Rachel might not have had a terrible amount of difficulty dealing with the problems that arose in France, but she was still damn glad when the skyranger landed and she was setting foot on English soil. If there was any justice, she'd be able to lower her guard a bit now; the unpleasantness in France had only lasted a few days, but keeping on constant alert for so long was wearing. And keeping HK from killing everything in sight once he'd accomplished his set task was a tiresome job to say the least.
"Brigadier Giles," said a soldier waiting in the hangar bay with a salute, "General Jones wishes to speak with you."
"Very well, soldier," said Rachel. "I believe I know the way."
"Yes, ma'am," replied the soldier, who then delivered another salute and left.
Rachel took one look around the hangar bay, and then she began to make her way to the base commander's office. The base was almost entirely deserted. She didn't see more than a handful of soldiers all the time as she made her way. The only ones she saw were the old and the infirm, ones that weren't likely to be used as front-line men, and even they had a distinctly harried air about them as they went. Still, they all stopped and delivered a salute as she passed them, no matter how busy-looking they were. HK just glowered at the whole lot of them. She supposed that if he couldn't kill them then he'd settle for intimidating them.
The secretary took one look at Rachel and waved her on through to the base commander's office immediately, no questions asked. One of the benefits of notoriety, Rachel supposed. Revan'd had a similar effect on people back in that dimension; no one asked questions when she showed up, that was for sure. When Rachel entered the office she walked right into the middle of a conversation between the commander of this base and Miller on one of the large video screens that'd been developed by X-COM scientists.
"Giles, you and that robot of yours are an absolute menace," said Miller as soon as Rachel walked in.
"Are you complaining?" asked Rachel.
"Not really," said Miller. "Just glad you're on our side. Could do with a few more like you to teach these bastards a lesson."
"I think the French got the message," said Rachel, settling down into a chair with HK stood over her glowering at everyone in sight, or as close to that as a droid can ever get.
"You give the frogs a beating," said Jones. "But the rest of them aren't so quick to give up or as well placed for us to deal with them."
"How bad is it, really?" asked Rachel. "I know that someone went nuclear but the fact that we're still here talking tells me it didn't go all out."
"The aliens started shooting down any nukes we sent the way of their allies," said Miller. "And with us shooting down any nukes that came our way . . . well, we got a few licks in, I suppose, but the ICBMs aren't getting through now."
"What about the shorter ranged missiles?" asked Rachel.
"A bit more successful," said Jones. "But we have to pick the targets carefully and anything important is protected."
Rachel was actually a bit relieved by the news about the nuclear weapons. The world's powers might not be able to kick up a nuclear winter like some had claimed in the past, but the mass carnage of two large powers hitting each other with a full arsenal of ICBMs would be absolutely appalling, and she didn't even want to think about the effects it would have on Dawn at this point in her training; she just wasn't prepared for it.
"Anyway," said Miller. "We've had a whole parcel of nations go over to the aliens. Mostly, it's the usual suspects: North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Syria - the ones you expect to go out and cause trouble. Problem is, they've got China too. They had numbers but not technology before; now they have both. We still have the edge, but it's troublesome."
"What about France?" asked Rachel.
"A distraction," said Jones. "Troops tied up in France are troops that aren't able to respond to the mess in Asia and the Middle-East. They can't possibly have expected France to be able to do much in their position."
"Wait a moment, Giles," said Miller, before disappearing off screen for a few seconds. "Right, take a look at this; I want to hear what you think of it. This footage is from Turkey."
And then the image on the screen split in two. On one half, there was Miller in his office. On the other . . . there was carnage. Huge war machines, obviously of alien design but not of any model Rachel had seen or heard of before, were sweeping through some sort of city razing everything as they went. They were along the same sort of lines as the Sectopod, but on a vastly larger scale with much more obvious weaponry. She could see at least four laser cannons and two plasma compared to a normal Sectopod's two laser cannons.
Rachel watched as a flight of helicopter gunships of some description - she wasn't up on the models - came into view and engaged the alien machines. It was a disturbingly short battle. The laser cannons on the machines shot down most of the missiles launched from the helicopters, and what did get through didn't do great amounts of damage, while the aliens slaughtered the gunships with plasma fire.
"Those are new," said Rachel. "I'd need wreckage to analyse before making any firm recommendations, but it looks to me like you'd need X-COM technology to take down one of those without excessive losses. Either that, or you'd have to look at something other than direct combat."
Rachel came relatively close to wincing as the footage moved on and a group of soldiers attempted to take one of the machines down by pelting it with RPGs. Suffice to say, it ended badly.
"That's pretty much how it ended up," said Miller. "Excessive losses before the X-COM units got there. Thing is, we've seen those things moving all over Turkey and always in civilian areas so we can't just nuke them."
"We've seen them in Russia too," said Jones. "But you can guess what happened there, I think."
"Nuked?" asked Rachel.
"Nuked," said Jones with a sharp nod. "Sorted those things out good and proper that did."
"We're going to need a counter for those things," said Miller. "But we can talk about that later. Right now, you need briefing on what's been happening. Jones here will have to deal with that because I have another meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a few minutes."
"How bad is it?" asked Rachel.
"Well I'm not exactly Mr. Popular with them," said Miller. "Put it that way. The fact that I didn't actually have anything to do with the traitors doesn't mean much when I'm the most senior officer they can get their hands on to blame. Anyway, I really have to go now. I'll talk to you later, Jones."
"Have fun with your bosses, Miller," said Jones.
Miller just grimaced and shut the communication channel.
Jones then turned to Rachel. "I'm sure you can understand that I don't really have the time right now to sit and talk this out with you," he said. "I have the situation reports along with a selection of newspapers you may or may not be able to understand set aside with my secretary for you. I think the base's translator is still on call if you need help."
"Thank you," said Rachel. "I do appreciate that. What about my rank? Is it to be revoked as it was last time?"
"It almost certainly will be," said Jones. "But there are some who want to see you leading troops into battle instead of sitting in a lab. We'll see soon enough, I suppose."
Rachel wasn't quite sure how she felt about that little bombshell. She hadn't been at all comfortable with her role at first, but she'd grown into it now; she felt quite comfortably as a scientist, and she knew her work was coming along very well indeed. It would be quite a wrench to leave it all behind and go off to fight a war now. And if she did that, then Dawn's training would come to a rather abrupt halt because there was no way in hell she was going to train a Jedi under war conditions. That would just be foolish.
"What about my people?" asked Rachel finally. "I know they made it out of France, but do you know where are they now?"
"They've been stationed here temporarily," said Jones. "My secretary can provide the details; I believe that the girl is still unconscious."
Rachel nodded her thanks and then saluted the general, who was by her reckoning her superior officer right then, before leaving.
Upon leaving the office, Rachel headed immediately to a quiet corner of the base and began to study the information packet that had been left for her. Dawn and the others were in no immediate danger - she would have felt it if they were - and so she wanted to digest the information before she did anything else. Knowledge is power, after all, and she was sorely lacking in knowledge by that point in time; France had obviously been suffering under a crippled media from the outset of the war.
The information within the packet was quite horrifying, Rachel found. In an apparently co-ordinated move, the aliens had launched hundreds upon hundreds of their UFOs into an offensive against Earth while several nations, previously thought relatively loyal to the X-COM project, had seized all X-COM assets inside their territory and then turned on their neighbours in a rather disturbing display of raw aggression with little thought to the consequences of such acts.
That was hardly the limit of their treachery however. The war-making was violent and bloody but in the end nothing particularly new or unexpected when it came to international politics. It was what had came slightly prior to that sequence of events that disturbed Rachel. Attempting to decapitate the American government through assassination, terrorist bombing, and an alien battleship vaping Air Force One from orbit as it tried to reach safety pretty much ensured that this was going to be bloody. Leaving the National Mall and the Whitehouse - to name but two - as smoking ruins was not going to inspire any sort of merciful impulses in Americans for sure.
And they'd managed to do just as badly abroad as well, if not worse. The papers from Japan actually made Rachel wince. Trying to assassinate the royal family would really piss them off at the best of times, but screwing up and only managing to kill newly born princess? That took some real talent in the art of pissing people off. Really, if there was a better way to provide a rallying point for your enemies than that then Rachel couldn't think of it.
The news from Britain was little better. The Queen had at least survived, but much of the royal family had not been so lucky, and the parliament was just gone. In response to that the British had, in a most dignified and unhurried manner, proceeded to deploy nuclear missiles against every enemy target they could get their hands on that wasn't far too close for comfort; in other words, everywhere that wasn't France got hammered. She didn't even want to think about how pissed Giles was bound to be at what happened.
Those were just the highlights, too, the more prominent powers that had been targeted; South Korea, Turkey, Israel, and India had all suffered similar blows before enemy forces had started moving into their territory. Curiously, there had been no such attempt made in Russia before the Chinese had invaded them; perhaps, they had been foiled before the plan got out of its infancy.
The battle reports . . . well, they were depressing. The death toll was incredible on all fronts already and it was all at the behest of the aliens and very much to their advantage. Every human killed by a human was a human they didn't have to deal with in the end. Bastards. It was just so very cold and so very effective. It was exactly the sort of plan that Revan would have concocted given the parameters. And that was something she really didn't want to think about, so she put it out of her mind.
The entire thing was just awful. Millions had died when hospital equipment worldwide had been rendered non-functional by the EMP generated from the nuclear weapons that had been deployed against UFO incursions. And that was just the start! The estimated toll from the middle-east was just mind-boggling, and the worst part of that mass slaughter? Most of that death came from nuclear weapons being used in retaliation for a relatively ineffectual chemical weapons attack on Israel. MAD policies were such fun. At least X-COM and the aliens had stopped the ICBMs from inflicting some truly nightmarish damage.
All in all, Rachel was seriously beginning to wish she could just pull one of those Force Storms Palpatine used in the comics to wipe the aliens out. The sheer number of articles about her wasn't doing her temper much good either. It didn't take a Jedi to foresee that she wasn't going to have her nice, comfortable anonymity for much longer; that much was for sure. Some of the newspaper headlines and articles were just . . . well, she was fairly sure that some of the writers had been frothing at the mouth when they'd written them.
'TAKE THAT FROGS! WE'VE GOT A JEDI!" screamed the front-page of The Sun. Rachel would have just shrugged that off but it was accompanied by a large, if somewhat grainy, picture of her stabbing her lightsabre through a French soldier's chest. Did they have no decency at all? It was one thing to gloat over winning a battle or a war, but to post up a picture of a man's dying moments on their front-page was just something else entirely. Then again, it was The Sun, the epitome of the gutter press.
The Sun wasn't alone in having such things on their front page. The Daily Star and The Daily Mirror had similar front pages, though The Mirror's was somewhat less lurid thankfully even if that was somewhat balanced out by the pretentious commentary in the paper itself. Yawn. The American newspapers followed a similar pattern, though the New York Post had a headline that drew a smile: 'Jedi: We lost Count. France: ZERO.'
The Japanese newspapers, well, frothing at the mouth didn't even begin to describe their tone. Rachel almost felt sorry for the Chinese as she read those papers. Almost. She would have expected less about her in those papers but she'd failed to take into account the similarity of a Jedi to Japanese myths. She was being used an example, and the newspapers were exhorting their readers to 'follow in her righteous path against the enemies of Japan.' Rachel didn't like that much at all. She didn't consider her actions to be righteous at all, just practical.
Dawn was just dead to the world, Rachel found. The girl had retreated deep within her own mind to escape the terrible things she'd had jammed into her skull when the nukes had gone off. Not terribly surprising really, but it did leave Rachel with a decision to make: did she pull Dawn out of it now, or wait a few days till the initial exchanges had petered out and there weren't any more nukes to be let off? Decisions, decisions.
"Personally, I'd leave her to sleep it off," said a male voice from behind Rachel. "But then I prefer to leave things well alone."
Rachel had whirled around to face the voice, lightsabre in hand, before she had time to form a conscious thought. The room had been empty! What she saw almost made her drop her lightsabre.
"You're getting sloppy," chided the glowing, insubstantial form of Jolee Bindo. "I'd never be able to sneak up on you normally."
"Not many Force-users around these parts," Rachel responded automatically as he brain rebooted. "I'm out of practice on spotting them when they cloak their presence."
"You'll want to be working on that, kiddo," commented Jolee as he looked around the hospital room. "Interesting place you've got here."
"What the hell are you doing here?" asked Rachel finally when she got past the shock. "And how is this possible?"
"Oh, that's nice," said Jolee. "Where's the friendly hello? The 'how are you today, Jolee?'. Hmmph, kids these days. No manners, I tell you."
"How are you today?" asked Rachel in what had to be the most sarcastic tone of voice the world had ever seen.
"Dead," said Jolee, who promptly burst out laughing. "Ha! Works every time! You should have seen Bastila's face back when. Ah, you're almost as bad as Revan; too damn serious. Cheer up. World won't end if you crack a smile, you know."
"Maybe if you actually say something funny," said Rachel. "What are you doing here?"
"Being dead is pretty boring," said Jolee. "Not like we can actually do much of anything, really. Watching Revan isn't all that interesting these days, either; she's done with her adventuring and settled down. Good for her, boring for me. Then I got wind of what you were getting up to. I figure you'll keep me entertained for a few years the way you're going."
"I'm glad you find my life entertaining," said Rachel dryly. "But how is this possible?"
"Eh, you didn't think that killing a god would cause a nice little disturbance?" asked Jolee. "I'm old, not stupid, kiddo. I expect that dead Jedi and Sith from every dimension would have felt that one. Kinda surprised I'm the only one that's paid you a visit really."
Rachel pinched the bridge of her nose. "This is just insane," she said. "I have a dead, old Jedi ghost stalker!"
"Now hey," said Jolee. "I'm not a stalker! More of a voy- . . . uh, you know what? I'll shut up now."
"Jolee," growled Rachel, hands itching with the urge to smack him around the head.
"In my defence, I stop watching when the clothes start coming off," said Jolee. "Not that you make it easy with that Faith girl . . . "
Rachel honest-to-God growled at Jolee at that.
"You know what? I'll be going now before you do something I'll regret," said Jolee hastily before winking out of view.
"Damn old man," muttered Rachel to herself. It was turning out to be one hell of a day, that was for sure.
After her encounter with Jolee, Rachel felt a rather strong need to go get some fresh air. She sure as hell hadn't been expecting to have dead Jedi pop in and have conversations with her, that was for damned sure. There was weird and then there was having a ghost stalker. It really was mind-bogglingly bizarre even by her standards; 'I see dead people' wasn't something she'd ever expected to be able to say, well, excluding vampires and zombies . . . which kinda negated the point really. Oh well.
The above-ground base turned out to be a real hive of activity. It didn't take much thought to come up with a why for that: they were preparing to go to war. Rachel wondered around for a while, stretching her legs, while purposefully concealing her presence so she could be nice and anonymous. A Brigadier, even one whose rank wasn't quite kosher, would not go unnoticed and she didn't really need the attention. At that moment in time, she just wanted to be left alone to her thoughts.
The first thing that came to her mind was: would other Jedi show up? Revan'd ran into a lot of Jedi over the years, most of whom would be dead by now, so would they come along for visits? She was hoping not, that was for sure. The last thing she needed was a ghost version of the Jedi Council dogging her footsteps in this life. That would drive her absolutely insane. If there was a guaranteed path back to the Dark Side, that would be it, having those old fossils lecturing her every step of the way.
She needed to get in touch with Giles as well. Chances were, they were planning to raid France and bust her out, and that would just cause trouble. Willow blasting everything in sight with her magic would not help the situation there much at all, and she would not be subtle if she cut loose now thinking that her oldest friend was in mortal danger, Rachel knew that. She only had to think back to Glory to see how dangerous Willow could be in that sort of situation.
It was at that point that Rachel was dragged out of her thoughts by numerous quiet popping sounds around her. Wizards. She was surrounded by wizards, none of whom she recognised at first glance, and they were all aiming their wands at her and had a distinctly grim look about them. Well, this didn't look good, she thought. What had she done to piss this lot off?
"I suppose this isn't a social call?" asked Rachel, her hand drifting to the hilt of her lightsabre. She didn't need to look to know that HK had dropped his stealth field and was hefting his repeater ready for battle.
"Rachel Giles AKA Alexander Harris, you are under arrest on charges of gross violation of the statute of secrecy," said a tall, male wizard with dark skin. "Surrender your weapons or face the consequences."
"You have no right to arrest me," said Rachel. "And if you think you can take me against my will, you are more foolish than I ever imagined possible."
"Query: master, may I dispose of these meatbags?"
"If they make any aggressive moves, feel free," said Rachel. "I'm kinda curious as to how their shield spells'd hold up to your blaster."
It was at that point that Rachel heard the base's alarm sound. A moment later Harry appeared out of thin air next to her with no sound whatsoever. Many of the wizards recoiled and Rachel saw several of the wands aimed at her start to shake.
"That's quite enough," said Harry. "You will all lay down your wands and place your hands behind your head. Immediately."
"So you consort with the Dark Lord," snarled one of the wizards. "We should have known."
Rachel blinked. "Well, I haven't been called that in a long time," she said.
"I think they're talking about me actually," said Harry. "They have some strange ideas these people."
There was no more talking after that. Almost as one the wizards surrounding them began to launch curses that seemed to encompass all colours of the rainbow. Rachel was in motion immediately, sending the curses back the way they'd came with her lightsabre and scattering the wizards who had been foolish enough to attack her in such an unimaginative manner. Out of the corner of her eye, Rachel saw Harry, his wand arm moving in a blur of frantic motion, deflecting curses and responding with his own spells that seemed to smash through the shields of his targets with little effort. HK just stood there and laughed as the spellfire splashed harmlessly off his armour. He seemed to find the whole thing quite amusing.
While scattering the wizards as Rachel had was amusing, it wasn't particularly effective. Invariably, they knew how to defend against the spells they used themselves, and it was only slow reflexes that caused a couple of the wizards to die by the sword, so to speak. Seriously, if you try and use a spell on someone that'll literally gut them, you deserve all you get. That's just uncalled for. And so she started deflecting the spells cast against her at random wizards. That was much more effective. And watching the wizards scramble to counter or dodge the spells that had apparently came out of nowhere amused her.
"Will you stop toying with them and actually do something?" yelled Harry as he cast a spell that caused a wizard's wand hand to explode in a shower of gore and sent the wizard collapsing to the ground screaming in agony all the way before another red spell connected and shut him up.
"But they're so funny," said Rachel.
And then HK's gun spontaneously turned into a bunch of flowers as he cut down a group of three wizards that had hurling endless curses at Harry. The noise that came from HK would loosely, in human terms, be described as a screech of outrage, but coming from HK it was much, much more intimidating than that; it would be somewhat akin to having a seven foot tall, muscle-bound man yell that he's going to beat you to death when you don't have superpowers to defend yourself, Rachel imagined.
"Oh, that was a bad idea," muttered Rachel. "Bad, bad, bad."
HK promptly charged at the wizards and began to use physical strikes against them. That wouldn't generally be a big problem for a wizard, Rachel imagined, but when those strikes are thrown with enough force to pulp a demon's head . . . well, that's a whole other story. The first wizard had perhaps a second to gape before HK's fist slammed through his rib-cage and came out of his back and that expression briefly turned to horror before going blank completely. Another wizard connected with a spell that knocked HK's head off-axis before he got a face full of napalm from HK's concealed flame-thrower.
It was at that point that the troops still on base weighed in with support fire. The battle grew bitter at that point. The troops had a definite firepower edge with their blasters and amassive numerical advantage but wizards have some nasty powers available to them when they choose to use them. Rachel was not happy at all when several nearby crates transformed into giant cubes of acid that promptly spilled over the soldiers nearby, and she was even less happy when an explosive spell connected with the ground in front of a team of soldiers and left behind little more than a crater.
Rachel flew into a blur of motion in response to that, cutting through any wand-wielder that came within range of her blade. Some tried to shield themselves, but a shield spell against a lightsabre wielded by one of the most powerful Jedi that had ever lived? Wizard after wizard fell and the only ones who survived were the ones smart enough to teleport away from Rachel's rampage. What spells did pierce her lightsabre defence simply bounced off the shield she erected around herself by instinct.
In the end, Rachel simply ran out of targets. When she stopped, she was standing in the middle of absolute destruction. The entire area of the base she'd been strolling through was an absolute shambles, pitted with craters and scorch marks, and littered with the bodies of the dead that were scattered across the area.
"Remind me to never piss her off," she heard one of the soldiers mutter.
"Search the grounds," barked Rachel. "Any survivors are to be shot unless they surrender their wands. And someone call the damn medics!"
As the soldiers scattered to follow her orders, Rachel turned to Harry, her expression bleak. "Talk, Potter," she said. "I want to know everything."
"You're not the only one," said a grim-faced Jones, flanked by a couple of armoured soldiers. "In my office. Now."
"Statement: I require repairs, master," said HK as Rachel followed Harry and Jones, his head twisted at quite an awkward angle.
"I want to know why a bunch of cross-dressing freaks just tried to kidnap a commissioned officer from my base," said Jones as soon as they entered his office, barely restraining himself from bellowing. "I also want to know where their base is, what their numbers are, their supply lines, the disposition of their forces - everything."
Harry sighed deeply. "I really didn't think it would come to this," he said. "But we need to act quickly. They will follow this up and their next move will not be so subtle. How much do you know already?"
"What you told Miller," said Jones. "You're a wizard and an outcast amongst your kind for political reasons, something about a Dark Lord or some such nonsense."
Harry's smile contained no humour whatsoever. "It's a bit worse than that," he said. "My kind will actively hunt me down now that they know where to find me and Rachel here will be treated much the same way. We can handle ourselves but anyone who gets caught in the middle . . . well, it won't be pretty.
"I suppose it all starts with Voldemort," continued Harry. "I've already furnished you with the story of the Boy-Who-Lived, the prophecy, and the general outline of the war. What I didn't tell you was how it all ended. With the horcruxes destroyed - barring the last, Voldemort's pet snake - it was time for a final confrontation. We - Hermione, Ron, and I - knew that we couldn't face Voldemort and the Death Eaters in open battle, we just didn't have the numbers even if we could get the Order of the Phoenix to work with us, so we decided to lure Voldemort into a trap.
"The details of the trap aren't so important," said Harry. "Just the fact that it failed. Voldemort was a clever man, and we were far too sure of our victory when we created the plan. He took all three of us prisoner and we were subjected to terrible things. In the end, Ron lost it as Hermione was . . . well, I won't go into that, and tried to attack Voldemort with his bare hands. Of course, he died. A simple Avada Kedavra and he was gone forever.
"I have never been so utterly beyond reason as I was at that point," said Harry. "One of my best friends was dead, and the other was physically broken. I lost it completely. Anyone who got between me and Voldemort died, whether it be by my magic or my fists - I didn't care. I'm not sure to this day how I got my wand back, but I did, and then I face Voldemort one on one. And I won. I matched hatred with hatred, and I won. But that wasn't the end.
"In my rage, I forgot that Voldemort had a backup plan," said Harry. "He had a piece of his soul in his pet snake that would not allow him to die like a human. Reduced to a spirit once more, he tried to take possession of my body in a blind rage. I could have ejected him from my body, but that would have just started the cycle over again; he would have found a way to return and we'd have been no further forward. Instead, I absorbed him. I took everything that made him a person and I made it mine. I didn't just kill him; I made it as if he had never existed. Then I killed his snake just to be sure that there would be nothing left."
And then it all made sense. That was why Harry was so cynical, so quick to anger, so different. He had ended up doing the same thing with Voldemort by choice that she had done with Revan against her will.
"That's nice and all, but get to the point, will you?" said Jones.
"I'm getting there," snapped Harry. "Well, you can imagine how it looked when I took Hermione to St. Mungo's. A tall, almost skeletally thin man, his eyes glowing red from overuse of dark magic, in dark robes apparates into the hospital covered in the blood of his enemies . . . it wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done really; they thought I was Voldemort. It all went downhill from there. Pretty soon I was public enemy number one and had to either leave or kill my way to freedom. I choose to leave. Now that they know I'm here, there will be no end to it until either I or the ministry are utterly crushed."
"Well, that's a simple choice," said Rachel. "Give me the troops, General Jones, and I'll give you the heads of every single Ministry of Magic member by the end of the day."
"The ministry is the biggest employer in the magical world!" said Harry, his voice slightly raised. "Most of them are glorified office workers; you can't just kill them all."
"I beg to differ," said Jones. "They have shown themselves to be in active rebellion against the crown with their actions this day. If they do not surrender, they will be killed. And why did they do this? They were tolerated before but they must have realised that this wouldn't be acceptable."
"Rachel blew the secret of the supernatural on live television," said Harry. "They probably think the muggles will be coming for them no matter what. This is revenge."
"And where do your loyalties lie?" asked Jones. "You are one of them after all, are you not?"
"Not for a long time," said Harry, his unnaturally bright eyes boring into the general as he spoke. "Maybe not ever. I have no love for the wizarding world, not anymore, but there are good people there who don't deserve to die because the people in charge are absolute idiots. It's not like they have much say in who runs the ministry."
The general eyed him for a moment before speaking. "Good," he said. "You're a good soldier, and I'd hate to have to have you shot for treason. And rest assured we're not going to massacre them. As long as they lay down their weapons, we'll let them live."
"A wand is more than a weapon to a wizard," said Harry. "It's their life. Without magic, you're nothing in that world. They won't give them up easily."
"Well, that's their choice," said the general easily. "But we won't let enemy fighters wander around armed. We'll give them their wands back eventually but if they won't give them up then they will be treated as enemy combatants and dealt with as such."
Harry sagged slightly. "I can't argue with that," he said. "Not after this. If you take the ministry, they'll fold. Without Dumbledore, Hogwarts won't fight you, and he's long dead now."
"What about numbers?"
"Not many," said Harry. "The aurors only take one or two new applicants in a year at best and they've been losing them hand over fist since Voldemort came back. I'd be surprised if there was more than thirty trained fighters left in the ministry and most of those will be rookies."
"That's what I like to hear," said Jones. "I want a detailed report on the ministry building on my desk within the hour, Potter. Giles, you go get some rest; chances are you'll be leading the assault."
Rachel would have followed Jones's suggestion and got some sleep, but she just had things that she needed to get done. She couldn't just leave HK walking around with his head twisted at a forty-five degree angle, and she couldn't just leave the Sunnydale crew hanging much longer, and she really had to do something about the people that were under her command, and, well, there was no end to it really. Christ, John was dead. Sarah had to be in pieces, but there was so much that needed to be done.
Well, sitting around thinking about it never gets anything done, so Rachel got started straight away on fixing HK using some tools she grabbed from the base's garage (they wouldn't notice, hopefully). It was work that would have been far from taxing under normal circumstances, working in her lab, but with these tools . . . well, it proved to be a real pain in the neck. Instead of minutes, it took hours, and by the time she was done she'd worked through the obscenities available in half-a-dozen different languages.
"Statement: thank you, master," said HK when she was done. "I must recharge."
"Fine an outlet then," said Rachel. "And do try to avoid causing a black out."
"Resignation: as you wish, master."
As HK plugged himself into the nearest mains socket, Rachel tried to dial home on her cell phone. She got, well, nothing when she tried to dial into the civilian networks. A second attempt yielded no better results. Irritating but not really surprising considering that nuclear weapons had been detonated across the world. She doubted that the computers on the base network would have ICQ installed, as well, so really that only left her with one viable way to get in touch: telepathy.
With that in mind, she settled down into a cross-legged meditative position and reached out across the globe with her mind. "Willow, hear me," she sent before waiting for a reply. She didn't have to wait long before she got a strong impression of someone doing the mental equivalent of jumping out of their skin.
"Rachel!" came the audible response a moment later. "What? How? Are you OK?"
"I'm fine," sent Rachel. "Well, maybe not fine, but not in any immediate danger. How are you guys back home?"
"Spitting mad," sent Willow. "You should have seen the look on Giles' face when the thing about France came on the news. We were all angry, but Giles . . . he looked about ready to jump on a plane and go there himself to fight."
"That . . . that really doesn't surprise me," sent Rachel. "I can't imagine that Mrs. Summers was happy either."
What Rachel got at that was the mental version of a full-body shudder. "If she had the Force . . . " sent Willow, trailing off. "God help them if Dawn got hurt. She didn't, did she? We haven't heard anything. Well, there's the papers, but they're just about how you beat the French up."
"Dawn's out cold," said Rachel. "Has been since the nukes went up. She's not hurt, just hiding. I'll wake her up when things calm down a little."
The sense Rachel got from Willow at that was doubtful. "Calm?" she asked. "During World War Three?"
"Well, when they've stopped using nuclear weapons," sent Rachel. "At least then she should be able to cope long enough to develop defences."
"If you say so," sent Willow. "But you're really okay?"
"I am uninjured," sent Rachel. "We've had some trouble with the wand-wavers, but that'll be dealt with soon enough."
"You what?" screeched Willow. "You've got them after you as well?"
"Oh, that situation's well in hand," said Rachel. "No need to worry about them. They just haven't got what it takes. Now, if they had the brains to use that magic of theirs beyond simple curses, they might be tricky, but they don't."
"I could teleport over . . . "
"No," sent Rachel emphatically. "Save your strength. You might well need it with the way things are headed."
She didn't really want Willow involved in a magical battle if she could help it either. That stuff was just bad for the soul and the last thing Rachel wanted was to help set Willow down a path of killing. It would just be . . . wrong.
"Anyway, tell Giles and the rest that I'm healthy and uninjured," said Rachel. "And tell them that Dawn's fine. Now I think of it, I'll leave her out cold till Mrs. Summers is around. She'll probably be upset when she wakes up and her mother will be better at dealing with that than me."
"I'll do that," said Willow. "But you're sure you're okay, right? You're not just saying that, are you? Because I know I wouldn't be okay after something like that. I'm not okay now and I was just watching. Really, it must suck."
"It's nothing new," said Rachel. "I'm trained for this sort of thing; I can deal with it. Anyway, I have to go, Willow. I have much to do and I won't get it done like this. If I can get in touch, I will, but the way things are going I may not have time."
"Take care of yourself," said Willow.
And then Rachel cut the connection.
Rachel found Sarah in one of the small guest rooms that every X-COM base had. Upon knocking on the door, Rachel got a quiet 'it's open' that she probably wouldn't have heard if it wasn't for the whole werewolf thing, and then she pushed the door open and walked in. What she saw was an entirely impersonal room with Sarah curled up in a rickety-looking armchair staring off into space.
"Sarah?" said Rachel softly. "How are you feeling?"
There was a long silence, and Rachel was about ask again when Sarah finally replied. "Oh, I'm just smashing," she said, her voice cutting. "Never better. Why do you ask?"
"Well, okay," said Rachel with a sheepish smile. "That wasn't the smartest question I've ever asked. But seriously, how are you doing?"
"It was . . . I thought it was bad before, when those demons attacked the base," said Sarah. "But these were people, actual people, and they were killing us because of what? Politics? It doesn't make sense."
Rachel took a moment before replying to that. "Humans are quite capable of making demons look like amateurs," she said finally. "We just have a choice. We don't have to be evil."
"Then why?" asked Sarah. "Don't we have enough problems?"
"Same motivation as the people who collaborated with the Nazis, I suppose," said Rachel. "They didn't think that we could win, so they decided to try and ingratiate themselves with the conquerors."
"Bastards," spat Sarah, her expression darkening quickly. "I hope they all get what they deserve for this."
"Oh, they will," said Rachel. "They've poked a sleeping dragon in the eye and now they'll pay the price."
For a moment Sarah's expression blazed with defiance before she seemed to collapse in on herself once more. "Won't bring him back, though," she said in a small voice. "John's still dead."
"I'm going to miss him too but nothing can bring the dead back to life," said Rachel. "Not really. It just doesn't work."
"So that's it then," said Sarah. "He's gone."
"That's it," said Rachel. "I'm sorry."
"How do you deal with it?" asked Sarah. "You don't seem bothered and I know you liked John."
"Oh, I'm bothered," said Rachel, her voice sharp before she realised and moderated it. Sarah didn't mean offence. "I'm just more used to it and I know that he is one with the Force. You've never lost anyone you cared about so suddenly before, have you?"
"No," said Sarah, her voice muffled as she buried her head in her arms.
For a moment, Rachel envied her. She had not been able to lay claim to such innocence for a very long time. Then again, perhaps that was for the best. Losing Jesse to the vampires had hurt, a lot, but it had prepared her, it had hardened her.
"I'm just more used to it," she said finally. "It sounds horrible, but you get used to losing people and it stops hurting so much."
Sarah didn't reply to that.
"If you need anything, just ask," said Rachel. And then she left.
Peter and Casey proved to be in much better shape than Sarah, but that was to be expected really with two combat veterans. Once she'd told them that Dawn was going to be okay, that was it. Well, other than the whole thing with the wizards to explain, but she didn't expect that they'd be involved in that given that neither of them were active service soldiers. It just wasn't their job, not anymore. Casey could probably still kick the ass of 99% of men serving in the armies of the world, but he still wasn't assigned to that sort of task.
After she'd talked to them, found out how they were doing, she headed off to find a bed and catch a few hours sleep. That turned out to be a less than clever idea. She actually felt more sluggish after waking up then she had before she'd fallen asleep. A lesson to her, she supposed. Easier to keep the engine running that to stop and start again without adequate rest time. She took a few minutes to smooth out her rumpled clothing before collecting HK and heading off to her meeting with General Jones.
"Potter, we've analysed the information you've given us," said Jones as soon as they were gathered. "You're going to join up with 21st SAS Regiment, A Squadron, and act as their advisor in all things magical as they assault the Ministry building. A helicopter should be waiting in Hangar Bay Seven for you now. Do try to give them a good impression of X-COM soldier capabilities. Dismissed."
"Yes, Sir," said Harry with a salute, before turning smartly on his heel and marching out.
"What about me, General?" asked Rachel. "I can help them."
"You're too important to send haring off to fight some idiot separatists," said Jones. "We can handle them without you and it would only take one bit of bad luck for you to cop it."
"There's no such thing as luck," said Rachel.
"Yeah, yeah," said Jones. "I've seen the films. Doesn't change a thing. The risk assessment comes up with a negative on you going into the field for this one. End of story."
"So what am I to do then?" asked Rachel. "Will I be shipped back to the base in Texas?"
"Maybe," said the General. "Not yet though. We'll probably move you on when we think we can without every Chinese fighter and UFO on the planet trying to shoot you down. Anyway, you're going to have to go through PR hoops before we let you get back to the safety of your lab."
"What do you mean 'PR hoops'?" asked Rachel, her eyes narrowed. For some reason, she felt an urge to find a very deep hole to hide in.
"What?" asked the General. "You didn't think those heroics of yours would go without reward did you? You're looking at getting a Victoria Cross if the politicos can find a way to justify it, Giles. Might even get a Knighthood or something along those lines depending on how things go.
And that would be why. "I don't really want that sort of thing," said Rachel. "Can't I just, you know, not."
"Well, you can turn these things down," said Jones. "Decline the offer. But you're not going to. The people need their heroes at a time like this, and you? You're the best we've got. Unless Superman or Luke Skywalker shows up, you're as good as it'll ever get. That simple."
"So I get to be a symbol," said Rachel, her voice flat. "Wonderful."
Jones shrugged. "Needs must," he said. "I'm sure we'll find some other poor bastards to lionise soon enough and then you can go back to tinkering with your toys. Till that happens, you get to be the face of the war effort."
"My enthusiasm is boundless."