The Digital Angel stood as tall as a five-story building. Its skin was mirror-finished chrome, the hair a rippling mass of fiber optic cable, the eyes glowing neon. Robed in ever-changing holograms, it sported immense wings feathered with golden solar cells. In one hand it bore a translucent sword, lit from within by the brilliant blue-white of electricity. It was the spirit of Angelus, not as it was, but as it could be... as it should be.
The Angel strode forward, crushing an Enochian power armor under one mighty foot. The sword came down, smashing another armor from the air and cut a swath of destruction through the Order's advancing mass of Clades. The Clades returned fire, but the Angel seemed impervious to their weapons. A missile slammed into the towering sliver-skinned body and it only paused a moment before resuming its relentless advance.
From a rooftop overlooking the one-sided battle Alice Cadbury watched, noting with interest the Angel bore her face. So she was the face of Angelus? An intriguing choice. Shaking her head Cadbury turned to where Jamadigni Renuka stood beside her. She smiled at the younger, shorter, woman, and spoke.
Jama awoke with a start, the Director's words still ringing in her ears. She glanced around in a panic, trying to figure out where she was. She'd fallen asleep on a cot in the so-called "Santa's Workshop" and was now... now....
Where was she?
The room and the bed were strange to her. It didn't look like it belonged to anyone on the Squad, or anyone else she knew for that matter. In fact, the only thing she recognized was Nathan Carpenter, who sat sound asleep in a chair next to her.
Relaxing, Jama allowed herself to smile. If Nathan was here, asleep, then all was right with the world. Sitting up, she reached over and tapped the paladin on one knee.
Carpenter's eyes snapped open, then squinted as he sat up and rubbed them. He then turned to the young woman and smiled. "Good morning, Jama. Feeling better?"
"Yes." The young sorceress glanced around the room and then leaned over. "Where am I?" she asked in a low voice.
Carpenter grinned. "Brogan was kicking everybody out of the Workshop so he could... take care of last night's package. You looked like you needed some more sleep, so I got in touch with some friends. Someone was generous enough to give us some crash space. I brought you over and tucked you in."
The door opened and an older woman. slightly heavyset but with a friendly smile looked in. "Oh, so you've woken up at last. Would either of you dears like some breakfast?"
Carpenter looked at Jama. "Hungry?"
There was a moment while Jama tried to remember when she'd eaten last. How many hours had it been? 20? 30? More? She nodded enthusiastically. "Yes!" and then paused and leaned forward to whisper again, "Uhm... Carpenter? Where are my clothes?"
Carpenter's cheeks burned as he looked abashed at the floor. "Well, um, err..."
The older woman pursed her lips in a smile and spoke affectionately, "It's all right, dearie. Nathan here wanted to make sure you were comfortable, so he had me take your clothes and make sure you were tucked in. I think they should be dry by now." She gestured at the closet in the room. "You can wear one of my husband's old shirts in the meantime."
"I'll, uh, I'll help Mrs. Freudenberg get breakfast set up. You come out when you're ready." Carpenter himself had taken off his uniform tunic and boots, leaving only the bodysuit, half-unfastened, and his trousers on. He grabbed his boots as he exited the room, closing the door behind him.
On the floor next to the recliner was Carpenter's discarded tunic and a large wooden box, about the size of a suitcase.
Jama stared at the box for a moment, the hairs on the back of her neck prickling. There was something potent in the box. And object whose power she could feel from where she sat in the bed. Like—but unlike—Nathan's sword. She leaned over, one hand outstretched, reaching for the lid and then stopped. No... now was not the time—or the place. She had done enough to damage her relationship with the paladin. In due time he would tell her, and others, what was in the box and what use it was intended.
Rising, albeit slightly unsteadily, Jama went to the closet and dug out a long-sleeved shirt. It fit her like a tent but covered her enough for the time being.
At The Table
The small dining room in Mrs. Freudenberg apartment barely held enough space for the food she'd provided for the two hungry officers. Pancakes, bacon, scrambled eggs, fruit salad, even a couple of boxes of cereal were laid out for their repast.
Jama clasped her hands together and bowed her head. "Terima kasih. You shouldn't have," she said before sitting down and pulling the bowl of fruit over.
Carpenter began shoveling various foodstuffs onto his plate, but stopped long enough to thank the old woman. "Mrs. Freudenberg, this is just... thank you, I'll make sure you get some money to cover all this."
The matron waved her hand in dismissal, looking pleased. "Feh. After what you boys... and girl," sending a wink at Jama with a twinkle in her eye, "did last night, it's the least I can do."
With a knowing glance at the two, she announced, "I'll go check if the dryer's finished with your clothes, honey. You kids just eat up and rest." With that, she wiped her hands on her apron, took it off and left the room.
Carpenter hesitated before taking another forkful of food. With a sigh, he asked, "Jama, how are you feeling?" The question carried levels of meaning beyond the words it contained.
Jama paused her cutting up of a pancake and set her utensils down. "Better," she answered, staring down at her plate. "I made a fool out of myself, didn't I?"
Carpenter said in a light tone, "Well, I think Cadbury has a point in that waking the spirit of Angelus on your own could qualify as foolhardy." He raised his hand to forestall any protest. "But I'm sure that's not what you meant."
The humor in his tone faded to concern. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"I... I don't know," Jama replied, still looking at her plate. "I mean... you're married, with a beautiful wife and children, and... and I'm just a foolish little girl." Carpenter watched silently as Jama touched the tips of her index fingers together and then spun them around each other, a sure sign of nervousness in the young sorceress. "And then to blurt that out... The rest of the Squad must have heard, what do they think?"
"Do you care what they think?" Carpenter shook his head. "Never mind."
Carpenter stood and walked around the table to where Jama sat. He squatted down to put his head at her level and gently grasped her hands in his.
"Jama, we've shared a lot in the time we've been in 9th Squad. Pains, joys, triumphs, and defeats. We've stood together against trials beyond what any human could fear to face. We've grown together to trust and depend on each other. It is the strength of that bond that will help us carry through to what we will have to face in the days ahead."
"The word 'love' falls short of describing the connection we have, but it's not surprising that it would be the one you'd find. In that sense, I love you too, in my heart and soul."
"But don't confuse all the nuances and contexts that the word carries. The love I have for Elaine has shades and meanings that are different from the one I profess now to you. The parts of my soul that I have shared with her may not be the same as the ones I may share with you, but they're still a part of me. I... I don't have the words to express that in any more intelligible way; it's just something you can only feel."
"The one thing I don't want you to do is feel guilty for feeling this way. We all have our failings of spirit... and flesh." Carpenter paused, hesitant.
"You are a beautiful woman, Jama. You have a strength of will that shines in you like a sun. The fact that the love we share cannot express itself in a certain way does not make it less worthy. The day will come when you will look in someone's eyes and see that special part of your soul reflected in his eyes, just as I did with Elaine. And I pray that in that moment you will feel the joy you so rightfully deserve."
"Nathan," Jama smiled, and then pulled a hand free to wipe at her eyes. "Thank you. You always know what to say. I don't know what we'd do without you." She leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the forehead and then hugged him tightly, "Please don't ever tell my parents what I did, they'd die of shame."
Carpenter chuckled and spoke in a mock-solemn voice, adopting a theatrical pose. "Your secret is safe with me."
Taking a drink from her glass of juice, Jama started in on her pancake. She wiped once more at here eyes and then looked up. "The box you left in our room. There's something powerful in there, isn't there?"
Carpenter winced. "Yeah, well, that's the result of my foolish act for the evening."
As he stared at the plate in front of him, Carpenter narrated. "Ever since I was given the sword, the Order of Enoch's been after me to join them. I refused, because I didn't feel that putting myself under their thumb was what I was supposed to do. Their reaction was to try to take the sword away. Well, you've seen how that's worked out."
He sighed, leaning back to rub his eyes. "Then, the schism occurred, and the majority of the more martial members of the Order left. Last night, the Cardinal of the Order came to me and explained that they needed to rebuild. He offered me knighthood in the Order of St. George. Plus what's inside that box in there.
"I said yes. I don't know why; maybe I was tired and not thinking straight. Maybe I felt guilty because it was my refusal that in a way led to the schism, the Enochians, and the invasion. The bottom line is that I'm now part of their Order. And I don't know what will happen next."
His tale told, Carpenter went back to staring morosely at food on the table, his appetite seemingly gone.
"Does that mean you'll be leaving us? To fight beside them when the time comes?"
Carpenter looked up, brought back to the present by Jama's voice. "Huh? Definitely not. My place is at your side. Nothing will change that." He stopped himself as his mind processed the implications. "But then, they may very well expect me to do so. That's what I'm talking about."
He sighed. "I've had to juggle multiple priorities before, between my duties as an XSWAT officer, a husband and father, and the sword's keeper. I guess this'll just be another ball to keep in the air."
Carpenter looked at Jama steadily for a second, as if evaluating whether to ask the next question. "Not to be too obvious in changing the subject, but something happened while I was away. I could feel the tension. Is it something you can talk about?"
Jama blinked in surprise and looked up from her meal. "Tension? With me? Or the Squad?"
Carpenter frowned. "Well, mostly with Rich... Lieutenant Hemelshot, but it looked something had not gone down well. Or were you guys really that worried about me?"
"Oh...." Jama glanced away from the table, her attention now on the furnishings of Mrs. Freudenberg's kitchen. "He... we...." She paused, took a drink of juice. "Do you remember that doll the two of you found on that abandoned boat?"
"Yes, the one that Hemelshot for some reason brought back with him..." Carpenter blanched. "Oh no..."
"It wasn't a doll. It... it was..."
Carpenter closed his eyes, dreading the next words.
"It possessed his daughter."
"Is she...?" He couldn't bring himself to finish the question.
"No." Jama shook her head. "She's... alive. And so is the Lieutenant's wife and brother. But..." Jama closed her eyes. "It wasn't pleasant."
Carpenter sighed, grief drawn into his face. "And Richard, in his usual way, is taking full responsibility for it. It must be eating him alive."
He looked across to Jama. "Thank you for letting me know. I'll try to talk to him about it before... he does yet another stupid thing before thinking it through."
"We were all stupid." Now it was Jama's turn to sigh. "Carpenter... Nathan, you do need to talk to him. Before he becomes like Brogan, who seems to be seeking death. Right now the Lieutenant is so consumed with guilt I think he's forgotten who he is and what he needs to do. I think he feels his family will never forgive him, but if he dies... if he kills himself trying to stop Hart and the rest, how will he ever know if they do?"
Standing, Jama stepped around the table and placed her small brown hands on Carpenter's much larger, rougher ones. "Nathan, I think you are the soul of the 9th Squad. You have a purity within you that allows you to look at another and not judge them, but advise them, encourage them, allow them to see they are needed and who needs them. I.... No, we all follow the Lieutenant not only because he is our commander, but I know that he will see victory done, even if it costs him his life to save ours. But I will follow your leadership as well, for you look out for all of us, and will see all of us home safe and sound when the battle is over."
She paused and looked almost guilty at her speech, then took a breath and continued. "Tyger cannot speak to him, he doesn't know what to say. Brogan feels he is dead already. Yiska... Yiska has his own mission. But you, you are a husband and a father, and almost lost your daughter to the enemy. So know you must speak to the Lieu... to Hemelshot, as one who has seen what he has seen. Bring him home safe, Nathan, so he may lead us to victory."
Carpenter smiled sadly and placed one of his hands on top of hers, pressing gently. "I will, Jama. As God is my witness, I will do everything I can. And if He is willing, I'll bring back Brogan too."
The door to the apartment swung open and Mrs. Freudenberg came in, carrying a basket with freshly washed and folded clothing. "Here you are, darling."
Carpenter and Jama jumped apart with a guilty start and looked at anything but each other, acutely embarrassed.
The old woman continued, making no sign that she'd noticed their reaction. "Your uniform's nice and clean. I stitched the tears here and there. Hopefully it doesn't show too much." She beamed at the two, her eyes twinkling with some secret humor.
Jama held up her armored jacket and smiled. "It's heavy and hot... but I'll feel so much better once I have it back on." She turned to look at Mrs. Freudenberg. "How can I ever repay you?"
"Pish, child," the lady said, her hand waving in dismissal. "You've already done so much."
Her face broke into a gentle smile, her eyes shining. "You've given this old woman hope."
Mrs. Freudenberg unobtrusively wiped the corner of her eye, then bustled about, picking up her laundry basket. "Now run along, dears. You have a city to protect. Besides," her eyes crinkled as she chuckled, "I'm sure your friends are wondering where the two of you have been."
Carpenter grinned abashedly. "Yes, well, we've abused your hospitality enough, I think. Um, Jama, I'll get my tunic then, er, let you change. I'll, uh, wait right out here, OK?"
Jama nodded. "And then we need to get back. We've got a lot to do."