Gender: N/A Age: N/A Location: N/A
|Introduction: Not my story|
Trouble is a constant companion
Almost worse than the humiliation and dishonor caused by the defeat was the interview that Ron had to sit through the next day. He had promised Melissa that he would make himself available after the battle, and he would not go back on his word simply because he’d made an ass of himself.
“So, General, what went wrong at yesterday’s battle?”
“Well, basically, Melissa, I screwed up. I was responsible for yesterday’s battle plan. I did not foresee some of the tactics that the Russians would use against us.”
“I see.” She had to ask the next question, and she hated it, because she had begun to like the man. “How many lives did yesterday’s battle cost you?”
Ron’s face darkened as he fought the emotional content of that question. He managed to get it under control without much of an outward display. He shifted himself slightly in his chair as he said, “We lost two hundred and seventy-seven brave people last night, Melissa.”
“What are you going to tell their families?”
“I’ve already spoken to their families. I told them why the mission was important. I told them how their sons and daughters, spouses and parents, fought bravely and died for their country. I told them all of the same crap that commanding officers have probably been telling families for hundreds of years.” That he had never expected to have to be the one to tell them was not something he wanted to say on the air.
Melissa was glad to have this phase of the interview over. She hadn’t really wanted to bring it up, but her producer would have had a fit if she hadn’t. “So, General, where do we go from here?”
“Well, first thing is to learn from last night’s mistakes. We’ll study our battle plan, and see what went wrong, and what went right. Then we’ll work out new tactics to counter that. It’s the way war is waged: you make mistakes, you pick up the pieces, and you learn. Unfortunately, in the process of learning, some people are lost to those mistakes. I have to live with that now.”
“Where do you think the Russians will strike next?”
“We have some information about that, but I can’t reveal it here, as that would compromise our sources. No city is safe while these bastards are running loose in our country.”
Melissa continued her interview, moving from question to question, glad to have the hard part over, and hoping Ron would understand the necessity of having had to ask those questions. She could not know that Ron had been asking himself those questions all night long, and would continue to ask them for some time to come.
Kimberly, Lars and Karen watched the interview from behind the camera, which was set up in the study of Ron’s house. Lars watched impassively, simply observing the process. Karen was still shocked and saddened by last night’s events. Both of them took an interest in Kim’s reaction to the interviewer’s questions. When he was asked about casualty numbers, and in essence blamed for them, Kim’s hands balled into fists so tight that her knuckles were white. Her mouth set in a distinctive frown, and her eyes intensified to the point of almost glowing.
Kim demanded of the others.
The other two could see she was close to tears on the matter. Karen reached over and placed a caring hand on her forearm.
Kimberly nearly shouted in her thoughts. Lars and Karen shared a look, and a thought.
Kimberly looked at him, thinking it through. How can I help him, when I myself still have such doubts? We all depended on his strength too much. We pushed him too hard.
she told Lars and Karen. They simply nodded back at her. There was enough blame to go around for this day.
The day’s ugliness was not over simply because Melissa and Rick had packed their gear. Ron forced himself to visit the injured. To stop and speak, however briefly, to each and every last person that had fallen last night. He shook his head in disbelief as he looked down at Jeff, lying in bed, bandaged. He would heal, but it would take time. Even Ron’s healing energies couldn’t correct the myriad of problems around him in anything less than several weeks.
“Looks like you zigged when you should have zagged, Jeff,” Ron said, trying to brighten his friend’s mood. Jeff started to laugh, but the pain that caused made him cough instead.
“Oh, shit. Yeah... well, I got my bag limit last night, I guess.”
“How many?” Ron asked, knowing the man needed a chance to brag, just a little.
“I lost count after six, but I think it was around ten or twelve.”
“Good work. We figure they lost around two hundred twenty troops. Not quite as many as us, but we’ll do better next time.”
“Hope I’m up for it, sir,” Jeff answered, trying to lie straighter in the bed.
“You just worry about getting healed, Jeff. Take it easy.” With that, Ron moved on. The hospital staff admired Ron for the effort. Nothing helped healing more than knowing that the person you fought for actually gave a damn. They could also see the pain that this visit caused their commander, and they worried about that. But it wasn’t their place to deal with it.
It was three days later when the post-action scout arrived at PPA headquarters. He was exhausted, bedraggled, and tired, and Ron ordered him off to be checked, and to rest. The information could almost certainly wait until the next day.
When the man was fully rested, he reported to Ron’s office. Kim, Lars, Karen, and Shelley were present. Cindy came in with refreshments for everyone, and he motioned her to stay. She stood behind him, right next to Kim. They both shared a look, and a brief smile, at their similarity of position.
“Okay, Tom. Tell us what you saw,” Ron ordered.
Sergeant Tom Crystal was twenty-two years old, just out of college with a Computer Information Systems degree. His longish blonde hair fell into his eyes, and he flipped it back, trying to stand straight, but his injuries and his weariness prevented him from doing a proper job. Ron motioned him to a chair, and he gratefully slumped into it. His long legs stretched out in front of him, and his hands folded in his lap. Everyone in the room waited patiently for him to speak.
“Sir, the stuff they did... I’m not even sure if I can describe it out loud.”
Ron looked thoughtful for a moment. He wasn’t sure he wanted to do what he was thinking about, but it was the best, fastest, and most accurate way to get the information.
“Broadcast it to us, then.”
“Yes, sir.” And so the terror began...
... He was hiding amid the rubble, trying to keep as much to himself as possible. Two Russians had already presumed him dead, and passed him by, so he figured his little trick of playing dead, lowering his heart rate and stopping his breathing for long periods of time, worked. It allowed him to observe the aftermath, without being in too much danger.
What he saw turned his blood cold. They were rounding up the remaining citizens of Philadelphia. Most of the people had, intelligently, left the city. Many had not. There were people of every age and race and social status. They were all being roughly moved to the waterfront. Tom had to assume this was simply because there was enough open space there. There were several thousand people left in the city.
He had to follow, as that was where all of the Russians were moving, as well. He kept to the shadows, masking his psionic powers, not using them at all, as he moved silently behind the last Russians, marching east toward the Delaware River. He watched as people who slowed too much were prodded, and whipped by one psionic’s extension. He was driving them like cattle toward the slaughter, and Tom only hoped that wasn’t what he was about to witness.
Once all the people had been driven to the water’s edge, she appeared. Tom knew her only as Zinaida, as he was not aware of her history with Ron. She arrived from the sky, dressed in a black, tight-fitting outfit. Her auburn hair rested against her shoulders, and her eyes burned like fire. She walked up to the nearest man, a man of importance from the way the crowd deferred to him. She spoke to him softly, words that Tom could not hear. The man nodded to her politely, deferentially. He sought no trouble from her, he was giving her everything she wanted. It mattered not at all.
Zinaida’s hands flew over the man’s body, striking him in a dozen places. Even from his post two hundred yards away, Tom could hear the bones snapping. The man cried out in agony as he collapsed to the ground. A woman, standing next to the man, stood up to Zinaida in defiance. Probably his wife, Tom thought. Zinaida stoically absorbed the woman’s tirade for about ten seconds, then reached over and snapped the woman’s head around so that she could see behind her, before she fell to the ground, dead. Tom nearly gasped, but caught himself. There were three guards not ten yards from him, and he would have absolutely no chance of escape at this juncture.
“Bring it to me!” Zinaida bellowed, and four psionics, low on the totem pole to be given such a menial job, carried out an object that Tom did not immediately recognize. When he finally realized what it was, his blood boiled. Those bastards! The object in question was the Liberty Bell, taken from its pavilion across the street from Independence Hall.
Zinaida ran her hands over the metal of the bell, feeling its texture, letting her hands trace the words. She read the inscription on the bell, and laughed.
“This country will have no liberty! We shall rule with an iron fist!” And with that, her energy poured into the bell, and it shattered into dozens of pieces, the shrapnel flying into the crowd, killing eight people instantly, so strong was the blast.
Zinaida turned to her troops, and, in a very American way, said, “Party time!”
What followed turned Tom’s stomach. The revelry and carousal that followed sickened him. The women and men of Philadelphia were being used, as if they were nothing more than mere toys for the amusement of the Russian soldiers. Soldiers? These aren’t soldiers. These are animals!
He saw one man who was using his extension to fuck three women – and one man – all at the same time. Others were doing depraved things to small children. Most of them were killing their victims when they had finished with them. Zinaida sat above it all, watching, but not participating. She bore a serene smile on her face, as if it was all a pleasure to her.
Tom slipped away as quietly as he could...
... “And that’s what happened afterward, sir,” Tom said, shuddering at the memory of it. Cindy thought she was going to be sick. Kimberly was shocked at the depth of their depravity. The rest were likewise upset. Ron, however, was pissed.
Shelly managed to ask, “How did you get injured? And what took you three days to get back here?”
“On the way back I ran into a small unit of Russians. I managed to dodge and hide until they gave up looking for me, but it was a hell of a struggle.”
As Ron sat subdued, Lars did something he should not have done. He knew it at the time, and did it anyway. “You watched all that, and did nothing to help those people?”
“What would you have liked me to do, Colonel? It was one on, oh, about eight hundred or so!”
Ron let that argument funnel into his consciousness, and his anger grew. “Please stop,” he said, almost in a whisper. The only people who heard him were Kim and Shelly. The argument continued. He repeated himself only slightly louder, this time Cindy heard him, and Karen. They all knew there was trouble coming, but they couldn’t stop these two who had, for some completely unknown reason, locked into a terminal battle of words. Ron had all he could take.
“Shut the fuck up!” He bellowed. Everyone in the room actually took a step backwards as his rage surged over their bodies, actually tangible in form. The room was filled with silence, the two arguers ghostly white. “I don’t need this kind of goddamned bickering in the ranks!” Ron’s fury was evident, his eyes were wild. “We have enough problems without being at each other’s throats. Colonel,” Ron said vehemently, using the title for a reason, “You should fucking well know better! That soldier did exactly as he was trained to do. BY YOU! Now, because you don’t like the sights and sounds of it, you’re going to chew him out for it? I don’t think so!” Tom was not off the hook, however. “And you, Sergeant, should know better than to argue with a superior officer, even if he is acting like an ass! All of you, out of here, now!”
As Ron slammed himself back into his seat, fuming, the people fairly flew from the room, not wanting to be anywhere near that kind of anger. Especially when he happened to be right. Tom and Lars spoke briefly to each other, apologizing profusely. When they were finished, Karen walked up to Lars, her own anger brewing.
Lars looked at her with shame on his face.
As she stormed away, her fury radiating off in all directions, he had no doubt she could do it.
For the next three weeks, Ron and the PPA spent their time planning, training, and healing. Not all of their troops were yet up to the tasks ahead, some were still in the hospital ward. However, there had been several Russian attacks since Philadelphia, and other, smaller psionic groups were being wiped out. Ron felt the PPA needed to do something. He called together his leaders.
Looking around, he studied each one’s eyes. There was Kim, his self-appointed assistant, looking to him for courage. Lars, his second in command, looking to him for leadership. Karen looked to him for strength. Maj. Robert Winters, acting in Jeff’s stead, looked to him for guidance. The only eyes he felt comfortable with were those of Lt. Shelly Saunders. All she sought from him were instructions.
“Okay, our numbers are nearly at three thousand now, even after the battle in Philadelphia.” The pause in his speech before he said “battle” was barely noticeable anymore. “It’s time we spread out, start looking for the Russians. We know that they normally travel in smaller groups, and then seem to come together for the really big attacks. Philadelphia was one of those. Seattle was another, and we missed that one altogether. We’ve got to have better intel.” Before the eyes could turn in Robert’s direction, Ron said, “That’s not the fault of Major Winters. His crew is doing what they can, but we’ve got to be out there, not in here. So, here is what I want to do. We are going to form up 30 teams, each of one hundred person strength. One of those teams will always be here at the house as a guard force. The rest, I want roaming the country, looking for those bastards.”
No one questioned Ron’s plan so far. Kim had a question, however. “Ron, how do we assign leaders?”
“Go down the ranks. Start with the majors. If that’s not enough, promote some captains to major rank. The lieutenant colonels will stay here with the headquarters unit, analyzing the information. When a major battle is coming up, we’ll send one or two out to lead the fight. We can win this, guys, but we’ve got to play it smart. My first plan was downright stupid. This time, we do it right.”
The discussion was interrupted by Cindy appearing at the door. She stood quietly until she was acknowledged.
“What is it, Cindy?” Ron asked.
“Sir... there are military vehicles pulling up out front.”
“Let’s have a look.”
They all went out the front door, to find a large number of troop transport trucks lined up down the road. The lead truck pulled in the gate, and a military officer, a colonel from his insignia, walked up to Ron. The man had graying hair and stood a good four inches over Ron’s height, and yet he saluted first.
“Sir, the Psionic Corps reporting for duty, sir!”
Ron returned the salute. “At ease. Then you can tell me what the hell you’re talking about.”
In response, the man just handed over his paperwork. Ron read through it quickly. “Holy fucking shit,” he muttered under his breath.
“What is it, sir?” Shelly asked, more familiar with all this than anyone else.
“We’ve been federalized. Well, sort of.” Ron handed the paperwork to Shelly, who started to read through it more slowly, as Ron explained to the others. “As I understand those papers, and correct me if I’m wrong, Shelly, the government has just chopped this entire group of soldiers to our command. We’re still not a congressionally sanctioned fighting force, but we are being given provisional use of military personnel for the duration of the war. Is that about it, Lieutenant?” Ron added her title because of the soldier standing there.
“That looks to be it, General. Looks like you did, and didn’t, get your wish after all.”
“Fuck.” Ron turned to the colonel, who was obviously waiting for orders. “How many men in your detachment, colonel?”
“Two thousand, six hundred and four, sir. These are all of the personnel in the Army and Coast Guard that were found to have the Ability, sir.”
“Does that include you, colonel?” The man turned beet red.
“Have you had any training in the psionic arts?”
“Shit. All right, colonel. Assemble your troops, and strip them of their rank. I will re-assign you PPA rank over the next few days.”
The man blinked, but then snapped to attention. “Yes sir!” he responded, with a salute. Ron returned it, and then watched the man return to his truck.
“Cindy, I’m going to need you, Megan, and Jill to log these people, the same way you’ve been doing the others. Do not list any kind of rank with their name, I don’t want to know what they used to be. We’ll assign them rank according to their skills, not their connections.”
“Yes, Master,” Cindy replied, and hurried off to do as she was told. Ron pulled up short when he realized just how nice it was for someone to call him something, anything, other than ‘sir’. He shook his head as he moved out to what had become the parade ground. In the last week, he had purchased the properties all around him, giving the PPA a proper base to work from. Already, new buildings were being constructed to house troops. They were working at best possible speed, but it would still be a few weeks before those buildings were finished. The soldiers would have to sleep in tents until then. Ron figured that the Army guys would be used to it. The Coasties would just have to suffer through.
The troops were filing through a line where they removed their rank insignia and then filed onto the parade ground into formation. As that process was proceeding, the former colonel of the US Army approached Ron again.
“The men are removing all their insignias. How will you assign new rank, sir?”
Well, back to ‘sir’. At least Cindy knows I’m really a civilian. Ron smirked at his thought before answering. “By skills. What’s your name?”
“Your job in the Army?”
“Plans and Operations.”
“You were a strategist?”
“Yes, sir. I have a degree from the War College in military strategy.”
“You can have your colonelcy back, then. You’ll be working here at headquarters with me.”
“Yes, sir!” Col. Titus barked.
“What about the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps psionics?”
“Should be here within the week, sir. I don’t have a count on them for you.”
“Very well.” Just then, Ron’s three girls came out with clipboards and pens. They moved to start interviewing troops. “Hold up, girls.” The three stopped immediately, and looked to him for guidance. Ron pointed to the three biggest guys he could see close at hand. “You three, come here.” When they did, he continued, “Follow Kim into the house, and bring out three tables and some chairs. No point in these girls standing up all day.”
“Yes, sir!” was the enthusiastic reply from all three of them, and Kim led them off into the house.
“Civilians, sir? You have civilians working for you?” the colonel asked.
“They’re not civilians, they’re part of my family. Keep in mind this isn’t a US military reservation, this is my goddamned house. This whole thing is one big fucking mess. Those girls... will do whatever I ask of them.” The colonel got the message from that.
“Understood, sir. None of my troops have anyone like that. Is that to be encouraged or discouraged?”
“Until they can get back to their own housing, I’d discourage it. We will fully train these troops, Colonel. They will be ready before I send them into battle.”
Just then, a group of psionics returned from a reconnaissance mission. Many of the soldiers looked up in awe as they flew down out of the sky to land on the parade grounds, and walked over to Ron.
Their leader snapped to attention, and saluted. The colonel returned the salute before Ron did, which amused both Ron and the returning captain immensely.
“Report, John,” Ron said.
“Sir, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and the surrounding area is... sir, it’s gone. I don’t mean destroyed, sir. They leveled it down to the ground. Except for the pavement, you’d be hard pressed to tell it was just a collection of rocks.”
“Fuck me!” the colonel blurted. He turned red again. “Begging your pardon, General.”
“Sounded about right to me, Colonel. Colonel Mark Titus, this is Captain John Billford. He’s head of one of our recon teams. John, I’m moving you up to major. See Lars for your new assignment.”
“No more recon duty, sir?” he asked.
“Fuck recon, John. It’s time to start kicking ass.”
“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!” John saluted, and trotted off.
“Some of the men are not going to be comfortable serving under these civilians, sir.” He didn’t need to say that he wasn’t comfortable taking orders from someone who had just turned seventeen.
“There are no civilians here, Colonel, and your troops are the ones who are green. Sure, some of them may have fought in war, but nothing like what we’re facing now. Any discomfort they feel will pass after their first battle.” Unlike my own, which just keeps getting worse. Ron had not wanted this job, he didn’t like this job. He wasn’t a general, he was a high-school student. He wanted to go back to being a high-school student, but he couldn’t make this nightmare go away.
“Yes, sir,” the colonel replied.
“Nikki!” Ron hollered, seeing her across the yard. She rushed over to him, but forewent the kiss that she normally would have given him, as he had ‘official’ company.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“Could you do me a favor and go get these guys some uniforms out of the supply shed?”
“Sure thing... how many do I need?
“About three thousand.”
She just sort of stared at him for a minute. “Ron, they come like, what? Ten or twelve to a box?”
He smiled at her. “What, you don’t want to spend all day lugging boxes around?” He laughed, his only light moment in days. “Colonel?”
The colonel quickly rounded up a detail to help the girl pick up the uniforms. Meanwhile, Ron discreetly gave her a hug and a quick kiss. "Take it easy, Nik.”
“You got it, Big Brother.” She hugged him back, in a more sisterly fashion, and led the troops off to get their new uniforms.
Ron thought to her. She’d grown so used to his thoughts entering her head that way, she didn’t even slow down her pace.
It took the rest of the day to get the new recruits settled into position. He had a whole new set of problems to deal with now, and a whole new set of egos. There were three colonels and one general in this bunch that were extremely unhappy to be busted back to the rank of lieutenant, just because their skills weren’t up to par. He had four latent psionics to worry about, and they were being handled by Lars and Karen in a most delicate manner to try to provoke their Ability out into the open.
The next day, Ron gave the orders to his experienced troops, who headed off to their assigned duties. 2900 psionics departed the base. Ron wondered how many would live to return to it.
With the newly acquired military psionics, the base was anything but empty. And more troops arrived the following day, the men from the Air Force. Two days later the Navy and Marine Corps officers joined the PPA.
“Commander Maxton, we meet again.”
“Sir!” the man saluted, as did his assistant, Rita Connelly.
“Commander, I’m afraid you won’t be commanding anything for a while. You need to learn to use your skills. For now, you’re just about back to midshipman.”
“I understand, sir,” said the former officer.
“As for you, Miss Connelly, you are afforded civilian status here at the PPA base. You may dress in whatever attire Mr. Maxton finds appropriate for you.”
“Aye, aye, General,” the lady replied, with some confusion.
“You were the highest ranking officer in this collection, Mr. Maxton?”
“No, sir. Admiral Hollows is. He is there in the Hummer, sir.”
“Any training with his Ability?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
It turned out that Admiral Hollows had not, in fact, had any experience with his Ability. Ron found it curious that so many people had this thing, without playing with it. He guessed he was just more curious... or perhaps he was just hornier, he thought to himself, remembering the early days of his Ability. Damn, to be living back in those days again.
Another two days had all of these troops settled, and their training underway. All told, there were over seven thousand military psionics, and Ron had to plan for several more buildings. The contractor he had hired was pleased to be receiving so much work, at a premium price, but the downside was that the timetable on the project was extremely tight.
It was another two weeks before the call came in. Several skirmishes had happened between the PPA and what Ron now called FC soldiers. For the most part, it had come out a draw, but in a war of this kind, a draw meant that the FC was winning.
Then, Ron received notice from one of his groups. Word on the street was that people shouldn’t be in Los Angeles for the next few days. Ron was always amazed how people on the street could find these things out, but somehow they managed it.
He called together his planning team. Now, he not only had himself and Lars, but two Army colonels, an Air Force major, and a Navy captain to help out. They began to plot the defense of Los Angeles.
After a marathon eight-hour session, they closed the books on their planning. It was now time to do something.
The PPA’s next trial would be in the City of the Angels. Ron hoped he wouldn’t become one in the next few days.
Twenty-two hundred soldiers from the Provisional Psionic Army took up their posts around Los Angeles. Ron was not to be distracted this time, and he was there, beside his team. Actually, it was Kim’s team of Hunters, but since she always backed him up, it effectively became his team. They settled in to their positions to wait.
Out of the blue, he said to her, “You know what doesn’t make sense about all of this to me?”
“What’s that?” Kim inquired.
“There’s nobody left here. Well, okay, yeah maybe as many as five or six thousand people who are too stupid to run... But no one else is still around. What’s the point of attacking the city?”
“Perhaps it’s not the people they’re after,” Kim suggested.
“That... I don’t know.” She shook her head, not having any answers for her boss. She was extremely nervous. She had thought that the bad memories of her last battle experience were forgotten. She was wrong. They were coming flooding back to her now, and her fear was only intensifying.
Ron saw it on her face. He gently grabbed her hand and squeezed, briefly, and then let go. The look in his eyes told her, You’ll do fine. Trust me. But she’d already decided that trusting him was the problem: they all trusted him too much. And yet...
And yet you can’t help yourself, can you Kimberly? The little voice in her head that loved to punish her said.
I should not lean so heavily on him! she raged to herself.
Then why don’t you stop? the voice said with vicious mirth.
Because I... I... She couldn’t make herself say it.
You clung to him like a frightened child after the last battle, the voice reminded her.
Yes, I did. But none of this can be. He has no feelings for me, anyway!
Doesn’t he? Why did he let you cling to him like that? No one else would have.
Of course they would! she snapped back, angry at her own mind for tormenting her this way.
Well... no... but...
But what? But Lars is different? the voice sneered. Yes, he is. You don’t love Lars.
NO! she snarled to herself, physically turning away from the conversation in her head. It didn’t stop the little voice from nagging at her anyway, but she refused to be taunted by it. Instead she focused on her job, checking her surroundings for signs of trouble.
Ron had observed her little interlude, watching her face, wondering what was going on in the mind of his subordinate. He wished she would confide in him, but she showed no signs of ever doing so. He also wished he knew some way to make her forget Philadelphia. So, Chaffey old boy, what have you screwed up this time? His own mind played its own game of torture with him. This time, however, he’d had real military planning done, and he was more confident that the plan would work. With over two thousand troops well placed around the city, he felt they had a good handle on things.
Over the next two days, the troops settled in to wait for the attack. Somehow, they had expected it to come as quickly as the last major battle had. Ron wasn’t sure whether that was good or bad. He and two of his crew were driving around the city, checking in with other units. They were keeping psionic emissions to an absolute minimum, in the hopes that the Russians would not know how many troops were here.
As they drove along, they spotted a gang of looters. That didn’t bother Ron: it was only stuff, and that’s why stores had insurance. What caught his eye were the three women running from the store, being chased by the gang members.
“Pull over,” Ron said.
“Sir, they’re just three-“ his lieutenant started to say.
“Pull the fucking truck over!” Ron snarled. The man did as ordered, and Ron stepped from the Hummer. The people were all still in range, and he reached out a mental control, freezing all of them in their tracks. He held them in place as he walked over to them. His boots thumped smartly against the concrete as he marched, the stars on his shoulder glistening in the afternoon sun. Once in front of them, he released the women first. At first, they were afraid he was helping the gang, but then they saw that the gang was still frozen.
“Why are you ladies still in town?” Ron asked.
“No way to get out of town,” replied one.
“Go get in the truck,” Ron ordered softly. The girls quickly complied. At that point, Ron released the gang members, who looked him over once, and then advanced.
“How moronic would it be to attack a psionic?” he asked. They slowed, but did not stop advancing. He decided to make his point a little clearer. He lifted their leader up, high over their heads, and threw him across the street, through another storefront window. “Now, chances are, he’s still alive. The next guy, won’t be. I repeat, do you really want to do this? Get the hell out of the city, while you still can.”
The gang members looked from Ron to the store across the street, and back to Ron. One by one, they each turned and started running. Gratified, he returned to the truck. He looked back at the girls, who were all huddled together. “I’ll have somebody take you girls out of here, just as soon as we’re finished with our task. Drive on, Lieutenant.”
“Yes, sir,” replied the former colonel of the army. The extra shove he gave the gas pedal announced his displeasure with his current job of driving this kid around town.
Ron returned to his main post at nine that night. He sent the girls east in a sturdy vehicle, but with no escort. He didn’t figure they’d be in any danger, once they were clear of the city. He’d done all he could for them.
“I keep coming back to it,” he said out loud, but not actually to anyone in particular.
Kim asked, “Back to what?”
“Why here? Why now? There’s nothing left to gain... this is a dead place. The only people here are us, and a few stragglers.”
“Maybe it’s the city they want.”
“But every city they’ve been too, they’ve...” Ron’s thought trailed off. Kim was about to ask him what he was thinking, but then she saw the look on his face. It was a look of concentration, a look of thoughtfulness. She let him be.
Ron was up the next morning with the sun. He looked down at the sleeping form of Kimberly, enjoyed how her hair flowed down her back, and was flung over her shoulder as she slept. Her face was peaceful, with even the hint of a smile on her lips. She looked like an angel. There are no angels, Ron, he said to himself. But she does look like a Guardian. He chuckled lightly to himself at the thought, fondly remembering his friends from the other realm. Then he relieved the guard who was standing watch, so that he could now get some rest. Ron took a survey of the city around him, and his thoughts started to come together.
What do they want from this place? They can’t want to enslave, or even kill, the people, because those have been driven off. They can’t want the materials, or the city itself, because every one of those they have been to has been completely wiped out. So, what do they want from Los Angeles? His mind wasn’t yet ready to take the next step, and he was stymied.
He didn’t have very long to dwell on it, as he heard the familiar whooshing sound of psionics moving at high speed through the atmosphere. The sound was similar to that of a jet plane, but without the engine noises. For those who hadn’t heard it, he sent out a city-wide wakeup call. He used a low power, directed signal which he hoped the Russians wouldn’t detect.
The sound grew louder, and then Ron could see them. Kimberly was just rising from her sleep, and he not-so-gently pushed her back down to the ground as he crouched, keeping his eyes focused on his enemy. They were almost a small black cloud, blotting out a small portion of the sky. There was no way he could count them all. The sense of a large number of troops was there, but there were too many thought patterns to work them all out.
“Stay down, all of you,” he ordered, not loudly, but in a normal tone of voice. “They probably haven’t seen us yet, and I’d like to keep it that way.” The people with him silently acknowledged what he was doing.
Ron looked left and right, to see that other PPA soldiers were crouching as well, hiding behind building parapets and other roof structures. He turned back to watch as the Russians came in. They were coming slowly, and now they started to fan out. He had expected this part, and so the plan was working as expected.
“Kim, check six,” he said, slipping into the language of the books he used to read, when he’d had time for such luxuries.
“Huh?” she asked.
“Watch our backs,” he explained patiently.
The nearest Russian to Ron was now still over a mile away. Ron’s shields were not up yet, as that would highlight his position to anyone monitoring psionic activity. He saw a solid knot of people formed at the center of the group, and he figured that was the command staff. Although they were much too far away for him to go after now, he would keep his eye on them.
Lars and Karen tensed, down at street level. They could see the Russians approaching as they looked through an opening in-between buildings. Karen grabbed Lars’ hand and squeezed. He looked over at her, and their eyes said everything.
he said to her.
They split, to lead two different groups of people. The advantage for them was that their permanent link did not register as psionic activity, and so they could communicate between the two groups without danger. Karen led her team off to the north. Lars kept his team where it was. Their part of the plan was already in motion.
Kara was fuming. Once again, she was stuck with the damned news crew. She would have been even more furious if she’d known that they had requested her.
How in the hell am I supposed to get into the action, if I’ve got to baby-sit these two all the time?
She could see the FC troops rolling in, a black cloud that began to spread. Kara was certain that Rick was getting all sorts of great footage off of this. The black menace, she thought humorlessly. That’s what the media will call them.
The PPA tensed, and the FC advanced. They allowed the black-clad troops to close to within five hundred yards of their frontline positions. Almost as one man, twenty PPA soldiers loosed a controlled burst at their nearest targets. Of those twenty targets, sixteen fell to the ground. Ron’s target never made it to the ground, as he evaporated and blew away in the wind.
Now, the battle was on. The FC soldiers immediately returned fire for their fallen comrades, and the melee began. Ron’s position was assaulted by no less than ten FC troops, but Ron’s shields protected them all. During a lull in the firing, the PPA soldiers with Ron slipped off the rooftop, and spread out. Kimberly stayed at Ron’s side as they moved down onto the wide city street in front of their building. The FC troops shifted fire, and Ron and Kim maneuvered around it. Ron actually taunted them, saying things like, “What, are you blind?” and “We’re over here, dimwit!” He was trying to goad them into a chase, and he could see it was working. They began to move slowly down the road, and then picked up speed.
Ron took the opportunity to look back, and saw that the FC men were, indeed, following. Ron and Kim took a separation, acting almost like aircraft. Kim remained slightly behind, and slightly below, Ron, watching out for other enemies. They focused their concentration on what was behind them as they let their eyes watch what was in front of them. They often had to weave their flight path to avoid psionic fire from behind them, watching it blast cars, vans, or the very roadway beneath them after it had missed its intended target. The soldiers behind them were keeping pace, but were wary enough not to get too close. That was bad.
They were flying over a raised portion of the freeway, and so Ron motioned to Kim, and they dove around and under the freeway. They stopped quickly, and they were very near a small unit of PPA troops. Ron signaled for them to join in, and they did, flying up and over the freeway.
The Russians had already passed by Ron’s position, and so the PPA soldiers got the drop on them. Ron and Kim fired the first volleys, and these FC barbarians were soon falling from the sky.
“Good work, Captain,” Ron said, and he and Kim moved off, looking for another group.
Karen’s small band was in trouble, and Lars couldn’t get to her. He had his hands full with several dozen FC troops pinning his force down. Karen and her twenty men and women were flying down streets, ducking around corners. The FC forces behind them were blasting away at buildings, trying to get at them, but they were managing to stay one step ahead of them. She heard a scream behind her, but didn’t dare to look; she didn’t dare slow down or they were all just as dead.
She mentally counted those still with her, and she found she was down to twelve. In such a short time, she had lost eight new friends. The thought hit her hard, and she almost stumbled in her flying. She righted herself quickly, and refocused on the task at hand: survival. She dodged around yet another corner.
Lars’ men were holding their own, but it was a tough battle. Once again, he found himself outnumbered. He felt the presence of a PPA group not too far from him, and he called them for help.
The FC troops were not expecting the second attack, and were caught off guard by the first wave. However, the second group was smaller than Lars’ group, and so it was still not an even fight. The two PPA groups worked from different directions, hoping to catch the Russians in the crossfire. So far, they seemed to be doing all right.
It was then that Lars felt a searing pain across his arm. It spun him around so that he saw... her behind him. It was Zinaida! He fired wildly back at her, but her minions blocked his attack. His response was automatic: with that kind of firepower, he had only one choice.
he shouted telepathically. His troops scattered, and the FC moved to cut them off. Several of Lars’ men were cut down trying to escape, but most made it out of the area. Lars was chased by two men, but he crushed one under a falling light pole, and the other he smashed through a building. Having cleared his own trail, he had something else to worry about.
Karen responded. She sent him a mental picture of the area. The FC troops were closing in on her, and she could feel them surrounding the area. She told her group to drop to the ground, to seek out hiding places inside buildings or in dark corners, hoping to hold out until help arrived. The crew scattered.
Karen picked a high post in a nearly destroyed office building, watching for the Russians to sweep through the area. She was not prepared for how they would handle such a task.
The Russian troopers began leveling buildings, one at a time. Karen stared in shock and dismay as she watched buildings she knew had friends in them come toppling to the ground. This is insane! she thought. As the FC moved closer, she scampered to the ground floor of this building, planning to slip out of it as they knocked it down. She watched them advance toward her, and she nearly cried out in the frustration of it. She was outnumbered, there was no way to fight back. The surgical strike they had planned came apart when the Russians had failed to act as expected.
The impacts came to her building. She moved for the door... but the door was no longer there. She was trapped inside the building! Oh, God, no. Not this again. She blasted a hole through the side of the building. She saw one FC soldier on the street, perhaps waiting for someone to do just what she was doing. She fired a laser-like blast, severing his head neatly from his body, and he fell to the ground. She climbed out of the hole she had made, and raced as fast as she could down the street, moving sideways relative to the FC forces hunting her. She wiped away tears for the friends who were obviously dead.
he called back. As the main police headquarters, it was a building easily recognizable. They met up there after several minutes, and embraced. Lars had managed to gather several dozen troops together, realizing that only a larger force was going to be able to stand against this enemy.
Ron and Kim wove their way around the bigger groups of Russians. They would leave those to the bigger teams. They found a small knot of twelve or thirteen, and began their attack. They took out two before the team returned fire, and the chase was on again. This tactic seemed to be working for them.
But this time it backfired. They were met face to face with the command staff of the FC. Immediately they were under fire from two directions. They maneuvered frantically around the fire.
It was then that Ron got his first eye-to-eye look at Zinaida Dostoyeva. Bitch, he thought. And to think that I once trusted you! He sent a searing blast of energy at her, fast enough to catch her slightly off balance. He seared her arm, and the ball blasted straight through one of her bodyguards. He fell to the ground, screaming in agony, his heart having been cut from his chest.
Zinaida looked at him with ferocity in her eyes. she mocked his title.
Ron knew it was time for them to run. He looked around, and spotted a path much harder for a large group to take. They dove for the MetroRail entrance, and were soon underground. He could hear the fire raining down on the ground above them, but they flew as fast as they could down a train tunnel, until they were in a different part of the city. They emerged cautiously from the tunnel, and found that they were back in the heart of Los Angeles... or what was left of it.
Kara, alone on her perch, watched in fury. It was impossible for her to tell who was winning this battle. She could only see the battles close around her.
This also frustrated Mel and Rick. “Can’t you get us in closer, Kara?” Melissa whined.
Kara, upset at the prospect of missing yet another battle, unwisely agreed. “Okay, let’s go,” she said, and, without warning, lifted them off the roof and began to fly them into the middle of the war.
Ron was about to find Lars and Karen, when suddenly he felt a strange tug at his mind. He looked to Kim, but she apparently felt nothing. The tug became a continuous pull: it was the feel of a person in dire danger. He could almost sense that this person was crying out for help.
“Come on,” he said to Kim, grabbing her hand, and heading southwest. The troubled person was at the airport, and that was where Ron was going.
They flew at high speed toward Los Angeles International Airport, and Ron could see that there was, indeed, a problem here. He tensed for the fight.
Kara had moved the group toward the center of the fighting. She noticed a tall, familiar-looking building where several psionics were standing. It took a while to remember the building from the old Dragnet episodes. She set her charges down on a stable pile of rubble that used to be an office building, and they hunkered down to keep an eye on things. Rick had his camera out and rolling, as usual.
The FC formed up in a large group, and descended on the Parker Center complex. Lars called in the PPA soldiers, and it appeared as if this would be a deciding battle. Karen briefly wondered where Ron was.
Ron was just then landing at the airport. He and Kim moved quickly. The Russians had spread themselves very thin, destroying everything in sight. Airplanes were burning on the runways, which had been completely torn from the ground. Buildings were crumbling and wrecked. Vehicles were overturned, and dead bodies lay everywhere. Kim gasped at the sight, and then coughed from the smoke, and the smells.
They moved quietly through the debris, killing any FC soldier they could, and moving around knots of people too big to fight. Ron was looking for something, Kim knew, but he hadn’t bothered to tell her what.
They moved around one more destroyed building, and there they found what they had been looking for.
Susan and her group had been running for days. The Russians had dogged their every move. They were tired, they were bruised, and they were losing. She’d lost three people already. She feared that they were following her into death. She had been looking for Ron Chaffey for months now, not even really knowing where he lived. The war had come as a rude surprise to her and her group, and they had suffered mightily at the hands of the Russians, and other unfriendly psionic groups.
The Russians had chased her to the airport, and here they knew there was no place to run. The ocean to the west, a destroyed and burning city to the east, soldiers all around them. They cringed behind a destroyed shack, and waited for the soldiers to come.
The Russians attacked in force, twelve soldiers going after the five remaining in Susan’s party. Susan’s team fired back, but their fighting skills were just not up to the task. The Russians shooed the attacks away like fireflies. They were getting closer. Susan looked around for a place to escape, and saw nothing. Tim was seated next to her, resting against the wall. He said, “Where’s the PPA when you need ‘em, huh?”
Susan looked at him in irritation. They’d heard of the PPA, of course, through news broadcasts and the psionic community. “I don’t want to hear that kind of crap just now, okay? We’ve got to find a way out of this!”
The Russians were now only thirty feet away. When the first one fell, it shocked both sides. When the next fell right beside him, the Russian forces stopped their advance. They were not prepared for strong resistance. When two PPA soldiers, dressed in their dark gray battle gear, came diving out of the sun, they were completely unprepared for it. Six more of them were down, and the remaining troops scattered as leaves before a wind.
The PPA soldiers circled round, and landed behind Susan and her small group. Tim looked up, astonished. “You guys... you’re with the PPA!”
“That’s right,” the man said. “Someone call for help?”
“I did,” replied Susan, “But I didn’t really expect an answer. Who the hell are you, anyway?”
Ron reached down to help Susan to her feet. “I’m General Ron Chaffey, commanding officer of the PPA.”
Susan was so relieved that she hugged him tightly. Ron tolerated it for a few seconds, and then extricated himself from her embrace. “We’ve got to get you out of here.”
On their flight back toward Los Angeles proper, Kim thought over the past few minutes. See? the little voice cried, He didn’t let this Susan cry on his shoulder!
Shut up! she told her mind. But her thoughts continued to follow this path, as if some force were pushing her, even though she knew it was only her own... what? Desire? Need? What did she feel for Ron?
Ron led the small band he had rescued to a safe hiding place, near the subway entrance. He told them to remain there, and that he would return for them. He motioned Kim to follow, and he took off for the battle at Parker Center.
Lars had led a good fight. The Russians had swarmed the place, and the chaos that followed meant that no one knew who was winning. Russians and PPA troops were falling everywhere. It was total pandemonium. Lars flung one Russian into a building, only to be singed by another Russian’s blast of energy. Where the hell is Ron?
Ron was mere seconds from the battlefield. He and Kim landed on the outskirts of the battle, and waded in. Ron was using physical attacks, augmenting his strength with his extension. He tackled one Russian, swinging over him and snapping his neck. Ron let go as the body fell, and flipped himself upright, snapping a side kick to another FC soldier who wasn’t paying enough attention. That man went flying into a nearby car, implanting himself in the metal framework.
Kim, meanwhile, was using her extension to cause flashes in people’s vision, distracting them and then lancing in with a mental attack, completely blocking their ability to move. She held them like that, and finished them off with a martial arts move. One, she broke the neck. Another had his spine fractured, and then she crushed the skull of a woman who had just killed a PPA soldier. Kim could feel her warrior instincts welling up inside her, and she reveled in them, wading further into this battle.
Just then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a Russian behind Ron, about to blast him with a mental bolt. She lashed her extension out at him, using it like a whip, catching him around the throat and squeezing. She never heard the battle cry that rose out of her throat as the man’s head was literally squeezed off of his neck, effectively ending his life.
Ron, who had heard her cry, turned to look, and, realizing she had just saved his ass, shot her a quick salute. She bowed her head slightly in response before returning to kill more soldiers. Soldiers? No, these are animals, not soldiers!
Lars and Karen fought side by side, taking down FC troops left and right. Lars saw the movement before Karen did, and he knew she could not get out of the way in time. He dove in front of her, raising his shields to the maximum. He absorbed the impact of the blast, felt it wash over him. His shields were not strong enough to stop the blast, and he felt it penetrate. His body was wracked with pain, and he fell to the ground, nearly unconscious.
Karen knelt beside him momentarily. She knew he was still alive, and the rage within her boiled to the surface. Her body fairly glowed with the energy she felt, and she released it in a bolt of energy so intense it was fully visible, lancing through their attacker. He had no chance to escape her vicious attack, and he was dead before his body parts ever hit the ground.
Karen did not watch him die. She found another Russian, and blasted a hole in him so large it appeared as if he had been shot with a cannon. She found another, and another, venting her rage. By the time she had calmed down at all, a dozen FC troops lie on the ground from her attack. She was drained, and dizzy. She again knelt at Lars’ side.
“Remind me,” he said to her, almost in a whisper, “Not to get on your bad side ever again.”
She laughed, and cried at the same time, hugging him to her.
Ron and Kim met up again, having waded into the center of the battle. There they saw Karen and Lars. They rushed over, and found Lars was very weak, Karen exhausted.
That’s when the ground started rumbling.
Ron and Kim looked up. The buildings all around were shaking. Earthquake? Ron thought. Now?
But it wasn’t an earthquake. Not a natural one, anyway. The FC soldiers had withdrawn quickly, as the buildings started to crumble. The Russians were once again knocking over buildings, in an attempt to crush the PPA soldiers beneath the sheer weight of the stone and metal and glass.
Ron shouted in his mind. He grabbed Lars, and Kim grabbed Karen, and they flew out as fast as they possibly could.
Kara was much too close to the battle, she knew, and so were her charges. She lifted them up to move them away, and in doing so was distracted from the falling rubble around her. She was hit on the shoulder by a large chunk of flying debris. She was tossed to the ground, and her shoulder was on fire. She did manage to put up a shield around herself and the news crew, bringing them over to her. They rested a moment, and then began to move out, with the rest of the PPA.
Ron and Kim returned to the place they had left Susan. Ron set Lars down, so that he could rest. Karen was gaining her strength back, but was still not ready to fly.
Without being bidden, Susan looked Lars over. She rested her hands against his wound. Karen kept a very close eye on the woman, worried for her boyfriend. Susan’s strength flowed through Lars, helping him to heal. She felt as though he were actually drawing power from her. His eyes fluttered, and he was waking... but the power drain continued, and it was as if she felt herself getting weaker. She quickly drew her hands away, as he sat up and shook his head to clear the cobwebs. He looked at her. He had expected it to be Karen, but he realized she was still too weak.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “You have to be careful around me... sometimes I can draw the psionic strength right out of a person. Don’t worry, you’ll regain it in less than a day. I didn’t mean to do it... it’s hard to control when I’m not fully aware of it.”
Susan nodded. Ron had watched with mild interest, but he was more curious about who his new guests were. “Who are you, anyway?” he asked.
“Susan Chandler. I’ve been looking for you for months. I was hoping to get your help... but then this whole thing blew up in my face. I guess you don’t have time for a little problem like the one I was facing.”
“Not really. Can we take you back anyplace? We’re heading home now... this battle’s a bust, just like the last one.” Kim saw the anger in his face, and heard the hurt in his voice.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do. We can’t survive in this environment. Those Russians were hunting us. If we go back out there, we’ll be killed.”
“What training have you had?” he asked.
“No ‘formal’ training. Some friends,” and she gestured to those around her, “taught me how to heal people. I know some simple physical moves, but not much else.”
“Okay. We’ll take you back home then. At least there you can be trained. After that, you decide what you want to do.”
“We need to get out of here. The Russians will be looking for stragglers. You strong enough to fly out of here, Lars?”
“Not yet, boss,” he responded, the discomfort clear in his voice.
“All right, then. Let’s not struggle too much, okay?” Ron hefted four of them, and Kim took the other three, and they flew east, away from the city. When they had reached the outskirts, they stopped and looked back. Ron’s face grew dark with anger as he saw the remains of Los Angeles. It was too sprawling a city to be totally wiped out, but the city proper was completely unusable now.
“My God,” Susan said. “What’s the point of it all?”
“I think we’re looking at it,” Kim answered. “I think they just want to destroy everything.”
Ron kept his thoughts to himself. He was beginning to understand the truth, and Kim wasn’t quite right. “Let’s go home,” he said, and they turned and flew off, not sure whether this fight had been a loss or not. Either way, the city was left to the Filitov Council.
Another failure, Ron thought. Even with military planning. What the hell are we doing wrong?
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