Art by Jasminago
The report from Moscow was sobering. The Cabal attack had been turned, but only just barely. Helen paused the video recording of the damage. A splash of blood, red against the pale floor, indicated where someone had died. There was too much blood there for it to have been anything else. She minimized the video and rose, going to her window.
She looked over at Will. The young man stood by, ready and waiting for her orders. It was sad how much of a soldier he'd become. It hadn't fit him in the beginning, but now he was growing into it. Helen hadn't wanted that for him, or anyone. Choice in the matter, though, had been taken from her. Like so many other things.
"Coordinate with Ravi. We'll take what he cannot, and make room for the rest. London cannot yet offer assistance. Their hands are still full from Berlin."
Will nodded, expression grim.
"Henry? Would you arrange for secure data transfer with the Moscow techs? If we need to abandon the site, I'd rather that our people don't lose any of their research." Or that any of it falls into the hands of those monsters.
"Sure thing, Doc," Henry said. His green eyes were more dull than they'd been. The months of tension and combat were wearing on him as well.
She gave him a small, encouraging smile. "Thank you. I'd like you three," she indicated Kate, Henry and Will, "to also help with the pickup. We should see the first shipments in a few hours. Get some sleep." She nodded dismissal and the group left.
Helen crossed her arms and watched the world outside move onward. "What do you think?" she asked.
The shadow detached itself from the wall and stepped into the light. She was fairly sure that only Ms. Freelander had noticed John lurking in the dark corner of her office. His long coat ghosted over the ground and flared as he walked to her brandy.
"They have Mr. Wood, but without Ashley and the others they've lost their momentum. At least for an all out assault. Nikola mentioned that Mexico City has had some problems with the local government." He poured a single glass after she silently declined with a small negative wave of her hand.
Helen nodded. "And Rio's suppliers just increased their prices," she added. "It's become a war of attrition." She hated that she had to ask the next question, hated that she wanted to hear a favorable answer. "What have you found?"
John focused on pouring, careful not to spill or splash. He'd poured their drinks and experiments with the same precision. John's tone was very even when he replied. Perhaps there was a small note of weariness, but it was equally likely that she was imagining or projecting it. "We've found another lab. A small one. Nikola believes it might be possible to access their network from within, so we withdrew before we were seen. Mr. Foss is suggesting ways to attack them through their own computers with a virus. I left before the debate could get more heated. Or more technical." He took what was becoming his usual seat.
Helen found the corner of her lips quirking in a small smile for a brief moment.
"There are wolves at your door, Helen."
She closed her eyes, nodding once. The Cabal still had one super-abnormal at their beck and call. They were using him sparingly now. The initial blitz had died with Ashley and the others, but rather than retreat entirely, the Cabal seemed content to nip at them, ripping little bits and pieces until it finally fell apart. Tensions were rising among the Heads of House, cracks beginning to form in their united front.
Helen sighed. She'd wondered how long it would take for them to try alternate avenues. They were somewhat insulated against attacks such as these, but they had people to feed and bills to pay. Eventually that insulation would wear away. Efforts to discern the Cabal's network and attack in kind were thus far fruitless.
"I've wondered how long they've studied us," Helen mused. It was terrifying that they'd been so effectively targeted. She heard John rise from the chair, leather creaking softly. She knew she'd heard him only because he'd allowed her to, not taking his usual care to be silent. He joined her by the window, the embodiment of dark, living rage and eloquent danger. Helen suppressed a shiver.
Outside the world had become darker, greyer. Heavy mist rolled over the mountains like a living thing, tendrils snaking down, over and through the trees. Clouds hung low to the north; soon they would sweep down over the city bringing the chilly winds that would snatch the last of the leaves off the trees.
"Storm's coming," he said, breaking the silence.
"It's already here," Helen replied. "What's left is to face it."
"You have someplace to be?" Henry asked, a little more sharply than he'd intended. This was the fifth time Kate had checked her watch on the way home and it was beginning to annoy him.
Kate tugged down her jacket sleeve, smirking. "Hot date."
The thief hadn't turned on them like Henry had half-expected her to do. She hadn't skipped town either. Then again, Henry understood the need to get some payback. He'd done some digging on her background and while she wasn't the cleanest character, she wasn't a known turncoat. Still, she'd stepped into Ashley's place. Too neatly for him to be comfy with.
He still expected to see Ash at his back, but no, Kate was there instead. She was a good gun and while she didn't
Henry rolled his eyes. "We'll be home in ten minutes."
"You da man," she grinned at him then popped a piece of gum into her mouth. She offered the pack.
Henry declined with a small shake of his head. It was unlikely that there was an actual date waiting for her; they were all on lockdown as the Cabal circled. The initial phases of this quiet little war over, they'd begun the slower, more subtle tactics. It made Henry feel caged. The feeling got under his skin and added to everything else.
One of the crates in the back of the van let out a loud ululating sound and Henry winced.
"Hey!" Kate twisted around in her seat so she could reach through the bars of the cage and pet the critter. He voice softened. "You can be with your girlfriend later."
The sound subsided into disgruntled chittering and Henry shook his head. Kate was by turns both annoying and useful. She'd been that way since she'd shown up and hadn't changed a bit. She kept too many secrets though and Henry was done with clandestine bullshit.
Kate twisted around in her seat again. "Think Will's having the same problem with the missus?" she asked as she checked her reflection.
Henry shrugged and eyed the crate through the rear-view mirror. "Hope not. Didn't like separating them but there wasn't enough room for both of them in the van and the trucks were full."
The abnormal in the back cried out again and Henry winced. Moscow had been home to a pair of gryphons that had been rescued from some Russian businessman with more money than sense. They were a mated pair and usually pretty placid, but they hated to be separated and the travel had them uneasy. The gryphon sighed, a sad, fluting sound. Henry sighed too. "Sorry, buddy. We'll be home in five."
"You okay over there?"
Henry gripped the wheel for a second then slouched in his seat. "Yeah. Life's rough right now, ya know? S'nothing."
Henry was uncomfortably aware of Kate watching him. He kept his eyes on the road, focusing on the drive. He took his exit and soon they were on city streets, the high towers of the Sanctuary lit in the falling night. Henry's eyes flicked up as they approached home. Ashley's room, as always, was dark.
They pulled into the loading dock and began to unpack the newest refugees with the help of Biggie and Chuck Janus, the two-faced man. Will pulled up a few minutes later and they began hauling those crates out as well. Breathing a sigh of relief that they hadn't been attacked on the way home, Henry reached over and unlocked the gryphon's cage.
The abnormal critter had a twisted wing, but he hopped out like a cat and made a beeline for his mate's crate, scratching lightly at the plastic with stubby claws. Henry unlocked her and she limped out, wings also neatly clipped, one hindpaw twisted from a botched attempt to declaw her. They made happy sounds as they butted heads and rubbed against one another, like a pair of big cats, making a churring noise all the while.
Kate crouched down and scratched both abnormals behind the tufted ears. "Told you you'd get to see the missus," she said to the male who leaned into her fingers, head tilted to one side so she could get the right spot.
Will smirked. "Well, that's two happy." He smelled relieved and tired. He slapped Henry's shoulder.
Henry stuffed his hands into his pockets. "Yeah. We should see about getting them some chow."
"I'll see to them," Bigfoot said, coaxing the pair to follow him.
Will twisted, cracking his back. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Well," he sighed dramatically, "I have paperwork Magnus wanted five minutes ago. I'll finish that then come back and help unload whatever is left. Unless that is, one of you would like to do it?" He looked hopeful.
Kate made a scoffing sound about the same time Henry did. He scowled at her but shook his head at Will.
"All yours, man." Henry said, pulling out his tablet from the back of the truck and bringing up the manifest. They were running low on room again, even having opened up some temporary safe houses. A boot scuffing on gravel reminded him that Kate hadn't left yet. "Need something?" he asked.
"Nope. You do though."
Henry was sick of the innuendo. He looked up and glared at Kate. "Be useful or go away."
Crossing her arms, she looked him over from head to toe. For once, the smirk was mostly absent. "You're not crying in a crate like our feathery friends, but you're pretty damn close to baying at the moon. Pretty obvious you miss Blondie, Hank."
Henry gritted his teeth. "She was my oldest friend, one of my best friends, of course I miss her." It had been weeks, but that didn't mean there wasn't a hole in his life.
Kate was actually being serious, but Henry wasn't sure he liked it. He turned his attention back to the manifest. Ash had died for this and he wasn't about to let it fall apart on his watch. It didn't fill the hole or ease the lingering sense of guilt, but it did soften the edges. She would have wanted things to go on. Ashley had fought to the end. Henry could do no less.
"Hey. I get it. We all miss people," Kate told him. She said this quickly, like she didn't mean to be saying the words but they came out anyway.
Henry looked up from his computer. She was watching out the windows, scanning them really. He'd noticed she never really relaxed, always anticipating an attack.
"You lost your family?" He didn't know if she was lying or not; with her it was hard to tell. She hardly ever talked about her past, which made Henry suspicious of what angle she was working. She...smelled genuine though. The handful of times she'd mentioned anyone, she'd confused her tenses which made him think they might be gone, gone. Magnus still did that sometimes with Ashley. He did too.
He'd never thought of her having anyone before. She just seemed to have sprung to life, fully formed, like some kind of black market Athena.
"Kind of," she said, pushing away from the wall. "But you know what helps me get to sleep at night? I know I'll see them again."
"You're telling me to have faith or something here?" He gestured with the stylus. "That one day I'll just appear at some pearly gates and Ash is gonna be standing there rocking some wings and a halo, ready to welcome me into the club?" Henry didn't get how they were having this conversation. Sure, she'd shown some degree of willingness to be a team player, but this was too much.
"All dogs go to heaven." The smirking insincerity was back, full force.
Henry felt like he'd been played. He probably had. "Okay, that's it!" Henry rounded on her and it was hard not to let the wolf out to hurt her.
Kate held up a hand but otherwise stood her ground, expression flat. She wasn't afraid and that only made the wolf more angry.
"Down boy. Look, all I am saying is that sometimes things work out for the best, okay? Now if you excuse me, I have places to be. Later!" Kate said, waving as she sashayed her way out of the room.
Henry watched her go. He'd not seen the flat look from her, before. She almost looked... hurt. This was Kate, though, another part of him growled. Kate didn't really give a damn. Something chittered in a crate, which set the rest off. Henry turned back to his work with an unsettled feeling in his gut.
Nikola waltzed into her office perhaps an hour after she'd sent him the note to meet her. Henry had been called too, but he'd already come and gone, having responded in a more reasonable timeframe.
"Nikola," Helen said. Chastising him was of no use, so she didn't bother. "Henry informs me that the new security grid designs are completed and that the upgrades to our software security are also done."
He nodded and went to her brandy, frowning when he saw how low it was. John had been in earlier and she'd instructed her Old Friend not to refill it. If they wanted to drink in her office, the could bloody well bring their own alcohol.
"Your pet werewolf is marginally less stupid than others I've worked with."
"I'm sending you to Rio."
Nikola paused in his pouring, but then continued. "Have I offended you that greatly?" he asked.
"It's a matter of security. We'll be sending our new software updates by courier. John's agreed to make some of the drops for us, however Rio also needs to have hardware modifications. They're our fallback position for the region. Henry will be going to Mumbai to do the same thing, in a few days."
He leaned against the side of the wingback chair John preferred and considered the situation. "I suppose," he said at length, "we'll have fewer issues if I install their upgrades. When do I leave?"
"As soon as John returns. "
Nikola grimaced. "Delightful."
"Try to be polite," Helen asked. "I don't agree with the other Heads of House all the time, but we must be united if we are to survive."
Nikola studied her expression for an intense moment. There was little emotion to read in his eyes, he kept himself so guarded. Helen had little energy for games with those closest to her, so she gave him a look that said she really needed him to behave. His eyes softened a fraction, letting her see that he was a little scared too, and he nodded. He understood.
"Thank you." Trying to see the up-side she added, "It's only for a few days and the weather there is magnificent. Perhaps it won't be all bad."
He never remembered falling asleep, but that wasn't unusual. Likewise, it wasn't unusual for him to be aware that he was dreaming. Dreams could be important tools for introspection, but sometimes it was just the result of eating something odd, or a change in temperature, or too much of the day bleeding together as the mind sorted events. One merely had to wait and see what shape the dream would take.
He found himself walking through an impossibly huge hallway, supported by massive columns of stone and metal. Diffuse light poured in, rendered golden by the setting sun. It was quiet; tranquil. He was a Jedi Master. Around him, other Jedi walked alone or in quiet pairs.
He faltered a step, because the voice at his side was not one he'd heard in months.
Ashley walked beside him in the dream, also dressed as a Jedi – a knight since she lacked the braid of a Padawan. She was examining her lightsaber with glee. It snapped on with a hum, revealing the purple blade she'd always expressed a preference for in life. She hopped to the side using the Force to aid her then executed a series of graceful twists, parries and thrusts.
She turned off the lightsaber, hung it on her belt, and practically skipped back over to his side. "This is the coolest thing ever! I hope Henry's here too. He's always wanted a real lightsaber."
He drew in a deep breath, and then let it out again. How many times had she been just like this on a trip? Giving her a fond – if stern – look, he said, "This is a temple." He nodded subtly to the other Jedi, many of whom had stopped and were looking at them with curiosity.
Ashley smirked and hid her hands in the wide sleeves of her robe. She bowed. "Sorry, Master. I'll be more quiet."
He chuckled. "Wisdom, there is, when you are calm."
She snorted a laugh, hiding it behind her hand when it echoed off the columns. "Good Yoda impression," she complimented, pitching her voice low.
"Indeed," another voice added.
Ashley gasped in surprise and glee. Master Yoda floated on a little cushioned platform.
"Master Yoda," they both said, inclining their heads in respect.
"Done well training your apprentice, you have. Become a true Jedi knight, she has."
He bowed his head again. "Thank you, Master." The triple sausage pizza with Kate and Henry watching Clone Wars had probably caused this, he thought with no small amount of amusement.
"An easy task, it must have been not."
Ashley made a little stifled sound of part amusement, part indignant protest.
He was quiet and again bowed to Yoda. "There were difficult days, many grey hairs, but she proved worth it in the end."
"Ask of your services now, I must. Task of great importance for you both, have I." He gestured and a little holographic picture of an ornate cube appeared in the air. "Important, this holocron is. Retrieve it, you must. Jedi Magnus, you, in charge of this mission, will be, but need the assistance of your master, you will."
"Where is it located, Master?" Ashley asked.
Yoda floated a little data crystal into her hand.
"The Outer Rim. Keep this on the down low, you must."
He blinked. As did Ashley. This was a weird dream.
"What the kids are saying these days, this is, yes, hmm?"
A very weird dream.
Ashley bowed her head. "Yes Master. We'll secure a discreet vessel and retrieve the holocron."
They left the temple and he followed Ashley down into the depths of Coruscant. The lighting grew dimmer as they travelled further into the artificial canyons created by the massive buildings. Several hundred stories below the higher-rent, more genteel levels of the city, the slums of Coruscant were teeming with all manner of questionable activity.
The bar Ashley stopped at was a seedy place, even compared to other such bars. They'd pulled their hoods up, but they wouldn't be taken as anything other than Jedi, dressed as they were.
"The Cuddly Bantha," Ashley said, gazing down at the bar's entrance from a higher level. Some poor sod was tossed out on his rear into the walkway. "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."
He arched a brow at her.
"Well, on Coruscant," she amended.
He chuckled. They jumped down to the bar's level and entered.
An obnoxious alien pop tune was being played out of a dilapidated speaker system where there had once been a stage for live musicians. The floor was slightly sticky with things he didn't even want to consider and the smoke of burned inhalants hung in the air.
They scanned the bar and Ashley gestured subtly to a dark corner where Kate Freelander was holding court over several bottles of something faintly glowing and likely strongly alcoholic. She was dressed like, well, kind of like Han Solo.
"This should be fun," Ashley mused.
"Bet she shoots first."
Ashley laughed as she strode forward. She turned around the chair across from Kate and sat backwards in it.
Kate looked up from her darkened corner. "You're sitting at my table."
"Yep. Wanna talk."
"Hey, I'm not into your hokey religion."
"Fine by me. We need a ship. Fast. Discreet."
"And what does that have to do with me?
"Well you look like the discreet type who'd have a fast ship. We can pay."
Kate eyed her silently.
Will plopped down into the booth beside her. He was also dressed like a bounty hunter or smuggler or some other ne'er do well, but it didn't seem to fit him. There was something too clean-cut about him even here. He bowed from the waist. "Lady Jedi, how might we be of service?"
"Hey now, that's my ship," Kate protested. "I say who gets to go, and Jedi or no, if I don't want Blondie and the Fuzzball, they don't set foot on my ship."
"You're being very rude."
"What's with the protocol droid?" Ashley asked Kate, smirking at Will.
"Kicked out of the Navy for being too damn honest," Kate said.
"I think you should take their offer," Will said. Then a little more quietly, he added, "We need the cash."
Kate rolled her eyes at him. "Broadcast that to the whole bar, why don't you?"
They bickered for a bit, ignoring the Jedi.
"There's a faster way to do this," he told Ashley.
"Hmm," he said, nodding gravely.
Ashley tapped her fingers on the table. "Master," she gestured for him to proceed.
He smiled and wiped a hand across the scene. It worked exactly as he'd imagined it would.
"And we're suddenly on another planet in front of a temple carved into the side of a mountain," Ashley said, looking around.
He laughed. "Lucid dreaming." A useful skill every young shaman learned.
"Oh. I guess you can't just give me the holocron then?"
"Do you know where it is?"
"Somewhere in there I expect," he said, gesturing to the temple. "Let's go," he cuffed her lightly in the back of the head as he walked toward the gaping maw of an entrance.
She followed. "Why can't you just tell me? It's your dream."
He laughed. "Don't be so impatient." There was a reason he was in this dream. It seemed silly to waste the lesson. She was hunting for a holocron, a repository of Jedi knowledge and experience. It was a symbol.
She sighed but was quiet. The sound brought on a smile. It was good to remember the happy times with her as a girl. The little frustrated-yet-resigned sigh as she gave in and followed along with his lesson was one such memory. Ashley had always been a little impatient, a trait she got from her mother. Ashley wouldn't ever learn to grow out of it now. He reflected on her life during the quiet walk to the temple entrance. Well, he walked. She bounced around using the Force, clearly enjoying her new agility. He wondered if this was her spirit, or if he was simply dreaming his desire to see his family whole again.
It was cool inside the temple. The interior was lit by ancient crystalline lights that still gave off some glow, and by huge windows cut into the mountain's face, exposing the inner rock to sunlight. Their steps echoed hollowly. There were no footsteps in the dirt, save for small tracks left by animals.
"Do you remember the first time I took you tracking?"
She nodded. "We followed some deer for what seemed like ages." Looking into the distance, she wore a faint smile. "I was so surprised when they didn't run immediately."
He'd been taught by his uncle, the huntmaster for his clan, who'd taught all the children. He'd never be able to teach his own children because of his exile, but Henry and Ashley had stood in their place just fine.
"Hmm, now that's something."
They stood at the edge of a natural cavern. The mountain was an ancient volcano, and high above, they could see the rim. It was large enough that the floor of the cavern was covered in green plantlife. A little stream fed a pond which drained out to one side. Animals made noises in the brush.
"We should sit for awhile," he said, heading for a spot under a weeping willow-like tree. The flowers on the branches were blue and glowed faintly. It was peaceful.
"But I need to get the Holocron for Master Yoda. I can't believe I just said that."
He laughed and settled down, gesturing to the rock beside him. "We should take a moment. Someone went to a lot of work to keep it a garden. It'd almost be rude not to enjoy it."
"Maybe I'll have a vision of where it is." She sat awkwardly on the stone, then finally relaxed.
This dream... This vision... What did it mean? What lesson was she here to teach him? His training as a shaman told him this was no ordinary dream. He watched her out of the corner of his eye for a few moments. She wore a small frown as she often did when she was preoccupied.
"We tried to find you."
"I know." She looked back at him. "Biggie?"
"Is... Is Mom okay?"
"She misses you. We all do."
"I-I'm sorry I pushed for Henry and me to go on that mission."
"I think they would have just tried something else."
She shrugged a shoulder. "Still. Not looking before I leaped got me into trouble, again."
He couldn't really deny that, but she was hardly the first, and would not be the last.
"If you were still alive, I would have told you to be more careful, but I wouldn't have been angry. Things were rather desperate at the time. You're... You were still learning."
"What would you have taught me?"
"Hmm," he hummed in thought. "When I was younger, my teacher thought I was too hasty. He led me into the forest and had me sit, just like this, and listen." He breathed in and out. It had been something he'd liked about the Star Wars movies when he'd first seen them; a little bit of home here in this strange concrete and metal jungle. Perhaps that was why he was dreaming this now.
"It took awhile to learn to be calm. It was hard to sit still and watch. Gradually, however, I learned." He observed the dream around him. "I tried to teach that to you, but I should have done more."
"Hey," she reached over and touched his shoulder. "You and I both know I don't like sitting still. You did the best you could and maybe I wasn't ready to listen. It's okay."
"Teach me now?"
He considered her for a moment, then nodded. "Don't think about anything but what you see. Put your doubts and worries and plans aside and simply observe the world. Be in the moment."
"Just be and let go," he said, voice soft. "It's hard, but let go. Yes, you've made mistakes, but they didn't define you."
"I-It was horrible. What they made me do. If I'd been more careful —"
"They would have done something else," he reiterated. "I never told you how I was exiled. How I lost my name?"
She shook her head.
He should have shared that with her. Helen didn't even know, had never pried. Perhaps it was a final lesson he could give her spirit; allow her to rest.
"My clan had a blood rivalry with the local tribe of Wendigoes. I was an apprentice shaman, which meant I was exempt from some rules and had to obey others. I was young and hasty and full of myself." He took a long breath in and out. "There was a young member of the other tribe who'd been lost and had been caught by a bear trap. After tracking him for several miles, I couldn't stand the thought of him hurting, so I freed him from the trap, wrapped his wound, and escorted him out of our territory."
"You broke the rules?"
He grunted. "No. The Shaman can aid whomsoever they wish, even a blood enemy. It wasn't a popular act with the rest of my people, and I was shunned for a time because of it. No, my crime was going too far."
"You tried to make peace?"
"It was more complicated than that. I tried to force the issue. They weren't so different from us and had children who could get lost and hurt. I thought that if I could only make the elders see, then everything would be fine. So, I drugged them during a ritual. I was convinced that if I could take them on a spirit walk with me, show them, everything would be fine. I told no one of my plans and I acted."
He looked over at the spirit. "It was an unforgivable offense. The herbs I used were forbidden to non-shamen for a reason and many of our hunters and gatherers were ill for weeks. As bad as that was, forcing someone to confront the truth of things was the far worse. It is not the place of the shaman to control the thoughts and actions of others. In trying to do what I thought was right, I'd betrayed the trust put in me by my teacher, by my elders, and by the tribe as a whole. When I explained myself, some had agreed that the goal was noble, even if my actions had not been. Because I was young and had not intended to do harm, I was not killed. Instead I was stripped of my name and exiled." He paused then added in a soft voice, "Some called it a worse punishment."
Ashley pondered that for for awhile with a small frown on her face. He sat back and closed his eyes, drawing on the peace of the surroundings to ease the ache in his heart. It was an old wound now. He'd learned to accept that some things couldn't be changed, and he'd become more cautious. Overly cautious for a long time, but he'd found the balance of his life.
They sat in silence. He didn't know how much time had passed, but then it was a dream, and such things were fluid.
"Hmm?" He opened one eye and looked at her. The spirit was shimmering slightly, wearing the clothing he'd last seen her in.
"Thank you." A small, glowing cube floated in the air above her hand. Her fingers closed around it and she smiled at him. "Take care of Mom while I'm gone." The shimmering grew until all was light around him.
He woke to early morning sunlight streaming in through his window. He drew in a deep breath, and let it out slowly.
She needed another box. This one would be the last one. Helen had put this task off as long as she could, but finally she had to face it. With the number of refugees pouring in, Ashley's room would soon be needed.
"Hello, Old Friend," Magnus said. She took a box from the stack in the corner and began to assemble it. "Do we have any more of the locking containers? I wasn't able to find any."
"No. There’s an order in for a few more. Should be here Monday." Unless they began to have problems, was the unspoken thought.
Helen looked up and it was clear she'd had the same idea he had. She paused in her box construction for a moment before continuing. "Pass the packing tape, please?"
He did so. "So. Who'd the Toyko pick as a replacement?" he asked.
He nodded. "Should make Rio happy." He snorted a laugh. "As if that woman has ever been happy in her life."
Helen's smile was tight. "She's not all that bad." The Head of Rio was an unpleasant person who took seemingly every opportunity to oppose Helen, but she was fanatically loyal to her house and the abnormals of the region.
Her old friend gave her a look.
Her expression turned rueful as she finished the box. "I'll need at least one of the locking boxes," she told him. "I-I'm cleaning out her room."
He reached out to her as she reached the door. "Helen."
She looked at him, taking a moment to compose herself. "Yes?"
"I dreamed of Ashley last night," he said. He found himself frowning in recollection. "I think we were Jedi."
A very small smile made an appearance on her lips for a moment. "Jedi?"
He grunted, shrugging one shoulder. "Dreams appear as they are." He leaned on the table he was working on. "She was looking for something. I was helping her."
"Did she find what she was looking for?" Helen asked, voice very soft.
He nodded. "We found it."
Helen smiled to herself. "That's good then." She drew in a deep breath. "If you need me, you know where to find me."
Helen watched the motes of dust play in the sunlight from the window. She closed her eyes and felt the sun warm her skin as she remembered.
The room was musty from disuse and it needed to be cleaned, but the windows were spectacular and the view even more so. Ashley immediately ran to them, pressing her hands and face to the glass as she looked out over the grounds and the city. She ran back to Helen, arms outstretched. Helen met her with a hug by the door.
"I want this one."
"It's awfully far," Helen said. Ashley's current room had been the nursery she'd prepared to welcome her daughter. As much as she wanted to keep her close, it wasn't suitable anymore. This room was well down the long central hall of the rambling mansion. Helen was worried Ashley would need her in the night and she wouldn't hear.
"You said I could have any of the rooms no one had on the floor. You promised!" Ashley pouted as though she were three and not seven.
"I did, didn't I?" Helen murmured, standing and taking Ashley's hands in her own. She looked around, noting the details and items her daughter would need to furnish the space.
Ashley looked up at her with huge, hopeful eyes and Helen knew she couldn't say no. "If I agree to this, you'll have to make sure you keep it clean. No shirking."
Ashley crossed her heart. "I promise I will."
"I don't know," Helen mused. "It is awfully large."
"You did keep your grades up and this is a much better room for a growing girl. Okay. We'll move you up after we've given the room a good cleaning."
Ashley cheered and ran around, her footsteps echoing off the bare walls and floor. Helen smiled and watched her race into the bathroom then into the closets and out again. She collided with Helen's side, wrapping her arms around her waist and looked up at her with a huge grin that was missing a tooth. Helen brushed her hair out of her face and smiled.
"Love you, Mom."
"Love you too, Ashley," Helen murmured into the silence. She took a deep, shuddering breath and closed the lid of the box. She'd packed her daughter's clothing the day before, and she'd already had the workout equipment broken down and reassembled in the gym, just down the hall. The bathroom smelled like her still. Helen had gone in once in a fit of worried insomnia and had tidied it up for her, anticipating her safe return. Helen had packed that yesterday as well.
What had remained were Ashley's personal effects in her dresser. Those, she'd just finished packing into a box of their own. Missing from Ashley's jewelry box was the silver necklace she'd almost never been without from the moment Helen had given it to her on her sixteenth birthday. The necklace she'd lain to rest had stood in for that one much as it had been a way for her to symbolically let her daughter go.
The time for grief had been brief, not even a full day. Now, she took what time she could in the lulls between attacks; precious moments where she remembered her daughter and what she was fighting for.
A gentle knock drew Helen's attention. She wiped at her eyes and stood with the box before turning. Will lurked at the door with understanding pain in his eyes. He looked around the room. Helen thought it was now painfully empty, lacking the life and vibrancy Ashley's things had given to the space. Her footsteps on the wooden flooring rang hollow.
"Its been a long time. With refugees still coming in, and the Cabal still attacking us from the shadows? We'll need the space," Helen explained, passing by him. She felt her heart jump to her throat and looked away. She had to stop just outside the door.
Will reached up, resting a hand on her shoulder, understanding and simply being there for her. He'd lost loved ones and though the torture of losing a child wasn't the same, out of everyone, he understood perhaps the best. At the very least, he was the only one she felt she could speak with.
"I can still see her. Hear her," she admitted, taking that first step down the long hallway. The vision of John and Ashley in the days after had only been the first instances. She needed more sleep, likely, but it would be a long time before she could rest easily. Will let her lead and remained silent while she tried to explain. "She was my everything." Those words hardly covered what she felt. There simply wasn't a way to convey all she felt.
"Ashley will always be a part of you," Will told her, squeezing her shoulder. "Nothing will ever change that."
"I know. And I will always love her." She could see a teenage Ashley, sprawled in the window seat, chin in hand, absently blowing her hair out of her face as she read an assignment. The image brought a sad smile to her lips. With regret, she looked away. "It hurts."
Will opened the door for her and stood respectfully in the doorway. Helen set the box down on the seat of her vanity then wiped her eyes.
"When she was a child, she'd sit next to me here. She'd watch me put on makeup and try on my things." Helen could see Ashley's sunny smile in the mirror as she draped necklaces over her head. "I planned extra time getting ready for formal occasions so we could play." Will's image stepped into view, disrupting the memory.
Helen closed her eyes and hot tears rolled down her cheeks. She let them.
Will's hand on her shoulder was tentative at first as he drew her into a hug. She shuddered under the weight of her grief and hugged him back, taking the comfort offered. They stayed like that for several minutes, and Helen was surprised to find she did feel a little better when they broke apart.
"You okay?" he asked, staring at her searchingly. Helen knew he was evaluating her as a patient as well as a friend.
Helen looked down at her hands. "No. Not yet." She looked back at Will, "But I must go on anyway." Helen bit her lip and forced the tears back. "Ashley'd be the first to tell me I had work to do and to stop moping. She'd want me to fight."
Her heart still ached, but there was a growing feeling of resolution as well. Every instinct in her screamed that Ashley was merely lost, not dead. Wherever she was, though, her little girl was out of reach, possibly forever. Nothing Helen could do would change that. Life moved on.
"Who's come to us from Moscow?" Helen asked. She needed to focus on her work.
The Moscow Sanctuary had been hit hard, but not as badly as Tokyo or Beijing, where they'd been... decimated. They'd managed to evacuate everyone remaining in those locations and had bolstered the defenses of the others. While the most damaged Sanctuaries were undergoing more permanent repairs, a process now complicated by the Cabal's financial influence, their collections had been moved around the world to other safe locations. The Old City Sanctuary had already been hosting some of those collections when Moscow had been attacked. Mumbai was already overcrowded from Beijing. Though Nikola was dealing with it currently, Rio wasn't yet secure enough. Jakarta was hosting the remains of Tokyo, and Berlin was undergoing massive repairs. They didn't really have the room, but they could make some.
Will nodded slowly, seeming to get that she recognized she needed to move forward. "I've got the list here."
Helen walked beside Will, listening as he ran through the inventory. Walking down the grand staircase, Helen was struck with a sense of déjà vu. She paused at the top step, then frowned as she continued.
Shaking her head, Helen shook off the sensation. "Déjà vu," she waved off his concern. "You were saying?"
"Maybe you should get some sleep," Will said, waiting for her on the landing.
"It's nothing," Helen said, "Just long term and short term memory colliding." She continued down the stairs as if nothing had happened, yet she felt Will's eyes on her. Will caught up by the bottom.
"Are you sure you're okay? We can cover for a few hours if you need a break."
"No. I'll turn in early tonight," she said. They both knew she was lying, but Will didn't call her on it. This time.
The nesting dolls in the crate on top were actually containers with some unusual small mammal samples prepared in a way traditional to the northernmost reaches of Eurasia. "Those can go in dry storage." Helen indicated. Might as well start at the top of the pile.
"If there's room," Kate chimed in. She was wiping a fine layer of dust off her clothing and a cobweb was caught in her hair. "We're just about full downstairs."
"Then use the storage space in the attic," Helen directed.
Helen looked up as her Old Friend jogged over, phone in hand. Helen moved to accept the phone, noting the worried look on his face.
He grunted. "Word from the docks. Another refugee group."
Helen nodded grimly. "Magnus speaking."
"Magnus. Ferdinand. My boys just helped a group cross the border. They said you once promised them sanctuary."
"Bunch of bird people. Look like natives." Ferdinand growled something in a dialect of Greek over his shoulder. "Anyway, you wanna take 'em off my hands? I don't mind helping here, Magnus, but I don't want the Big C taking a harder look at my people. I'm already out on a limb here helping you."
"And it's appreciated, I —"
"I'm doing it 'cause I owed your kid. She was good people."
Helen felt her heart lurch into her throat. "That she was. How many are we looking at?"
"About a dozen adults, half a dozen kids."
"We'll be there with proper transportation."
Ferdinand told her a time and the call was cut off. As brisk as the Satyr was, that was downright friendly by their standards.
Turning to Will and Biggie, she said, "There is a situation at the docks we need to take care of. We're going to have more company, so we'll need to make arrangements."
"Someone bringing in baba yaga?" Kate asked. She was pulling the spider web from her hair with a look of distaste.
"This was a unrelated to the situation in Moscow. A clan of Satyrs is assisting a clan of North American Corvids."
"What, like crows?" Will asked.
"Similar. Genetically they're cousins of the Tengu who migrated from Asia sometime during the last ice age and took up residence in North America. They've crossed the border in a shipping container."
"Cabal chase them down here, huh?" Kate said.
"Sounds like they'll fit right in," Kate quipped, trying to flick the cobweb off her fingers. "Want a hand?" she offered, smiling as she finally succeeded in ditching the spiderweb on Will's shoulder.
Will sent her a pleading look, so Helen relented. "Alright. Come with me then. We'll make arrangements for transport. Will, please inform Henry of the situation and that we'll be leaving in twenty minutes."
"Cool. Seeya Z-man."
Helen fought the urge to rub her temples as she led the way to the garage. Sometimes it was like dealing with a pack of children.
The dark van wove in and out of the late night traffic, making good time. Kate had instructed Helen's Old Friend to "drive casual", and he'd laughed. So had Henry and Will. The tension had eased a little as the small group piled into their vehicles. Helen watched the cars fall behind them through the shaded window. A transport truck, driven by Henry and Will, followed behind, but nothing else she could see. Helen couldn't quite shake the feeling that she was being watched, however. She spared a look for the other occupant of the van. Kate had managed to find a relaxed position in her claimed seat and was currently sipping something a particularly virulent shade of green and no doubt sugary. If she'd been looking at Helen, she wasn't now. Helen resumed watching for tailing Cabal agents.
Helen forced her jaw to unclench as they rolled into a parking space by the docks. Ferdinand hadn't been as forthcoming with her as he had once been with her daughter. He and his people hadn't gone to ground during the conflict though. For that, Helen was grateful.
Another thing she was grateful for was that hardly anyone was around this late at night. Helen hoped that would continue to be the case. She couldn't shake the itchy feeling between her shoulder blades, the touch of unseen eyes.
Helen and Kate left the others by the van, boots crunching on the gravel as they made their way to the meeting point. The city lights bounced off the low cloud cover, creating a sickly yellow-orange twilight. Fall wind found it's way between the warehouses and onto uncovered skin, a chilly promise of winter. Kate paused, turning her face into the wind. Helen stopped as well. She studied the younger woman for half a moment as she searched the area, then began to take her own survey. Senses straining, Helen found nothing amiss other than the general tension in the air. The feeling of being watched had eased as well. Shaking her head, Kate continued onward. Helen fell back into step with her, eyes and ears alert.
Ferdinand was a rather swarthy Satyr, with longshoreman's pants that didn't quite hide the odd shape of his legs. He wore a bright orange knit cap over his small horns and pointed ears. He chewed on a toothpick.
"Magnus. Who's your friend?" he asked, jerking his head toward Kate. The Satyr's mouth firmed into a thin line around the wood.
Helen nodded a businesslike greeting. "Ms. Freelander works for me." Not all of the proper introductions had been made, given their current circumstances.
He grunted and stalked forward in an oddly rolling gait, slipping off his sunglasses. He had goat's eyes – yellow with square pupils. Kate didn't flinch. Quite the opposite in fact, she got into the Satyr's face.
"You got something to say, goatboy?"
Ferdinand sniffed, snorted, and slipped his sunglasses back on, resting them on his cap. "They're back here." He turned and walked away without another glance. Helen and Kate followed. He stopped at a large shipping container. It was already open and some of his fellows, other Satyrs Helen was certain, were casually loitering around. One was running around with a small ball of feathers on his shoulders, another with a rather aquiline nose and long coat, was leaning against a crate.
The shipping container smelled lived in, but it wasn't the sickly sort of smell that indicated a state of extremes. The families had obviously been cooped up for some time however, and several pairs of intelligent black eyes looked very relieved to see her. They were birdlike abnormals, strongly resembling ravens, though they only stood four feet tall. They had three clawed digits at the wrist joint of their wings, and their bird-like feet were wrapped in leather straps. They wore very simple pants and tunics with bright beading and embroidery. Beads and bells hung from the long feathers on their heads, jingling quietly. The children were asleep save for the one riding Satyr-back. With any luck, this would be an easy transfer.
"Hello, everyone. If you'll collect your children and belongings, we'll be on our way."
The eldest, or at least Helen assumed he was the eldest as his feathers had greyed to a deep charcoal from inky black, stood. He bowed, small vestigial wings spread to either side in an elegant gesture. "Thank you for aiding us, Dr. Magnus." The voice that spoke was surprisingly deep for such a delicate looking creature.
Helen smiled. "It was no trouble. Now if you please, I'd rather we hurry."
The elder nodded, gesturing for his kin to collect themselves and hurry about it. "I'll collect Sadie from her new friend," he said to the flock. There were chuckles, clucking-cawing sounds, from the other adults as they gathered themselves. The small joke had been much like Kate's earlier, easing the tension in the air. They were afraid.
The child, reluctant to give up her new friend, sqwaked indignantly as the Elder tried to retrieve her.
"Hey," Kate spoke up.
Helen looked over sharply, ready to reprimand the younger woman, but she was handing the fluffy bird-girl one of the many shiny bracelets she wore. Entranced by the brightly colored beads, the girl allowed the Elder to take her from the relieved looking Satyr. Helen gave her a nod of approval before they both fell into the loose perimeter around the group as they made their way to the waiting vans.
This was, of course, when it all went to hell.
Kate was shouting "Down!" and tackling the lead Satyr out of the way just as Magnus recognized the red dot on the back of his head for what it was. There was a popping noise, and the wall where his head had been sported a neat little hole.
The flock of abnormals began to squawk in terror, running into the Satyrs that made up the perimeter.
"Take cover! Stay together!" Magnus ordered. She pulled the nearest two adults along with her behind a stack of crates. There were more red laser sights and more popping noises as silenced weapons hit their marks. Kate had turned and was laying down suppressing fire on the forces attacking them.
"Henry!" Helen screamed into her radio. "Henry! We're under fire!" She winced away as the line squealed in static.
"Okay boys," Ferdinand growled, pulling out a .45, "If they want to take us, they'll be getting a fight!"
"We need to get out of here. All of us!" Helen said, pulling out her own weapon.
"Well, I'm not going to bake them cookies!" Ferdinand hollered back. He squeezed off a few shots at a sniper that had been aiming to line up a better shot.
Helen was hauled backwards and where her shoulder had been, a dart stuck in the side of the shipping container. Kate fired in the direction of the shooter and Helen caught sight of someone ducking behind another crate.
"Watch it, Boss," Kate suggested.
"Thank you," Helen said, plucking out the dart with a quick motion. As she suspected, the tip was a needle. Likely the substance inside was a sedative. She dropped it to the ground, crushing it under her boot heel so it would not harm anyone accidentally. One had hit a flock member and the adult female had gone down, body still shielding the child she held. She knelt by the female and found her unconscious, thankfully.
"Where's Hank with the van?" Kate asked.
"Static on the line!" Helen told her. She tried her radio again, just in case, but there was still static. “They’re jamming our communications!”
"They're closing in, Magnus!" Ferdinand called out, nodding in the direction of some moving shapes in the dark. She could imagine the heavy boots coming for them, their grind on the gravel, but the close range gunfire had left her ears ringing.
Helen whirled around, heart leaping into her throat, but there was only confusion among the refugees. One of the children must have called out for their mother, she reasoned, focusing on the situation. The people here needed her to be wholly present.
She shot off a few more rounds before she had to reload, easily swapping magazines with the ease of long practice. The smell of gunpowder hung in the air with the more acrid scent of the agitated abnormal refugees. The wind gusted down, bringing in the smell of the river as well. Helen tried her radio again, but was still met with static. Surely they had to have heard something by now? Or had they been taken? Her gut clenched.
The ground rumbled and Helen wondered what that was before the black van and the larger transport skidded into view, interposing between the shooters and the refugees. The moment of relief was short-lived, however; they still had to actually escape.
Kate laid down cover fire and Helen raced ahead to wrench open the door at the back of the van. She and the Satyrs began handing up the smaller Corvids, filling the van. Others piled into the second vehicle. Once everyone was inside, Kate hauled Helen up as well and they shut the door.
"Drive!" Helen yelled over the cacophony and the ringing of her ears. She nearly lost her footing as the van lurched ahead, wheels spinning on the gravel. "Keep everyone calm," she ordered as she made her way forward.
Kate finished securing her weapon and sketched off a salute, her face drawn in a rare expression of serious concern.
They only shook their pursuers when they were about a quarter mile from the Sanctuary, but Henry and her Old Friend didn't slow down until they'd passed through the gates. She climbed out of the van and exchanged a look with her people. It had been close.
"Will, please help our guests settle in, I'll see to any injuries in the infirmary."
Steeling herself for a long night, Helen led the way into the depths of the Sanctuary.
The Sanctuary in Rio de Janeiro was located in a neighborhood called Gávea. The hilly complex was a series of buildings behind a tall brickwork fence. It featured a lovely view of the beach and the nearby slums. The weather was gorgeous, the food was acceptable, the equipment marginally out of date, the staff were all imbeciles, and the head of house was a bitch.
Worst of all, however, was the omnipresent, unceasing, Samba.
He'd easily chased the IT underlings away once their boss had burst into tears. It had made the room quiet and he'd managed to get some real work done, He almost felt sorry for Foss in having to correspond with them; Foss at least had marginal capabilities.
The new security grid included a software upgrade that had come with him on a little jump drive. Mr. Foss had declared that their security would be more secure if they didn't just send the data to one another via the Internet. It was paranoid, but not entirely unwarranted. Rio's IT overlord was new, and the Sanctuary would also be receiving brand new hardware to enhance their security grid, which is why Nikola was there. He'd built it after all, and he hardly trusted the locals to install it properly.
There was a knock at the door. "Mr. Tesla?"
"I'm busy. If you'd like to keep the Cabal away, you'll let me finish my work and then I can leave and everyone will be happy."
Claws clicked on the stone floor. "I'll just be a moment," the soft voice said. Her accent was Spanish, not Portuguese, mixed with something else. "I wanted to give you something for helping us, and something for Dr. Magnus."
Nikola turned around. The speaker was a Quetzalcoatl, a member of a sub-species of humanoid dragon that was native to the South Americas. She had large amber-colored eyes, a leaf-green hide and long plumage in jewel-tone reds, greens, and blues. She wore jean shorts and a blouse top with probably ten five pounds of beaded necklaces in a riot of color. A headset hung around her neck, the red cord disappearing into a pocket. Honestly, she looked little bit like Steve in drag with a parrot glued to her head. Tesla arched a brow at her.
She held out two small commercial jewelery boxes, the many bracelets on her wrists clinking with the movement. "Here. The top one is for you."
He opened the box and was surprised to find a metal tie clip. The cast symbol appeared at first to be an abstract assortment of lines and shapes, but resolved into a schematic representation of his first alternating current dynamo. It was well-crafted and tasteful.
"Your work was very important to the world. We couldn't have the spread of information we do now, without it." She paused significantly, though Tesla couldn't see why. She tapped the lower box with a claw. "There is a necklace in there for Dr. Magnus," she said. "I would appreciate it if you gave it to her for me. Ashley was a very good friend of mine. Tell her it's from Xilo."
Tesla slipped both boxes into his coat pocket.
"Thank you," he said, and then eyed her curiously. "You're a bit far from home."
"The weather's better down here."
"I'm an artist. The community here is more accepting of people like me." She lifted a scaly eyebrow. "And there are more rich patrons."
"Well the weather is nicer here, but how do you stand the constant Samba?"
"Noise cancelling headphones," she smirked, tapping her headset. "I have a box of earplugs I use when I cut metal if you'd like some."
Tesla smirked. He just might take her up on that offer. "I'll take these but don't tell anyone else I'm playing carrier pigeon."
Xilo nodded. "Of course. Thank you." She left, the long plumes at the end of her tail swishing in the air.
Tesla turned back to his work, but something kept bothering him about the exchange. He withdrew the boxes. The gift to Helen was a delicate and elegant piece of layered metal welded together. It formed a pendant with some sort of glyph – Mayan or Aztec or something. He put that away then studied the tie clip again, turning it over in his hands. The circular part gave with some pressure. Curious, as it didn't seem to be a flaw in the design, he pressed until the circle turned, revealing a small compartment which was just big enough to contain a micro-SD card. Nikola quietly closed the compartment and placed the tie clip back into the box.
Helen returned to her room as dawn broke. She looked at her bed for a long moment before reaching instead for a clean shirt and pair of pants. Sleep could come later. Her phone rang, startling her. Rolling her eyes at herself, she answered the Blackberry. Rio's number flashed on the caller ID. Helen gritted her teeth. González was blunt, to put it mildly. Conversations with her were difficult even when they agreed on a subject.
"I'm sending your pet vampire back," the werejaguar said without preamble.
Helen pinched the bridge of her nose. "What's he done now?"
"Drunk nearly five thousand reais worth of wine for starters." Maria González's words were clipped, her accent a peculiar mix; English via Spanish and Brazillian Portuguese. It would have been lovely if her words had held any warmth.
Helen rubbed her temples. She'd pay for that. "Did he finish the upgrade to your security systems?"
"So he claims," Maria said, her tone flat. "I have to question your association with him, Helen."
"Nikola is a good friend of mine —"
"Who disappeared for nearly sixty years," Maria pointed out reasonably. "He only resurfaced when he incited the Cabal to come after him. I find that curious."
Helen grimaced, doing her best to keep her feelings out of her voice. "Is it?" she asked. "He was walking in hidden circles and fled to friends when he couldn't escape them. They're powerful, Maria." It hurt to admit that, but she'd never claimed to be the most powerful abnormal-oriented organization in the world.
It had just been assumed so for lack of evidence to the contrary.
You know what they say about when you assume? she could practically hear her father chiding her.
"Hmm," Maria mused. "He's insulting and disruptive. If we weren't stretched so thin, I'd not have let him on my grounds. Keep him if you wish, but I'll not have him back here."
"As you like."
"I wish to discuss London."
"What about London?"
"Young Declan is a capable gentleman, but would be better suited to stay in his position —"
"I'm not promoting Aaron over Declan," Helen cut her off. "You and I both know that James was grooming Declan to take over. The transition was already underway. Aaron is a capable field agent, not a manager. I honestly doubt he'd even want the position." Aaron was highly capable, and also a few years older than Declan was, and had worked in more Sanctuaries than Declan had. However, Declan had been with London longer and had been James' choice from among his senior staff. Helen's impression of Aaron was that he preferred field duty to administrative tasks.
"Have you actually asked? People change, Helen. Consider that for your dear old school-mate as well. I expect his transport to arrive within the hour. Good day." She hung up before Helen could speak again.
Seething, Helen locked her phone and put it back on the desk.
The lizard girl was at his bedroom door just as he finished packing.
"What? More gifts?"
"I'm to let you out," she said, holding out a hand for the bag.
If she wanted to play porter, Nikola wasn't going to argue. He handed her the bag and wiped his hands on a kerchief. He looked around but didn't see the Head of House. The were-jaguar HAP had kept their interaction to a minimum during his stay, which was just fine with Nikola.
"The Lady of the House isn't here to make sure I leave?"
Xilo shook her head. "She's in Rocinha today."
Nikola arched an inquisitive brow.
"The favela," she clarified, nodding at the sprawling slum on the mountainside. "Many of our kind live there."
The rest of the walk was spent in silence and Nikola found himself almost liking the lizard girl. She was competent in her area of expertise and she didn't fill a perfectly lovely walk with inane chatter. He'd not had a chance to view what was on the SD card, but he'd be looking into that as soon as possible.
Druitt was scheduled to arrive in a few minutes. The gates of Rio would not be open until then.
"I could use a competent lab assistant familiar with metallurgy," he said. It was true. It'd free him and Foss up for more important tasks and he knew the girl could weld and solder. The expansive metal sculpture in the front atrium was her work, he'd realized after seeing the matching artist's mark. Really, though, if the girl was sending coded messages out, perhaps she wanted to flee. Nikola wasn't entirely without a heart, and the clever initiative was intriguing.
Xilo snorted. "Tempting, but no, thank you. You wouldn't pay nearly as well as the penthouse dwellers in Ipanema. Besides, I have plenty of work here." She inclined her head deeply, her eyes more serious than her tone. She understood the offer he was making, and was choosing to stay, for "work".
There was a flash and Druitt appeared like a living thundercloud of rage and just as cuddly. Xilo handed over Nikola's single case and opened the pedestrian gate. Nikola inclined his head then left. Druitt whisked them away as soon as he was within arm's reach.
They re-appeared just outside the Sanctuary gates.
"Must you do that?" Nikola asked, dusting off his jacket. "Give a little warning at least."
Druitt smirked and let them in the gate.
Nikola rolled his eyes and headed inside, looking for Foss. Curious as he was to see what was on the SD cards, he wanted to be sure it wasn't some sort of malicious virus first.
Helen looked up from her paperwork.
Henry and Nikola entered wearing matching grim expressions.
"What's the matter?"
"While I was in Rio one of the locals gave me a couple gifts. One for me and one for you. Hidden inside were two micro-SD cards," Nikola said.
"Yeah, and once we figured they were safe we read them and they have the same data."
"It seems that Xilo wanted to be sure that the message got out."
"Xilo? She's the jeweler, that —"
"That Ash was buds with. Right," Henry said. He held out a box.
Inside the box was a beautifully worked metal pendant with a Mayan glyph. It had been pushed apart, revealing the small, hidden compartment. Helen closed the pendant and looked up. Nikola was wearing a new tie-clip that had been made by the same hand as her pendant.
"Here," Henry said, handing her a computer.
Displayed on the screen were a series of pictures showing Terrance Wexford and Maria Gonzales having a discussion. It appeared to be fairly heated. On the monitor behind them was the face of the Jakarta head of house.
Henry pulled up a text file that had apparently accompanied the pictures.
Helen read it, each word adding to the sinking feeling in her stomach.
Hopefully, this letter has found you. Wexford of New York is trying to get Maria to agree to something in relation to the current situation with the Cabal. I believe she's not wholly convinced of the idea. Suharto of Jakarta was trying to help. Maria has been critical of you, but she has no love for Wexford. I caught "Sydney". Perhaps Australia is involved in some way as well.
There are many of us in the favelas here, but more flee into the jungles each week. Authorities who once ignored us are looking harder, even harassing us. Trade is difficult and supplies are at a premium. People are frightened, Helen. Tokyo is what everyone talks about, but what they did to Ash is what they're really afraid of. Anyone could be taken. Fear can make people do silly things.
P.S. The pendant is a commission Ash and I were discussing. In the last email, she'd decided on the Mayan glyph for "book" on one side and "sun" on the other, and sent sketches. She'd intended it to be for your 160th birthday, but I think she'd forgive me for sending it now.
Helen felt her breath leave in a rush. She set the computer down and picked up the pendant in shaking hands. One side was more silver and one side more gold. The work was well done and the materials of quality, but what mattered most was that it was a gift from her daughter.
"Helen," Nikola prompted, his voice gentle.
Helen's fingers closed over the gift. "It seems that while we may be facing opposition from within, we still have friends." She thought for a moment. "We can't let this frighten us into inaction. Perhaps nothing will come of their plans. Perhaps something will. We have an obligation to the people here and in the other Sanctuaries to continue as normal."
"Very well. I suggest you keep your eyes a ears open when you go to Mumbai," Nikola said, addressing Henry. "Now, I have some things I need to be doing." He left, leaving Henry with Helen.
Henry's eyes were wide and he stared at her incredulously. "Do you —"
"I don't want you to spy, Henry,” Helen assured him. “Just be mindful of what you say and what you hear from others." She sighed. "I don't like conducting business in this manner, but we can't afford to ignore others who might not feel the same way."
Troubled, Henry frowned. He nodded and collected his computer. "So, uh, when do I leave for Mumbai?"
"I asked John to take you in a few hours. How long do you think it will take?"
"Two days. Priya said Ravi was able to get all the supplies we'd need, so we won't be waiting on anything."
"I don't want you to rush if you don't have to."
"Not rushing, Doc. And besides, I'd rather be here if something goes down."
"You don't honestly think Ravi —"
"No, I don't. I'm more worried about something going on here."
Helen reached over and placed her hand on his. "I understand the concern, but don't rush on our account. Mumbai needs you to upgrade their system."
Henry nodded. "I have a couple other things I need to pack." He paused by the door. "Doc? Just be careful. I have a bad feeling about this."
"I promise to be extra careful," Helen reassured.
Helen paced the length of her office, the phone held in one hand.
"Helen, I think you should consider what I am saying," Terrance Wexford said.
Helen paused to glare into the distance. "Terrance, you know we need to shuffle our resources around. I need you to open space —"
"New York needs to be able to take care of it's own, and that can't happen if we take on more people. They might strike us next."
"Even you can't touch my budget, Helen."
"I'm not —"
Helen gritted her teeth. Terrance continued to give her excuses as to why they couldn't relocate some of the abnormal collections from other Sanctuaries. Thus far new New York hadn't been directly attacked, and they had a great deal of free space. She caught her reflection in her cabinet door and forced herself to calm down. Closing her eyes, Helen let out a breath. Yelling and arguing wouldn't get anywhere with Wexford if he'd made up his mind. Helen opened her eyes and was surprised to see another figure in the reflection. Tall and dark, she thought for a moment it might have been John. She turned and looked, but no one else was in her office. The feeling of being watched didn't go away.
"Honestly, I'm beginning to wonder. You started this war, but maybe we need someone else to finish it."
Helen snapped out of her reverie. "You and I both know I did not start this." So much for staying calm, but Wexford was completely out of line. "Consider, if you will, that your Sanctuary might be next, and that your people might need the help of your neighbors."
"Is that a threat?" Wexford snarled.
"It's a reminder that we need to stand together or we'll all be destroyed."
"A bit melodramatic, Helen —"
"Look at the photos of Moscow and Tokyo, then say that. Open five units to Beijing."
"Maybe we —"
"Good." Helen hung up. She realized she'd pay for the outburst as soon as she'd done it, but sometimes it felt good to just shut that man up. Helen drew in a long breath then let it out slowly. She felt like she was being watched again, and assumed it must have been John politely leaving when it was obvious she was on the phone.
"If you're waiting for me to be done with my phone call, I am," she said to the room at large.
"Hello? John?" Helen looked around but there was no one there, and yet the feeling of eyes on her did not abate. She checked her reflection in the cabinet's doors again, but the shadow she half-expected to see was not there.
"Hello?" She called again.
"Hello?" Will asked from the doorway. "Magnus?"
"Were you waiting to speak with me?"
He shook his head. "No, I just got here. Something the matter?"
"I could have sworn...” She trailed off, and then shook her head. “Nevermind. Did you need something?"
Will studied her. Helen was aware he was evaluating her in a more professional capacity and did her best to push the feelings of unease aside. Finally, Will nodded.
"Prices just increased in our grain-based feed."
Helen allowed a small expression of annoyance cross her face before she pushed her feelings aside and tackled the problem. "Right. Let's see what we can do."
Mumbai's IT person was a Greater Naga named Priya. She had the lower body of a powerful snake, and the upper body of a woman. She also had fangs and a hood, but those were generally only shown to impolite company. She and her husband had a clutch of kids about two years old. One was currently wrapped around Henry's lower leg, giggling as Henry took careful steps down around the room.
"You sure you don't mind?" Priya asked, eyeing her wayward offspring.
"I'm cool," Henry grinned, reaching down to ruffle the kid's hair. "We should be done here in the little bit. Have you had a chance to look at the data I dropped into your inbox?"
She nodded, tucking a lock of hair behind an ear. "I did. I left some suggestions on how to improve our own security, and many more on how to increase the effectiveness of the attack."
Henry grinned. "You're the best hacker we have,"
Priya sniffed delicately. "Please, I left that life long ago."
Henry arched an eyebrow.
"Well, I do keep my hand in. It's good to be aware of what others might use against me," she mused, eyes dancing.
Henry chuckled and finished the last of the reboot with a few keystrokes. "Well, that's the last of them. In about twenty minutes you should be solid." He leaned back against the table and crossed his arms. "How're things here?"
"Sudhir? why don't you go play with Uncle Ravi."
"Yay!" the kid uncoiled himself from Henry's leg and raced down the hall.
Priya grinned wickedly after him then crossed her own arms, tapping the fingers of one hand. "It's... tense."
Helen hadn't had a chance catch up with Henry since his quick report after his return from Mumbai. Henry wasn't in his alcove so Helen went looking for him in his room, but he was either asleep or not there. The nocturnal guests and residents were awake, but for once the house was fairly quiet. Helen walked the halls, checking the rooms to see that everything was in order. She didn't want to sleep and doing a quick patrol helped calm her restless mind. It was good to see everyone resting peacefully.
The light was on in the living room on this level. Helen peered around the door to see who was there. Henry was sprawled on his stomach on the couch, one leg hanging off the edge. At least he'd learned to take his shoes off when he did that, she thought with a smile. His computer was on the table beside him.
She eased his leg back onto the sofa then pulled the folded afghan off the loveseat and draped it over him. Helen reached for the light then stopped. Instead, she sat down on the seat by the couch, watching him sleep.
It wasn't surprising he'd crashed someplace. She was a little surprised by his reaction to events, but then she probably shouldn't have been. Henry had always held deep reserves under the casual exterior. He'd stepped up and she was proud. Her only regret was the circumstances in which he was growing into the man she'd always known he could be.
"He's a good guy."
The image of Ashley watching Henry from the loveseat smiled at her then was gone. Helen gripped the arm of the chair and squeezed her eyes shut. Finally she nodded, agreeing with the vision.
Henry stirred. He looked at the blanket with surprise then found her sitting a little ways off.
"Hey, doc." Henry sat up, rubbing his eyes. "Must have crashed."
"You should get more sleep."
"This coming from you?" he joked, reaching for the computer.
Helen stopped him with a light touch on his wrist. "You should get to bed. You'll make yourself sick if you keep working like you have been."
"This place isn't going to run itself," He joked but withdrew his hand and adjusted the blanket around his shoulders.
Henry tilted his head in question, the gesture on the canine side which put a small smile on her lips.
"You've taken up a lot of the slack. I've been distracted."
"Hey, it's not like you haven't had a reason."
Helen nodded. "Still. Thank you." She cleared her throat. "How have you been holding up? It seems we've hardly spoken and for that I am truly sorry."
Henry leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees. "Up here?" he pointed to his head. "I know what she'd want me to do. So I'm doing it the best I know how. But here," he placed a hand over his chest. "I want to tear those people apart. Bust stuff up. Howl at the moon."
Henry's head dropped down and it was a long while before he spoke again.
"For?" Helen frowned.
One hand reached up and wiped at his face. "I let them grab her."
Helen was out of her seat and sitting beside him in an instant. "They were planning this for years. They had to have been. If they hadn't grabbed her then they would have tried when she was out on another mission."
"She trusted me to have her back and I let her down." His voice dropped down into a low growl.
Helen watched the muscles ripping under his skin as he clenched his hands into fists, fighting the change. She pulled him into a hug. "No." She rubbed small circles on his back as she had when he'd been much younger. "No, Henry. Nothing you did caused this." He needed reassurance and she'd been remiss in giving that to him as of late.
"I thought I did such a great job of getting her the hell out of there, but they let me." He gritted his teeth and abruptly stood, head bowed with grief and tension as the rippling started again on his whole body. He began to pace, like an animal caught in a cage. Helen wondered what she could do for him.
"Henry," she pleaded with him to see reason, "Henry, none of this is your fault. I don't blame you. I don't think Ashley would have either."
Henry continued pacing and shaking his head. "They took her and I didn't —" he cut himself off, balling his hands into fists.
"No. Nothing you did caused this Henry, you have to know that. She wouldn't want you to feel like that. Ashley wouldn't have blamed you." Helen hoped Ashley wouldn't have blamed her as well. After all, Helen was the one who'd encouraged her.
Helen stood and reached out to him. He relaxed a little and she drew him back to the sofa and wrapped the blanket around his shoulders. He broke down and Helen let him cry on her shoulder. She felt tears in her own eyes; sadness, but also shame that she hadn't been here for him. He'd needed her and she'd been wrapped in her own grief. That too was something she couldn't hold on to forever. She had to let the mistake go and move forward.
At length, Henry sniffed and wiped his eyes, nodding. He rested his arms on his knees again and stared at the far wall. Helen put a hand on his shoulder to let him know she was there for him. He chuckled bitterly and seemed to be gathering himself up for something. He shook his head and set his jaw.
"Before we left, I'd decided something," he eventually said. "I was done being a coward and I'd finally worked up the nerve to do it. We were going to go on the mission, come back with what we'd gone for and everyone would have been happy and I wouldn't have looked so much like a dork."
Henry breathed in then let it out slowly. "I was gonna ask her if she wanted to go for coffee or something."
"Oh," Helen breathed, hugging him to her. "Oh, Henry." She was fairly certain that Ashley would have been surprised, but would have said yes. Helen had been well aware of the teenage crush that had once lurked under her daughter's friendship with Henry. As an adult, she'd certainly loved him as a dear friend. The strongest romances often grew out of such friendships. Helen certainly would have approved; Henry was a good man. More, he would have been good for Ashley.
"I just," Henry shook his head. "She's gone."
Helen brushed back his hair. Her heart's fervent belief was that her daughter was not dead, but she had tried everything. Ashley wouldn't have wanted her to spent the rest of her life in a search with an uncertain end when there were so many people who needed her now. Ashley wouldn't have wanted that endless quest for her best friend, either.
"Yes," she murmured, soothing him with gentle touches. She felt the sting of tears at her eyes, but she willed them not to fall. "She's gone."
Henry shuddered with pent up emotion, eyes fixed on the floor. After a good ten minutes of silence, the tension in his shoulders eased gradually in acceptance, shedding the burden he'd been keeping in the back of his mind.
"I haven't wanted to say it out loud, you know?" he finally spoke into the silence. "Saying it makes it more real. Didn't for a week because I thought, if I didn't maybe something would happen. She'd turn up." He wiped his nose. "Crazy as life here is, it's not a comic book or a scifi movie."
She squeezed his shoulders. "No. It's not."
He nodded and wiped his eyes again then looked away. "Yeah. Makes working with Kate kinda hard. I think they'd have had a fistfight and then gone out for a beer. I had this crazy dream the other night." He smiled, shaking his head. "Kate was the party rogue, Ash was the warrior, Will was the priest. I got to be the spell caster."
Helen laughed, ignoring the tight feeling in her chest. "How is she working out? You and Will have probably spent the most time with her thus far."
Henry shrugged. "Sometimes she's easier to deal with than other times. She knows what she's doing on a hunt. I, uh, looked her up."
"Did you find anything unusual?"
"No," he shook his head. "I would have brought it up if I had. She hasn't lied about the name at least. She's had at least one history wipe. Probably a couple. Not real surprising, considering her line of work. She's probably got the cash to pay for a decent but not complete job." Henry rubbed his hands together, looking at the far wall as he recalled the details he'd found.
"She started this line of work between six and seven years ago. With the wipes it's hard to say so she might have been around a little longer. She's been moving black market goods mostly, trending into live abnormal stuff in the last year and a half or so. Minor player, minor reputation. Solid if you can pay for it. Doesn't ask questions."
"Exactly the sort of person the Cabal would hire to do their dirty work if they didn't want to be noticed." Helen's eyes narrowed. She did not exactly agree with Kate's previous line of work, but she disliked the Cabal's actions more so. Kate had been a con-artist and thief, but she wasn't a contract killer.
Henry nodded. "If you want my opinion? I think she got in over her head on that one."
Helen nodded, agreeing. "Anything on her background? Family? Friends? Where she came from?"
Henry shook his head. "Minimal. She's either from Mumbai or Chicago. Probably lived both places. She operated in Los Angeles for a few months, then showed up in Vancouver, but since she's small fish, it's actually easier to remove traces."
"You mentioned she could pay for that service?"
Henry nodded. "Decent domestic funds. She's got stuff in the Caymans but I couldn't tell you how much without some really invasive hacking. She'd still be a smaller account though. If she moves it out of there, I don't know where it goes."
Helen nodded. She suspected now that at least some of those funds, perhaps all of them, were sent to family. "Do you trust her?"
Henry winced and rubbed the back of his head. "Maybe? She's dead if she leaves, but I think she really likes the stuff she's been doing here – the helping I mean. Biggie said Kate spent most of the afternoon corralling the new kids after you brought 'em in from the docs. He says she has 'em all watching Operation Paranomral and playing fetch with Ralphie for a little bit in the afternoons."
Helen suppressed an eyeroll on that little tidbit, but she supposed if no one had been hurt, it was just as well the children had been distracted by the steno. Then again, the steno was looking fine and fit, so perhaps the exercise and socialization was good for him. "I hear a ‘but‘ coming?"
He nodded. "But she's been in the shady side for a really long time. I know some guys who went white hat after being hackers for years, and it's a tough habit to break." He made a little gesture. "Priya, for one. It took a few years and a clutch of kids to get her to really stop."
Helen chuckled. "How are they?"
"The little boy likes climbing over everyone and everything. The one girl had her nose in a book the whole time I was there and the other was a bit shy at first, but then she heard us speaking English and wanted to practice. Couldn't get her to stop talking after that."
Helen laughed. "It's good to know that despite everything there are still families growing and we can shield the children from some of this ugliness." She hugged Henry's shoulder. " As for Kate, I'm hopeful things will work out."
"We've had so much go wrong, something has to go right."
Helen tut-tutted his cynicism. "She has you and Will as good examples to follow. Now, you should get some rest."
"You want to hear about Mumbai? Like, what the going rumors are?"
"I think it can wait until the morning. If it had been something vital, I'm sure you would have found me."
Henry laughed, nodding. "Yeah.They're scared down there too, but no one said anything to my face. Some ruffled feathers, but nothing smelled really wrong."
"I trust your judgement. Now go to bed."
"I think I'd like to stay up for awhile. Get some things done. Finish up my analysis of their security, poke at the virus program some more."
"Henry, I think it'd be best if you slept. I don't want you working yourself to exhaustion." She saw him hesitate so she added, "Please. For me?"
He relented, nodding. "Guess I should listen to the doctor, huh?"
She smiled, hesitated, then kissed his forehead. "The programs will be here in the morning. Good night Henry."
Fall turned to winter. Heavy snow fell on the northwest. Outside Magnus' window, the gardens were covered in a blanket of white. The Corvids weren't the only refugees to seek shelter from the storm. Many of the newer additions were from warmer climates and few could go outside in the northwestern winter. Normally some of the migratory abnormals would have already left to winter south, but that was no longer an option. With so many here, Helen was feeling a little claustrophobic in her own home. The chaos of coordinating the care of so many abnormals was further complicated by more "routine" operations.
The Old City Sanctuary still had to react to the appearance of abnormals in their sector. If they didn't handle it quickly, the Cabal would, and often did, swoop in. There had been a brief, and in hindsight amusing, meeting with a "super-hero". They'd managed to get the abnormal away from the man before the Cabal could. Helen was aware that Kate's brother had come by, but she'd been too focused on dealing with the newly expanded collection at the time. Pressure had lessened in the city as of late and word was a major crime boss had disappeared. Helen didn't want to know the details. The man had been in bed with the Cabal according to Will.
While things were quiet in her immediate area, the other Sanctuaries were facing increasing pressure from local authorities, creditors and suppliers. As winter broke in Old City, Helen looked out at the prospect of spring, but the hope she usually felt during this time of year was depressingly absent.
Helen's head snapped up. She'd been dozing. She checked the time and saw it had only been an hour. "Kate?"
"Boss! Mexico City just got hit," Kate said, crossing the room at a trot. She turned Helen's keyboard and monitor to the side so she could type then turned it back so Helen could see. "We just saw this downstairs."
The video feed showed a local Mexico city newscast. The reporter in the helicopter was surveying a blazing building. A gout of flame shot into the sky and illuminated the surrounding area. Helen recognized the Mexico City Sanctuary at the heart of the flames.
"We're trying to find out. Henry's working his mojo on the networks. Will called some folks at the border and Biggie is trying to grab a hold of Druitt. Can't find Tesla."
Helen nodded as she and Kate ran back to the main lab.
"Doc!" Henry looked up from his computer. The live footage from two stations was now being fed to the monitors.
"Have we been able to speak with anyone?" Helen asked
"Not from Mexico City. Javier Martinez was in Cabo for a photoshoot and wants to know what he can do to help. He says his studio space in San Diego is open to us if we need to move people around."
Helen nodded. "Thank him. Do we know what happened?"
"The press is currently speculating that it's gang violence," Nikola said, joining them. He picked up the remote and another monitor showed CNN reporting on the fires. "I spoke with some contacts of mine." The hooded look he gave Helen made her insides twist. She'd known this was no ordinary fire, no accident of gang violence.
"We need to make contact and get whomever we can out of there."
"I might know some people," Kate offered, dark eyes fixed on the screens. "Folks who are still returning my calls, but they might not want to get involved."
"Do you trust them?"
Kate shrugged a shoulder. "For a price. They don't sell to higher bidders though."
"I've already asked my contacts in the area to be available," Nikola added.
One of the monitors flashed over to a Skype video-conference. The craggy face of the Mexico City Head of House, Lucás Amadeo, was lit by the glow of the computer he was using.
"Helen. This connection isn't exactly the best."
"I understand. How can we help?"
"Many of my people have fled for the border north, a few have gone south. I was able to load some of our collection onto a shipping container and send it north by sea. Some of my people took others to the airport. We think one truck go through. The other--" he broke off, coughing.
Helen wouldn't have been surprised if it was smoke inhalation.
"Those who could, fled into the city. We have no idea if they made it or not." He stopped to cough again. "We didn't have much time. The riots started and within the hour they were at our gates. Their teleporter was there. He took a few of us before Ignacio hit him with the EM pulse gun. He went down, but some men in riot gear grabbed him before we could. They were not with the police." He broke off again, coughing.
There was a commotion in the background and he looked off into the distance.
"Lucás," Helen said, "We'll help you."
"They bought those gangs, Helen. Even now we are being hunted." Lucás’ expression was grim even through the grainy picture.
"Doc! I got Rio on the line. She's going to send a cargo plane to Toluca."
"Lucás, Maria is sending a plane to Toluca. We'll head south and help your people cross the border in San Diego and meet your shipping crate at the port."
He coughed again, nodding. The commotion was even louder. "We must go. Helen," he coughed again. "Helen, this is bad. Most of my House was caught in the fire."
"Head to Toluca. We'll work our contacts in the area and get whomever we can out of the area."
He nodded and the connection went black. Helen had half a second before Henry told her that Maria was waiting and calls were coming in from the other Sanctuaries.
"Has anyone else been attacked?"
"That's a mercy at least," Helen muttered to herself. She waved for Henry to connect her and the center monitor switched to the feed from Rio.
Maria González was a hard woman. At first glance she appeared to be statuesque Latina beauty in her mid to late thirties, but her luminous yellow eyes indicated her abnormal heritage. She was eighty years old, still young for her species of HAP – the werejaguars. Maria's dark hair was pulled back to the nape of her neck and her brows were drawn in a frown. Her lips had compressed into a thin line, but the severe expression was hardly something unusual for her
"Maria. Thank you for sending the plane."
She nodded her head slightly. "I expect you'll have problems with the border-crossing. I suggest you avoid Nogales and the Calexico-Mexicali crossings."
"What would you suggest? San Diego?"
She nodded once. "Do you think this is a prelude to a larger attack?"
"We haven't heard anything from anyone else thus far. They seem to have bought some of the local gangs in Mexico City."
"And some of the police, no doubt," Maria growled. In others it might have been an expression or a turn of phrase, but with Maria, it was very literal. "Mexico was weakened by the price increases. We have begun to see the same thing here, as well as in Cairo, Jakarta, and Asunción."
Helen nodded. Any of them could be next, she thought.
"Lives are being lost."
"I have not been inactive."
Maria waved a hand in a negative gesture, cutting Helen off. "No. But we are not gaining ground and there is no relief."
Helen looked up as Kate trotted over.
"Hank says some of the other heads are online. He's and Will are playing secretary. You want to hold a conference?"
Helen set her jaw, and nodded. "Perhaps we should discuss what we can do for one another," she said, addressing Maria.
Maria nodded, eyes flicking to one side and narrowing at something off-camera.
The monitors changed so that only one local feed continued to show the blaze in Mexico City. The others showed the other Heads of House who'd contacted her: Asunción in Paraguay, Sydney in Australia, New York City, Mumbai and New Delhi both in India, London in the UK, Jakarta Indonesia, Berlin in Germany and Bejing in China. Helen met the eyes of each head or acting head, and nodded a greeting. There were a few Houses missing; some such as Tokyo and Moscow were still gathering themselves together, but she wondered at the others. Where were Oslo, Lagos, Lima, Christchurch, and Grozny? Helen motioned to Kate and quietly asked her to have Henry make contact.
"Well, this is a fine mess, Helen," Terrance Wexford began.
Pili scowled at him, but remained silent.
"Has anyone heard from Norway? New Zealand?" Helen asked, ignoring Terrance for the moment.
The Sydney head nodded. "Christchurch contacted me. They're dealing with vandalism, but their relationship with the local police is very strong."
Helen nodded thanks. "The others?"
"We've been trying to contact Grozny," Berlin spoke up. "Nothing yet."
"I have not heard from Nigeria," Pili added. "My IT officer is attempting to make contact but has been unsuccessful. We have not, however, seen anything on the news channels which might indicate they have been attacked."
"We should use our government contacts," Terrance spoke up. "Before we find we cannot use them," Terrance spoke up.
Helen wasn't the only Head to protest that suggestion, but neither was it unanimous. "I believe that would be ill advised. This is our matter to deal with. I don't want collateral damage--"
"There is already collateral damage, Helen. We don't have the resources-"
"If we run to our governments for help, what does that say?" Declan asked him. "It says we can't handle problems we told them we could handle."
"It places us in a position beholden to them," Berlin agreed.
"We already are." Sydney spoke up.
"No need to remind them," Pili added in a gentle tone. "At the moment they don't claim to understand our science and I doubt they want to assume those responsibilities. However, guns and weapons they understand."
Terrance glared at her, looking perhaps a little betrayed, but he subsided.
Helen inclined her head to Pili, who was the Cairo head. "Well said." She looked at everyone in turn. "I doubt we'd like additional government oversight after this crisis has been averted. That isn't even touching the possibility that the Cabal has infiltrated those same governments. We could be opening ourselves to further attack." She paused to let that sink in. "The best course is to help one another and exercise what contacts we have without going for the extreme options."
"Will you talk of peace then?" Wexford questioned, voice pitched over the commotion the other heads were making.
Silence fell for a moment before the arguments and discussion started again.
Wexford called out for silence before Helen could. "We are getting nowhere with them. Perhaps we could talk?"
"They haven't wished to speak before," Berlin reminded him.
"And they've started a fresh round of assaults," Maria added, mildly.
Wexford's eyes snapped over to her.
She shrugged a shoulder. "They are on the offensive. Why would they talk?"
"It could take their momentum," Jakarta said in support of the idea. "Give us a moment to breathe if nothing else. If they think we're so wounded as to broach the topic of peace talks, they might allow us to gain a better deal."
"If we are so weak as to ask them to the table," Maria said, "We are as weak as they will think we are." She bared white teeth at him in a predator's smile of challenge. All four of her canines were pointed and very white.
"There can be no peace," Helen said, forcefully. She didn't raise her voice but the discussion subsided. "When this began, the leader of the Cabal offered what she considered peace, and that was giving everything over in exchange for returning Ashley.” Helen was proud of herself that her voice didn’t crack over speaking her daughter’s name out loud. “My house. Your Houses. You know this." She looked Wexford in the eye until he looked away. "I cannot do that. Too many lives depend on us and we have seen what they do."
"Helen we're all sorry about what happened to--"
"It isn't just what they did to my daughter," Helen cut Jakarta off. "They destroyed the lives of six other people. Six other humans who were abnomal in that they had no abnormalities, and that's just the start. They have captured, manipulated, and enslaved many. You've all been sent the reports in the last year. At best we're tools to be used and discarded. At worst we're threats to be eliminated. There is no peace possible that does not end in the death of us and everything we stand for."
Silence followed Helen's speech. Wexford shifted uncomfortably.
"Doc?" Henry's gentle voice broke the silence.
He eyed the monitors then gulped. "Lima's gone."
To Be Continued...