The End of the World: The Last Christmas

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Christmas is a time of giving and a celebration of family. It is also the time that Washington crossed the Delaware, the Battle of Trenton. The Tet Offensive began on New Years Eve. The Ardennes Counteroffensive, better known as Battle of the Bulge kicked off the week before Christmas.
And our unfriendly visitors have been studying human history …!

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. None of the characters, places, or anything else is meant to be represented by anything in reality. Duh! Fiction, get it? I the author reserve the rights, so please don't go posting this anyplace else without my permission. A very special thanks goes out to Cathy who at the very last moment spent the time to make this story readable. Another round of thanks goes out to all the others out there in BCTS land who have encouraged and inspired me to write and keep writing. Any remaining mistakes are all mine.

The End of the World: The Last Christmas
A sequel to the Last Thanksgiving
by
Grover
11/29/2013

Zap! Crack!

I cringed away from the crazed man with the taser.

“Doc!” I looked for an escape route off the examination table. “What are you doing with that thing?”

“Relax.” Doc Schneider replied, still holding the hand held taser “This isn't lethal.”

“You're not reassuring me here, Doc!” I crept to the edge of the table.

Calling for help would be a waste of time. Dr. Loren Schneider was the lead researcher here at the Camp Mackall Prometheus Center. While they didn't run the Prometheus Engine here any more, this was where they did all the volunteers' testing and evaluations.

Doc was about my height, but he was skinny as a rail. His salt and pepper hair and mustache had always reminded me of a cross between Larry from the Three Stooges and Albert Einstein. Not that I would ever consider fighting him.

After that first full power run of the Prometheus Engine on us, the freshman group of volunteers, it'd been me who'd dragged the infernal device and him out of harms' way. The Sha'leians didn't at all like the uses we were putting their captured tech to. While they didn't react to our using their quantum engines, using that damaged drive got their attention big time and I don't mean in a good way.

A full fledged company of a hundred 'bots and drones had dropped right on top of us, along with a real live in the flesh alien invader. Most of my fellow volunteers had been slaughtered, along with more than a few of Doc's fellow scientists and techs. We'd never been sure exactly how many of us Prometheus's children had been born or rather reborn during that first run up, since the invaders had killed everyone who couldn't run away fast enough.

Predictably I hadn't melted down until afterward, when I got a chance to notice I'd turned into a seven foot tall walking, pornographic golden statue. The handful of others who had also escaped had included two others who had received the Gift. They'd gone though the testing and evaluation and later became the first graduates of the Pantheon Program's R course, sometimes called 'Robot-demolition 101.'

Meanwhile I had huge problems dealing with what I'd become. Let me tell you, I don't know how women put up with it. Code name Halcyon, due to my other 'me' complexion and hair color which was vaguely the same as that Kingfisher from Greek legends, she had a figure that was as exaggerated as any woman heroine ever drawn in the comic-books.

In short, while transformed, I was a walking wet-dream and lustful stares followed me wherever I went. It was difficult enough for me just to change so radically, but to be lusted after was the straw that broke the camels back, shoulder, arm and every other part I can think of.

All I can say is it's a damn good thing the Prometheus transformation was only temporary. Once a Child of Prometheus, always a Child, but to change into your Gifted form after that first time required some help, the Q-Box.

It's just this cell phone sized box that, along with some internal gizmo's, somehow helps trigger the change. I hadn't the slightest idea of how, but it did work. The Box also held the timer that estimated how much time you could stay transformed and the controls for Pantheon Special Forces trooper's uniform, Skins.

The tough, flexible, smart fabric was a necessity since it could stretch with the change and still provide an impressive amount of protection. Using the controls on the Q-Box, it could mirror the surrounding environment, making it the ultimate in camouflage.

However, the downside was it looked like a damn fetish catsuit that gave new meaning to skin tight. Once upon a time I had looked like the Pillsbury dough boy in my Skins, which caused me no end of embarrassment. Being old and fat was bad enough, but having to wear a uniform that displayed that unpleasantness to everyone, just plain sucked.

That had changed, which was why I was here on this table. Prometheus linked you with another 'you' in an universe that had real live superheroes, or so was the current theory at least. That explanation seemed to fit what facts we had. To change you had to push that Q-Box button, but with time and practice, you could make yourself change without the button.

What it did not do was affect your 'normal' body. However, my bald spot was gone and I'd lost so much weight I looked liked someone else. Perhaps that helped contribute to my looking younger instead of the ten years older the extra pounds had added. That did not account for me being able to keep up with guys in their twenties running one of the hardest obstacle courses in the world.

The good news was my Skins would stop Doc's taser cold, that's if I had them on. Instead I was in a very drafty paper hospital gown feeling just a mite vulnerable.

“I have a theory.” He said, still looking more than a little demented despite his smile. “You're as healthy, no, more healthy than a horse. That's the problem.

“This.” He waved the stun gun, “Will either prove my theory or make me feel very bad as you flop on the table like a fish.”

Lunging, his stun gun crackled again as the electricity arced between the electrodes.

Gritting my teeth for the expected shock, I exhaled in relief as none came.

“Very funny, Doc.” I glared at the scientist. “I really don't appreciate the prank.”

The crackle, zap of the stun gun buzzed again.

“And will you stop with that thing!” The sound was sending shivers up and down my spine.

“Craig.” Doc directed rather softly. “Look at your hands.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” I stared at him, still cross at the tasteless joke.

He held up the inactive stun gun with a quirk of his bushy eyebrows.

My mouth dropped open as I saw the electrical arc between my fingers.

“Congratulations, Craig!” He grinned, while bouncing on his toes. “You're a superhero!”

<><><><><>

A half hour later I was still sitting on the table.

“How could this happen, Doc?” I asked. “I thought this was impossible.”

“It is.” He replied handing me a lollipop. “However, it's the only available explanation.”

“Those scans and tests we did all came back with errors.” Waving some X-rays in the air, he tossed them on his desk. “It was as if you were coated in lead or...”

“I was absorbing the energy.” Just like Halcyon, went unsaid.

“Precisely!” Doc grinned. “Which makes no sense given what we know, unless there are not two quantum patterns involved, but three!”

“I thought my original pattern was over written by Halcyon's. It's not?” Scratching my once bald spot, this was way over my head.

“Perhaps that's what happened to the Sha'leians.” Doc said the Alien's name with relish. Being a man of science he loved having the proper names and terms for stuff.

“However,” He lectured. “Our process simply forms a link where this.” He held up a Q-Box. “This is the switch that can open or close that circuit. That's why the Prometheus Gifted can change back and forth.

“It is, I think, the superior, method.” He put his hand on my shoulder.

Nodding, I agreed with him. Doc Schneider was the reason was why I hadn't been pushed into a suicide mission at the very beginning. As a matter of fact he bitterly protested the entire concept. At the same time, the government was full of very scared old men who did what they always did to the young in time of war. They sent them off to die.

It was hard to protest too much when whole cities were getting flattened and causalities were in the millions and that was just in the United States. World Wide, it'd hit the billion mark and was rising everyday from the Impact Winter alone, as well as continuing enemy action.

Recently Russia had taken one right on the chin. Dzerzhinsk, Russia had been hit by a nano-bombardment. The city had a history of being a center of chemical manufacture as well as, at least at one time, making chemical weapons. Unlike Japan they hadn't been able to stop the attack which had left hundreds of thousands of people homeless in the middle of the bitterest winter in memory, as well as the huge economic loss.

“So what is happening with me, Doc?” I asked him.

“Mind you, this is only a guess,” He sat at his desk. “But I think the clue here is how different Halcyon is from you.”

“How so?” I really wanted to get dressed, but I'd learned you couldn't rush Doc. Besides I wanted to know what to expect too.

“I'm thinking that your original pattern has indeed been over written, but not by Halcyon's. The one we're seeing here is your double's before they became her.” He rubbed at his eyes.

“I have no idea of how it was done.” Doc admitted. “Given the superhero thing perhaps it was magic or some kind of mad science. In some fashion, two patterns were pushed on top of each other and when we opened our link, that first pattern got pushed downstream, if you will, onto you.”

“And the reason why I seem to be younger is because its been in a kind of stasis all this time?” I tried to follow his reasoning.

“That is as good a guess as any of mine.” He smiled. “But you do know what this means, right?”

I got that bad feeling as the glee in his eyes registered with my hind brain.

“No, Doc.” Bracing myself for the bad news, I just had to ask. “What does it mean?”

“It means we have to test both of your forms for powers!” He held up his stun gun again. “This is only the beginning!”

I could only stare at him in horror, oh no!

<><><><><>

“Doc!” I screamed as the platform collapsed out from under my feet.

“Note that Kingfisher can fly.” The Scientist told his assistant.

<><><>

I stared at the baseball pitching machine that was in the corner of the room I was told to report.

“Ah guys?” The door locked behind me.

“Note that Kingfisher is vulnerable to blunt force trauma.” Dr. Schneider instructed.

<><><>

Feeling more than a little paranoid, I watched the departing Humvee throwing up a plume of snow in the crew's haste to leave my locale. Already feeling a little edgy because I was Halcyon for this test, I glanced down to make sure I wasn't standing in the middle of a bullseye or something.

Snow flew up as a Sha'leian 'bot sat up abruptly where it'd been hidden revealing its plasma burners.

“Note,” The Scientist observed the mushroom cloud as the blast wave from the concussion blast washed over them. “It's confirmed Halcyon can absorb and explosively release energy from a Sha'leian combat robot's short range energy weapons.”

<><><><><>

Macdill AFB

“Stop fidgeting!” Sheila scolded as she adjusted the fabric.

Staring straight ahead in the best 'guy at the urinal' tradition, I ignored what she was draping Halcyon in. I would rather be back at the snow covered sandy ranges at Camp MacKall being tortured in all kinds of demented ways by Doc Schneider and his cohorts.

“You're acting as if I'm fitting you for a shroud,” She mocked glared at me. “It's only a dress!”

“Only a dress.” I echoed, disgruntled. “In case you've missed it, I don't wear women clothing!”

“You run around in that skin tight catsuit and you don't have a problem with that.” She stuck some more pins in the cloth.

“That's because it's my uniform,” I primly replied. “I have to wear it, but that doesn't mean I like it! There's a reason way I cover it up with my parka and gloves every chance I get.”

“Okay,” She relented. “Maybe I am being a pushy broad, but you have such a figure I couldn't wait to see you really dressed up.”

“It's kinda my fault too.” I sighed. “I have a problem saying no to you. It does bother me because, while I do look like a living Barbie Doll, inside my head, I'm not.” I tapped my noggin.

“However, If it makes you happy then I'm willing.” I tried to graciously surrender.

“But you're way out of your comfort zone.” Sheila continued for me.

“At least you're not trying to put me in heels!” I began, but stopped as she looked guiltily away.

“Oh come on!” I protested looking at her standing on a stool just to get high enough to reach my shoulders. “I'm seven feet tall! Assuming you can even find a pair to fit me, I'll be almost two feet taller than you.”

The little minx glanced knowingly at my chest, suggesting she knew exactly where her head would be in relation to me. My golden face blushed coppery as she smirked.

What else could I do? I leaned forward and kissed her.

It still amazes me that as tough as I am as Halcyon, my lips and err, other delicate parts are so sensitive. I might look like an animated golden statue, but everything works just as if I was made of flesh. Doc's tests proved that whatever my skin was made of, under magnification it appeared to be the same as the metal, gold.

However, it was also alive, warm to the touch and, as Sheila had also proved, responsive. While I can honestly say I enjoy intimate relations with her more as Craig or under my new male codename of Kingfisher, Halcyon's sensations weren't bad either.

I suppose how long our kiss lasted was proof of that.

“Ouch!” Sheila broke off our lip-lock after sticking herself with one of the many pins holding this dress in progress together.

It was my turn to smirk since I was more or less completely safe from the hundreds of needle sharp pins, she'd been using to make this … clothing.

Her smoldering stare promised I would either really regret that kiss or enjoy revenge way too much.

“Heels.” She decreed. “Definitely something sexy.”

Sighing, I knew I'd been outmaneuvered yet again.

On the other hand, I had something prepared for her, a surprise. It'd been great that Doc let me have a few days of leave so I could spend Christmas with her. With the extra time needed to set up more testing for both of 'me,' I was set to join the first R course class at the beginning of the year.

“Honestly Craig.” He told me. “Having your two forms to compare against each other, we need time to design tests that can measure the differences as precisely as we can. We might not know what it means, but you're unique and that alone makes the data invaluable.

“So go!” He damn near pushed me onto the plane. “Enjoy the holidays with your girl. Just be ready for us to run you ragged when you get back. Between the new tests and starting classes, we're going to work you hard.”

So here I am, getting fitted for a damn dress of all things. What's more, it's for a Christmas Ball that the Re-birthers had arranged. Remembering the days of their youth, they had set up an old fashioned dance despite it lacking a big band.

It'd begun as something smallish, but it'd grown like crazy as even the younger generations became interested. I suspected a large part was just wanting to celebrate life while War and death surrounded us.

Sheila had talked me into this, but I was pretty sure she was making not one, but two outfits for Halcyon. One was for the dance, but the other was for Christmas Dinner which our Sha'leian, do I dare call them friends, are scheduled to attend.

Thanksgiving had turned out surprisingly well. All I can say is that I have hope. With the early winter, warehoused food stocks were just about gone. Blue Soylent had shouldered the burden of feeding a large portion of the world. Considering some of the bio-matter that was going into the vats, the old' Soylent Green is People,' would be a step up, cannibalism taboo or not.

Unfortunately, if it was her plan to put me in a dress for Christmas Dinner I was going to have to say no. Practical considerations, such as being prepared to fight for our lives meant a more conservative attire. On the other hand, she would undoubtedly make me pay for that. Who knows, I might enjoy it!

“Okay!” She announced cheerfully. “I'm finished. Let's get this off of you.”

Carefully with her help and wiggling out of the imprisoning cloth and pins, I was free!

That is until she ran her hands down my golden legs causing me to shiver and it wasn't from the cold. The aggressor while I was Halcyon despite my height difference, she stood tiptoed on her stool to reach my lips. Together, we celebrated life in our own way.

<><><><><>

Well, I sighed, at least my feet didn't hurt. The evening hadn't been the ordeal I feared, mostly because Sheila and my friends helped make it an enjoyable experience. Perhaps I didn't do much in the way of dancing, but that had more than a little to do with being over seven feet tall in those 'sexy' shoes Sheila had made me wear.

I'd learned she'd hit up one of those 3D printer shops just to get the damn things in my size. The rest was good old crafting gluing on rubber soles and putting in inner linings. That's why I said my feet didn't hurt since I'd cheated by using my flight to take up most of my weight.

It was also cool to be able to catch up on stuff with Paul, Dave, Janice and Libby. Like most the guys here, the gents were in uniforms with most the ladies wore dresses and gowns. Let's say it was just beyond strange to lump myself with the rest the girls.

Of course everyone had something to say about the one Sheila made for me. The deep sapphire blue matched that of Halcyon's hair and the green accents really went well with my eyes, or so all the ladies said. Honestly all I could say was it did look nice even if I did feel very much out of my element by a magnitude or two.

It was all more of that dissociative thing again. Now, I guess, I was just better at handling it. That was a good thing since this was one of the very rare occasions I was Halcyon and didn't have my uniform Skins on. A five-eight guy in the dress and heels of a seven feet tall woman just wouldn't be so pretty which meant freak outs and involuntary changes back weren't allowed!

I also did my best not to think too much about the 'undies' I had on underneath. Never in a million years have I ever imagined having anything like 'these' things on me. A beautiful girl like Sheila in 'those' things had often graced my lonely bachelor dreams, but never ever me!

So what surprises did she have waiting for me when we got back to her quarters?

Lingerie

“I can't do this.” The whisper escaped me.

“Yes, you can.” She breathed in my ear. “Let me show you.”

Guiding me in front of a strategically placed mirror, Sheila's gentle hands sensually unzipped the back of the dress. Letting it fall to the floor as she hugged me, I learned a lot more about why women really liked those silky things.

Waking up with her in my arms as the light came in though the curtains was a memory I tried my very best to burn into my brain. I'd changed back during the night. Even as unique as my case seemed to be, I couldn't stay changed all the time, but I was good for almost six hours now instead of just a couple. Doc had helped me a lot to get a handle on what I could and couldn't do despite his unconventional approach.

Watching Sheila sleep in my arms, I was more and more coming to terms with the weirdness in my life. For all that aspects of Halcyon still alarmed the hell out of me, not all of being a living, golden statue was bad.

“Merry Christmas.” She smiled looking up at me.

“Merry Christmas.” I was lost filled with all the things I felt for her.

“I'm the luckiest girl in the whole world.” Sheila shifted in my arms as she pitched her voice high like Betty Boop's.

“How's that?” I asked, enjoying the moment.

“I get to go to bed with a beautiful woman and wake up in the strong arms of a man.” Her lips met mine making me the luckiest man alive.

<><><><><>

Much later we found ourselves at Dean's again. This time we weren't as quite loaded down with food, but we still had more than enough to feed everyone. From Shelia I learned that he had far less trouble this time getting some kind of official sanction.

The whole Alien Warfare Center had been pumping reports like crazy. They even correctly called the current lull in Sha'leian incursions. Perhaps they did miss that Nano-bombing in Russia, but still it wasn't a bad call, since the report said no landings, but not so for all activity.

I was personally hoping that the method the Japanese used to stop the attack on them would be shared with all nations. Then again Russia was having to learn that the game had changed. No more could they count on their vicious winters to wear down their enemies. If they wanted help, they had to be willing to give aid to their neighbors without strings attached.

Eventually everyone would see the truth that a very smart man by the name of Benjamin Franklin once said. “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

The world had never faced a threat like the Sha'leian Invasion. Even with casualties that numbered past a billion there were still hold outs. Regional differences and old quarrels still ruled even as freezing cold blotted out the summer in the southern hemisphere. The question was how bad did things have to get to make people put aside those old hates for the sake of all our survival.

This time I didn't need to do a walk-around security check since Dean and Tamara were already here. Having help dragging in the groceries was nice. Okay, I did take a quick look around and check that the barn was clear enough to be used as hanger again.

Everything was good with no surprises. However, what did astonish me was Dean meeting me on the way back from the barn.

“I just wanted to talk to you.” He looked tired and had lost weight.

“Sure.” I shrugged. It would take a lot to spoil my present mood. Sheila and I had done nothing, but give each other sappy smiles all day.

“Just how bad are things, really?” Dean stared up at the snowy sky. It wasn't snowing hard, but it was snowing. The weather forecast called for significant accumulation, meaning we would be wise to leave early to be sure we could get back to base. Getting snowed in would not be good.

“I've been in testing the past month.” Merely thinking about some of Doc Schneider's diabolical trials made me want to go hide. “So I have no idea what the line units are like. If you're asking about the scuttlebutt, I can say it's not good.”

He nodded for me to go ahead.

“Recruiting has dropped off as we reach a balance between who has to build, feed, and take care of all of those who are fighting.” I began. “The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, DARPA, is still testing better infantry weapons, but the few I saw are still falling short. The crew served weapons worked best, but against the Sha'leian war machines they have to be damn well trained to work together or they just become casualties.

“The M-1 Abrams is still our best weapons system. A combination of regular manufacturing and 3D printing is keeping up with our need for M-1's, but we've just about run out of reconditioned rail-guns to arm them. We can make the guns themselves, but the automated ammo supply systems that keeps them in bullets are beyond us.

“I hear they're trying a kludged together system that uses a hopper that is loaded before-hand from the M-1's that do have working systems.” I didn't have to say what a disadvantage that was. Those damn guns burn though ammo like there was no tomorrow.

“On a hopeful note.” I forced a smile. “I hear the Brits have just about licked the collimator problem to give our captured plasma burners some useful range. Maybe not anywhere as good as those rail-guns, but still significantly out range their own burners. Of course, they would still need to be mounted on tanks given the power requirements, but we wouldn't have to worry about running out of ammunition. Plus we have quite a few in storage so we won't be running out any time soon.

“Less happy is the news overseas.” I frowned. “It's almost certain that sooner or later they will establish a beachhead, a permanent landing site. Most likely in a third world country near a large city. Most those nations simply don't have the manpower or equipment to fight them off.”

“I was afraid of that.” Dean sighed, explaining, as we stepped into the toasty kitchen. He told the girls. “Just explaining the civilian side of the problem.”

“You see for decades, the USA was the nation others looked to for help.” Dean and Tamara shared a look saying they had already talked about this. “This isn't true any longer. Our primary means of extending our power, the Navy, has been wrecked.”

I nodded. Unlike the aliens from the movies, the Sha'leians had sent a kinetic strike at every carrier group that was at sea. The ones at port remained untouched, but they couldn't launch any aircraft, but for helicopters, Harrier jump-jets and the few F-35's in service. It wasn't just the U.S. either. Everyone with a carrier or anything that looked like a fleet at sea got hit. Single ships had been ignored as long as they weren't carriers. The Marines had gotten slammed hard because their amphibious ships had large flight decks.

“With so much of our infrastructure damaged.” Tamara added, “Transportation of raw materials and sub-assemblies have become much more difficult. We are keeping up with our needs, but we're not the world's arsenal anymore. The days of endless 'aid' to the world has gone along with it.

“We might be holding on.” Dean sat down at the kitchen table, “But the world is losing this War. All Soylent Blue and other discoveries have done is to delay the inevitable.

“We tried a massed nuke strike using ICBM's that'd been refitted with quantum drives.” He held his head in his hands. “Not a one got close enough to cause damage. Their drones with with missiles and burners wiped out the bulk of the attack and the Sha'leian ship's own defenses took care of the rest.”

I nodded unsurprised. Ralt had suggested their ship was a warship. The fact they'd boosted their defense using the drones they'd manufactured here was an interesting fact to bear in mind.

“That hasn't been released to even the Intel Center yet.” Sheila glared at our host.

“With the constant overcast.” Dean explained. “Most people couldn't see it and with communications being harder these days, those that could haven't gotten the word out yet.

“Everyone who had anything to launch, participated.” Tamara added, sounding just as tired. “The Secretary of State pulled out all the stops to get anyone who could help as part of the operation.”

“No one knows just how many missiles were fired, because of malfunctions and dud birds, but it was our Sunday punch.” He reported.

“Okay, we tried for a knockout and we missed.” Sheila looked at both of them. “Why are you telling us now?”

“You remember the report you turned about two weeks ago about our Thanksgiving dinner?” Dean asked. “What do you figure the odds?”

“Ah.” I nodded getting part of the why. “Given the Away Team hit the lull on the nose, based on the same information, perhaps 40%.”

“At Thanksgiving, both Tash and Ralt showed they'd been studying Earth history.” I explained. “ Again and again successful attacks and offenses have tried to get the element of surprise by attacking during holidays and other unexpected occasions. This is the one time of year that the majority of the world celebrates in some fashion. Sure, China and India have huge populations and don't celebrate the month, but that will be something to watch out for during their holidays.

“So you think they're going to pull a Pearl Harbor?” Sheila asked sharply. She had after all been a young adult during the Day of Infamy.

“More like 'Battle of the Bulge'” I corrected her. “In the lull I'll bet they've been building up a huge reserve of forces, and I'll also lay odds they've worked out a way around our jamming their communications. Whether with more intelligent AI's or just plain bypassing the jammers somehow, they've got an advantage and they're going to make it count.”

“And the rest?” Dean took a deep breath, bracing himself for my answer. “How they'll pick landing zones that are difficult for us to respond?”

“I'm pretty sure they'll pick hard areas to access, but are still near large cities.” I explained. “They could've already had beachheads if they'd set down in desolate deserts, jungles or tundra. No one would've ever known until the army of 'bots came thundering out.

“Instead, we see them trying to take cities.” I shook my head at the illogical decision. “I think because they see built up areas as having access to easy raw materials. With landings in areas that our military have trouble getting to, like the French did in the Alps, they hope to have their cake and eat it too.

“That's why I'm really hoping Tash and Ralt make it today.” I took a deep breath. “That's a sign that perhaps, I'm wrong. I really want to be mistaken about this.”

“That's what the Intel Center thinks too.” Dean didn't look happy. “We put out the warning about a possible landing attempt, but we really couldn't give much information as to the details.”

“That does sound a little like Pearl Harbor.” I nodded. “They had warning, but didn't have any idea of what to expect.”

“Yeah.” He agreed. “After our relative intelligence success during Thanksgiving, the bosses are pushing for us to be more aggressive about getting information.”

“I would be against that.” Shaking my head, I thought that was a very bad idea. “We've done well to have as good rapport as we have. That could sour any future meetings.”

“That's the problem.” Tamara hugged herself, showing her distress. “The thought is going around that there won't be any humans here to have any more meetings.”

I glanced at Sheila, but she gave me this helpless little shrug confirming she didn't know any of this.

“So that's what this is about?” I made myself smile. “Letting me know you're going against your better judgment and changing our plans?”

Neither one returned my smile or my insight. Sheila's eyes told me she approved even before I'd opened my mouth.

“Let me make you a deal.” I was already regretting this despite knowing it was the right thing to do. “Keep to the original program and let's see what happens. If it truly looks as if we're going to come up dry, then we can push things along. Honestly, I don't think we're going to have to, but there it is. If you have a problem, I've taken the blame before when thing went wrong, and I'm willing to do it again. This is the right thing.”

They looked relieved to have this decision out of his hands although technically he and Tamara were the leaders of this dubious back channel diplomatic affair.

“Now that we've decided the fate of the world.” Sheila gave us her best sergeant's glare. “We have a Christmas Dinner to prepare. Let's get to it!”

<><><><><>

Standing outside watching the snow drift down, I pulled my parka closer to me. My life long addiction to reading had introduced me to military history. One saying that'd stayed with me was how tough it was waiting.

Somewhere up above those clouds an alien ship threatened everyone on the whole damn planet. Were they planning to give us yet another very unwanted holiday surprise? Did that missile storm of nukes change any of their decisions although it failed? Did it embolden them or make them cautious wondering what other tricks we had up our crafty monkey-boy sleeves?

Then there were the thoughts about me. Once I'd wondered just how could any version of me turn themselves into something like Halcyon. That form was so not me that I had not taken my Prometheus's Gift very well. On one hand, I got everything I wanted. Who wouldn't want to be able to fly, or be strong enough to lift cars one handed?

On the other, being a larger than life sexy, caricature of femininity more than made up for any of the advantages. It took the tough love of a no nonsense woman like Sheila to lead me down the path to adaption. I don't think I could ever love this, but perhaps I could get used to it.

Which bought up the point of Doc Schneider's diagnosis. Unlike every Prometheus's Child to date, I really did have my quantum pattern overwritten. Glancing at my hands, they were really those of the Craig Elder from that other universe. Considering some of the things Doc thinks might've caused that pattern to shoot out like a liquid under pressure to me, it was damn near a certainty that something terrible had happened.

Yet somehow that me, that Craig Elder, was still alive.

A disturbance in the white stuff falling from the sky pulled me from my introspection.

I smiled at the good omen. Sha'leian stealth tech was very good, but even it couldn't do anything about the snow that actually landed on the saucer nor the 'shadow' it made in the snowfall.

Opening the barn doors that I'd previously cleared of the mini-snowdrift, I waved them in. It seemed we might avoid any alien holiday surprise attacks after all. Crossing, my fingers I silently prayed to the wintery sky. Please.

However, while I waved with my right hand, the left had my thumb firmly over my Q-Box button. Sheila with her sewing-fu had hemmed a slit in my parka's pocket so I could reach it. We had been warned that a third Sha'leian was coming to dinner. I was hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

Damn the War and the paranoia it fostered!

When the landing ramp and doors unsealed, I let myself feel a bit more hope when a storm of invaders didn't pour out.

“Happy Holidays!” My open palm across my heart, I used the politically correct phase trying for tact.

Tash, stepping down the ramp, had a bag in one hand as he waved human style.

“Happy Holidays to you too, Quantum Warrior.” The pliable beak like mouth displayed the Sha'leian equivalent of a smile.

“Good to see you Tash!” I shook his extended hand.

“This is Kzon.” He introduced a parrot green Sha'leian.

“I am pleased to be here.” The newcomer held out his hand.

“Good to meet you too, Kzon.” Shaking hands, I took pains to get his name right. “Happy Holidays!”

“You too, Ralt. Happy Holidays!” I called to the Sha'leian soldier as he closed the saucer's hatch behind him.

“We weren't sure we would be able to make it.” He said as we exchanged salutes and hand shakes. “There was some recent excitement.”

“I can make some guesses.” That was one way of describing having hundreds of nukes fired at you. “Just learned about that myself, but I'm afraid the details from both of our viewpoints falls under those 'uncomfortable' tropics. However, that is the problem with being on the opposing sides of a struggle. For today there is no conflict between us.

“But, I have to say this.” I took a deep breath. “I can not guarantee your safety today. The cause of your 'excitement' has worried and pushed many into desperation. If you leave, I will understand why.”

The three Sha'leians exchanged words and looks.

“We will stay.” Tash very solemnly spoke for them, as Ralt and Kzon nodded. “For today there is no War between us.”

“Well then!” I grinned. “Our Christmas feast awaits!”

Dean's face mirrored my own relieved feelings as I and our Guests entered the kitchen.

“Happy Holidays!” were the heartfelt greetings of the day.

“We come bearing gifts.” Tash announced, happily.

Personally, I would've preferred the 'glad tidings' that they were leaving the Solar System, but all things considered I would take what I could get.

“We too have gifts.” Dean smiled as things kept more or less to our previously made plans. “Let's take turns.”

As gifts were exchanged, I took the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity.

“Do the Sha'leians have occasions that they give gifts?” I asked as everyone made themselves comfortable.

“We do.” Answered Ralt. “Although we have nothing like your Christmas. Our religious celebrations are more of group affairs. Our gift giving is reserved for individual accomplishments such as reaching ones majority or other successful achievements.

“We have similar events as well.” Nodding, I thought of birthdays, Bar Mitzvahs and graduations.

Tash's eyes widened as he opened the present containing a multi-tool knife I'd picked out.

“It's not quite as versatile as one of your Morphers, but it doesn't draw power either.” I happily enjoyed his curious expression as he unfolded one tool at a time.

It was Sheila's turn to be shocked as she unwrapped a gift from Tash, a set of Skins.

“I don't know what to say.” She stared at the priceless generation zero clothing.

“We modified the control box to appear like a Quantum Warrior's.” Ralt said, clearly saying he helped with the gift. “It has additional functions so that it can appear inconspicuous since wearing such appears to be a honor unique to the Pantheon Unit members.”

“It is and I thank you.” She replied gracefully.

Then it was my turn to be flabbergasted.

The bright red wrapping paper was more cellophane like than normal gift wrap, but that was okay. It was what was inside that blew my mind. It was a ten inch tablet, but one that had no manufacturer's logos. The cover had a keyboard on the inside and a hinged part where you could prop up the screen for use as a net-book.

The screen displayed 'Merry Christmas' in a traditional style illuminated with holly leaves and berries. Underneath it had a blinking green button that said, 'start.'

“It is safe.” Ralt addressed my paranoia.”Your present only has connectivity with a specific attachment. Neither we nor our ship can track or locate you using this device.”

Turning the tablet on its side I saw the USB port and a glance in the box revealed a dongle with an emblem of the old RKO pictures logo of the broadcast tower with lighting bolts emitting from its top.

Not sure of just what I was getting myself in for I pressed the 'start' button as everyone looked over my shoulder.

There was the usual rolls of icons, but the names caught my eye: The Library of Congress, Project Gutenberg, and most of all Internet Archive.

“Holy...” Touching that Icon, an HTML search box appeared.

“Yes, Craig.” Ralt was enjoying my shock. “It is an archived copy of your Internet taken before it unfortunately crashed.”

Okay he left out that his people were the ones doing the crashing, but this just wasn't possible.

“This can't possibly hold a copy of the whole Net!” I replied. “It would take more memory than I can even imagine.”

“Well,” Tash gave a little. “We did have to condense things a little doing away with multiple entries and postings of data. All told it was only about 12,000 petabytes. It should be considerably faster since we indexed everything. Computers are our specialty.”

“There is one other file you might find of interest.” Said Kzon, who'd stayed mostly silent up to now. “Go back to the main menu and look for Sha'leian Library.”

At the very suggestion that name conjured up, I thought Dean was going to leap across the sofa and wrestle me for the tablet.

Just like Tash had said, this thing was lightning fast. You touch a button, it happens, no delay, with super crisp graphics that put everything I'd ever seen to shame.

“When I was told about the giving of gifts, I didn't know what to do.” Kzon explained.

“Don't feel like you're alone.” Sheila laughed. “Many of us humans feel the same way. That's why there are last minute shoppers.”

“But I am an avid reader as well as being good with languages.” The green Sha'leian continued. “So I translated many of my favorite books and added them to the device.”

“Thank you so very much.” I felt like I'd just found the Rosetta Stone and it'd been gift wrapped. We needed this so very much. Any clue what made our guests tick were priceless.

Treating the tablet like it was made of fragile crystal, I put it back into its padded box. Even if they'd lied and it did have a 'backdoor' this thing was beyond priceless.

“When we were talking during our last visit I mentioned the internet.” Ralt explained. “It was rude of me since you no longer had access. I hope this gift helps?”

Dean, Tamara, and Sheila's face had my same expression, shocked, awed, and disbelief.

“It most certainly does.” Putting it to the side, I made certain it would be safe. “And thank you.”

Deans' face as he got a identical tablet was priceless! I thought he was going to jump and start doing the happy dance in front of us all.

Then it was my turn again. In the most garish green wrapping paper you ever saw, I found a new Batman belt complete with wallet!

“I remember how you lost yours in our first meeting.” Tash's pliable yellow beak smiled. “This material is the same as your uniform and comes with a separate control for its functions. This gives a much greater range of functions besides the basic ones you're using now.”

“Thank you, Tash.” I smiled back. I never did find that damn wallet, and had been making do with a new one purchased out of the Base Exchange.

To make a long story short, each of us received a set of Skins and a Sha'leian tablet with Kzon's library. I thought Dean was going to get up and dance with his new tablet, while Tamara was just simply in overload. As for Sheila I definitely saw the mischief in her eyes as she examined her Skins.

As for our Guests they were damn hard to shop for. Just what do you get friendly alien invaders for Christmas?

The multi-tool was my attempt since, the one I carried was the best thing I'd ever brought myself. It'd saved my bacon on more than one occasion. Sheila found a collection of novelty ties featuring Marvin the Martian, and Dean gifted them with an assortment of brain teasers. Tamara had found each of them fancy watches from somewhere and had added some adjustable bands given the physiology of their arms.

“I think its time for dinner.” Sheila decreed as she and Tamara headed off to the kitchen to bring the food to the table.

Meanwhile Dean and I were trying not to chuckle at the Sha'leians in their neckties and wrist watches. He'd volunteered to show them how to tie a Windsor knot. My multi-tool gift had simply been attached to their belts as they should be.

We'd just gotten everything to the table and about to sit down when all our Guests froze. Startled they looked at each other speaking in rapid bursts of their own language.

“We have to go.” Ralt said, gathering his gifts. “The recall has sounded.”

“Get on the radio!” I said to Dean, as they left out the door.

Then I turned to Sheila who was already hustling, putting the food away.

“I'm on it!” She drafted Tamara to help.

“I'll help them get airborne.” Running out the door, I beat our Guests to the barn.

“We're sorry.” Tash began as Kzon and Ralt hurried inside the saucer.

“Nothing to apologize for.” I gave him that Sha'leian salute. “You have your duty as I have mine. Now get inside while I force these doors all the way open.”

“Farewell, Quantum Warrior.” He waved before the hatch sealed.

“God's speed.” I replied, wondering if this was the last time we would meet in peace.

The saucer edged out carefully, but as soon as it was clear, Ralt, the pilot, threw caution to the wind, going hell for leather straight up.

Nearly blown off my feet, I turned and ran for the house.

Sheila had thrown most of the prepared feast into the fridge, but what could travel went into her Caddie. It went fast since she'd expected to have little time after dinner because of the need to leave quickly to avoid being snowed in. As always she'd been prepared.

I feared everything from a kinetic strike to F-35's on a bomb run. It was vital we get out of here fast.

“MacDill isn't aware of anything, but the word is out.” Dean reported as we got moving.

Not more than ten minutes later we were on the road. I had to briefly change to Halcyon to brute force the cars to the main road, but that went quick.

The drive back to base while not a nightmare was stressful as hell. It was the not-knowing and waiting that was tough. Sheila leading in her Caddie used her decades of experience in driving in wintery stuff to plow a path.

Only once did I have to do the Halcyon thing again, but that hardly slowed us. Immediately, I changed back as to not accumulate a cool-down. I had to think about conserving my strength. There was the real possibility that I would be thrown into battle, still in testing or not.

The base was on full alert when we entered which was a sure sign something bad had gone down. I hate it when I'm right.

As soon as we hit doors we got the bad news. They had dropped on Asheville, NC which was right in the middle of a major storm. Just freaking perfect.

<><><><><>

“Here” Sheila set a plate of food in front of me. “We will figure out a way.”

“I sure hope so.” They picked one hell of a spot to sit down. Early reports say they're using the various national park visitor center's parking lots as landing pads along the Blue Ridge Parkway. None of that is good ground for our best weapon against them, tanks.

“Just to show they can learn they're using drones to take out bridges and attack anything that's moving. On those mountain roads, it's that shooting-fish-in-a-barrel thing.” I rubbed my eyes. “That explains why they had so many of the damn things to defend against that nuke strike.

“I'd wondered if our dinner thing had somehow triggered this.” Taking a bite of the stuffing, I made myself savor the taste. This was likely to be my last meal of real food for a long time.

“However, I think it was instead that attempted nuke strike that did the trick.” I stared at a map of the area. “Perhaps they thought revealing just how many drones they'd built tipped their hand. Be that as it may letting Tash and Ralt attend our dinner as scheduled did keep us from sounding the alarm any earlier.”

“I don't think they knew.” Sheila ignored the military public display of affection rules as she rubbed my shoulders. “Maybe the decision hadn't been made yet when they started on their way.”

“Could be.” I admitted. “Despite all we've learned about them, they are still aliens, so it could go either way. On the other hand, I'm inclined to say our friends had every intention of keeping the peace and their word.

“But that doesn't help us with this mess.” The storm is making nearly impossible to get people into the area, but it isn't slowing their 'bots in the least. It seems they are using a new tactic of using drones to transport 'bots in air assault tactics. They've set rail-gun heavy detachments on all the surrounding peaks and choke points. None of our air assets can get close.”

What I didn't say was how worried I was about our guys on the ground. Dear fearless leader, General Benson, was not one to patiently pick apart a puzzle. The second he thought he had an opening he would be moving.

South Carolina and North Carolina National Guard units were responding which included an entire brigade of heavy armor, the 218th. The 82nd Airborne out of Ft. Bragg was reported riding up with the NC NG 252nd armor regiment.

I just knew Benson would try a Patton counter-attack in the Ardennes, but this time it was the bad guys who were entrenched.

And I couldn't do a damn thing about it.

Anything not grounded by the weather was being impressed into action at Asheville. So I wasn't going back to Camp Mackall anytime soon although I was officially assigned to Pantheon Team Alpha. The training unit wasn't even to suppose to be active until after New Years.

Sheila gave me a hug before going to check on the latest reports. That left me all the time in the world to glare at the plastic Christmas tree sitting in one corner of the office.

“Merry Christmas.” I laid my head on the desk.

<><><><><>

New Years Eve

“You know this is F'ing insane don't you?” The F-35 crew chief checked my modified and jury-rigged parachute harness fitted with suspension lugs.

Air Force Captain Doug, 'Da' Bus', Ingebretson silently nodded his agreement.

“You just get me there close and fast enough, Captain.” I was glad I'd emptied myself out earlier. Otherwise I would be soiling myself, and wouldn't that just ruin the image of the crazed Pantheon bad-ass.

Assuming the position on the munitions cradle never meant for a person, the suspension hooks engaged the lugs on my harness. The chief checked my helmet and air-mask as well as the auxiliary oxygen system crammed into a modified drop tank.

At my thumbs up, the bay doors closed, carrying Halcyon, me, inside the barely large enough internal compartment. I was imprisoned in darkness.

Every moment I was cursing a certain Army General and every Sha'leian that'd ever been born.

Feeling us taxiing, I tried to think of anything, but this mad plan I myself had suggested. Okay, I'd only wanted an aircraft to get me up to speed so I could zoom by all the rail-gun emplacements. Unfortunately, after a lot brainstorming the only thing that looked like it might work was something so absolutely bug-house nuts, even the Special Forces guys looked at me as if I'd a screw loose. Hell, by my agreeing to this insanity, they were right!

“Standby, I'm lighting the burner in five, four, three, two, one.” 'Da' Bus' warned over the cobbled together intercom that used the bay's normal data linking with its payload.

Even as Halcyon, I grunted as the harness grabbed into me as the quantum drive drove us forward.

Sheila going to kill me.

<><><>

Boxing Day December 26

“We've lost contact with the Eastern US Quick Reaction Task Force Command Post.” The very tired looking acting commanding general told us. “Remnants of The 218th Brigade have reported that the assault on the enemy's beachhead failed. The 82nd is holding Asheville, but determined interdiction by enemy air assets forced the majority of our armor to withdraw.

“It appears that their autofacs are resupplying the drones with missiles as they perform sweeps across the entire region.” The General's face was haggard. “First of all there were not one, but three T-Rex class command tanks which means this beachhead had much greater numbers than their previous attempts. They also had significant reserve forces which targeted our jamming capability.”

I looked at the mixed matched group of Special Forces, Pantheon, and other military officers at this briefing. Technically I was temporarily attached to Team Epsilon again, or I should say what was left of it. Athena and one other were only the survivors which was the reason why we knew as much as we did about what we faced.

The numbers clicked with me. Each command tank controlled one hundred 'bots and drones. With the jamming out, the Sha'leians were directly controlling that fourth group which was raising hell all over the area of operations.

It seemed, both Dean and I were right. They did take out the jamming and did make more use of their AI's, if only building and making more use of them instead of making them all more capable.

Athena being a mixture of strong woman and speedster had dragged out a badly wounded teammate. Standing by herself, she looked beat. Hell, we all looked beaten. Team Epsilon was a team only in name. Only Athena and I even knew each other, plus none of us had trained together. Delta and Gamma Teams were the only other ones who were close enough to respond, and Rangers from Ft. Benning in Georgia were here too. Speaking of which, the 3rd Infantry Division was on the move from Ft. Benning and Ft. Stewart also in Georgia.

The problem was time.

Whatever losses General Benson's attack had inflicted on the Sha'leian, they would be back to full strength in short order with those autofacs. The fact of the drones being so aggressive with their missiles suggested that was a done deal.

Just one hundred 'bot's and drones needed a brigade or better strength to put them down. With four times that, along with weather conditions and terrain, the Sha'leians had created a meat grinder waiting for us to insert selected parts of our anatomy.

Then they would move forward taking another city leaving behind a command tank and its 'bots as garrison. They would expand, gobbling us up like a virus.

Then there was me. I could take out those command tanks, but there was the matter of the pain. Maybe those plasma burners and rail-guns did no lasting damage, but the pain from them wore me out. With this defense in depth the Sha'leians had adopted, I would never make it.

Maybe Kingfisher was tougher and had powers, but tests had proved I was vulnerable to baseballs, and no doubt rail-guns as well. If only there was some way I could get in fast enough to bypass all those defenses.

My flight speed as only about 200 mph. Doc's educated guess was that I pushed against gravity, falling in the direction I wanted to go. With my slick Skins and tutoring by jump masters for the correct posture, I'd learned to get the most out of it just like those wing-suit folks who could reach similar speeds.

But if I could get boosted even faster I could zoom right by those rail-gun emplacements guarding the peaks. My flight would let me maneuver so I could fly Nap of Earth, not letting all those guns get a shot at me.

The briefing ended and everyone clustered around the map looking for a solution to the Gordian Knot of the alien defenses. I had my own plan.

“Athena.” I addressed my team leader. “I have an idea.”

<><><><><>

“Coming up on the release point.” 'Da' Bus' informed me.

The conversation between the Air Force guys and the Special Forces Jump-Masters might've humorous in different circumstances. The Zoomie's were trying to figure out what munition I was closest to in order to program when I should be 'jettisoned' while the Jump-Masters were working out the details for a parachute drop.

In truth I was neither, which meant both had to kinda meet in the middle with their best guesses. There were no time to test this. The All American Division and what part of the 218th which had stubbornly stayed behind were pulling a bloody-minded house by house defense of Asheville.

Still a lightly armed division even with the line airborne troopers humping bull-pup .50 cal. Barretts, multi-shot 40mm grenade launchers and every anti-tank weapon they could carry, they were seriously out of their weight class. They did what American soldiers with their backs to the wall always did. They adapted, improvised and when that failed, they died fighting for their country so their loved ones would be safe.

About the only testing we did was Halcyon holding her breath with a plastic bag over my head so I couldn't cheat. At an hour Athena threw in the towel, but still insisted I have oxygen available to me until the very last moment.

“Affirmative.” I replied, disconnecting and securing the aux O2 hose. Grasping my harness, so my arms wouldn't flap about, I was careful not to damage the straps. “Prepared for drop.”

“Opening bay doors in five.” He began the countdown.

After being trapped in that dark, tight space, the pure shock of being swung outward on the opening doors had me mewing like a lost kitten. Snow and ice from the supposedly weakening storm pinged off my helmet like a sandblaster. With Halcyon's emerald eyes I could see the white covered trees whipping by as I hung suspended under the jet.

“Ready for release?” 'Da' Bus' gave me one last chance to chicken out.

I heard the unsaid, 'No one would blame you if you did.'

“Just make damn certain, nobody is late to the party.” How in the world I kept from stuttering is beyond me. “It's going to be awfully damn lonely out-there all by myself.”

“I'll drag 'em by the ear myself if I have to.” 'Da' Bus' replied, making a promise. “In five, four, three, two, one, release.”

I dove to clear the F-35 and its airflow. 'Da' Bus' banked away hard as we neared the range of the Sha'lean rail-gun anti-aircraft umbrella. His bay doors were snapping shut to 'cloak' again with his plane's designed stealth.

The Air Force had learned the hard way, who had air superiority over Asheville and it wasn't them. The Army weren't the only ones waiting for me to wreck those command tanks. The Fly Boys were just itching for some payback and they had plenty of Navy and Marines buddies who were ready to help them collect.

Slapping the harness release, and helmet strap, both went flying away lost in the darkness. All I had on was a pair of goggles for my eyes leaving my Skins to cover the rest of me from head to toe. My Q-Box rode at the small of my back under my Skins since I lacked even my new Batman belt this time. I was as aerodynamically slick as it was possible for a human body to be.

Zooming silently in the darkness, I could still see with my emerald eyes. It was both exhilarating and scarier than anything I'd ever done. I'd been dropped as fast as we dared with the worry being how quickly I could maneuver so close to the ground, at night, in a blizzard.

The first turn got cut closer than I liked causing snow to fly from the top of a tall pine. The next twist was a little better, but that was when it got interesting. I dropped down low over a river on a straight away, then another cut to the right.

A line of trees exploded into splinters as the first guarding 'bot found me. My Skins repelled the damage, but now the clock was running. The whole time I'd been slowing. The laws of drag and aerodynamics weren't subject to the physics my Prometheus's Gift could ignore or break. At the most I was traveling a few hundred mph, but drones were supersonic.

Keeping my posture as aerodynamically perfect as I could was my best defense. Fly baby fly!

More tracks of destruction reached out for me and no few were stopped by my gift from Tash. The upgraded Skins hardened and cushioned the impact of the glancing shots. The others not so much. The red hot poker sensation of being hit made me wobble drunkenly in the air, but single-minded I held my course.

The missile that hit enveloped me in burning fire, even though I knew it'd done no real damage to me. As a matter of fact it helped as my energy absorption thing used it to slag a stream of rail-gun projectiles causing the melted rounds to splash like hot rain instead of hit like deadly hammers.

It still hurt, but my energy thing took most of the sting out of it leaving the cooling metal to fly away in the wind. I was even able to ride the shock wave rather than going out of control.

Then the drone flew right next to me firing both plasma burners. My goggles flared as they vaporized bathed in the inferno. A trick I learned from Doc and his sadistic tests, I willed myself to drink in the energy which helped with the pain. Then I took a allegorical or perhaps a metaphysical mouthful was the best way to describe it.

I squirted it back at the damn thing.

My belched-up plasma ball took it dead center. With a brilliant flash, it exploded!

Again I juggled sucking in the power, staying on course and trying not to run into anything.

More proof they were being directly controlled, additional drones zoomed up, but these didn't shoot at me. They'd seen what happened, and tried a different tactic. Slamming into me, three sandwiched and shoved me towards the snowy landscape not all that far below.

Knowing how to manage my 'power' a little better I 'drank' most of it, but left out just enough. Punching the first machine, my glowing fist sank into it like hitting a soft pillow. Remembering my first encounter with these things, I grabbed what I could by touch, and pulled. With a loud 'pop' it lurched away spewing smoke and sparks to impact into the snowy mountain.

Drone Two got punched in the sensors as hard and as fast as I could. Not being 'energized' meant my fist wasn't glowing and that made it take more effort, but the result was the same. After I'd made an opening, it was grab bag time again. Maybe it didn't blow up, but it just blindly breaking away was good enough for me since the last of the trio could be avoided.

Or so I thought because the drone twirled around in front trying to slow me. When I saw all the 'bots on the ridges above me readying their rail-guns, I knew why. I was being invited to a turkey shoot and I was the turkey!

However, that was the thing about push/ pulling. If you worked your judo right you could get the other guy do all the work for you. Perhaps it was more the way my powers worked than skill, but a quick twist had the drone pushing me in the direction I wanted to go. Plus, since I knew it was going to happen, I kicked off against the 'bot going even faster.

With my fight with the drones, I'd lost track of exactly where I was, but I did see the tall commo tower of a T-Rex tank. That was good enough as I arrowed right for it.

As far as Doc could tell, once I 'ate' the energy, it gave me some temporary benefits like stronger, faster and other things we hadn't been able to nail down yet. The entire 'holding' it meant I glowed with the power and had even learned how to spit it out, like with that plasma ball for short distances. The downside was 'holding' it made getting hit by the energy hurt more plus the more I 'held' the more it hurt.

However there was a downside to 'eating' it too. Once done, it was unavailable for offense or defense. The glowing thing and all the advantages were over. So what if I didn't have oomph to make the frigging thing blow up because they weren't obliging enough to shoot the right stuff at me. I would kick it to bits if I had to!

“Argh” I grunted as my old 'friend' Drone Three rammed into my back.

Its weapon pods snapped out which along with its superior speed had me tapped like a bug on a windshield. The intent was still the same. Make me a sitting duck for the command tank's rail-gun heavy escorts.

Like Hell!

I twisted around like a mad wet cat, tearing into the Drone. All that energy I'd 'drank' had significantly supercharged me. My fingers dug deep into its metal hide as I ripped off an armored plate slinging it aside like a Frisbee.

Unlike Drone Two, I didn't need just to cripple this machine. I needed a shield and a fire-boat all in one. My fury had me half inside my enemy like a shade tree mechanic inside the open hood of an old Ford.

Arcs from its power plant were running all over me, as I tried to 'drink' deep and still multitask my plan while keeping track of my position. There was a lurch as the drone's quantum engine died, but I used my own flight to keep us airborne.

That was about the time the command tank put two and two together. A tsunami of death flew though the snowy night as its escorts went to full auto.

Having one hell of a Slim Picken's moment just like his Major T. J. 'King' Kong, I let out a 'Yea Hah!' as the shot to hell drone and me slammed into the command tank.

Threatened with the drone's wreckage and unfired missiles, the unit fired its own twin main plasma batteries. The explosion, munitions cooking off, and last by but not least me, blew a clear hole in the stormy clouds vaporizing metal, mountain, and mere frozen water with equal disdain.

I woke in a tangled mass of burning pines, my energy charge aura still glowing bright. The mushroom cloud was still climbing into the winter sky making this weird doughnut shape as its great heat burned the colder clouds away.

Golden cleavage was plain visible despite my Skins doing the best they could to re-clothe me. From the now very flat plateau, I hoped the great state of North Carolina wouldn't be too mad at me for taking a couple of inches off the top of one of their mountains.

Climbing to my feet, my whole body was just this side of being unbearable. It felt like an all over, very bad, itchy, burning sunburn. I could deal with it. First order of business was to 'inhale' more of that energy since my footsteps were hissing as they hit the granite of the shortened mountain.

Signs of the destruction were all around. Burning trees laid flattened, facing away from the blast. Twisted and wrecked 'bots littered the mountain slopes. A bizarre volcano lahar like mudflow from the melted snow flowed downward complete with more Sha'leian wreckage.

Couching behind a smoldering limbless 'bot torso, I scoped out the situation while buying time for my Skins to regenerate to the point of providing useful protection again. It wasn’t good. Instead of coming down on one of the ends formed by the flattened triangle of the three Sha'leian landing zones, I'd come down on the one in the center. The end would've let me take the next without the last one able to provided supporting fire. With me in the center I had the worst possible situation where both could shoot at me without fear of hitting the other.

The thought that maybe I'd been herded here entered my mind. At the most I had only seconds before the machines were able to target me again. Then I saw the really bad news.

The torso I was hiding behind had a black drip running down it. Checking my hand, I saw I'd left a black hand print on the wrecked 'bot. Halcyon eyes, however, revealed the whole truth. Like watching a time-lapse film of it rusting, the machine was disintegrating before my eyes.

Wide-eyed, I stared down at my kneeling legs seeing a black pool beginning to form underneath me.

Standing in alarm, I'd only had enough time to cuss before, a belt-sander like road-rash from hell grabbed me in a fist of pain.

“Aw shit!” I cussed. Screw the 'bot. I was melting!

They'd nano-bombed their own site!

Their nano-tech hadn't, in the past, been programmed to attack living tissue, but then again Halcyon wasn't exactly made of living tissue.

Gold dribbled down my arms along with blue streaks from my sapphire hair. An instant trench appeared cut into the mountain's summit by a stream of rail-gun fire as the 'bots searched for me. Stumbling as best as I could off the exposed high ground, I tumbled a short way down the furthest slope from my attackers.

Sure enough more lines were drawn into the new summit from the surrounding peaks. Feeling too much like Frosty the Snowman on a hot summer day. I really had only one choice. If I was wrong, it wouldn't matter much, I would still be dead.

I changed back.

One immediately advantage was with my smaller size, my distressed Skins covered me a little better. That was a good thing. Another was the golden ooze was gone, although it took me a few moment to recognize that the pain was gone. The aftershocks of it had lingered after the fact.

Alive was good, but now I'd lost my biggest advantage. Plus my Skins were still under assault by the nanites. A probing hand found I was bald as a cue ball missing even eyebrows. Strange the things you can worry about during a crisis.

It was still hot enough for me to 'inhale' the energy coming at me. The rocks and slagged parking lot glowed red with heat even to my normal eyes. That actually made me feel better as the power flowed into me.

Logic said it was time to abort. I got one of three, but they had made a serious attempt at killing me. Not knowing how big of an area this 'trap' covered I couldn't risk changing back. Hell, the odds were I couldn't, given the 'cool-down' thing.

On the other hand, there were people depending on me. Plus there was an entire city fighting for its life. I wasn't sure what I could do as Kingfisher, but we would see. Lifting off, I kept to the air, hoping that would keep my Skins in one piece for a little longer. At the very least it helped me move across the difficult terrain.

Somewhere in all the excitement my Q-Box had been either smashed, melted or disassembled. That was why my Skins had turned back to their default black. That was yet another sign my brains had not fully come back online.

It was dark as hell out here, but I made my way as best as I could towards the closest area. I hoped it'd been hit hardest by the blast. Each and every advantage I could get was priceless.

I was really wondering where all the drones were. It was possible they were searching for me further away. It'd been a miracle I hadn't been blown to the next mountain. Also perhaps my power thingie was interfering with their sensors. I was continuing to work on pulling in all the energy I could. Those medical scans of Doc's did fail, so maybe radar and other things would as well. Another item to talk to Doc Schneider about, if I survived.

It didn't take long for nature to take great offense at that explosion from hell. Those damn missiles the drones carry pack a wallop and a dozen of them went off at once. First rain and then ice with snow whipped in turning the night even darker. I kept to the edges of the still glowing hot spots hoping the heat would help hide me from infrared and/or other night-vision systems.

The hissing, popping, and cracks as the surface cooled as the sleet and snow pelted down covering up what little noise I made hovering along. I made short rushes from cover to cover, each time hoping I wasn't seen. Time wasn't on my side. Soon, the Pantheon and Special Forces teams, as well as the Air Force would be making their own attacks.

I was running late and behind schedule.

The thunder in the distance signaled the 3rd Infantry Division had begun its drive to relieve Asheville. The crossing to the other mountain was nerve wracking as I felt driven to take more chances trading safety for speed. The cold was getting to me because my Skins had so many outright holes and thin spots, but I thought the 'melting' had stopped.

I'd just begun working my way up up the slope when the air was full drones flying over. Burying my body in the snow covered rocks and trees, I prayed for them to just go on by. Wondering just what was happening, I hurried to the top.

Peeking though the rocks and trees, I had my answer. There were 18 of them in three neat rows of six. In a low revetment, stacks of missile pods stood ready as they were reloaded by the autofac's worker 'bots.

The timing made sense. These were the machines that'd been harassing the whole area. More than likely they'd just come from shooting up the 3rd Infantry Division and now were here to reload at their forward airfield.

A few hundred feet away the T-Rex class tank sat in another revetment surrounded by its ever present guards. Off to one side partially hidden by all the activity, the autofac had half buried itself looking for raw materials as more new made missiles rolled out the back.

I had a so very evil thought, but the question was did I have enough 'bang' left to do the job? All the while I'd kept some of my energy in my 'mouth.' Just like holding, something in your real mouth, it was uncomfortable after awhile and there was a huge urge to either swallow or spit it out.

I had no idea if it was even in range given how clumsy it was 'spitting' energy at a target. However, if I could pull it off, well, think of an aircraft carrier packed with planes reloading on the deck. It would be glorious!

And it would let me get closer to that T-Rex. I didn't dare hope for more. The other problem was if I was going to do this I had to do it now or the opportunity would be missed.

Going low, I got as close as I dared. Using my finger like a gun, I aimed at one of the conical warheads.

“Bang!” I whispered.

A not so bright ball of light shot from me. There was a bright flash as it impacted then nothing.

“Oh Crap!” I used my flight to keep me on the deck as I backed out fast as every 'bot and drone on the mountain looked at me!

I'd just scooted down the crest of the slope when the first explosion cooked off. It wasn't one huge boom like that last command tank, but a lot of smaller ones. However, that was only relative. Each one of those missiles were powerful enough to kill a tank, but being quantum motor powered, there wasn't any propellant to join the party. Not that it was needed. The whole summit was lit up like an enormous string of firecrackers was going off!

Making myself move, I heard the crashing of 'bots though the trees I'd just left. Stepping up my speed, I did my best not to run into trees or rocks since my belly was scrapping the ground.

Feeling like a submariner, I 'surfaced' up to check the lay of the land. Unlike humans in this situation there was no firefighters or support personnel to help. There were burning drones all over the place and more a few 'bots too. The command unit looked fine, but all its guard 'bots were over where I'd fired my golden 'BB.'

My target was wide open, but I didn't have a damn thing that could hurt it.

Submerging again into underbrush and staying low I silent glided to as close as I could get before committing myself. Racking my brains for a solution all I came up with was the bad and the real bad.

Kingfisher might have powers, but he didn't hold a candle to Halcyon. He, I, was flesh and blood, but she for all of her outrageous appearance was metal and about the toughest thing to kill even Project Prometheus had ever heard of which was saying a whole lot.

The long and short of it, I had to absorb something in order to shoot it back, but trying to do it might kill me. At the very least, I could end up crippled or maimed. What I had in my favor was 'drinking' in as much as I energy as I could earlier, so I was about as strong and fast as I could get. Plus my Skins had made headway in repairing themselves.

I could beat the pants off just about any normal human including those given super-soldier treatments. Kick the ass out of a big bad T-Rex, not so much. Glancing up, the carnage I'd caused had just about run its course and the command tank was getting its act together. It was now or never.

I used my flight to launch myself to my feet running right at the impregnable object.

Both of its main batteries smoothly rotated to bear on me. Without hesitation they shot out arcs of 25,000 degree C plasma closing in to roast me in the crossfire. I used my flight to throw myself underneath the beams while trying to pull all the power from them that I could.

Part of one of the beam just came near my leg, and it folded under me. Crying with the pain, I rolled next to the revetment that protected the tank. I was under the guns. A quick check seemed to say my leg seemed okay, but damn did it hurt.

The protective wall of dirt and rocks shifted as the big machine pivoted on its tracks. It was going after me the old fashion way, crush me under its tracks. Rolling to the side, I aimed at the top of the tall commo tower amidships.

My plasma ball zapped the sphere containing its transmitter. I was hoping if I disabled its command and control, it would be less able to send for and get help.

“Crap!” I was pelted with razor sharp shards as a 'bot's rail-gun missed by inches, but only because I was too close to the tank for a clean shot.

I limped, ran, flew to the other side of the tank only to be sideswiped by its fender as it reversed direction.

Knocked back to the ground, I fired at the round dome of a secondary communications array on top the nearest turret.

It popped like a soap bubble, but I found myself looking down the wrong end of a plasma burner's emitter.

“Shit!” I hissed, rolling towards the tank again to the dubious safety of being under-the-guns. There the tank's weapons couldn't depress enough to target me.

The near miss of the blast had me again patting out flames that weren't there. It sure felt like I was on fire. However, that meant my mojo was recharged again.

A 'bot skidded around the corner, as the tank sped away trying for separation. I popped a plasma ball at the 'bot and then one at the retreating tank's last secondary commo unit.

Proud of myself, I was going to dive for the safety of the revetment when it disappeared in a salvo of rail-gun projectiles. I had just enough time to see the tank's rear turret swing at me. I tumbled and fell behind the 'bot I'd just shot. The plasma washed over its carcass making my Skins hiss from the heat.

“Drink it in.” I muttered to myself past the pain. The withering heat had the 'bot's metal hide that was as tough as any armored vehicle, melting like an icicle being hit by a blowtorch.

My flight pushed me out of the way of the slagged machine. Using all my remaining energy I'd built up I fired a sustained plasma blast right into its ass.

It rolled forward a few more paces before lurching to a stop.

“Thank Gawd!” I muttered, trying to get to my feet before I got attacked again. I took one long moment to draw as much energy as I could from the ruined 'bot I'd covered behind. That was as much time as I dared.

Flying only inches from the ground, I departed, only one more to go. Letting my flight carry my weary body, I slipped away into the darkness. Using the mountain's slope, gravity sped me towards my last objective and not a moment too soon. Though the tilted and abused pine trees I saw the command tank's tall tower, with its ruined commo dome, collapse on itself.

Nanites!

This time I'd gotten out fast enough. However, just to be certain I desperately piled on the speed, whipping around and though the trees with reckless abandon. I might run into a tree, but the threat behind me would absolutely damage my Skins which was the only thing helping keep me alive.

I ended up at the mountain's base more or less in one piece, but tired, so very sore, and weary beyond belief. Within me I felt all that energy I'd 'eaten' but it was a little like the alertness that came with caffeine. It came from outside of me, propping me up. Sure I was awake, but the exhaustion was as much mental as physical.

It was like feeding a sleepy drunk coffee. You got an awake drunk.

Huddled on a rock, I took the time which I didn't have to spare to take a deep breath. Doing the best I could to clear my heart and soul as well as my mind, I gathered my second wind or maybe it was the third. I'd lost count.

I thought of Sheila with her no nonsense smile as she forced me to make a promise I'd known then that I might not be able to keep. The distant thunder of the Battle for Asheville gave me my bearings. With as much as will I had left, I lifted off flying Nap of Earth for my last objective. I had promises to keep.

Actually it wasn't hard finding the right mountain. The Air Force planes and Army artillery had thrown one hell of a hammer and anvil style attack at the last redoubt. Special Forces teams had carefully aimed throwaway laser designators at every target they could spot.

Sure the second those lasers had remotely flashed on, the Sha'leian 'bots responded. But this wasn't the SF teams first rodeo if you know what I mean. The lasers were placed so they weren't easy targets and a great many missiles, shells, and anything else they could throw, were thundering down our invaders' throat. Perhaps the kitchen sink didn't make it, but everything else sure did.

The T-Rex, however, demonstrated just why it was so formidable. Targets were identified and assigned a priority. Then the 'bots and drones were assigned their targets. Hundreds, if not thousands if counting the sub-munitions, of weapons filled the air. Then they began to disappear in a careful calculated orchestra of destruction. Rail-guns engaged first with plasma burners taking out the leakers.

Not every missile was stopped, nor did the tank's forces escape causalities, but the mighty wave of destruction was blunted. What it did do was cut off and isolate the rest of the Sha'leian forces still in Asheville. Those units had lost their command and control due to me. Now without the coordinated support that last tank could've provided, those 'bots, now dependent only on their own programming, got hit in the rear by the Pantheon Teams.

That is if the plan was working.

From what I could see it was … more or less. The air strikes and artillery were supposed to have taken out the uncoordinated 'bots of all three strongholds after I'd disabled their command units. Instead, that massive hammer had just the one remaining intact site since the Sha'leians had nano-bombed their own forces after I'd trashed those other two tanks.

In a way, it made sense. One, they had found my weakness, and two it kept us from recovering any equipment. Three, not all of their units in the 'bombed' area had fallen to the nanites making me think they did have some kind of Identify Friend or Foe, IFF, system, but the nanites weren't very discriminating. It only mostly worked.

It also proved the SF guys were on the ball and were able to adapt and improvise to the changing situation. I hadn't run across any of them, but then again they knew better than to get this close. It was only clueless me that was charging into the guns.

However, this was my chance to get close to that last tank. That is if I didn't get nailed by friendly fire. There were smoldering and smoking fragments of shells, missiles and 'bots all over the place. I'd no intention of using my legs, keeping to the air not only because it was easier, but because of all the sub-munitions and other unexploded ordinance all over the mountain now.

I was wondering just how long I could keep the flying thing going, but one, I wasn't flying high or fast. I was low and slow, using it to speed me faster than I could low-crawl which really wasn't very speedy at all. It was possible it was a function of all that energy I'd 'drank,' an external manifestation of the energy.

No complaints from me since it let me move relatively quickly across some very rough, snow covered territory. Not that unexploded bombs, snow storms, invading aliens were the only problems. The still exploding ones dropping, not only on the ground, but detonating in the tree tops.

By the time I'd reached this summit, I was as cautious as a mouse. Really wishing I really was submarine, complete with periscope, I craned one eye over the edge. There was at least 50 'bots that still stood among the blasted remains of about ten. Not a single Drone was to be seen, nor any handy stockpiles of ordinance for me to be creative. Of course the T-Rex was still intact as was the autofac.

As I watched the automated factory's dedicated worker 'bots shoveled the pieces/parts of their dearly departed comrades in one end, while another brand new war machine rolled out the other side.

Ducking back down to the safety of the trees, I slid around to the closest point to the tank. Once again I wasn't sure what I was going to do once I got there, but my window to do anything at all was closing. The attacking bombs and shells were slacking off. It didn't take a genius to figure out where this group's drones were at.

Roughly, I figured I had enough oomph to kill a 'bot, or maybe destroy the tank's comm systems, but not enough to just blow the damn thing to hell. Plus the 'bots were spread out as to catch the incoming munitions in their vicious crossfire. At the very least, trying to attack the tank directly would put me in the cross-hairs of at a minimum of ten of them.

Okay, it was do or die time.

Making sure of the path I would have to take to my objective, I took a deep breath. Please 'cool down' be over, I prayed. Really wishing I had my Q-Box, I reached for the feel, the sensations, of how it was to change. It was one of those damn frustrating nebulous things like trying to hold a handful of sand or not thinking of a given color. It was just out of reach like I could touch it with the tips of my fingers, but couldn't grab it to bring the desired change to me.

Gritting my teeth, I opened my eyes. It was still too damn soon. Looking up, I wondered what hell was I going to do now. That's when I noticed the chute in the tree above me slowly twisting in the wind.

In of itself that wasn't a bad thing. The large coffee can like sub-munition that was no doubt still live most definitely was. SADARM stood for Sense and Destroy Armor and housed a small radar unit and other sensors to help find large metal vehicles like armored vehicle or 'bots. When it found one, the just over three pounds of explosives would fire an explosively formed penetrator.

If it couldn't find a target, it would self-destruct upon reaching the ground. This one hadn't done either one yet. Looking around, there were other SADARM's that had also failed to complete their journeys.

My breath froze in my chest. Talk about a very deadly decorated Christmas tree.

I began moving out from under the tree of death, when I had a thought. Those things had failed to find their targets, but what if I was to help them?

That was really, really stupid. I remember a drill sergeant saying if you did something stupid and lived, it was still stupid and don't do it again.

The damn things could go off at anytime, and even if it didn't, I would have to loft them into the air somehow without getting myself shot to pieces by all those guns just a few feet up the slope.

Why the hell why not?

Careful not to be seen or set off the damn things I fished the chutes out of the trees. I got three of them tied to together using the parachute cord from one. I kept one of the chutes attached to act like a kite's tail. Then I flew down a ways to give me time to accelerate to full speed. Very deliberately, I 'ate' that last bit of energy, I'd been holding. This was going to take all the strength and speed I could get.

“I love you Sheila.” The whisper was lost in the falling snow as I flew hell bent for leather for the crest.

It wasn't anywhere close the 200 mph plus of my insertion. With my burden, I was about as aerodynamic as a swallow carrying a coconut. Even still my eyes burned in the cold without any protection from the freezing air. Like a skier taking a jump I soared over the edge ever mindful of the thin deadly line. Too high and I would be a target for all the 'bots, but too low and and I risked my deadly Christmas gift going off early.

Luck was in my favor, the 'bots were looking up prepared for threats from above. I zoomed between two so close I could've touched one. Their guns swiveled to track me as I poured on the coal feeling like a fat pig with the load I was carrying.

“Stay on target.” I whispered as the tank became aware of me and both fore and aft turrets sought me.

Rolling on my back, I heaved my jury-rigged bomb into the air as high as I could.

At first I thought I'd screwed up big time. It wasn't high enough so the damn chute would fill which would orient the sensors in the proper direction so it would explode. Then the chute and cords caught on the comm tower, swinging up in a high arc as it stopped.

All the guns from hell were pointed at me, but they held fire since their own units would be in the crossfire. Too late Mr. Tank realized that it should've been targeting the bomb hanging from its tower.

Close to ten pounds of shaped charges turned three sheets of copper penetrators into plasma driving down into its top deck from a distance of only a few feet.

Meanwhile I'd gone back to being the perfect human arrow flying as fast as I could. It was strange that I knew I had to be streaking along at better than a 100 mph, but damn it felt like I was just floating along as all those damn 'bots tracked me. I suspected I'd at least had hurt the freaking thing when the 'bots in front of me broke formation.

Mr. T-Rex had stopped giving orders.

Things got hectic as I cleared the mountain's summit and dove down the slope. I went from flying in a snow storm to flying in one made of metal, plasma and exploding trees. At some point either I got hit or ran into something. I'd no idea of what, but it sure felt like I busted several somethings in a couple places as I'd finally tumbled and bounced to a stop.

To paraphrase Colonel Austin, a TV character from my childhood, “I'm breaking up. I'm breaking up!”

It was crystal clear I wasn't going anywhere. Even thinking about moving hurt. I decided this was a good place to rest for a spell.

Flashes of light and more explosions from above suggested the good guys were taking advantage of the opening I'd given them.

“Go get'em fellas.” I cheered them on being cautious not to move nothing. It didn't quite hurt to breath, but it sure didn't feel good.

My mood fell as a 'bot crashed though the trees in a kind of running jump. You never see them doing that sort of thing. It was just more proof that the Sha'leians were directly controlling at least some of their machines. Not that I would be telling anyone. It had seen me.

“Well shit.” I smiled grimly as its guns snapped into firing position.

I made my arm move meaning to give the sonofabitch the 'finger,' but something made me change my mind.

Bringing my open palm over my chest, despite the pain, I gave it the Sha'leian salute.

A so very long second passed followed by another.

With smooth precision the guns retracted. Then it bought up its own arm up returning the honorific.

Stepping back, it waited as a drone came and picked it up. This was the first I'd seen them to the air-mobile thing. Together the two flew upwards into the lightening clouds which signaled morning had finally arrived.

“Happy New Year.” I whispered as both machines were lost from sight.

<><><><><>

Epilogue

As efficiently as any robot Lapis Lazuli dusted the last of the Master's library, the long lighted table. The décor could've come out of any old movie featuring a college or university up to and including the card catalog cabinet. It lacked only in size for all that it was far larger than most private collections.

Having the time to think and index decades of memories, she thought it was because he sought as familiar and as comfortable surroundings as possible. Perhaps going back to a time before he broke and went insane.

Certainly he treated her and the other automata on occasion like staff, students, or colleagues for all he never loosened his control one iota. It was an affection like talking to any 'thing.'

Even she was the same. The other automata were not her sisters or even fellow prisoners. You had to have interactions to form relationships. They were mostly empty shells given a semblance of life by ripping that required vital spark from the people they had once been and binding it into lifeless statues.

Lapis Lazuli'a memory of those times was full of holes, but she hadn't been a saint. That person had tried to do the best they could, but like all humans, they'd fallen short. Those same memories suggested that others of the automata had been far worse than simply having feet of clay. They had embraced that darkness.

However, none of them held a candle to the man who'd captured and tortured them sacrificing their humanity for the sake of a revenge that had lasted over 70 years. He hadn't just embraced that blackness that lay within every human. The Master had become one with it reveling in forbidden knowledge, insane even before grasping such that would break any man.

She knew he had something planned that would result in a tremendous catastrophe. He had spoken of wrath he would bring down upon his enemies. The thought that so many that he so hated and despised were escaping him by dying of old age drove him over lines even the crazed avoided. Even they wanted to live.

Another but significant factor was the few who had cheated both justice and death. Not many of the old Nazi Ubermensch survived, but those that did were the smartest and most cunning of them all. Of all the deeds she been forced to do by the Master, fighting those, who despite their fair faces were monstrosities, were things she didn't regret.

At this very moment, he was studying the materials he had used her and the others to gather. Pieces of ancient writings in stone; age old accounts of others research; odds and ends they had dug up from buried cities the rest of the modern world didn't even know existed, as well other parts to a puzzle he was working on solving.

No matter how mad he might be now or his age, the Master had always been a brilliant researcher. Additionally, no one could underestimate the effects of the marvelous, taboo and dark things he'd seen, done, and knew upon his mind and body. She wondered just how human he still was after all was said and done.

He was on the trail of some long hidden mystery. Given the care which that'd been spent to erase all clues of its existence, that boded ill for all. She had no doubts he would ferret out the secret one fragment at a time until he had it all.

That was what he did. Just like he'd uncovered the riddle of how to make not half-shaped golems, but full fledged automata like her. The world might have called him the Master of Golems, because of his Jewish ancestry, but she and the others were no more golems than a firecracker was a nuclear bomb.

From his craftsman father and his own demented intellect, the Master had sculpted not just five sculptures with the form of beautiful women, but many. Some were flawed and had been place in storage or melted back down. Others were replacements for those lost in his lust for revenge on an evil regime that'd been defeated more than a half century before.

No, the Master's ego would never settle for just an unfinished thing that was a golem. Just as his creations had to be perfect, so did his retaliation. She feared that the world would, could, not survive what he sought to unleash.

She had some measure of freedom, but could not go against any of his direct commands. The helpless feeling knowing what he was doing, but being unable to oppose him was part of the two edged sword of being aware again.

At the least, she'd saved the life of one hero. She knew the Master had intended for her to kill Grey Wolf. Thankfully, the hero had kept that low profile she'd suggested saving both of them from the Master's retaliation if he ever found out.

Straightening the desk, Lapis Lazuli left the library precisely as the Master ordered it. In the hallway the grandfather clock chimed midnight. A New Year had begun, but unless she could find a way it may very well be the last.

There was a way. There had to be. She just had to find it. At least she had time to think about a solution. Like a robot she went on to her next housekeeping task. Well almost, she kept her smile to herself. The Library was normally cleaned last, but this time since the Master was in the 'working' room downstairs, she'd left the starting the fire in the sitting room instead for her final duty.

Perhaps it was only a little rebellion, but the more loopholes she could find in his commandments the sooner this rebel could set a fire he would never forget.

<><><>

Grey stared at the screen as the file copy progress bar edged towards complete. While not a computer savvy hacker, he knew those who were. His 'friend' had gotten him in the desired database by sneaking in though some kind cyberspace backdoor. It also helped that being New Years Eve most everyone was out counting down the last minutes of the old year.

The Protector Bureau guarded its archives more closely than even Ft. Knox. Even with all the help, Grey knew he would only have a short time to do his search. Before hand he'd listed all of his questions, and possible follow ups.

He'd tracked down some previously unknown information about Golem Master and everything the Bureau had on his golems. The sections he was very interested in included those which had any signs of the previous personalities of the ones killed to make those foul things ever been seen, but no, none at all. Those who had died at Golem Master's hands were believed to be just that, dead.

Lapis Lazuli was the oldest of the current group and the most powerful. However the most likely donor had probably only been a 'B' plus rated hero by the name of Flashback. He had energy absorption and reflection powers with enough of the kinetic variety as well to let him fly and project a decent if not powerful force-field.

Flashback was active for about ten years before disappearing and Lapis Lazuli appeared. From the very beginning the merger of Flashback into a golem demonstrated the sum was much greater than the parts. There was a synergy that amplified the abilities of both forms into a very powerful single creation.

Grey saved those details for later, looking deeper at Flashback. Based on missing person reports and the hero's general description, it hadn't been all that difficult to backtrack to his most probable identity.

“Craig Elder, last seen in 1988.” He read. “Age 28, audio-video technician, film maker and employee of WNOK TV Columbia, SC.

The copy progress bar vanished, and he wasted no time ejecting the flash drive. Five minutes later his was just another car in late night holiday traffic. The radio busted out in cheers as the clock stuck mid-night.

Grey sighed thinking of all the pain the person named Craig Elder had somehow withstood for decades. Yet, there was still enough of that person left to defy the commands of a monster. There was always hope and courage.

“Happy New Year.” He wished, as the fireworks bloomed in the winter's night sky.

The End.


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