Her ribs hurt. It was a fact of life she’d grown used to over the past few years. The dull ache a constant reminder of how dangerous the streets had been some twenty years ago, when she’d been a patrol officer with the 9th Squad. But she hadn’t been out on patrol in more than a decade, and as Director looked down on those same streets from her office 100 stories in the air.

Pacing along the floor-to-ceiling wall of windows that made up one whole side of her work area, Jamadigni Renuka regarded the City of Angelus. Hands clasped behind her back, dress coat brushing her ankles, she let herself become lost in thought. It was time for her to step down, she was certain of that. Her aching ribs were only one such clue. She knew what the cure was—a two-week stay in the hospital followed by two months of rest—and was well-aware that this close to her retirement there was no way she’d be able to remove herself the chain of command for that amount of time. It’d have to wait until she’d stepped down and had plenty of time to devote to herself, her children, and her cat.

Speaking of whom…. A quick glance showed Corporal Cadbury following a few paces behind. The huge Mane Coon looked up and then promptly sat down to nonchalantly wash his face and ears. Jama grinned at his attempt to hide his worry, and returned to her pacing.

Alice and Malachi were nine, and just hitting the point where she felt she really needed to be there. Their teenage years would probably be… interesting, as the ancient (and mythical) Chinese curse would put it, and she wanted to be present when they had need of her. And it would be nice for her and Mitch to be able to devote some time to themselves as well. Even considering he was her dedicated chauffeur they only saw each other sporadically during the day.

So now all she had to do was try to bring her successor up to speed, deal with her aching ribs as best as possible, try not to think about whatever Deputy Director Tyger was up to (she didn’t need ulcers on top of everything else that was going on), pay attention to Cadbury when he asked, and most importantly, avoid pondering the implications behind the Birnam Wood AAR.

* * * * *

It was hard being a human in Rho Sector, even if your mom was a Clade. It wasn’t that humans were actively disbarred from the Free Clade Republic, but they were often discriminated against in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways. Even so, there were humans who dared to live there. Some had decided to move in with their Clade lovers, other had refused to move out as the Clades had moved in, and some had come of their own volition, looking to join the FCR and fight for Clade rights. And then there was herself. She was fairly well accepted by her neighbors, and a surprising number of people knew the name ‘Winterfox’, but it wasn’t like she walked around with a sign on her back reading “my mom’s a Clade”. But, for all it’s faults, Rho was home, and while Angie and Chrysine had long since traded an apartment in the Untervasser for a far more upscale townhouse, she liked the sound, the smell, and the look of Rho. The rest of Angelus often felt drab by comparison.

In Angie’s opinion, the best part about Rho Sector was Hawkin’s Alley. A long, long time ago, as in thirty-five years or more, the Alley had been a popular assembly area for the Angelus counterculture. When Clades had started to gather in Rho, it had often served as a focal point for Clade rights marches. These days, however, it was known for the quality of its shopping. The trend had started a few years before the Demonfall, when merchants, looking to cash in (literally) on the Clades gathering to hear public speakers or to march somewhere, set up shop. These days it was more of a vast open-air market, in which one could find just about everything. Shops in the row homes along the alley and other side streets tended to be more upscale, while the stalls and pavilions in the Alley and other open areas carried more inexpensive and perishable goods. Ever since she’d first come here eight years ago, Angie had considered it the best place to spend a day in Angelus, bar none. And it was even better to spend a day in Hawkins Alley with her mom.

Angie, Chrysine Winterfox, decided, was going to be tall. While she was just pushing 17, Chrysine was not sure her daughter was done growing. She stood just over five feet, nine inches, and Chrysine was willing to bet she would top out at just under six feet in height—almost tall enough to look eye-to-eye with her mother. Standing together, the two made an almost matching pair—they were both tall, slender for their height, and long-legged, with the only major difference (aside from the obvious) being Chrysine’s white hair (Angie’s was nearly jet black).

Right now, Chrysine was content to follow along behind Angie as she darted in an out of stalls and booths. It had been her daughter’s suggestion they come to Hawkin’s and Chrysine was glad she had agreed to the idea. It was nice to get out and about, especially considering how hectic things had been in the weeks after Claire 404 and the rest of her teammates had vanished investigating the Birnam Wood housing complex. She had been injured in the line of duty before, yes… but nothing so severe and potentially career ending.

Chrysine’s musings where abruptly cut short as Angie wrapped her arms around her mother, holding her tight and burrowing her face in Chrysine’s long fall of snowy-white hair. Nonplussed, Chrysine stood there for a moment before returning the gesture.

“What is wrong, dear? Are you all right?”

“Yes… no… I don’t know…” Angie helpfully replied.

“What happened?”

“I was looking at some sunglasses, ‘cause, y’know, I’d like some protective lens when at work, and… and….”

“You were reminded that I now only have one eye?”

“Yeah…” she sobbed then continued, “and the damage is so bad you can’t get another!”

Patting her daughter’s back, Chrysine smiled and pulled Angie into a loving—and protective—embrace, “Do not worry. I still have one good eye to watch you grow up with.”

* * * * *

Setting herself in her chair, Madame President Shion Nys regarded the door to her office carefully, trying to decide if her long-delayed dinner would finally arrive, or if she’d end up meeting yet another group of people who were obviously Not From Around Here. She mused over why the Esper Institute seemed to be a focal point for such incidents. There had been a number of occurrences over the decades, including one some twenty years ago that resulted in Los Angelus being invaded by life forms that defied all known science and logic.

That had been a very close call and one she hoped to not see repeated. But it did make her wonder—where did these people come from? Where did they go? And how did they get here? Resting her head on one hand, she carefully considered the plain black rectangle of her office door. It looked the same as it always had, and a check a few minutes ago confirmed that the rest of the Esper Institute was still on the other side. It was almost as if her visitors had never been.

Shaking her head, Shion realized she didn’t have time to ponder such questions. She had a presentation to the United Nations to think about, not to mention a meeting at the World Court in The Hauge. After at, it wasn’t every day a space station populated by espers was recognized as a fully independent nation. Rising, she decided it was time to seek out her wayward dinner. It was getting late, she’d finished editing her speech, and she was most certainly hungry. Adjusting her jacket, Shion let her gaze sweep across the smooth obsidian expanse of her vast desk. All seemed to be in order… except…. Wait… was that a muffin?

* * * * *

He walked as he always did, long strides eating up the distances with deceptive ease. He walked everywhere, when he could, and sometimes was even able to walk everywhen, a talent highly suitable to his line of work. He had been to many places and had been many people over the long, long years. He’d watched, from the shadows, as men were crucified for crimes he’d implicated them for. He’d had a remote hand in the death of kings, queens, czars, and ministers. He’d started wars and revolutions. He’d ridden horses, trains, and tanks, and had once even held a general’s rank, not that it did much good to the men under his command.

He’d seen the world change, over, and over, and over. He’d seen a single man cut down by an assassin’s bullet, had watched as thousands had fallen to shot, shell, shrapnel, flame, and poison gas, and had taken the undeserved credit for the screaming millions who’d plunged into the sea when the San Andreas fault had finally given way. But the more the world changed, the more it stayed the same. No matter how advanced, how enlightened, how ‘mature’ mankind felt it had become, all it took was the right words in the right ear, the right email to the right recipient, the right pamphlet handed out on the right corner, to bring it all back down again.

Turning a corner, he regarded the glittering spire of XSWAT headquarters and grinned.

* * * * *

Deep within the bowels of Angelus there is a door. It can be found down below the steam tunnels, where the storm drains and sewer lines run. It seems, at first glance, to be a plain, ordinary fire door, set into the wall of an empty and forgotten storeroom. Firmly closed, the door waits, silently, patiently, for someone to open it. And occasionally, very occasionally, there’s a knocking at the door.