(an epilogue)

Extra Special Weapons and Tactics. XSWAT. The name doesn't so much as roll of the tongue as it falls, quick and to the point, much like the agency itself. Everyone in Angelus knows the name, knows what it stands for, and knows what the men and women of XSWAT did during the Dark Times, when Angelus was threatened by enemies both inside and out.

The man standing at the entrance to XSWAT Headquarters was a mere boy when Angelus almost descended into civil war. His memories are thankfully disjointed and broken, but he clearly recalls the fear he and his parents felt. There was the flight from their home to Phi Sector, the constant rain, the fires, smoke, and the huge faceless, shapeless mass that haunted his dreams for years afterward. Even today the sight of a single red warning light is sufficient to give him pause. But at least he's still sane, still has his mind, still can reason, unlike some, who gibber and howl and mew and claw at their faces in padded cells.

The man shakes his head in an effort to dispel the ghosts of the past. The Dark Times are ten years gone and Angelus is whole again. It is an open city, where clades, espers (such as himself), magicians, and even the cybernetically-augemented dwell together, working as one for a better future for all. It is a good city, a clean city, a city with a bright and promising future, and he wants nothing more than to be a part of that.

So here he stands, at the entrance to XSWAT HQ, trying to calm his nerves. He feels he should be able to relax, but he can't, for today is his first day as an XSWAT officer. Today is the day he is assigned to a squad, and begins his life as a protector and defender of the city he loves. It is something he's been training for for many years, both while growing up at the Institute of Tomorrow and at the XSWAT Academy. He's been here before, for training and orientation, but that was then, and this is now. Then he was just a cadet, but now he's an officer, with duties and responsibilities to XSWAT, the City, and even the Institute. He's one of the first to graduate from the IOT's training programs for espers and as such he must set an example for any other espers who wish to follow his lead.

Of course, all of this is a moot point right now. He's far too nervous to set much of an example for anyone. He knows he should be calm—he did well enough in the Academy to be accepted, commended even, but now he is to actually walk among those he's only read about. He'll be among legends.

Taking a deep breath, he runs his hands through his hair, worn long in honor of one of those legends. Yiska Karouk, the man who founded the Institute, and the one person he admires more than any other. Yiska was here—serving as an XSWAT officer during the Dark Times—as part of the renowned 9th Squad, whose deeds are nigh on to mythical these days. He stood along side such notables as Richard Hemelshot, the Commander; Nathan Carpenter, the Paladin; Malachi Brogan, the Cyborg; Tyger, the Clade; and Jamadigni Renuka, the Sorceress. Together they stopped the Entity invasion, saving not only Angelus, but the world.

Today the 9th Squad is no more, the members having gone their separate ways. In fact, XSWAT no longer has a 9th Squad, the number having been retired from all precincts across Angelus. But the memory remains.

A few steps brings him onto the grounds. Headquarters is a huge triangular spire, a hundred stories tall, bright and shiny in the morning sun. Around it run paths and walkways, forming a intricate circle of protection. On the paths are dozens of fellow officers, both XSWAT and normal police, as well as regular citizens. He can see badges indicating espers like himself, as well as clades, cyborgs, the magically active, and others. It is a virtual sea of blue coats and white belts and it is both comforting and intimidating at the same time.

Pushing back the sleeve of his armor-weave jacket, he checks the digital watch set into the cuff of his glove. He's early, far too early to go inside. He wanted to be on time, but to show up now would result in his sitting around doing nothing for well over an hour. Not the best way to make a first impression. He sighs... and he can't simply stand here, either. Perhaps he should just walk around, burn off some of his excess energy by getting to know the grounds. It can't hurt, and certainly beats simply standing around looking new (and stupid).

Taking the first right he comes to, the man heads down a gently arcing path. It isn't long before he all but lost—there are many walkways to follow and they cross-cross almost at random. Add in the scattered groves of trees and other landscaping and soon all he knows is that HQ is over there and thus the outer wall is over there. But where here is is anyone's guess.

Skirting the edge of one stand of trees and shrubs brings him to a semicircular clearing. There are benches around the edges and the center is marked by a series of steles. Shaped like cylinders divided in half lengthwise, the flat surfaces face out, towards the viewer, and are covered in names.

He walks forward, the sense of peace almost palatable. This is where XSWAT honors its dead, where the names of the fallen are preserved for all to see. He feels he should know these names, or some of them anyway, especially those on the tallest and widest stele. That's where those who died during the Dark Times are recorded. None of the 9th Squad will be found there—they all lived to tell their tales, but others didn't, some of whom were fellow espers.

As he rounds the curve to the column he seeks, he stops abruptly. A woman is kneeling in front of the stele in question, her hands flat against the smooth surface, her forehead resting against the cool stone. She is dressed in the uniform of an XSWAT officer, minus her coat, which a glance shows to be lying folded on a bench.

He stands there for a moment, quiet, not knowing what to say or do. The woman is very still, and he wonders if she even knows he's there, and if he can leave without intruding further. Then the woman settles the matter by leaning back, giving him a glance, and then slowly standing.

She... she's beautiful! is his first thought, quickly quelled before his face can show the embarrassment he suddenly feels. His second is that she seems far to short and slight to be an XSWAT officer—and far too young as well. But still, she is beautiful, with dark mahogany skin, rich reddish-black hair, and large green eyes. He can't even begin to guess her age, but feels she's no older than he is, which makes him wonder. Is she a new recruit? Is this her first day as well?

She looks at him for a moment, her face serene, her eyes seeming to contain a touch of gentle humor, but doesn't speak. He glances around quickly, now feeling the first flush of embarrassment—Institute training or no—and feels he must say something, anything to fill the silence.

"I... I hope I wasn't intruding," he states truthfully, since honesty seems the best course of action right now.

"No," she shakes her head and smiles slightly, the sight making him feel as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. "I was just saying hello to some old friends."

Old.... He wonders at the words for a moment. "You knew them?" he asks, almost instantly feeling the fool at the tone of disbelief in his voice.

"I was there," she answers, glancing at the list of names. "I fought with them against Gurzorath and his hordes."

He blinks, trying to match the image he sees before him with the idea she's ten years older than he thought... and then with the idea she had been there, during the Dark Times, when the walls of Omega had broken and countless horrors had spilled out to ravage the people of Angelus.

"With the 9th Squad then?" he asks. "With Yiska Karuok and the rest?"

She raises an eyebrow at that and glances at the esper badge on his uniform. "Yes..." she says slowly, "I remember Yiska Karouk. And Richard Hemelshot, Nathan Carpenter, Malachi Brogan, Tyger, Jamadigni Renuka, and even Graham Burton." She pauses, as if thinking of something, then—"They were the ones who stopped him, you know."

"Yes, yes," he nods in agreement, thinking back to his history lessons as well as some of the tactics exercises the Academy had taught. "He's why I'm here, in fact."

"Who is?"

"Oh." He blinks and then extends a hand. "I'm Sean Dastoor and this is my first day. Yiska Karouk is why I'm here. I... I want to follow his path, if I can."

The woman grins and takes the hand with her own, much smaller one. She nods and indicates a bench. "Sit down then, you've still got some time before orientation and assignment."

Taking a break on the bench helps a bit—Sean's no longer shuffling his feet—but now he wants to rock back and forth. He'd like to relax, but since it seems he's found the prettiest officer in all of XSWAT, and she's at least a ten-year veteran as well, his case of rookie nervousness has come back with a vengeance.

"First day, eh?" The woman muses, chin resting on the palm of one hand. "I recall my first day. By the time is was over, I was ready to burn my uniform it was so covered in blood, mud, and filth." She glances over and gives him another one of those smiles. "I took something like three showers before I felt clean and nearly quit right then and there."

Showers. Right. Okay, let's push that thought to the back of the brain. He doesn't need that image right now. She's wearing the standard uniform—nano-fibre bodysuit, boots, gloves, dress shirt—and that's it. Her coat is next to her, she's apparently decided to forgo the standard issue trousers, and the bodysuit follows every curve. It's far too easy to imagine what she'd look like in the shower.

"Of course it only got worse. Angelus was rife with Entities then. We'd come back from a patrol covered in noxious slime... or worse. Sometimes they'd explode, sometimes they'd just melt, and once, once I swear one sneezed on me."

Sean blinks and realizes she's been talking all this time. "Sneezed?" he asks, wondering if that's what he really heard.

"Sneezed," she says. "Sprayed little flesh-eating bugs everywhere." Her face grows serious. "I can laugh now, but then... I think I was afraid more than anything."

"You were afraid?" Sean is having trouble imagining any XSWAT officer being afraid.

"'Faith is no more the absence of doubt than courage is the absence of fear,'" she quotes. "A good friend of mine told me that once. And I was often afraid—of failure mostly. I was afraid I'd let the rest of my squad down, as well as XSWAT and Director Cadbury."

He's about to comment on that when he realizes what she just said. "Did you know Alice Cadbury?" he asks quietly.

There's a moment of silence again. "I don't think anyone could ever say they knew her," she says at last. "But we were... close in our own way. She cared greatly for this city, the people in it, and mankind as a whole. And when the time came, she was wise enough, and courageous enough, to step aside and allow Man to decide his own destiny."

He doesn't know what to say to that and so keeps silent as the woman stands up and reaches for her coat. "You might want to get going," she says, "Orientation is in about an hour, and I don't want you to be late."

"Oh... right..." he manages, still pondering the woman's words. Once again he wonders what it must have been like back then, during the Dark Times, when so much was in doubt. "I... uh... never did catch your name," he asks as he stands and turns to his fellow officer.

Her coat, he realizes, is the dress model, not the shorter and heavier patrol version he's wearing. She's fastened it closed and his eyes are drawn not to the slender waist but to the swell of her breasts and the glittering array of medals there. He recognizes the Golden Sun of Angelus among them and then notices the nameplate above: "Renuka."

"Ahhh...." he wants to say something, anything, but the words won't come. He feels like the world's biggest fool. 'You knew the 9th Squad?' Idiot, she was the 9th Squad!

Jamadigni Renuka, Director of XSWAT, simply smiles and shakes her head. "Relax, Officer Dastoor, and get going. I'll see you at Orientation."

He watches her leave, his mind abuzz with thoughts scrambling in all directions. The Director. I was sitting there talking to the Director. She's a lot smaller in person. And... uh... prettier. He tries to ignore the fact he also had been trying to picture the Director taking a shower. And she talked to me. A rookie. She talked to me like I was a veteran. She even told me she had been afraid. Her!

He thinks about that for a moment and the words of her 'good friend.'

She said she had been afraid. Afraid of letting down her Squad and XSWAT. Yet she is still here. Yiska Karouk has spoken of the fear he felt at times. Of failing when Phi Sector needed him most. Of failing to change the world for the better. And yet he is still here.

I have spoken to the Director of XSWAT on my first day and yet I am still here.

He grins to himself, his nervousness gone. What does he have to fear? He's already encountered the most fearsome person in all of XSWAT! And she told him to relax.