Darnall Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, December 25, 2016, 11:34 pm
The triage nurse shifted her head, trying to get a better sense, a better read. The disposable surgical cap she wore slipped down and she pushed it up with the back of her hand, taking the opportunity to quickly rub her forehead – she’d had a headache for hours. With practiced fingers, she pressed the stethoscope down further into the dark brown crust of blood that covered the skin of the patient’s neck. Nothing. She shifted to the other side of the neck just below the jaw, a little less blood there, but still, silence.
Her eyes raised, the dark circles below them obvious in the bright overhead light. Her voice was flat with fatigue. “I’ve checked four points, sir. I’ve got no pulse. No respiration.”
Colonel Matthew R. Andrews, MD, FACS, US Army, handed another technician the stainless-steel shears he had been using to cut open the woman’s shirt. He wasn’t surprised. The copious amount of blood present on the woman’s clothes was already sticky, even dry in places, and her wounds, what he’d been able to see of them as he peeled back her blouse, were traumatic. They hadn’t brought him a patient; they’d brought him a body.
“There’s too many others,” he decided quickly, already pulling off his gloves, “call the time.”
“Time of death, twenty-three thirty-four-”
The shout coming from the door of the trauma suite startled them all. Three heads spun around to see a man standing there in the last stages of exhaustion, covered in blood and dirt, holding himself up by the doorframe. “No,” he said again, this time more quietly. “She’s not…she’s not gone.”
The colonel hurried over to the man, his next patient if his assessment was correct, and tried to move him toward a nearby chair. “I’m sorry, sir,” the doctor said as kindly as possible, “there was nothing we could do. You look like you might need help, let me –”
“No,” the man repeated, pushing his way upright. “Save her.”
Andrews watched the man close both eyes, saw his brow crease in concentration as he wobbled on unsteady feet. “Sir,” the colonel insisted, reaching for the stranger’s shoulders, “you’re going to fall. You need to sit down.”
“No.” It was barely a mumble.
There was a thump, then a sudden wet, coughing sound from the other side of the room. A monitor let out a high-pitched double beep.
“Colonel!” The nurse’s tone was somewhere between fear and disbelief. “She’s breathing!”
The Archangel Michael looked down onto the city, down onto the towers and the buildings and the ruins and the piles of debris. Not for the first time, his heart sank – Vega had been a shining jewel in the middle of the desert, a thriving city in the new Cradle of Civilization, hope for what had remained of mankind.
And now? Now she was battered, bruised, contracted upon herself. Three months after the Bad Times, after the civil war, after the curse of the Darkness and the invasion by Duma and Julian’s eight-ball army, Vega was just beginning to recover. Huge sections of the town had been abandoned, whole neighborhoods had been forced to move, buildings had been bulldozed into piles of rubble and made into emergency bulwarks. The hospitals were still filled, with very few people to work in them. The funeral pyres had burnt for weeks.
Yet, he thought to himself, there was hope. He could see it down there in the streets, streets still pockmarked by mortar blasts, still blocked by abandoned vehicles and fallen storefronts. The wars and the Darkness had claimed nearly half the population but those that remained had found a new purpose. They would reclaim, rebuild, and re-secure the city that they had nearly lost. There was no place for a hierarchy of classes here.
It was tragic really that it had taken such catastrophes to bring the people of Vega together, but perhaps the city would be better for it. Not unlike the biblical flood, there had been a certain cleansing. Vega was different now.
He looked down at the sheaf of papers in his hand – this was certainly different. There had been dozens of roles in Michael’s long, long life, but this one was new to him. His place with the humans had changed from protector, guardian, military tactician to…administrator? With the creation of the new governing Council, both he and Alex had allowed themselves to be drawn into the running of the city. He’d had to suppress his understandable desire to simply take flight and leave the wreckage of Vega to the humans and instead ended up a reluctant legislator.
In his heart, he realized that it was important. Vega needed to prepare for what the future held, whatever that might be. That was the crucial question – just what might be coming?
The archangel’s dark eyes swept out across the city. Somewhere out there Alex was working, either training new recruits, helping to move a family into new housing, working to distribute food or one of a dozen other tasks. It was hard to believe that the headstrong young man who had earned a whipping just over a year ago was now embracing his role as the Chosen One, as a leader.
If, perhaps, just as reluctantly.
A tiny smile of pride crossed Michael’s face, but then it faded. He still felt strongly that Alex was the point about which all things revolved. It was obvious that Lucifer had designs on the Chosen One, that he still had designs on the world, but Michael had not seen or heard from his older brother since, well, since before Julian’s army had invaded the city. Since the chapel in Mallory. Lucifer’s presence had been strong there, he had even saved Gabriel, but….
Gabriel – yet another problem. Michael sighed, an all-too-human gesture he’d found himself doing lately. His twin had joined him in his battle against Lucifer, up to the point of protecting Alex and aiding in the fight against Duma. Gabriel was even staying here in Vega, much to the horror of many of the residents. It had taken quite a lot of convincing to get the people to allow their former enemy to stay within the walls of the city. Michael had even included the posting of round-the-clock Archangel Corps on his brother to assuage their fears (although in all honesty, Michael thought of them as more for Gabriel’s protection than for that of the city.) Still, no matter where Gabriel was, Michael couldn’t help worrying about him.
The truth was, Gabriel was different. Michael doubted that anyone could come through the triple threat of Julian’s torture, infection by the Darkness and the literal “cleansing by fire” that had saved him without it affecting their lives, but Gabriel was fundamentally changed. As difficult as it had been fighting brother-against-brother for the last twenty-five years, Michael had always thought he had understood what drove his twin, the calling of his heart. Now, however, it seemed that Gabriel had not only given up his war against the humans, but had given up part of his spirit, too. He had still fought fearlessly against Duma and the eight-ball army, his sword as swift and deadly as ever, and he had pledged to do the same against Lucifer, but there was something missing, some intangible that Michael could not easily identify.
The archangel put the papers down on a nearby table, leaned out on the railing and scanned the city again. Vega. He’d watched the city rise and fall and now start to rise again. This wasn’t the same birds-eye view he’d had from the rooms he had previously held at the top of the Stratosphere. He’d decided to be closer to the people now, closer to the city, there when they needed his guidance, not sequestered away. He’d hated to give away the advantage of highest point, but it had needed to be done.
Instead, he had given his rooms in the Stratosphere to his brother. That was when he knew with certainty that something was wrong. Michael had been sure that the over-the-top rococo decorating would elicit some kind of a response, but there had been nothing – Gabriel had uttered not a single quip nor snipe nor smart remark. It was very unlike the normal acerbic archangel. Something was very, very off.
Michael’s brow furrowed in worry. One sibling crushed in a mountain, another not himself, one suddenly risen from the dead and the last still missing like Father. His family was in shambles.
And he was here playing politics. How had he become so entangled with these humans? How had he ended up in a war battling first one and now another member of his own family?
How did he end it?
Alex brushed away the fingers that tried to wind their way through the blond curls at the nape of his neck. If nothing else, Arika’s women were determined. He tried to move over on the plush divan to get away from the voluptuous redhead so interested in his hair only to find himself up against a brunette who looked at him just as hungrily.
“Arika, can we just talk?” he complained, rising and moving to the other side of the room. “I’m not here for…whatever.”
The beautiful leader of Helena cast a slow, languorous smile at him. “You can’t blame them for trying, Alex. It would be a great coup to carry the child of the Chosen One.”
“I thought you didn’t even believe,” he countered.
“Much has happened in the last year, Alex. Much of what I believed in has been challenged.” Her large dark eyes fell. “I’ve had to reevaluate many of my choices.”
“That’s why you brought David Whele here?”
She laughed. “David and I are both on a journey. We needed each other. After he helped to defeat Duma to save your city, he needed healing. I thought he could do that here, and frankly, Helena needed his kind of help. He really is a genius, you know.”
“Yeah, a genius at helping himself. You’ll understand if I don’t trust the guy.”
“I don’t think he trusts himself right now, so you are on equal ground.” She waved an elegant hand and the other two women left the room. “Tell me, Alex, why do you want David to come back if you feel so strongly about him? He is welcome to stay in Helena. He has…found a place here.” Her intonation spoke more than her words.
Alex watched her for a moment. Yes, that was it, she was possessive of Whele. Were the two of them…? He found the thought more than a little repulsive. “He has information about the infrastructure of the city. We lost a lot of people during the Darkness and the battle with Duma, we just don’t have the manpower we need to do some of the things we have to do. Whele had his hands in almost everything in the city, he has the knowledge that we need to get things done.” He leaned in closer. “But he’s going to be on a very short leash.”
Arika twittered musically. “You don’t leash a man like David. I think, however, you’ll find he’s willing to help you. He’s not the same person you knew before.”
“What, have you tamed him or something?”
“Tamed him? No, I think the better term would be ‘bandaged’ him. We fixed his hand for him…and other things.” She left the sentence tantalizingly unspecific. “He is a different man now. You’ll see.”
He gave her a sideways look. “For the record, Arika, I don’t trust you either.” Again, she only offered that dazzling, enigmatic smile. “Before she died, Claire told me what you did to her, and I’m not going to forget it. I’m only here because Helena and Vega are two of the only cities left. We need to work together if we’re going to survive what’s coming.”
“And what is that, Alex? From what I heard, Gabriel is no longer fighting his war. Do you think his angels will continue?”
“I don’t see them stopping. They may find someone else to follow.”
“You could say that.”
The convoy drove up within a hundred yards of the tall city gates and stopped. It was a small group, only three vehicles, but they had planned it that way. One, an ancient looking VW bus, one a small military transport of unknown vintage and the last, an SUV that sported a motley pedigree of parts and colors. All in all, an unimposing group. Nothing to be afraid of.
Two figures exited from the transport, a woman from the driver’s side and a man from the passenger’s. He walked over toward her and handed her a small duffel. “Are you sure you don’t want us to hang about a bit until you have a better feel for the place?” His accent was British, his age pushing fifty. His toothbrush mustache and his upright bearing belied a lifetime in the military.
The woman lifted worn goggles from her eyes and set them on top of her shoulder-length hair. She squinted into the sunlight, making the tiny crow’s feet at the corners of her green eyes more noticeable. Her hands checked the gun at her right hip and the long sword on her left, then she patted the second gun that hung further down her left thigh. “No, Jenkins, I’m good. Fall back like we talked about. I’ll contact you when I know what’s going on.” She unzipped the duffle and checked for the radio that lay on top of a small bundle of sand-colored fatigues similar to the ones she was wearing. She clicked the send button and heard the familiar response from one clipped to Jenkins’ belt.
Jenkins raised his own goggles and looked at her seriously. “And you’re sure you want to do this alone?”
The corners of her mouth curled up into what was a typically wry smirk. “Yes. I don’t need you to hold my hand.” Then she did just that and held his. “Thank you. For coming with me.”
“My duty, mum.”
Her smile widened, not just at the appellation. Technically it was his duty, but it was also more than that. “You’re a good friend.”
He gripped her hand tightly and then released it. “Take care, mum. I hope you find what you’re looking for.” Turning on his heel, he reentered the transport on the driver’s side. A swing of his arm out the window started the engines of all three vehicles, and within moments they were rumbling away, leaving the woman standing in a cloud of dust.
She lowered her goggles against the sand, took a determined breath and strode toward gates. A few moments later, an amplified voice sounded through the hot air. “You have approached the city of Vega. State your name and intention.”
She pulled her goggles off and let her long, dark blond hair loose from the straps. “I’m Commander Charlotte Lannon of the Wildcats, and I’m here to see my son.”
Michael stared out the window at the far horizon as if he could see the farmhouse a hundred miles away, see the scene that had taken place decades ago, look to find some detail he had missed, some explanation for what he had just heard. He couldn’t believe it, he simply could not believe what the sergeant had told him.
Charlie? Alive? And here in Vega? It couldn’t be true – he had seen Charlie’s dead body, helped Jeep dig her grave. It simply could not be true.
His mind ran through a dozen possible scenarios. The woman must be mistaken, or perhaps delusional, longing to attach herself to the savior of Vega. Or, he thought, this might very well be Lucifer’s gambit to get to the Chosen One, an elaborate ruse designed to lure him away from Vega.
The archangel unconsciously stood taller and squared his shoulders. No one was going to get to Alex without going through him first.
At least there was one small consolation – the helicopter had not yet returned from Helena. Michael could quickly deal with this pretender and Alex need never know a thing about it. He could save his young friend the pain of the inevitable lie.
A fresh-faced guard, one of the new recruits since the war, came into the room and announced his visitor. “Archangel, Commander Lannon to see you.”
The woman who entered his quarters was middle-aged, dressed in fatigues, now sporting an empty holster and scabbard. Michael watched as she quickly took in her surroundings, the sign of a trained soldier, before turning to him and extending her hand. “You’re Michael the Archangel, I take it.” Her tone was professional but friendly. “I’ve heard a bit about you, I’m pleased to finally get the chance to meet you.”
Michael looked from her hand to her face, ready for the offensive, then stopped, dumbfounded. He blinked, unbelieving. It was her, it was Charlie. Older, a streak of gray at her temple, a few lines in her face, but it was her. A rush of memories flooded down on him and he stepped back reflexively. He had expected an imposter, someone he would reveal as a fraud and send away but this, this woman was too perfect. “Charlie?”
The woman blushed in embarrassment. “Oh, wow, I haven’t been called that in 25 years. I’m sorry, do we know each other?”
Michael tried to speak but couldn’t find the words. She was just as Charlie would have looked after a quarter-century, standing there in military fatigues and brown boots. Her hair was darker and shorter and she was obviously more mature than the last time he had seen her. He stepped closer and gently set his hands on her upper arms. The blush rose higher on her cheeks – she was also much more alive.
“But it…it can’t be you,” he said, still mystified.
She dropped her extended hand and frowned, drawing back from him just a bit. “I’m Commander Charlotte Lannon. Were you expecting someone else?”
“No, I –” The archangel continued to stumble over his words, attempting to put them into some kind of coherent form. “But Charlie, you… you died.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
Now she tried to pull away from him. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” A note of irritation crept into her voice, replacing the embarrassment. “I’ve lost a few days from early in the war, yeah, I had a head injury, but I certainly didn’t die. It’s not like I’m a zombie or anything, and I am not an eight-ball.”
“No, I know you’re not.” Michael let her go and walked a few feet away, needing space to think. Nothing was what he had expected. He had sensed no otherworldliness about her, no possession or other spirit form. “It is you, but we all thought you dead. We mourned you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, this doesn’t make any sense.” She shook her head, her brow creased in frustration. “I woke up in a military hospital, not a morgue.”
“I don’t understand it either. I saw your body.” He turned back toward her. “Jeep…Jeep buried you.”
“Jeep?” Her expression suddenly changed, relief shining through the confusion, her breath coming fast. “Jeep – he made it?”
“Yes,” Michael nodded. “We lost him only last year.”
“Oh.” The commander closed her eyes, trying to put her feelings into some kind of order. Michael could see the struggle play across her features. When she looked at him again it was with a kind of fervent hesitation. “If Jeep did make it here, if he…” She paused, breathing deeply, gaining control. “I’m sorry, I…maybe I should explain why I’m here.”
The archangel silently encouraged her, this was what he had been waiting for.
“About three months ago,” she started, “we had some traders come through our camp. They’d heard things, they said, just tales maybe, but they talked about a young man here in Vega, they called him the Chosen One. They told a story about how his father had died to save him. They called him Alex and called his father Jeep. The coincidence was too much, I mean seriously, how many people have the name ‘Jeep’?” She gave a little laugh but it couldn’t overcome the intensity in her eyes.
Michael smiled but said nothing. He was still trying to work out what was going on, what he was willing to say.
“I had to know,” she continued, “I had to come to Vega and find out for myself. Now you tell me that Jeep survived, that he made it to Vega…” she faltered again, afraid to go on. The confident woman that had walked into the room was suddenly gone, replaced by a fearful mother. Fearful, hopeful. She bit at her lower lip, holding back emotion. “Please, tell me, Archangel, are those stories true? Did Jeep die to save Alex? Is my boy alive?”
Looking into her face, seeing the sincerity there, it was difficult to doubt that this was the woman who had lost her child so many years before. Michael’s expression softened. “They are true. Alex is alive.”
For a moment, she did nothing, stunned. Then her hand flew to her mouth and she stumbled toward a nearby chair to sit, unable to trust her legs. Her body started to visibly shake.
Michael stood back, watching her reaction. He could see tears welling up, they seemed genuine, but he was still confused. Confused and grateful that Alex wasn’t here in the middle of all of it. “But I’m sorry, he’s not here right now,” the archangel apologized. “He went to Helena, on a diplomatic mission.”
“Seriously, a diplomatic mission?” The commander laughed through the tears, wiping at her eyes. “I never thought a child of mine would be a diplomat.” Her hands spread out, showing her fatigues, her empty weapons belt. “Not exactly in the genes, if you know what I mean.”
“It wasn’t by choice,” Michael allowed with a certain amount of chagrin, “but we needed someone we could trust.” He paused, thoughtful. He didn’t want to interrogate her but he still needed answers, before Alex returned. “You’re not from Helena then.”
For the first time, there was a split-second of hesitancy in her response. “No, I’m in the Midwest now.”
“I’m not familiar with any settlements there.”
“It’s a small compound, pretty far away.”
The archangel mulled this over. There were still pieces missing from her story. “You’ve been there all this time?”
“I found good people, they took me in, gave me a purpose. Like I said, I woke up in a military hospital. That was in Texas, I don’t even know how I got there. I really don’t remember anything about those first few days of the war. I just figured I was one of the lucky ones, if you call thinking you’ve lost everyone you care about lucky.”
Lucky? Michael’s eyes narrowed just a bit. He had seen her lifeless body placed into the ground – luck had nothing to do with it. There was something much greater than luck at work here, but he had no idea what it was.
It was strange, she’d evaded his question, but still, Charlie appeared quite genuine. For years, it seemed, she’d had no idea that Jeep had survived, that her son had lived. He couldn’t imagine what she was feeling right now. It wasn’t surprising that her answers were less than cogent.
“This thing about Alex,” she asked tentatively. “They called him ‘the Chosen One.’ What exactly does that mean? I want to –”
She was interrupted by a commotion, arguing voices in the hallway outside. “But sir, he’s in a meeting!”
“I don’t care, little man. I’m his brother; he’ll make time for me.” The door opened explosively and Gabriel strode in, clad in his usual black leather coat, fully armed. “Michael, we need to talk. I can’t –”
He was halfway across the room when he halted abruptly, staring at the woman seated in the chair opposite Michael. The look of annoyance that he typically wore changed to one of confusion, then to uneasy recognition. “Charlotte?”
The commander stood, still a little shaky, resting her hand on the back of the chair for support. She seemed just as stunned. “Gabe? Is that you?”
Then without waiting for a response, she ran across the room to him, throwing her arms around his neck. “Oh, my god, I never thought I’d see you again. You made it, too! You’re alive, and you’re here! I can’t believe it!”
Gabriel stood motionless, overwhelmed by her affection, his face a mask of shock. Eventually he pushed her gently away, holding her at arm’s length. His eyes travelled over her face, his hand rose to tentatively touch her hair, as if he was afraid that it would disappear at his touch. “Charlotte,” he said again, his voice nearly cracking. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to find Alex.” Her eyes lit up as realization dawned. “Of course, that’s why you’re here. You’re here for Alex.” A broad smile creased her face and she looked over her shoulder at Michael. “And you said you were there that day with Jeep, you must have helped save Alex when I…” she left the words unsaid, still trying to comprehend what had happened, what Michael had told her. “If I couldn’t be there…if Alex had you both ….”
Michael was just as bewildered as his brother was. Until she had walked into the room a few minutes ago, he had thought that Noma and Gabriel had killed this woman, but now she greeted Gabriel with unmitigated affection, even relief. Why would she feel that way for her assassin?
“Charlie,” he asked, now not even sure of her name, “how do you know Gabriel?”
“What?” She looked at him, still smiling, trying to make sense of what he had just asked. “What do you mean how do I know Gabe? He’s –”
She stopped, her head tilted to the side and Michael watched as the happiness leached from her expression. Her brow knit and he could see her mouth the name: “Gab-riel.”
She turned back toward the fairer angel. “Gab-riel?” This time the name came out in just a whisper. “You,” she pushed herself away from Gabriel slowly, deliberately, her hands raised defensively. “You said ‘brother’ when you walked in here.”
Gabriel only stared at her, unable to speak. Michael stepped forward. “Gabriel is my brother.”
Charlie turned back toward him, anger and dread combining in a volatile mix. “But you – you’re an archangel.”
The moment of understanding was like a silent thunderclap. The commander rocked on her feet, her breath suddenly ragged, her eyes very wide. She spun on Gabriel, any affection she had shown him instantly transformed into revulsion. “You…you lying son of a bitch! You’re him! You’re Gabriel!”
It was all the accusation that needed to be made. Gabriel’s face was stricken with torment. “Please, Charlotte, let me try to explain.” He reached toward her.
Instantly the commander was on the offensive, a blur of much-practiced speed. Then she was a few feet back and Gabriel was holding the side of his mouth with his hand, stunned. “Don’t touch me!” she hissed. “Don’t ever try to touch me again! And don’t try to explain, I know all about you, I’ve been battling you and your legions for the last 25 years.”
She was in a fighter’s stance as she whirled on Michael. “You’re the one who needs to explain. I lost everything because of Gabriel, I lost our son because of his war, but all the stories said you were on our side, on the human’s side. What are you doing with him now, Michael, what the hell is going on here?”
Even without weapons, the woman was formidable. More than that, she was brave; Michael could think of few other humans who would even think of striking an archangel unprovoked, normally a death sentence. He moved between her and his brother, his hands raised in a calming gesture. “Gabriel is here because he is working with us, Charlie, not against us. We face a common enemy and we must band together if we are to defeat him. Alex is with us in this cause.”
The commander would not be dissuaded. “Are you kidding me? This…this monster? I don’t care if he is your brother, Michael, he’s responsible for the deaths of six billion people! Do you actually trust him? Are you telling me that Alex trusts him?”
Michael had to be honest. “Trust is a difficult subject.” He turned toward his brother. For a split second after she had hit him, Michael had seen Gabriel’s eyes flare in anger, then they dimmed to a kind of bewilderment. Now he nursed his swollen lip, strangely silent. It was not like an archangel to take this kind of attack, verbal or physical, without response; something was very, very wrong.
“Gabriel.” Michael didn’t like the combination of confusion and despair he saw brewing in his twin’s eyes. “Gabriel, please, go. Let me speak with her, I will find you later.”
Gabriel looked at the woman standing at a distance from him now, shoulders back, fists clenched, a warrior’s posture. She radiated hatred like a star threw off heat. For a moment when he had first seen her, his heart had soared, but now he felt nothing except a twisting crush of guilt and self-loathing.
He wordlessly turned and walked away, her fiery glare following him to the door.