Standing in from of the wall-sized interactive screen that formed one whole side of the 9th Squad office, Jamadagni Renuka took a deep breath and stood as tall as her 160 centimeters would let her. "I have a theory," she announced, apparently not caring if anyone was listening.
Doctor Graham Burton turned to listen to the petite Indonesian. After working with her to analyze the contents of Kamang's computer, he had come to admire her intellect.
"I think I know why Entities are so common here in Angelus."
Tyger took a long drag from his cigarette and tapped the ashes into a nearby ashtray before placing the cigarette between his lips again "Because they like the beach? That's kinda why I came to Angelus y'know."
Burton decided that if looks could kill, they'd be taking Tyger out of the common room in a basket.
Turning to the screen, Jama used her stylus to tap on the keypad. "The first Entity incursion was on the 31st of October in 2092. All evidence points to a man named Dominic Van Goren as being responsible. Since 31 October is celebrated as All Hallow's Eve in many parts of the Western world, I can only presume he was using some ritual which went awry." Jama stood up and stared at the screen, which now showed a pre-Cataclysmic view of North America. Reaching up she went to make a mark on the map, audibly sighed, and tapped a control, scrolling the map down to her height.
"Medicine Wheel," she muttered, making a mark. "Uluru," she said, making another. "And Angkor Vat," she finished. Another key tap and the map scrolled back into position.
"There are places on the Earth where power is concentrated." Still facing the map, Jama gestured at the glowing names. "These are three I know of off-hand. Here tradition and belief has concentrated the spiritual energies, allowing magicians such as myself to cast spells of greater power than normal. They also are almost immutable points, having been in place for hundreds... thousands... even millions of years. They are firmly grounded in reality and serve to channel the flow of magic energies around them."
Touching the keypad, Jama reenacted the Cataclysm, dropping the western United States into the Pacific Ocean. "Angelus, on the other hand, drifts. It isn't set, but a huge mobile city. Worse yet, it drifts over an immense grave yard, in which millions of people lie, none of whom were given a proper burial." Crossing her arms over her breasts, she glanced at her boots. "I'm surprised the city isn't over run with ghosts and other restless dead... there's more than enough out there to overwhelm the city if they so choose."
Shaking her head, the short sorceress returned to her one-sided lecture. "Angelus is also new. It doesn't have anything of great age in it... nothing to which anyone has attached a great store of legend and superstition. It has no traditions, myths or beliefs. In short, it is an open city, floating over a vast field of unsanctified dead, adrift in a sea of directionless magical energy."
Turning around, Jama placed her hands on her hips and faced the squad room. "Entities come to Angelus because it is easy to do so. Van Goren's ritual opened the way and now they've found the city to their liking. They can change the flow of magic here with ease, bringing their own reality with them. That is why we get sick near an Entity, and that's why satellite maps of Omega Sector are so useless—it changes to suit their needs."
"An interesting hypothesis," said Burton. "I think it has some merit."
Tyger raised a brow and pulled the cigarette out of his mouth. "So... what you're trying to tell us is that some guy named Van Gogh decided it was a good idea to give Entities an early crack at some mobile beach-front property? What in the bloody hell did he have to gain from it?"
Jama shrugged. "I'm sure Van Goren didn't intend to summon an Entity... or if he did, not in such uncontrollable quantities."
Tyger thought this over as he drained the rest of his cigarette, his tail flipping slightly in irritation. "I thought you said that your magicy ju-ju coolness was done by Hamtaros, not by some sea of energy."
Jama visibly winced at the mangled description of the inner workings of sorcery.
Unperturbed, Tyger scratched his head in frustration. "Bah! This is all backwards, and it doesn't make a bit of sense to me. No offense Jama, but I don't see the point in worrying about it. Well... maybe you and your Hamtaros should, but I don't. All I know is that they are here, and that I have to waste 'em. Why or how doesn't matter much."
Burton glanced at Tyger for a moment before offering his opinions. "Entities seem to be drawn to abnormal psychological states—the clinically insane at Windsor Asylum, for example, or the Underworld dwellers hooked on Angel Blood.
"Similarly, the large quantity of residual psychic effluvia—those things that you call 'ghosts'—resulting from the sudden deaths of millions in coastal California during the Cataclysm may also serve to attract the Entities.
"It's possible that these abnormal psychological states facilitate the formation of quantum entanglement on a macroscopic scale, thus enabling the Entities to co-locate to our dimension."
Tyger just gaped at Burton, a fresh cigarette dangling from his mouth as he blinked a couple of times, his expression an all too familiar blank stare. "Say that again? In mecha-jock speak this time."
"Entities like it here," Jama answered.
Tyger looked right at Jama, rolling his eyes with an exasperated sigh "Well no shit, Sherlock. I think we all have that pretty well established. I mean, if they didn't like it here, I don't think they would keep showing up to wreak havoc, posses people, eat their faces, and generally just making our lives miserable."
Burton's gaze didn't deviate from Jama's display on the monitors as he replied to Tyger. "An understanding of why the Entities are coming here is essential to defeating them once and for all."
Gritting her teeth for a moment, Jama took a deep breath, mentally counted to ten, and then relaxed. "Thank you, Doctor Burton," she said with a smile. "My point, Tyger, is that if we can figure out why Entities like it here, we might be able to change things to discourage their coming over in the first place." Turning back to the faintly glowing plasma screen, she swapped out the map of the Pacific for one of Angelus. "And I think the first place I need to look is right here." Her stylus tapped on a spot near the center of Omega Sector.
Tyger did not seem bothered by Jama's reaction, finding the fact she was becoming irritated with him both amusing and the reason to take a verbal step back. "Jeeze... chill out a little." he murmured taking a drag from his cigarette.
"Look, I'll be the first to admit that I have no idea what you all are talking about." Tyger scratched the back of his head and sat forward a little, all traces of mirth and amusement in his voice now gone. "Look, I'm not stupid. I know that Entities like it here. I won't pretend to know why that is. Hell, for all any of us know they could just think the idea of a mobile island is a neat vacation spot... or that they just want to take over the world or something. Who knows? We've only seen things from their perspective once and even then we ain't sure if that was their world or if it was just some strange limbo or something." He shrugged and took a drag from his cigarette before continuing , "And I can appreciate the fact that it would be a really good idea to understand why they want to be here, what they want or whatever, and use that to our advantage. But I really think you two should remember that not all of us here are brainiacs and may need you to keep things where we can understand them."
Burton politely waited for the clade to finish blathering before responding to Jama. "I agree—we need to launch an expedition into Omega Sector at some point. It's too bad that the sensor drones sent there haven't provided more information about the place. Still, I think that a trip to Van Goren's home, and the opportunity to capture a low-level Entity, would be worth the unknown dangers of Omega Sector."
After saying his piece, Tyger had decided to remain silent for the rest of the discussion, voicing his thoughts only when it seemed necessary or to get something clarified. He'd intended to behave himself—well, as much as he could at any rate. After all, when Jama mentioned her need to start at the center of the Omega Sector, he was willing to let it go, someone just wanting something didn't necessarily mean much. However, Burton's suggestion that someone actually launch an expedition into that accursed place, was too much.
Casually finishing his cigarette and fishing out another one before slowly standing up, Tyger spoke in a calm, controlled tone. "Burton...," Tyger lit his cigarette and then cricked his neck before continuing, "...are you fucking bat-shit insane?!? Do you have any fucking clue what in the fuck is in there?" The clade's voice rose as his coarse use of expletives increased. "Have you ever been there? Do you know what happens to people when they try to? Do you even have a fucking clue what happened to the last 9th Squad?"
Hemelshot, who'd been observing the presentation and exchange of ideas silently, finally decided to weigh in. "I'll submit a request to explore the Omega Sector on two conditions," he stated, cutting off Tyger's rant. "First, that we have already captured an entity from outside Omega and have proven techniques to do so. Second, that we—working as a team with the resources we plan on taking into Omega—are able to defeat four suits of power armor in simulated combat. That'll prove to me we're able to capture Entities, and are able to survive long enough to do so. Until then we're staying out here with safer opponents, such as Class-Three transdimensional paintings." He gave a wry grin. "Until we can defeat a single entity without at least one teammate going to the hospital we're staying out of Omega."
Tyger sighed audibly. "Sarge, with all due respect, I don't think it will be enough. If it were that easy, then it would have been done by now. I will agree that all of us working together are badasses, but don't you think that there have been others that have been just as badass and made the same attempt before?" He took a pull from his cigarette and exhaled quickly. "We can't go in there as we are now, I should know... there is a reason why my mecha is called the Blue Steel Special Mark II after all. There is a reason why I've been harping on the designers to make vast improvements to the entire system. You want to go in? Then we will need some shit that ain't available to XSWAT—we're gonna need some high-end military hardware."
Virtually ignoring the clade, Jama warmed to the issue at hand, turning to look directly at Hemelshot. "I am working on how to explore Omega Sector without physically entering it. I have been modifying several rituals I know of for opening the Third Eye and projecting it remotely. By divorcing part of my spirit from my physical shell, I think I can safely venture into Omega Sector." She paused and looked thoughtful, one finger tapping her chin as she studied the map of Omega displayed on the wall screen. "I won't be able to touch anything, of course, but I will be able to visually examine what is there." With that she looked over her shoulder at Hemelshot. "Provided that's is okay with you."
"I agree with Sergeant Hemelshot, placing your hand into the mouth of a wolf is likely to get it bit off," Officer Yiska spoke. "I am unsure how your spiritual powers work, Corporal Renuka, but the Entities seem to be spiritual in essence themselves. They may be able to sense whatever small part of yourself you send into Omega, and they may be able to attack that part of yourself directly." Yiska paused to think for a moment, as the papers in front of him rustled slightly, "Perhaps if we were to create a large enough diversion, it would draw the Entities attention long enough for you to scout in and out?"
Jama mulled Yiska's offer over. "I was hoping to be as covert as possible. Most Entities in Omega are only Class One and don't seem to be very intelligent, or have much awareness beyond the normal five senses."
"Excuse me, Jama" Carpenter said, leaning against one of the cubicle partitions. "I'm not savvy about magic and how it works. You've mentioned three factors: the incident involving Van Goren, the ruins of California below us, and the 'newness" of Angelus."
"But I'm not sure how they relate. I thought paranormal phenomena was usually associated with locations with a lot of history. How is the fact that Angelus hasn't been around that long make it easier for the Entities to manifest?"
"The Cataclysm is not the first time a large number of unconsecrated dead have been located in one place. Battlefields, for instance. While I know there have been cases of ghosts in such sites, do we have any evidence of something to this level?"
"And while I agree we will need to enter the Omega Sector at some point in time, I think we need a better idea as to what we're looking for before we go poking around in there. We could just as much make it worse as fix the problem."
Jama grinned, and briefly rubber her hands together. Carpenter suddenly felt he was looking not at Jamadagni Renuka the police officer, but Jamadagni Renuka the college student, arguing the merits of some theorem or another. Her major had been comparative religion and world mythology if he recalled her file's profile correctly.
"A battlefield does become consecrated. Or at least, the dead do. After the fighting is over the dead are gathered and buried. Services are held for those who are lost, memorials are raised, and the survivors tend to remember their experiences there, whether they wish to or not." Jama tapped away at the keyboard as she spoke, occasionally glancing out into the common room. On the screen behind her multiple images appeared, of blasted stretches of land, of wrecked vehicles and dead men, and of memorials to the slain. "Battlefields often become part of a culture's mythology, become symbols, become names of power." She looked over at Carpenter. "Marathon, Agincourt, Gettsyburg, Pearl Harbor, Khe Sanh, the Highway of Death, Tannhauser Gate."
"There are memorials to Cataclysm, and some services have been held for the dead, but few have been recovered and put at rest. And the survivors? Few, if any wished to recall that day, pushing it from their minds as if it was a bad dream. Trauma can make the mind very selective in what is remembers."
Still digesting Jama's comments on the inhabitants of Omega Sector, Tyger shook his head. "You're wrong Jama. There ain't no such thing as a 'Class One' in Omega. I'd give 'em Class One and a Half, or One and Three Quarters. But not just Class One. The little guys there are more like that bastard at the Asylum when we first got started on all of this, and there are more of 'em than those little shits that were hanging from the ceiling." Tyger shook his head again as he took another drag from his cigarette. "They may not be smart like you or Burton, Jama, but that doesn't mean that they aren't crafty, that they can't, or won't sneak up on you from behind, or just gang-rape the whole lot of us. They're not stupid by any means. And I'm telling you, they will know that we're there. Even if we don't see them, or they see us, they'll know that lunch has just delivered itself right to their doorstep."
"Okay with me?" Hemelshot repeated Jama's comment, standing in his office doorway, staring fixedly at Jama. "To use Tyger's language, no, Hell no, and I'll-have-your-guts-for-garters no." He crossed his arms across his chest, assuming an almost defensive posture as he filled the doorway. "Tyger's right—Omega's deadly. XSWAT suffered 42% casualties in the original containment. As a team we're... adequate and showing improvement, but we're nowhere near as good as we need to be to survive there.
He uncrossed his arms and slowly walked toward Jama, assume a more casual stance and speaking softly. "And I've read the reports on at least seven attempts to probe Omega via esper and mystical means. The shallow probes—the ones near the wall—are just like the mechanical probes and don't really show anything. The deep probes are a little more dangerous. Two of the bodies imploded—sucked away from the inside—leaving only an empty bag of skin, one exploded messily, one just faded away like mist in the morning sun. The other three are technically alive but," Hemelshot reaches out and lightly tapped Jamas forehead, "There's nobody home upstairs. They're being kept on life-support and an esper checks every once in a while to see if anyone—or any thing has come home."
Stepping back and looking down at Jama, Hemelshot regarded her with deceptive calm. "You are ordered to refrain from any and all active probes, research or exploration into the Omega sector without express written permission of myself or a higher authority in the chain of command." His gaze gathered in the team as he spoke a little more resoundingly. "That goes for all of you and I'll put it in writing if you so desire. I'm making this official because if anyone tries anything in Omega and gets in trouble, you're on your own."
Carpenter shrugged, "You're absolutely right in that we aren't ready to take on the Omega Sector."
"But sooner or later, we'll have to go in. It's not a matter of 'if', but 'when.' We've got to make sure we're ready when that day comes."
Tyger took a pull from his cigarette. "I'm with you there Nate. The way I figure it, is if we could get that treaty lifted, the Omega Sector wouldn't be a problem. Right now, we can't have the armor and firepower to go in there and clean up like we should because of it."
Hemelshot turned to Carpenter with a raised eyebrow and his hands on his hips. "Why do you say we must go in? Is that a pronouncement from upstairs, or a cynical prediction that we'll be forced to throw away our lives in a suicidal mission at some point?"
As attention swiveled back to Carpenter, Hemelshot crossed his arms and subtly gave the hand signal for 'quiet' in the process. He hoped Carpenter been studying the combat code papers and would get the message.
Carpenter gave Hemelshot a slight nod as indication the message was received, but forged ahead and saying with a shrug, "Let's just say I have a strong conviction we won't have a say as to when we'll have to do the trip, so I'm all for us getting as much training as possible to be ready for it."
Tyger, on the other hand, despite knowing what was 'said', simply shrugged his shoulders. "The way I see it, is it's gonna have to be done sooner or later. If it's gonna happen in our lifetime, we may as well get ourselves ready for it when it does happen."
Jama watched the exchange as it were a tennis match, glancing from person to person as each spoke in turn. "Ready how?"
"Ready nothing!" Hemelshot nearly shouted. Turning away from Jama, Hemelshot fixed the common room and everyone in it with a stern gaze. "We are not going into Omega—we are not preparing for it, we are not exploring it, we are not discussing it. Unless—and I say unless, not until and unless—we receive direct orders through the chain of command, we will stay the hell away from Omega. I will not have any member of my command considering it an option, goal, or possibility."
His gaze sweept the team, making direct eye contact with each member. His face as grim and cold as anyone had ever seen it. "Is. That. Understood."
It was not a question.
Tyger grinned slightly and put out his cigarette in an ashtray. "Clear as crystal, Sarge."
As Hemelshot's cold gaze swept over Carpenter, he met it with equal intensity. Nathan's eyes softened, and he shook his head slightly as he turned to leave. "The Lord have mercy on us all."
"Yessir." Jama, hit a button and turned off the wall screen. "There was more... I...," she paused, glanced around the room and walked to her desk.
"Carpenter, may I see you in my office, please?" Hemelshot asked as entered his office.
Carpenter followed the sergeant into the small room and stood by the desk, arms crossed, expression neutral.
* * * * *
Hemelshot closed the door and stood a few paces from Carpenter. His expression was calm, but perhaps a touch sorrowful.
"Carpenter, you're easily the most influential person on 9th squad. If you don't support me as being in charge, I can't effectively lead this team, with potentially fatal consequences. Out there I gave a specific, direct order and you turned away as if my authority meant nothing. I can't be in charge if you—specifically—don't follow.
He turned away and picks up a small, framed picture of his wife from his desk. "Of us all, you're the most experienced and best-able to survive in Omega. You'll walk out and go home." His finger traced the image of his wife and daughter. "And you're right that we'll probably have to go there sooner or later—in order to protect Angelus from entities we'll have to strike at the source." He put the picture down and looked Carpenter in the eye. "It'll happen, and we both know it." he gave a small nod before his expression hardened.
"But it won't happen anytime soon, and if I give those kids the illusion that they're anywhere near ready, they'll get cocky, try it on their own, and die. We're in enough danger out here that I won't be putting my command into a meatgrinder if I don't absolutely have to, and that includes giving them the idea it's ok to poke their noses into Omega. I've had enough trouble with Tyger going off on his own.
His eyes narrowed. "And your attitude will kill them. If I give an order and get 'you mean nothing' from you—of all people—I may as well not pretend to be in charge. I gave that order for a reason and however you may feel, whatever may feel, however much your time as a solo operative may have made you disrespectful of those in charge, it's an order and you had damn well better respect the order, even if you don't respect the person who gave it."
It took a second for Hemelshot to realize that Carpenter had not moved an inch.
"Sergeant, let's get one thing straight. I know about the chain of command. I know how important it is for us to function as a team if we are to survive this.
"But the key to teamwork is trust. You trust us to follow your orders without argument and to carry them out with the best of our abilities, and we trust you to make the right orders and choose the best path to achieve our objectives and get out of it on the other end in more or less one piece.
"Richard, I know how much you care for the team. But, you said it yourself, we will be going into Omega Sector sooner or later. So tell me, which way do you think we'll have the best chance of living through it: by preparing for it as much as we can, or by ignoring it until it falls on our laps out of the blue? Because believe me, we will not have a choice when that moment comes.
"Think, Richard. How can you best guarantee that our people don't go sticking their noses into Omega before they're ready? By giving them a flat order not to, or by giving them tasks that allow them to feel they're doing something towards it while making sure it keeps them away until the moment they have to arrives? You know as well as I that right now, Burton and Jama are coming up with ways to investigate the sector and hiding that fact from you. Is that what you wanted?
"I know keeping us alive and safe is important to you, Richard. But the fact is, you can't keep us from marching into Hell, because that is exactly what we're here to do. I'll follow you into the sharp end, but if I see you taking the wrong path, I won't hesitate to point it out. Would you rather I didn't? Do you really think that's the best way?
"There's a good chance some of us won't live to see the end of this quest, and I'm no less likely to be in that number than you are. I've made my peace with that fact long ago. But that doesn't mean I won't do everything in my power to make sure we all make it out.
Carpenter turned to leave but stopped at the door. "I'm going to go out there and do my best to keep our team from wasting their lives for no reason. And I'll pray that you will too."
Hemelshot's reply came as an angry hiss. "You think I don't know what those kids'll be up to? Tyger's already planning something and Burton's fixated on this damn 'capture an entity' streak. You're on some quest to save the city—and know there's a heart of evil in Omega that needs killing. I know damn well we're going, and we're not all walking out, and you believe that I'm going to go in unprepared? You really think I'm going to ignore what's going to happen and let the team get soft and flabby and unprepared? Fuck that!" By this time Hemelshot was standing, and he suddenly turned away.
His eyes narrowed as he continued, "I know far too well I'm leading the team into danger every damn day. Do you honestly believe I'm not going to do everything in my power to make sure you all walk out again? We'll be ready when the time comes, but the time is not now. We need a hell of a lot more experience before we start poking at Omega, whether we like it or not.
"Now, you say you trust me to lead? Then let me lead and don't blow me off when I make a decision! You say you know the importance of the chain of command? Then damn well show it! If you say 'yah whatever' to a direct order, then someone else'll do the same damn thing in combat and get someone killed—do you really want to set an example like that? Think about it because that's the message you're sending."
He turned back to Carpenter. "Anything else?"
Carpenter looked at Hemelshot, his hand still on the doorknob for a few seconds. Then he sighed. "No, Sergeant. I have nothing else that hasn't already been said."
Without another word, Carpenter stepped out, closing the door softly behind him.
* * * * *
When Carpenter stepped from Hemelshot's office, Tyger was on his feet. He made his way over to the Paladin and looked at him with all seriousness, a hand resting upon Carpenter's shoulder. "You alright Nate?" Tyger had heard the majority of what had gone on in the office thanks to his keen hearing, but he knew that what was said behind closed doors, remained there. "If you wanna talk about this whole thing... you can come to me. If you need it."
Nathan's tired face broke into a grin and he placed his own hand on Tyger's shoulder, mirroring his pose. "Careful there, Tyger. Sounds like I'm starting to rub off on you." Then his face settled back to its usual composed mien. "Thanks. Just hang loose. I have some teammates to keep from sticking their heads into the lion's mouth."
Tyger grinned in reply. "The way I see it, is that you all are the only family I have, so we gotta take care of each other right? Nobody else is gonna do it." He let Carpenter go then and looked over his shoulder. "Hey, that offer still stands y'know."
Nodding, Carpenter made his way through the office, looking for Jama or Burton.
He found the young sorceress at her desk, fiddling aimlessly with some papers, her face struggling to remain composed. Nathan recognized the look, having seen it on his daughter from time to time.
"Jama," Nathan spoke softly. "Looks like you could use some tea. Care to join me?"
Hastily wiping at her eyes (and serving only to smear her makeup), Jama turned around in her chair. "Ahh..., hello Nathan... I..." Carpenter noticed the symbol on her forehead was one he'd never seen before, and for some reason it troubled him. Pausing, Jama swallowed and nodded. "Tea would be nice."
Tyger peeked his head around the corner, "I know a quiet little shop a couple of blocks over." He stepped further into view, his movements careful as he did not wish to intrude, but did want to help. "The tea's 'bout average at best, but the service is great. I go there to think about stuff when I want to be alone, but can't sit with my baby." Tyger paused for a moment and tentatively continue,. "Y'all may not want my company... but I've had my fair share of ass-chewin's in my day, besides... you both were there for me when I was at my lowest. So I can't let any good deed go unpunished." Tyger attempted a good natured smile accompanied by a wink. "Pirates honor and all that rot."
Carpenter looked to Jama for her decision.
Pushing her chair back, Jama stood, looking up at her two taller squad mates. "Okay," she said with a wan smile.
"Uh..." The three of them turned to see Yiska standing rather sheepishly the the entrance to the cube. "D'you guys mind if I join you? I really don't feel like being the only one here right now, and I could go hide in Burton's lair-- err... lab thingy, but his science makes my head hurt worse than my powers. D'you mind? I can see this is a rather tender moment, and you guys don't know me very well...."
Carpenter smiled, "Something we obviously have to fix. You're welcome to join us."