The invitation arrived by messenger while Commander Lannon was at lunch. She read it quickly, and then read it again, not completely believing what was written.
Mr. David Whele respectfully requests the honor of your company this evening at Le Chantecler Restaurant, 8 p.m. sitting. Regrets Only.
Her heart thumped in her chest and the pain behind her sternum started up again. She massaged it with the back of her hand, the note held in the other. She read it a third and fourth time.
David Whele wanted to have dinner with her?
Charlotte was not surprised that Whele had picked Le Chantecler for their dinner; after all, he had previously been a V-6 and was obviously used to the finer things in life. She was surprised, however, when he met her outside the door of the restaurant in a suit and tie that looked like they had seen better days. His reputation had prepared her for something much more elegant.
For herself, the commander had picked a jade green sleeveless dress with a high chiffon neckline and very little accent. There were rumors about David Whele and his predilections; she didn’t want to give him any more encouragement than she had planned. Besides, she was fairly sure he would recognize it as belonging to the late Becca Thorne. With any luck, the memory would be disconcerting.
She released her escorts as Whele hailed her.
“Commander Lannon, it’s a pleasure to finally have the opportunity to get to make your acquaintance.”
Charlotte put out her hand and then realized that her host’s was wrapped in bandages. There was a moment of awkwardness before she decided on a brilliant smile instead. “Yes, Mr. Whele, of course, the last time we met things were a bit more hectic.”
“Yes, well getting shot down in a helicopter will do that. I can’t afford too many of those, I don’t have a tailor I can run to anymore. And please, call me David.”
The comment was odd. Charlotte wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a complaint or self-effacing. “I’m pleased you weren’t injured, David,” she answered.
“I’m most pleased that your son was alright. We can’t have anything happening to the Chosen One, can we?”
“No,’ she said, still unsure. “No, we can’t.”
They were just about to enter the restaurant when Charlotte heard a voice coming through the sounds of the city around them. “Commander!”
Her blood ran cold. No, not now, she silently cried, not now!
“Commander!” the voice called again.
“I think he’s talking to you,” David noted.
Again, she pulled out the brilliant smile. “Yes, of course. I’ll see what he wants, give me a moment.” She turned quickly and hurried over toward where Gabriel was approaching, his two corpsmen a few feet behind. “Archangel.” Her tone was cool. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“I didn’t expect to see you.” His glare never left Whele, still standing at the door of the restaurant. His voice was tense, his words measured. “I’m meeting Michael on the other side of the square. What are you doing here?”
“I’m having dinner.”
“With him?” The last word nearly dripped with disgust. “How will you eat?”
She took a calming breath. “Sometimes I need to be a diplomat, as difficult as that is. From everything I’ve heard, David Whele still has connections I could use. I have to think of the big picture.”
“Politicians, diplomats, it’s an infection,” the archangel rumbled quietly. “I can get any information you want in five minutes, and then end the murdering bastard’s miserable life.”
She could see the anger and the hurt in his face, and she knew that the only reason it didn’t show in her own was because she had buried it deep down inside. “I know, I feel the same way, but for now, we have to play the game. If Alex can do it, so can we, right?” She wanted to reach out to him, do something to soothe his anger, but she couldn’t, not here, not now. “I’m sorry, I have to go, I don’t want to keep him waiting.”
A low growl came from Gabriel’s chest. “You’re wearing green again.”
“Yes, I am.” Her eyes teased as she looked at him over her shoulder, walking away. “But not for him.”
David Whele was holding the door open when she came back and they entered into the foyer. “I hope there was nothing wrong.”
“Oh, no,” she said lightly. “You know archangels, they think anything they have to say is the most important thing in the world. I do apologize.”
“No need, I’m just glad he didn’t take you away from me.”
Again, Charlotte found the comment odd, but didn’t know how to respond. She was saved by the figure of Marcel bustling toward them at high speed.
“Mademoiselle Lannon! You are back so soon! Merveilleux!” He leaned up to kiss her on both cheeks, European-style. “I did not know you would be sitting with us tonight.”
“Mr. Whele invited me, I certainly couldn’t say no to the opportunity.”
Marcel’s face fell as he turned toward the former Senator. “Yes, well, it is a pleasure, however it happens.” He extended his elbow to Charlotte and she took his arm, a little awkwardly as he was quite a bit shorter than she. “I seat you at the same table then. The dinner, it is vegetarian tonight, slow roasted artichokes stuffed with spinach served with a cauliflower tabbouleh. It is,” he kissed his fingertips dramatically, “tres bon.”
“It sounds delightful, Marcel. I’m simply in awe of what you’re doing here.”
The little Frenchman helped her into her chair and left, promising to send a bottle of wine “worthy of the lady.” Whele sat down across from her, setting the napkin into his lap with his unbandaged hand.
“I take it you’ve been here before. There goes my little surprise.”
“Yes.” Her legs crossed under the table, one of the elegant sling-back heels peaked out from below the cloth at the side. She gracefully lifted the water goblet to her lips and sipped. “Alex brought me here a few nights ago. We had a wonderful sea bass. I haven’t had anything like it in, well, I can’t say that I’ve ever had anything like it. Vega is very lucky.”
“Yes, yes, it is.” His gaze flicked from her face to her ankle and back again, then dropped. Her look had been cool and reserved. She was sizing him up and they both knew it. This was a game that he usually played, and won, but this time his opponent was formidable. He also took a drink of water. “You’ve been in Vega for a little while now,” he opened, “what do you think of our city?”
“Well, obviously, it needs a little work.” Her expression was not unkind and they both smiled; it was impossible to miss the piles of rubble and holes that still needed to be dealt with. “In all seriousness, it looks like the new Council is dealing with a lot of the problems that existed. I think there’s hope. I’ve consulted on a few improvements on defenses and my people are doing some training with the Vega troops.”
“Then I’ll speak for the common man and say thank you, we appreciate it.”
The gentle reminder that he had been part of the old government that had caused most of the problems hadn’t gone unnoticed. Charlotte could see little points of fire in his eyes no matter how solicitous his words. “Of course,” she said. “We all need to work together.”
“You’ve been working together with Gabriel quite a bit, haven’t you?” he said, the same smile still on his face. “The archangel who was trying to kill your son until just recently.”
“Yes, well Gabriel has had a change of heart when it comes to Alex.” She nearly choked on the irony of her words. “And who better to work on defenses with than the best military mind in the city?”
“There is that,” he conceded, “but I don’t think that was military strategy that you were discussing earlier. Or when he visits you in your apartment at night.”
If he expected a reaction, he was disappointed. One brow raised, she remained convincingly unperturbed. “David, really, snooping? Isn’t that rather…vulgar? And before we’ve even had the wine.”
His response was equally as blasé. “I gather information on my potential allies as well as my enemies. I think it’s important that we both know where we stand. You may be the mother of the Chosen One, but you’re also the leader of an army. I helped build this city, and I’m going to continue to do everything I can to protect her.”
“As a leader of an army, I appreciate that, and you’re right, Gabriel and I are…collaborating.” She leaned forward on her elbows, her chin resting on the back of her hands, her voice now sultry. “But let me put your mind to rest and tell you that neither you nor Vega need worry about it.”
The waiter picked that moment to appear with the wine. He poured a small amount into David’s glass, who tasted it and frowned.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, leaning back in her chair again. “Has it gone off?”
“No,” he grumbled and twisted the bottle in the waiter’s hands so he could read the label, a fine Tuscan Sauvignon Blanc. “It’s excellent. It should be, it came from the House Whele cellars.” He flicked his fingers toward the waiter. “Fine, go ahead, pour it. At least I can appreciate one bottles’ worth.”
Charlotte had to work to hide the grin that wanted desperately to sneak out. Instead she reapplied the cool, sophisticated persona she had picked out for the evening along with the green dress. “It must be rather difficult for you, losing everything like you did when the new Council took over.”
David took a long drink of the wine and let in roll around in his mouth. He closed his eyes, appreciating the moment. “There are things I miss, like this.” When he opened his eyes again, they had a sadness she did not expect. “The truth of the matter is I lost everything well before they took my home and my belongings. I sold my soul long ago, Commander. All I’m trying to do now is find some way to buy it back.”
She sat back, gently swirling the wine in her glass instead of drinking. She’d expected verbal sparring, she’d expected hard diplomatic tactics, but this was going in a direction she hadn’t foreseen. She needed her wits about her. “How do you plan on doing that?”
Once again, the waiters seem to have incredibly good or incredibly poor timing, depending on the point of view. Their food arrived and they took a few minutes to begin, pulling apart the tender artichokes, raving about the delicate seasonings, the way the flavor of the artichokes changed the dryness of the wine. It was a brilliant pairing. David took back his initial misgivings that they had come on a vegetarian night; he admitted to being a die-hard carnivore, but this was enough to sway him. Then again it was much less difficult to eat this with one hand.
Finally, they returned to the previous conversation. David found it easier with the distraction of food between them. “Are you familiar with the city of Helena?”
Again, an unexpected twist. “Yes,” Charlotte answered, setting aside another artichoke leaf. “You and Alex were on your way back from there when your helicopter was shot down. I’ve never been there but I’ve heard it’s set up as a matriarchy. I can’t say I have any problem with that.”
“Yes, Arika, an exceptional woman. I think you’d like her. She and I have been working together for a while, since before…” He stopped, his fork in mid-air. “Since before everything went to hell.” He smirked. “Again.”
“I heard a little about what happened here. The civil war, the eight-ball army, that thing called the Darkness.”
“The civil war.” David set his fork down, pulled his napkin off his lap and laid it to the side of his plate. He sat back. “Yes, that was me.” His head moved slowly back and forth, his gaze lost somewhere in the past. He reached for the wine and filled his glass again, drinking half of it. He held up the glass. “I’ve tried, this doesn’t make it go away, no matter how good the wine is.” As if to try to prove himself wrong, he drained the rest of the goblet.
Charlotte finished the last few morsels of the dinner in silence, then set the silverware on the plate and pushed it all a few inches toward the center of the table. She picked up her own wine glass and took a generous sip. It was good wine, but more than that, she needed time to think. Things were not going the way she had expected.
The waiters came and silently took their plates away. Charlotte reached toward the center of the table and smoothed the fine linen with her fingertips. “I learned something about you recently.”
David waved the wineglass. “If it’s bad, chances are it’s true.”
She ignored the comment, still staring at the table top. “Alex told me about his relationship with Claire Reisen.”
“Claire.” He pointed with the finger of the hand that held the wine; it was just a little unsteady. He’d “fortified” himself with a stop at a bar prior to arriving at the restaurant. “That girl was the bane of my existence, and I returned the favor. She was smart and determined and by God she was a Reisen, everything the general was and more. If we had worked together, we could have done incredible things, but I was just too damn ignorant, too wrapped up in my own thirst for power to see that.” He took another drink. “I thought I was doing what was best for Vega, but what I was doing was what was best for my own damn self.”
Charlotte listened to his confession but it didn’t change the glacial tone of her voice. “You tried to assassinate her. You had her shot.”
“I did. It was stupid. At least she didn’t die.”
“Her baby did. Alex’s baby.”
He sat back further into his chair, looking for all the world like someone had let the air out of him. “Yes, Claire told me about that. At the time, I didn’t know she was –” A mixture of emotions swept across his face as he came to understand: confusion, horror, sadness, regret. “Your grandchild. I didn’t know. I swear to you, I didn’t know.”
“Would it have made any difference?” The ice in her voice was even more disturbing than emotion.
“I can’t say. I don’t know, maybe.” He set the wine glass down and pushed it away. “No, probably not.”
“Gabriel wants to kill you.”
His eyes rose to hers. “Why? What difference did that baby make to Gabriel? Just because you and he are –” He stopped, his head tilting a little to the side, then his eyes grew wide. “Alex? Gabriel is…”
Charlotte nodded slowly, her expression wintry. “I’m telling you this because you deal in information. Not for you to use, but to understand why you have a death sentence on your head.”
“No less deserved than the last time.” He absently-minded rubbed his neck. “This thing they called the Darkness, did they tell you about it?”
“I was supposed to die that day. I was at my execution when it happened. What I saw during that time, what is showed me,” his shoulders curled in, his face fell and he looked ten years older. “What I was on the path toward being, I almost wished that the rope had swung. I realized that night that I couldn’t continue, it was either change or die. That’s what I mean about selling my soul. I feel barely human as it stands, if I have to claw my way back up, I’m willing to do it.”
“‘Clawing’ has rarely gotten anyone anywhere positive.”
“You’re right,” he laughed bitterly. “I’ve spent too much time clawing and backstabbing, stepping on and over people. I need to find a new vocabulary.”
She waited, silent. It was an old psychology tactic.
“I mentioned Arika before,” he continued. “She had the same kind of, I don’t know, epiphany, during the Darkness. We’re working together now, trying to save what’s left of our cities. Helena’s got problems. Arika is a powerful woman; originally her plan was to take over Vega, to move her people here to save them, but she realized that’s not going to work. She needs to find a new place where they can be safe.”
“Why are you telling me this? If you know as much about me and my people as I think you do, you know we don’t have the room for them, we’re pretty much at capacity as it is. Besides, that would be a helluva relocation.”
“You’re right, that won’t work. But you have a large army, and they’re very mobile. She has a small air force and that’s all. She can’t defend her people if they take to the road. You could.”
Charlotte thought about this for a few seconds. “You want me to subcontract for Helena’s defenses.”
“That’s the idea.”
“What’s in it for me?”
David’s mouth turned up; he had her interested. “Helena has a wealth of medical knowledge that has been pretty much lost to everyone else.” He held up his bandaged hand. “They put this back together, I may even be able to use it someday. They can train your people, give them the knowledge, help pass it on. Maybe they can even help some of your people with medical problems.”
For a split second, a tiny thought glimmered in the back of Charlotte’s mind, then she pushed it away. Nonetheless, this didn’t sound like a bad trade; her Wildcats were always looking for another adventure, and they’d lost valuable medical staff over the years both from battle and old age, and lost their knowledge as well. If she could get some of it back, it would be worth the road trip for a battalion or two.
“It sounds doable, but on my terms. I’ll talk to my people and we’ll get the preliminaries going to send people to Helena, but first I want something from you.”
“Yes, of course.” David was almost giddy at her acquiescence.
“You don’t know what it is yet.”
“Whatever I can do to help, of course I will.”
“This is something different. I want information.”
He squinted at her. “About what, or is it whom?”
She paused, still not sure that this was the right thing to do. What had she said to Jenkins about strange bedfellows? “I want everything you have, everything you can get on the settlement at New Delphi and the people there.”
He frowned. “Of course, if that’s what you want. I’ll talk to Michael –”
“Ah!” She raised a finger and silenced him in mid-sentence. “That’s the caveat. I don’t want Michael or Gabriel or anyone else to know. Not even my son. This is strictly between you and me, do you understand? I know you have alternate resources; get me military reports, layouts, maps, building specs, get me anything you can find.”
“That will take a little more time.”
“I need it as soon as possible. Time is a factor.”
“You can’t rush things, especially if you want me to do them on the sly.” He looked uncomfortable. “I’m not sure I want to get involved with –”
“Have you ever noticed,” she cut him off again, abruptly changing the topic, “how old-fashioned archangels are? I mean, not only their weapons, insisting on using only those swords, although they are very good with them.” Again, she traced patterns on the table linen, this time with just one fingertip. “It’s their code of honor, too, so very…biblical. An eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Her hand stopped and she looked up at him across the table. “A life for a life.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Oh, no, merely summing up our discussion. You, of course, pointed out that I have a unique relationship with Gabriel. I’m pointing out that it would be in your best interest to assist me, for everyone concerned.”
His face fell into a well-used glower. “You’re quite the cold-hearted bitch, aren’t you?”
She gave him a smile as brilliant as diamonds and just as sharp. “Coming from you, I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or an insult. The war changed us all, David, we became what we needed to be. The difference is, some of us worked very hard to stay human.” She stood gracefully, laying the folded napkin on the table and smoothing her skirt. It was a vaguely sensuous move, a last salvo in the battle. “Thank you, David. It was a most interesting evening.”
He rose in his chair but stayed there. “Thank you, Commander. It was very…enlightening. I’ll be in touch.”
“Soon?” Her brow raised; it was a command, not a question.
“Yes,” he said, sitting back down and reaching for the last of the wine. “Soon.”
It was early in the morning but the sun had been up for some time and Charlotte was nearly ready to face the day. She was taking a singing kettle off the stove when one of her guards peered cautiously around the front door.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but Commander Jenkins is here to see you.”
“Jenkins?” She frowned, puzzled; they weren’t scheduled to meet for a few hours. “Please, show him in.”
It reminded her, of course, of that fateful morning when Gabriel had startled her not long out of the shower. She’d really wanted to kill him that day, actually would have taken his sword and put it right through his chest. Things had changed so much since then, and not only her shower habits, although she still liked to luxuriate under the water with…. She bit her lip to try to hide a grin.
“Jenkins!” she greeted as he walked into the apartment. “What brings me the pleasure of your company so early? We were scheduled for 0900.”
Her XO lifted a small bag and grinned. “Did you know this town has a real honest-to-goodness bakery? They’ve got cakes and tarts and almost anything else you could imagine. Haven’t seen anything like it since before the war. I bought scones. Can you believe it? Scones!”
“You’re kidding me, let me see those.” She rushed over and tried to take the bag from him, but he pulled it close. Jenkins had a notorious sweet tooth.
“I’ll share,” he warned, “you don’t have to pull rank on me, I brought enough for us both.”
“You spoil me. Come into the kitchen, I’ll get some plates.”
“They even had tiny pots of jam. Got two of those, too.”
“Oh,” she said, setting out the dishes, “now I know you have ulterior motives. Scones and jam?”
“Well, if you have any of the tea left…”
Her eyes crinkled. “Of course. I may have even saved some for you.”
For anyone who had lived before the Extermination War, there was always talk of “the old days.” Some people became obsessed with it, some found ways to remember it fondly but to move on. The former rarely had survived more than a few years, unable to deal with the reality of the world that they were faced with now. The latter, however, found those few times when things were “like the old days” and cherished them dearly, not because of what was lost, but because they evoked precious memories.
Jenkins slathered one scone with berry jam, nearly covering it completely. “At the boys’ home I lived in, we used to get day-old bakery once a week. Well, to be honest, some of it was a wee bit more than a day old, really the cast-offs from the market in town, but that didn’t matter, it was heaven. We’d stuff our faces with it every time, didn’t care that it was the same thing week after week. Matron would split it all up and then we would trade, two biscuits for a scone, a slice of cake for a tart, everyone trying to get what they liked the best. Learned some valuable bargaining skills that way. There was one chap, Eddie, he would trade everything for cake, just loved cake of any kind. My favorite was always scones. They make them a little lighter here, but I still love them.”
“You never cease to amaze me.” Charlotte broke one of the scones in two and reached for the jam knife. “I think I know everything about you and then you pull out these little nuggets, these little stories about your life.”
Jenkins shrugged. “You knew I grew up in a home.”
“I knew you lost your parents, and I knew you had problems getting adopted. I just never imagined you sitting around with a bunch of other boys trading baked goods.”
Once again, Jenkins lifted his shoulders. He chewed thoughtfully, then took a slow, appreciative sip of the tea that had been poured. “You don’t know everything about me.”
Charlotte picked up her mug and rested back in her chair. “Like the real reason you came over here this morning? It wasn’t to bring me breakfast, as much as I’m enjoying it. And it wasn’t for the tea.”
A hint of blush crept into the commander’s cheeks. “I’m…concerned about you, mum. You seem distracted lately. We’ve got a lot going on, I’m worried that you’re –”
“Overdoing it?” she finished for him. One eyebrow rose. “I can’t tell if you’re actually concerned or politely prying.”
The blush crept even higher.
Charlotte leaned forward and put her tea down on the table. “Malcolm, you know that you’re much more than just an officer to me.” She reached across and rested her hand on his. “Protocol be damned, you’re my very best friend, and I love you dearly. You have been with me through…” she sighed deeply, “…almost everything. If you really want to know – I don’t like what we’re doing now, I don’t like this double-life spy shit, this isn’t me, you know that. And you’re right, I do have other things going on, and I haven’t told you about them.”
“I want to protect you, mum. I can’t do that if I don’t know what’s going on.”
“How did I get so lucky?” Her hand went to the side of Jenkins’ face and she held it there. “You’re so very good to me.”
“No.” He smiled and took her hand in his, pulling it off his cheek. “You’re the only one that’s put up with me all these years.”
They had the strangest, and yet most wonderful relationship, Charlotte thought. That was going to change now. It had to. She was going to add someone to the mix and Jenkins was not going to be happy one bit. “I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you the whole story about what’s been going on before.”
“That’s your prerogative.”
She appreciated his words but at the same time, she could tell he’d been hurt by her reticence. “I didn’t tell you because I was trying to figure out where I fit into things. I needed to know where my head was at before I involved everyone else. Does that make sense?”
“A little. Go on.”
“You said that I don’t know everything about you. That’s true, although you’ve always been very open with me. I’ve been a little more reserved, not because I didn’t trust you, but because some things,” she shook her head, “they’re not good memories. Others were simply too painful to remember. One of the things that was painful was Alex’s father.”
Jenkins suddenly rose in his seat, his hands clenching into fists. “Did he – did he hurt you?”
“No, no, no,” she laughed. “No, you don’t have to be my white knight, you don’t have to go beat anybody up. That’s not what I meant. Yes, it hurt, but not physically. I thought he left me, but, well, it’s complicated. It wasn’t his fault.”
The XO sat back down slowly. “But you were pregnant.”
“I didn’t even know I was pregnant then. Like I said, complicated. Alex’s father just disappeared one day, I never found out where he went or why, not until I got to Vega.”
“You saw him again in Vega?”
“Essentially, yes.” This was more difficult to explain than she expected. “The thing is, when I knew him in Denver, he was human. When I saw him again in Vega, he was…he was Gabriel.”
There was very loud silence, broken only by the sound of Jenkins’ breathing. Charlotte knew what he was doing, knew what would come next. He sat up ramrod straight and faced the table, his fingertips resting gently on it. Then with meticulous, silent care, he arranged the dishes in front of him. Plate here, perfectly centered. Knife across the top of the plate, bisecting the upper third, blade facing in. Coffee mug up to the right at 45 degrees, handle facing out. Crumbs swept up, deposited on the plate and pushed into a tiny, orderly pile at the base.
She watched him patiently, letting him order his thoughts while he ordered the table. She’d seen him do the same before with other things that were difficult to accept – the death of Colonel Andrews, the loss of an entire battalion. As a leader, a commander, she would often fight through until she found the time to let herself fall apart, but Jenkins had a different method; he took his few minutes and force-marched his emotions into place, locking them into order, taking control.
He finally looked up at her. “Gabriel is the one, the one you’ve always…” He swallowed hard. “Gabriel is Alex’s father.”
“Yes, he is.”
“Gabriel, who you and I have fought together for the last twenty years.”
“Yes, but I didn’t know. I didn’t know that he and the man I was with in Denver were one and the same.”
“I know, I know. Life was a lot simpler before they showed up. Mine certainly was.”
He ran one hand over his face, rubbing at the stubble on his chin. “You’ll excuse me, but people talk, especially in the barracks. The stories about the Chosen One are starting to become legendary. You’re telling me that Gabriel’s been trying to kill his son all this time?”
“Gabriel didn’t know that Alex was his son, and I didn’t know that Gabriel the Archangel was Alex’s father until I got to Vega. I told you, it’s complicated. It also looks like our third party, Lucifer, may have had a hand in things. I’m still piecing that together.”
“I repeat, goddamned angels.” He sat silently for a few moments. “You’re involved with him again.”
“I am,” she admitted. “I know you’re wondering how I can feel anything but hatred for a mass murderer, but he’s different, he’s changed. You’ve seen him yourself, that’s not the leader of the dogs of heaven out there, that’s not the angel that rained down destruction on half the earth. He’s not the same.”
“That doesn’t excuse what he did, Charlotte.” It was rare that either of them used each other’s first names; the fact that they both had emphasized the gravity of their conversation. “He’s goddamned freakin’ Gabriel! And you’re sleeping with him!”
She appreciated his restraint, what he had wanted to say would have been quite a bit more colorful. She also understood some of the emotion beneath his reaction; whether she had acknowledged it or not, she had always known of her friend’s feelings toward her. “I’m not blind, this isn’t some schoolgirl crush. And no, it doesn’t excuse what he did, nothing can excuse that. He’s not asking for an excuse, or even for forgiveness. Gabriel wants a chance to atone, if there’s any way to atone for six-billion lives.”
They sat in silence again while Jenkins mulled this last bit of information over. “What does this mean for our mission?”
“It’s not going to be a problem, nothing’s changed. No,” Charlotte checked herself, “no, that’s not really true. The final goal hasn’t really changed, but some of the details might. I know you doubt me right now, but I think we can work this to our advantage. Having a certain amount of influence over an archangel isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
“I don’t doubt you,” Jenkins ribbed, “I doubt your sudden need to mess about with an angel.”
Again, she could see beyond the words to the feelings beneath. Malcolm, her friend, would have been more than happy to “mess about” any time over the last twenty years, even while Jenkins, her comrade and fellow officer, worked hard to keep his proper professional distance. She’d been tempted; there had been nights when the weight of the war, the losses, even the triumphs narrowed the gap between them to paper thin, when she’d laid in her bed or cot or sleeping roll and thought about the strong, courageous and certainly attractive man that had battled side-by-side with her every day.
Then the only man she’d ever truly loved would wander into her head and all other thoughts would disappear.
She’d thought about Gabe for 25 years, and by some strange miracle, she’d found him. How could she ever explain to her XO that it was so much more that “messing about”?
How could she ever explain that she and Gabriel were married?
They’d arranged to meet in the barracks at dinner time. A minor point, but the average person was surprisingly less vigilant when they knew that a meal was waiting for them a few feet away. People tended not to notice little things they might at any other part of the day.
It was a smaller group, chosen for their discretion and unique abilities. First Platoon, under Commander Jenkins himself. Which also meant that they were at the beck and call of Commander Lannon at any moment, and they liked it that way.
Jenkins met his commanding officer at the door of the barracks. He noted again how tired she looked. He would be happy when this whole mess was over and they could get back to their pleasant little town. Even with their random sorties and maneuvers to various parts of the country as a normal occurrence, that life was still better than this long-term mission in Vega.
“Everyone is here,” he announced to her. “They’re waiting on our briefing now.”
“Good. I apologize for being late, I ran into Michael on the way here.”
Jenkins noted the tone of her voice. “Is there a problem?”
“Yes and no. It’s obvious that he doesn’t trust me anymore. Gabriel said as much but now Michael is making it known. For the most part that actually works into our plans but I don’t want him doing something creative like putting a tail on me when I need freedom to act.”
“Would he do that when you’re, well, involved with his brother?”
Jenkins' embarrassment was actually rather endearing to his commander. “I doubt it,” she said. “Gabriel would lose his mind if he thought I was being watched. Nonetheless, let’s get this meeting over with so we don’t give Michael something else to be suspicious about. Did you get that intel?”
He fanned out a small packet of papers. “It’s good stuff. How did you get it?”
All he got for a response was a shrug. Sometimes, he’d learned, it was better not to know the answers to these things.
They walked over toward the assembled group and Jenkins took roll. Men and women of various ages and types, all in peak physical form and, he knew from experience, intellectually superior. He also knew from experience that they tended to be a little wilder than the average Wildcat, a little more prone to “finding creative solutions.” Why force a door when you can burst it open with detcord? Why clean up your garbage when you can blow it to bits with some homemade explosives?
This mission, Jenkins knew, would be right up their alley. Odd, potentially dangerous, and done for their Commander. They were going to love it.
Charlotte looked around at her gathered soldiers. They were huddled together around her in a corner of the barracks to try to keep things as quiet as possible, looking a little like a bunch of campers listening to ghost stories. To a person, their faces were eager and alert.
“Before I begin, I want to thank you all for your patience. I know that this has been a drawn-out mission, and you haven’t always had a clear idea what the objective was. I want you to know that I appreciate your faith in me and what I’m trying to accomplish. In the long run, I believe that the final outcome of what we’re doing is going to significantly impact your lives and the lives of everyone you know. Keep that in mind, especially when things look…well, a little weird. Jenkins?”
The XO moved forward. “Speaking of weird, one of our prime objectives is to create an impression for this chap, Julian. Julian runs New Delphi, but he’s the one who’s got the connections we need. Our goal is to make Julian want to do business with us, to feel that he can trust us so much that he lets his guard down. Mouse has brought us her impressions on him and we’ve come up with a plan to do that.”
The tiny woman named Mouse stood up in the middle of the group. “Julian is obsessed with films, old movies. He’s collected thousands of them and he has one going in his office 24 hours a day. Every night, he has a screening and four or five of his people are invited, or I don’t know, maybe required, to come and see it with him. Most of the time they fall asleep, but he stays up and watches it through every single night. It’s like an obsession. While I was there he invited me to watch three different films: an old musical, a war movie and a really bizarre one about two guys bouncing around through time. I guess it was ok, but for him it was like a drug, like he was high.”
Charlotte spoke up again. “The thing of it is, Julian doesn’t just love movies, he loves theater. In a way, he’s always on stage, always performing. He sees himself in a great story and he’s playing a kind of antihero. We’re going to use that mindset to our advantage. We’re going to give him theater, give him a story he can be part of. He doesn’t know much about us, no one does, so we can create our own back-story. Mouse has already started with that, she’s laid the foundation for what we want him to think the Wildcats are. Now we’re going to give him not only what he expects from us, but even more. We’re going to dig back into those old movies and pull out all the clichés and archetypes and use them to our advantage.
“Julian created New Delphi as some kind of oasis in a post-apocalyptic dystopian world. We’re going to take that idea and then turn it up a notch. We’re going to go full-on Mad Max and shove it in his face in HD and Dolby surround-sound.” The older members of her group smiled with the memory but younger ones looked on in confusion. “Don’t worry,” she laughed, “you’ll all get the idea when we’re done.”
Jenkins started handing out small piles of chips to each of the soldiers. “We’re not going to meet him as regular troops, we’re going to meet him as characters. Over the last few days I’ve been trading some of the things we brought from home so that we could raise enough of what this town calls money. I’ve got enough cash for you to go out and put together your characters. I want the veterans to get together with the young pups and tell them what we’re looking for. It’s not difficult – basically shocking, over the top and, if at all possible, scary as hell. One possession short of an eight-ball is not a bad starting point. There are resale and thrift stores all over; I don’t think you’ll have a problem coming up with what you need.”
Charlotte chimed in. “Like Jenkins said, some of you know exactly what we’re talking about, so you can help out. As your commander, I expect to be completely horrified by your purchases – that’s the idea. Get creative, get outrageous. That said, this will still be a military maneuver and I expect you to be the exceptional soldiers that I know you are when we do engage. Jenkins will liaise with the rest of the troops and tell them when we roll out, but expect it within the next 36 hours.” She turned to her XO. “Jenkins, is there anything we forgot?”
“I don’t think so mum. I’ll be going through this intel and funneling it to the proper people later.”
“Alright then!” She clapped her hands, a somewhat wicked expression on her face. “It’s time to go shopping.”