Direct Action
by Stephen Tsai and Dal Merlin with Paul Cocker


Mark Barrington sat in the Mercury Company briefing room, staring at a manila folder.

It was long past the age that it should have been replaced by a nondescript floppy disk, but floppy disks left traces, and kept traces of the computers that they had been created on. This was simply a piece of paper, and he knew it would have no fingerprints, nor identifying marks of any kind.

The only marking on the outside of the folder was its serial number, NB4 followed by a ten-digit number. Barrington knew that the number was unique but completely random. He had written enough of them.

His decision was not based upon the benefits of the job. No one took an NB4 job for the money. Well, almost no one. You took it because they were only offered to the best, and nailing an NB job was a permanent ticket. And permanent bragging rights.

If you survived.

"Core Meeting in the BR. Five Minutes."

Tracy Brand whooped, tossed her red hair and threw down her wrench. Cutter and Tanabe, two of the unblooded, stood up, but she waved them back to work. Goon grinned after her as she nearly ran toward the briefing room. The two contract mercs looked at each other and frowned in her direction. "Corps meeting. Who made her queen?"

Goon set a large hand on the back of each man's neck. "Not Corps. Core. And Firebrand's in because she's earned her skull, and we voted her in. Any more questions?"

Goon paused a moment, looking down at the two with his head cocked to the side. They were both graduates of the Special Forces. And they knew better than to ask a dumb question. Goon grinned his goofiest grin. "Well, I'd better get in there before the silence out here deafens me."

He picked a blue hair off Tanabe's coverall before he left.

By the time Goon reached the briefing room, the whole core was assembled. There were nine of them now, including Juan Cloud, a.k.a. "Trophy." The Chicano-Cherokee had been voted in last week.

"This is an NB4 mission," Barrington announced to start the meeting. "You know what that means."

Cloud looked impassively around at the others, who seemed to have stopped breathing. "Umm. No."

Brand whispered the answer as if she were in church. "No Bidding. No Billing. No Bonus. No Backout."

Cloud tapped his beaded tie while considering. No bidding meant they had been selected for the job, and offered the top of their scale. Or above. No billing meant payment would be made in advance, to allow for special outfitting. "No Bonus?"

"If you survive, that's the only bonus you get." Tsanga stopped shaving his fingernails with the blade, his tanned Filipino jowls jiggling incongruously. As the oldest member of the Core, he felt an obligation to explain reality to the youngsters. " That bonus few people gain."

"Then why are we considering the commission?" Cloud asked with a sense of concern, rather than sarcasm. The Watchman wouldn't be putting this in front of them without a good reason.

Barrington glanced around the small group. He had wondered as much himself. But he had to make sure that the information given here was accurate, so he backed up a moment to correct Tsanga's pessimistic view. "Actually, the bonus is built into the initial pay scale. After this job, anyone who wants to retire will be quite able to. The job is dangerous, even deadly. But the chances are good of bringing home most of the team alive."

Cloud looked at Barrington impassively. Most of the team. He let his earlier question hang in the air. Why are we considering the commission?

Barrington let the silence hang for a moment before continuing. What he knew about this mission raised its importance beyond safety and fiscal questions. "All I can say is what is in the briefing folder. If any single person doesn't want the commission, we turn it down."

"And what precisely does the briefing say?"

"Quote. Elite force of 12 to 15 to escort small incursion force into high-tech fortress. Enemy will be aware, armed and possibly overwhelming. Guard incursion force for up to ten hours. Aid in exit after that time or after release, if able. $25 million plus $1 million per head. Unquote."

Bernard Clifton whistled. The little pilot, known to his friends as "Lift," read between the lines. "This is US Gov, right? So it's not Purgatory Prime. I hear the Russians have something similar, with about six metas in it. Then there's the Protectorate's place, and the Celestial Keep..."

"Oh my God." Brand's scalp crawled, and her freckled skin flushed a red almost as bright as her hair. It was the feeling she always got when she was right and didn't want to be. "The Keep."

Barrington repeated himself. "All we know for sure is what's in the briefing. We get the rest only after we take the assignment. When it's too late to back out."

Barrington paused for a moment, then corrected another item. "We don't know that it's U.S. Government. This one came in on an odd channel."

Sorenson looked up from his doodling. "What y'all mean by 'odd?'"

"Rich individual rather than a slush fund."

Murali harumphed. "Ten hours." His eyes couldn't be seen behind the designer sunglasses. Barrington knew they wouldn't have showed anything anyway. Even though they called him and Goon "The Bookends," they couldn't have been more different, one dark and the other pale, one quiet and the other clownish. They called Murali "the Stone."

"That's just the backstop. It means they think it will take three," corrected Barrington.

"Then it's not demolition, and not an extraction."

"Krainii Tiur'ma is right out then," interjected Lane. "You don't hang around for three hours in another government's Ultra Prison. Or you'll be there a lot longer." Only a few faces grinned at the joke. It wouldn't take Purgatory Prime to hold any of them.

"It's the Keep," Brand repeated quietly.

"More likely one of the flying fortresses. They won't have a route to the Keep until months into the war, whenever they start it. When they've taken one or more fortresses. I'll bet they need recon into them, and are trying to examine the technology up close and personal."

"If we're sure it's Ireland, I'm in. Ain't no use waiting for them to come knockin' on your outhouse," Sorenson said with his slight drawl. Barrington noted Tsanga's and Lane's slight nods at the medic. Counting his own, that was four votes for going.

"I'm in if Stone's in," said Goon, gesturing gawkishly toward the other Bookend. Murali grunted. Barrington interpreted the grunt as assent, although it could as easily have meant the Stone-Faced Boy was simply disgusted with his lighter twin.

Cloud said something in Klingon, then repeated in English, "Today is a good day to die." He was always looking for chances to fight hand-to-hand, and he'd heard things about the Elite's soldiers.

"Let's not... Die," said Lift. "Do you suppose we can highjack one of those Lancers on the way out?"

"I doubt it. From what I hear, the pilots are integrated into the flight controls."

"Ughh." After a pause, Clifton continued, "I abstain then. Might be nothing for me to do."

They turned to look at Brand. She looked uncomfortable. "Do I always have to be the voice of reason?"

"Were you ever?" replied the little pilot.

Brand held back from sticking her tongue out at him. Barely. "Once in a while." She stopped for a moment and thought. "How will we fill out the ticket?"

Barrington grinned. One reason he loved having the Joint Task Force Two grad on the team was her lateral thinking. The rest of the Core had signed on without thinking about more than the bare essentials.

"Tanabe will probably sign. Engelbrecht or Kieffer also. That's twelve and we're in. "

"Do you suppose Salvage is available?"

"Nope. The Nighthawks have other commitments."

There was an odd tone in his voice. Sensing something off, the team looked at the Watchman quietly for a moment that stretched into infinity. Cloud followed the lead of the others, and remained silent. Finally, Goon cocked his head and asked, as if from a kindergarten teacher to a six-year-old, "Okay, Bear, what exactly aren't you telling us?"

"I made a few private calls before I called you in here. They've all got NB folders. Different objectives."

There were a few whistles around the table. "All" in this case could only mean all the top mercenary outfits. The ones they would work with, or sub to. The ones you could count on.

"Then it's the Keep," said Brand.

"All we know for sure is what's in the folder," said Barrington. "But I think you're right."

Brand thought a moment about all the lives and land destroyed in Ireland. That against her own life. The lives of her team.

The chances of coming out of the Keep alive weren't good. A holding action for three hours in a high-tech prison. A normal mission had a one-in-three chance of losing a person, and then only because of events beyond their planning and control. Something like this would be a one-in-three of losing each person, no matter how well they planned.

Her sister's family would live comfortably on the bounty, and in some way her genes would live on. Funny what you thought about at moments like these.

Moments that demonstrate what is important to you.

Moments that define your life.

"I'm in."

They began to plan.

******

"If it's Ireland or the Keep, we're in."

The voice on the other end of the line was quiet for a moment. A long, long moment. "Mr Barrington, you know I am under certain restrictions."

Barrington cleared his throat and waited. An NB4 was generally quite secret, and he was expected to keep anything he discovered about the mission in strict confidence, whether or not they accepted the mission. At least until afterwards, and often forever.

At worst, their conditional acceptance would give them a little negative evidence of what they had turned down. At best, it gave them the control of knowing what they were signing up for. So Barrington waited.

"I am now able to give you more information," declared the voice. "Please prepare your team. The initial funds are being made available as we speak."

"Initial Funds? This was an NB4."

The voice on the other end smiled without humour. "There will be a completion bonus in addition, based upon two separate mission objectives."

Barrington's palms began to itch.

"The expenditures are being shared between clients, one of whom is a government. The details will arrive at your office in several minutes."

Barrington breathed deeply, in and out, focusing on releasing the tension as he waited. As Siren would say, sometimes when you buy a pig in a poke, the pig bites.

******

The small crowd of unbloods were gathered in what was euphemistically called the workout room. It was actually a tactical training room, the size of a small warehouse. The Watchman stood before the small group, dressed in his fatigues. Behind him were the Core, standing at parade rest as if for a publicity photo. Thankfully, the explanation was going to be very brief.

"This is a suicide mission. Nobody wants to die, but if you sign on, you're dead. Fifteen are going in. With luck, ten of us will make it out. Without luck, none." There was a murmuring, and two of the contract mercenaries eased themselves back into the depths of the crowd. An Asian freelancer just quietly walked away. Best case scenarios of two-thirds survival didn't bring too much eagerness out in people who weren't even considered teammates.

"If you come, you'll earn your skull. You'll also take home a million to your heirs. You get two days to set up your will, your estate, all the lawyer crap. The money will be paid on embark, and survivors will return after one month. All medical expenses will be paid, on top of the million. That's the plus side."

Barrington assessed the crowd. Their mood was somber. A few were shaking their heads. What good were bragging rights if you didn't live to brag? What good was being a millionaire if you didn't get to spend it?

Barrington had intentionally avoided inviting the family men. There were a few of them among the best mercenaries -- people who could actually balance a dangerous work-life with a real home-life. But he didn't even want to offer this job to men who had young children. They deserved a better chance to come home.

"This is volunteer only. See me by 1500 tomorrow if you want to come along. Dismissed."

The crowd spilled out into the hallway, breaking up into small groups that would each probably cluster at the same bar or tavern. As he had expected, Hiro Tanabe and Erwin Engelbrecht hung back as the others left. Barrington knew Tanabe was "pursuing the warrior spirit", whatever that meant. Juan Cloud understood him, and trusted him, and that was good enough for the Watchman.

Engelbrecht was a different animal. Having survived the civil wars in South Africa, the Afrikaner was ready to settle down. But a bad gambling habit had depleted his savings, and a bad choice in women had depleted his joy in living. Mercury Company was the closest thing he had to family, and earning his skull was a ticket to enter the Core. And if not, then he'd at least die doing something worthwhile, among friends.

Barrington nodded briefly as each stepped up to him, then motioned them into the ranks behind him. Goon patted Engelbrecht on the head, and Juan Cloud did some kind of a Klingon war dance with Tanabe. At least it wasn't the lambada.

There weren't any other takers that night, but Schneider appeared in his office the following morning. The big black German was furious. He held his anger with a quiet dignity, even though it accentuated his normally mild accent. "Why wasn't I invited to ze briefing?"

"You've got a child, and another on the way."

"And I've got a grandmother und a dog, too. But I want in."

The Watchman looked him in the eyes, a long and searching look. Schneider was a solid mercenary, and he'd be an asset on any mission. He didn't take unnecessary risks, and felt free to turn down bad assignments. Why take on an NB4? "Why?"

Schneider looked at Barrington, a caged look. The fury went out of his eyes. He would have to tell the Watchman. "In confidence, Sir?"

Barrington nodded.

"I've got about a year."

Talbot's eyebrow went up reflexively.

"Maybe four months of it healthy enough to verk."

Barrington closed his eyes, then slowly nodded. He wasn't going to ask the next question. Maybe after. "Okay. But you keep yourself alive if possible."

Schneider nodded, then said, almost to himself, "I intend to." He saluted as he left.

By 1500, seven other men had volunteered, not including Keiffer. Apparently the youngest of their contract mercs had the sense to sit this one out. Barrington wasn't sure whether that counted for him or against him, but he wouldn't need to decide until after.

It was an interesting word -- after.

He filled out the team with three of the other seven volunteers. Cutter, Kolcikov and Paniagua would do the job well, and were respected by the team. The remaining four went into his hot file for first pick at any tough jobs that came up later.

Barrington made some phone calls, and passed on their names. A lot of his colleagues would need solid help.

Then, still in sight of the plain manila folder, he started updating his will.

******

Hunkered down by the bay doors of an abandoned airport hangar on the isle of Jersey, the sixteen members of Mercury Squad watched the elite of Great Britain's armed forces and scientific community buzzing about like a swarm of drones. The entire facility had long since been gutted out, only to be refurbished into a place that seemed more fit in a James Bond movie. Teams of technicians sat before banks of computers while duty officers and commanders hovered over them, trying to orchestrate some sense of order in the chaos. Above, holographic displays pulsed on the ceiling, showing grid maps and highlighting current military activity.

"Armageddon in Technicolor," Siren drawled.

"I can't believe we're joining Old Glory and his pajama parade," added Tanabe, blue hair sticking out from his Mercury Squad helmet. "Maybe they'll give us action figures as a bonus." It was unclear from his voice whether he was kidding.

"Just keep in mind this is our ticket onto Celestial Keep," admonished Barrington, "So stop spouting sophomoric remarks and wait like good little boys. And girl."

Brand curtsied sarcastically, then returned to parade rest, eyes sweeping over the frenzied activity as if any detail might turn out to be vital later. Mind active, body restive. This was the time to wait, and keep the adrenaline from burning out your body before it was truly needed.

Of them all, Bernard Clifton was perhaps the most nervous. His five-foot-five and one-third-inch frame couldn't carry the baggage needed by a team walking into a high-tech fortress, for his strength lay in his virtuoso performance as a pilot. A skill, he was told, that somehow would not be needed here.

Not even for the delivery and pickup.

He tried not to think about that. They were using some meta tool or ability to go to the strike zone. And his friends were going to near certain death. For some of them, anyway. He stared around at the frenzied activity, wishing there were some way he could help. The activity underlined just exactly how much their PR differed from the reality.

They were the cream of the world's paramilitary crop -- every member could live off bugs for weeks in scorching climates, dismantle bombs blindfolded, do HALO jumps onto moving flatbed trucks, and incapacitate normal humans with a simple chop to any of several portions of their anatomies. They won wars, took out guerillas, and rescued cats from trees.

Or at least that's how they were portrayed in the advertisements for Quicksilver Munitions Company, a purveyor of fine custom weapons. Meanwhile, this would be the first time any of them had engaged a concerted metahuman threat, a completely different order of thing from their usual direct action missions.

Contrary to popular fiction, missions were seldom attempted this quickly after the contract was accepted. The usual lag time would be months, rather than days, of preparations and planning, contingencies and outfitting. The breathtaking speed of this action was a testament to the importance of the mission. Or, in this case, missions.

They had been tasked by the international alliance to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction that were known to be on board Celestial Keep. Autocrat was the type to use them, and any city on Earth could be the target once that maniac reached a certain level of pique.

In addition to that, they had been privately contracted to penetrate and steal a copy of Autocrat's compiled scientific knowledge. For the latter mission, they had subcontracted a man named Hardware, a metahuman parolee who was said to be a computer and scientific expert.

Watchman had his misgivings about splitting his team up so thin, but there was too much at stake. In fact, he knew that the second mission was funding the first, paying the rather exorbitant fee that was required to get top people -- his people -- to risk their lives on a moment's notice. Every member of the team was a volunteer, and a sober professional. He hoped that he could keep them alive.

At least the incursion into the Keep would be led by Old Glory, staffed by several metas, and covered by a number of diversions. Now if the battle plan would only survive contact with the enemy...

******

Old Glory circled overhead and Watchman and his men covered the entrances while Hardware attempted to gain access to the computer. The Keep had somehow reconfigured itself, and their maps and plans were now useless. The only good thing was that, somehow, the Keep seemed to have fewer defenders and defenses than would have been expected.

"Hardware," Old Glory said, "time's up."

"One moment... Let me work this up... There!"

For a moment Team Gamma's hand-held computers went blank, but then the systems booted back up. Their screens came to life with new and improved charts and maps. Most importantly, the schematized information corresponded with the newly transformed Celestial Keep. Someone cheered.

Hardware entered a code that would hopefully screw up the sensors in the immediate area. The odds were even whether it would work, but they'd take every shot they could get.

"Alright, everyone!" Old Glory hollered. "Light's green -- let's go."

The veteran war hero led the squad to a nearby wall, where the wall irised open to reveal a passageway. They jogged down the passageway to an intersection and turned right. They continued down a series of halls, through doors, and finally up to the next level. Old Glory then halted, hand-signaling the squad to do the same. There was a sound at the far end of the corridor.

Instantly, the area was flooded with monsters and robotic troopers. Harpies filled the air while Bushidos charged and opened fire.

"Resistance!" Old Glory warned, pressing himself against the corridor wall. "Take cover!"

The Watchman and Mercury Squad dodged and fired, dropping the first wave of Bushidos with a barrage of hot lead.

The Watchman, Tsanga and Sorenson each led a team of four mercenaries in the fight for survival. Tsanga's group kept the flanks covered, Sorenson's swept the air, and the Watchman's picked off the hard targets and helped defend the Premier Patriot, who was the focus of most of the Elite fire.

Old Glory was moving and dodging past the assembled Elite, pulling their fire and somehow managing to dodge the lasers and flying metal. He turned to coordinate an attack and to snipe the attackers with gravity beams. With a wave after powerful wave, Old Glory dropped the mutants with gravitic force.

Then the walls changed again, and Old Glory was gone. Sorenson lay stunned on the metal floor, where he had fallen when the wall slashed down into his face. His squad was on the other side of that wall, with the premiere patriot.

"Watchman!" came Glory's voice over the comm.

"Still here," the Watchman replied, moving his squads laterally down a corridor, Goon carrying Sorenson. A trio of Trolls dived around a corner, led by something that belonged in an old scifi movie -- a robot with human brains visible in a plastic case. Schneider put a bullet through the brain, and the Trolls hesitated long enough to be aerated by Brand and Murali. "But there's more muties than you can shake a stick at! We're holding our own for now, but don't miss any chances to finish things up or extraction could get messy!"

"Roger that! Hang tight."

"Right." Watchman swore under his breath. "Glory, can you see my third squad? We're missing three men!"

"No one visible here. Sorry. Glory out."

The Watchman had a black moment. He was already twenty percent down, and under this kind of assault, the rest of his team would last perhaps forty minutes. But after two more minutes of sporadic firing, they found no more targets.

The teams quickly moved into positions near the entrances, but nothing was moving. The smell of blood and gunpowder permeated the place, but none of the blood belonged to Mercury Squad.

"What are we, chopped liver?" asked Brand in the sudden silence.

"Dessert, ma'am," Sorenson replied, gently shaking his head to clear the ringing in his ears. "They'll be back for us when they're done with the main course."

"Well, we're one dessert that's going to bite back."

******

The Watchman flinched reflexively as the demolition charge exploded against the unearthly alloy doors. The resulting discharge rang out like a gong echoing throughout the Fortress. However, that was the only sign of the explosion once the smoke cleared.

"Not even warm, Bear," Tsanga replied and shook his head as he pressed against the door. The Watchman snarled something under his breath as he took assessment of the situation.

At least Old Glory had cleared the room of the opposition before getting separated by the security bulkhead. No doubt the tin-plated dictator running the show meant this to make it easier to split their forces up.

Tsanga grimaced at the unscarred wall. His finger traced something that only he could see, before he spoke somberly. "Three-kilo charges there and there. One-kilo shaped charge there..."

"Don't bother, we don't have the time." The Watchman shook his head. He took a moment to assess the situation. The group on this side of the bulkhead was comprised of most of his band of mercenaries. Their primary missions were to neutralize the Celestial Keep's strategic weapons and to acquire technical information from the computer databanks. Of course, the initial plan had been to have Old Glory leading the way, but that was no longer an option. "OK, here's what's going to happen. Tsanga, you take Cloud, Lane, Goon, Paniagua, Tanabe, and escort the egghead to the computer core so he can do his stuff. I'll take Brand, Siren, Murali, Schneider and Cutter to disarm the nukes."

"Spread kind of thin aren't we?" Tsanga asked.

The Watchman shrugged. With Scott, Engelbrecht and Kolcikov on the other side of that bulkhead, there were no more to spread.

"Don't sweat it mate, we'll get it done," Brand replied confidently. The only female of the group, she was known for her confidence and flair, as well as a tendency to jump to the right conclusion. Tsanga hoped she was right this time.

"Let's move out."

Hardware looked around nervously as he followed the team down the corridor. "You know, no one mentioned this kind of thing in my parole hearing."

"Don't worry doc, we'll watch your back," Paniagua assured. .

"Oh yeah? You're gonna watch my back? Who's watching yours?" Hardware challenged.

Paniagua let the question hang in the air for a moment. He wasn't yet considered "blooded" with this unit. He was just a professional, not yet part of the core, the family. But he knew the answer to that one.

"Everybody."

******

Scott rushed Kolcikov and Engelbrecht down the corridor, all three firing wildly. The Trolls lost interest in them as they left the vicinity of the metahuman heroes, and afterwards they encountered only minor resistance. Finally they reached the point on the schematics where Scott knew the wall would open into a small mechanical chamber, and dived through.

"And the point in this was...?" asked Engelbrecht, as he took position beside the iris.

Scott was breathing hard, his heart racing. The point was that being separated from the rest of the team had unnerved him, and he had panicked. But, in this case, the panic had worked. Now, the problem was getting back to the team for extraction.

Kolcikov tapped his earpiece. "We're out of comm range, or they're jamming."

"All right," Scott began, studying the readouts, "We've got about twelve levels to the extraction point."

Engelbrecht looked at the schematic. "That is one of three possible objectives."

Scott looked up at the South African, for a moment trying to decode the nearly impenetrable accent. He grimaced. "Are you trying to take command?"

Kolchikov looked back and forth between the two, wondering what was going on. With a slight movement of his head, he "If your objective is survival, we had better be with the group. Which will be either at the missiles, at a central computer, or at the extraction point. All are equally likely, depending only on timing."

Scott tried to hold his hands steady. He had been in firefights before, but something about those mutants had set him to shivering. As they were no doubt meant to do. Think, man. Think!

"Arriving at the extraction point too early is as dangerous as arriving too late."

"Good point." It took him only a moment to reach a conclusion. Kolcikov was a Russian-American Jew, who had escaped with his father from behind the Iron Curtain. Kolch had escaped tight places many times before, urban places, rather than the jungles and fields that Engelbrecht and Scott were experts with.

"Kolch -- you're in charge."

The other two breathed a sigh of relief. Then they began to plan.

******

The two Bushidos tensed as the sounds of combat rocked and echoed throughout the hard-surface corridors in the Celestial Keep. Their normal guard contingency of six was down to two; all available troops were being called up to repel the foolish metahuman so-called heroes who dared to invade the great Keep.

Neither mutant truly worried; after all, they were the blessed ones of the great lord Autocrat. Feeling confident, they really didn't pay that much attention to their surroundings. Neither one heard the faint sounds of two men crawling in the bulkhead space above their heads. Peering through a single tile with a fiber optic camera, Murali and Schneider brought their sniper rifles to bear, two silent and deadly shadows.

"Rifle One, on target," Murali rasped over the comm-link.

"Rifle-Two, on target," Schneider confirmed.

"Rifle team, stand by...." The Watchman listened carefully to the sounds of combat as they echoed throughout the Keep. There might be some noise to give away their position, so he meant to use the background noise to his advantage. As he expected, a loud thud heralded some big muscled-bound brute slamming another one hard against a bulkhead. "Execute, now!"

Upon a silent nod, the two men squeezed off a pair of three-round bursts, aimed at the Bushidos' heads. The specially-modified armor-piercing discarding sabot rounds kicked hard, penetrating through armor, bone and flesh, causing instantly fatal head wounds in both sentries. Both men pause a moment to verify the kills, ordinarily unnecessary, but these were hardly ordinary foes. "Sentries down, gate is open," Murali reported.

TheWatchman gave a silent signal then with Brand, Sorenson, and Cutter surged forward in two-by-two formations. They each spared a perfunctory glance at their fallen foes before examining the door to the missile room. The Watchman motioned the rest of his team to pull back; the two big black snipers dropped back to the floor level to rejoin their team.

The Watchman pulled out an electronic scanner to listen for any signs of movement inside the sealed room. Next, he pulled the security panel loose and began to rewire the electronic lock as the team behind him covered and prepared.

Within a minute, the Watchman nodded, then touched the final connection, which opened the sliding door. Right on schedule, the team stormed in, each member checking off his respective firing angles for possible enemy targets.

"Clear!" Brand reported.

"Clear!" Sorenson echoed.

As the rest of the team completed their sweep, the Watchman entered the room and made a note of the thirty nuclear-tipped missiles that were standing by ready for launch. Of course, several nations on Earth had the same things, but none of them were expecting to actually use them. The same couldn't be said here, so they couldn't be allowed to continue to exist.

"Get going Murali," the Watchman ordered as he deployed the rest of the team into defensive positions along both corridors that approached the room.

Murali started to dismantle the first missile, and took a moment to look inside. "Six warheads per missile, probably fifty KT per payload. Figure five minutes per missile."

"Can't we just blow them?" the Watchman asked with irritation.

"Not unless you like breathing toxic rocket fuel. With a plutonium tang." Murali replied as he got to work on the first missile. "No MOPPs, no big booms."

The Watchman did his best to hide his concerns. Unfortunately they didn't have the weight allowance to all carry MOPPs, and they couldn't afford the loss of mobility. But two hours was longer than he had initially planned and he could only hope that Fate would be generous.

******

The elevator door slid closed with a whooshing sound that reminded Hardware of old Star Trek television shows. Of course, Star Trek never included the sounds of guns being cocked and primed.

Hardware swallowed the lump in his throat and did his best to hide his anxiety. It was the second time in only a month that he had been appropriated for action like this. Curiously, that time had an elevator too. If he survived this time, he'd go straight, he promised himself. A man could only take so many risks and there were safer ways to make money.

His thoughts were brought abruptly to the present as the elevator reached its destination and the doors opened. Upon silent commands, Goon and Tanabe surged forward with their guns ready to take down any visible opposition. When those two were in position to provide cover, Lane and Cloud followed, passed the first two and repeated the procedure. With the corridor secured, Tsanga, Paniagua and Hardware proceeded to the end of the hallway and stopped.

"According to the schematic you downloaded from the stick, comp central is supposed to be behind here," Tsanga whispered.

Hardware nodded. "Supposed to be, yeah."

"You doubting your own analysis, Doc?" Tsanga regarded with a gimlet eye.

"The core is there, I know it," Hardware answered with a dubious expression. "I don't know how I know, but I just know."

"Hope you're not staking our lives on the tooth-fairy whispering in your ear," Tsanga groused. He gave hand signals to the rest of the team to get ready for action. "Paniagua, watch the egghead here. Everyone else on five..." he continued the rest of the countdown with fingers.

The nozzle of Paniagua's gun dipped silently in acknowledgement as he worked out whether he was to watch to protect Hardware or to protect against him. A lot of the former, he decided. And a little of the latter. Paniagua had done computer ops before, and he had enough computer training to be skeptical of Hardware's Kreskin act.

Inside the computer room, a team of technicians worked frantically under the orders of Autocrat, guarded by a squadron of four Bushido troops. The technicians were odd-looking creatures, human except for some strange tentacles, which seemed to sprout at odd points along their anatomies. They also had an odd smell, a strange mixture of ocean with a dentist's office.

The word was out among the staff; the metahuman invaders were to be repelled with extreme prejudice; examples had to be made. To that end, it was their jobs to monitor the identities and locations of the invaders and coordinate information and strategies to the troops.

"Sector Two-Alpha, Old Glory is isolated with Rook," one of the technicians reported. "Rook has the fight under control and victory is expected shortly. Send a detention team..."

"Sector Five-Charlie, Cavalier and Pendragon are engaged in subcorridor three. Send support personnel to..."

"Sector Twelve-Michael, Mastodon and Baroness have successfully ambushed the Ensigns and are now proceeding..."

"The metahuman Blockade has three of our Trolls units pinned down in Sector Seven. Send additional support to..." Through it all, the Bushidos all looked at each other with cold, inhuman eyes. They all would have preferred to be fighting alongside their comrades, as such duty had a far greater chance for advancement among the Elite than such menial duty as this.

"What was that?" one of the Bushidos asked. He turned towards the door.

"Nothing," the senior Bushido replied. "The battles throughout the Keep are causing all manner of sounds to echo throughout the halls. It is playing havoc with our motion sensors as well."

"I'm going to check the corridor again."

"Go right ahead," the leader smirked. Probably trying to look busy, he thought.

Outside, the Bushido looked down the corridor for any sign of mischief. Around him, the sounds of battle echoed throughout the Keep. The leader was right; when metahumans battled, they didn't do it quietly. Perhaps he did imagine it. He turned around when a motion caught his eye. He blinked and strode forward, his eyes locking on what appeared to be a small marble on the ground, rolling straight for him. It looked too small to be a weapon or explosive of any kind, but he wasn't taking chances. He bent down and picked it up as it approached.

Just as he did, he noticed fast movement, and a figure closed in.

Tanabe gritted his teeth and swung his Ka-Bar knife hard, slashing the Bushido's throat twice. The Bushido grunted with surprise; the pain wasn't noticeable, but the shock of the attack had been.

"Foolish human!" the Bushido snarled as he grabbed the Japanese-American commando by the chest. The Bushido's wounds were already beginning to knit thanks to the nanite technology in his equipment.

Chikuso...! Tanabe thought with a mixture of fear and anger. This was his first encounter with an Elite and so far, he didn't like what he saw. Wounds that would have been instantly fatal to any normal man had proved only an annoyance.

He was in real trouble

He gritted his teeth and shoved the Ka-Bar into his opponent's chest, missing the aorta by an inch as armor plating deflected the blow. The Bushido grabbed the insolent mortal's hand and wrist, twisting it painfully and dropping his assailant to the ground.

"Now you die...!" the Bushido announced as long knives extended from retractable housings in his hands. A three-burst round from Cloud's light machine gun exploded into his chest and slammed him against the wall, finishing the job the Ka-Bar had started. Tanabe rose to his knees, feeling a phantom echo of the killing blow that had never landed. Or perhaps it was just his heart pounding.

"So much for the silent approach!" Tsanga cursed. He had hoped to seize the room without alerting other security, but that didn't look like an option now. "Cloud, Lane, secure the door!"

Standing next to him, Goon shouldered the still smoking M-240 SAW and pulled out an MP-5N. What was going to come next was probably going to be close-quarters, and he didn't need the heavy squad weapon slowing him down. Inside the control room, the lead Bushido tensed as the door quivered from an impact on the other side.

"Stand by for combat!" he ordered to the other Bushidos.

"Alert the guard reserve!" he said to the technicians. The senior technician nodded but never completed the call. The room exploded with sound and white light.

Disoriented by the magnesium and blasting caps, the Bushido faltered. He struggled to regain his orientation, barely making out the figures in black as sabot shells slammed into his chest. Then the blackness became everything.

Paniagua was the last inside, escorting Hardware as the rest of the team swept through the room with ruthless efficiency, killing the remaining Bushido and rounding up the technicians. Within seconds, the firefight was over, but the real battle had just begun.

"We will never tell you!" the technician replied with fear and defiance as Tanabe pointed the business end of his weapon to the man's ear. "You can only kill us! Autocrat would do far worse if I betray him!"

"Forget it Tanabe, they're fanatics," Tsanga grunted. He had hoped to be wrong, but he had been briefed to expect it. "Looks like it's up to you, Einstein."

"You're kidding me, right?" Hardware retorted as he surveyed the control systems. "The fight's fried the terminals and they've activated lockdown! Nothing's getting anything out of this computer for at least a few hours!"

"We brought a portable terminal," Paniagua reminded him.

"The only access that's going to be accepted now is the central console and that's toast," Hardware explained. "Once a system goes into lockdown, all outside input is going to be cut off."

"Fake it, Doc," Tsanga ordered. "The Prime people say you did it before."

"That was a toy compared to what we have here," Hardware protested. Nonetheless, Tsanga's tone was clear so he started setting the laptop terminal up. He then pulled cabling from the bank of computer terminals and connecting it to his own. Finally, he walked over and opened a communications cabinet and started testing each connection with a hand-held probe.

"How long is this going to be?" Tsanga asked. He wasn't a computer expert, but even he knew the basics and the terminal's blank screen wasn't a good sign.

"I'm going to first have to rewire the network cabinet to fake a console connection, two more minutes. Ten more to get the computing daemon talking, then maybe another two hours to hack in."

"You got one hour tops," Tsanga ordered. His expression silenced any more protests from the paroled metahuman, who proceeded to get to work as fast as he could.

"Paniagua, give him a hand as best you can. The rest of you, get ready for any opposition." He then opened up his communicator and made a call. "Alpha team, Bravo, we have a problem..."

******

"Acknowledged, Bravo, do your best," the Watchman replied and closed the connection. They had to keep their messages short as possible; even though they had captured a major control point, they had to assume that any transmissions were going to be monitored. "How are we doing?"

"Eighteen down, twelve to go," Murali replied tersely. The Watchman's reply was then cut off as the sounds of metal on metal impact rang out through the hallway.

"Bear, we've got visitors!" Cutter called on the comm-link. The Watchman ran over towards the north corridor just in time to watch the metal door shudder from an impact from the other side.

"They're coming...!" Cutter noted excitedly as he and Brand got their weapons ready.

"Schneider, Siren, status," the Watchman called.

"Clear here, Bear," Schneider replied.

"Siren, get over here! We're about to have a breach! Murali, no time to be neat; trash what you can!"

"Und I?" Schneider asked.

"Hold position; watch for a fla--!" The rest of the order was cut off as the three Troll units battered down the remains of the north door, previously wielded-shut. The Watchman, Brand, and Cutter simultaneously opened fire on the lead Troll, killing him. But using him as a shield, the other two closed the distance. The first one grabbed Cutter off the deck and slammed him against the bulkhead, leaving a brutal stain against the wall.

Sorenson arrived in time to watch Cutter fall. He unloaded his clip into the second Troll, along with a stream of Southern expletives laced with references to the thing's dubious parentage, upbringing and habits. In the case of the Troll, they were almost plausible. And with that realization, the gun clicked empty and the Troll fell. "Shit...! I'm dry...!"

"Fall back to the missile room!" The Watchman ordered.

"Not so fast puny one!" the third Troll boasted as he leaped forward, knocking Brand off her feet and pinning her to the ground.

"Shit...!" The Watchman spun back around then froze as he found himself unable to get a clear shot.

"Bear, zere is a breach in progress!" Schneider reported, the sounds of more pounding coming through his mike. Oh hell, the Watchman thought, now what? Could the big German hold that flank alone?

Cutter was down and possibly dead, and Siren temporarily out of ammo. It was up to him. If he ducked out to reinforce Schneider, this flank would fall. He kept his gun trained on the last Troll and prayed that the Trolls that threatened Schneider would give him the few seconds it would take for Brand to get clear. If she could.

Noting Bear's position, the Troll picked Brand up like a rag doll, holding her tantalizingly in front of the Watchman. It gripped her arm and twisted it completely around. The Watchman winced involuntarily at the sickening sounds of cracking bones and the sight of the blood that exploded through her right sleeve. Her left arm dropped limp to her belt.

"Now you die, like your friend...," the Troll gloated.

"You first...!" Brand spat through gritted teeth. Her left hand forced a hard round grenade from her belt into the Troll's mouth, pulling the pin as her left arm pulled free. The Troll backpedaled for a moment with shock at the unexpected maneuver and the thing in his mouth. What was this mere woman doing?

At the moment, the "mere woman," a veteran of Canada's JTF-2, was kicking him back, giving her commander an opening, then collapsing sideways to the ground when her good arm didn't hold her weight. The Watchman fired a burst into the last Troll, knocking him further back just before the grenade detonated, sending fragments of Troll all over the deck.

"Go!" Brand urged. "Back up Schneider!" She struggled to a sitting position then tossed a fresh clip to Sorenson. It went wide, but his lanky reach caught it anyway.

Brand was right. Siren would check Cutter, and then do anything needed. The Watchman nodded, then left at a trot.

In the missile room, Murali did his best to speed up his work, doing what he would normally consider sloppy work, but time and tide awaited no man. As he reached his twenty-third missile, he tensed up as the display abruptly changed and turned green.

"Missile launch order confirmed...warheads number twenty-two and twenty-three, target change order received...stand by for launch...," the computer voice intoned.

"Oh fuck...!" Murali spat, the tension beginning to crack his stoicism. "Bear, the big guy's ordering a launch!"

"Missile target for warhead twenty-two now set to Omaha, Nebraska...missile target for warhead twenty-three now set to Lincoln, Nebraska...awaiting manual override confirmation..."

"Take it out!" the Watchman ordered. "Shoot it if you have to!"

"Bear, zey are coming tsroo!" The rest of Schneider's report was cut off by the long sound of machine gun fire.

Watchman charged the corridor at top speed, only to freeze at the sight of Schneider being overrun by three more Trolls. Schneider had moved to defend an archway that would lead the Trolls off into the two missile rooms the mercenaries had already cleared. The misdirection would buy a few minutes as the Trolls attacked the empty rooms. Once they left Schneider.

The Watchman pulled back behind the corner and watched in horror and fury as the Trolls took their time with the big black German. What he wouldn't give for a man-portable anti-tank gun right now.

But wishes didn't bring back the dead. Not for him, anyway. Covering the corridor, he backed silently towards Murali's location.

"Bear, I've set charges on the remaining missiles!" Murali reported. "Not as sure as disarming them, but we don't have any choice! We need to evac the wing! In a few seconds, this place is going to be toxic enough to kill a regiment!"

"Understood, Murali! Sit rep!"

"We're pulling out of the room now!" Sorenson replied.

"I'm in the corridor now!" Brand reported with an understandably strained voice. "Cutter's dead, no opposition in this section!"

"Schneider's dead. Everyone meet in the north corridor now!" the Watchman ordered. The Trolls who killed Schneider wouldn't stay next to their kill long. But with luck, they'd still be in the missile wing when the nitric acid from the missile fuels exploded. Not much for a good man's life, he knew.

His only hopes now were that Tsanga's team was doing better.

******

Hardware ignored the tense stares behind him as his fingers danced across the keys like a fevered dervish. He had beaten his own deadline for the initial setup by nearly five minutes, but now the hard part had begun. On the screen, dozens of character combinations were being tested and discarded each second, but to no avail.

"How's it coming doc? We're tight on time," Tsanga asked urgently.

"We have problems...," Hardware replied tersely.

"Don't tell me problems, give me solutions," Tsanga ordered. Hardware grumbled under his breath; once again, he was under someone's orders. He looked up at the screen and frowned. There was just no way; there could be a million different possibilities. They were asking the impossible...or were they...? As he stared at the screen, something in his mind began to click. Without knowing why, he followed a hunch, and his login sequence was rewarded by an entry screen.

"You're in," Paniagua noted with admiration. "You are good."

"Yeah...," Hardware muttered with a dubious expression. The screens changed as he navigated into the computer system. The system was responding very slowly; something was chewing up a lot of the computer's power. He typed a task list and frowned. Who or what was "Epsilon"? And what was it doing sending data packets to the CPU? Whatever it was, it was an outside process and it had disabled some of the security protocols. Well, whatever it was, it was an opportunity. "OK, I've accessed the main data storehouse."

Tsanga nodded. Paniagua pulled out an optical disk and inserted it into one of the access drives. Once the disk was ready, Hardware entered a set of commands and started the download.

"Download started; it'll take another five minutes--" Hardware's report was interrupted by the sounds of heavy impact on the steel doors.

"We're not gonna get five minutes!" Cloud reported tersely as the team all tensed up. "Hah...!" the lead technician gloated. "Now you will all die under the power of...!"

"Shut him up!" Tsanga ordered as he got his team into position. "Doc, get what you can! We're not going to get it all!"

"Just finishing up now...!" Hardware reported as he entered another data transfer command without thinking. "I'm logging out now!"

"Log out, stay in, who cares!" Tsanga shouted. The steel doors crashed inward, followed by four charging Trolls. Lane, Goon and Cloud opened fire, all scoring direct hits on the two lead Trolls. Hardware snatched the optical disk out of the drive and was escorted forcibly by Paniagua and Tanabe to the opposite exit.

"Get him out of here! We're pulling out!" Tsanga ordered unnecessarily, opening fire on the third Troll. The Trolls snarled in pain, but two of them managed to push forward.

"Shit!" Lane cursed as the first Troll reached and grabbed him across the chest. "Die slowly, human!" the Troll snarled as he dug in his claws and began to disembowel Lane. The commando gritted his teeth and refused to give the inhuman monster the satisfaction of his scream, and drew his Ka-Bar, slashing it futilely into the Troll's helmet armor.

"Your puny strength is no match for our great Lord Autocrat's power!"

"Fuck...!" Tsanga drew his weapon and tried to get a bead on the Troll, but the monster deliberately held the captive up, daring him to try the shot. Facing an impossible choice, and hating himself with every fiber, Tsanga squeezed off one shot -- right through Lane's consenting eyes. It would be a moment that would haunt him for years to come, despite every objective observation that nothing could have saved his man.

"Well, well, so the humans have strength after all..." the Troll admitted cruelly as he discarded his now-useless hostage.

"Tsanga, get clear!" Cloud shouted as Goon finished setting up the SAW and let loose a long rip of automatic fire. The Trolls fell back painfully as computer banks and equipment exploded with a hail of sparks.

"Here's your strength!" Tsanga spat as he finished off the last Troll with a pair of three-round bursts through the creature's head and chest. His satisfaction as short-lived: the sounds of further reinforcements echoed ominously. "Get ready to pull out. We're heading to the extraction point. What's our status?"

"We're OK, Tsanga," Cloud nodded as he checked his team off. Minus one of our own, that is.

"Here it is," Hardware reported, holding up the hard-won data disk. A thing of plastic and metal, Tsanga noted coldly. Hopefully worth the price that had already been paid.

******

"Bite down," Sorenson ordered as he wrapped gauze around Brand's arm and did his best to set the bone. For her part, Brand tensed from the pain and shivered as the blood loss threatened to send her body into first stage shock.

"She don't look good, Siren," the Watchman noted. Behind him, Murali kept his eyes and ears open for any opposition. Around them, the sounds of combat raged on and the deck shook from repeated powerful impacts as modern day titans clashed. Some of their equipment was displaying the fight between Autocrat and Omega being broadcast by the Keep's equipment in an attempt at propaganda.

After finishing the splint, Sorenson pulled out an injection of morphine and tapped it with a fingernail. "This'll help."

"Siren -- don't...dope me up too much," Brand protested, but the muscles in her shoulders, chest and arms relaxed visibly.

"What, you don't want to sleep through the garden party?" Sorenson drawled dryly as his hands automatically stored the medical gear. "Don't worry, child, the mint juleps won't be served for hours."

"Help her up," the Watchman ordered. "We're moving out." He pulled out a communicator as Sorenson slung Brand's good arm over his shoulder. "Bravo, this is Alpha, what's your location?"

"Charlie sector, third corridor from the center," the replied crackled. The communicator was interrupted by the sound of an explosion. "We're making our way to the primary lift now."

"Acknowledge Bravo, we'll be there in ten, out."

******

The team braced for more hostiles and the elevator doors snapped open. Ahead of them down the corridor, five Bushidos stood ready to avenge their comrades' deaths at the hands of these impudent mortals. With a speed that defied normal reactions, the Bushidos charged forward.

Goon braced and fired his SAW, giving the team as much cover fire as he could while they took positions out of the elevator.

"We're pinned down hard!" Tanabe shouted as he and Paniagua fired their personal weapons to support Goon.

"Cloud, G and G!" Tsanga shouted. The mercenaries all reached for rebreather units and closed their eyes. Cloud pulled two hard round metal grenades from his belt and unlocked their safeties. Goon paused for a moment, setting his own rebreather as Cloud hurled the pair down the corridor as hard as he could.

The grenades rolled towards their targets, and four of the five Bushidos froze and ducked to the deck. Their armor would provide them partial protection from the blasts, but the pain would still be annoying. The fifth Bushido dived past the grenades to press the attack.

Cloud followed the initial attack with a cylindrical canister. The first grenades exploded, their blast waves echoing hard against the unyielding metal surfaces of the Keep. Pieces of the fifth Bushido scattered before his brethren, who arose from their protective stances just in time for the flash-bang gas grenade to explode. They were blinded for the few precious seconds it took a powerful tear gas to fill the corridor.

"Let's go!" Tsanga ordered. Behind him Cloud, Goon and Tanabe surged forward, dispatching the temporarily incapacitated Bushidos. In the rear, Paniagua guarded Hardware as they followed to the final corridor and the primary lift.

Tsanga reached the lift controls first, slamming the control panel to summon the car. One more trip and they would be at the extraction point. He and Goon positioned themselves to provide cover if it was occupied.

A ceiling panel clanged abruptly open behind the team. Sliding down chutes, two Trolls dropped to the floor and charged.

"Behind you!" Tsanga warned. Goon tried to take aim but found his own team in the line of fire. "Gas'em!" he ordered.

Cloud's last gas grenade hurtled down the corridor, narrowly missing Paniagua and Hardware as they charged past. Once again, gas filled the corridor, but the Trolls were unaffected by the gas. On they came.

Feeling the resistance behind him, Paniagua shoved Hardware forward the last few steps into Tanabe's waiting arms. The force of the shove helped him stop and turn, bringing his gun to bear on the charging pair. A full burst of fire crippled the lead Troll and wounded the second.

But the second Troll reached forward and extended his blade-line fingers.

Tsanga watched in horror as the five long blades stabbed through Paniagua's chest. The rest of the team now aboard the lift, Goon opened fire, finishing the job Paniagua had started. Tanabe and Hardware pulled Paniagua into the lift and Tsanga slammed the doors shut before the Troll's body even hit the ground.

With their destination punched in, Tsanga looked over Paniagua's condition. He was aspirating blood, a pink cloud spraying from his mouth and nose. Tsanga cursed at the feeling of helplessness; this was way beyond the First Aid known by his team.

Precious seconds ticked away as all they could do was watch and listen the sounds of evacuation sirens that had started blaring throughout the Keep. Several times the elevator lurched sideways, then it finally came to a stop.

The gun muzzles aimed at the door quickly moved aside, replaced by a chorus of greetings then murmurs. They moved Paniagua's body out of the elevator where Sorenson could get a better look. He wasn't quite an M.D., having skipped his internship for a stint as a combat medic, but he'd handled more trauma than the average inner-city ER doc. Right now, his face had a look of concentration, almost hunger.

"Can we do anything?" Tsanga asked.

Sorenson ripped Paniagua's tac-vest and kevlar armor open, ignoring the shriek of pain it caused. He was dubious even before he saw the shredded flesh. He slowly shook his head. "Ain't no cake without flour."

The voice was already getting weak as the blood filled Paniagua's lungs. With a futile gesture, Sorenson took Paniagua's hand and did what he could to try to make the last few seconds less traumatic.

"He saved the team," Tsanga muttered to the Watchman. "Stood up to two Trolls and bought us enough time to finish them off and evac." The rest of the team stood in respectful silence as the last few raspy breaths finally expired. In the quiet after the death rattle, the sound of approaching troops got louder.

Murali, normally quiet as a black ghost, spat and stood to his full height. They had lost seven men. He had personally been forced to abandon the bodies of Cutter and Schneider, which went against every iota of his training as a SEAL. No man is left behind.

But this time he had a choice. "He comes home."

The Watchman took only a second to nod.

A Troll leaped through a wall, which irised to allow him entry. Three mercenary guns spat simultaneously, tearing chunks off the intruder and slamming him backward to jam the iris open.

Three more Trolls hurtled through the opening, yelling defiantly and dodging towards the waiting troops, but sparing a few looks backward that seemed oddly out of place in a charge. Between Goon's SAW and the rest of the team, it was like a shooting gallery.

Then came the robots.

There were five of them, low-slung and ugly, with the look of nightmare metal bulldogs with blasters for faces. They padded into the room through the iris, looking into the hail of SAW and light weapons fire with something akin to confusion before they retreated back the way they came, leaving two of their number twisted on the ground.

Watchman motioned Cloud and Tsanga over to check the bodies and secure the iris.

"I've got movement in the corridor, Bear." Cloud reported as the Keep shuddered again.

"Hardware, signal the evac, NOW. Cloud, what is it?"

"Looks like two more dogs and three.... good god!"

"Three what?" The Watchman waved Murali and Sorenson into position defending the iris before he saw what had caused the reaction.

Three mercenaries had strolled into view, wearing Mercury Squad uniforms, flanked by two of the robot dogs on leashes.

"Permission to enter?" asked Scott. "And did you miss us?"

"Granted and what the hell...?" A lurch in the gravity tossed half the squad off their feet.

"We kind of thought the same thing until we saw the insignia." Scott waved at the side of the bulldogs, which had both extruded manipulators and begun nosing at a fallen robot to salvage parts for repairing the other. On the grim metal haunches were arc-welded a stylized 'S' - a lightning bolt across a cogged wheel. The trademark of the Nighthawk called Salvage.

Laughing, Mercury Squad began the evac.

Epilogue:

There was a thin drizzling rain falling outside as Paniagua was laid to rest. The sky seemed to alternate between a solemn quiet and a spring flush, somehow a mix of sorrow and expectancy. Or maybe that was just what the Watchman wanted to feel.

This was the hard part.

Inside the coffin was one of their own, a fresh silver skull in his hand. It was an emblem of belonging.

They had lost four of fifteen. And they had been lucky.

The cemeteries would be active for weeks as the remains of soldiers and mercenaries were recovered and repatriated. Mercury Company had held off on cemetery services for Cutter, Schneider and Lane until they could find out whether the bodies would be recovered from the portions of the Keep in Antarctica. There would be so many services for people they each knew. To Watchman, the numbers were astonishing. Mind numbing.

Schneider's widow sat prominently among the Mercury Company honor guard, her black dress marking her as one of the few people present not in uniform of some kind. She met his eyes once, but he couldn't tell whether it was reproach or gratefulness. Her belly was barely showing, and she held her two-year old girl gently against her side. The children would grow up well cared for, and knowing that their father had saved millions of lives. But they would grow up without him.

It wasn't the first time Watchman had lost men under his command and it certainly wasn't going to be his last. It was the consequence of command. But no one ever got used to it.

Outside, the world was celebrating its victory over the Royal Elite. In here and in funerals all over the world, the bill was being paid.

Freedom's price must be paid again and again, refreshed with the blood of tyrants and of patriots
 
 
"Excuse me, Mr. Barrington?" The Watchman turned around and looked down on the man behind him. An accountant; he could tell by the shallow eyes and disinterested expression.

"You just couldn't wait, could you?"

The man glanced past the rich red drapes to the services in the main room, with only perfunctory interest. "The risks were spelled out in the contract, Mr. Barrington. You knew that and so did they. I assume you have the item?"

Barrington reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a hard protective envelope. It felt very light; not more than four ounces. "Yeah, we knew the risks. It would have been better to do the first mission alone though. Splitting our teams up made the price even higher than it had to be."

"The information on this disk is very important, Mr. Barrington," the accountant replied. "Important enough to pay for that extra risk." He pulled out a slip of paper and exchanged it for the envelope. "Account number and access code, as we agreed."

Mark Barrington looked over the list of numbers carefully. He had made a bargain with the devil, accepting the amendment to the NB4 contract. He still didn't understand exactly why he had done that. He turned around and walked back towards the ceremony, then stopped a moment for one last comment. "Whatever's on that disk, I hope it's worth it to you. Sure as hell wasn't worth it to me."

The accountant shrugged. "Three of the four men you lost were hired help, Mr. Barrington. Don't tell me that was random chance."

Barrington swung around to face the accountant, fury in his eyes. "Every man who took that mission joined the Core. Before they left, they were family." A few faces turned towards them from the back rows of the service.

The accountant's gaze was level. Statistics don't lie, and there was only a one in fifty-four chance that four random deaths among the mercenaries would have only resulted in one death among the established team. Not that he cared who among them had died. That had been Barrington's choice. Nevertheless, it was not smart to antagonize a useful tool. "Very well, then. I apologize."

The accountant watched the Watchman as he left to pay his respects to his fallen man. The term "mercenary" meant exactly that -- money for blood. Lots of it in this case. But payment had been made, and business would go on as usual. He filed that thought away as he left the funeral area to the parking lot and got into a black limousine, enjoying the smell of fresh leather. As they pulled away from the curb, the waiting computer accepted the data disk with a self-satisfied whir.

He pulled out his cell phone and hit redial. "Exchange made. Uploading now."

On the other side of the connection, Manuel Cortez nodded and wrote down some numbers on a pad. "Excellent, amigo... come back at once. And make sure to pack the original in the protective case we prepared." He then hung up and turned to face the two far more intimidating figures behind him.

"Well?" asked Generalissimo Juan Hernandez.

Cortez avoided wincing at the voice, but he cocked an eye at the computer console beside his desk. It was the latest thing in hardware, but the information that he was waiting for would come in a very simple form.

A message popped up on the screen. What the Americans called a "smiley face."

"It's done, my friends. The data has been verified and loaded into our databases. Our technicians have verified that it is genuine." Cortez fell silent. He knew he was no longer important enough to speak, compared with the two men standing behind him, or the one on the video wall screen.

The other men exchanged looks of satisfaction and measured assessment. The operation had been risky, but vital. None of them wanted the Elite to rule the world, but neither did they want Autocrat's entire legacy to go to waste either. Knowledge was power and they had every intention to put it to use.

"So it begins, my friends," Hernandez smiled. Of course none of them were friends, but all three of them knew that. Some lies were best let stand.

"Agreed," Maxmillian Powers nodded.

"It may take some time for this technology to bear fruit," Chessmaster replied, surveying the first few pages of data via remote network link. "Autocrat was, if nothing else, decades ahead of our time."

"Of course," Powers admitted. "All good things come to those who wait."

"Even with this technology, victory is not assured, given our opponent's level of power," Hernandez said.

"Of course," Chessmaster conceded. "Nothing in life is truly assured. But with our combined experience, power and now this technology, the board is truly tilted in our favor."

******

"Sign here," the clerk pointed. Hardware obeyed as several armed guards behind him watched. Pointless really, he thought to himself. Like he was really going to go attacking anyone. Still, bureaucrats would be bureaucrats.

"And that about wraps things up," Special Agent Johnson of the FBI said as members from Purgatory Prime and the Justice Department watched. "I've been told that you did good work in that place."

"It was a tough job."

"Yes... well, be that as it may... I'm here to remind you that, as a felon, you are still going to be watched. No one wants to see a return to an improper lifestyle. If you do..."

"You and the government are going to shut me down -- yes, I'm aware of the cosequences," Hardware replied tiredly.

"Sorry if it sound repetitive, but it has to be said. Of course, a man of your skills should have no problems finding an honest living, right? I mean, anyone who can hack into the Celestial Keep..."

"I hope so," Hardware said, smiling lazily. Having said that, he realized it was going to be quite an adjustment to make. Not one he was sure he could accomplish.

"On that topic, I'm also told to remind you that what you've seen inside the Keep is considered confidential. We don't need that information ending up in the public view, understood?"

"Yes, understood." Hardware nodded.

Outside the federal building, Hardware looked around and took a breath of the dirty air. Smoggy, but free. He was a free man, at least for now. If he wanted to stay that way... well, he could try to commit crimes more carefully. Or he could get a job.

What did the man say? A man who could hack into the Keep...? He did that, didn't he? He stopped to look at himself in a reflective glass window and frowned. Sure, he was smart; his genius made him who he was. But was he really that smart? Smart enough to hack into the Celestial Keep? His ego wanted to proclaim "yes," but his reason wasn't so sure. Something about the whole affair had bothered him throughout, but things had happened too fast to really think things through until now.

The more he thought about it, the less he liked it. How did he know about the mechanisms in Rook's staff? Or the bypass sequence in the Celestial Keep's security systems? Or its computer systems? It was as if, an unseen hand had been guiding him.

But who?

And why?

And why did that idea terrify him so much?

Well, it doesn't matter anymore, Mindshadow telepathically intoned as she hovered in the middle of a large boardroom. She then reached into his hippocampus and gently reshaped Hardware's mind. Once she was done, he would forget his own doubts and go on with his life. At least for now.

"The data loading is complete Mindshadow," a voice on an intercom reported.

Mindshadow acknowledged the status with a thought, silently congratulating herself for how the Ireland adventure had ended. Enslaving Hardware had been a lucky break from an earlier adventure, then a mental suggestion to a few members of the Justice Department had arranged to place him amid the heroes' teams. Harbinger had provided her with all the technical information she needed to undermine the Keep for his own purposes, and she had woven that information into Hardware's mind so skillfully that none had noticed.

And among her weaving, she had included a subliminal command. When he had entered the Keep's computer systems, he was compelled to forward a copy of the information to an awaiting computer account. One that was even now being examined.

With that, she phased through the walls of her new office building, recently acquired in a business raid she had engineered. She looked on as Richard Michaels, formerly known as the Dictator, studied the stolen files. "It's incredible... just magnificent...," he whispered. "With this information, one could easily do just about anything."

Before he could continue, an electrical crackle interrupted him. Electron materialized from inside the computer system and bowed submissively. "The data transfer is complete and verified. A copy will be made available for security purposes shortly."

"Excellent." Mindshadow smiled. She glanced at the screen but didn't really understand any of it. Of course, she didn't have to; she had lackeys for such menial efforts. However, there were some specific psionic techniques that she had heard Autocrat had developed to train Brainchild... those she would peruse herself. While she was confident in the mastery of her own powers, she still had her limits. And she hated limits.

"Now my operations can truly begin."
 

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