Rachel was not a happy camper as she made way to Miller's office. She'd thought he knew better than to summon her in the middle of the working day for a meeting, but there she was making her way to Miller's office in the middle of a working day for a meeting she'd not known diddly-squat about till five minutes beforehand. It did not, to say the least, make her happy.
She'd been right in the middle of running through a stupidly complex set of equations that one of her scientists had come up with for shield generation and now she was going to have to start on it all over again when the meeting was done. It just wasn't efficient. Maybe if she didn't need to have half a forest worth of maths textbooks by her desk to understand the equations - she was sure that her staff were competing to find a way to use the entire Greek alphabet in a single equation - she'd be a bit less irritated, but she wasn't a maths PhD by any stretch of the imagination and her scientists seemed to be incapable of expressing the concepts without reaching that level.
Really, she was sure that it hadn't been that bad when she was Revan.
The receptionist barely even looked up from the glossy magazine she reading before waving Rachel through. Damn thing even had her on the cover, some picture that had been taken when she was on that thrice-damned tour before the base had been completed; could the day get any more irritating?
Peeved as she was, Rachel had a wonderfully sarcastic comment on the tip of her tongue ready to be fired as she entered Miller's office. That comment, sadly, found itself stillborn as Rachel noted the presence of another officer with four stars on his shoulder. Wonderful. And it was a US Air Force uniform, which meant that Miller would probably be pissy about having to take orders from a flyboy. She knew she shouldn't have tempted Murphy; it never worked out well.
"Ah, you wanted to see me, sir?" she said. And the presence of a senior officer meant she'd have to observe formalities. The day was complete.
"Giles, this is General Thompson," said Miller. "He's here to see you."
Thompson rose to his feet at that and shook her hand. The grip was surprisingly firm considering that the man looked as if he hadn't eaten a proper meal for weeks and had lines in his face that were deep enough to give the Grand Canyon a run for its money. He was either old as dirt or not holding up well under the strain of war. Possibly both.
"Good to meet you, Giles," he said as he dropped the handshake. "We've got a lot to talk about."
"Is there a problem, sir?" asked Rachel as the general sat back down.
Well, she couldn't think of anything she'd destroyed or otherwise ruined recently - nothing too expensive anyway - so she doubted she was in trouble, but it was probably best to make sure.
"Plenty of problems," said Thompson. "I'm hoping to find a solution or two here."
"Well, you've got me curious now," said Rachel. "I've got plenty of weapons if that's what you're after?"
"Weapons won't save our fighters," said Thompson. "A way to beat the Chinese laser network is what we need for that. No, I'm here about your apprentice."
"And what do you want with Dawn?" asked Rachel, her voice quiet and not particularly welcoming.
"What do you think the Air Force wants with a kid who can outfly our best aces?" asked Thompson. "We want her in a fighter tormenting our enemies."
"Impossible," said Rachel coolly. "She's far too young and at far too delicate a stage in her training."
"Yeah, we figured you'd say that," said Thompson. "And you'd make a big damn mess if we tried to force the issue wouldn't you?"
"I would," said Rachel. "I've gone along with everything you people have asked of me so far, but that's a step too far. Mrs Summers would never allow it anyway."
"There are ways around problems like Joyce Summers," said Thompson. "There are ways to get around problems like you too if it comes to that."
"No there aren't," said Rachel flatly. "Not if want me to keep co-operating with all these neat new toys I've been working on."
"You've given the scientists enough of a start that they could work without you now."
Miller was starting to look vaguely alarmed by that point.
"Maybe, maybe not," said Rachel. "But you still don't want to make an enemy of me. That would be a stupendously stupid thing for you to do. And this bait and switch isn't going to work. Quit wasting my time and just say what you want."
Thompson raised an eyebrow but didn't otherwise miss a step. "Well, we'd like to have Dawn," he said. "But that's not going to happen. Still, we're taking losses and recruitment's down. We need something to give the recruiters some decent ammunition."
"Since when has there been a shortage of stupid kids who want to fly?" asked Miller.
"Since they started getting blown out of the sky regularly when they actually got to fly," snapped Thompson. "Replacing lost fighter-jets is bad enough, but replacing the pilots is even worse. Something has to be done."
Rachel was truly beginning to wonder if the man approached anything directly. It was really beginning to get old.
"So we're setting up a milk-run for your apprentice to go on," said Thompson. "Her youth should work well in attracting the younger crowd, and those are the ones we really want, the ones who have the young, strong bodies we need."
"Her mother will still never agree," said Rachel. "Seriously. There's about as much chance of that as there is of us getting an unconditional surrender from the aliens within the next five minutes. It's just not going to happen."
"Her other daughter was off fighting vampires at your apprentice's age," said Thompson. "Compared to that, this might as well be a trip to the local mall. We're not stupid enough to send your apprentice off to die."
"Mrs Summers had no idea what Buffy was really up to," said Rachel. "And she still tried to stop it. Better you than me when it comes to convincing her to let Dawn go off to fight in an actual war. And I want to hear the details of this mission before you even get as far as Mrs Summers."
"It's nothing terribly dangerous," said Thompson. "It's a real feel-good mission. We're going to send a couple of those new drop-ships of yours into China and we're going to extract every panda we can get our hands on. They'll never survive the war otherwise."
"That can't be it," said Rachel. "It's a complete waste of resources if that's the plan. Saving animals is all well and good, but no matter how cute and beloved they are by the general public they're not worth risking soldiers' lives for."
"Well, you're right," said Thompson. "The pandas are more of a PR run than anything. The real item of interest is retrieving some of our people that were trapped in China when war broke out. Most are dead now, and I expect a good number have been broken, but we still want what's left back. They're our people and I'll be damned if I leave them in the hands of those bastards. It'll be some payback for what happened in Korea too."
"I hardly think that snatching a few POWs back will make up for an entire brigade fighting to the death."
Thompson shrugged his shoulders. "It's the best we can do at the moment. We need something and this is it."
"True enough, I suppose," acknowledged Rachel. "So we're running this mission at the same time as the panda raid?"
"Yes," said Thompson. "And that's not all. We've got the Russians raiding some Chinese bases on the Russian front at the same time. Makes for a nice distraction."
"Not bad," said Rachel. "I want in on one of the missions. It's only right if my apprentice is being deployed."
Thompson leaned back in his chair and shot her an appraising look. "I think we can find you a spot on the rescue mission," he said. "I'm sure the marines will appreciate having you along."
"Don't mind me," said Miller. "I'm just her commanding officer. No-one important or anything."
"Don't worry, general," said Thompson. "We'll return her to you in one piece."
As soon as the meeting ended, Rachel header for her rooms and corralled Peter and Casey to discuss what had just happened. Time for a second and third opinion, she figured.
"This is absolutely insane," said Casey when she finished telling them of the meeting. "You can't be thinking of going along with this."
"I'm not Dawn's legal guardian," said Rachel. "I have no say in the matter. I can exercise my influence, but if Mrs Summers is convinced then I have little choice. It's that simple really."
"You could stop it," said Peter. "The President himself would take a call from you, and I very much doubt that he would refuse a request to leave a sixteen year old girl out of combat."
"Probably not," said Rachel. "But it's a matter of picking my fights. This mission seems safe, or at least as safe as it'll ever be, and Dawn's going to get dragged into things sooner or later. If she gets a little experience now, she'll be a lot better off when it becomes entirely unavoidable."
"I still don't like it," said Casey. "She's just a kid."
Rachel shrugged. "When I was her age, I was hunting vampires," she said. "And Dawn's a lot better prepared than I was. I don't like it much, either, but I can't change the way the world is. There are worse cards to be dealt. She doesn't get a nice, easy childhood, but she also doesn't get crushing poverty or horrendous disease. It's not so bad. I know I wouldn't change my lot in life."
"And will you still be saying that if she's killed?" asked Peter. "Because the possibility is there."
"Well, that's emotion versus logic," said Rachel. "I have to go with logic. My position allows nothing else. And I know that Dawn can do this. I just know."
"Gut-feeling, huh?" asked Casey.
"Well, your gut-feelings have always worked out before," he said. "I suppose I can live with this on one condition: I go with her."
"You heard me."
"You're retired, Casey."
"And?" he asked. "Won't stop me. I can still take most of the guys out there now, so why not?"
"It's your funeral," said Rachel with a shrug. "You're a grown man and quite capable of making your own decisions. I'm not going to stand in your way. What about you, Peter? Fancy a last hurrah?"
"Ah, I think not," said Peter. "I'm rather past the age where that would be a good idea."
"Good to know that there's one sane person among us," said Rachel.
It was at that point that the door opened and Dawn walked in carrying a pile of books looking vaguely disgruntled.
"What are you guys up to?" she asked. "Aren't you supposed to be working or something?"
"Why work when I can spend time with a snotty teenager?" Rachel fired back. That seemed to take Dawn aback just a little. It shut her up if nothing else. "Anyway, I need to talk to you."
"What is it?" asked Dawn warily.
"Oh, nothing much," said Rachel. "Just an opportunity for you to put those skills we've been teaching you to actual use."
And with that she perked up. "What is it?"
"Well, how do you feel about pandas?" asked Rachel.
"They're running a mission to China," said Rachel. "They're going to steal themselves some pandas. If nothing else, it'll be a good way for you to put your empathy skills to the test."
"And again with the huh?"
"How do you think they're going to round up a mass of wild animals?" asked Rachel. "They won't have all day, you know. You'll have to sooth them with your powers and then lead them into the transports. And it'll have to be done quickly. A good test, I think. See how far along you are on that front."
"Mom will never, ever allow it."
Rachel shrugged. "Not my problem," she said. "You want to go? Persuade her. And don't even think about trying a mind-trick. I'll spot it if you do, and I'll break it."
Dawn was out of the room before Rachel had finished speaking.
"Ah, the enthusiasm of youth," said Peter. "Do you really think she would use a mind-trick?"
"Probably not," said Rachel. "But she sometimes acts without thinking and it's best to instil good habits in her while she's still malleable."
It didn't take long for Mrs Summers to track Rachel down in her office. In fact, Rachel hadn't even bothered to start her work again so predictable an event was it. She'd half expected Mrs Summers to come in breathing fire again, but this time she was just looked distressed. Honestly, Rachel would have preferred her to be angry; that was easier to deal with.
"I think you should take a seat," said Rachel.
"Yes," said Mrs Summers. "Is . . . is what Dawn said true?"
"That depends what she said," said Rachel. "Teenagers have a remarkable talent for distortion."
"She said you wanted her to go on a mission."
"Ah," said Rachel. "Well . . . okay, that's my fault. I didn't communicate what was happening very well. I don't want her to go on any mission, but sooner or later I won't be able to prevent it."
"So why not prevent this?"
"Because I'd be delaying the inevitable," said Rachel. "Because the mission is as safe as they ever get. Because getting experience now will serve her well when she hits eighteen and gets her draft papers."
"Mrs Summers, the only reason Buffy hasn't been called up is because she already serves a vital function," said Rachel. "Dawn doesn't. And they will want a Jedi in the forces. Right now, I'm trying to make sure she's as prepared as possible for that without getting her killed."
"Dawn's too young," protested Mrs Summers. "She's only sixteen!"
"Think about what Buffy was doing when she was sixteen."
"I won't allow it, not again."
"That's your choice to make."
Mrs Summers didn't stay long after that.
Inevitably, Mrs Summers cracked. Planting a few small seeds of doubt in her mind had proved to be more than enough. The facts of the matter were just unavoidable: Dawn would see combat whether they liked it or not. It was only a matter of time. With those facts acknowledged, Mrs Summers' resistance was weak, especially now that she was used to having a child who was off doing downright insanely dangerous things because of a supernatural calling. There really wasn't that much difference in the situations.
Of course, things never go quite to plan with the military.
"What do you mean I'm not going with Dawn?" asked Rachel.
"Have you seen the intel reports on the area Dawn's going to?" asked Thompson. "She'll be facing half-trained peasants with ancient assault rifles. And that's assuming they even come out to fight and that they get there in time. Even then, she's got marines to watch her back. She'll be in very little danger. We wouldn't bother with this otherwise."
"I'd still be more comfortable with this if I was going to be there to keep an eye on things."
"I can understand that," said Thompson. "But there's no way we're going to waste you on a mission like that, not when we have a much more risky operation underway."
"Wonderful," said Rachel, her voice completely devoid of enthusiasm. And there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it, not at her comparative rank. "So where am I going then? The rescue mission?"
"That's the one," said Thompson. "Technically, you'll be the highest ranking officer on the mission, but I think it'll be best if you leave the command to the colonel. He knows the men and the mission."
"I'm not a complete idiot," said Rachel. "I don't know the men from Adam, and I don't know much more about the mission. It would be incredibly foolish of me to take command."
"Indeed," said Thompson. "Colonel Harper is, I'm told, a fine officer. I don't know him personally, but I've never heard a bad word said about him. You shouldn't have any problems."
"I'd expect nothing less," she said. "An incompetent wouldn't be anywhere near a command where he could do damage, not these days."
"You're not coming with me?" asked Dawn. "But I thought you were!"
"I was going to," admitted Rachel. "But the best-laid plans of mice and men and all that."
Oh Force, puppy-dog eyes.
"Look, Dawn," said Rachel. "You've got a fair bit of training under your belt now. I think you can do it. I wouldn't have agreed to it otherwise. Casey will be going with you as well; he'll make sure you're alright."
"Look, I know," said Rachel. "It's your first mission as a Jedi. Your master should be with you. For what it's worth, I'm sorry. Things just haven't worked out. We can do a lot, but sometimes you just have to make the best of what comes along."
"I want you to be there."
"I want to be there too," said Rachel. "It's my rightful place to be. But orders are orders, and sometimes you have no other choice but to follow them."
And she was saving the truly defiant order-breaking up just in case she ever got an order than was truly retarded. She didn't think it would happen but it was always good to have something in reserve. There was something to be said for preparedness.
Dawn looked lost. Not quite as happy to be going out there as she liked to pretend to be, Rachel supposed.
"You can do this, Dawn," said Rachel. "I wouldn't allow it otherwise. You know that. And you'll have Casey there. He might not have superpowers, but he's still damn capable. Remember, he stopped those idiots from dropping a nuclear missile on America years ago. I'm sure he can handle a few Chinese grunts if things turn sour."
"Yeah, Casey's a badass," said Dawn. "He can take them."
"Exactly," said Rachel. "And you'll have a company of marines coming along for the ride. Hey, ask nicely and they might let you have a go at flying one of the transports."
Really, it wasn't like she wasn't qualified. Rachel had seen to that.
"You think?" asked Dawn, her expression brightening.
"Why not?" asked Rachel. "You've got more UFO kills than half the Air Force's active list, and that was from a single flight."
"Yeah," said Dawn. "Yeah, I'm good enough."
"Just don't get cocky," said Rachel. "You'll make mistakes then. Let the Force guide your hand if it comes down to it."
"Of course, master."
"Are you really sure this is a good idea?"
"That's the name."
"No, I'm not sure, old man, but what choice do I have? I can't protect her forever."
"She hasn't been in training that long."
"Her talent is extraordinary. I understand now why Luke was able to do what he did in the films with so little training."
"You just like confusing the poor old man, don't you? I'll have my revenge when I go senile and start making crazy old-people demands."
"You're already dead."
"What did I do to deserve this?"
"You were more interesting than Revan. Raising a family is all well and good, admirable even, but it's pretty damn boring to watch."
"I'm sure than entertaining old voyeurs was very high on her list of priorities."
"It should have been dammit."
India reeked of desperation to Rachel's senses. They'd been caught completely off-guard by Pakistan's treacherous attack - its nuclear attack - and the country had been devastated. They knew that the only thing that kept them from being crushed underneath the alien heel now was the Himalayas making it impossible for the Chinese to mount an effective invasion, and the desperation stemming from that was overwhelming. The country stank of it.
The base their skyranger landed at was very much a makeshift affair. None of the buildings were permanent and the base's defences consisted of vehicle mounted heavy blaster cannons and a few flights of aerial HKs that could be seen patrolling the skies overhead. It made sense really. After this mission was executed, the Chinese would probably bomb the hell out of the area and it would be easier to just pack up and disappear than fight them off. India's ABM network had been blown out of existence in the early days of the war and without that . . . air raids would get through.
As Rachel debarked from the skyranger with Casey and Dawn - along with HK, who was disturbingly eager to get to the killing, she was met by a very young looking marine with disturbingly prominent ears. For some people, the standard marine haircut was truly unfortunate.
"I'm to escort you to the colonel, ma'am," said the marine with a snappy salute.
"Very well, marine," said Rachel. "What about my companions?"
"Ah . . . "
"I'm sure we can find our way," said Casey, taking sympathy on the obviously stymied youngster.
Rachel'd never seen anyone look so relieved over something so simple as that marine did at that moment. "Very well," she said. "No point wasting time."
Rachel found the colonel in a large tent sitting behind a desk covered, every single inch of it, in maps and reports and other such documents. He was a physically unimposing man in his mid-forties with slightly greying hair that was cut in the standard marine fashion which didn't look anywhere near as silly on him as it did on the youngster who'd escorted her to the tent.
"Ah, Brigadier Giles, welcome to my office such as it is," said Colonel Harper. "How was the journey?"
"Long and tedious," said Rachel. "Is everything proceeding according to plan?"
"I'd be so lucky," said Harper. "But nothing insurmountable has came up so far. We'll be ready to launch according to schedule."
"I don't suppose these problems are anything I can help with?"
"Unless you can get those damned HKs to work properly, no," said Harper.
"Well, you've got the right person then," said Rachel. "I designed those things. What's the problem?"
"Logistics saw fit to ship them here in disassembled form," said Harper. "Saves space on the transports, I suppose, but how the hell are we supposed to get them ready in time? It's beyond me. We'll be going in with half what the plan calls for at this rate."
"Well, that's something I can help with," said Rachel. "I did design the things after all."
Harper blinked and then laughed. "Of course," he said. "That'll be a help. My mechanics are good people, but this new technology's coming out faster than people can get trained in it. They're trained to work with trucks and artillery pieces but they're expected to work with the terminator. It's hard going."
"Not something I'd thought to take into account," admitted Rachel. "And it's only going to get worse."
"Well you can't have everything," said Harper. "We can have the technology we need to win this war or we can keep things simple for the technician types. I know which option I'll be picking."
"True," said Rachel. "I should probably get moving if we want to get the HKs ready in time."
"Yes," said Harper. "I assume you're leaving the command to me?"
"I am. It would be impractical of me to take command of this operation."
Harper looked to be pleasantly surprised. What did he expect? Hadn't Thompson talked to him?
Getting the HK units ready proved to be a bit of a chore. She soon got the grease-monkeys working smoothly with a little coaching and a few demonstrations, but there was a huge amount of work to be done. Even with the ground HKs that were already prepared being ordered to work - and HK-47 loved that - it was still being cut fine. In the end, Rachel ended up using her telekinetic powers to assemble half a dozen units at once while everyone else worked feverishly to get what needed to be done in time done.
Really, it was a miracle that they managed it.
Once that was done, all systems were go. The base became a hive of activity as hundreds upon hundreds of marines prepared for battle and then boarded one of the vast number of transports present as they were fuelled and the last-minute checks were performed on them. Rachel barely had time to find Dawn and wish her good luck before she was bundled off along with Casey for the mission she was being deployed on. There was barely even time for one last 'is this a really good idea' before they were gone.
And with that done, Rachel collected her armour and pistol from the quartermaster and prepared herself before boarding her own transport. It was an awkward feeling to be dressed up in battle-armour, one that she wasn't used to. She'd managed to avoid it up till now, thankfully, and it just felt so very awkward to be carrying that extra weight. It wasn't that much, really, the armour was well designed, but it was still there and still noticeable, especially for someone like her who was very much in tune with her body and knew its capabilities intimately.
Still, she'd get used to it. It was at least a new design based on a combination of alien alloys and work done by her old team at X-COM and not something older and even more clunky.
And so she soon found herself crammed in between Major Harper and the battalion's sergeant major and opposite from a deactivated HK-47 on one of the transports as it launched into the sky accompanied by two dozen more transports - each capable of carrying a full platoon of soldiers and their equipment, though not all were being used to ferry in soldiers - and multiple squadrons of fighters. Rachel was sure that from the ground it would have been a damn impressive sight for someone on the ground. It was quite impressive from where she was sat and she couldn't see anything like the whole picture. It would probably be more impressive if the transports didn't resemble a flying brick so closely but you couldn't have everything.
"You know, I kinda miss the skyrangers," said the sergeant major as they got into the air. "It just doesn't feel right to be up and about like this without having your teeth rattling around."
"Speak for yourself," said Harper. "I much prefer it this way, and my dentist agrees with me."
"Ah, you're getting soft."
"Say that when I'm not strapped into one of these seats."
"Do I look stupid?"
"Do you want an answer?"
"Why in my day . . . "
At that point, Harper turned to Rachel. "Right, Giles, you'll be going in with Sergeant Powell's lot from A company. He's the stupidly tall black guy down near the back of this tin can." The rather tall black man that Rachel assumed was Powell waved at Rachel before Harper had time to continue. "You're in the second wave but I'm sure there'll be plenty of fighting left for you. Base is too big for us to knock it all off before you get in there."
Rachel just nodded in reply. There wasn't much to say really.
"One question, do you need night-vision goggles?" he asked. "We're going to take their power out, but I wasn't sure if you'd need them or not."
Rachel shook her head. "No," she said. "My vision is augmented."
"Lucky you," said the sergeant major. "You should see what my kid's like. Can't see past the end of his nose without jam-jar lenses."
"Ignore him," said Harper. "He always gets chatty before a mission. Comes out with the most irrelevant things. You'd think he'd have grown out of it at his age, but no."
"Like you're any better," grumbled the sergeant major.
Rachel tuned out the pair of them and their banter. It really wasn't all that amusing. Instead, she eyed the platoon that had been crammed into the transport. Some were just sat silently staring into space, some were praying, some were reading, a couple were scribbling away at a piece of paper, but most were just talking. Quite the slice of life it was. Then again, the pair of lunatics at the back slapping each other across the head and grunting at each other . . . okay, that was new. Didn't see that everyday.
"Hey, Giles," said Harper. "There's a guy here you might want to talk to. We brought him in to deal with any magical shit that the Chinese have put up. Bill Weasley. See if you can help with that stuff. I don't get it but you can do all that hocus-pocus, can't you?"
"Some," said Rachel. "More my friend's department than mine."
"The red-head?" asked Harper. "I've heard rumours."
"Sure," said Harper. "Who hasn't? Ain't many people can let off frigging FAEs with a few words, is there? God, I hope not. Anyway, most of the voodoo types we get sent can't do all that much really, not like that. Their healing's a god-send sometimes, but they never have that sort of power."
"Willow is . . . exceptional," said Rachel. "There's no other way to put it. I don't think any witch has ever grown as powerful as she has so quickly. But it's not like you guys have any trouble making things go boom."
"Hell no," said Harper. "That's one thing we have no problem with. It's just impressive."
"He's jealous," said the sergeant-major.
"We'll reach the LZ in two minutes," said the pilot over the intercom. "Already seeing some AA fire."
"Weapons check, people," called out Harper. "And, pilot, send the signal to deploy the HKs."
The atmosphere in the transport immediately changed. The casual air, the seeming joviality, was immediately gone. Instead, there was little more than the sound of marines quickly stripping down their weapons and running through the drill to check them. Rachel joined them, her hands moving on automatic as she disassembled her pistol and ran through the abbreviated checks that were possible without a toolbox full of probes at hand. Whether or not she'd actually use the pistol was questionable, but it seemed the thing to do.
As Rachel finished reassembling the pistol, the transport started to shake slightly. The shaking continued for just a moment before the transport dove steeply, a move Rachel was able to discern by the way her stomach seemed to leap up into her sternum and the way she was slammed forward in the harness. Not exactly a comfortable experience for something with breasts and, judging by the swearing, not much fun for the marines either. She had to shake it off quickly though even as her chest throbbed. No time to wallow. She quickly tapped into the Force and used her telekinesis to prod HK's activation switch - no easy feat when it was not accessible externally - and bring her personal assassin droid to life.
Scant seconds later, HK's lit up and his head started to scan back and forth as he assessed the situation. Then he turned to Rachel and she'd be damned if he didn't seem to smile, despite not having any actual flexibility in his face. Sometimes she really did wonder about her own sanity when it came to building that thing. It wasn't exactly the best indicator of mental health to construct something like that really.
The transport shook again, though less violently this time, as Rachel calmed her emotions, not that they were terribly overwhelming to begin with, and sank into a light meditative state. As she did so, her sense opened wide and she gained a true sight of the situation. The base was large, larger than she'd expected, with many thousands of people occupying it. Most, at least two thirds, were prisoners and their fear was tempered with a bright streak of hope. The Chinese, though, they had no such mitigating factor. They had fear and little else. Disciple drove them. Discipline and determination, with a dash of patriotism. Powerful forces.
The air, though, was thick with the forces of the United States Air Force. From the ground it would have seemed as if the task-force that had been deployed against them stretched on forever, and, really, it might as well have. Through the Force, Rachel could feel the battle as it happened. She could feel the grim determination of the soldiers manning the AA gun emplacements, the panic and confusion of those manning the base's communications centre as they found their lines of communication cut, the utter despair of the base commander as he realised that he had no communications or power, and . . .
"There are aliens here," muttered Rachel.
"What?" barked Harper. "How many and what breed?"
"An ethereal," said Rachel. "And . . . yes, mutons. Bodyguards, I assume."
"Fucking wonderful," said Harper. "Intel did not warn us about this. Any other mind-benders around?"
"I'm not sure," admitted Rachel. "Ethereals are rather distinctive at this range. If there were any humans, well, they could hide themselves from me if they were skilled enough, I think."
"Great," said Harper. Then he activated his com-link. "Listen up, people, we have HETs in the target-area. At least one ethereal-type and an unknown number of muton-types. Keep your minds focussed."
Well, that was a little premature. "Two-dozen mutons or thereabouts," she said.
"Correction," he said. "Roughly twenty-four muton-types in target-area. You know the drill, people. We've been through this before. Aim for the face."
A moment of silence, relatively so, passed.
"Okay, Weasley, report," said Harper. "What are we facing before we can go in?"
"We can go in now," came the reply, as audible to Rachel as if this Weasley had been sat next to her. "The only wards are anti-apparation and anti-portkey. Don't need to break those till we're on our way back out. Could even apparate around the base as long as you didn't try to breach the barriers."
"Excellent," said Harper. "You get straight to breaking those when we land then." Then he switched back to the main channel. "We are good to go. Begin landing."
The transport immediately lurched downwards once more. And then it came to a sudden halt, causing Rachel's stomach, once again, to attempt an evacuation through her mouth. The marines immediately began unstrapping themselves from their seats and donned helmets. Rachel followed suit, feeling truly stupid once she donned the helmet. She knew objectively that it was a necessary part of a soldier's equipment, but she still felt silly wearing it.
"HK, you are authorised to use lethal force against Chinese soldiers for the duration of this mission," said Rachel as HK rose from his seat.
HK's eyes flashed and he hefted his heavy repeater cannon into a position where he could quickly bring it into use.
"You have to authorise your robot before it can kill?" asked the sergeant major. "What use is that?"
"If you knew HK at all, you'd know that giving him carte blanche to do as he pleases would be a very bad idea."
The marines assigned to the first wave in were already barrelling out of the transport's exit and fanning out to attack their designated targets. Even from her perspective at the the far-end of the transport away from the exit-ramp, Rachel could see multiple explosions rising in the distance and the distinctive red glow of blaster fire lighting up the night sky. The battle was joined.
"Time for us to go, general," said Sergeant Powell. "You know what to do?"
Rachel nodded. "I do," she said. "I'll follow your lead for now. You know the men better than I do."
Powell nodded and turned to his men, three marines who looked a lot older than their ages, and barked an order to get moving. A moment later, Rachel was following the marines as they barrelled out from the transport and across the cratered field to the smashed walls of the prison camp. The moment she left the transport, the wolf perked up and began to howl within her. Even with the overwhelming smell of ozone from the constant blaster fire and the disgusting smell of burning human flesh everywhere, the smell of blood was omnipresent and overpowering. She could appreciate just why Oz had lost control with Tara now. It took all her will to keep from spontaneously shifting and she was far more well-equipped to deal with such urges than Oz was ever likely to be.
And beyond the smell, there were the sounds. The almost entirely ignored cries of the injured and dying, the eardrum-rattling explosions, the sound of relentless blaster fire, the steady bang-bang-bang of projectile weapon fire . . . it was almost overwhelming with the supernatural senses of a werewolf. Even after she folded the Force over her ears to block the sounds, it didn't quite go away. Truly, it was an incredible irritant. Then, as much as she ever had, she wished that stupid girl hadn't thrown off Buffy's aim and rendered her vulnerable to Oz long enough to end up as a werewolf.
And, of course, there were the sights. It was like being back in the Mandalorian Wars the few times she had taken part in the ground battles. The skies were filled with aerial HKs that were massacring anything Chinese that left the base's buildings and hammering the static defences in the many places where the Chinese had started ignoring all orders and had taken refuge inside the buildings away from the rain of deadly energy. It was a battle like she had not taken part in for a very long time. She'd been in a few big fights in recent years, but nothing that pitted two organised modern military forces against each other.
There was little need for subtlety as Powell lead the men towards their target building. The external defences were already smashed; it was a simple matter of picking their way past the smoking ruins of defensive emplacements and picking their way past the dismembered corpses.
"Johnson, charges," bellowed Powell over the sound of the battle when they reached the building they were assigned to assault.
Of course, it was the building with the ethereal in. It was just . . . inevitable, even if it wasn't deliberate.
"Sergeant, the ethereal is in this building."
"Fuckin' great," said Powell. "You can deal with it?"
Rachel simply nodded and yanked her lightsabre from her belt. A moment later the building's wall exploded inwards and HK led the move through the breach. They entered into a smoke-filled corridor that led to the left and right with a single door in front of them - a door that had been blasted off its hinges - that led into what looked to be an office of some description. A Chinese man in the room began to raise a pistol in a shaking hand but was cut down in a hailstorm of crimson energy by HK before he could bring it into line for a shot at the group.
Immediately, they were on the move one more, HK again taking point as they made their way through the building to their targets. They rounded the corridor and began to make their way along the next. Then HK just stopped barely short of another door. Without explanation, he then span on his heel and levelled his weapon at the wall next to the door.
HK then opened up with his cannon. The wall held up for all of a fraction of a second before it crumbled and then HK was firing into the room beyond, keeping up a steady stream of blaster fire as he marched in. There were some brief screams and Rachel felt several life-forces vanish before the firing stopped and HK marched out, managing to radiate smugness despite his inflexible body-language.
"That robot is a menace."
"You're just jealous."
"Shut up and move," ordered Powell.
They didn't get far before all light in the area just seemed to drain away leaving total darkness, a darkness that even Rachel's supernatural eyes couldn't pierce.
"The goggles! They do nothing!"
"Back-to-back, people," ordered Powell. "You too, Giles. We've dealt with these jokers before."
"Statement: my visual receptors appear to have been damaged, master. I require assistance."
"Little wizard, your tricks will not work against me," she said in Chinese. "I suggest you surrender. You will be given a fair hearing."
Rachel reached out with her feelings and found . . . not much. There was something there, teasing her at the edge of her senses, but it was fuzzy and so difficult to get a grip on. Obviously, the wizard was shielding their mind with occlumency.
"Or perhaps you have committed crimes that ensure a terrible punishment?" asked Rachel, continuing to speak in Chinese. "Ah, I see you have. You tortured them. Murder, too, I sense. Yes, you reek of guilt."
Force strong emotions to the surface and occlumency is disrupted. It was the best way to defeat it.
"Did you enjoy that?" asked Rachel, still in Chinese. "Are you the sort of man who takes pleasure in the suffering of others? I would have expected the Chinese to know better than that. Or perhaps you admire the Japanese? Wish to emulate that? A perverted hero-worship, perhaps?"
Anger was always an easy emotion to manipulate, but it was especially close to the surface in someone who had allowed themselves to be fall into darkness. It was but child's play for Rachel to deflect the killing curse back at its caster. With his death, the darkness was lifted and visibility, such as it was, returned.
"I hate those fuckers," said one of the marines.
"Yeah, yeah," said Powell. "Come on. We have work to do."
The target zone of the building was the central area that held the prisoners. Otherwise, the building was quite sparsely populated, and they encountered no more resistance before they came to the thick steel door that separated that area from the soldiers who guarded the prisoners.
"Johnson, charges!" ordered Powell, his voice restrained.
"Wait," said Rachel. "The aliens are on the other side of that door."
"Two-dozen mutons?" asked one of the marines. "Well, shit."
Rachel cocked her head and stared at the door. "No," she said. "Some are elsewhere. Half the muton force awaits us. And the ethereal, of course."
"The mind-bender," said Rachel. "I will deal with it."
"Okay. Johnson, blow the door," said Powell.
"There's no need," said Rachel. And then with a wave of her hand she tore the door off its hinges and hurled it into the room beyond. With a flourish, she ignited her lightsabre and strode through the gap she had created.
Half a dozen mutons had been arrayed around the door waiting to ambush anyone who came through. Two had been crushed by the door. The other four were moving to fire on Rachel as soon as she showed her face, but she wasn't standing still to take it; she tapped into the Force, and accelerated to the speed that had allowed her to, briefly, fight Glory as an equal, and then she attacked.
The closest of the mutons was to Rachel's left by the door. He barely managed to get his heavy plasma cannon up into a firing position before Rachel's blade sliced it in two and then came across and sliced a deep cut through his chest that cut straight through the creature's heart. Next Rachel span on her heel and launched a concentrated punch of telekinetic energy that slammed into the chest of another muton and hurled him back across the room, bouncing him off the concrete wall with a dull thud and multiple cracking sounds.
By that time, the other two mutons, who were facing at diagionals to Rachel, had their weapons aimed at Rachel and opened fire, unleashing two blasts of plasma at her. She immediately leapt up into the air with Force-enhanced grace, easily clearing the plasma energy that had been aimed at her, and landed between the two mutons. Both were cut neatly in two before they could react to her movement.
And then her concentration was disrupted by an unexpected burst of blaster fire from behind her. She turned on her heel to face that and saw one of the marines, a particularly young one, whose still smoking blaster carbine was aimed at the muton she'd blasted across the room, whose cannon was aimed at where her back had been.
"Thanks," she said.
"No problem, general."
"You know, I'd tear a strip off anyone else who pulled a stunt like that," said Powell, stepping through the door. "Don't suppose there's much point with you though."
"I am what I am," said Rachel with a shrug. "I don't take risks I can't handle though."
"Disappointed query: couldn't you leave some for me, master?"
"That's only half of them, HK."
"Statement: I feel better already."
"Come on, let's go," said Rachel. "Every moment we linger is one more that ethereal has with the prisoners in here."
A couple more Chinese soldiers were encountered on the way around to the inner doors, but they were cut down in a hail of blaster fire before they had time to do anything. Soon they were seperated from the main body of prisoners and the remaining force of aliens by a set of flimsy wooden doors. Rachel frowned as she contemplated the approach. Times like that, it would have been nice if the aliens didn't have genetically engineered eyesight that made pretty much any attempt to spoil it useless. Well, you couldn't have everything.
"Open your minds," said Rachel. "I have an idea.
"Uh, right. I mean, yes, ma'am."
Rachel then reached into the minds of the marines accompanying her and allowed them to see the world, temporarily, as she saw it through the Force. It took a considerable portion of her concentration to maintain, but it would allow them to attack the aliens with absolute confidence.
"Holy shit," whispered one. The others were too taken aback to speak.
"Now you see," said Rachel. "Come, let us finish this."
And with that, she blazed forwards into the prison area, lightsabre already swinging forth in a blow that caught the first muton, who had been waiting by the door, completely by surprise as it sliced through his neck. Immediately, blaster fire followed her move and in a precise burst each of the other five mutons were cut down. The ethereal would have been cut down similarly but it had used its telekinetic powers to place a metal table between it and the fire. The table was ruined now but it had served its purpose.
"You are as impressive as I was led to believe, light-bringer," said the ethereal. "But you will find me a more difficult foe than the acolytes you have defeated before now."
"Interesting choice of name," said Rachel, dropping the influence she was exerting over the minds of the marines as she spoke.
"It is appropriate."
"From your perspective, perhaps," said Rachel. "Set your weapons to stun."
"So you will not face me."
"Did you expect me to fight you in some sort of duel?" asked Rachel as the marines and HK clicked their weapons over to stun mode. "You are more valuable to use intact for now."
The ethereal reached out with its powers to try and summon more furniture into place to protect it, but it was far from difficult for Rachel to reach out and squash its powers as multiple waves of blue energy struck the alien and rendered it unconscious.
"If that thing so much as twitches, stun it again," ordered Rachel.
"Why don't we just kill the fucking thing?" asked one of the marines.
"Because ethereals are the generals. They possess valuable information, information we can extract from them."
The prisoners quite honestly looked like they couldn't believe what they were seeing. Rachel couldn't say she blamed them. In their position, she probably wouldn't believe it either; it wasn't like they'd have had access to media sources to tell them that the Jedi were now real. Well, there'd be plenty of time to sort that all out later.
"We need to get a medic in here," said Rachel. "Assess the injuries and see who can take a portkey journey out."
By the time Rachel stepped out of the building that she'd assaulted with the marines the fighting was over. The place still stank though and there was no shortage of activity as marines pelted back and forth working on the evacuation. Organised chaos was the best description for it that she could think of. She exchanged a few salutes and other quick greetings as she made her way back to the transport that Harper was on - she knew some of the marines from her time at X-COM - but it was running into a tall redhead with some truly ugly facial scars and the rank insignia of a British Army lieutenant that stopped her.
"Brigadier Giles," he said. "You know Harry, don't you?"
"That depends on the surname," said Rachel. "I've met a few people called Harry over the last few years."
"Harry Potter, ma'am."
"Oh, yes, I know him," said Rachel. "Ah, you're Bill Weasley, aren't you?"
"Yes, ma'am. I'd really appreciate it if you could tell me how to get in touch with him, ma'am."
"Last I heard he was in Afghanistan with the Royal Marines moving in on Pakistan," said Rachel. "I can't tell you any more than that; I don't know any more than that."
He was visibly disappointed by that. "Oh. Well thank you for your help, ma'am."
"He'll get in touch sooner or later," said Rachel. "It was only the legal situation that kept him away."
"I hope so, ma'am. My mother hasn't been taking things well and she'd appreciate hearing from him.
"If I see him, I'll say something."
"Thank you, ma'am."
And then, after a quick salute, he was off to do whatever it was he was running around like a blue-arsed fly for. Rachel continued on her way to make her report.
"Colonel," said Rachel as she found Harper. "Do you have any containment facilities on these transports?"
"Nothing high level," said Harper. "We weren't planning on taking prisoners."
"Ah," said Rachel. "Well, we need alpha-class containment. My team took an ethereal prisoner."
"You did what?" asked Harper.
"Well, he won't be going anywhere any time soon," said Rachel. "Five stun blasts in the face don't do much for your nervous system. If I ride with him, we should be okay."
"We have some beta-rated psychics," said Harper. "They should be able to deal with one alien. We don't have any specialist containment facilities though."
"Handcuff it to a rail," said Rachel. "They're not physically powerful creatures. It's the mental side we have to worry about. I don't think beta-rated guys will be enough for this one; I'll have to deal with it."
"I'll take your word for it," said Harper. "The guidelines say they should be enough, but you've worked with these things a lot longer than I have. Anything else to report?"
"Complete success," said Rachel. "No losses on our side. We did run into a wizard as well as the aliens, but I dealt with him."
"Excellent," said Harper. "We just need to load up the prisoners who are too weak for magical transport now and then we'll be leaving."
"Will we get out before the Chinese response arrives?"
"Looks like it," said Harper. "We're not picking anything up on the scanners. You picking up anything?"
"Nothing over the background noise," said Rachel. "But no Jedi has perfect senses."
"Well, we'll only be here a few more minutes and they'll never catch us. Looks like our revenge has gone perfectly to plan."
Before Rachel could say anything a marine came bursting in and interrupted her train of thought. "Colonel Harper, sir, we've found survivors!"
"Survivors from what, marine?"
"Currahee, sir! The CO's here, alive!"
"Fuck me," Harper blurted out before reasserting self control. "Any others?"
"Five Americans, sir! And seven ROKs!"
"And their condition?"
"They're bad, sir. Real bad. But they're alive."
"Well, get them loaded up then. It's the least we can do to get them out of here."
And then he was gone again.
"Did you know they would be here?" asked Rachel with a frown. She didn't like the idea that information like that had been withheld from her.
"I had no idea," admitted Harper. "All our intelligence said that no prisoners were taken. They fought to the last bullet and then they fixed bayonets and charged. Madness, but without it we'd have been pushed out of Korea before we had time to reinforce and this war would be looking even worse than it already does."
Rachel nodded. "They'll be heroes."
"They're already heroes," said Harper. "They'll just be live heroes instead of dead."
"Maybe we'll get lucky and find some of the Russians here as well," said Rachel. "They need a lift."
"I don't think God's smiling upon us to quite that degree," said Harper. "But maybe we'll get lucky."
The CO of the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division was an absolute mess. One glance was all it took to know that he'd been given special attention by the ever so pleasant sorts that ran this particular one-stop shop for all your torture needs. It took two burly marines to keep him moving despite his diminished build as he was escorted into the primary transport and it could only be pride keeping the man on his feet even with that help. His legs certainly didn't look strong enough or steady enough to support him.
Still, even physically diminished and obviously weak, he inspired respect. Every marine he passed on his journey from prison camp building to transport had stopped whatever they were doing and snapped off the crispest salute they could manage, as they also did for the soldiers that had been under this man's command before the brigade was slaughtered in their last desperate stand. He was a hero. A bona-fide hero. And, unlike her, he had no supernatural power; he was like them: normal. Easy to relate to. Easy to aspire to. An inspiration to the men and to the officers alike.
His rank was actually equal to that of Colonel Harper, but, still, Harper snapped off a salute as he was brought on-board the transport for evacuation. Even his form of address reflected that of someone addressing a superior rank. "Sir, we're taking you home."
"Thank you, Colonel."