it clear what the price of noncooperation would be.
"That wasn't useful information? I thought you were checking real estate in Paragon. You know me, Wing; I'm all about customer service."
"Quit wasting my time, Jackson. Vitriol. What do you know?"
"I told you. It's a chemical compound designed to..."
>CRACK!< Wing clocked him in the jaw. "I know what it does, Jackson. You're here because you know more than that. That's what I want you to tell me."
Dominic's eyes were as cold and unfeeling as ever. "Say please," he said sarcastically. His sense of humor earned him another powerful strike to the eye.
"We gotta keep doing this same song and dance? Aren't you at least going to buy me dinner first?" Dom asked. He was egging Wing on, moreso than usual, but his plan depended on Wing thinking he'd actually broken the Stalking Shadow. It was going to hurt like hell, but Dom was starting to get used to it.
And besides, she had come for him.
Wing summoned a guard. "Take him to his cell," he said. "Do what you can with his wounds. Pity there's no infirmary here. We'll have to wait a few days before we can question him further." The guard acquiesced with a salute and dragged the barely conscious Shadow back down the hallway to his cell. The beating hurt, badly, but Wing's last words, about the lack of infirmary, were music to his ears. It was going to make his next contingency even easier...as soon as he'd regained his strength.
Meanwhile, Wing called in Captain Zhang. "The bastard finally talked. He's got all of his notes on the product at his apartment of all places; in a secure room. He even gave us the access code." Wing grinned. "Get a team together."
"Yes sir," Zhang saluted.
Grace sipped her coffee and perused the publications on the table at the cafe. The Paragon Times, WorldWeek, and The Crusader all competed for her readership with splashy headlines. The Crusader was particularly ridiculous this week, complete with an unflattering photo of Alumette and Corner Stone:
ALUMETTE'S TRAGIC BREAKDOWN!
Although the memory of her deceased fiance, Stalking Shadow, is still fresh in the hearts of most of Paragon, Alumette has moved on. First seen carousing with electric speedster Chain Lightning, and now carrying on with the ex-military enfant terrible, Corner Stone. Stone has been criticized in the press for his excessive use of force in the field (a similarity he shares with Alumette's former beau, it's worth noting). Is she headed for disaster?
Grace rolled her eyes and turned the paper over, revealing an iPod print ad depicting a former fellow Dawn Patroller, Dark Master. She boggled. He must be bored out of his mind with retirement she thought. It gave her an idea. A barely-legal extraction behind enemy lines would be right up his alley. She pulled out her cell phone and gave Dark Master a call, waving to Alex King as he walked in.
"It's Alumette...yes, that one," she sighed. "No, I haven't been 'carrying on,' it's just what the papers--" she sighed. "Look, I need your help. Can you meet me at Samantha's in Founders Falls? I imagine retirement is starting to get a little boring for you, and this might--
"Yes, it's an assignment...
"Your son, actually. Yes, your son--Major Britain. He's the one who suggested I call you with this...I don't know why he never calls, Roland, maybe you should ask him..." she sighed again. "So will I see you at Samantha's in a half hour?"
She finished her conversation, hung up her phone and gave Alex a kiss on each cheek. "Glad you could make it," she said. "My trip was...interesting." She tapped her forehead to indicate her wish to speak with him mentally. The fewer people who knew about this, the better.
07-20-2006, 05:35 PM
*What do you mean you did'nt...*, Alex finally cut himself off. It was an unfortunate fact that he tended to.. overwhelm when he shouted mentally, as opposed to his otherwise low volume when speaking physically. *I'm sorry, dear... were you just not able to locate him?*
Alex listened for what seemed liek forever...and with each word, his frustration grew. It seemed Grace and Jackson were never going to get reunited at this rate. Finally, he could'nt hold back his next question.
*Fine.... so when do we go back in.*
Grace's look told him he probably should have segued into that a bit smoother.... but he was'nt really feeling the whole smooth vibe at the moment.
*Listen, you... if I have to spend one more week with you pining over your one true love, destined by fate, I'm going to strip down and live naked amongst the lake monsters. Obviously, the only way I'll ever hear the end of this is to go with you this time and make sure it gets finished once and for all.*
Reclining back, he waited
07-21-2006, 04:01 AM
Roland St. Martin set the phone down after finishing with Alumette.
He thought to himself, "So the boy recommended me to Grace did he? This assignment has got to be on somewhat shaky legal grounds or he'd have gone himself. High degree of physical danger, necessary to have someone combat trained with regenerative powers. My guess is She's found something about Dominic. Jason might not call me often but I still know what he's thinking........"
The ad was an interesting experience although he didn't really need the money. Roland smiled inwardly, "At least I can bloody well get some action in now. Dark Master shall fight one more time! By the way, I really should give the boy a call, I hear he's re-upped with the Dawn Patrol under it's new leadership"
He went to his computer and prepaid all of his bills for the next 90 days. Roland then gathered a duffel back and quickly stuffed it. he only has a few minutes left to get to Samantha's.
07-24-2006, 08:17 PM
PARAGON CITY--POCKET D--A PRIVATE VIP ROOM, FOLLOWING THE OFFICIAL DAWN PATROL MEETING AT HQ EARLIER THAT DAY
TWO WEEKS FOLLOWING ALUMETTE'S RETURN FROM NORTH KOREA
The assembled Dawn Patrol listened to Grace's report, stunned. As she shared the information surrounding his capture, it became clear why this discussion had to happen unofficially. Major Britain and Endless One, the new Field Commander for Dawn Patrol Paragon, had made it absolutely clear the UK HQ was washing their hands of the whole issue. Leftenant Dominic Jackson, aka Stalking Shadow, was killed in action, according to their records, and they were determined to keep it that way.
The supergroup had mixed feelings about what to do, which was to be expected. Grace saw it as an opportunity to see peoples' true colors; to find out who could be counted on to handle the extraction, and who couldn't. She was glad Corner Stone was there. His military experience would be helpful in corroborating her gut feelings about the roster; a rational, experienced balancing point to her tendency to make decisions based on feeling. As the members of the patroll discussed the situation, Grace made mental notes and started to formulate a team in her mind.
So far it seemed that Corner Stone and Chain Lightning were the two outside of the Patrol that she could most count on for the extraction team. Within the Patrol, it was looking like Mikoto, Leehouse, Whirlwind Gale, Dark Master, Alex King, and Green Valkyrie were fully on board. Betrayed's reaction gave her pause, and she could tell by Corner Stone's reaction to him that he was uncomfortable with Betrayed being on the team as well, but Grace wanted to keep him in mind at least for a while longer before completely ruling him out. His skills could be useful. In all it was shaping up to be a good extraction team.
Stateside, Endless One and the Major would help in any way they could; mostly trying to obfuscate things for DP-UK. It was a great personal and professional risk to them to do so, a fact for which Grace was already more grateful than she could possibly express. It was clear that Endless One, Shan, was conflicted about having to stay behind. Grace knew that Dominic was Shan's best friend, practically, after Jason. It was Dom that had brought Shan to Dawn Patrol, helped her through some pretty scary stuff, and been a friend to her when she felt most alone. Shan was having to choose duty over her desire to go to North Korea with the team, and Grace could tell it was difficult for her.
"Stone and I will put together a plan, and you will all be briefed," Grace said finally. She had no idea where to even start for such a plan, but at least she had a timeframe, thanks to the intervention of a fellow hero...
ONE WEEK PRIOR
"Well, what else do you have?" Grace asked over the team comm. She was patrolling with Chain Lightning, and they were between assignments. The last thing she wanted to do was deal with more Malta operatives. She was hoping he'd have something else--anything else--to avoid another round of..
Ms. Courbier? a strange voice cut into her comm on her private channel.
"Yes? Who is this?"
"A colleague. I have information about your fiance."
She stopped in mid-air. "I'm sorry? Who is this?"
"Meet me in Atlas Park. Near the Skyway gate." And just like that, the channel closed.
"Aaron," she said. "We have to go to Atlas."
"Oh come on, Grace, it's just one more Malta assignment. You know City Hall isn't going to accept a heroine of your clearance stopping purse-snatchings as legitimate. You really hate fighting them that much?"
"Aaron, someone contacted me about Dom. We have to--"
"See you in Atlas," Chain Lightning replied before she could even finish.
ATLAS PARK, NEAR THE SKYWAY GATE
"They will be moving him in two weeks," he said. "To this location." He handed her a small slip of paper with some coordinates. Grace recognized them as the third facility she had checked out on her trip.
"Moving him? But how come?"
"I don't know," the hero replied. "It is not my concern. I am part of an interstellar peacekeeping force and we are tracking an intergalactic criminal. Our leads brought us to North Korea. During our investigation we picked up some intelligence on your fiance. Consider it a professional courtesy, nothing more."
Grace simply stared at the hero, not knowing what to think. "I know it must seem odd," he said. "I have no interest in your fiance's well-being. I simply had information that I thought would be of use to you. You may do with it what you wish."
Grace looked at Aaron, who was keeping a protective eye on her. "How do we know we can trust you?" he asked the newcomer.
"You don't. Except that I have no interest in whether your situation succeeds or fails. I have my own assignments to worry about. The information is yours to use or discard as you like."
"Who are you?" Aaron asked, perturbed.
"I am Gravity-Storm," he replied. "Good luck to you, Ms. Courbier. Farewell."
And he was gone.
Aaron looked at her, "Grace, I don't like it."
"I don't either, Aaron. But it's something. Crimsonstar might know of his group. We can check this guy out." She pulled out her cell phone to see if he was in. If nothing else, they had the possibility of a window of opportunity, which was more than they had before.
TUMEN DETENTION FACILITY
NORTH KOREAN/RUSSIAN BORDER
MAXIMUM SECURITY WING
THREE DAYS FOLLOWING GRACE'S RETURN TO PARAGON CITY
BRIEFING ROOM: TUMEN DETENTION FACILITY GUARD HOUSE
Captain Zhang stood in the briefing room before the small strike team he had hand-selected for his assignment.
"As you know, he has found out about the substance. We don't know how much he knows, or who else he's told. Under interrogation, he admitted to having extensive notes from his investigation. He is keeping them in the so-called 'panic room' of his apartment in Founders Falls, Paragon City. His fiancee is a registered heroine, but will be absent for most of the day on patrols." A slide of Alumette's registration photo, from her Dawn Patrol dossier, appeared on the screen behind him. "You will find notes detailing her powers and combat MO in your briefing packets, should we encounter her, but it is unlikely. Our mission is to infiltrate the apartment," and here the slide changed to a floor plan of the Jackson/Courbier residence, "obtain the files, and evac. It should be simple. Jackson has given us the access codes to the panic room and has detailed the location of the file."
TUMEN DETENTION FACILITY INTERROGATION ROOM
"So you have extensive notes, Jackson. With whom have you shared them?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?"
Wing leaned across the table. "I would. And I want you to tell me."
"Oh well in that case...no."
"Who else knows, Jackson. The sooner you tell me, the easier this will be."
Dominic just stared at him, saying nothing.
TUMEN DETENTION FACILITY--GENERAL WING'S OFFICE
FIVE DAYS FOLLOWING GRACE'S RETURN TO PARAGON
"Sir, he's still not eating," the cadet said. Wing glowered.
"What do you mean, he's not eating?"
"He's refusing to eat. The past few days his food trays have been untouched."
Wing steepled his fingers, considering. Jackson had already lost quite a bit of weight since his incarceration. Ceasing to eat altogether meant he might not last long enough to tell them how much he knew about Vitriol. For all Wing knew, Dawn Patrol was already mobilizing against the drug, which would not make his employers happy. Still, he had little negotiation room. The lack of an infirmary at this facility would make it difficult to keep Jackson alive enough to talk, if it came to that point; and he knew Jackson's MO enough to know that it may very well get to that point.
"Dismissed, soldier," Wing said gruffly, picking up the phone. He dialed the number to Dawn Patrol-UK, entering the code for Meursault's encrypted direct line. "Meursault? It's Wing. I'll need to move him again."
PARAGON CITY--POCKET D
ONE WEEK FOLLOWING ALUMETTE'S RETURN FROM NORTH KOREA
"Excuse me, Misaki Katsuma?" Grace asked, approaching a slender, petite Japanese woman with a distinctive tattoo below her right eye. The woman regarded her coolly. "Yes. What can I do for you?" It was clear that Alumette rarely ventured to the "red side" of the club.
"My name is--"
"Alumette," Misaki replied. "You are known."
Grace stammered. "Yes, well, I'm in need of assistance. I need information."
"I see. What sort?"
"Do you do work in North Korea?"
"I can." She reached into her pocket and pulled out an elegant business card case, procuring a card and handing it to Alumette. "This card contains a chip which communicates with an account number. Deposit half a million dollars to that account, and tell me what you need. This will cover expenses for my network while we seek your information."
Grace bristled. Half a million dollars was a lot of money, and she already had a great deal of intel on the situation. That had to have been worth something, at least. After some quibbling, where it was made clear that Grace was out of her element, she finally pulled out her PDA and made a funds transfer. "Fine. You have one million. Find me everything you know about General Wing. I want it in one week. I'll have my data to you in a few days."
07-25-2006, 05:39 PM
((Originally posted by Steelshot at the Dawn Patrol forum))
KINGS ROW, 5:45pm
The door to the apartment swung open silently. Steelshot was often in the habit of leaving the blinds drawn--not so much out of a need for secrecy, but because he rarely knew what his schedule was going to be, and the cool darkness of the apartment gave him a sense of completeness, of rest. Today had been a day of a different sort of heroics; he had spent much of his time getting to know several of the kids that he would be teaching at his new position at the Courbier Center in Kings Row. Some of them took to him right away--his tattooed arms gave him a sort of street cred, despite the fact that they had an entirely different meaning. Others, who had been rolemodels enter and leave their lives too often and too quickly, have been more hesitant. Steelshot didn't try to force these kids to like him... instead, he focused on making himself present, so that when they were ready to approach him, they had an opportunity to do so.
He took a deep breath. Much as he would like to sleep, he had no time for that. Coming home was a brief intermission before his second job begins. Just a quick snack, the opportunity to grab a few more supplies, and then...
"Good evening, Steelshot."
The voice startled him. Without thinking, his bow was in his hand, one of his net arrows notched and ready to fly. With his foot, he nudged the door closed; with his elbow, he hit the lightswitch. The sight before him nearly caused him to drop his bow to the floor.
"My god! Li!" he exclaimed. "What are you doi--"
"Please," the man seated before him interrupted. "I have done you the honor of using your chosen name, I request you do the same. I am known as Rising Moon now."
Unnotching the arrow, Steelshot's eyes narrowed slightly. "Not here to visit an old friend, I suppose?"
Rising Moon shook his head. In the dim light of the apartment, he was still nearly an indigo shadow. His eyes were tired, and he looked as if he has had little sleep for some time. "I am here to discuss something that is very important. I need you to listen, and I need you to help."
There was something in the tone of his voice that continued to set off alarm bells in Steelshot's mind. Still, he was an old friend. "What can I do for you, Rising Moon?" The use of the name sounded mechanical and forced.
Rising Moon leaned forward. "Since the fall of our master many of us have had to find alternative methods of livelihood. We are all not as lucky as you, my friend. The relationship between China and the United States is not what it could be; you are the only one who is legally allowed to be here."
Steelshot grimaced. The fact that he was American never sat well with others at the Temple. "Your point is?"
"Some, as you know, returned to their previous lives as students, shopkeepers, merchants. Others disappeared. And a few of us have refused to let our training go unused. So we have found work where we could."
Steelshot frowned. "You've become mercenaries."
"Do not judge us," the tone is sharp. "I have not worked for so long simply to let my skills atrophy! And yet, I am still human. I must still eat." Rising Moon's tone shifted, became calmer, quieter. "As I was saying, some of us have found work in other places."
"What does this have to do with me?"
"You work for the Courbier Center, do you not?"
Rising Moon nodded. "The leader of this organization--this, Alumette--has been much in the news of late."
Now it was Steelshot's tone that became sharp. "She's a philanthropist. She does a lot of good for a lot of people."
"Indeed." Rising Moon stepped to the closed window. "She also has--what is the English phrase?--a great many irons in the fire. One of those irons has the potential to burn her quite severely."
Steelshot gripped the bow more tightly. "Go on."
"Miss Alumette seems to have a great interest in a certain project in North Korea. As it happens, it is also a project in which I, and a few others, have been tasked with protecting."
"What does this have to do with me? I hardly know Alumette."
"You know her well enough. There are a stories on the street of how she has helped you in your crime fighting ambitions."
The anger was hard to keep under control. "She offered to help. She's a part of the Dawn Patrol! You don't say no to that kind of assistance. Besides," Steelshot's voice gets quieter. "She's kind. She's been a friend, when I've known no one in this city."
"Then this will be very easy," Rising Moon stepped closer to Steelshot. As he approached, Steelshot knew in his heart that the man before him was not the man he was friends with at the Temple. "Do your new friend a favor. Encourage her to stay away from North Korea. There will be... consequences if she does not comply."
"I don't take orders from you. Nor does she take orders from anyone. At least, not that I've seen."
"Orders? I do not order you, little brother." Rising Moon pulled up the blinds and opened the window. "I am simply making a recommendation to a friend. I am thinking of your own best interests. Just as you should be thinking of Alumette's."
Rising Moon stepped on the windowsill, and looked down at the street below. He then glanced back at Steelshot. "Remember, Steelshot. She must forget about North Korea. Otherwise..."
Steelshot had already notched the arrow again. The sarcasm was hard to hide from his voice. "Yes? Otherwise?"
The voice he heard was cold--far colder than he has heard in a long time. "Otherwise... there will be pain."
And then he was gone, leaving Steelshot in his sparse apartment. Alone, save for a whirlwind of thoughts.
07-26-2006, 05:22 PM
It was rare days when Crimsonstar did not have a heavy case load of assignments from the city. Today was one of those rare days. When he did have these occasions he found that just flying over the city or standing on the ledge of some building to look out over it, was a simple joy. He sometimes was even lucky enough to be free in the evening to fly high in the sky, admiring the stars away from the intruding glare of the city lights beneath. He was taking a nice leisurely flight around the area of Founders Falls, exploring the new district that had recently become his home. He flew low over the docks, waving to the people out along the sidewalk, or preparing to take their boats out for some leisure of their own. At a quaint coffee shop on the corner he noticed the hero Chain Lightning that he had heard both Alumette and Corner Stone mention before. He appeared to be having a light hearted conversation with a young woman, the two of them laughing as they leaned against the wall out front of the cafe. His cell phone rang as he lifted up higher into the sky.
“Hello?” he said.
“Marsius, it’s Grace. Can you meet me somewhere? I want to pick your brain if I can?”
He almost asked her what pick his brain meant until he remembered it was a saying used on Earth to mean that the person using it wanted to talk about an area they felt someone else had knowledge of. “Of course Grace, send your coordinates to me and I shall meet you there.”
He flew into the Pocket D, activating the matter transmuter on his gauntlets as he entered. The transmuter would replace his uniform with clothing more suited to traditional casual street wear. Upstairs he found Grace studying the song selection in the jukebox of one of the small lounges that was separate from the huge dance floor and DJ area of the main floor. He walked up to her and placed his hand on her shoulder. “Hey, what’s a pretty woman like you doing in a place like this?” he asked her. Grace turned around to him.
“What in the world, Marsius?” She asked, her brow slightly creasing. He dropped his hand from her shoulder. “Did I say it wrong? I’ve heard others use it to initiate conversation here before.”
Grace grinned. “No you said it right, only, Marsius that’s a pick up line, and an old one at that. I feel sorry for whatever man is actually still using it.” She leaned up and gave him a quick hug. “Marsius, I need to know if you’ve heard of a group called the Orion Sentinels.” She said. He crossed his arms and his eyebrow arched up in surprise. “You know of the Orion Sentinels?”
“I thought your ship was stored in a warehouse in the Rikti crash zone?” she said as they entered the containment room at Portal Corps.
“It was, but Portal Corps and I are working on a project that necessitated that I bring it here.” He said and opened the ship’s hatch letting her go in first. He indicated her to take a seat as he pulled up files on his ship’s computer.
“The Orion Sentinels, you said.”
“Yes, I met a man yesterday in Atlas Park who said he was with them, Gravity-Storm he said his name was.” Grace told him. Marsius looked up at her quickly. “Here? In Atlas?”
“Yes, why?” He sat back and picked up one of the synthesized food items his ship’s matter transmuter produced for him. He had referred to them as a kind of ‘protein fruit’ and Grace hated them. She took it from him and tossed it aside. “You know I detest those things. I’ll make you dinner later if you’re hungry, but please don’t eat those things around me.” He laughed and instructed the computer to display the information in holographic form for her.
“The Orion Sentinels are a universal police force. They seek out and detain various dangerous criminals that have not only broken the laws of their home systems, but have compounded it by fleeing across various star systems.”
“So they’re like your Star Brigade?”
“No, much bigger. The Star Brigade concerns itself primarily with the protection of the known worlds of the Andromeda galaxy and with exploration of those planets there still foreign to us. The Orion Sentinels are truly universal. They take their members from the populace of all the known galaxies they consider under their protection. I believe they have even enlisted from my own galaxy.”
“So you’ve met them?”
“Oh no Grace. No one meets a member of the Orion Sentinels unless they have been sought by them. And then if you are, you are most assuredly a criminal. The Orion Sentinels work in secret. There are rumors aplenty about their organization, everything from how long they have been around, to how many of them they actually are.”
“Then you can’t confirm they exist?”
He shook his head. “No, they do exist. There have been rare instances when they have had to make their presence known in order to apprehend a fugitive, but to do so is almost a violation of their own protocol. There is recorded visual evidence of them, so we know they do indeed exist. I’m more curious why one would contact you.”
“He said he was here pursuing a fugitive, just like you mentioned, but that in his investigation he obtained information on Dom’s whereabouts. Marsius, he gave an exact location for him, but also said there isn’t much time, that he’s going to be moved again, and soon.”
“And he came to tell you this out of a willingness to help?”
“That’s the funny thing, he seemed to not really care if I knew one way or another. I got the impression from him that he was merely taking care of his own agenda and relating what he’d discovered to me was almost like an afterthought.”
“Yes, that would fit their pattern. They tend to not concern themselves with events taking place on whatever planet their work takes them. I would even so far to say that this Gravity-Storm probably even broke with his approved agenda to tell you what he did.”
“Okay then all I want to know is, is his information good?”
Marsius stood up, deactivating the computer. “Grace, The Orion Sentinels operate covertly and keep many secrets to themselves. In some areas they are even looked up with fear, but one thing everyone agrees on, they are extremely thorough with their investigations. If a member of theirs tells you he knows where Dom is being held, then that is where he is to be found.”
Aaron and Samantha were hanging out around the front of her coffee shop. It was midday and the desire for coffee had waned in many of the city’s residents, so she wasn’t busy, and it was always good to just enjoy the sun and breeze from the dock outside.
“I had to have Neal help me with the shipment, and let me tell you, he’s not anywhere near as fast as you.” Samantha said.
“I know, I’m sorry about that. I hadn’t planned on being made a house guest when I went it for the initial testing. I hope you weren’t here all night.”
“Hey I had lots of experience with processing my supplies long before you showed up with your ‘talents’ and started hanging out. I managed. Oh, Grace stopped by looking for you a few days ago while you were gone also. She looked pretty worried, too. I hope you got in touch with her.”
He nodded and sighed “Yes I did, and man she let me have holy hell for not having told her to begin with.” His cell phone rang. “Looks like she’s not done either.” Samantha snickered as he pulled out his phone. He looked at the caller ID, it said unknown number.
“No, this is someone else.” He flipped it open. “Hello?”
“Hey Sparky,” came a gruff voice on the other end. “It’s Stone, I got your number from Grace, hope you don’t mind.”
“Corner Stone, no not at all. How are you doing? What’s up buddy?”
“Lissen, I want to talk to you about that little thing we’re doing. You know what I’m referring to? Can you spare me a moment somewheres, I’d rather not discuss it over cell phones, the line ain’t secure.”
“I’ll meet you in Talos, under his huge statue in the lake, should be private enough there.”
“Aight.” He hung up the phone and told Samantha he had to go. “Just don’t stay gone a week this time, okay?” she said and she ran back into her shop.
07-26-2006, 05:51 PM
Alumette started and sidestepped away from the confident feminine voice with a slight Asian accent that simply appeared next to her. Grace was in full dress uniform, headed to a brief meeting with Endless One and a few of the other Dawn Patrol leaders when the Rogue Isles information broker was simply ... there, walking in stride with her towards the abandoned ampitheatre where the renowned supergroup tended to hold impromptu meetings from time to time.
"I think you'll be happy to know that my work on your behalf comes without a body count." Her smile was genuine, but those colorless eyes somehow made Misaki look less than warm. "We went out of our way to avoid anything that might create a conflict for your reputation. Consider it a free bonus."
Alumette's eyes returned to the path as she walked. "Thanks." her response was dry and even a bit sharp. "Do you have something important to say?"
Misaki smirked and continued. "General Wing is taking a paycheck from someone else. The Chinese government has nothing to do with, and in fact has no official knowledge of, his operations in Northern Korea. The same applies to the North Korean government, though I found a few notes in some South Korean and American monitoring transcripts that suggest all the players knew he was doing something, just not what." she pushed her hands into the front pockets of her jeans as she kept pace.
"Whomever is pulling Wing's strings is being very careful. So careful in fact that I can find no evidence whatsoever of their existance by what they've done, only what they haven't done." she met Alumette's skeptical look. "Its like a tombstone rubbing - you rub a crayon over the paper against the lettering on the stone, and the negative space gets colored leaving blank spaces that when looked at from a distance form letters." she explained. "There are gaps in his own financial and travel records that, when linked with what some of his people have said about where he was and what he was doing starts to suggest a third party."
Alumette stopped and looked at her, pondering. Misaki continued. "We've confirmed, beyond question, that none of the Asian governments have anything to do with your fiance's abduction. This..." she pressed a chip into Alumette's hand "should support what I've said and strongly points to a pattern of influence that may extend well beyond him. I might suggest, " she offered, an eyebrow arching over her right eye in contrast to the sweeping tattoo below it. "that you compare these gaps with your other records. This pattern may be more far reaching than you think."
Alumette nodded, lost in thought. "My fees have been deducted from your account." Misaki concluded crisply. "Six hundred thirty thousand of your million remains for your retrieval at your leisure in an offshore account under your name. That information is on the chip as well."
"My thanks, you've done...." Alumette's voice trailed off as she looked up.
Misaki was gone.
07-26-2006, 09:02 PM
As the strange Japanese woman appeared next to Grace, Mikoto felt an internal lurch in her memory system. Her internal vision faded to static and was replaced by chaotic images that flashed by at a speed that even her computer assisted brain couldn't keep up with. For a moment, she went numb inside as her system tried to cope with the stream of images. When she fought her way back to herself from the flood of data, Grace was alone again.
Keeping her concealment up, she slipped up behind Grace.
"Who was that that you were just talking with?"
The face kept throbbing in front of her vision, like an overlay of what she was really seeing.
"Oh, she was just a... contact I had looking for some information... Um.. why do you ask??"
With a rippling motion the face shimmered like a reflection on water.
Mikoto's audio scanners easily picked up the nervousness, that faint trembolo to a voice pattern that usually meant a lie, or at least concealment of truth. "She just looked familiar for some reason. Something I just can't figure... I... I.. don't feel so good...."
Mikoto collapsed on the floor, her limbs twitching as the image of the face grew, than all went black.
07-27-2006, 07:00 PM
It was a cool dawn, and the sun spoke in whispers to the shadows and the dark. A fresh ocean wind, unfamiliar with city living, wandered aimlessly down the streets. Nightclubs were beginning to give way to coffee shops, and those who shunned what day brings reluctantly began to make their way deeper into the alleys, the sewers, the places in which the dark still held court.
Inside Angel's, the mood was quiet, despite the pounding rhythms seeping from the dance floor. Angel's was known for being a last bastion against the coming daybreak; often, it was the mixture of its former patrons with the early commuter foot traffic that gave many of the heroes of Paragon City their morning warm-up. The laser lights still pierced the smoke, and a few tired waitresses made their rounds, eagerly awaiting the second at which they too, could finally go home to rest. The tables were empty, save for one.
The man at this table was more shadow than anything. His attire was a deep indigo that matched the deepest of nights, when even the stars decide it would best to shine elsewhere. His face was invisible, hidden behind a simple mask, at the back of which a simple embordiery depicting a white moon could be discerned. Were you to get a closer look, you would notice that he in fact wore intricately woven robes, presumably Asian in origin, but in colors so deep and dark it would be nearly impossible to determine the pattern. His gloved hands were loosely clapsed; before him sat a cup of tea that had not been touched and had long gone cold.
"Hello, Rising Moon."
The words caused barely a stir. Slowly, Rising Moon lifted his head. "Somehow," he said. "I had a feeling you would be here."
"You did your best to discourage it." The lights from the dance floor flew across them for a moment, illuminating Steelshot. His robes were ripped apart, barely held together by a few threads that had yet to give up the fight. Beneath these remnants, a variety of colorful and, in some ways, disquieting tattoos could be seen. Steelshot himself looked like he had been part of last night's revelries. His eyes were sunken; his demeanor, grim.
Rising Moon shrugged his shoulders. The movement was small, almost imperceptible. "They were sent to deliver a message. Were the intentions otherwise"--and here the soft voice gained a granite edge--"I assure you I would have kept the honor all to myself. In this case, I feared I'd lack the necessary... restraint. Besides, you should thank me. After all--you have learned that you are not yet ready to carry out your objective, have you not?"
The words stung. "Listen, sihing," the words came through gritted teeth. "Just because you failed--"
"Ah, that famous little temper," Rising Moons voice sounded as though he was smiling. "You do not change. That has long since been your problem."
With an effort, Steelshot managed to get his voice under control. "Maybe. But you have always taken the easy way out. And that has long since been your problem."
Now, it was Rising Moon's turn to grow angry. "You have no authority to speak of what is easy, American," he spat. "For years, I have--"
"Save it." Steelshot knew that he had the advantage, at least for the moment. "I didn't come here to discuss our faults. I came here so you can answer a question." He stepped closer. Placing his bow upon the table, he leaned in. "Who put you up to this?"
Rising Moon's voice returned to its softness. He chuckled. "And why, exactly, should I divulge this information?"
Rising Moon's gaze shifted to the table. Although Steelshot had placed his bow there, he still retained hold of it. More than that, he had notched and drawn an arrow, pointing it directly at his chest.
"This is one of the new arrows I've been working on." Steelshot smiled. "It's a combination of gunpowder and a few other interesting chemicals. It should back quite a wallop, though I haven't tested it yet." The smile grew more menacing. "Care to become a test subject?"
"Do you think you can threaten me with death?" Rising Moon laughed. "You have grown even more foolish than I thought."
"It's not death that I'm threatening you with," Steelshot replied. "You see, if you don't tell me what I want to know, I'll fire the arrow. You'll hurt, but you'll heal. The problem is, by the time you do, this entire city will hear about how you fell not to me, but to one of those Outcast street thugs. Some of them love to play with fire, you know. Most people won't care... but I think there's an interesting circle of people who would find it fascinating that you were defeated by some common criminal. Hard to find work after a blow to your reputation like that, I'd say."
Steelshot saw Rising Moon's shoulders tighten, knew that he had hit close to home. For as long as they had known each other, Rising Moon was always preoccupied with his reputation. If he lost, he lost only to the very best. And he rarely lost.
"There is... a woman," Rising Moon whispered vehemently. "I have not seen her, but she speaks with your accent. She contacted me in China. She said she needed the best." He glared at Steelshot. "I have heard her called only 'J.'"
"What interest does she have in Alumette's... project?"
Rising Moon sneered. "That's something I'm not going to tell you." There was flash of movement, and suddenly the table flew into the air. Caught off guard, Steelshot loosed the arrow, where it hit the ceiling, exploding into flame and sparks. Fire alarms began to go off and the sprinkler system started pouring down water. Steelshot, peering through the smoke and water, knew that Rising Moon was gone.
Picking up his bow, he started to head for the exit. "I will get my answers, Li," he said to himself. "I might have left well enough alone. But now, you have made this personal."
07-29-2006, 05:18 AM
PARAGON CITY--INDEPENDENCE PORT
ONE DAY FOLLOWING ALUMETTE'S MEETING WITH MISAKI
"Does he know?" the woman asked, stepping out from the shadows of the warehouse to meet her contact.
"It's uncertain, J," Rising Moon replied. "He seems not to."
"More importantly, does she know?" the agent known as 'J' continued. She was strikingly beautiful, her looks a heady mixture of angelic sweetness and reckless danger. Rising Moon seemed to either not notice or not care.
"Hard to say. He says very little. But I know him well enough to know he is hiding something. He is trying to protect her, that much is certain."
"J" waved his comment away with her hand. "What concerns me most is whether or not she knows, and whether or not she plans to do anything about it. Steelshot is insignificant; a means to an end. If it turns out he knows too much, you and I will do a different sort of business."
Rising Moon gave a slight inclination of the head to indicate his agreement, but otherwise remained impassive.
"Keep an eye on them. I will contact you soon." She turned and disappeared into the early-morning mists. Rising Moon bowed, and loped off towards the Green Line station.
"J" meanwhile dialed Watchlight HQ, on the secure line, "Agent Yahn, please."
"Yahn? My contact has nothing conclusive. I'm continuing with the deterrent strategy."
PARAGON CITY--DAWN PATROL HQ
LATER THAT AFTERNOON
"Quite all right, Chip," Alumette smiled, putting a hand on the intern's shoulder. "I'm sure Sergeant Darling will get over it soon. It's not the first time his paperclip tray has been out of order," she winked, a mischievous gleam in her eye. It was true. Alumette knew from personal, covert experience that the notoriously meticulous Dawn Patrol sergeant's paperclip tray had been rearranged several times, much to his chagrin. In Chip's case, it had been an accident: the poor intern had accidentally knocked the tray to the floor when delivering coffee. In Alumette's case, such disorder in the Sergeant's life was almost always intentional.
Chip smiled at the petite, fiery brunette. "Thanks, Ms. Alumette," he said, reassured. "Oh, by the way, there's a message for you. Someone stopped to see you while you were out on your morning patrol." He handed her a sealed envelope, simply with 'Alumette' typed on the front, and no other markings.
Grace turned it over in her hands, "Who was it?" she asked.
"She didn't say," Chip replied. "She just wanted to be sure you got that envelope there," he indicated the parcel in Alumette's hands, blushing a little as he spoke, "She was quite a looker though. Hooo boy!" Alumette chuckled, rolling her eyes, and repaired to her office, leaving Chip with his PG-13 thoughts.
She opened the envelope to find a typewritten letter, on plain white paper:
I am writing this letter to clear my conscience. For the past year, I have been in an extended romantic relationship with Dominic Jackson. No doubt by now you are aware of the work he has done for the organization known as Watchlight. Dom was my partner on many Watchlight assignments. It was in this context we developed feelings for one another. News of his passing was painful for me, and writing to you is part of my mourning process. I do not expect you to forgive me; but know that I loved him as you do.
Alumette's hands were shaking as she read the letter. Her knees grew weak. She sank down into her chair, fighting back tears. She read it over and over again, not believing it was real. The words on the page seemed to stab her. A mixture of hurt and anger brewed inside her causing heat waves to begin to radiate off of her body. The edges of the paper began to curl and turn brown as she stared at Jane Friday's name.
"Ms. Alumette?" Chip peeked into her office, "There's someone here to-- whoa!"
By now the letter was in flames in Alumette's hands. Chip's exclamation snapped her back to reality, and she quickly suppressed her fire power, patting out the flaming letter with her hands. The bulk of the text was still untouched, although the letter was now an odd amoeba-type shape with singed edges.
"I'll... tell them to come back later," Chip said nervously, backing out of the door.
"Thanks Chip," Grace said, numb.
25 KM NORTH OF MUSAN, NORTH KOREA, NEAR THE CHINESE/KOREAN BORDER
MUSAN DETENTION CENTER--CELL BLOCK E INFIRMARY
The doctor started the IV drip intended to replace the electrolytes and nutrients Shadow had lost over the past several days by refusing to eat. "Doctor" was an exaggeration. The clinician was more or less a glorified field medic, and the infirmary at the facility was more or less a glorified field hospital. Most of the equipment was from the 1950s, what little there was; all of it minimally maintained. Still, it was better than nothing. The detention center's front as a mail and customs depot made it easy for the enforcement staff to come by supplies, and for the goings-on in the underground cells to easily remain hidden from various human-rights monitoring organizations.
"You can keep him alive enough to talk, right?" Wing asked, glancing over the clinician's shoulder at Dominic, who lay on the gurney, barely lucid, but still as impassive as ever.
"Yes, sir. He will need a few days' rest, however."
Wing grunted an affirmative response and turned to go.
Shadow focused his mind to considering the options. He had counted on the move to be a window of opportunity for a rescue, but none had come. He had to think of something else, some way to stay on the move--a prison transfer was the best opportunity a strike team would have at getting him out. He tried to think back to how many days had passed since he'd told them about the panic room, wondering if agents had already been dispatched to his apartment. And finally, he thought of Grace. Was she still in Korea? On his trail? Had she gone back home? His eyes traveled about the infirmary, taking note of supplies, the layout of the room, indications of a rounds schedule. There was a reinforced window, he tried looking out and guesstimating his location based on travel time between Tumen and this place, and the position of the sun. Mostly, however, his mind worked out how to get them to move him again.
PARAGON CITY--FOUNDERS FALLS--112 WILLIAMS SQUARE #4
17 DAYS FOLLOWING ALUMETTE'S RETURN FROM NORTH KOREA
The four agents entered the security-locked apartment building with ease and made their way to the top floor. They looked like fire sprinkler system inspectors, complete with uniforms and clipboards, and other accoutrements that an unsuspecting neighbor would accept as natural in an apartment. Under their workmen's coveralls, they were strapped almost head to foot with gear: cameras, recording devices, scanners, comm beads, small weaponry... the tools of their trade; all of it micro-sized and inconspicuous, but very powerful.
Within moments they were inside Grace and Dom's apartment, seeking out the false panel that would open to the panic room. They worked silently, following the floor plan from their mission brief, testing walls and examining the numerous keypads in the apartment, that were part of Dominic's almost obsessive level of redundant home security systems.
Lieutenant Chiu checked his watch, "Security system two switching to active in 15 seconds," he alerted his team. They were on the ready, having found the access panel to the panic room. Dominic had told them that there was an eighteen-second window between when one security system cycled down, and when the second would initiate. That would be their chance to get into the panic room, find the datakey containing his notes, and leave everything just as they'd found it.
Holding a collective breath, Agent Connors entered the access code to the panic room that Dominic had given them under interrogation. With a sterile hiss and a click, the locking mechanism released, and they swung open the door.
"Twelve seconds," Chiu announced. Agent Connors entered the panic room and crossed to the cabinet where he'd been told he would find the datakey. "Sir, it's not here!" he hissed.The Lieutenant's eyes grew wide as he grasped for a plan B. The sound of the front door opening momentarily interrupted their distress.
"How odd, I could have sworn I locked it," a gentle feminine voice said from the foyer. A man's voice was heard shortly behind, although what it uttered was indistinguishable.
Lieutenant Chiu, and Agents Connors, Monroe, and Moretti, took up defensive positions near the panic room door.
"Keep looking!" Chiu hissed, his pistol at the ready.
"Did you hear something?" Grace asked. The air around her in the apartment suddenly got warmer as sheets of blue-white and orange flame engulfed her petite frame.
"It sounded like it came from..." the man's voice responded, trailing off into a hand gesture indicating the direction of the panic room
The door to the panic room swung closed, locking Connor inside.
And it was on.
07-29-2006, 01:45 PM
As Mikoto came back to herself, the first thing she noticed was she was still on the floor, with a very concerned Grace standing over her. Her internal clock said that the blackout lasted approximatly 20 minutes. Being unconcious was a relatively new thing, the nanites in her system provided enough stimulants to her biolocical componants that sleep was a thing of the past, at least for her brain.
"We weren't sure what to do Mikoto, with the way your body was moving we couldn't risk anyone getting injured trying to move you." Grace tried to explain as Mikoto slowly got back up
Power systems at 78%...........
System resources at 100%
Query: Loss of functionality - Reason =Biological componant data rejection
Datum Stream Reinitiate? [Y/N] N
"Well, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with my body. Looks like a case of Data overload of something"
"Just sit back for a little, you don't want to rush things after a.. episode like that... If I didn't know better, I would have said you'd had some sort of Epileptic Seizure." Grace said, as she pushed Mikoto back into a sitting position. "If you start to feel faint, put your head between your knees"
It game Mikoto a warm fuzzy feeling inside having Grace trying to mother her like that, but that's what Moms are for isn't it?
"I'll be fine, c'mon I've had Crey power tanks beating on me, a little fall isn't any big deal. Who's the cybernetics expert here? Me? or Me?" she said as she slowly stood up.
"I suppose you're right... but I want you to go see RoboMD this afternoon and have him take a look at you."
"Yes Mother" Mikoto said in a slightly exasperated tone. "Don't we have a meeting with someone first?"
08-11-2006, 08:09 PM
Alumette stepped through the doorway into the hall, coils of blue and orange mystic flame swirling about her small body like agitated serpents, their fury fueled by the building anger of their human host, a wrath of the goddess made manifest. She moved slowly. Not from any sense of fear or caution, but rather with the smooth gait of inexorable certainty. These intruders had not only broken into her home, they had tread dangerously into the personal space of a woman who was quite finished with the meddling of shadowy half-seen threats. Cornerstone’s breath hissed impatiently through his nose, and she could almost see the flex of the muscles lining his neck and face. This was not his way – he would hit them hard, fast, and most likely before they were even aware they were under attack. To be held at bay tested his patience and threw his training to the wind. “Careful sister…” he began, his rich baritone carrying in the empty hall.
Before he could finish, the front door literally disintegrated into a shower of wood chips as the plaster walls and carpet of the foyer bucked and pitched as if every surface was covered in popping popcorn. Steady ‘vipping’ sounds along with a constant stream of heavy pattering noises like heavy rain hitting concrete or hard earth was the only warning Alumette had as three high speed silenced carbines unleashed hundreds of rounds, their tight spread chewing apart every inch of the hallway.
“CHRIST!” Cornerstone swore, throwing himself back as easily thirty or forty bullets punched through the wall and tore past him, several finding him in spite of his reflexes, hammering into him with dull thumps that spattered the corridor carpet behind him with a thin mist of crimson. “Okay, that’s it.” He growled, pushing himself off the knee he had fell to while his body closed his wounds. Spitting a mix of blood and tobacco to one side, his brown eyes blazing with pure murder, he cracked his knuckles and made for the door now completely obscured with the dust of shattered drywall and gun smoke.
A small glowing hand materialized towards him, floating eerily in the plaster mist with hand up, motioning him to stop before fading back into the hanging dust. Inside the apartment Alumette turned toward the location of the gunfire, the blazing aura of her anger emerging from the hanging debris as she stepped towards the three gunmen. Almost in unison, their jaws dropped in disbelief. Being briefed on the power of the heroine was one thing. Seeing her angered was entirely another. Her eyes were downcast her lips pursed and tight as she stepped from the wreckage of her own foyer. Ever so slowly, she raised her chin, her eyes locking her burning eyes on the intruders, the fires around her paling in comparison. The three looked like Malta, or perhaps male versions of the Knives of Artemis. Dressed in black, they wore sophisticated optics and a vast array of utility belts and electronic equipment, their forms shimmering a bit as some form of camouflage technology struggled to compensate for the sudden activity. Alumette spoke softly. “Know you are in my home without invitation, and you have come at a very bad time. Lay down your weapons, and I will spare you my wrath.”
Briefly, they looked at each other, and without a word they scattered. With startling speed, the first threw himself deeper into the apartment, plunging head first through the front window of the living room into free fall away from the building. The second turned, his carbine exploding to life with a nearly two foot flame from the barrel as he made three sweeping circles with his wrists spraying the wall with armor piercing fire. Throwing himself forward, he crashed through the wall into the hallway beyond. The third came straight for Alumette.
“Cornerstone!” Grace shouted.
“On it!” he answered, his powerful form dashing past the hole and after the soldier in the hallway, his hands pistoning as he poured on the speed. Alumette’s eyes were on the still shattering window when the third guard closed the distance. Without looking, she swung a backhand, her knuckles hissing with crimson energy as the almost casual punch caught the man in the side of the head. The snapping discharge of energy lifted the man up and stopped his forward movement entirely, his body bending over backwards in a perfect bow as he flew upward and slightly backwards, still rotating over at the apex of his flight before plummeting back down, his head and shoulderblades smashing through a glass coffee table with a roar before the subsequent impact with the floor knocked him unconscious. Draped backwards over the shattered table frame, his fingers twitched a few times before he was still.
By the time he landed, Alumette was long gone. Powering her flight, she soared through the ruined living room window and scanned below for the first soldier. “There…” she hissed, the man’s grav chute creating ripples in the air as he prepared to touch down many stories below. Grace smiled thinly, and simply stopped flying.
“Delta one, this is Team six, we’re compromised, I repeat we’re compromised.” The electronic voice mask made the man’s voice sound almost comic as he turned off the grav chute and keyed his com. “I think I’m clear…”
Like a comet, the flaming projectile exploded into the street in front of the soldier, throwing him off his feet and tossing the com unit across the concrete with a skittering clatter. Rising from the crater she created and a spiderweb of cracks in the pavement stretching out for nearly ten feet in every direction, Alumette locked her eyes again on the warrior, the flames causing the destroyed pavement to melt and run in slow paths like black lava. “Bad choice,” she commented, springing towards him with both fists pulled back, her lithe body stretching into something resembling a blazing lion or angered dragon.
The soldier screamed.
The operative skipped whole staircases, leaping downward from landing to landing as he headed for the ground floor, looking up between them at the huge hero following him tirelessly. “This is Team four, I need backup…” he called into his comm as he rounded the corner.
“You’ll need a hell of a lot more than that.”
Cornerstone’s hands slapped onto the metal railing just above the soldier’s landing between the staircases, stopping his freefall so inelegantly gained by jumping over the edge. Using the momentum of his fall, he kicked both legs forward into the soldier’s arm, propelling his body into the wall with bone-crushing force. His body bounced, crumpling off the wall and causing him to stagger back towards Cornerstone who now towered over him. “Lights out.” He growled, his fists coiling with black energy as they suddenly moved in a blur of punches, each hammering impact twisting the massive hero at the waist and jerking the soldier’s body about as if he were being hit by machine gun fire. Somewhere in the barrage, the soldier lost consciousness, but the speed of the assault kept him jerking backwards until Cornerstone paused.
“You can fall down now.” He growled.
And he did. Just a moment before he vanished in a crackling hiss of blue white power.
“Aaww…no way!” Cornerstone grabbed his own comm. “Sister, they can port, mine just jetted!”
“I know.” Came Alumette’s calm reply. “I’ve got a broken com and a melted gun here. He just vanished.”
“Probably gone too.” Came her reply. “Head back upstairs, we’ll check.”
((Thanks to Gabriel's Fury))
08-11-2006, 08:55 PM
Back in the apartment, Grace and Stone surveyed the damage. The third assailant had indeed teleported away. There went that investigation. She had a feeling she knew why they'd come, but any additional puzzle pieces would be helpful at this point. Alumette shook her head. Already she and Dom were paying a very high premium for their homeowner's insurance, given their status as registered heroes. Shadow's massive security modifications and systems mitigated that somewhat, particularly the panic room, but Grace winced as she thought about the call she was going to have to make to Atlas Mutual tomorrow.
The panic room. It was locked down like a drum. She crossed to it, entering the override code on the keypad. With a hiss, the door opened to reveal an agitated Agent Connors alternating between rifling through where he believed certain files to be, trying to get his comm to work, and trying to activate his teleportation device; the panic room being shielded against the activation of such technology.
"I'm sorry, I don't recall sending you an invitation to my home," Grace said, her eyes narrowing as she stepped inside the panic room to deliver a knockout punch to Agent Connors's head. He crumpled to the floor like a rag doll.
A sudden commotion at the front door of the apartment briefly distracted Alumette's attention, "Freeze! This is Paragon SWAT!" A rush of operatives hustled into the room, weapons drawn, taking up position to search and secure the area.
"Easy there, soldiers," Stone replied with his experienced drawl. "Miss Alumette is taking care of the situation."
"Corner Stone," the SWAT officer smirked, surveying the damage. "You've been in the papers quite a bit, fellah. Didn't I read a report somewhere that your hero license had been suspended?" He looked around at the splinters of wood and glass, the shattered windows and bulletholes in the drywall, giving a little nod. "Something about...excessive use of force?"
Stone was immune to the jibe and returned the officer's attention to the matter at hand. "Just helping a friend defend her turf," he said matter-of-factly through a wad of chewing tobacco. Grace stepped out of the panic room, dragging Agent Connors behind her.
"Captain O'Shea," she smiled, picking her way across the debris. "Thank you for coming."
Instantly his demeanor changed, "Are you all right, Miss Courbier?" he asked.
"Yes, quite," she said, depositing Agent Connors on the floor at her feet and dusting off her hands. "Everything's under control," she said, smiling up at Corner Stone, who continued to gaze at the Captain gruffly.
Captain O'Shea shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. "We responded to the signal from your panic room," he offered by way of explanation. "An intruder?"
"Yes, captain," she replied. "But as you can see he's been neutralized. There were three others as well, but they escaped. They are linked to a highly confidential investigation of mine. I'm sure you understand. I'll need to take this one in for questioning," she added, nudging the unconscious Agent Connors with her toe.
"Of course, Miss Courbier," he said. "But I'll still need for you to come in and file a report."
Alumette nodded, "Understood. Can I stop by your HQ tomorrow to do that?"
The captain nodded his acquiescence as another of his operatives circulated around the apartment photographing the scene for the report. "As you like, Miss Courbier. I'll leave you to your suspect, then."
"If they ported, it's only a matter of time before they get a lock on this fella and pull him out of here," Stone remarked. Grace nodded, already going through Connors's pockets for identification and other evidence. He carried none. It was to be expected; if these guys were sent by who she thought had sent them, they wouldn't be slouches, that's for sure.
Stone knelt next to her and began rifling through Connors's gear. "All this stuff is pretty standard; mostly French-made and Russian-made weaponry... he's gotta be with some mercenary outfit."
"But which?" Grace asked, frustrated.
"Could be anyone. They're very well-funded. This is top gear. And this guy's outfitted like a professional soldier. My guess is he's part of a military group that flies under its own government's radar most of the time," Stone replied, glancing at Connors's watch. He paused, examining it closely.
"Sister, take a look at this," he said, holding Connors's limp arm towards her. She looked at his watch and shrugged, "What about it?" she asked.
"His watch is a XiaoRang."
Alumette looked at him blankly.
"Standard Chinese military issue," he said. "This guy is Chinese military; or at least he was at one point if he isn't now." Stone looked at her meaningfully.
"Wing," she said, fury returning to her eyes.
With a crackle and a soft pop, the unconscious Agent Connors vanished from the apartment as his team locked a teleportation signature onto him. But Alumette and Corner Stone had gotten what they needed.
08-20-2006, 01:37 AM
Corner Stone looked out at the meeting room filled with his soon to be team members. They looked up at him all with grim looks on their faces. But then, this was a grim business.
“Any more questions?” Corner Stone asked, his baritone bouncing off the back wall.
Crimsonstar looked up the “name of the boat again Torrance?”
“Pushkin’s Saga, a Russian fishing boat, at least to outward view,” replied Torrance, aka Corner Stone. “Old friends of mine from the Cold War.”
Alumette cleared her throat, “my friends, we have gotten the Intel, from the Orion Sentinel Gravity Storm, we move in three days.” She looked nervous to anybody that knew her, would read the tension on her face. Alumette realized weeks ago what her friends may be giving up to help her and Dominic. She said a prayer, “Goddess watch over them all.”
The group collectively stirred, Corner Stone rubbed many of the team raw, so to the point, so focused. Many of the heroes collected had allowed the thought to cross their minds; perhaps he was all the media made him out to be. But there was no question; he was a good choice to lead the assault.
Corner Stone looked out and out of habit said, “dismissed,” and then spit into the cup that had served as his spittoon for the briefing. As the team filed out they each got a disk that detailed their role for the assault. As they left the room talking amongst themselves, Corner Stone realized his mistake and grimaced. Hard programming to rub off, he would apologize after the mission was done. He wasn’t their CO, simply the man appointed, based off experience, to lead this mission. Torrance knew he struggled with the adjustment to civilian life.
Alumette walked over, ‘thank you Torrance, I think the team is ready.”
Torrance replied, “I do too, a good team you picked here sister. I won’t lie to ya, initially I had my doubts, but I am confidant that this is a right and tight crew. Ya keep good company,” he smirked, “myself not included.”
Alumette smiled knowing that response would just make him dig in his heels. “Whatever you say Torrance.” Alumette knew what things had gone into making this giant in front of her, who he was. She also knew, he was not what most folks thought. A man that can rationlize great destruction inteh pursuit of justice and talk in great detail on Kant and Decarte. He was likley the best read person she had ever know, all eight feet, covered in tattoo, and chewing tobacco. The thought of which made her a little green.
“Ya know I really like Sparky,” referring to Chain Lighting, “he gots himself a good sense of humor, but is tempered hard, a good man,”
Corner Stone said as he picked up his laptop. He moved the chew around in his lip and spat into the cup.
“Yes Torrance, he is a very good man, a dear old friend.”
Stone grabbed the last of his gear and moved for the door, “lets go make it right sister!.”
08-21-2006, 07:32 PM
Grace was restless. In a few hours, they would be leaving for what was probably the most important mission of her life. In her typically chaotic, obsessive fashion, she went over the plan again in her mind, the roster:
It was a very small group, something Stone preferred. Mikoto also would not likely be far behind. She’d taken to sticking to Alumette like glue the past several weeks, even going so far as to follow her to North Korea the first time. Her stealth would be an advantage, certainly. Whirlwind Gale and Green Valkyrie, although eager to help, were unable to participate at the last moment. With Colonel Windsor’s visit, Shan had asked Alumette to see if she could get by with a smaller team; being nervous about covering for so many absent patrollers. Grace was happy to oblige. Already Shan and the Major were putting a lot on the line by unofficially granting leave for this highly irregular assignment.
With the intel she’d picked up from Misaki, and a bit of information left by the intruders to her apartment, she was able to definitively pin this on Wing; which now meant that the Chinese military was holding an American citizen, and the government would have to accept that she was going in for an extraction. They’ll have to go over the details with me when I get back, she thought to herself, turning over in her bed.
Gravity-Storm’s intel had been more than useful. She had a date, a time, and a location. When the convoy reached the crossroads, they’d have twelve minutes, Stone figured. The last-minute removal of Green Valkyrie and Whirlwind Gale from the team meant he’d had to make some big adjustments to their plans. With the team being mostly comprised of up-close-and-personal fighting types, they wouldn’t be able to rely on having cover for the mission. Speed would be even more of a factor.
The way Stone had explained it, they would lie in wait for the convoy at the crossroads. Chain Lightning would disable their communications. Grace had packed several smoke grenades from Dominic’s stash at home, to provide additional cover to their strike. Crimsonstar and Leehouse would engage, creating a diversion and working to neutralize their forces. Stone and Alumette would locate Dominic and get him out. Mikoto and Chain Lightning would offer melee and ranged support during the combat. Once Dom was extracted, all would make a fighting retreat towards the fishing boat, eventually regrouping in Japan before returning home.
Twelve minutes or less.
Gravity-Storm had told her that there would likely be a least 60 troops, and it was uncertain whether or not they would have their own unit of super-powered soldiers. And Stone had made it more than clear that the rules would be different this time around. These weren’t Hellions or Thorn mages, or even Nemesis or Council soldiers. These were people who played for keeps. Who would be extremely well-trained and not above fighting dirty. Lives could be lost.
The earliest moments of dawn peeked through the blinds, its first barely-grey rays peering above the horizon. Grace hadn’t slept all night. She looked at the clock. The alarm would be going off in three minutes anyhow. She switched it off and crawled out of bed. It was time to go.
NORTH KOREAN COUNTRYSIDE
NEAR THE CROSSROADS ON THE WAY TO CHEONGJIN
“Are you all right, Grace?” Crimsonstar asked, his eyes full of concern. She nodded a little, tugging at her gloves and checking her supply of smoke grenades. Her brow was furrowed in concentration as she scanned up the road in the direction of the convoy’s expected approach. Crimsonstar reached out a hand and touched the star pin on her jacket, leveling his gaze at her. “Kairin protect you, Binary,” he smiled, eyes soft. Grace returned the smile, his blessing calming her nerves somewhat.
Corner Stone scanned the area through binoculars. “I see them,” he said gruffly into his comm.. “Look sharp. They’re about 10 kilometers out. Charge it up, Sparky,” he said. “Get ready to fry their comms.”
Mikoto confirmed their approach. “I see them on my scanners,” she concurred. “Looks like we’ve got about a minute and a half.”
Chain Lightning nodded and began charging the air about him, sparks crackling over his hands and forearms. Leehouse, Crimsonstar, and Alumette began summoning their powers in their own ways. Alumette whispered a prayer in Old Provencal, enveloping her petite frame in divine fire. Leehouse rolled his neck and shoulders, loosening up, taking a couple practice punches. Crimsonstar called upon the power of the stars. In the distance the jeeps and trucks approached, kicking up clouds of dust as they rolled along. Grace could see two large transport trucks, one armored vehicle, and two jeeps; a high-caliber automatic rifle mounted in the back of each.
She glanced at Stone, indicating the armored vehicle. He nodded.
“Now, Sparky!” Corner Stone said in a low growl. Chain Lightning launched a blast of electricity at the center of the convoy as it came into range, shorting out their radios and communications devices. Arcs of electricity danced along the bodies of the vehicles before settling to ground. Within seconds the convoy was stopped and soldiers were pouring out of the vehicles, shouting at one another in surprise, taking up position. Grace lobbed several smoke grenades into the mess as Crimsonstar and Leehouse sped into the fray, challenging the soldiers to combat. In a hail of bullets, Alumette and Cornerstone raced towards the armored vehicle, keeping out of sight as their comrades fought to keep the attention of the soldiers.
Inside the armored truck, Dominic’s heart raced. This kind of commotion could only mean one thing: he was almost free. The sudden stop had thrown him against the side of the truck, and he was still shaking off the stars in his eyes as the guards poured out onto the road. Only three remained with him inside the truck, helping him back onto his seat and struggling to get their radios to work. That’s my girl, he thought to himself.
08-21-2006, 08:08 PM
Mikoto lay silent in the middle of the road, her cloak invisibly bending lightwaves around her as the trucks moved through the crossroads as the front vehicle rode over her position, Cornerstone said "Sparky! now!. as the electricity arced over the vehicles, Mikoto reached up and sliced through the jeeps driveshaft, immobilizing it, and blocking inthe other vehicles in the convoy.
As the smoke grenades went off, she phased up through the bottom of the jeep, sand slashed through the trigger assembly of the heavy machine gun in the rear
Objective 1.) Immobilise convoy: Status=Complete
Objective 2.) Disable enemy forces: Status=Incomplete
Kill Count: 0
with a spinning twist and a spray of red, she "dove" back through the jeep
wait, that's not right...
That strange face from earlier superimposed itself over her vision again for a moment
Biological Componant Malfunction: Administrating Corrective Measures
A rush of chemicals flooded her system, the face fading out as the drugs counteracted the hallucination
Biological Componant Status=Online
her legs propelled her forward, the 3D shifting as she phased though the cab of the Armored vehicle. snickt-slice-fwiptch
08-21-2006, 11:50 PM
Corner Stone looked at the team and recalled a different life, when he had been a virgin of war. This was a seasoned team, seasoned in crime fighting, this was war. He remembered his nerves; he could nearly hear the team surrounding him, their nerves humming. He could remember the first time his eyes stung from gun smoke, he could remember the ringing in his ears that lasted days, he could remember his first charge, his first wound. He could also recall his last wound, the wound that awoke the mutant gene in his DNA. Paragon had a 7.62 mm round to thank for Corner Stone, fired by some warlord’s man in Sub Sahara Africa. The same battle had cost him his whole unit. Torrance knew what he had learned his first day in Marine boot camp, “it is harder to live as the last man, than to die.”
He snapped back to the present, “a’right team, 12 minutes, go time!.” Alumette looked to Corner Stone and nodded, she knew the demons he was fighting inside the layers of tattoo and gruff behavior, lay the soul of an injured man. She also saw the transformation, the man who was large, became a giant; it was if he became someone else. The grim mask set, at that moment she understood, why some referred to him as “Ghost Fist,” she also understood in a moment of clarity what a Marine Corp. Master SGT was.
Leehouse rolled his shoulder and looked about, the nerves gone now that he was close to combat, he could smell it, he knew it, his body began to prepare itself.
“Go Sparky!” Torrance yelled, Chain Lighting took action and activated the Communication override device. Crimsonstar took to the air, he knew his job, hold the enemy at bay, from above, then tag Dominic and get him to the boat.
Crimsonstar smiled at Alumette as he took to the air, for a brief moment, he felt like this was his homeworld, he could read her, he knew what she was thinking and feeling. In a moment of clarity for the human race Crimsonstar felt compassion… in a human sense.
Alumette, “Fuse-iee” as Stone called her, fired up the soul-fire and felt her anxiety melt away. The deep freeze she had been keeping her feeling in melted away. She allowed herself to feel, for a long moment, all the things she had been keeping at bay. In her moment when she gave up all control, she released the torment and anxiety and felt free. She stumbled to her knees, overwhelmed by the surge of feelings she hadn’t know she possessed. Would life be the same after this, could it be? At that moment Alumette changed, for the first time she could remember, she was comfortable in the moment, not what might be, only what was. She found peace in the simplicity of her actions and choices.
She heard Stone’s command, “all members go.. go …go…” The sky erupted in flame, as Grace channeled the Goddess, a bright flame shot towards the moon, arching towards the oncoming convoy…..
The North Korean troops couldn’t focus on what hit them, all they knew was they were in the shit. Major Kim looked around and fired up his radio, the symphony of static told him his enemy had disabled their communications. He had super-powered adversary, he looked at the private next to him and shouted and order, “buy us time!”
Leehouse belted the first man in the face, knocking him down and out, without breaking stride. He pushed towards the truck he knew held Dominic. Leehouse though to himself, he would teach the pipsqueak a lesson for falling into enemy hands and causing all this ruckus, after this little mix-up was done. He saw Alumette out of the corner of his eye, pounding into the enemy with a ferocity he had never seen from her. He could feel the heat on his left side, exposed to the fire she gave off.
Crimsonstar flew the perimeter, nothing. That was good news, he descended to add his efforts to the lead trucks. Sparky unloaded on the last truck, he laughed to himself, he had figured out how to configure the devices to override all electrical technology, the convoy shut down. He emitted anti-personnel pulses stunning the enemy in 15 ‘ radius as he moved up and down the trucks.
Corner Stone could feel the riddle of bullets hit his back and knock him forward. He grimaced but stood to face the enemy, his body already closing the wounds, he could hear the fray on the other side of the truck that was Alumette and Leehouse he spit a mouthful of chew-spit to the ground. He also knew that this convoy was twice as strong as was anticipated. This would be close, he knew what it would take, he teleported amongst the oncoming soldiers and began to dispatch them with a flurry of misted fists, chanting to the voodoo gods he served; a mutant body, possessed by the Gods of his Haitian heredity.
The enemy poured on, but a trail of widows’ tears lay out behind the team as they converged on the truck that held their mark. Leehouse snapped the lock with ease. Alumette stood before the covered truck bed that held Dominic, the heat off her body started to turn the steel to slop, as the bed fell open it bent, she jumped into the back to find Dominic, in a sorry state, laying on a plank. She grabbed him, and yarded him onto the ground.
Stone looked at the team, “Crimsonstar, Alumette, time to depart,” Sparky activated the mini-computer and activated the homing beacons. Crimsonstar looked at Stone “here they come,” The team looked down the line of trucks and recognized the enemy amassing for a last charge; the time was ticking, less than a minute and half.
Torrance, looked at Sparky, Star, and Alumette, “go.” Alumette looked at Stone and knew right away what he had in mind, “Torrance we can….”
Stone took his eyes from the enemy towards Alumette cutting her off, “sorry sister I am the final call during this part of the mission, time fer ya to go….” He then turned to Leehouse, their tension born from a shared disposition. Stone spit, “Leehouse you son’a’bitch yer gonna charge with me, then to the DMZ. We will give ‘em shade to get out.” Lee smiled, “up yours Stone, lets do it!” Stone and Leehouse nodded in unison. Torrance looked to Alumette, seeing the worry, “see ya in Paragon sister.” She nodded, and watched as Torrance teleported into the middle of the surge of the enemy, Leehouse right behind him, head down, in a bull charge.
The three took to the sky, pulling the nearly limp Dominic with them. Upward and towards the Sea of Japan, towards what appeared to be a simple Russian fishing boat, “Pushkin’s Saga.”
Alumette, allowed herself a moment to worry, thinking to herself, “nothing stupid you two.. just get out.”
11minutes 45 seconds.
Leehouse and Corner Stone stood over the remains of the convoy, both covered in the paint of war. Out of the smoke strode Mikoto. Corner Stone nodded and spit, adjusting the chew in his lip. Leehouse a grim look upon his features simply made eye contact. The weariness of war washing over the three, 12 minutes could be an eternity. Stone knew now who the blur on the outskirts of the battle had been. Popping in and taking out the enemy that moved to flank or escape. He didn’t know who she was, but he knew she was part of the team.
In unison they all nodded and separated, all three knowing that the enemy will be closing in, reinforcements will be on the way any moment. All three with separate escape plans, only to meet again in Paragon
11 minutes 59 seconds…………………………………………..
08-22-2006, 02:48 PM
----- A FEW DAYS EARLIER --------
It was the kind of rain that made you think of ink; it fell in thick clouds, lumbering shadows determined to crush the countryside beneath their weight. It was the kind of rain that left generals fearful of victory, the kind of rain that left farmers to despair. The air was so thick the very land seemed to collapse into itself; everything seemed distorted, nothing seemed real.
Atop a single story building, two figures blended into the rain and night. In this situation, both men looked identical; faces shrouded, builds strong. The only feature that distinguished either one was that one had a bow strapped to his back; the other appeared to be unarmed.
"So. They are here. You are sure, Morning Hope?" the voice was Steelshot's, and yet seemed different. There was more regret; there was more anger.
"I am, little brother. We have kept close watch on our fallen brethren." Morning Hope's voice was soft, almost lyrical. And yet one could also detect a sadness to his voice.
Steelshot sighed. "I do not want to have to do this."
Morning Hope looked at Steelshot. "Is this woman's fight really your own, little brother?" he asked. "Can you not walk away?"
Steelshot met the gaze quietly. "In truth, I did not intend to participate. Many lose loved ones who have little means to get them back; this woman has more resources than many countries do. She is," he smiled slightly. "the living representation of a god, after all."
Shrugging in a futile attempt to get some of the rain off of him, Steelshot continued. "No, sihing, you know why I am here. It is the same reason as you. It is the same reason that many of our former training partners have helped us get to this point. They"--and here he gestured towards an old farmhouse--"have lost their honor. They must either find it, or they must be...neutralized."
Morning Hope nodded. "Great power without great discipline is a menace to all. Such was the lesson of our teacher. Very well, then. It is time."
Rising Moon was concerned, though his visage betrayed none of it. He was not happy with the preparations that went into this operation. Not that he cared one way or the other about its success; he merely disliked associating himself with amateurs. Were he in charge, he and his crew would not be sitting in a farmhouse in the middle of the night. They would be standing watch over the package already. But they had been told to come here first, on some piddling message-bearing task.
"I am a warrior, not an errand boy," he thought to himself.
Behind him, his teammates were listless. One of them, now styling himself Ground Strike, was manipulating the earth floor in various shapes. The other, the woman LightBlind, seemed to be trying to sleep.
Rising Moon shot up. That voice! Had Steelshot come all this way? Why? His ties to this Alumette were not that strong, were they? His actions quickly drew the notice of his teammates. They stood, eager for something to break the monotony of the night.
"Steelshot." Despite his inward confusion, Rising Moon's voice was calm. "Have you come for a lesson? Why don't you show yourself? I'd be more than happy to teach you." His teammates chuckled.
"There are no lessons you can teach me, Rising Moon." Steelshot's voice was deadpan. "Unless you wish to show me how a fallen warrior redeems himself through repentance."
The words angered Rising Moon. "Fallen? Repentance? I have nothing to repent. Especially not to one such as you, -little- brother." He looked around the windows, trying to see where Steelshot might be hiding. "Did our brothers lead you here? Let me guess... Morning Hope? He was always weak, despite his seniority."
"Your words mean nothing, Rising Moon. They are the opinions and statements of a fool. I give you one last chance. Give up now. Return home, and spend your life atoning for your abuse of power. You others! Ground Strike! LightBlind! You do not have to follow him!"
LightBlind answered first. "And what should we do? Beg and grovel like dogs? I am not afraid of you. Show yourself!"
The door to the farmhouse opened slowly. As the three peered into the murky darkness, they could just make out the silhouette of Steelshot. His bow was already drawn. "You have made your choice. Morning Hope will ensure that no permanent harm will come to you."
He let loose an arrow. At the moment the rain seemed to stop. Even the night seemed to back away. The arrow flew between LightBlind, past Ground Strike, and landed at the feet of Rising Moon. As it landed, a thick, black liquid spilled out, covering nearly all of the floor.
Suprised and slightly confused, Rising Moon looked at Steelshot and began to laugh. "Always with the gimmicks, Steelshot. What was this supposed to do? Make us fall down?" He laughed again, and his friends joined him.
Steelshot notched another arrow. This time, Rising Moon could see that it burned at its tip. "No," Steelshot said grimly. "It's supposed to help you burn."
He loosed the arrow.
"They'll recover?" Steelshot stood over his fallen former comrades.
"More or less," Morning Hope responded. "That is quite a new trick you have there, little brother."
Steelshot shrugged. "You learn new things every day."
Morning Hope stood from where he had been tending to Ground Strike. "Well, these three will do little harm to anyone for quite some time. I have summoned others. We will take them to back to the Temple. They shall not be allowed to leave for some time. You have my word on that."
"No pledge is necessary, sihing." Steelshot bowed. "I trust your judgement and your actions. If you say it, it will be." He looked out across the countryside. The rain was beginning to subside. Not too far away, he knew that Alumette and her friends were about to begin their own portion of the battle, the real one. "I hope I made things a little easier for you, Alumette. Good luck..."
08-22-2006, 04:44 PM
Chain Lightning stood watching all of them as they waited for the convoy carrying Stalking Shadow to come over the hill.
Corner Stone scanned the area through binoculars. “I see them,” he said gruffly into his comm.. “Look sharp. They’re about 10 kilometers out. Charge it up, Sparky,” he said. “Get ready to fry their comms.”
He lowered his head, concentrating, his entire body started to sparkle as he felt his electrical charge build up.
Mikoto confirmed their approach. “I see them on my scanners,” she concurred. “Looks like we’ve got about a minute and a half.” Chain Lightning looked back up. He checked the configuration of the small computer attached around his waist. It would allow his blast to disable the communications on all the trucks with one attack. “I’m more than ready. Say the word, Stone.”
“Now, Sparky!” Corner Stone said in a low growl. Chain Lightning launched a blast of electricity at the center of the convoy as it came into range. He hit the truck in the middle as planned and the override device worked perfectly, amplifying his blast and sending it into a cascading arc to the remain vehicles. “Oh hell yeah, that’s the way we do it.” Chain yelled.
“Don’t get cocky, Sparky. Ya can stroke the ego when yer back home. Move!” Stone shouted as he ran into the pack of North Koreans now piling out of the convoy trucks like pissed off bees leaving a just shaken hive. “Shadow should be in the last truck, keep it here!” he yelled. Chain raced toward the end of the convoy. “It’s not going anywhere.” Chain shouted back and sped off toward it. He fiddled with the override device Stone had set up for him. He had studied it on the way over and he thought of a small modification it could use.
As Crimsonstar took to the air he smiled at the brief exchange between Chain Lightning and Corner Stone. He flew the perimeter around the convoy as the rest of the team engaged the enemy. He watched as bullets rained on Stone’s back and heard him grunting as he continued moving into them. The surrounding area was still clear. Good. Chain Lightning’s electrical blast had done its job and they hadn’t been able to call for reinforcements. He dropped back to the ground quickly to join Corner Stone in engaging the North Koreans. On the far side he noticed Alumette and Leehouse battling their way to the truck that held Stalking Shadow. He threw a severe uppercut knocking at least four of the soldiers into the side panel of the truck next to them. They dropped unconscious to the ground and he quickly turned to the next group descending on him and Corner Stone. “Nice punch, Star.” Corner Stone grunted, himself taking three of them and knocking them back into the front end of the next truck, pausing just long enough to spit out tobacco juice before plowing further on.
Chain Lightning was racing toward the truck holding Shadow, his electrical blasts knocking away any North Koreans that tried to intercept him. He could see Alumette and Leehouse. “Cover me!” he yelled and stopped briefly to reconfigure the disabling computer Stone had given him. “On it!” Alumette yelled, her and Leehouse placing themselves on each side of him. He finished his adjustments and started to fire electrical bolts at each truck as they ran. He had been right in his guess and now his blasts was disabling all electronics on the trucks, not just their communications. They were not going to be moving anytime soon. It was also stunning any and all North Koreans in the immediate area into helplessness. Alumette and Leehouse reached Shadow’s truck.
“I’ll hold them off, but you’d better hurry.” Chain yelled as the two of reached the back of the truck. He continued to let loose with his electrical blasts. Up ahead Corner Stone and Crimsonstar were making their way closer to them.
“Got him!” Alumette yelled. He turned around to see her holding Shadow’s limp body in her arms. He did not look at all good. Stone tapped Crimsonstar on his shoulder, indicated for him to join them. Chain quickly set the calibrations for their transport. It would give them a homing beacon for them to retreat to. Crimsonstar looked back towards Stone. ‘Here they come.” He said, and recognized the enemy amassing for a last charge.
Leehouse joined Stone even as they were approaching. Chain Lightning gave Stone the thumbs up sign that the beacons were set. Torrance nodeed, “Sparky, Star, Alumette, time to go.” He yelled. Chain Lightning ran out at the full limit of his superspeed and was gone from sight instantly. Crimsonstar ripped off the front end of the truck, hurling it at the approaching Koreans to buy Leehouse and Stone some time. “Kairin protect you friends.” He said as he rose up into the air and left. Alumette hauled up Shadows body and stopped only long enough to tell them, “Nothing stupid you two, just get out…”
Stone and Leehouse nodded in unison. Torrance looked to Alumette, seeing the worry, “
See ya in Paragon sister.” She nodded, and watched as Torrance teleported into the middle of the surge of the enemy, Leehouse right behind him, head down, in a bull charge. Alumette turned and flew off and noticed Mikoto had stayed behind. She had been just a blur, taking out those that had tried to escape. Now it looked like she was going to be making the much needed last ditch battle to cover their pursuit as they escaped with Shadow’s body.
08-22-2006, 06:49 PM
Objective 1.) Immobilise convoy: Status=Complete
Objective 2.) Disable enemy forces: Status=Incomplete
Kill Count: 12
The red haze had long since filmed over her optics as the soldiers fell, her enhanced hearing picked up the individual drops of blood falling to the dusty ground. The nanites that flowed through her system began breaking down the chemical structure of the blood that covered her almost to the elbows, extracting nutrients the help fuel her biological componants.
Several soldiers rolled on the ground, crying in pain as they grabbed the stumps of severed limbs. <Sliptch> the screaming stopped..
Odoriko looked around the battlefield, momentarily confused. Her GPS confirmed her location as near Cheongjin, North Korea
In the moment of confusion, bullets from an AK-47 riddled her body. Something odd was going on, it would be dealt with later.
As she turned to face the soldier, she brought up a system status report.
Objective 1.) Immobilise convoy: Status=Complete
Objective 2.) Disable enemy forces: Status=Incomplete
operational Status= Yellow
Kill Count: 14
Very well, enemy forces must be neutralised
A Howl of feedback tore loose from her voculizer, the intense harmonics momentariliy stunning the soldier as he desperately tried to reload. with a single swipe, the foetid stench of ruptured bowels filled the air. As the master had taught her, strike to wound or maim, so that two may be removed from the fray, one who is wounded, and one to care for him.
As more soldiers turned towards the scream, she faded back into the smoke.
08-24-2006, 04:27 AM
KAESONG, NORTH KOREA – NINE MONTHS AGO
A long, long trail had brought him to a crappy noodle bar in downtown Kaesong. From Rhode Island to England and back, to Bolivia, Peru, and Chile, to Venezuela with only a brief moment of respite in Brazil, allowing the antidote to his own infection to the drug to take effect. From South America, he hopped from point to point in a chartered airplane, passing like his namesake through Somalia, Ethiopia, and Egypt, tracing the complex and nautilus-like structure that composed Vitriol’s distribution networks. All this after one little drug. No. By Kaesong, it was much more than just a little drug. It was a weapon. A poison. Now he was the antidote. An antidote eating soggy ramen in a lean-to, street-side shack on an off street of an off street in the Asian city.
He must have been a sight to the pedestrians, this tall man, hairless except for his eyelashes, and sporting a dark tan from exposure to a foreign sun. Grace wouldn’t recognize him at first glance. But the moment that he opened his eyes, gray as steel, with a gaze to match, she’d see her mercenary. At the moment, said mercenary wasn’t eating his dinner, in lieu of staring at the brushed aluminum panel that made up the back wall of the noodle nook. From the metallic surface, Shadow discerned moving forms behind him, rushing by in the noon’s rain. It was a crude form of surveillance, but it was all he needed to let him know before hand that his contact was arriving, allowing the spy to spin around coolly on his stool to face her before she made a sound. “Hi Friday.”
She, as usual, believed in a disguise that made her so obvious, that she had to be discounted. Today she wore an ensemble very similar to the one he first met her in, more than seven years ago. The red mandarin dress, probably hid more daggers this time. “Shadow. You look frighteningly like an egg.”
“You look like a whore I met in Vegas.”
“Cute. The man you’re looking for here is a People’s Army man. General Wing of China. He’s operating several illegal operations here in Korea, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Vitriol was somewhere on that list.” By Friday’s cadence, Vitriol was on that list. The information came almost grudgingly.
“What’s wrong, Jane? Sad to leave Korea?”
The comment caused Jane’s eyes to widen, which made her brows raise, which made her blush. She never expected anyone reading through her game face. Shadow had a knack for it, and it launched her into a cascade failure. The breach lasted only a moment, and it confirmed Shadow’s ever-present suspicion that there was more than met the eye. “Not particularly.”
“In that case. I believe you have a flight to catch, and I need to get my Wing.”
The pun was received with a rolling of the eyes. Shadow finished his ramen, and picked up the contact slip that Jane left on her seat when she left. On it was an address of a well-known underground club. The irony was not lost on Shadow.
Later that night, Shadow stepped into the club, dressed to kill. The actual clothing, a black woven shirt and a pair of charcoal slacks didn’t impress, but Shadow was sure that the ceramic knife suspended underneath the shirt and the .22LR Beretta at the small of his back would certainly turn heads. Security did the cursory patdown. When the metal detector caught his gun, Shadow produced a metal cigarette case, and the bouncer let him through with no further questions. In a smooth motion as he passed through the press of bodies on the dance floor, he slipped the gun from his waist to a shoulder holster beneath his armpit.
He spotted his mark, the spitting image of the photo in his dossier, General Tzo Wing, of the People’s Republic of China. The man looked strong, and his barrel-chest was thrust forward in confidence, even sitting down. In a turtleneck knit sweater, white chinos, and white venetian slippers, Wing looked nothing like a military man, except the quintessential army buzzcut. He spotted Shadow as soon as Shadow saw him, through sunglasses that looked like an homage to Kim Jong-Il. Wing was here illegally, though the law in North Korea, like in any other country, often proved to be blind to certain individuals who represented certain forces in the world.
Wing likely knew who Shadow was from the moment that he stepped in North Korea off the plane. Wing likely knew exactly how Shadow was armed, and so Shadow did away with pretenses, undoing the first two buttons on his shirt, and revealing his knife and the leather shoulder-holster. Wing also knew better than to have the two heavies on either side of him try to disarm Shadow, so he waved them down. Wing knew that Shadow would like to sit, and so he pointed to the chair across from him. Shadow obliged. “Welcome to Kaesong, Lieutenant Jackson. I am hoping that you are enjoying the city.”
Something about learning English as a second language caused people to use too many gerunds. “It beats Mogadishu.”
“For certainly, Lieutenant Jackson.” As soon as Shadow settled in the chair, he saw all of Wing’s bodyguards. The two beside him were the biggest. A show of force. Sprinkled among the crowd, several men, none which seemed to fit the profile of a heavy, focused on Shadow’s hands. These were well trained. Not soldiers, though. They moved in the club with a certain ease, and only seemed to appear to let Shadow know that he was being watched.
“’For certain’. ‘Certainly’ would work better, though. You don’t want to use both, if you want the adverb.”
“I am sorry?” General Wing appeared surprised.
“Your English. It’s great; you just need to talk to more native speakers.”
“Ah, well, Lieutenant Jackson, I suppose that you will be willing to oblige?” Again with the gerunds. Wing lifted a hand a waitress more or less materialized by his side. “Lieutenant Jackson, would you like anything to drink?”
“No thank you.”
Wing looked at the waitress, and rattled off an order in Korean. Jackson understood Gin-tonic and Johnny Walker. The waitress disappeared with an efficiency that left Shadow somewhat envious. Wing turned back to Shadow, “You want to know about Vitriol.”
Shadow shrugged, “That much is obvious.”
Wing nodded, and the waitress came back with the drinks. The a glass of ice and the whisky bottle was set in front of the general, and the gin and tonic was set in front of Shadow. Neither man touched their drink. “You believe that I know something about Vitriol.”
“That’s why I’m here. Everything you’ve said so far could have been deducted by my itinerary and my presence here tonight, both of which you have full knowledge of.” More interesting, however, would be to discover how much further that knowledge went.
“Lieutenant Jackson, why are you so interested in Vitriol?”
“Professional curiousity. It popped up somewhere I didn’t expect it too.”
“Your back?” Shadow suppressed a smile. Wing knew about his accident in Britain. Those files were closed.
“Nothing, I am only talking.”
“Well, Mr. Tzo, I am a busy man. We both know that you know at least something. At least enough to know my choice of liquor.”
“Lieutenant Jackson, ever the American. Whatever happened to showmanship?”
“I left my costume at home.”
“Very well. I will tell you this. I do trade in Vitriol, just like every other man you’ve asked in three continents. Or is it four?”
“Five if you count England as a part of Europe.”
“Five it is, then. Just like them. I am but a peddler.” The answer was rehearsed. A lie.
“I doubt that.”
“I’m sure you do. I’d like to know why.”
“Trade secret. Can’t tell you.”
“Our mutual friend said that you would say that. Of course, she was just a messenger.”
For a rare time in his life, Shadow was caught off-guard. He barely felt the heavy’s hand come down on his neck in a swift chop. Darkness clouded his vision. He wondered if he would see Grace again.
08-28-2006, 02:58 AM
Nine months felt like a lifetime. Betrayal sat with him like sour bile in his mouth, and the taste never went away. When he came to, after his capture, he was furious. Shadow’s cool rational melted away in the face of rage, glorious rage.
He was never a creature of anger. Shadow never felt the righteous wrath that brought some to killing their fellow man. That Shadow murdered with a certain impunity was just one more item on a long list of grand ironies that he called life. But now, in the face of this sour betrayal, he wanted nothing more than to take the lives of his betrayers. He wanted vengeance. Kurt Yahn and Jane Friday would die by his hand. They would meet violent, bloody deaths, and the last thing they would see was Shadow’s face, contorted in twisted laughter.
A month passed, and Shadow managed to occupy himself with this feeling of rage. Even through torture, through interrogations, he feasted himself on anger. The emotion frightened him and thrilled him. But it didn’t last. There was no way he could fulfill his desires, restrained and powerless as he was, so rage fizzled into malcontent and despair.
Wing learned the most from Shadow in that first month. It was a ruthless eye for efficiency, coupled with a certain sadism that kept Shadow as Wing’s honored guest for longer. Several times a week, the general would have Shadow taken in chains and rags to his office, so the two could… practice English, as Wing came to call it.
“So, Lieutenant Jackson, you are still with us, yes?” Wing would sit behind his desk in whatever building he was using for a headquarters that day. The routine remained the same. The different Korean military facilities all began to blend together. To Shadow, it was all the same. Time was meaningless in limbo.
Shadow would be strapped to the front two legs of a folding chair, forcing his knees into his chest. His replies were laborious, and few. “Yes.”
“I am glad you are joining us. I have a question for you.” Wing would smoke one of his big cigars, and blow the blue fumes into Shadow’s face from time to time.
“Excuse me, Lieutenant Jackson? What I said was not correct?”
“Correct… but inelegant… in the English… language… one strives… for simplicity… in his diction…”
General Wing looked a little vexed. He didn’t precisely enjoy having his English corrected. He looked at one of the guards in the room, who struck Shadow with a bamboo reed. The mercenary winced and groaned in pain. “My question, Lieutenant, was not regarding grammar.”
Shadow didn’t respond. Wing continued, “I would like to ask you, Lieutenant, about your investigation into Vitriol.”
Shadow spoke immediately, “There’s… not much left… to say. I think… you’re holding… all… the cards.”
“Lieutenant, are your bindings harming you? I would be willing to be freeing your hands, if you would like to be having a conversation with me.”
“That’d… be nice.”
A nod from the General, and one of the heavies used scissors to cut the zip ties that held him in place. It took more effort than it should have to sit upright, and his breathing was labored as he rubbed his wrists, swallowing whimpers that would have come from the rush of pain that came with circulation. No more outward signs of weakness than he had to make. The Stalking Shadow was always composed. Even sitting naked, strapped to a metal folding chair. “Let us start from the beginning. What do you know about Vitriol.”
Shadow caught his breath, and began by rote: “Vitriol is an engineered substance that processes nutrients and chemicals in the human bloodstream via incredibly advanced bio-nanites to create two by-products: hormones and hydrochloric acid. Observably, it puts the user into a state of rage, almost immediately after it is introduced into the organism, and then the user suffers from side-effects related from acid eating away the blood vessels. Since Vitriol nanites use chemicals in the bloodstream to reproduce, Vitriol does not pass out of the body. Someone infected with Vitriol… can I get a bottle of water?”
The general again appeared vexed, and the heavy raised his hand with the reed, but Wing waved him down. “Yes. Of course. I will have someone bring you water.”
Without making a motion, one of the heavies left the room. A minute passed, and absolute silence reigned in the room. Shadow stared at Wing. Wing stared at Shadow. The heavies stared everywhere at once. The one that left returned with a bottle of water, sides frosty with condensation, and Shadow took it gladly. With effort, he untwisted the cap, hearing the satisfying click of the safety seal breaking. No truth serum for him. The cool water rejuvenated him, and he continued. “Someone infected with Vitriol must inject a solution to counteract the acid, or they will die. Since the concentration of Vitriol increases, the amount of solution required also increases, until the mixture of solution and Vitriol itself kills the infected subject. The only way to cure an infection of Vitriol is to inject a counter-nanite which blocks the functions that allow Vitriol to operate. Once blocked, Vitriol passes safely through the system.”
Shadow took another sip of water. The heavies stared corkscrews in the back of his head, which already had a short growth of his old hair, brown and boring. His eyebrows had also grown back, and a month without shaving left him with an unkempt beard. “Vitriol can not be manufactured like traditional drugs. Instead, it must be created in a highly advanced nanotech laboratory. However, once a genesis sample has been created, a nutrient vat can be seeded with it, so it can be mass produced. Due to the nature of its semi-organic production, however, it is nearly impossible to reverse-engineer without schematics.”
Wing covered a yawn with a hand. “That is academic, Lieutenant Jackson. Let us move on.”
“Alright. So, the genesis sample of Vitriol can only be created using a schematic, which I’ve never seen, which means it must be held in closed hands, and never been transmitted, everywhere. Which means that there is only one lab, or more likely, one subsection of an existing lab, creating Vitriol genesis samples. These genesis samples are sent to more labs which are much less sophisticated scope, and then the genesis samples are no longer needed, because a new vat can be created by a sample from an old one. Likely, the original lab doesn’t exist anymore, because enough Vitriol has been created to perpetuate the creation cycle endlessly. Myself, I’ve discovered several distribution networks, and I believe that the drug is largely being produced in industrial centers of the third world. However, since the infrastructure required to produce Vitriol is rather expensive and the demand for the drug is rather low, I can only imagine that a single organization is backing these producers, through and it has been very good at covering its tracks. I’ve discounted most of the usual suspects, from Crey to some of the Big Pharma corps, and various defense contractors abroad. From the power that this organization yields, I’d… can I get another bottle of water?”
Wing yawned and waved one of the heavies away to get the water. “Continue, Lieutenant.”
The water arrived, Shadow drank, and continued where he left off: “I’d say that the organization works on an international clandestine level through several intelligence agencies. Including Watchlight, the organization that I belong to.”
Wing held a hand up, and Shadow stopped, “Before you go any further, I will let you know the following: you are correct in your assumptions. You have also created significant damage to Vitriol’s production centers already. I do not want to hear any more about Vitriol. I want to hear about this organization you speak of.”
Shadow raised a brow, and finished the bottle of water. He figured that now was the time to stop giving. “No.”
The bamboo reed struck his shoulders, and left a stinging welt. Wing raised a brow. “What?”
“I’m done talking today. You can return me to my cell.”
Wing stared augers into Shadow. Shadow stared back, and forced himself to grin. “You will speak until I am telling you to cease speaking.” Wing looked at the heavy again and nodded, holding up four fingers. Four lashes followed, five seconds apart.
Through clenched teeth, Shadow said, “No thank you. I am done talking today. We can talk about something else, if you would like. Your accent needs w—“
More lashes. Shadow felt his skin break. Wing shook his head, “It’s almost a pity, Jackson, I was almost beginning to like you.”
09-03-2006, 08:00 AM
COURBIER FOUNDATION FLAGSHIP SHELTER, TUTORING CENTER, AND ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICES
KINGS ROW, PARAGON CITY
“Yes, one moment please,” Stuart, the part-time receptionist placed the caller on hold and swallowed hard, his face pale. He dialed Max’s extension. Stuart’s hands were sweating and he tugged at his flannel shirt, hastily thrown on over his raggedy Neg-Zero t-shirt—the one he’d gotten during their “Unestablishment” tour—and waited for Max Dartmouth, the Courbier Foundation’s director of finance, to pick up.
“This is Max,” the kindly, but no-nonsense voice answered.
“Max… I have a call for you on line two,” Stuart said, still stunned. “It’s…Monica Graham, with… Headline Entertainment,” his voice cracked a little.
Max seemed perplexed. “What does she want?” he asked.
“Something about… booking U2 for a benefit,” Stuart still didn’t believe his own words.
Max smiled. “I’ll take her call, Stu,” he said.
“Grace, can I speak to you for a moment?” Max said, catching her gently by the elbow as they passed in the hallway.
“Sure, Max,” she said. She was in her Dawn Patrol uniform which meant she was about to head out for her morning heroing assignments. Max had caught her just in time.
“I received a call this morning from Headline Entertainment,” he said, looking at her meaningfully.
Grace beamed, “Oh? So Bono really is going to help us out?”
Max nodded, grinning, “Yes he is. We’ll be in a series of meetings next week to work out the details. He wants to do a benefit concert here in Paragon. I’ve taken the liberty of putting those meetings on your calendar for next week.”
Grace’s eyes lit up with a gentle fire. There was no way she could ever thank Marsius enough, not in a million years. It was he, Crimsonstar, who’d made all of this possible for the foundation. “Of course, Max,” she said, “By all means.”
DAWN PATROL HQ--INFIRMARY
“Well, Miss Alumette, you seem to be recovering nicely from your mission,” RoboMD declared, in his polite, precise robotic speech.
“Yes, thank you, Robo. In truth, my injuries were quite minor. I think the strain leading up to the assignment wore on me more than the assignment itself.” She smiled as Robo continued his examination.
“And how is Dominic?” he asked, filling in some details on her chart.
“He’s fine. Following your instructions to the letter, mostly,” she giggled.
As she dressed, she asked, “So, are we ready for another trip to Benin?”
Robo looked at her, astonished, “So soon?”
Grace nodded, “I think so,” she said. “We should have plenty of funding coming up,” she smiled. “I’d like to see about starting up some clinics over there, actually,” she said. Robo’s eyes took on a surprised glow.
“Clinics? Miss Alumette, this is huge!”
Grace beamed, “It is. I mean, it could be. We’ll have to see how some things turn out, but it’s a start, and I’d like your hand in it, if the Dawn Patrol can spare you.”
“Of course, Miss,” Robo said. “It would be an honor.”
Grace stood on the plateau, in the center of a ring of stones. She was not in her black and purple leather, nor was she in her Dawn Patrol uniform. Instead, she wore a loose-fitting robe and violet tunic. Her hair was long, spilling down her back in burgundy waves. About her neck was a silver and garnet necklace—the same one she wore in Paragon City. Around her was a circle of similarly-dressed women, their heads garlanded in lavender and rosemary. Two women flanked her at a stone table, showing deference as Grace raised a silver chalice above her head and said a blessing in what sounded like Provençal, but was in no language Grace remembered ever learning. She drank deeply from the chalice and set the cup down.
Immediately her head began to swim. The two attendants at either side of her took her hands, guiding her to a small mound. It seemed to her that a throng of people looked on expectantly, waiting for her to say something. She did not know what to do, and yet, they were all looking at her, waiting, hoping. Hundreds of desperate prayers assaulted her—she didn’t hear them so much as feel them—people looking for guidance, fearful, uncertain.
“My Lady, what say you?” the woman to her right whispered.
It seemed to Grace that there was some urgency riding on her decision. That there were conquerors from the South, on the move; that their very lives depended on the words she would say next. In her mind flashed the painful memory of a village burned, pillaged; razed to the ground. The people, Her people, Her children, were looking to her for guidance.
“Mother,” the woman on her left pleaded, “How much longer will She abandon us?”
And suddenly Grace found her voice. When it came forth, it astonished her—at least the part of her that was witnessing this scene—as she stood there on the mound, her commanding voice seemed the most natural thing on Earth.
“Children of Belisama,” she intoned. “My children, my beloved people: invaders are upon us, bringing destruction to our lands. Though they call their gods by a different name, they too revere the Great Mother. They too are My children…”
She could not hope that these simple people would understand that in the guise of the hearth-goddess, she was but one aspect of the Divine. To them she was the All in and of herself, and she hoped it would be enough. She prayed for peace, beseeching, mostly from her own people. Already she had caused a great stir in Karnak by granting an audience to the barbarian king. Her people saw that as a sign of surrender, of betrayal. But they could not understand how the light needed the darkness, and the darkness needed the light. As her power was that of light, fire, warmth, and life—a magic of creation, so his was a power of darkness, shadow, cold, and death—a magic of destruction. She knew there could not be one without the other.
“You must welcome the newcomer,” she continued, sensing the ripple of dissatisfaction in the crowd. “He is your brother, your neighbor. I will not have my children fighting.”
“Then tell him not to bring war to our lands!” A voice cried out from the crowd. The throng responded with a rallying cheer.
“My family was lost, taken from me, when they came,” another voice called out. “And where were You, Lady, to protect them? Where was the shelter of hearth and home then?” The crowd responded with their own similar questions. It was only natural that they should wonder why She had abandoned them. But they could not understand.
“I assure you, our conqueror is not long for this world. The Old Ways will not be lost, but we must work for peace…”
Grace continued with her speech, but could no longer hear her own words. It seemed to her, as she observed the scene from afar, that the self-possessed woman addressing the crowd on the mound was at the same time her, and yet not her. It was another woman entirely and yet Grace knew her as she might her own sister, if she had one. It seemed to her that this woman was herself.
The crowd grew more and more restless, impatient that they were not being called to arms as they had hoped. Belisama had no taste for blood. True, like any mother, She would defend her children with a ferocity that would make the devil himself shrink in fear; but She was not a goddess of war. That was left to other aspects of the Divine. In truth, She had no appetite for war to speak of: for it was war that took away Her children, broke apart families, and disrupted the sanctity of the home hearth.
“My children, we must work for peace…” she continued, her voice being drowned out by the crowd. As she spoke, it pressed in on her, angry, not understanding, resentful. In a breath the tide swept over her, falling upon her with frustration and rage. She felt a burning stab in her ribs as a dagger thrust into her. She heard the scream of her attendant priestesses as she fell, and the world around her began to darken. She clutched at life desperately, her hands clawing out before her as if to grasp the very mortal coil itself and cling to it.
With a terrified gasp, she sat bolt upright in bed, her breathing fast and shallow, her body slick with the perspiration of fear. She choked back a scream as the realization that she was safe in her bed in Founders Falls, in the present, slowly sank in.
Dominic stirred next to her, not fully awake, “Grace?” he mumbled, struggling to consciousness and slinging an arm about her. He still had one arm and one leg in plaster, from his ordeal in North Korea. Grace gathered her wits about her, wanting him to sleep; the shadowy shreds of the dream still lingering in her mind.
“I just had a bad dream,” she whispered, snuggling back down under the covers. He grunted a half-conscious assent and then fell once more into a heavy sleep. Grace thought long and hard about the dream, fending off sleep as best she could. She could remember nothing about this part of the goddess’s history in her study of Her at MAGI. She puzzled over it, trying to place it. But it had been real, or at least it seemed so. The dream had been so vivid. Had she really abandoned them? Or had it only been their limited understanding that made it seem so? She mulled these thoughts over in her mind, willing an answer to come to her, before sleep overtook her once more.
All around her was destruction and waste. Her children could not stop fighting. It had gotten to the point where they no longer seemed to care who had done what. They simply wanted to keep slaughtering eachother. She felt very, very old; weary to her bones. Her children had forgotten the Old Ways, had forgotten Her, except in some distant, primal memory. She gazed over the eerily silent landscape, at a pile of cars in flames in a deserted street. Perhaps it is time I went into the mists, she thought to herself. My children must learn for themselves. She was tired; so very, very tired, of dressing wounds, comforting the sick, easing the passage of the dying. She was tired of keeping vigil over families broken by the slaughter of war. Her fire was for preparing nourishing food, for warming the home, not for this. It was true, part of her fire was inspiration for man’s genius: the fire of the craftsman’s forge, the ingenuity that made her children a pleasure; but they had been twisting it to inspire instruments of destruction for centuries, and had turned their backs on her.
Suddenly her attention was drawn to a small spark of hope in a nearby building. A handful of her children were there, bringing destruction, it was certain, but behind it She could feel hope, a belief in peace, which gave her strength. She could hear their prayers rising through their apprehension. Oh, they used many names to address the Divine, but the sense of it was the same, they asked for protection. She looked in their direction and could see men in modern combat dress. One in particular caught her eye: he was dark-skinned and muscular, his arms copiously inked with designs and symbols, some of which she recognized. He had a large build, almost too large to be human. He seemed a juggernaut, one who would not be moved. Torrance his name came to her.
Just then shots rang out, and she saw her children fall like mown hay. She closed her eyes and began to summon the Fire, preparing to protect them. A hand clasped her shoulder, “Don’t,” someone said. “This one is mine.” She turned to look, and was cowed by a power as old as her own. “My Lord,” she said with a bow, “I had no idea. Forgive me,” and the Fire left her. He made her feel cold, cold as death, to her core. “It will not be long now,” he said, and just then, she saw a shell explode in Torrance’s face, taking his eye and half of his head with it. She gasped at her companion, enraged, “How could you? His heart is pure!” Her companion said nothing.
She looked on in horror as Torrance’s unit was destroyed to the man, and then saw the centuries spread out before her: centuries of infighting, destruction, starvation, and disease, and she felt powerless against it.
Grace awoke with a start, slipping out of bed to splash some cold water on her face. During the process of Shadow's rescue, the goddess had granted her a reprieve from her nightmares, but now that he was returned to her, Belisama had begun her campaign anew. “I have returned him to you,” she heard in her mind, “if only to get you to cease your pitiful wailing. Now, there is much to be done. You forget, daughter, that your position is one of sacrifice. I have been indulgent with you; allowing you your friendships, your modern life, your love. But no more. Others that have gone before you have had no such luxury. If you have grown weak in your mission I suppose it is my own fault. But no longer. It is my will that there be peace and justice among my children, and you are my instrument. This man of yours,” and Grace knew the goddess was speaking of Dominic, “must be forgotten.”
Grace was too tired and too distressed by her fitful half-dreams to argue. She slipped back into bed and dropped into a leaden slumber.
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