"Jack Pentecost is a disaster waiting to happen!"
- Colonel Magda Lennox, the Magdalene
A Disaster Waiting To Happen - Prologue
The bodies had been removed but the bloodstains were still on the floor and the burn marks were still in the walls. When Jack Pentecost and his team had returned from Perez Park with Hero 1's letter - his last written words before heading to his certain death on the Rikti Homeworld - the security at City Hall had passed them right through their cordon without question - right through to the room where an hour ago the Vanguard Lancers had launched themselves at a Rikti combat drop team in an attempt to stop them from plundering the Omega Team Memorial.
The battle had been fierce but brief. The entire Rikti assault unit had sacrificed itself, fighting desperately to the last, to allow their leader to teleport out. Jack's Lancers hadn't hesitated a second to cut the remainder of the Rikti squad down but then had been forced to track their commander's location down and go after him. Fortunately Doctor Pomfroy's sensors had been positioned well enough to locate the Rikti leader at a hidden base beneath Perez Park. The Lancers had hit that base like a hammer and within the hour the one thing the Rikti has stolen - Hero 1's letter - had been returned.
Jack tore his gaze from the ruin of the room containing the Memorial and walked up to the time capsule. With one last look at Hero 1's missive, he reverently opened the case to return it ... only to find the capsule empty.
"Everything's gone!" Jack shouted. He turned to his squad only to find them passing around the Omega Team's last words. Some were sitting and reading the letters, others discussing them. "Hey! Hey! HEY!" Jack yelled. "This isn't the Paragon Library's reading room! Put all that stuff back!"
Sheepishly, the Lancers handed everything back, one by one. Jack paged through the papers to make certain nothing was missing. As he turned over the last page, an odd set of diagrams caught his eye. It was totally different than all the other letters. Jack flipped the document open, and then read the letter that came before it.
"Oh my God," Jack breathed. "Do you have any idea what's in here!?"
"Yeah, it's so sad," Bubble Bunni said."Mystic Maiden never told her husband she was a hero. Never told him how much she loved him. Never told him she wanted a family ... and then she died and he never found out until now!"
"And tha' Ajax!" MacDice said angrily. "He murdered the real Ajax an' stole his powers and tha' bastard admitted it! Sure an' he never thought he'd survive Omega Team assaultin' tha' Rikti Homeworld. He'll be runnin' fer the Rogue Isles if he knows what's good for him."
"Omigod!" Bunni said "Ajax murdered the real Ajax!?"
"Says so right there!" MacDice pointed to the papers Jack held.
"These letters contain the complete plans for the Tin Mage!" Jack said, cutting them off. The whole group looked at him, wondering at his excitement. He looked them over. "The Tin Mage? The Tin Mage?"
"I don't follow," Pole Shift said in his deep voice.
"The Tin Mage was a robot, a self-aware robot that could cast spells," Jack replied. "His complete plans are right here!"
"So?" MacDice asked.
"So we can build another one," Jack said.
"So?" MacDice asked.
"The Tin Mage was a computer that could cast spells," Jack said, his excitement still visible. "He was a spell processor. With the advances in CPUs and processing capabilities over the past ten years, we could make one far advanced beyond the original."
"So?" MacDice asked.
"Nevermind," Jack said, seeing the blank looks he was being given. "Let's just put it all back and get back to the Compound."
He laid the papers back into the capsule. A subtle gesture allowed himto replace the Tin Mage's detailed plans with a similar-looking sheet filled with techno-mystical gibberish. Jack would present the specifications and his ideas to Lady Grey.
As everyone headed up the marble steps that led to main entrance to City Hall, Maridian and Bunni fell back to speak with Jack.
"You can't expect everyone to understand these arcane matters," Maridian said. "The team was picked for combat ability, not mystic strategy."
"Yeah," BB added "I'm sure your Tin Mage will be really cool once you've built it... him... err..."
"Him," Jack said. "The Tin Mage was self-aware and used the male personal pronoun ... and you're right. I shouldn't have expected everyone to understand what this means. It means we have a new weapon against the Rikti that they'll never expect. It means if we ever recover the Tome of T'Jer'imikanu, we'd have something that could whip off the rituals in minutes instead of days. It means we'll have something that could process spells like nothing ever could before."
For the first time in a long time, Jack smiled, really smiled.
"It means I'm saved," he said.
A Disaster Waiting To Happen - One
"And the only thing the Rikti took was Hero 1's letter?" Lady Grey asked. For the first time Jack could remember, she wasn't writing and looking at her papers. Her entire attention was devoted to him.
"That's it," Jack said.
"We mislike this," Lady Grey replied.
"It doesn't feel right to me either," Jack said. "Why his letter?"
"Why only his letter?" Lady Grey continued. "It makes no sense to Us but coupled with the fact that We were also able to recover a vial of his blood which had been experimented on by the Rikti after Omega Team assault their homeworld ... it does not bode well."
"Has Gaussian found anything?"
"Of a necessity his ability to discern events on the Rikti Homeworld is limited," Lady Grey replied, looking at Jack.
"I didn't even know Omega Team had attacked the Rikti Homeworld until I escaped," he said. "It's not like they kept me informed about foreign affairs."
"We understand," Lady Grey sighed. "Eventually We will get to the bottom of this ... but let us turn to more positive matters."
She unfolded the papers Jack had given her and spread them across her desk. The cleanly printed sheets were covered with diagras - some of mystical symbols, others circuit diagrams. There were several pages of numbered instructions.
"These are the complete plans to the construction of the Tin Mage," she said. "You are certain?"
"Look them over yourself," Jack replied. "That capsule's been sealed for years. I doubt the Rikti worked up a fake set of plans and stuck them in there. Even if they had, their grasp of English isn't that good. They could never write something that complicated without slipping into Rikti-ese. I'm positive they're genuine."
Lady Grey's eyes roved over the pages with a hungry eagerness.
"These spells are complex," she said.
"We've got you and me," Jack said "and you've got an army of sorcerers and wizards. We can fill any size any ritual."
"Much of this technology was experimental," she went on "and some components may not even be made anymore."
"Replacements can be found," Jack replied. "Swapping out the technical parts is the least of my worries. I think we can build him better, to be honest, at least technically."
"Some of these designs are esoteric," Lady Grey went on "and others are incredibly advanced. We are uncertain the Vanguard possesses adequate engineering prowess for the task."
"I'll contract that part out," Jack said. "You don't build your own tanks or guns or even HVASes. You use a defense contractor. I'm sure I can find an electronics firm willing to build whatever we want."
"Many of these components are incredibly rare," Lady Grey said, finally. "What sources of them exist are likely in powerful potentially hostile hands."
"I've got a strike team of extremely dangerous combat experts," Jack said "and we've got brand new teleportation technology which no one else even knows about. All I need is your permission."
"You have Our blessing, Commander," Lady Grey said. For a moment, her smile was predatory - but only for a moment.
A Disaster Waiting To Happen - Two
"Say that again real slowly for me, Commander," Sergeant Holst was saying. She ran a hand through her white hair. "You want how much impervium and it needs to be what?"
The Supply Sergeant was standing behind the counter at the Supply Depot, the warehouse behind her sealed off by a locked grating. Through it, Jack could see stacks of crates and equipment.
"I need fourteen pounds of impervium," Jack said. "Five pounds shaped into a hollow sphere. Three pounds made into two foot rods no more than half an inch thick. And the rest of it flattened into one foot by one foot sheets exactly one thirty-second of an inch thick."
Mabel Holst closed her eyes for a moment and rested her hands on the counter.
"Yer trying to kill me, ain't you?" she said. "You sure about this?"
"I've never been more sure about anything," Jack Pentecost replied.
"You have any idea how difficult it is to shape impervium?" Holst asked.
"Actually, yes," Jack said. He turned to the massive alien standing behind him. "You sure about this?"
Pole Shift nodded.
"It is mainly a matter of pressure and heat," he rumbled. "Assuming you have the proper equipment to work the metal, I can supply the pressure..." with a rumbling sound a long shaft of smoldering magma appeared in his hand and then vanished leaving only a wisp of smoke "...and the heat."
"I'm going to need sign off to release that much impervium," the sergeant went on.
"You remember when Lady Grey gave me access to the Supply Depot?" Jack asked.
"That didn't include restricted supplies," Holst pointed out.
Jack slapped a form down on the counter.
"It does now," he said.
Mabel Holst whistled.
"If Lady Grey ever loved anyone," she said "it surely must be you. No point in fighting an avalanche - we'll get started right away."
"You're an angel," Jack Penecost said.
"Nah," Holst replied. "You're the Devil Himself for sure, to manage this."
*** *** ***
"Plasma capacitors?" Doctor Pomfroy was saying. "You need to link in serial relay a dozen plasma capacitors."
"At least, Doc," Jack said. "Can do?"
"Certainly not," the older man took his spectacles off and rubbed his eyes. "I'm not certain anyone can. Containing plasma is a dangerous business and creating a cycling relay of linked plasma storage units - it's too dangerous. Nothing on Earth can handle that kind of heat."
"Fotunately, my resources aren't limited to the Earth," Jack replied. He turned to where Luminous Lad and Bubble Bunni stood. "This parasite of yours, this kheldian," he said to Luminous Lad "one of its forms is a Kurukt, right?"
"It doesn't like being called a parasite," Luminous Lad said ominously. "It's a noble being of ancient lineage which has dwelt amongst the stars for aeons untold."
"Fine. Fine. This 'noble being of ancient lineage which has dwelt amongst the stars for aeons untold' - it can turn into a Kurukt, right?"
"Yes," Luminous Lad admitted "it can."
"And Kurukt live on neutron stars, right?"
"Yes, they do."
"On... on... on neutron stars!?" Doctor Pomfroy asked, amazed.
"If it can survive on a neutron star, I think it can handle a little plasma, wouldn't you say, Doc?"
"Why... well... yes, yes, certainly!" Pomfroy said, becoming excited. "I must say, Mister ... ah .. Luminous Lad, once Commander Pentecost's experiment is completed, I would be very grateful if your... companion... would spend some time with me discussing this... Kurukt. I have some theories about the Pauli exclusion principle and the Tolman-Oppenheimer-Volkoff limit which I believe it could shed some light on."
"I guess..." Luminous Lad replied. Somehow that didn't sound like anything but an afternoon of sheer boredom.
"So, I've got someone who can work with raw plasma capacitors and link them together," Jack said. "Right?"
"It would appear so," Pomfroy said "but... wait... during the linking stages the flux inhibitors would have to be set open. Even if your friend here could work with the capacitors, we don't have a facility that could house them safely until the units were sealed again. Plasma could flood the room."
"This is Bubble Bunni," Jack pointed out "I realize she's drop dead gorgeous and likes to dress a little risque but don't let that fool you. She's gifted. She can make impenetrable force fields."
"You don't say..." Doctor Pomfroy said, eyes widening. It was all starting to come together.
*** *** ***
Tony Kord was tall, blond and all business. His home office looked like something out of Star Trek. There was equipment everywhere and if there was a single part of his home that wasn't wired to some sort of computer control system, Jack didn't see it.
"This - these plans are remarkable," Kord was saying "but completely impractical. It's like the work of a mad genius."
"I've met a couple of those," Jack said. "What's the problem?"
"The circuit design is fine," Kord explained "but the interfaces, not only are they non-standard but they'd have to be ... beyond three-dimensional to work."
"That's not a problem, is it?" Jack asked. "You can build them, can't you?"
"Well, yes," Kord admitted "but they couldn't hook up to anything. There's nothing out there they could connect to. It's crazy."
"Humor me," Jack said. "I'm willing to pay for it, I just need you to build it."
"Even if I did, and I'm not saying I will," Tony Kord said "there's no way to power this. Look at the load this system would need. There's no power source smaller than the Terra Volta reactor that could could generate that kind of output. If we had portable power systems like that, well ... we'd be in the 22nd century."
"What makes you think it would need to be portable?" Jack asked.
"Look at this design," he said, pointing. "It's obvious. I'm not sure what the completed system is supposed to do, but the segments you've shown me are obviously supposed to be mobile."
"What if I had the power supply?" Jack asked.
Kord snorted again.
"I've only seen something like this once before," he said, shaking his head "and back then I said the same thing - there is no such power supply so there's no purpose in even finishing the design."
"Can I talk to the person who had a similar design?" Jack asked.
Tony Kord laughed.
"Sure," he said. He opened the door and yelled down the hall. "Alex! Hey, Alex! Could you come in here a moment?"
The sound of running feet approached.
"May I present my son, Alex Kord," Tony Kord said. "Alex finished his degree in electrical engineering last year."
Alex Kord was a younger, slimmer, taller, handsomer version of his father. Jack wanted to hate him from the get-go.
"Alex, you remember that circuit diagram you ran by me when you were in high school?"
"The one I said was pointless and impractical?"
"That was all of them," Alex Kord said.
"The one that needed the Terra Volta reactor as a power supply?"
"Oh, sure, that one! Yeah, I remember it."
"Take a look at this..." Tony Kord said, handing his son Jack's diagrams.
Alex Kord's eyes flicked over the design, then locked onto them. He put them down on a table and slowly spread them out.
"This is fascinating," he said slowly. "What is this?"
"That's classified," Jack began but the younger Kord wasn't listening.
"Look at this," Alex Kord said "this has to go off in five... no six... perpendicular directions. That's not even possible. Well, maybe with quantum theory..."
"Never mind the interfaces," Tony Kord told his son "the client says they're not our concern. I'm concerned about the balancing the load."
"Three-phase won't cut it," Alex replied, his eyes never leaving the diagram "but I worked that out when I was doing my original... heh... I worked that out."
"So you can build this?" Jack asked.
"Sure," Alex Kord replied.
"I believe my son will be consulting with you on this," Tony Kord said. "We can discuss terms..."
"How soon?" Jack asked.
Alex Kord snorted. It was remarkably similar to his father.
"You have the raw materials ... a week - two on the outside," he said.
"Alex..." Tony Kord warned.
"How much are we talking?" Jack asked.
"If you supply the materials, I'll just charge you for my time," Alex said. "Heck, union rates are fine."
"Alex!" Tony Kord snapped.
"I'll have a copy of the specs sent to you along with the shipment of materials," Jack said. "You have a nice day, Mr. Kord."
"Aces!" Alex Kord said.
"My assistant will show you out, Mister Pentecost," Tony Kord, his smile forced. "Alex, can I talk to you for a minute..."
*** *** ***
"Just through here," Professor Montague Castanella said, leading Jack along a hallway filled with towering columns of strange equipment. Huge discharges of energy crackled between machines above their heads. "I realize that the laboratory may be intimidating to some, but it's perfectly safe, at least, that's what he keeps assuring me. Ah, here we are."
The man who had been working at a bench in the back of the room stood up. He was tall and handsome in a rugged featured way, with wavy brown hair and dark eyes.
"Commander Pentecost, may I present Paragon University's leading expert in theoretical and experimental physics - Professor Thomas Warren" Castanella said. "Tom, this is Commander Pentecost from the Vanguard. He's aided me on a number of matters recently and asked if I could direct him to an expert pushing the boundaries of physics as we know it."
"Pleased to meet you, Professor Warren," Jack said, looking up at the physicist. Darn, but the guy was tall. He must exercise a lot for a physics professor as well, he had a strong grip.
"Likewise, I'm sure," Professor Warren replied.
"I'll just leave you two be," Castanella said."Theoretical physics always loses me and, to be honest, this room always makes me nervous."
"How can I help you, Commander Pentecost?" Professor Warren asked.
"I need a ... well ... I need a miniaturized synchrotron," Jack began "and they tell me what I'm looking for isn't possible. It's something to do with the proton injectors being placed too close together and causing ... synchotron radiation? Forgive me if I'm not using all the terms right, it's not my area of expertise."
Professor Warren laughed.
"It is mine," he said. "It's caused by the acceleration of ultrarelativistic charged particles through one or more magnetic fields. We usually solve the problem by widening the torus."
"That's my problem," Jack said. "I don't want to widen the torus."
"How large a torus are we talking here?"
"About one foot," Jack said.
Thomas Warren started to laugh until he saw that Jack was serious.
"Commander Pentecost," the physicist said then "there are, possibly, two or three functional synchotrons of that size in the world and each of them is used to power a personal fusion reactor. None of those designs have ever been shared nor are any design specifications available. Bluntly, a couple of genius heroes or villains have built such things and they do not share their work with anyone."
"I understand," Jack Pentecost said "I'm sure they don't share them with each other either, so there's no way any of them could compare designs."
"You're probably right."
Jack unrolled the diagrams he'd brought.
"I have the design I'm looking for right here," he said, laying them out. "I really just need to know if you can build me one. Vanguard will assume all the cost. If anything here can... aid you in your own work... well, you're free to use it however you wish."
Professor Warren looked over the designs for a moment, then picked up a pen, thought better of writing on the plans he'd been given and started scribbling notes on a pad that had been laying on the table. After a moment the physicist looked up.
"Can I hold on to these for a little while?" he said.
"I made copies," Jack replied "you can keep them."
"Commander Pentecost," Professor Warren said "I think we have a deal."
"You have no idea how glad I am to hear that," Jack Pentecost said "and call me Jack."
The two men shook again.
"Call me Tom," Professor Warren said.
*** *** ***
A large section of Doctor Pomfroy's lab had been cleaned up and now a dozen chairs were placed in a half circle. The field generator of Pomfroy's new translocation device sat nearby. Jack walked to the center of the circle while the Lancers sat, or sprawled, in the seats. Late to the meeting, MacDice scrambled to grab a prime seat and with his unusual speed managed to nab his target before Teen Tyten could sit down. Grumbing, the younger super grabbed a seat on the edge of the circle.
"All right, listen up people," Jack said. "As you probably know, we're working on using the plans from the Omega Memorial Time Capsule to build a new version of the Tin Mage. We've managed to procure most of the components necessary but there are five that we just won't be able to produce ourselves. The good news is that these five do exist and that we know where they're located. The bad news is that the people who have them are, well, hostile. As you can figure, that's where we come in..."
A Disaster Waiting To Happen - Three
The long hallway was lit by the unnatural greenish glow of luminous crystals and the flickering lurid light of scattered torches which hung in metal cressets from the stone walls. Dark brown stone was etched with obscure runes which formed long trailing patterns which stretched off down the winding passages as far as the eye could see.
It seemed like they'd been walking for hours, but it was difficult to tell time this deep under the earth. All the hallways and passages were identical, the turns and junctions completely similar, making is easy to simply wander in circles or become helplessly lost. Oranbega, long lost city of the ancient mages who had fought the Mu millennia ago, was truly a place only a sorcerer could navigate.
The good news being, the unit had one.
"We want to break left here," Jack Pentecost said. His odd yellow glasses couldn't hide the green glow of his eyes in this dark stygian maze and it gave him an even creepier feeling than normal "and look for a ramp or something heading down."
"Down?" Pole Shift rumbled.
"Our target is below us somwehere," Pentecost said.
"Tha's jest lovely," MacDice said. "A man could grow old an' die wandering around down 'ere."
"Life doesn't love me enough for that, MacDice," Pentecost snapped.He moved to follow the big alien and, weapons ready, the group moved forward.
"Junction ahead," Pole Shift's voice came from ahead.
"Go straight," Jack replied. He hurried to catch up.
Things had seemed very simple. Dark Watcher or Gaussian had developed a good idea of where the Circle of Thorns, those ancient mages whose civilization pre-dated most of known history, held their vaults of rare components. The plans of the Tin Mage called for a number of exotic ingredients and amongst them was something called Etherium.The metal was so rare that it was believed to come from another reality entirely. Only a handful of the most experienced sorcerers were ever able to obtain any and they guarded the secret of finding the metal jealously. Stealing it from the Circle of Thorns, who probably shouldn't be keeping any anyway, seemed like the obvious solution.
A few simple divinations, aided by the psychically powerful and precognitive Penelope Yin's developing powers, had enabled the Vanguard to provide coordinates for Doctor Pomfroy's translocation device. Teleporting a strike team deep into the Circle's hidden city had been easy. Fighting their way through a horde of angry mages had been a little more difficult but not impossible. Obtaining the etherium, now tucked safely under Maridian's arm - Maridian because Jack figured she was the least likely to lose her head in the middle of combat and the most likely to hang onto the stuff - was actually easier than he'd expected.
Getting out was the problem.
It seems the whole area was enclosed in some kind of mystic curtain that prevented teleporting out. Their choices had been very straightfoward. Make their way out on foot, which meant fighting their way through the winding tunnels of Oranbega for miles, possibly for days. Or find whatever was creating this energy curtain and stop it. It really wasn't a choice at all when you thought you about it.
Jack could feel the energy radiating from down below them and had been able to keep them headed in the right direction. After maybe half an hour of winding through the twisting tunnels and a few wrong turns, he could feel that they were close. Very close. He could feel... He could almost feel...
"Hold up, people," Jack said. "Gather 'round."
The small group huddled together.
"It's a demon," Jack said. "The Circle has summoned some kind of guardian or sentinel and it's what's putting up that energy blockade. We're going to have to kill it."
"Sounds like my kind o' plan," MacDice said.
"Do we need any kind of special weapon?" Pole Shift asked, more focused on the logistics of the fight.
"Unlikely," Jack replied "pure physical force should do it."
"Not a problem then," the big alien replied with a disquieting smile.
"Figure that anything they've summoned to trap intruders down here and guard their treaure is going to be tough," Jack said. "It might take a little killing."
"Jest gets better and better," MacDice said.
"Forgive a simple question," the new guy, that kid from Japan, Razortail, said "but how long after the demon is slain before the curtain goes down?"
"Should be instantaneous," Jack replied.
For a bright orange mutant covered with razor-sharp spikes, the kid had a good head on his shoulders. He was as efficient at killing as MacDice with none of the insanity - although he seemed to lace his polite commentary with a great deal of sarcasm.
"Then there is little need for concern over enemy reinforcements," Razortail said, said tail swishing behind him as he thought "we may simply teleport out once the demon is slain."
"That's the idea," Jack replied.
"You think too much," MacDice joked.
"Respectfully, you think too little," Razortail replied. "One must compensate."
"Enough," Jack said. The two had been at it for hours, in between bouts of combat. "I have no patience for this right now. Let's get this done and get home."
"You have a plan?" Pole Shift said.
"Straight and simple," Jack said "we go in there, find this thing and hit it with everything we've got. No need for finesse. Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker."
"Hah!" MacDice laughed. "Only if ye be talkin' scotch!"
"I have heard of this 'scotch'," Razortail said "it is similar in effect to saki, only cut with water six parts to one..."
"Knock it off, you two," Jack snapped. "Pole Shift, take point. Let's move"
The group surged ahead, the corridor turning and spiralling downwards several times. Jack rehearsed the words to an old familiar spell in his mind and soon the group was surrounded by an eerie greyish fog. Deep within it, purple and green lights flickered, giving it an unworldly appearance.
"Don't look now, boss," MacDice snapped "but you're leaking steam."
"It's a spell I worked up on the Rikti Homeworld," Jack said. "I used it to prevent the Rikti from seeing us. I've figured out how to modify it since then."
"So none of the mages will spot us?" Pole Shift asked.
"If we don't get too close to them and if they're not using some sort of scrying spell and if we're not moving too quickly," Jack replied.
"That's a lot of ifs," the alien pointed out.
"Best I could do at short notice."
Pole Shift nodded and the group moved forward quietly. For a city supposedly occupied by thousands, or millions, of mages, Oranbega was oddly quiet. Until you ran into someone, the place seemed completely deserted and silent. It was unnerving.
The hallways suddenly opened up into a massive cavern, stretching out beyond sight above and below. A long narrow "bridge" of stone columns lay before them, curving stalagmites jutting upwards almost like claws, providing a path to an opening on the other side of the cavern. Hundreds of feet below them was the rocky floor of the cave, the walls dotted with tiny waterfalls which cascaded down to form a small river which wound off into the darkness.
To the left and right above them were wide ledges and carved above them in the walls were massive works of stone, zigguarats and pyraminds half-set into the living rock and boasting passages that trailed off into the earth.
From everywhere, above and below, came a deep chanting.
"Up or down?" Pole Shift asked.
"Can't tell," Jack said. "We're too close. That energy is all around us. It's in this cavern somewhere, but I can't pinpoint it. I'd say down."
"Up then," the big alien said and leapt, his massive form sailing through the air up and to the right to land effortlessly on the ledge. Jack swore. It took a couple of minutes to climb up a rough rocky slope and stand next to Pole Shift. Sure enough, the big alien had gussed right. A large group of mages and demons stood at the foot on one of the pyramids, chanting and incanting amongst themselves and in their center was the source of the energy curtain.
"It's a Hellfrost," Jack said.
"And that would be?" Razortail asked.
"You see that big white thing in the middle?" Jack asked, pointing to a massive nine-foot tall monstrosity - its pale blue-white skin revealing a powerful musculature which changed to clear crystalline ice covering its extremities. The thing's head was almost shark-like, redundant rows of sharp white teeth gleamed when it spoke and its eyes were blazing orbs of blue light. More ice grew upwards from its brow, forming a crown of clear-white crystals and in its hands it held a massive sword of frost which left trails of vapor as it moved. "That's a Hellfrost. Not all of the demon realms are hot, some are cold. The lowest ones are arctic in nature and they're dominated by things like that."
Around the Hellfrost stood a dozen human mages and a scattering of more traditional demons, their horned beastial forms bathed in flame.
"No worries," Pole Shift said. A massive hammer of molten lava formed in his hands. "Looks like it was made for someone like me."
"Watch out for that sword," Jack warned. "They say it's not just ice. Supposedly bits of your soul stick to it if it cuts your skin."
"Why, now that's a lovely thought," MacDice said. "Sure an' you take me to all the best places."
"How close can we get before they see us?" Pole Shift asked.
"Maybe ten feet," Jack replied.
"They'll never know what hit them," the big alien said.
"Don't get fancy," Jack said "just lash out with everything you've got. When the Hellfrost goes down, we teleport out."
They all nodded.
"Let's do it," Jack said.
Pole Shift surged forward and Jack raised his arms and gestured. Arcane lightning, lambent purple and green, crackled from his raised hands. Jack didn't expect it to kill or disable any of the mages or demons but as their forms convulsed from the electrical charge he knew it would buy the team a few extra seconds before the enemy could respond.
The big alien stormed into the mob, knocking humans and lesser demons aside and his massive hammer hit the Hellfrost so hard that its feet lost contact with the ground and it rose upwards to come crashing back down with a jarring thud. In an instant MacDice and Razortail were among the group, blades and spines slashing around them. The whole team charged in and for a few moments the ledge was nothing but a whirling melee of spells and blades and energies.The Hellfrost lurched back to its feet and its massive sword of ice lashed out, crashing into Pole Shift's molten hammer. The stone hissed as the ice congealed it and the head of the hammer snapped off, leaving the alien with a broken handle in his hands.
Jack launched a second burst of electricity, distracting the demon and it struck out at him with its sword. Jack jumped back but he wasn't fast enough. Twisting, the flat of the big ice blade caught him fully in the chest and he felt ribs break. Jack found himself flying through the air and when he failed to hit the ground after a second he realized that the demon had knocked him off the ledge and that he was falling to his death.
Desperately Jack rushed through the symbols of a spell he'd been working on and his rapid descent slowed and then stopped. Floating in place, Jack breathed a sigh of relief and then winced as the movement turned his chest into a symphony of pain. Gathering his thoughts, Jack flew upwards, back towards the ledge.
He regained sight of the battle just in time to see Razortail and MacDice crash into the huge demon from behind, each one cutting into one of its legs. Only the Hellfrost remained now and as it toppled backwards, Pole Shift generated another massive molten hammer between his huge hands. The alien brought the smoldering weapon down with all his might on the demon's head and the white flesh shattered like glass, shards scattering in all directions. Jack felt the energy curtain go down as he landed back on the rocky ledge.
"You'e alive!" Maridian shouted.
"Ye can fly!?" MacDice said.
"You were supposed to teleport out when the demon went down," Jack said.
"I believe our intention was to recover your remains," Razortail said "although I cannot with certainty speak for the others."
"Ye can fly!?" MacDice said again.
"I figured out the basics of the spell a week or so ago," Jack said wearily.
"Why didn't you mention anything to us?" Maridian scolded.
"I wanted to practice enough that I was good at it before I showed off," Jack replied then said to the field medic. "If you don't mind, I could use your help. I think I broke a couple of ribs."
Maridian looked him up and down for a second.
"Five," she said "three on the left and two on the right."
A soothing wave washed over him as she reached out with her mind and Jack could actually feel his broken bones knitting together. He sighed with relief and this time there was no pain.
"Mari," he said "I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Likely be dead," Razortail said "with all due respect, sir."
Jack had to laugh.
"Twas a good day, indeed," MacDice said "me count topped four hundred an' seven."
"How does one arrive at that conclusion?" Razortail said, turning to the smaller man. The two had been challenging each other's kill count all day. "Wait, I see. This is some unique Scottish method of counting. Multiply the actual count by six, round up to the nearest hundred and add seven."
"Now jest see here-" MacDice began but Jack interrupted.
"Practice your male bonding some other time," he snapped. "Let's get home. Trigger your beacons and let's go."
Jack tapped his and the room faded from view. One by one the others did as well and suddenly the familiar walls of Pomfroy's labs were around and they were standing back at the base.
"How'd the Star Queen's team do?" Jack asked and turned to see her standing nearby.
"We've been waiting for you," she said.
A Disaster Waiting To Happen - Four
Jack walked into the lab and stopped, stunned. When he’d left to go on his manhunt for Protean, the place had been filled with boxes and crates. Now there were tables laid out everywhere and equipment and wires ran all over the place. A wire frame stretched over a partially completed metallic skeleton and dozens of computer systems were wired into it. There was equipment everywhere and the place looked like some weird cross between Doctor Frankenstein’s laboratory and an automated car factory.
Blond, handsome and completely oblivious, Alex Kord was bent over the unfinished form, a soldering iron in one hand and some sort of monitor or device in the other.
“You’ve been busy,” Jack said.
Alex looked up, surprised.
“Didn’t know you were there,” he said. “Yeah, I didn’t want to wait – this is amazing. That synchrotron you got from Professor Warren is incredible. I’ve got it hooked into the transduction equalizer – although I still don’t know how you’re going to power it up.” Alex laughed. “It’s funny. I managed to get all of the connectors into the interfaces, although I couldn’t tell you how I did it. I would have bet that it wasn’t physically possible. I think you’ve got some sort of dielectric klein bottle going there.”
“Don’t look too hard at it,” Alex Kord said. “You’ll hurt your eyes.”
Jack leaned over and looked into the wirework frame. Dozens of cables ran to a large ring that Jack assumed was the synchrotron ... only something wasn’t right. He started following the outline of the ring but somehow his eyes got lost. He blinked a couple of times and shook his head.
“When I was done plugging everything it and mounting it, it was like that,” Alex said. “I don’t think it embeds in three-space anymore.”
“I think its outlines no longer follow a geometry our three dimensional senses can perceive.”
“This involves trigonometry, doesn’t it?” Jack asked.
“More like non-linear equations,” Alex replied. “It’s easy. Here, let me explain…”
“Please don’t,” Jack said. “I’ll take your word for it.”
Alex Kord shrugged.
“If you say so,” he replied, unfazed. “The circuit boards are stable now – they take some time to gel after you’ve laid out the mercury circuits. I popped them in this morning and I just finished soldering everything together. Looks solid. Heh. It’ll never be solid. I mean it looks like it’s all together right.”
“Nah. Minor ones,” Alex said. “Getting the stable protonium centered in your impervium sphere took some tricky magnetic alignment. Once that was done it was trivial to align the plasma capacitors around the circumference. It is nice that you’ve got access to so much impervium. Usually you have to be very conservative with that stuff. Here I could indulge myself. Whoever did the work has an excellent touch, by the way – normally whatever lab cuts your impervium makes it look like they did it with a chainsaw. Yours looks almost like it was crafted by hand.”
“So, er, what’s left?” he asked.
Alex Kord shrugged.
“Not much,” he said. “I could charge up the bending magnets again but it doesn’t really need it.”
“You’re done?” Jack asked, his eyes lighting up.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Alex said. “I can’t wait to see you power this thing up!”
Jack shook his head.
“Your work here is done,” he said. “The next steps are classified.”
“You’re kidding,” Alex said.
“Nope,” Jack said. “I hired you on, beyond our initial contract, because you obviously believed in the project and I appreciated that, but beyond this stage … well … your part is done.”
“You sure?” Alex Kord asked. “Never can tell when you might need a good engineer.”
“No dice,” Jack replied. “We can take it from here.”
The younger Kord shrugged. He’d done enough government work that he knew sometimes you’ll never find out what’s going on.
“If you say so,” he said with a sigh. “I’ve got a dozen great ideas after seeing your work. I may start on an AI robot project immediately, once I get home. Thanks for the opportunity to work with this stuff. It’s like nothing in this world!”
“You’ve got that right,” he said. “Thanks again for your time. I’ll call Lieutenant Kaneko and have her escort you off base.”
Jack’s eyes roved over the metallic form laid out before him, wired and circuits trailing everywhere. Almost halfway there, and the part he understood the least, the science end of things, was done! Time to get the magic team together.
*** *** ***
“I cannot believe that you are allowing Jack Pentecost to build a tactical weapon,” the Magdalene said.
Lady Grey leaned back in her chair and sighed. Colonel Lennox was pacing back and forth in front of her desk, her hands together behind her back.
“We are allowing him the leeway to follow the plan he outlined,” Lady Grey said “because We view the outcome of this – the return of the Tin Mage or his equivalent – as a resource added to Our arsenal against the Rikti.”
“How can you possibly trust him!?”
“What trust is necessary?” Lady Grey asked. “The plans he is following are not his own.”
“And what if he changes them?”
“We have had our own engineers go over the designs and the equipment,” Lady Grey said “and We Ourselves have spoken with both the senior and junior Kords. We have no doubt the mechanical aspects are as planned.”
"The mechanical aspects are only half of the system," the Magdalene pointed out "and from what you've told me, they're the lesser half! What if he plans to subvert the enchantments?"
"We shall be participating in the activation ritual along with a dozen of Our most trusted captains," Lady Grey replied. "Accomplished as he may be, Jack Pentecost is still a very young man. We have centuries of exeperience in the arcane. We do not believe that he will be able to - what is the phrase? Put on over on Us."
"Participate in the ritual!?" the Magdalene was incredulous. "How can I protect you if you thrust your-"
"Colonel Lennox!" Lady Grey snapped, cutting the agitated woman off. "You cannot have it both ways. Either you regard Jack Pentecost's efforts to recreate the Tin Man as an evil plot, in which case my presence is vital to watch him, or you view the ritual as too risky, in which case there should be nothing to worry about. Either We need to be there or We do not. Please make up your mind."
Colonel Lennox raised her hand to make a point and then stopped, mouth open.
"Conflicted?" Lady Grey asked.
"He's up to something!" the Magdalene finally forced out.
"We certainly hope so," Lady Grey replied. "We did not enlist him because We found him charming. We enlisted him because We judged his abilities more than adequate to Our needs. So far he has not disappointed Us and much of that is due to his scheming mind."
"I don't trust him!"
"And so we come full circle," Lady Grey replied. "Allow Us to put forward this concept - either Jack Pentecost is exactly as he seems, in which case We are in no danger from him - or he is part of a Rikti scheme so byzantine as to defy simple explanation, in which case We doubt he will compromise his double identity until he has fully penetrated Vanguard security and therefore We are in no danger from him currently. Do you follow?"
"I ... yes."
"Then We see no obstacles to Our joining this ritual."
"And what if he is a spy?" the Magdalene asked.
"Catch him at it," Lady Grey replied coldly.
A Disaster Waiting To Happen - Five
Lady Grey led her team of wizards into Storage Bay Nine, now designated as the main incanting area for what had become called "Project: Oil Can" - Jack Pentecost's plan to recreate the Tin Mage using upgraded plans from the Omega Team Memorial. One of the Shield Wizards reached out with both hands and slid the heavy cargo bay doors open, revealing a huge metallic expanse, now empty. At the center of it, Jack Pentecost stood with an industrial laser in his hands, burning complex arcane diagrams into the floor.
"We see you've been busy, Colonel Pentecost," Lady Grey intoned. The sorcerer looked up and spotted the mob of wizards and magicians and smiled his mocking smile.
"I'll be done in a minute, we can start then," he said.
"Usually we use chalk or paint when making mystic circles," one of the captains from the Shield said.
"Chalk can be erased," Jack replied. "Paint can be smeared. There's nothing as horrific as breaking the circle right in the middle of a complex arcane working. You carve something in the floor, it stays."
"What happens when you want to perform a different working?" someone asked.
"Get a new floor," Jack replied. A final stroke of the laser and the last symbol was complete. Pentecost walked across the room and put the device away.
"Colonel Pentecost," Lady Grey said "I would like to introduce you to my circle of wizards."
"Honored," Jack said.
Lady Grey indicated a tall, well-built blonde man with octagonal gold-rimmed glasses and a green suit.
"This is Kensington Francis Chatham," she said. "He is the personal protégé of the Thaumaturge."
"A pleasure, Colonel Pentecost," the man said, extending his hand. Jack shook it and his grip was firm. "I'm hoping to learn a lot from you. We hear all kinds of things about your adventures, back at the Midnight Club."
"I'm sure you'll learn something," Jack said. "Hopefully it'll be something useful."
I'm working with a man who has the same initials as Kentucky Fried Chicken, was all Jack could think, along with, Who names their son Kensington!?
"This is Astarte Cooper," Lady Grey went on. Astarte cooper was a tall, striking black women with a mane of long dark hair and startling green eyes. She was garbed in tight black leather and sported a bright red cape.
"So nice to meet you, Colonel," she said. Her soft voice had a distinctly British accent. "They call me Santeria."
"Welcome to the team," Jack said, shaking hands. The woman's fingers lingered on his just a little too long, and her eyes followed him a little too intently as he turned back to Lady Grey.
"These are Captains Wilcox, Hunter, Daniels, Bradley, Schoenfeld and Greene," Lady Grey said, indicating a row of nearly identical men in nearly identical armor standing at nearly identical parade rest. "My premier wizards from the Shield and the Sword."
"Gentlemen," Jack said, nodding. Amazingly enough, their nods were not identical.
"You may begin, Colonel Pentecost," Lady Grey said.
"Today we're going to enact the ritual designed to empower the new Tin Mage," Jack said, pointing to the center of the room. In the middle of an elaborate series of circles and symbols laid the mechanical body Alex Kord had painstakingly assembled from the parts that Lancers had acquired. "The energies necessary to do this are substantial and it will take the concerted efforts of all of us to control and focus them. Any distraction or loss of concentration could result in disastrous consequences, deadly flashover or potentially a dimensional rift. You've all had time to go over your parts - if anyone wants to opt out, now is definitely the time to do so."
"Wouldn't miss this for the world," Kensington said.
"I'm looking forward to working with you, Colonel," Santeria added.
None of the Vanguard wizards said a word.
"Let us begin," Lady Grey said.
"Places everyone," Jack directed. The wizards and sorcerers wandered throughout the room, each standing in the center of a unique circle. All of the circles were connected by an intricate web work of lines and glyphs that trailed between all of the individual places and spiraled in to the center circle where Jack, Lady Grey and the android form lay.
"Before we get started, any questions?" Jack asked.
"I understand the process," Kensington said . "Of how we're each going to tap our distinct power sources and channel all the energy we can summon to you and Lady Grey, which you'll use to activate the Tin Mage ... but can that much energy be summoned and contained in a human form? Wouldn't the laws of thermodynamics prevent that much energy from being held in any one place."
"You need to think outside of the box," Jack said. "We're going to shift this room outside of the Primal Realm and into the Void before we get to the core of the ritual."
"Okay," Jack said. "You know how there are myriad dimensions?"
"What's between them?"
Kensington Francis Chatham blinked.
"I never thought about it before," he said.
"Nothing?" Captain Wilcox suggested.
"That nothing is called the Void," Jack said. "It's sort of a timeless spaceless place that's co-terminus with every part of the multiverse. Since it doesn't fall within any actual dimension, the normal rules of space and time don't apply there. By suspending ourselves in that Void, we'll be able to access levels of power that are normally beyond the possible."
"Isn't that dangerous?" Santeria asked. "Don't things live in the Void?"
"Well ... there are Void Monsters but they're incredibly rare. I consider it enormously unlikely that we'll ever encounter one."
"You've forgotten something," Lady Grey said.
"Yeah, I guess. There's also the Dweller in the Void."
"The Dweller?" Santeria asked.
"Okay," Jack began. "Above what we'll call the universe as we know it there's a ... a plane of pure white energy. We'll call it that, although you could use any term for it you want. This energy ... ummm ... cascades down through reality as we know it and ... well ... forms the basis of everything in existence. Eventually it .... hrm ... trickles down to a sort of ... erm ... sinkhole at the bottom of Creation where it vanishes.
"This is a very simplistic explanation, you understand?"
"There's this ... Thing that lives right above that sinkhole and draws some of that energy into itself," Jack went on. "Thing might be too strong a term. I'm not sure it's sentient ... or alive. Although it seems to act like it. Maybe. This ... this force seeks to draw more of that energy into itself and if it senses such energies it can ... ummm ... reach out and draw that energy into itself. So it can ... or will .. expend energy to draw a greater amount of energy into itself. You follow?"
Santeria nodded again.
"A sorcerer ... a clever sorcerer can create the appearance of energy and convince the Dweller to reach out for it, then take control of the Dweller's ... ummm ... extension and make use of it for his or her own purposes," Jack smirked. "Both Lady Grey and myself use this technique to fuel some of our own works."
He turned to Lady Grey.
"If you don't mind?" Jack asked.
Lady Grey held out of her hand, palm upwards and stared at it. A tiny high-pitched screeching began and two tiny black tentacles suddenly reached upwards from the center of her palm accompanied by a murky black mist which began to roll off her hand, dissipating before it reached the floor.
"Behold the Dweller," Jack said "or at least a miniscule extension of the Dweller's power. I'm sure you've all seem similar manifestations. Now you know what they were. Do not try this at home, kids. A badly bungled attempt will result in the Dweller sucking you right into the underbelly of the Universe to be devoured. This is for trained professionals, only."
"Where did you learn this technique?" Kensington asked, raising an eyebrow.
"The Rikti Magi were willing to take risks with their prisoners that a sane person wouldn't attempt," Jack replied, his tone sharp and sarcastic. "Okay. Play time is over. Let's get started."
With a snap , Lady Grey's demonstration vanished.
=== === ===
"Hah! Ye cannae defeat me!" MacDice yelled, lunging forward.
"Your optimism is misplaced," Razortail replied.
"4 - 3," MacDice said. "''Tis yer serve."
He tossed the Japanese mutant the ping pong ball. Razortail raised his paddle.
An odd chill made the Scotsman pause and he held still, the tiny hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.
"Something's going on," MacDice said.
"I feel it also," Razortail said.
"Jack must've started his big spell-thingie," Bunni said.
=== === ===
"We're getting a clear signal," Lieutenant Fine said. "I have all of the subjects on video."
A dozen screens displayed Jack and his cohorts as they began their incantations. The Magdalene smiled and rubbed her hands together.
"Lock and record!" she ordered.
Every screen dissolved into static.
"We've lost them," the lieutenant said.
"I hate that man!"
=== === ===
The ritual was working much as Jack had expected. As each of Lady Grey's wizards and sorcerers began to draw power to themselves, the lines around them began to glow. Faintly at first and then wit brighter and brighter light until the floor was covered in a colored mosaic of brilliant energies that writhed around and between the circles.
The circle around Kensington hummed with a brilliant golden energy while that around Santeria glowed an ominous crimson color that flowed around her like some scarlet tide. The Vanguard Captain's circles were a thrumming series of green and blues, mostly, while Lady Grey's half of the main circle was an incandescent violet. Jack's part of the central circle alternated in flickering purples and greens, flashing more vibrantly than the rest.
Guess I'm the only two-tone mage, Jack thought to himself.
As the colors swirled through the etched design, mixing and mingling as energies interacted, the lines began to glow brighter and brighter. Simultaneously, the room seemed to darken, a gradually increasing shadow that went from dusk to twilight to night until the walls and floor became indistinct. Gradually the room itself faded from view until Jack and his compatriots were standing on a complex grid of glowing lines that seemed suspended in endless blackness.
"We're in the Void now," Jack said quietly, his voice almost jarring in the vast emptiness despite its low tone. "Let's start raising the power levels."
Time had no meaning where they were - the room they were in technically no longer even existing - so Jack had no way of knowing how long it took until the lines began to glow so brightly it hurt his eyes to look at it. Sparks began crackling silently from the design, bright luminous specks that slowly faded as they flared away from the symbols. Jack could feel the power beginning to seep through the design to Lady Grey and himself. Reaching out, he immersed himself in the flow - feeling the raw power begin to run up his legs, through his chest, fill his lungs like oxygen until it seemed to surge from his outstretched fingers. He turned to match gazes with Lady Grey and saw her confident nod.
It was time to begin.
=== === ===
Pip Squeak burst into the War Room, her pigtails flying. Her sudden entrance startled Razortail and MacDice's serve bounced right by him.
"Hah! Game an' match!" the Scotsman shouted.
"I was distracted," the mutant said.
"Ye did nae allow me tha' courtesy when Bunni bent over to pick up her pen!" MacDice said.
"Shut up you goons!" Squeak shouted, her pre-teen voice at odds with her tone. "I just saw the Magdalene storming off to where Jack and Lady Grey were with a gun in her hands!"
"She's always stormin' off somewheres," MacDice pointed out.
"Didn't the Colonel say that nobody was to bug him while he and Lady Grey's magic guys were working?" Squeak asked. "Didn't he say it could have 'dire consequences'!?"
Bunni suddenly looked up from her magazine.
"This could be bad," she said. "Let's go everyone."
The Lancers bustled from the room.
=== === ===
The Magdalene's metallic boots clanged off the cold steel floors as she raced down the hallway, the Redding Rifle in her arms loaded with explosive rounds. In her head, she could almost see the execution of her plan ... she would kick the doors to Storage Bay Nine open and if anything ... anything ... was wrong with Lady Grey she would riddle Jack Pentecost's body with so many bullets it would fall into bloody rags.
The doors were in sight and the Magdalene gathered herself when suddenly the Dark Watcher was before her, his hand raised to stop her.
"You cannot force your way into that room," the Watcher said.
"Anything could be happening in there!" the Magdalene shouted.
"In the unlikely event you managed to force your way inside," the Watcher said "your only result would be to most likely doom everyone in the room to immediate and terrible death - including Lady Grey."
"But he... but Pentecost..." the Magdalene began, sputtering.
"I mistrust him as much as you do," the Dark Watcher said "but in this instance you have no choice but to trust Lady Grey's instincts and judgment. As do I."
"But... I... we... you..."
"There is no other option until the ritual is completed," the Watcher said.
For a moment the Magdalene tensed and then she relaxed slowly, lowering the rifle. With a sigh she turned and wordlessly began to walk alone back down the hallway. As she reached the first junction, a half-dozen Lancers came racing forward, only to grind to a halt as they spotted her walking away from Bay Nine, Bubble Bunni ending up in front.
The tall armored Security Chief looked down at the slight, blonde former-dancer who met her eye to eye. The Magdalene wrinkled her nose, as if smelling something unpleasant and, after a moment, walked away without a word.
When the head of Internal Security had vanished from view, Bunni let out a long slow breath.
"I am seriously starting to dislike that woman," she said.
=== === ===
It could have been forever.
It could have been instants.
Jack had lost track of how long he and Lady Grey had fed power into the recumbent android form before them, each alternating the weave and flow as one became tired or uncertain. He had long ago ceased paying any attention to the blazing coruscating design that flared around them in all directions, or the rapidly incanting mages who were drawing power from every corner of the multiverse and funneling it towards them. Jack world was solely the constant heady rush of power being pulled into him and the intricate, careful work of continuously wrapped and winding that flow into, around and through the complex multidimensional machine that was not a machine before him.
Lady Grey was a virtuoso. Myriad streams of energy raced through her, filling her form until it shone like a goddess in the night and her hands moved in deft sure strokes, laying out swathes of Power in a calm array of gestures that were so smooth as to seem effortless.
They were close, so close. The final phase of the ritual began and both Jack and Lady Grey drew upon the seemingly endless fountain of power being fed to them.
The entire swirling structure dimmed and the mages staggered as the flow jumped abruptly. Jack felt his pulse start to race and sweat began to roll off his brow. His breathing became more labored and suddenly he felt dizzy and ill.
Startled, he looked down and somewhere, in the darkness below the darkness something so black as to stand out even in the utter emptiness around them began to writhe and thrash, its form so incomprehensibly inhumanly hideous that to see it would be to go mad.
"The - the Dweller has noticed us," Lady Grey said in a shocked tone.
"Finish it," Jack said. "Finish the ritual, fast. Fast."
He and Lady Grey drew, drew hard, on the power being fed them and went to work, their hands moving like lightning through a long series of gestures, their eyes locked onto the robot body. What had been a long slow serene dance had become a frantic race. Energy crackled around the android, ripples flowing through the lines that blazing in the darkness. The whole design around them seemed to ripple and shudder.
"It's getting nearer," Lady Grey breathed.
"Don't look at it," Jack said.
They both breathed in and drew even more power to them, anxious to finish and a sudden scream interrupted their thoughts. The whole series of circles flared and flickered and someone, one of the Captains - Daniels or Schoenfeld, Jack thought, went up like an iridescent torch, their entire body bursting into mystical flames as they lost control of the powers they attempted to wield.
"Somebody grab that nexus!" Jack shouted, as he attempted to keep control of the wild energies rippling around them. The flaming body staggering around the circle suddenly pitched over and fell - fell through the design and out into the darkness below them, its lambent fires flickering and then vanishing from view. "Focus, damn it! Grab it now!"
Santeria gestured and somehow the empty circle bent around in the design, merging with the circle she herself stood in. The crimson energies coming from her burned ever brighter, the deep red flowing further out into the design before it merged with the colors coming from the other sorcerers. The wavering, rippling distortion of the design seemed to stabilize - for how long Jack didn't know.
"It's getting close," Lady Grey said.
"We better hurry," Jack admitted.
The two of them bent to their task, working in tandem as rapidly as they could as the united powers of the mages flowed into them again.
"That's it," Jack said "that's it."
"No, too tight, too tight," Lady Grey said. "Pull it back."
"Wait, wait, you're losing it."
Something was thrashing beneath them. Something awful...
"I've got it. I've got it."
"The weave is fraying!" Lady Grey snapped.
"You do it!" Jack said.
"I've got it!"
Tentacles were reaching through the design now...
"We're losing it!"
"Hold on a little bit more..."
"I think... I think..."
"Done!" Lady Grey said.
There was a flare of light so bright that it hurt the eyes and suddenly the room was back, the design just etchings on the floor. For a moment the room seemed to spin, the wizards and mages staggered a moment as their senses righted themselves. They looked about startled.
Captain Bradley was gone, his circle simply empty.
Kensington, jaw agape, looked at the center of the room, where a tired and pale Lady Grey and Jack Pentecost stood.
"You have no idea how close that Thing was to you," he said. Lady Grey's cold eyes met his and he realized silently that they had, indeed, known.
"Did it work?" Santeria asked.
Jack took a deep breath and smiled.
"That absolutely worked," he said. He'd never felt a ritual end so surely, so positively complete. He turned to Lady Grey. "It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with you. With all of you."
"With you as well, Colonel," Lady Grey said.
"I need a drink," Jack said. "I need multiple drinks."
"And your Tin Mage?" Lady Grey asked.
"We'll boot him up tomorrow," Jack said. "When we're all sharp and awake."
=== === ===
"What do you mean Fatal Exception Error!?" Jack shouted. He turned from where the android form lay on the lab table and looked over at Maridian. The Vanguard operating theater was packed and dozens upon dozens of people stared down at the center tableau where Jack and some of the Lancers stood.
"The diagnostics are clear," Maridian replied. "A fatal exception error resulted in a kernel panic and the core dumped. Something's not right."
"The whole base shook yesterday," Bunni said in a small voice. "Maybe something knocked loose."
"All of this!?" Jack said angrily. "You mean we went through all of this and I've got a hardware error!?"
A Disaster Waiting To Happen - Six
Kensington Francis Chatham adjusted his glasses and then gently knocked on the door before opening it. Lady Grey's office was a refreshing piece of Old World charm and ambiance and it put the efforts of the Midnight Club to capture the feel of the same era to shame. Lady Grey - striking, charismatic, intimidating - was working at her desk, her eyes not leaving her paperwork and she wrote something on a document. The sheer power the woman radiated was daunting, even when her attention was focused on something else.
"May We help you, Mister Chatham?" Lady Grey asked.
"Here is my report on the ritual we undertook last night," he replied, gingerly placing the paper on the corner of her desk.
"Thank you," Lady Grey said. Kensington shuffled his feet a moment before her desk and coughed. "Is there something else?"
"I had a question," he said, trying to figure out how to phrase it properly.
"Just ask, Mister Chatham," Lady Grey said, seeming to divine his thoughts without even looking at him. "We will not be offended if your wording is not precise."
"Last night..." he began, then stopped. He spun the huge globe in its mahogany stand while he attempted to gather his thoughts. The woman was damn unnerving. "I've studied with the Thaumaturge for several years now. I'm an accomplished wizard. I've taken part in extremely complex Workings ... but I've never seen anything like that."
"We are aware of the complex and challenging nature of Colonel Pentecost's effort," Lady Grey replied. "Despite his somewhat unorthodox approach to matters, the Colonel is amazingly adept at whatever he chooses to turn his hand to - although We would, of course, never tell him that."
"That's what I wanted to - to ask you about," Kensington said. "There were eight of us working with you - eight mages of unusual ability - well ... seven at the end after what happened to poor Captain Bradley - but the bulk of the Working was handled by you and Colonel Pentecost. I can understand how you, Lady Grey, can handle such high levels of Art - you have centuries of experience and have spent them honing your abilities in our craft. How is Colonel Pentecost, with his unusual background and lack of formal training - able to rival your level of ability? I've spent most of my life working with the greatest mages in Western civilization and I couldn't even begin to follow what you and he were doing."
Lady Grey leaned back and her clear bright grey eyes met his. She steepled her fingers before her face and gazed at him over their tips.
"This bothers you, Mister Chatham?" Lady Grey asked. "That Colonel Pentecost has achieved so much, advanced to such a high state in the Art, while your own accomplishments have yet to mirror his?"
"No..." Kensington began but caught himself. "Well, yes, somewhat ... but beyond that ... I don't understand. What has he done to attain such ability? How can someone grow so powerful so fast!?"
"There are ways, Mister Kensington," Lady Grey replied. "Short cuts one may take. The classic route is to make a pact with one or more otherworldy entities in return for power or tutelage - although this is not what Colonel Pentecost has done."
"What has he done?"
"Mister Chatham," Lady Grey replied. "Colonel Pentecost was kidnapped and trained by the Rikti since the age of fifteen. He was systematically tortured by them in order to ... inspire him to master the sorcery they wished to study and learn. I put it to you, first, that pain, while detrimental to many purposes, is an amazing motivator. Second, that of all of the dozens of children so captured by the Rikti and so trained, Colonel Pentecost not only managed to escape, he also revenged himself on his captors and made his way back to Earth. He is unusually driven, you must admit."
Lady Grey sighed.
"Surely the Thaumaturge spoke to you of the risks of burnout, Mister Chatham," Lady Grey said.
"That a sorcerer can attempt to draw and control too much energy too quickly, and damage or utterly annihilate their own abilities?"
"Had Captain Bradley survived last night's ritual, he would have been incapable of any serious Work ever again, you understand that?"
"Colonel Pentecost is expending a lifetime's amount of energy in a few short months," Lady Grey went on. "He is courting burnout. He has been extremely clever about it - his discussion of the Dweller in the Void highlighting one method in which he has found ways to increase the energies available to him, but in the end it is all the same. Burnout. One can do this for a short period of time and wield energies vastly beyond one's native ability to manipulate, but only at a terrible cost. In time, the bill comes due for such efforts, both physically and mentally. This is why he can achieve results you cannot, Mister Chatham and this is why you will be around for many years longer than Colonel Pentecost will. Does that make sense to you, Mister Chatham?"
"Yes," he admitted, stunned by the ice in Lady Grey's tone "but why would he..."
"That is a matter for me and Colonel Pentecost to discuss, Mister Chatham," Lady Grey said. If there is nothing else?"
"Umm, well ... I - no, no there is not."
"Then good day to you, Mister Chatham."
Lady Grey watched the door to her office closed and sighed. She felt the Dark Watcher's presence behind her long before she sensed him.
"You were unusually abrupt with young Kensington," the Dark Watcher said.
"We find envy to be the most repulsive of the negative motivations," Lady Grey replied "and We have never tolerated it well."
"You're becoming quite protective of Colonel Pentecost," the Watcher continued.
"Are We?" Lady Grey replied. "If that is the perception, We must take steps to change the appearance of our interactions."
"I still don't understand your tolerance for him and his freewheeling methods. His efforts last night destroyed Captain Bradley. Surely he was aware that Bradley wasn't of the same caliber as your other Captains, but he continued-"
"No, Watcher," Lady Grey said sadly. "No, that was not a mistake on Colonel Pentecost's part. The mistake was Ours and We fully acknowledge that."
"I don't understand."
"Colonel Pentecost has only been with the Vanguard for a few months," Lady Grey explained "and We have deliberately kept him segregated from the rest of our forces. We went so far as to issue him a Liaison Officer, so that he would not be allowed much face time with the other commanders in Our unit. Colonel Pentecost was aware of his inability to pick able assistance from the Vanguard's sorcerous elements, so he submitted to Us a rather thorough list of the requirements for his Ritual and asked for Our recommendations."
Lady Grey sighed and for the first time in a long time, the Dark Watcher saw regret steal across her face.
"We had originally intended to recommend Captain Culpepper for the Ritual," she went on "but unfortunately he fell ill - chicken pox of all things - and We lacked a suitable replacement with his skill set and experience, so we substituted Captain Bradley - who was bright and innovative. We had hoped that his quickness of thought and intuitive ability would prove an adequate replacement.
"We were wrong."
"Why didn't you wait?"
Lady Grey's bright eyes met his dark ones.
"We didn't want to wait," Lady Grey said. "We wanted to see Pentecost's Ritual enacted. We wanted to understand the sorceries needed to empower the Tin Mage. We were impatient and Captain Bradley paid for Our impatience with his life."
"This isn't like you."
"There's so much going on," Lady Grey sighed. "The threats are multiplying faster than we can assess. We suspect traitors within the Vanguard. The Rikti threat is escalating. There are forces moving against Us that we were unaware of - as you know. As it is, We will need you to begin an extended leave of absence to undertake an exceptionally dangerous mission. We believe a threat even bigger than the Rikti Invasion is looming and We require you to investigate it and determine its potential as a hazard."
"I've worked with you for years now," the Dark Watcher said "and I know you better than most. That's not all of it. Men have been sacrificed in causes before and you didn't bat an eye or shed a tear. What's bothering you?"
Now Lady Grey did look away.
"Oh, Devon..." she said sadly "it was new. It was new. It was new and challenging and We ... I didn't want to wait. So much of what happens is simply variations on a theme - the same old patterns humanity practices playing out again and again. One grows tired of watching them. It was exciting and different and I wanted to see it, I wanted to see it now ... and We did ... and it cost Captain Bradley his life and that is something We shall carry with Us down the long centuries as another painful lesson that was not worth the price. What else can We say? We allowed ourselves a moment of excess and a man died needlessly. We regret that."
"That regret, that sorrow, is what makes you still human," the Watcher said.
"We are aware, thank you," Lady Grey snapped.
"Did you accomplish what you wanted to?" the Watcher asked.
"Certainly," Lady Grey replied, all business again. "We fully understand the rites needed to empower the Tin Mage." She opened a desk drawer and pulled out the original plans Jack Pentecost had handed her weeks ago. "Begin assembling the components. We shall take our team of wizards and practice the Workings privately. Once We are confident everything is in order, We shall begin crafting Our own Tin Mage Mark II. You will need his assistance on your new mission."
Jack Pentecost tossed his shirt onto the bed and sat down. His room was spartan - a bed, a dresser and a wooden flat-topped desk made up most of the furnishings, along with a bookcase filled with military texts whose top was covered in liquor bottles.
Leaning back for a moment, Jack rubbed his temples and picked up the phone. A man had died last night - and for what? For an experiment that didn't work. Jack couldn't bring him back, but he was going to make sure his life hadn't been wasted. He dialed.
"This is Alex," the voice said, picking up on the first ring.
"Jack Pentecost here, kid ... umm ... Alex," he said. "I've got a problem and I'm hoping you've got the solution."
"That android we were working on," Jack said. "It's got a serious issue. Fatal Exception Error - they're telling me something caused a core dump. It's beyond me. I think you're the man."
"Is it a problem on the mumbo-jumbo end?"
"If it were, it wouldn't be beyond me," Jack said. "Looks like hardware or software."
"If it's software, I'm not going to be too much help."
"If it's software, you can at least tell me it is," Jack said. "No one around here can even begin to follow that funky multi-dimensional circuitry you put together."
"Any idea what caused it?"
"I left it out in the street and my dog pissed on it," Jack said. "No. Sorry. It's been a lousy couple of days. Not your fault. If I had any clue what the problem was, we'd be working on it. I need your help."
"You've got it. I'll be there first thing in the morning."
"Aces. I owe you one."
"Bah, don't sue me when I steal from your design and make my own android and we're more than even."
There was a knock at the door. Jack blinked. No one ever visited him - and if anyone ever did, it probably wouldn't be this late.
"Gotta go, Alex. Company."
"Roger dodger, see you in the AM."
Jack hung up the phone and grabbed his shirt off the bed. He stretched into it as he reached for the door.
Santeria was standing in the hallway. She was wearing the same head to toe tight black leather she had during the ritual, although the red cape had been replaced with a red sash. She smiled a wide bright smile when her eyes caught sight of him.
"Mind if I come in?" she asked in that British accent. "I have a few questions. I hope you don't mind the hour. You didn't strike me as an early-to-bed type."
"Make yourself at home," Jack said, gesturing with a wide swing of his arm. "Not that there's all that much to make yourself at home with."
She looked around the room and laughed. It was a rich, deep, throaty sound.
"Military strategy and whiskey," she said. "You don't worry about the little creature comforts in life, do you?"
"Don't really have time for them," Jack said honestly.
"You mind?" Santeria asked, reaching for the scotch.
"Knock yourself out," Jack replied and watched her pour two fingers worth of whiskey into a glass. With an impish grin she tossed it off and poured herself another. At a nod from him, she poured a second glass and handed it to him.
"I assume this is all leading up to something," Jack said.
"Last night," Santeria said "last night, I saw something like I'd never seen before. That ritual, your ritual, was beyond anything I'd ever even heard of. Bradley was no slouch in the magic department and he went up like a roman candle."
"I feel bad about that," Jack admitted. "There must have been a flaw in the underlying design of my matrix. I should have checked it more thoroughly."
"It's not a big deal," Santeria told him. "I pulled the loci back together."
"I wanted to thank you for that," Jack said. "That was tricky work, tricky on the fly work and you pulled it off seamlessly. There's probably a handful of people I know who could've handled that as well as you did. Nice job."
Her green eyes glowed at his praise.
"I'm good," she said, not a boast as much as a recognition of her own ability "but you're better. I want to know what you know. I want to be able to do what you do. Teach me."
Jack sighed and tossed off his own whiskey. Santeria reached for his glass and refilled it.
"You don't want to be like me," Jack said, raising a hand to forestall her protest "and even if you did, you can't. No one can. With time and practice, you can probably learn what I know. That I'll give you."
"Then show me," Santeria said, her eyes burning into his.
The woman radiated naked ambition. Jack had never seen anything like it. He took his glasses off and stared at her, stared at her hard. Her bright eyes met the dire flames of his own and she wasn't bothered in the least.
"You're amazing," she whispered, seemingly even more impressed. "Show me how to do that. Show me how to tap the power of the Dweller. Show me how to wrap the strands of power around myself like you do."
Santeria's aura was a bright, swirling crimson. It pulsed with power but...
"There's something really odd about you," Jack said. "You're ... blocked in some way. What happened?"
Now she looked away.
"Tell me," Jack said.
"My first teacher, Babalawo, taught me much," Santeria said. "He was a man of great knowledge and power but I was eager in my studies. He was afraid I would surpass him, so he cursed me. He blocked my power and-"
"Try again," Jack said. "This time try the truth."
Santeria opened her mouth to protest but she caught the look in Jack's blazing eyes and slowly closed her lips. After a moment, she nodded.
"He said I was ambitious," she said. "He said I lacked a solid moral foundation. He said my need for power could lead me down dark pathways and that without guidance I could become something dangerous and unpleasant. He refused to teach me anymore and when I said I would go and learn from someone else he - he - he put a forbidding on me. I can't use my power aggressively. I can't use it actively against anyone."
Jack cocked an eyebrow.
"And you can't break this block?" he asked.
"No, I can't!" she almost shouted. "It's not like I haven't tried! Everything I do, the tighter it gets!"
"Pretty ballsy," Jack said. "Joining the Vanguard in the middle of a war if you can't hurt anybody."
"Oh, I can still hurt people," Santeria said with a sly grin. She made a quick gesture with both hands and suddenly she was holding two large caliber pistols. "I can certainly hurt people..."
"I see you've mastered the gun trick," Jack said dryly. "I do the same thing only with me it's a big revolver."
"... I just can't do it with magic!" Santeria finished. "All this power and I can't use it!"
"It's interesting you define using it as hurting people," Jack said.
"It's a dangerous world and to survive in it you need real power. I'm a young hot sorceress. Do you know what happens to young hot sorceresses?" she asked him, her voice angry. "They get kidnapped and abused by the Hellions. They get taken by the Circle and end up possessed. Vahzilok try and steal their organs. Arachnos wants to turn them into Fortunatas or weird tarantula-women. The more powerful you are, the more you can actually do - the more they want to take advantage of you. Don't you tell me about how you don't need to use your power against others, Mister Hot-and-Cocky-and-I-blew-up-an-entire-city! If I can't use my power to take care of myself - what good is it!?"
"Point taken," Jack said. "I assume you've had others look into your little problem?"
"I spent a year working for Mr. Bocor in Port Oakes," Santeria said. "He talked and talked and talked about omens and orishas and provenance and the proper alignment of power - but he never did anything! I got tired of him and his blather and his dumb tasks and finally left. He didn't even seem to care - said my time with him was over and that my path would take me elsewhere. Bastard!"
"I tried talking to a couple of other sorcerers," Santeria said. "None of them seemed interested ... or they seemed way too interested. Dangerously interested. The only one who looked promising was Talshak - but he said I'd have to work with him guarding this mystic gateway beneath the Hollows for at least a year before he'd have the time to try. A year! I can't spend a year in some tunnels with the Trolls and the Magmites. I've got so much to do!"
"And so you came here..."
"Everyone knows that Lady Grey has real power," Santeria said "and I've seen what some of those Vanguard sorcerers could do. Lady Grey - she doesn't play around. If it works, if it gets the job done, she's good with it. I'm willing to do what it takes. So here I am."
"And she couldn't help you?"
"She's too busy," Santeria replied. "She didn't lie to me, or lead me on - she said she was in the middle of something big and couldn't even be bothered to look at me right now - but that if I came back in a couple of months, she might be able to see what she could do."
"And you stuck around?"
"Lots of wizards here," Santeria said "and the Vanguard has good connections. It seemed like a good place to stay and see who I could find ... and I found you."
"And now we come to it," Jack said.
"Indeed," Santeria replied, moving closer. Her hips swayed as she walked.
"You've got what looks like a big knot tied right through your aura," Jack said, clinically.
"Mmm-hmm," she said. She rested her arms on his shoulders, her face coming near to his.
"I'm not sure how to untie it," Jack said. "I'm not even sure where to start."
Santeria ran the back of her calf up along the back of Jack's right leg until her thigh was perpendicular with the floor and her leg was wrapped around his ass.
"Maybe you could look into figuring out how to untie me," Santeria said and her lips met his. She tasted of cinnamon and spice and scotch and she was a damn good kisser - at least based on Jack's limited experience. Jack reached up and ran his hand through her hair until he got the back of her head and then he slowly made a fist and gently pulled her head back. She looked surprised as he broke the kiss.
"Look, hot stuff," Jack said, taking a step back out of her embrace "this isn't a good idea on any level. I don't need an apprentice, I don't need an understudy, and sorcerers who fool around with hot young sorceresses they're tutoring tend to end up very badly."
Santeria laughed a wicked laugh.
"You think I'm going to pull a Merlin on you?" she asked. "I'm not Nimue."
"I don't know and I don't have time to find out," Jack said. "We do have chemistry, I'll give you that, but you're ambitious and you're dangerous and a little fun-time bouncy-bouncy doesn't obscure that."
"So you won't help me?" Santeria almost snarled.
"Not right now," Jack said. "You take a little time and show me that there's more to you than the will to power and some wicked charisma and we'll talk."
"Why does everybody say that!?" Santeria wailed and for the first time Jack caught a glimpse of the fear and hurt inside of her.
"Because it's what you need to do," he said. "You're a mystical trainwreck waiting to happen and no one's going to get involved with that until they're sure you're going to stay on the tracks. That clear enough?"
"It's clear enough, you sarky bastard," Santeria snapped, slamming her glass down on his desk. "I don't need you or your sorry bunch of amateur adventurers! You have no idea what you just passed up, Mister Pentecost! You'll regret this day, never doubt it!"
She stormed for the door and flung it open.
"Hey, hot stuff," Jack said. Santeria paused in the doorway and turned to look at him. "When you're done putting your mad on, take a deep breath and give it some thought. You pull your act together and show me a real human being and act like maybe there's more to life than burning through the tomes of power as fast as you can and we'll see about getting your mojo unstuck."
"Drop dead!" Santeria shouted and slammed the door.
"I knew she'd have to get in the last word," Jack muttered and finished off his drink. He sank into the room's only chair and cursed. The first live one in years and she had to be crazy, self-centered and greedy. Not a good way to end the day. He sighed.
Time for sleep. Alex Kord would be over in the morning and hopefully he could solve the core dump problem with the new Tin Mage. Then maybe Jack could get some help with his own mysterious mystical affliction.
A Disaster Waiting To Happen - Seven
A lone figure climbed to the top of an abandoned building in Pavia and began to signal. Nowhere inside the Vanguard compound was safe for this and even outside, in the War zone, there were dangers. The risk of being intercepted was immense - but the message couldn't wait anymore.
The unit beeped, indicating the encryption parameters had been successfully negotiated.
"This is Central," a tinny voice said. The device modulated tone so it was impossible to tell if the person speaking was male or female, young or old.
"This is Anlace," the figure said into the device.
"I have confirmed: Project: Oil Can is a recreation of the Tin Mage. Pentecost has nearly completed his efforts and the unit should be operational shortly."
"And the plans?"
"I am unable to obtain the designs," the one called Anlace replied. "Security is extremely tight around Oil Can and my clearance does not allow me unrestricted access. A physical theft entails significant risk."
"Negative Anlace. Continue to monitor and report."
"The second objective?"
"Security around Pomfroy's teleportation device has increased dramatically since Protean's attack on the lab," Anlace reported. "Access to equipment and personnel is possible, but will divert time and attention from Oil Can. Request additional resources if both efforts are to continue."
"Additional personnel are already on site, Anlace," the voice replied. "Access codes are being downloaded to you now. You will initiate contact with new operative, designation Razor, tomorrow at noon."
"Confirmed, Central. Razor's objective?"
"Razor will focus on secondary objective," the voice said. "Your primary goal will remain Project: Oil Can."
=== === ===
Jack Pentecost stared at the table where the new Tin Mage lay. The top of the android's head was off and wiring and computer chips lay all around the metallic cranium. The kid, Alex Kord, had dashed off to get some lunch after Jack had reminded him he hadn't eaten in twelve hours, but overall he seemed extremely optimistic that the new chips had solved the hardware problem.
Jack was afraid to be hopeful. There was still a very good chance that something else could go wrong. Kord had assured him that most experimental systems went through multiple rounds of testing and redesign prior to "going live".
An armored white form sat down on the table and Jack was started to see the Magdalene sitting there, she crossed her arms and stretched out her legs, looking down at him in his chair.
"Doesn't look much like the old one," she said. "The frame is different."
"That's because we used solenoids instead of pneumatic or hydraulic relays," Jack said. "Much less bulky."
"Solenoids," the Magdalene mused.
"...that and there have been amazing advances in solid state electronics," Jack went on. "It's kind of over my head but apparently the old design had an issue with memory - data storage. This new one has almost no moving parts. I don't know. I can't explain it."
"Solid state," the Magdalene said, her blue eyes roving over the recumbent metal form.
Jack smirked his lopsided smirk.
"You didn't come down here to discuss techno-wizardry with me," he said. "What do you want?"
"Santeria entered your quarters at 12:47 AM last night," the Magdalene said bluntly. "She left at 12:54 AM."
"You keeping tabs on me?" Jack asked.
"We 'keep tabs' on everyone," the Magdalene said "but in this particular instance, it's her we've been watching."
"You're tracking Santeria?" Jack asked.
"Ms. Cooper has spent quite a bit of time in the Rogue Isles," the Magdalene explained. "She's been affiliated with a number of dark covens and mystical cabals in a very short timeframe. She's been present or in close proximity to a number of suspicious incidents since she initially surfaced three years ago. Internal Security rates her risk index as high."
"So you don't trust her?"
"I would very much like to know what you and she discussed before she left your room so abruptly last night."
"You don't know?"
"I'd like your description of events," the Magdalene said without batting an eyelash.
"None of your business," he said.
"It's all our business, Colonel Pentecost," the Magdalene said. "Would you care to know what Santeria did after she left your room at 12:54 AM?"
"Actually, no," Jack said.
The Magdalene blinked, startled. Pentecost was serious. He didn't want to know. She couldn't comprehend that attitude. The need to know, to understand, to have your finger on everything going on around you - was central to her universe. If you didn't know everything, then things could get out of control.
"She went down to the armory and spent some time blowing up practice drones..." the Magdalene said. Her voice became harsh. "...then she went outside and sat down behind a dumpster and cried. I'll say it again - I would very much like to know what you and she discussed before she left your room so abruptly last night."
"Get lost," he said. The Magdalene's intense expression collapsed into an angry scowl. "You people creep me out. Seriously. Leave the poor girl alone."
"No," Jack snapped. "Go and snoop around someone else. She didn't do anything or say anything that posed a security threat, Colonel Lennox. Have a nice day."
"I know better than to bring this matter to Lady Grey," the Magdalene said. "She'll only side with you - for now. One day, Colonel, I'm going to get to the bottom of all this..."
"You do that," Jack said, turning back to the android on the table.
"Have fun playing with your solenoid sorcerer," the Magdalene snapped. She jumped to feet and stalked out of the room, her boot footsteps leaving echoes behind her.
"Solenoid sorcerer," Jack said, rubbing his chin. "You know ... that's not bad..."
=== === ===
The Thaumaturge looked like the quintessential college professor - which he was. Tweed jacket, glasses, waving brown hair just starting to grey at the temples - all he needed was pipe stuck in his mouth to complete the image. Nigel Nelson Niedrigh has spent decades studying arcane and occult theory, and was considered the leading expert in matters mystical - at least from a theoretical standpoint. As far as Lady Grey was aware, the Thaumaturge had never actually performed a rite of magic.
"This is remarkable," he was saying, looking over the designs and diagrams. The walls of the meeting room were covered with copies of the plans for the Tin Mage, and the wooden table was filled with mystical paraphernalia.
"We concur," Lady Grey said. "Your thoughts?"
"Many of these components are quite rare and difficult to obtain," the Thaumaturge said. "It may take some time."
"We have an excess," Lady Grey replied. "Colonel Pentecost was quite diligent in his efforts. He and his team obtained far more of all of the ingredients than were needed."
"Then it's simply a matter of time and energy," the mage went on. "I would suggest waiting until the auspices are correct. The autumnal equinox should be perfect."
"We shall begin the arrangements," Lady Grey said. "Would Mister Chatham be interested in participating again?"
"I'm certain young Kensington would like to have another go at it," the Thaumaturge said. "He seemed quite keen on your last rite."
"We shall make all the arrangements," Lady Grey said.
"I would very much like to examine your Tin Mage when your efforts are completed," the Thaumaturge said.
"I see no issues with that," Lady Grey replied.
A Disaster Waiting To Happen - Eight
Internal Testing Completed ... Check One Passed ... Check Two Passed ... Power OK...
Bootstrap Loader v.220.127.116.11 checking ... BIOS located at FFF0h...
Power On Self-Test Completed ...
SweeneyBIOS v.9.7.5 10-12-2008 SN# 556798334 Loaded...
Loading SensorROM... Done
Loading Field Actuator ROM... Done
Loading Grimoire ROM... Done
Loading Transspatial ROM... Done
Checking for Devices...
Loading Personality ROM from Flash Memory...
He opened his eyes and looked around while the Ring Zero processes continued to boot his core systems. After a moment the GyroStabilizer code loaded and he was able to raise himself off the table and look around. A tall man with a mop of unkempt reddish-brown hair and yellow glasses was sitting and staring at him.
"I . have . knowledge . but . no . memories," he said and his voice sounded strange. Either something was wrong with his vocoder or his audio pickups were off. A thought occurred to him. "My . internal . clock . indicates . that . the . year . is . 2010. That . is . eight . years . since . Omega . Team. traveled . to . the . Rikti . Homeworld. I . am . not . the . original . Tin. Mage."
"No," the man said in a low intense voice. "We found the plans to the Tin Mage when we opened the Omega Team Memorial in 2009. I used those plans to build you."
He sat up and looked at himself. He didn't recognize a thing. He raised his hands before his face and worked the mechanical digits. Everything was different.
"I . do . not . recognize . myself," he said.
"There have been huge advances in computer science, metallurgy, engineering and sorcery since Omega Team launched," the man explained. "We've made substantial upgrades to the original design. The details are in a file stored in flash at AAA0h."
He uploaded the file and was amazed. Who ever imagined they'd be able to fit so many cores inside a single chip?
"May . I . have . some . clothes?" he asked.
"The . mark . of . sentience . in . human .civilization . is . clothing," he explained. "An . animal . or . an . appliance . goes . naked. A . person . is . clothed."
"Gotcha," the man said. "Lemme get you something."
The man spoke into a small device briefly.
"Five minutes and we'll have something for you," he said when he was done. "I don't guarantee it'll be a perfect fit. We'll have to get you a tailor."
He slid his legs off the table and after a moment, stood. Internal balance was perfect. He felt good.
"Where . am . I?" he asked.
"Oh, sorry," the man said. "This is the Vanguard Compound in the Rikti War Zone-"
"War. Zone? Not . the. Crash. Site?"
"There was a second invasion in 2007," the man explained. "It's called the War Zone now."
"I'm sure you've got a lot to catch up on," the man said. "My name's Jack Pentecost."
"I. will . need. a. new. name," he said. "The . Tin. Mage . is . gone ; I . am . not . him."
"I've been thinking about that," Jack Pentecost said. "I have some suggestions. I don't want to force anything on you."
"I . appreciate . that."
The door to the room opened and a petite oriental woman with glasses entered the room. She was wearing a Vanguard duty uniform and held a bundle of clothes.
"This is your steel sorcerer?" she said, looking him up and down.
"That . designation . will . be . fine," he said.
"You're not really made from steel," Jack Pentecost said. "It's mostly an impervium-osmium alloy."
"The . Tin . Mage . was . not . made . from . tin. either," he said. "It . will . be . fine."
"I was thinking the Solenoid Sorcerer, myself," Jack said.
"I . will . reserve . that . for . my . personal . designation," he explained.
"When . I . fill . out . my . HR-4 - my . Hero. Registration . Form - I . will . use . 'The . Steel . Sorcerer' . as . my . registered . name. For . my . identity , I . will . use . the . name . Sam . Solenoid."
"Sam Solenoid!?" he said. "Sam Solenoid the Steel Sorcerer!? It sounds like a Saturday morning cartoon."
"I . happen . to . like . it," he replied.
"Far be it from me to argue," Jack said. "Sam Solenoid, meet Lieutenant Michiko Kaneko."
"An. honor," he said.
"For me as well," she replied, smiling. "I've got your clothes here."
The outfit consisted of a baggy pair of grey cargo pants, black combat boots, and a grey military vest.
"I didn't think any of the Colonel's shirts would fit you," Michiko explained. "Your torso is quite large."
"Colonel Pentecost is the head of the Vanguard Lance," Michiko said.
"We'll get you something more appropriate later," Colonel Pentecost said. "Once we get your sizes figured out."
"That . would . be . greatly . appreciated," he replied, shrugging into the vest. It took him a minute to put on the pants and then he straightened out. "How . do . I . look?"
"Like a robo-roughneck," Jack said. "We'll try for something a little more formal later."
"Do . you . have . a . mirror?"
He looked himself over and was shocked. He raised his hands to his face.
"I . am . much . more . handsome . than . I . recall," he said. "Where . is . my . beard?"
"That old robotic faceplate looked like something out of the Terminator," Jack said "and without the facial hair, it was just plain mean. I didn't know if you wanted a beard or mustache, so I left them off - we can have them added on if you'd like. I asked this kid genius we worked with - Alex Kord - to see what he could do regarding your face and this is what he came back with. I rather liked it."
"I . much . prefer . it," he said. "We . shall . forego . the . facial . hair . for . now."
"Good call," Jack said. "I'm sure you have a lot of questions."
"First . and . most . importantly," he said. "Why . did . you . remake . me?"
"Michiko, Jack said "would you excuse us?"
"Of course, sir," she replied and turned to him. "It was very nice meeting you."
"You . as . well."
Jack waited until she left and the door was closed before he sat down.
"The official reason," he said "that I had you rebuilt was, quite simply, we need help with the war. New fronts are expanding and the additional of a sentient spell processor was just too good an idea to pass up."
"And . the . unofficial . reason?"
"I have a problem..." he began.
=== === ===
Serene and pure, cold as ice and hard as stone, Santeria floated above the battlefield. A patrol from Point du Hoc had fallen afoul of a Rikti assault team. The odds had been even until a Rikti Communications Officer had called in reinforcements. Now portals were opening and a horde of Rikti conscripts were pouring out, guns ready. Santeria had caught some of the chatter on the command channel and had taken to the air immediately.
Her red cloak swirling around her, she swooped down from the sky to land amongst the beleaguered Vanguard soldiers. Her first spell healed their wounds, her second accelerated their reflexes and reactions. She gestured and suddenly the Rikti were choking and coughing.
"Better move fast, Sergeant," she told the squad's leader "the spell won't last forever."
"On it, ma'am!" the man said, and started barking orders. The sharp high-pitched whipcrack gunfire of the Vanguard's accelerator rifles filled the air. "Lucky you happened by, ma'am."
"Not luck, Sergeant," she said. "I was listening in on your command band."
A purple-green energy pulse burned by, inches from her face, and left the collar of her cloak smoldering. Santeria swore. She flexed her wrists and there were pistols in her hands.
"Will you please get rid of these nuisances!" Santeria snapped. "That cloak was expensive!"
"On it, ma'am!"
Santeria's guns blazed and a hail of bullets found the Rikti officer. He collapsed in a bloody heap. The Vanguard soldiers charged and after a few minutes of intense gunplay, the Rikti assault squad was scattered. The sergeant came stumping back to where Santeria stood and pulled his helmet off, revealing a broad square face with a sweaty heap of blond hair on top.
"Just wanted to thank you again, ma'am," he said "we looked like goners there, and that's the damn truth."
"No thanks are needed, Sergeant," Santeria said. "I need to think and sometimes I find my head is clearest after something like this."
"Combat does work wonders for helping you focus on what's important," the man said.
"It does indeed," Santeria replied, taking to the air again. "Keep out of trouble until you get back to the fort."
"We'll try ma'am."
The sergeant and his small squad faded as Santeria floated skyward. The brief battle had cleared her head - if only in a small way. She needed advice, Santeria realized. She needed someone to talk to.
The problem now was figuring out who.
=== === ===
"We expect there to be significant problems in establishing an undetected portal in the area," Lady Grey said, looking at the Dark Watcher.
"Less than you would think,” he replied in his unearthly voice. "I can transfer the initial generator and equipment myself."
"That does simplify matters," Lady Grey said. There was a hard knock on the door to her office and before she could say anything it opened and the Magdalene walked in.
"Jack Pentecost had activated his Tin Mage," she snapped. "Did you authorize this?"
"Most certainly not!" Lady Grey said. "We were under the impression that We would be in attendance."
"He's with his mechanical marvel in the Autonomics Lab," the Magdalene said.
"We shall look into this immediately!"
=== === ===
The Steel Sorcerer's eyes glowed with a luminous lavender light. It played over Jack Pentecost, roving up and down until he had taken in the man's entire form.
"I . see . the . problem," he said. "The . contamination . is . extreme."
"It's getting worse," Jack admitted.
"I . am. unfamiliar . with . the . condition . but . the . prognosis . is . obvious . and . is . not . good."
"I'm well aware," Jack said, dryly.
"Your . solution . is . extremely . innovative . but . in . the . long . run . will . prove . enormously . detrimental."
"Look ... Sam," Jack said and then shook his head. "I don't think I can call you 'Sam'. Sorry. My brother was named Sam. He died during the Rikti War. I never even got to attend the funeral..."
"I . did . not . mean . to . bring . back . bad .memories."
"Not your fault," Jack said. "I'll call you ... Solly - if you don't mind."
"I . am .amenable."
"Look, Solly," Jack said. "I'm dying. I know it. There's something wrong with the way I do magick. It's got to be something ... something weird I picked up when I learned sorcery on the Rikti homeworld..."
"There . is . an . eldritch . contamination . woven . throughout . your . aura," Solly said. "It . must . be . something . incongruous . in . every . spell . you . cast. It . has . permeated .every . facet . of . your . being."
"I've been trying everything I can think of," Jack said "and all I've managed to do is ... fend it off."
"You . have . been . amazingly . clever," Solly said. "I . can . See . the countermeasures . you have . taken. Some . of . them . are .remarkable. You . are . even . using . the . energies . of . the . contaminating .agent . to . block . itself."
"Yeah," Jack admitted. "It took me a while to figure that out."
"That . is . ultimately . self-defeating," Solly said. "While . it . will . reduce . the . effects . in . the . short . term , it . also . exposes . you . to . constant . contamination."
"The alternative is to give up magick," Jack said.
"Were. you . to . cease . practicing . sorcery . you . would . likely . die . immediately," Solly said.
"I kind of suspected that," Jack said "but look, I've got an idea - a way to purge the contamination from my system entirely. The problem is it's too complex, the math is too advanced for me..."
Jack Pentecost launched into an esoteric explanation of mystical theory that taxed Solly's databanks. After a few sentences they moved to a whiteboard and began drawing complex arcane diagrams. After several minutes Solly caught on to Jack's idea and began processing while the mage continued his diagrams and explanations. He waited until Jack wound down and looked at him expectantly.
"I . cannot . help . you," Solly said.
"It won't work?" Jack said sadly.
"I . do . not . know," Solly said. "Even . with . my . advanced . processing . capacity . I . will . not . be . able . resolve . your . equations . for . ten . point. six . years."
"Ten and a half years!?" Jack asked.
"You . will . not . live . that . long," Solly said.
"Damn it!" Jack looked away. "I thought I had it."
"There . is . an . alternative . solution," Solly said.
"My . files . indicate . there . have . also . been . amazing . advances . in .networking . and . cloud . computing," he said.
"A . networked . array . of . Tin . Mages . configured . properly . could . share . the processing," Solly said "thus . greatly . reducing . the . time . required . to . resolution."
"How many Tin Mages?" Jack asked.
"Seven . should . be . able . to . resolve . the . equations . in . less . than . two months," Solly said. "More . than . seven . and . the . law . of . diminishing . returns . begins . to . take .effect."
"I could never repeat that ritual seven times," Jack said. "Hell, I don't think the rest of the team could handle doing two or three more. They'd all fry like bacon in a skillet ... on the other hand, this wouldn't require the full Tin Mage design - it would need the processing capability and the arcane libraries, not the fusion core and the spell matrix..."
"A . more . limited . incanting . core . and . a . reduced . power . source . would . still . allow . for . spell . processing . and . be . more . amenable . to . mass . production," Solly said.
"Solly, you're a genius!" Jack said.
"You . are . rather . intellectually . gifted . yourself , Colonel," Solly replied.
"I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," Jack said.
The door banged open and Lady Grey stormed into the room, thunderclouds dancing on her brow.
"We were informed that you had activated the Tin Mage without Us but We did not believe it," she said. "We are not amused!"
"Lady . Grey," Solly said. "You . are . every . bit . as . beautiful . and . commanding . as . my . records . had . indicated."
"We cannot hold your impromptu activation against you," Lady Grey said, her eyes taking in every detail of the Steel Sorcerer "but flattery will get you nowhere."
"Lady Grey," Jack said. "We ... well ... we're going to need seven more."