Davros's Fanfiction

Knights Of The Hellmouth Enemy Unknown

Chapter One

August 1999

Xander heard the gunfire and saw the flashes of light indicating some sort of firefight lighting up the night long before his car had reached the town's limits. For most people, that would be a cue to turn right around and head on back to where they coming from. Xander just kept on going. As he got closer, he saw something that made him put the pedal to the metal and drop his lightsabre down from the sheathe into his off-hand: energy weapons fire. Not blasters, or at least not a blaster he'd ever seen before, but definitely energy weapons. And there was no other force on Earth with the knowledge to construct such weapons now that Malak was dead.

If the weapons hadn't came from Xander . . . well, he didn't really want to think about it. Either Malak had shown an abnormal level of foresight and left behind some sort of army with the holocrons, or . . . aliens? It didn't seem possible, really, but there he was accelerating towards Oxnard and seeing energy weapons blazing away and lighting up the night with purple fire. And there were those strange somethings brushing at the edge of his senses that were neither demon nor human as far as he could tell.

God, he wished he hadn't dropped Faith off in LA now. Going into a battlezone on his own with no backup at all possible just wasn't his idea of fun at all. He didn't even have many 'toys' with him, just the new lightsabre he'd constructed using an emerald lifted from a demon lair he'd dealt with alongside Faith back in St. Louis a month back and the one he'd stolen from Malak locked in the boot. He'd used the last of his grenades against the vampire nest they'd took out in LA last week and just hadn't had the time to gather the components and put together the weapons.

And to to top things off, the energy weapon users seemed to be winning. The gunfire was trailing off and the sounds of terrified, agonised screaming - both male and female - could be made out as he passed the half-destroyed 'Welcome to Oxnard' sign. The waves of terror and pain emanating from the people of the town that were hammering against his mental shields left him in no doubt as to what was going on: Invasion.

He took a deep breath and centred himself within the Force before he stepped out of the car and brought his sabre up into a defensive position, ready to be activated at a moment's notice. The area around where he'd parked the car looked like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie. What wasn't riddled with bullet-holes was scorched and singed to the point of collapsing, and the only light available as from the flames of the burned-out cars and buildings that lined the streets. That wasn't the worst of it though. Not even close. What was the worst was the bodies . . . the utterly destroyed, disembowelled, mutilated bodies with those terrorised, agonised looks forever locked on their faces.

Xander had to force down a wave of anger that threatened to sweep through him as he looked upon a girl, couldn't have been more than ten or eleven, and the look on her face, the sheer horror, and then the completely missing lower half of her body. There was just nothing there, blood and gore hanging out from where the waist had been, but no sign of the lower half of her body. He felt the dark abyss opening up within him as he stared at the ruined body, and it tempted him. It sorely tempted him. There was power in that abyss, he knew, power enough to send these . . . things . . . scrabbling for safety.

Swallowing his rage, Xander wrapped himself in the comforting embrace of the Force and allowed his emotions to slip away into nothingness. It was this action that gave him the split-second warning to move before a monstrous creature lunged out of the darkness, slashing with its claws at the space Xander had occupied before he'd leapt away onto the hood of a nearby car.

Xander swallowed slowly as he eyed the creature that had attacked him. Damned if it didn't look like one of the aliens from the Alien series. It hissed and snapped its mandibles at him before leaping at him, its jaws open, but Xander was prepared this time, and in one smooth movement he ignited his lightsabre, stepped aside, and cut the foul creature in two as it overshot him. He stared at it for a long moment as its green blood leaked out onto the tarmac, which promptly began to lightly sizzle as the blood made contact. There was no demon in it as far as he could tell but it sure as hell acted like one.

He felt . . . something approaching him and looked up from the body. A tall, blonde-haired man was shuffling towards him with a vacant look in his eyes. Shock, perhaps?

"Hey," called out Xander. "You okay?"

A short, plump woman stepped out of the shadows and joined the man in shuffling towards Xander. Xander opened his mouth to say something but clamped it shut again when a woman in little more than her underwear also joined the first in shuffling towards Xander.

"Okay, something's not right here," he muttered as more and more of the people stepped out of the shadows till there was an even dozen of them, all shuffling towards Xander with vacant looks in their eyes. As they got closer, the hairs on the back of his neck began to stand up. And the feeling of death was unmistakeable. "Zombies! Frigging wonderful," he muttered, before unleashing an overpowered wave of telekinetic energy that scattered the zombies and bounced them off the buildings and cars nearby. The zombies uniformly collapsed to the ground and stopped moving

Xander barely had time to wonder if they really were zombies what with going down that easily when they began to . . . change. Their flesh rippled and their bodies contorted horribly as they thrashed around on the floor, vague sounds of pain coming from their locked-up throats. This was all too familiar to Xander after the episode with the swim team, and he stepped back away from the zombies and ignited his sabre, bringing it up and around into a defensive position. All too soon the zombies stopped writhing and their skin split, revealing an even dozen copies of that alien he'd killed earlier. And they were all glaring at Xander and clicking their claws ominously.

"Oh," said Xander. "Oh fuck."

He, just for a moment, considered standing and fighting, but really . . . there were fights even he didn't want to pick. Those things were fast. With a quick application of Force power, he leapt up onto the roof of a nearby convenience store - which creaked ominously as he landed - and then began to bounce away across the roof-tops, putting a good bit of distance between himself and the ravenous monsters with a grudge. He wasn't sure if they had strong enough leg muscles to follow him but he wasn't taking any chances. Ending up with a chest-buster inside himself was not on his top-ten things to do.

When he was certain that he'd left the creatures well behind he stopped his journey - landing on the roof of a small semi-detached house - and took a moment to take stock of the situation. As far as the eye could see there was destruction, fires and corpses laying in the street and burned out buildings. What this was meant to accomplish was utterly beyond him. It was random destruction without rhyme or reason, the sort of thing that Malak had indulged himself in after he fell to the Dark Side. Nothing was being accomplished here. There was no military value to Oxnard, nothing to be gained, it was just a slaughter of people who could not defend themselves. Whatever defence was being mounted was obviously being entirely overwhelmed.

"I wish HK was here," muttered Xander. "I need a good killing machine on my side right about now."

With that said, Xander stepped off the roof of the building and dropped back down to ground level. As shitty a situation as this was, there were still some people left alive to protect from the attackers, and that was what he would do. It was his duty as a Jedi Knight and as a decent human being. Still, he wished he had some more firepower to back him up.

Actually finding the living to protect them proved to be something that was easier said than done, even for one with Xander's abilities. Supernatural senses are a wonderful thing but they are easily confused, especially in an area as saturated with death and pain as that place was. Places like that are just not Jedi-friendly, not in the slightest. It felt like he was drowning in darkness, and for someone who didn't have as much experience as he did - albeit second-hand through Revan's memories - it would have been horribly disorientating.

It was when he was walking down another non-descript street that he felt the twinge at the edge of his senses that indicated an incoming attack. In a flurry of motion, he activated his lightsabre and brought it into position to block the incoming energy blast. But it didn't work. The blast struck the lightsabre as expected but instead of being deflected it simply split into two smaller blasts along the line of impact and Xander barely had time to twist his body in such a way as to avoid having two large holes blasted in his chest. As it was, the smaller of the two halves splashed along his abdomen before he could fully dodge.

Xander hissed in agony as he felt his skin sear and burn under the power of the attack but he had no time to stop and think about it as he leapt away to the side out of the way of a burst of purple energy that he didn't even want to think about what it would have done to him if he hadn't dodged. Then his attacker moved into the light, giving Xander a better look at him, still firing as Xander dodged frantically. Damned if the thing didn't look a giant snake with body-builder arms and an armoured upper-body.

After a rather brief spate of frantic dodging, the snake-man's gun clicked and the rain of purple fire stopped. Xander took full advantage of the lull and hurled his lightsabre in a spear-throw like move that burned a hole straight through the alien's forehead. It stood there staring dumbly at him in disbelief for a moment before crumpling to the ground quite dead. Xander summoned his sabre back to his hand and then went to examine the corpse and its armament.

The body was entirely unremarkable as far as Xander was concerned. Just another in an endless series of monsters that had tried to kill him over the years, and it was somewhat less bizarre than the giant preying mantis that had tried to seduce him a few years back or the entirely repugnant species known as the Hutts. The weapons on the other hand were a great deal more interesting. The grenades . . . well, using a grenade when you have no idea how the settings work wouldn't be the best idea ever. The gun was something else though. It looked like you could shoot down a battleship with the thing if you had good enough aim, the damn thing was huge! He had no idea how powerful it really was but it sure did enough damage to be getting on with - his scorched abdomen could testify to that.

A further search yielded a couple of ammunition clips and then he was ready to go. A gun's a gun. Clip goes in and you pull the trigger to fire. Hardly rocket science. The fact that they seemed to fire raw plasma that wasn't coherent enough for him to deflect with his sabre made the use of ranged weapons somewhat compulsory too. The masters would probably frown upon it, but then they'd always frowned upon a lot of the things he did for some reason or another. Strange that.

Suitably armed, Xander went back to hunting through the streets, looking for survivors to protect. There wasn't a whole lot of indication of where they were so in the end he headed towards the booming sound of a shotgun being repeatedly fired. It seemed as good a direction as any really and at least there would be something at the end of the journey.

What Xander found was a tall, grey-haired man holding off one of the Alien wannabes with a pump-action shotgun. It wasn't doing all that much damage really but there was enough kinetic energy in a twelve gauge slug to knock the thing on its arse and keep it away from the couple of kids that were cowering behind the old man. It was quite an impressive show of nerve really. Those things were damned nasty and he was just blasting away at it with no fear at all. Old soldier, maybe?

As the alien regained its footing once more and moved to attack again - not a very bright creature really - Xander stepped out from his cover and opened fire with his recently acquired new toy. The first shot sheared its arm off at what passed for an elbow joint, the second one of its legs at the mid-thigh, and the third blew a gaping hole in its chest as it tumbled to the ground screeching. And it was still moving, dragging itself forwards with its one good arm towards the people it had been attacking. The grey-haired man simply put his shotgun against the things head and pulled the trigger, cool as you like. At that range, it was pretty much screwed and the green blood made a nice spatter across the tarmac.

"Might want to step away from that," said Xander. "I think its blood is corrosive."

"Oh bloody typical," snarled the man as his boots started to smoke. He hopped away immediately, looking quite ridiculous. A moment passed as the man regained his calm before he spoke again. "Where did you get that gun?"

"Took it off one of the snake-men things," said Xander.

"They have weapons like that?" asked the man. Xander nodded to the affirmative. "This just keeps getting better. Any sign of reinforcements?"

"Not that I've seen," said Xander.

"Wonderful," said the man with a sigh. "By the time they get troops here we'll all be dead at this rate."

"Oh it gets better," said Xander. "I left a dozen of those things behind a few blocks back and it doesn't look like there's anyone else around to slow them down."

The man blinked and then swore. Loudly. "Kids, time to get moving," he said after a moment's thought.

Xander didn't even have to take a moment to think about it. "Here," he said, holding the gun out to the man. "Take this. It'll give you and those kids a fighting chance."

"And what about you?" asked the man, as he took the gun and the spare clip Xander was carrying.

"I have my ways," said Xander. "Now go. Get those kids to safety."

"I won't forget this," said the man with a respectful nod. And then he was gone, leading the kids away at a good clip.

Xander sighed deeply as the group passed out of sight. Looked like he was going to have to try and fight those things anyway. Wonderful. He drew his lightsabre once more and took a deep breath to centre himself and began to draw the Force to him, calling as much power to his use as he could. How the hell he ended up in situations like this was utterly beyond him. He could feel the monstrous beasts that he'd left behind scurrying closer to him now, moving fast towards his position. It wasn't all of them, thank all that's good and holy, but there was enough.

He ignited his lightsabre and assumed an aggressive posture, awaiting the inevitable battle for his life. He'd expected a lot of things from being a Jedi, but fighting off some sort of alien invasion force . . . well, this was different. It could be worse - they could be Sith - but it was still pretty bad as far as he could tell. This planet just wasn't read to fight such a war. The technology wasn't there and humans were still busily killing each other over stupid squabbles. Religion, territory, old grudges . . . and here there was an alien army in the early processes of invading the Earth. Wonderful.

Xander could see them now, barely. Black creatures in a town lit up only by the burning hulks that were once cars aren't exactly easy to see. Still, sight was unimportant. He could feel them and their intentions. They wanted him, they wanted to make him into one of them. His lip curled into a disdainful smile. It would be a cold day in hell before he allowed himself to be turned into some mindless, ravening beat. If they could understand such things, he would have taunted them with that knowledge, but they lacked the intelligence to understand insults.

And then they were on him. Claws and teeth snapping, they came, closing to melee range and attacking at blinding speeds. It was all Xander could do to dodge the attacks coming from half a dozen different directions at once while using his lightsabre to keep the other aliens at a distance. They seemed to have learned that the green blade was death, disturbingly enough, so they must have had some intelligence, even if it was restricted to an animal level.

Xander had to reach deep into his reserves of power as he enhanced his speed to levels that would leave him little more than a blur of motion to an ordinary human observer, and even that combined with the usual short-range pre-cognition used by all Jedi in battle was barely keeping him ahead of the monsters attacking him. In the end something had to give and Xander knew it, so he gathered the Force in his legs and leapt away to give himself some room to breathe.

The aliens lunged after him immediately but Xander was quick enough to counter them, grabbing hold of a burned-out car with the Force and hurling it into their midst. Most were quick enough to dodge the vehicle turned missile but two of the aliens reacted just a moment too slowly and were crushed under several tons of twisted metal that had once been a 50s era American-built car. And then the rest were on him and he was back to dodging frantically and using his sabre to hold them off.

One alien lunged forward, claws extended and snapping at Xander, and he immediately reacted by cutting its claws off at what passed for the beast's forearms, but in that he left himself open for just a moment. And in that moment, one of the beasts took advantage. Xander's world turned to pain as he felt a clawed arm pierce his already wounded abdomen and dark spots danced in front of his eyes as he fought to stay conscious. He couldn't help but let out a small cry of pain.

Xander looked up and saw one of the beasts lunging at him jaws first and in a moment of panic, he clenched his fist and unleashed a brutal dose of telekinetic energy that pulped the creature's head and dropped it to the ground twitching as its nervous system. Immediately Xander brought his lightsabre around and bisected the alien that had gored him on its claws and managed to unsteadily leap away to try and buy some time to recover from his injury.

There were only three of the aliens left now, not such a bad number for one of Xander's power to face, but in his weakened state it was going to be difficult he knew. He could feel some sort of poison beginning to work through his system and the basic nature of his wounds meant they were going to slow him down immeasurably on their own. The aliens attacked and Xander was back-pedalling immediately, trying to keep some distance between himself and those bloody claws.

As Xander clumsily rolled out of the way of one slightly over-extended attack, he heard it: The sound of planes and helicopters approaching. Reinforcements were here. With renewed confidence, he brandished his sabre and motioned for the aliens to come get some. They might not have understood the gesture but they attacked anyway. The first alien was neatly decapitated in an effortless manoeuvre but the second got in far too close before Xander bisected it in a last-ditch attack that left his defences wide open. The third alien plunged its claws deep into Xander's left shoulder and he cried out in pain before bringing his lightsabre around and decapitating it just before it could sink its teeth into his neck.

Xander blinked and staggered back as he felt the poison redouble its workings through his body. He tried to focus his powers on purging the toxins from his rapidly weakening body but his control slipped almost immediately. He tried to regain his grip on his powers but it was like trying to hold onto water. He fell to his knees and his breath came in sharp gasps as his strength waned. He would not die like this! No!

"He's coming around!"

"Jesus Christ, are we even sure this guy isn't one of them? Sedate him!"

"Pulse is going crazy here."

"We need some more of the anti-venom from stores. How the fuck is this guy still breathing?"

"He's coming around again."

"Fuck's sake. Sedate him then!"

Xander blinked as he woke up. As sluggish as he felt, the poison seemed to be gone and his breath was coming as easily as it normally did. He'd survived. He tried to sit up and found he couldn't. Okay, he was strapped to the bed . . . that wasn't good.

"Eight Chryssalids, kid," said a voice to his left. Xander turned to face it and saw a tall, older man in military-style fatigues. He didn't recognise the rank markings. "I'm impressed. Most soldiers can't even take one. Then again, they're stuck with normal weapons."

Xander just stared at the man.

"They're going crazy over that fancy doohickey of yours in the labs you know," said the old man. "Well, they're going crazy over the one we found locked in your trunk. I figured it would be best if I didn't let the lab-monkeys trash your weapon."

Xander nodded slowly. "For that, I'm grateful."

"Oh you have a lot more than that to be grateful for," said the man. "You wouldn't have had a snowball in hell's chance of surviving if we hadn't found and treated you."

"True," said Xander. "But that's just part of being a decent human being. You don't leave people to die in the streets."

"I'm not paid to be a decent human being, boy," said the man. "I'm paid to kill aliens and win battles."


"Yeah," said the main. "Charming's my middle name. Now I've just got to decide what we're going to do with you."

"And what makes you think I'll go along with whatever you decide?" asked Xander. "I won't be caged easily."

"Maybe not," said the man. "But I can make life very, very difficult for you. What with carrying around so much lethal weaponry, driving around in a car registered to a Rachel Giles, carrying around Rachel Giles's ID, and us not being able to find Rachel Giles . . . well, we have enough to put you away for a very long time, I think. That's not even going into some of the very interesting information I found when I looked into Sunnydale."

"If you go after my friends, I will kill you," said Xander in a matter-of-fact tone of voice.

"Maybe," said the man. "But that's not what I was talking about. I was more interested in those explosives you like playing around with and the mysterious disappearance of one of the mayor's employees. Curious stuff."

"You've done your research," said Xander, and then he reached out with his mind and released the restraints that had been placed upon him. "But I'm not sure you quite understand what you're threatening."

"Was that supposed to impress me, kid?" asked the man. "I've seen the aliens pull far more impressive stunts than that, and you'd never make it out of the base if you tried anything no matter how powerful you are."

Xander found himself stymied. He didn't particularly want to start a battle here, but he didn't much appreciate being threatened either. This man didn't feel evil. Ruthless and aggressive, yes, but he was fighting on the right side. In the end Xander settled for shooting the man a malevolent glare that had in the past reducing grown men to quivering wrecks. Unsurprisingly, it had little effect.

"Now that we've both done our posturing, maybe we can get down to business," said the man. "I'm the Commander In Charge of American Operations, so I have quite a bit of leeway, and I want you on my staff."

"American Operations of what organisation?" asked Xander. "And what exactly do you want me doing?"

"X-COM, of course. The Extraterrestrial Combat Unit," said the man. "I'm Commander Miller. And I want you on the ground as a soldier fighting those bastards. The science and engineering lots want you too but there's no way I'm wasting someone who can take out Chryssalids in melee combat there."

"And who gives you your authority?" asked Xander.

"The UN, I suppose," said Commander Miller. "It's all done on the quiet so I don't really know much beyond the fact that there's a large coalition of nations behind X-COM funding. The Supreme Commander would know more but he's not around here often."

"I can't in good conscience walk away from this," said Xander. "But I'll need time to settle my affairs. I can't just walk away from my life and be done with it."

"That's acceptable," said the commander. "We give all of our recruits a couple of weeks for that before we put them through training."

Xander nodded in acceptance of that. "There are some more things about that you probably need to know," he said, before promptly triggering the transformation and morphing into his female form, into Rachel.

"Huh," said the commander, before falling silent for a moment. "Well, that's definitely new. How much flexibility do you have in that?"

"Male or female," said Rachel before morphing back into Xander. "No control over what the form actually looks like."

"Shame", said the commander. "A shape shifter could have been useful. Anyway, you'd best keep that to yourself. Don't ask, don't tell and all that."

Xander scowled slightly. "I'm not gay."

"Whatever," said the commander. "I don't really care where you dip your wick. X-COM doesn't really care either, to be honest, but the squaddies . . . well, they're the same as any squaddies you'll find. Most wouldn't really care, but the ones that do . . . Best to keep such things to yourself. And they're just going to assume with that trick."

"Then the bigots should be bloody well dealt with," said Xander.

"Ha! We need all the warm bodies we can get," said the commander. "You've seen what it's like out there. You think we can afford to turn away competent soldiers? As long as they don't cross the line, I have use for them."

Xander could see the logic in that. "Fine," he said. "I'll just stay male. I can deal with that."

The commander nodded. "Good," he said, before reaching into a pocket and pulling out Xander's lightsabre and tossing it to him. You go settle your affairs. We'll be in touch soon enough. Just make sure things really are settled because you won't be getting much leave till the war's over."

Chapter Two

September 1999

Xander blinked as he pulled his car onto the turn-off and into Sunnydale and came completely under the umbrella of the hellmouth. He was really growing to despise that feeling. As his senses grew more attuned, the feeling of disconnection as the darkness swamped him grew. It was not a pleasant feeling at all, somewhat akin to how a normal person would feel if you blinded one of their eyes or rendered them unable to see colours beyond a very narrow range, perhaps. If it wasn't for Buffy and Willow being here, he wouldn't even consider coming back, to be honest.

By the time he reached the car park for the block of apartments that Giles lived in, the sun was going down and Xander could feel the vague stirrings in the Force as the vampires and demons shook off their daylight enforced stupor and grew active. He'd grown much more attuned to demonic energies over the course of his summer travels with Faith, but even now he could do no more than sense the general disturbances of the energies coming active all over the town here on the hellmouth.

As he pulled into a parking spot, he morphed into a she. They were used to seeing Rachel around here, and the less attention garnered, the better really. She'd gotten enough attention to last a dozen lifetimes travelling with Faith these last few months. That girl just didn't know the meaning of the word subtle. Still, it was going to be strange not having her around anymore after spending the last few months living in each other's pockets. You just get used to having people around and then when they're not . . . well, she'd miss Faith.

As she approached the apartment, the familiar feeling of Giles's presence popped into her mind and she smiled. It would be good to see him again after recent events, a return to normality, even if it was only temporary. It took a few minutes of fishing around in her pockets to find her keys but she soon let herself in.

"Hey, Giles," she said. "I'm back."

The apartment was exactly as she'd left it, right down to Giles sitting in the comfortable chair with a thick book in hand and a cup of tea resting on the arm of the chair. He immediately lowered his book and looked up at the sound of Rachel's voice.

"Ah, hello, Rachel," he said, with a warm smile. "It's good to see you back. I don't, ah, suppose Faith's come back with you?"

Rachel shot Giles a puzzled look as she answered, "no. Why do you ask?"

Giles rolled his eyes. "Wesley's been going frantic since she disappeared with you," he said. "He's certain that the Council are going to fire him what with losing one Slayer and having the other tell him to bugger off."

"Buffy said that?" asked Rachel, hanging her coat on the rack near the door.

"Well, not in those words," admitted Giles. "But the sentiment was there. He hasn't exactly been well-liked since the Faith incident, as you know, but he's been truly insufferable since Faith disappeared and he just pushed Buffy too far, I suppose."

"Huh," said Rachel, momentarily speechless. "Well, Faith shouldn't be too hard to find. Just follow the trail of chaos."

"I take it you've had an eventful summer, then?"

"Giles, she started a riot in a gay club," said Rachel. "A full-on riot. She claims it wasn't her fault but I know better. There's no way a riot started in the vicinity of Faith without her involvement."

Giles just shook his head. "I'm not sure I want to know," he said. "Especially when it comes to your presence at a gay club . . . "

Rachel shot Giles a mock-glare. By his standards, that was a fairly good wind-up. "Female form, G-man."

"Yes, well," he said with a cough. "As interesting as that story likely is, it's not one I really want to hear."

Rachel just smirked as the way that night had ended up playing out came to mind. Oh, yeah, definitely interesting.

"Do I dare even ask how you've spent your summer?" asked Giles.

"Well, it's been interesting," said Rachel. "Seen a lot of places, killed a lot of demons, and generally stirred up a lot of trouble with Faith. "

Giles shot her a wolfish grin. "Sounds like some of the more reputable times of my youth," he said. "Except you probably had a bit more power on your side."

"And then there was Oxnard . . . " said Rachel, trailing off as some rather unpleasant memories came to the fore, her face screwing up in a rather disgusted expression as she remembered some of the gorier sights.

Now that got her Giles complete and undisturbed attention. "You were there?" he asked. "The demon-hunting community has worked itself into quite the tizzy over what happened there."

"And the other places, I guess," said Rachel, slumping down onto the couch.

"Yes," said Giles. "You . . . you know what's going on? No-one seems to have even the faintest idea. The demon hunters who manage to be there for the attacks . . . well, they've never managed to get out alive."

"It's not demons, Giles," said Rachel. "It's aliens."

"Aliens?" asked Giles, looking incredibly less than convinced. "Are you quite sure?"

"Well they sure as hell ain't human," said Rachel. "And they don't have any demonic energy about them. What else could they be?"

"I . . . I don't know," admitted Giles, "but it does seem rather unlikely, doesn't it?"

"Tell that to the military," said Rachel. "They've got it down as being aliens and have a multi-national secret army devoted to dealing with it. And please don't tell anyone about this or they'll get pissy."

"Why do I have the feeling that I'm not going to like what you have to tell me about this?" asked Giles.

"Probably because you're not," said Rachel. "In short, they've, ah, conscripted me."

"I have the sudden urge to slam my head against the wall repeatedly," murmured Giles, as he stood up and moved to the kitchen area.

"It's not that bad, Giles," said Rachel. "I mean . . . well, ok, I'm kinda struggling to come up with a good side here."

"I need a drink . . . " said Giles, pulling a half-empty bottle of highly expensive looking scotch from a cupboard. "Can't you get out of this?"

"Probably," said Rachel.

"But you're not going to are you?" asked Giles, before gulping down a good-sized shot of scotch. "That would be sensible and God knows American teenagers don't do sensible."

"I can't walk away from this, Giles," said Rachel. "I can't walk away from it any more than I could walk away from the vampire slaying back in high school. I wouldn't be able to look in the mirror."

"Bloody teenagers," said Giles with a heartfelt sigh. "Bad enough when they do drink and drugs, but you? You find a good old-fashioned war to get involved in."

Rachel just shrugged.

"And what are the casualty rates of this little organisation then, hmm?" asked Giles. "Considering that they probably have no idea what they're doing, I bet they're something to behold."

"Well . . . okay, you're right on that one," admitted Rachel. "If you'd seen these aliens in action, you'd understand. We're horribly outgunned here, Giles. These aliens are only a few major discoveries removed from Star Wars level technology."

"Yet you still sign up to fight them," said Giles. "How very typical."

"I am not a child," said Rachel frostily. "If anyone on this planet is qualified to take on an alien invasion force, it's me."

"I . . . yes, you're right," sighed Giles. "But I don't have to like it. Despite everything, you are still only eighteen years old, and that is far too young to be sent off to war as far as I'm concerned."

"That hasn't stopped anyone in the past," said Rachel. "And if it makes you feel any better, Revan and Malak weren't much older when they went to war against the Mandalorians."

"And that turned out so well, didn't it?" said Giles, before knocking back another shot of scotch.

"Well, no," admitted Rachel. "But I think I'm a bit more stable than either of those two. I'm not daft enough to think myself invulnerable to the things that beat them."

Giles fell silent for a while as he poured himself another shot and returned to his chair. By the time he replied, he had a thoughtful look on his face as the initial shock of Rachel's announcement faded away. "Do you really think this is a good idea?" he asked.

"It's necessary," said Rachel. "And it's not like Buffy can't keep a lid on the hellmouth without me holding her hand."

Xander was awake and ready to start bright and early the next morning. He simply had too much to do to lounge around in bed all day like he normally would given the chance. Anyway, getting used to that sort of life would be incredibly counter-productive when X-COM called. He had a feeling that sleep was something that would be in very short supply for him soon enough. Not something he was looking forward to but compared to the whole death and destruction aspects - not such a big deal, really.

The day was mostly spent at his desk, feverishly typing at his computer as he tried to expand his already written journals into a comprehensive series of texts on the Jedi Order, everything from philosophy to history. It was a huge task but it was the only option he had really. He had to leave behind some sort of legacy to enable the teaching of Jedi in the future in case he bought the farm, and he did not have the time or the materials to construct a holocron. He wasn't even sure how he could construct a holocron with modern materials in all honesty, but he was pretty sure that he wouldn't be able to afford it.

It certainly wasn't perfect - or even good - but then again it would be a cold day in hell before some random aliens took him down for keeps. He really wished that his scanner's character recognition software didn't suck though. Having his writing show up as symbol font when he tried to scan in his handwritten notes was just insulting really. Accurate, but insulting. It was kinda tempting to handwrite the whole lot. Anyone who'd have the patience to work through that mess would really deserve to become a Jedi assuming that they didn't turn to the Dark Side out of sheer frustration.

Eventually he was roused from his work by the sound of Giles jabbering away on the phone about Spike. Hmm. Well, it seemed as good a time as any to break. As fast as he could type these days, he was making rapid progress. And Spike being back in Sunnydale was big news. He hadn't seen the bleached blunder since, oh, it must have been when Angelus was running around trying to end the world. Good times. Simpler times anyway. No worries about Sith or alien invasions back then, just demons trying to end the world.

"Yes, well I'll research it as best I can," Xander heard Giles say as he entered the main living area. "You've done all you can for tonight. Why don't you go to bed."

A minute later and the phone was back on the hook.

"So what's up, Giles?" asked Xander. "Spike causing trouble again, I take it?"

"Yes, it seems that way," said Giles absently, as he started to pull books off one of his shelves. "He's got some mad idea in his head about finding the Gem of Amara."

"I've never heard of it," admitted Xander.

"I'm not surprised," said Giles, flipping a book open. "It's a rather obscure legend outside of vampire circles and no-one really believes that it exists."

"So what's it supposed to do?" asked Xander. "Super-powers?"

"Something like that," said Giles. "According to legends, it renders a vampire immune to both stakes and sunlight as I recall."

"Oh. Well, that's just peachy," said Xander. "Looks like it's time for a good old-fashioned research party."

The next couple of hours passed in silence broken only by the sounds of pages turning and the occasional 'pass me that book' as Xander and Giles worked their way through the various books Giles owned on demonic legends. Eventually this silence was broken by the sound of Giles uttering an absolutely vile oath.

"You found something, I take it?" asked Xander.

"The Gem of Amara resides in the valley of the sun," quoted Giles. "Bloody typical."

"Any mention of exactly where it is?" asked Xander.

"No," said Giles. "That would be too easy. I'm going to try and get in touch with Buffy and warn her."

Getting in touch with Buffy proved to be a complete bust as no-one answered the phone at her place. In the end they had to wait till the next day to go and physically meet Buffy. Xander was finding it difficult to take the whole thing seriously. A vampire immune to sunlight and staking was bad, yes, but fire, decapitation, and holy water would still work well enough as far as he could tell. It was just a case of shifting your approach to something that was a few thousand years less out of date in terms of the weapons used.

Anyway, this all led to a most amusing situation where Buffy stumbled into the room she shared with Willow and had her top halfway undone before she realised that Xander and Giles were in the room. Combine her rather bleary-eyed appearance and the scent that Xander picked up from her - as much as he didn't want to, he couldn't help but pick some things up no matter how hard he clamped down on the enhanced wolf senses - and it was pretty obvious what she'd been up to the night before.

"Giles, I didn't know you were here," she stammered, not seeming to notice Xander who was sprawled out on Willow's bed.

"I couldn't tell," he said dryly.

"I was studying at the library. All Saturday night," stammered Buffy, garnering a rather sceptical look from Giles. "Uh, you know what. I'm an adult now and it's none of your business what I do."

"Still funny to hear you make the obvious excuses though, Buff'," drawled Xander.

"Xander!" called out Buffy. "When did you get back into town? And why didn't you call me, you mutant?"

"I haven't been in town long," said Xander. "And when we're done with Spike I really need to talk to you and Willow about some stuff."

"What is it?"

"Later Buff'," said Xander. "I think Giles's head is about to explode unless he gets you to actually, you know, listen to him. Just for a change."

"Quite," said Giles. "We found a passage in one of my books which indicates that the gem may well be in a crypt here in Sunnydale."

"That's if the 'valley of the sun' means Sunnydale," said Xander.

"It seems that Spike might know what it's about," said Giles.

"Why don't you guys try and find out where the gem is?" said Buffy. "I'll try and get Spike before he gets to the gem."

"I'll get started," said Giles, heading out. Xander started to move to follow but was stayed by Giles shaking his head. Xander guessed that he wanted him to stick around just in case. Extra firepower and all that. He began to settle back down till he saw Willow looking at Buffy with an eager look in her eye and it wasn't all that difficult to figure out what was coming: girl-talk.

"I'll just wait outside," said Xander. "I may turn into a girl, but girl-talk? A step too far."

And then he matched action with words. He really didn't want to hear the details of whatever Buffy was up to right now. He wasn't interested in her these days, but she had still been his first real crush back before things had gotten decidedly weird for him, and he didn't want to hear the details of her love-life. It wasn't that long before she came out of the room and then they started off on their hunt for Spike.

Xander fumed as he listened to this Parker Abrams twerp thoroughly belittle Buffy and her feelings, discarding her like a used kleenex. The wolf inside him howled with rage as someone it considered pack was treated so abominably. It wanted to tear this pathetic creature limb from limb and feast on his entrails, and Xander couldn't really argue the sentiment at all. His presence in the Force . . . it reeked of sleaze and a lot of similarly unpleasant things. Xander doubted that this Parker had a drop of human empathy in his body. It was all about his wants, his lusts, and the hell with the girls he hurt satisfying them.

He allowed his attention to wander pretty quickly. He did not want to hear this. Not one bit. It just wasn't his business really. With that in mind, he stepped away, though he could still hear their conversation despite his best efforts. Hmm, that was an interesting spot of mould on that wall facing away from them.

"Wow," said a British-accented voice. "That was pathetic."

Xander whirled around just in time to see Spike punch Buffy in the face and knock her down to the ground.

"Birds singing, squirrels making lots of rotten little squirrels," said Spike. "Sun beaming down in a nice, non-fatal way. It's very exciting, I can't wait to see-"

What Spike couldn't wait to see was cut off as Xander slammed a knee into the vampire's solar plexus, doubling him up, and then slamming his elbow down into the base of Spike's skull.

"I've been wanting to do this for a long time," noted Xander absently, as he lashed out with a vicious kick to Spike's midsection that impacted with a satisfying crunching sound and lifted the vampire from the ground.

Xander watched in mild amusement as the vampire groggily lifted himself back onto his feet. That amusement soon faded to surprise and no small amount of horror when the vampire's wounds visibly healed and he stood up straight and sneered at Xander.

"Have to do better than that, whelp," he said.

Well, that was worse than he'd expected. Healing broken ribs in a few seconds was going to make this fight difficult.

"How about this?" asked Buffy cockily as she rammed a stake into Spike, who didn't even try to defend himself.

Spike just pushed her away and the wound disappeared in seconds. "Oh, do it again. It tickles. You know, in a good way."

And then he lunged forwards, taking full advantage of Buffy's momentary shock and beating her down to the ground with a quick one-two of punches to the head followed by a roundhouse kick that caught her flush on the jaw. Xander immediately stepped into Spike's path before he could follow up the attack and proceeded to fend the vampire off till Buffy was back on her feet. He really wanted to just draw his lightsabre and cut the blond bastard in two, but it would just draw too much attention to use a weapon like that in broad daylight, even in Sunnydale.

"We need to get the gem away from him, Buffy," noted Xander, as slid out of the way of a left-hook and thudded a knee into Spike's diaphragm and staggered him back a few steps. Not that he had the faintest idea where the gem was on Spike's person.

Buffy followed up the attack and knocked Spike to the ground with a sweep-kick before he rolled away and back to his feet. They then moved together and attacked in concert. Xander threw a straight punch that Spike managed to deflect with his forearm but that effort left him open to Buffy's straight kick to the gut that doubled him up slightly and forced him back a couple of steps. Xander was already moving in to take advantage as the blow stuck home and immediately rattled Spike's head back and forth with a one-two combination of punches before stiffening his fingers and thrusting them into Spike's throat, causing vampire to gag.

Why a vampire - someone who didn't need to breath - would gag was beyond Xander but he wasn't going to miss the opportunity. He grabbed Spike's arm with his left hand and with one sharp motion he brought his right arm up in a strike that shattered the vampire's elbow. Spike roared in pain and staggered back, clutching protectively at his damaged arm. And the flash of light from his finger gave it away.

"The ring," said Buffy before leaping forward and grabbed hold of Spike's arm after delivering a series of quick punches that knocked him off-balance.

"You take it off me like this and we'll both burn, Slayer," said Spike, his face twisted in an ugly snarl.

"Really?" asked Buffy. "Let's see."

And with that she pulled the ring off Spike's finger. The vampire's face immediately twisted in pain as he began to smoke and he quickly ran off, crying in agony, before jumping into a nearby manhole that conveniently happened to be open. Yeah, they'd both burn. Lying little shit.

"Well, that wasn't so bad," said Xander. "Should have brought some holy water with me though."

"It's pretty," said Buffy, looking at the ring she was turning over in her hands. "I thought it would be all ugly and, you know, vampirey looking."

"Yeah," said Xander. "We should go tell Giles we've got the ring."

"I like it," said Willow.

"It's small," said Oz.

"It's also very dangerous," said Giles. "And we're destroying it."

"We don't destroy it," said Buffy, her gaze firmly fixed on the ring.

"What . . . oh, you've got to be fucking kidding me," said Xander, ignoring Willow's gesture to not say anything. "You're going to give it to Deadboy? That's beyond stupid."

Buffy turned an irate gaze onto Xander. "And why is it so stupid?" she asked, her eyes flashing with suppressed anger.

"Remember back in junior year?" asked Xander. "Yeah, Angelus? Trying to end the world? All that fun?"

"That won't happen again," said Buffy dismissively.

"Because he's never going to feel happy again for the rest of eternity?" asked Xander. "Give it a rest, Buffy. And even if he doesn't go evil on us, you've still got the problem of, oh, every vampire in the bloody world going after him for the ring when word gets around that he has it."

"Angel can take care of himself."

"Not disputing that," said Xander. "He's always been best at looking out for number one. But so can Spike. Still got his ass kicked."

"I'm not changing my mind," said Buffy. "This is the edge that Angel needs."

"Buffy, are you sure?" asked Giles. "This is a big risk."

"I'm sure," she said.

"I've got that gig in LA," said Oz. "I could swing by and drop it off."

"Thanks," said Buffy.

"Fine," said Xander. "But don't expect me to come and save your ass if Angelus comes calling with shiny new invulnerability powers. I won't be here anyway."

"What?" asked Willow, her voice sharp. "What do you mean you won't be here?"

Xander winced, "well, this isn't exactly how I planned on telling you, but I won't be around here for much longer. Got some other stuff I have to deal with and I probably won't be around much for a long while."

Willow looked absolutely pole-axed, like she couldn't believe what she was hearing. "What?" she said, her eyes glistening. "How . . . how long will you be gone? Where are you going?"

"Probably years," said Xander. "Doubt I'll be back any time soon. And where I'm going . . . it might be best you don't know. You guys are like me, you tend to find trouble, and I don't want you finding this trouble."

"I'm the Slayer, Xander," said Buffy, previous argument forgotten. "I can handle whatever it is."

Xander turned an implacable gaze onto Buffy. "No, Buffy. You're needed here on the hellmouth. There'll be no point in me helping stop these guys if some demon comes along and throws the gates of hell open, will there?"

"Xander, I want to know why you're leaving," said Willow, her expression resolute.

"I don't think that's a good idea, Willow."

"I don't care if it's a good idea!"

"You might as well just tell them, Xander," said Giles. "They won't accept no for an answer. You wouldn't."

Xander sighed deeply. "Fine, I'll tell them. You've all heard of what happened at Oxnard right? Town destroyed, people brutally killed, and all that?"

"Demons, right?" asked Oz.

"No, Oz," said Xander, "not demons."

"Humans did that?" asked Buffy, looking absolutely horrified.

"No. It wasn't humans either," said Xander. "It was aliens."

"Are you sure, Xander?" asked Willow. "I mean, I trust you and all . . . but aliens?"

Xander shook his head. "I can tell a demon from a human without even seeing them, Willow, and those things didn't look human and sure as hell didn't feel demonic. Don't know about you but I've never seen a human that looks like a giant snake-man hybrid."

Willow blinked. "Real aliens . . . "

"Yeah," said Xander, "and they're not at all friendly. Big on the death and destruction, not so big on the 'we come in peace'."

"And you're going to fight those things?" asked Buffy. "Alone?"

"Not alone," said Xander. "I've signed up with . . . a group, funded by the world's governments to fight these things. I'd appreciate it if you kept that to yourselves, by the way."

"This is absolutely insane," said Buffy flatly. "Aliens? Secret armies? It's like something out of the X-Files."

"I remember a time when I thought the whole idea of vampires and demons being real was ridiculous," said Xander. "Hell, wasn't that long ago that Jedi and Sith were characters in a movie series and nothing more."

"Okay, you've made your point," said Buffy with a pout. "I still don't like it though."

Xander shrugged. "Isn't much to like really. Earth's being invaded by killer aliens, not much to be happy about there."

"I don't want you to go, Xander," said Willow plaintively.

"I don't want to go, either," said Xander. "But I can't just stand by and watch now that I know what's going on."

The rest of the conversation continued in that manner for a long time. Willow did not like the idea of Xander leaving town and not coming back for years on end, and Buffy just couldn't quite wrap her head around the idea of aliens being real and invading the Earth. Oz, of course, was far too cool to be flustered by all this and just took it in stride with the occasional, brief comment thrown in for the hell of it.

Just under two weeks later, the call came, and Xander left for the X-COM training facility in the Rocky Mountains. He left behind several books and an enchanted stone that would glow in the presence of the Force sensitive with Giles as well as a letter for Faith when she next came by. Those arrangements were far from ideal but they gave the world a chance should he not make it out of this war alive. As for Faith, well, she was a big-city girl at heart and after a year cooped up in Sunnydale she had the wanderlust in her. He didn't expect to see her in Sunnydale again any time soon but the letter would be there waiting for her when she turned up.

He didn't take much with him to X-COM, his clothes and his weapons were the only real possessions he took with him. He did, however, take much of the advanced technology retrieved from Malak with him. The group had little use for such equipment and no way to make use of it once the ammunition was depleted so he would donate it to X-COM's scientists and see what they made of it. Probably not a lot considering how advanced the stuff was but you never know.

Chapter Three

September 1999

It was a damn long drive from Sunnydale to Canada and by the time he'd crossed the border Xander really wished that he'd just hopped on a plane. Driving really lost its fun after the couple hundred miles of monotony. If the roads hadn't been good, Xander might just have ended up making some less than ethical use of telekinesis to make them good with the way he was feeling. At least the border guards hadn't been a pain in the ass. That could well have been the last thing they'd ever done if they'd been jobsworths.

By the time he had the base in sight, he was about ready to offer up praises to any passing god for letting him finish the damned journey. The road-trip over the summer had been fun, but, without Faith to keep things interesting, this had just been endless, tedious monotony with nothing to break it.

"Who goes there?" barked the soldier on sentry duty at the base's gate as Xander's car rolled to stop.

"Alexander Harris," said Xander, handing over his passport. "I'm one of the new recruits."

The soldier looked at the passport and then at Xander, and then he disappeared into the gatehouse. A few moments later the sound of muffled conversation filtered out, courtesy of Xander's werewolf hearing. It was hard to tell just what was going on with only one side of the conversation to work from, but it seemed that something strange was going on withb his recruitment. Soon enough the sounds of conversation ended and the soldier came back out of the gatehouse.

"You are to report to the Supreme Commander, General Wilson, immediately," said the soldier. "He can be found in his office, room 118, sub-level 1."

Xander nodded. "Thanks."

And then the gate opened and he pulled into the base. It was astonishingly normal looking for an agency that was devoted to fighting something out of a science-fiction novel, there were no laser-guns or powered armour or anything like that wandering around, just normal soldiers in normal fatigues with normal weapons if they were armed. If he hadn't known what this place really was, he would never have guessed, which was the whole point, he supposed.

The general's office was sparsely furnished with little in the way of personal touches. The only real distinguishing feature was a somewhat old looking colour photograph on the table of a rather mundane looking family. Other than that it was just a generic office with a large table and a few wooden chairs in front of the table, which was overflowing with paperwork. The general himself was a tall, lean man whose face bore considerable evidence of his advancing age. One look in his eyes

"Some interesting things came up in the background check we did on you, Harris," said General Miller, gaining Xander's undivided attention. "I have to admit that I wouldn't have believed them if it wasn't for the security footage of your little trick in the hospital."

"There are quite a few things in my life that a normal person wouldn't believe," said Xander, keeping his face carefully neutral. "You'll have to be more specific."

The general leaned back in his chair and steepled his hands beneath his jawline. "Well, the whole part about demons caught my attention for a start. It's not something a god-fearing man such as myself would expect to find in his inbox."

"I'm surprised you hadn't ran into them before now," said Xander. "I was under the impression that most senior officers had at least an idea of them."

"Well I've managed to avoid them entirely," said the general. "But that's not really important. Mostly, I'm curious about the technology you have in that head of yours. That lightsabre they found in your car boot has the science boys going wild, and they really have no idea how it works at all."

"I have a few interesting things in there," said Xander. "But I thought I was going to be recruited to fight?"

"That's what General Miller wants," said the general. "I disagree. You could kill a whole lot of aliens, yes, but weapons that allow our soldiers to kill lots of aliens - that's what will win this war."

"I'm no scientist," said Xander flatly. "I'm not even vaguely qualified."

"Not yet you're not," said the general. "But we can deal with that. Your published work as Rachel Giles has generated quite a bit of attention, you know. It isn't going to be terribly difficult for us to pull some strings and get you an honorary PhD awarded."

Xander couldn't help but gape. "A what? I don't warrant that at all, general. I didn't even finish high school!"

"Hmm," said the general. "Well according to our reports you have a GED, which is as good as. Anyway, your work in the field proves your abilities. Your average random drop-out wouldn't be making millions of dollars in royalties like you are."

"You might be right," admitted Xander. "But I feel like I should be out there in the field fighting."

"Well we can't always get what we want," said the general. "I think I need to make something clear here before we can continue. When we recruit you as a scientist, it will be as Rachel Giles. Alexander Harris might be a great warrior, but it's Rachel Giles who's known in the field as a young inventor."

"You want what?" asked Xander, not quite sure that he was hearing what was said right.

"Like I said, we don't always get what we want," said the general. "We'd never be able to get a university to give Alexander Harris an honorary degree and the other scientists would become rather hostile if we proposed they work with a nameless teenager who didn't even have the most basic of qualifications in the field."

Xander sighed deeply. This was just bloody typical. Hadn't he spent enough time stuck in his female form already? "Okay," he said. "I see your point. I don't like it one bit, but I see where you're coming from."

"Good," said the general. "I'm sure the science boys will want to talk to you about what you have stored in that brain of yours soon enough, but before they get their hands on you I want to talk about your special abilities."

"Special abilities?" asked Xander. "You mean my being a Jedi?"

"Yes, well, I have a hard time believing that you're something out a Hollywood movie," said the general. "But you certainly seem to have some interesting abilities with the way you managed to kill eight Chryssalids single-handedly in melee combat."

"The Force is my ally," said Xander. "But I don't suppose you'll accept that as an answer. Truthfully, that's a difficult question to answer. It would be like explaining music to the deaf or art to the blind. A demonstration might be best."

The general nodded. "That can be arranged," he said. "I have to admit, I'm curious to see what you're capable of. Anyway, I think we're done here. My secretary will direct you to a room that's been prepared for you to stay in. Your possessions should already be there by now."

Xander nodded and stood up. He almost felt like he should salute, but he wasn't really military so he didn't.

The room was fairly small, as you'd expect from living quarters on a military base. He wasn't an officer, and he wasn't going to rate a whole lot in the way of accommodation, but it was still better than what he'd been expecting in training. At least he had privacy in this room. There wasn't much in the way of furnishings but it was more than adequate for his needs. A bed, a desk, a chair, and set of drawers to keep his possessions in. It was enough.

He slumped down onto the bed and stared up at the ceiling. He was going to be a scientist. A scientist! That was a new one for sure. And a PhD. Jesus. This was just going way outside of his comfort zone, that was for sure. Fighting aliens and killing them, that was easy. That was the sort of thing he'd been doing for years and years and years now and it was something he could handle. The only challenge would have been the fact that he couldn't just deflect their attacks back into their faces with his sabre. This . . . this was something else entirely.

The worst part of it was that he didn't really feel all that qualified to be a scientist type. Yeah, he had a lot of knowledge shoved into his head courtesy of Ethan's little spell, but that didn't make him a scientist really. Revan sure hadn't been a scientist. She'd been far from uneducated, sure, but the equivalent of a couple years of college-level physics classes, maybe, even if they were Star Wars level, doesn't make you a research scientist. And it felt like cheating. He hadn't worked for this knowledge like the other scientists would have, it was just there one day ready for him to use.

"This is insane," he muttered to himself.

Well, if he was going to be a scientist, then he should probably start acting like one. Would have helped if he'd brought his laptop, but he could do without till he got it shipped up. He dug out a pad of writing paper he'd brought along for writing letters home and a pen and the pondered the various things he'd learned back in his youth as a Jedi before finally jotting down a title for the paper he would write: 'The Unified Theory Of Physics'. It wasn't quite true - it only applied to physics in normal dimensional space and not hyperspace - but it wasn't far off. It was strange to think that this theory had came from one of the greatest scientific geniuses in the history of galactic civilisation in the Star Wars dimension but here it could come from . . . him, though he was just regurgitating that work.

It would probably be mind-blowing to the scientists of Earth, but, from his perspective as Revan, it was high-school material for the most part. Anyway, the paper was far too long to write in one sitting regurgitated from memory - and he needed to reconstruct parts of it from first principles anyway as his memory wasn't quite that good - but he got a considerable amount done before fatigue set in and he set it aside for the night.

"So how are we going to play this then?" asked Xander as he eyed the rather average looking Asian man stood at the the other end of the gym area wearing a gi tied together with a black belt.

"Well, I want to see what you can do," said General Wilson from near the room's entrance. "And this seems as good a starting point as any. Jiro here has been studying the martial arts since he could walk and there's not a man in X-COM that can touch him in hand-to-hand combat. I want to see how you hold up against him."

"Oh," said Xander. "Joy. You do realise that I'm not a martial artist, right?"

"You killed eight Chryssalids in melee," said the general. That's close enough by my reckoning."

Xander nodded and assumed a basic Echani stance he'd picked up during the Mandalorian wars. He wasn't lying when he said he wasn't a martial artist but he'd picked up plenty of bits and pieces along the way. Jiro might have assumed a stance but Xander didn't see it in the time between him standing still and the time he launched forward and attacked in a whirlwind of arms and legs.

In all fairness, Xander, thought, this Jiro character was extremely good at what he did. Even a Slayer would have been hard-pressed to keep up with him and his skill was superlative. But to someone who had the Force on their side, his movements were telegraphed well in advance and it wasn't overly difficult to simply weave around his blows and dodge them entirely. The look on Jiro's face was just comical really. He obviously hadn't been expecting this.

Soon enough, Xander tired of the exhibition and decided to end it before Jiro was completely humiliated. He ducked underneath a roundhouse kick and in a flurry of movement he slammed a knee into the martial artist's ribs, doubling him up, before connecting with a precisely calculated right hook that knocked the man down and out without actually causing him to lose consciousness.

"How was that?" asked Xander, not even breathing hard.

Wilson blinked, and then again, before he spoke. "Are you even human?" he asked.

"Of course I'm human!" snapped Xander. "Your agents would have figured out if I wasn't with the amount you dug up on me anyway."

"True enough," said the general, inclining his head slightly in a nod. "You okay there, soldier?"

"Never better, sir," said Jiro in a thick New York accent, wheezing slightly as he caught his breath.

"Didn't think I'd hit you that hard," said Xander, offering his hand to Jiro who gladly took the help to get back up.

"Don't know what you're used to fighting," said Jiro. "But humans take a while to recover after being whacked around like that."

Hmm. Maybe he hadn't calculated his blow as well as he'd thought he had. Oh well. Didn't seem like there'd been much harm done.

"Well, sorry 'bout that," said Xander. "Didn't realise I hit so hard."

Jiro waved it off. "S'alright," he said. "I've had worse knocks in training before."

"That will be all, lieutenant" said the general. "You may return to your normal duties now."

Jiro saluted and then left.

"Well, you can fight," said the general. "But we already knew that. I was hoping to see some of your esoteric abilities."

Xander almost rolled his eyes. "Your wish is my command," he said, before reaching out with the force and lifting a set of weights into the air and lazily floating them around the room.

"Well . . . that's something alright," said the general. "What's the weight limit on that little trick?"

"Technically, there isn't one," said Xander, lowering the weights back to the ground. "But it becomes increasingly difficult to visualise as the object gets larger and more complex."

"So what? A car? A tank? What's your limit," asked the general. "I'm not interested in technicalities."

"Largest thing I've ever lifted was a Basilisk War Droid," said Xander, his mind going back to that battle before he shook it off. "Thing massed a couple hundred tonnes, I'd say."

The general whistled. "Impressive. Don't think any of the aliens can manage even close to that," he said. "Suppose I can't really doubt you after seeing this. A real, live Jedi, huh? That's sure not something I ever expected to see."

"It's something I never expected to see," quipped Xander. "It just kinda happened."

"Hell of a thing to just happen," said the general. "Anyway, I think we're about done here now. I'd appreciate a write-up outlining your abilities but I can't think of anything else."

Time passed quickly after that. Xander wrote a general write-up of his Jedi abilities and handed it over to the general who didn't react much beyond a raised eyebrow, finished his paper, and then mostly just waited for things to move along. Mostly, there wasn't a lot for him to do. He wasn't part of the ground forces or the air forces so he couldn't train with them, and without the qualifications he couldn't take part in any research efforts, even if the research facilities had been present at the training base, which they weren't. He could have wrote more papers up but that was tedious as all get-out and not entirely useful. It was going to be hard enough to get them to except what he'd already written.

On the other hand, there was some entertainment value in watching the new recruits sweating their way through basic training when they passed through the areas of the base compound he was spending his time in. You'd think people would be better prepared before they showed up for training like that but there you go. Apparently the idea that physical fitness would be a requirement had eluded most of them.

Eventually, he was called into the Supreme Commander's office again.

"Well, Harris, we've got the paperwork ready," said the general as soon as Xander sat down in one of the wooden chairs furnishing the office. "You're now the proud possessor of a PhD in Physics from Durham University. Congratulations, Doctor Giles."

"Isn't there supposed to be an award ceremony or something?" asked Xander, somewhat gob-smacked.

"Normally there would be," said the general. "But we don't really have time for that sort of thing. We'd have to fly you over to England and go through all sorts of rigmarole that would waste time we can't afford to lose. You're to report to the X-COM base near Austin, Texas, immediately."

"I'd like some time to swing by Sunnydale to pick up my possessions," said Xander. "I didn't bring my female wardrobe with me, and I'll kinda need it."

"That sounds kinda frivolous to me," said the general. "You can can pick up clothing there in Austin."

Xander almost rolled his eyes. "I packed for boot camp. There's a lot of stuff I would have brought with me if I was going to be working in R&D," he said. Then he sighed, "I could have it shipped through though."

"Well, there you go," said the general. "I'll tell the base to be expecting you. We'll see to having your car transported there."

There really wasn't much left to say to that so Xander collected the paperwork and left. It was all a little surreal really. One minute he's a high-school drop-out and the next he has a doctorate, even if it wasn't a real one. It was quite possibly the most bizarre moment of his life since the time he'd came to after a spell and found that he had breasts.

The flight down to Austin was uneventful barring the morbidly obese man who sat next to him on the plane and took half of Rachel's seat too. That hadn't been very pleasant at all. It truly did baffle Rachel as to how people could get quite that overweight and not collapse in on themselves. Fortunately, she was on the slender side herself and hadn't been crushed up against the wall of the plane. Suffice to say, it had been quite a relief when the plane landed and she got free of that situation.

Fortunately, finding a phone didn't take long. Finding change, on the other hand, took considerably longer. But eventually she keyed in Giles's number and was waiting for him to answer.

"Rupert Giles speaking," he said when the phone was picked up.

"Giles, it's Rachel," said Rachel. She would have said more but he was talking before she could continue.

"Rachel?" he said. "Is something wrong? I thought you'd be acting as Xander."

"There's been a change of plan, Giles," said Rachel. "I'm not being recruited as a soldier anymore."

The sight of relief from Giles was clearly audible.

"Yeah," said Rachel. "Well, I've been recruited as a scientist because of my lightsabre and that stuff I did with batteries. They've even got me awarded a PhD from Durham University."

"They what?" asked Giles, sounding absolutely stunned. "Rachel, that's wonderful! Durham's not the best of universities, but still . . . that's incredible to have a doctorate at your age."

"Well it's not a real PhD, I don't think," said Rachel. "It's honorary. Anyway, I kinda need you to ship my possessions down to the base I'm going to be working on. I need my clothes and my computer."

"If you give me the address I'll see to it," said Giles. "But I thought you were going to be working for these people in your male form?"

"Me too," said Rachel flatly. "But my patents and stuff are under the name Rachel Giles so that's that. I'm beginning to think that the gods are conspiring against me ever getting to live in my male form."

"Hmm, well, I'll see to it," said Giles. "Just give me the address and I'll deal with it first thing in the morning."

Rachel looked at the piece of paper that held her orders and promptly read the address off. "That's it, Giles. Look, I'm on a payphone here, and the money's running low. I'll get in touch again when I have better ways to do so."

"Very well," said Giles. "Do try and be careful, Rachel."

"Aren't I always?"

And with that the call was done. Rachel hefted her duffel and headed off to buy a set of clothes and then find a taxi. Damned if she was gonna walk all that way after that nightmare of a flight.

Rachel passed through base security with a minimum of fuss. She was stopped at the game and challenged to identify herself, which she did, and then she was stopped there to wait for a soldier to come and escort her into the base. That soldier then led her to where she sat now: Commander Miller's office. And boy did he ever look displeased. She didn't think she'd seen someone so pissed since she looked in the mirror after Angelus returned.

"I don't like this one bit," he said. "But we have our orders. You will be treated as an assimilated OF-3, that's the NATO code for the rank of Major. Your place within the Science branch will basically be determined by the head of that department."

He looked like something had died. It was quite amusing really.

"Thanks," said Rachel. "By the way, have they got anything out of my lightsabre?"

"Not that I know of," said the commander. "It's not a major project at the moment, though. Anyway, there are quite a few rules you'll need to follow. The booklet I've given you will explain them but feel free to ask your senior officers if you have any questions. And make sure you've read and understood the evacuation procedures."

"Yes, sir," said Rachel. "Um, do I have to do that whole sir and saluting thing?"

"No," said the commander. "You're a civilian contractor not military. If you'd been recruited like I wanted you to . . . Anyway, do you have any other questions?"

"Can't think of any," said Rachel. "Well, I'd like to know about accommodation."

"You'll get a three room suite to yourself," said the commander. "It's not much but none of us get much more than that in these bases."

Rachel nodded. "That will be more than adequate, thank you."

"Right," said the commander. "Well, there's an orderly waiting outside who'll escort you to your accommodations. The time being what it is, you'll be starting work tomorrow morning. If you're hungry, the mess hall is open 24/7."

The rooms weren't much really. They were small and roughly constructed, the marks where they'd been hollowed out the room from the rocky ground still visible, and they didn't have much in the way of furnishings. Then again, she didn't need much, and as long as she had a bed to sleep in and places to keep her possessions she was pretty much happy, though she had to admit that the idea of sharing a bathroom with strangers didn't appeal overly much. Thankfully, that wouldn't be necessary with this setup. It might not be a luxury 5* setup, but she had a shower and a toilet, and that was good.

Of course she wasn't going to leave the room as bare as it was. Even a Jedi doesn't want to live in a place that's little more than a hole in the wall with nothing to give a touch of home. A few pictures of the gang back in Sunnydale took care of that well enough for her tastes. She wasn't the sort that would go for having flowers and pot pourri and all that garbage strewn really. Some pictures would be more than enough.

As she set a picture of the whole gang of them - Buffy, Willow, and Xander from back before the spell - she both felt and heard her stomach rumble and let out a distinct groaning noise that could only mean that it needed to be filled and soon. She rolled her eyes and headed into her bedroom to change into the clothes she'd just bought. Might as well wear something that actually fits after all.

The mess hall was mostly empty when Rachel sat down with her heaped plate and began to dig in. The food might not exactly be gourmet faire but it was warm and it was filling and she'd never been much more demanding than that as far as food went, especially when she was as hungry she was at just that moment. Going twenty hours without a decent meal just sucked when you had the metabolism she had and she hadn't had much opportunity to pick anything up to take the edge off.

For several minutes she was interrupted in her quest to ingest vast quantities of food before she felt someone settle into the seat next to her and move uncomfortably close to her. She immediately looked up and shot the bulky soldier a withering glare that bounced straight off his walls of ignorance.

"Hey there," he said in an oily tone of voice that she supposed was an attempt to be ingratiating. "You're new here, aren't you?"

"Just got in today," said Rachel in a rather cold tone of voice.

"Well, you know, I could show you around the base," said the soldier. "I know all the good spots."

"Not interested," said Rachel, going back to her food.

"Come on," said the soldier, putting his hand on her shoulder, which drew possibly the coldest glare the world had ever seen from Rachel. "It'll be fun, I promise."

"You don't know when to take no for an answer, do you?" said Rachel while shrugging his hand off.

"You need to loosen up," said the soldier, while he tried to put his hand back on her shoulder. Unfortunately Rachel's attempt to quickly move away from him resulted in his hand landing somewhere a great deal more personal. "Uh . . . "

"You really don't know when to quit it for your own good, do you?" hissed Rachel, her eyes blazing. As she continued to speak, she laced her words with persuasive power , "you like men really. You're going to go tell the commander that you love him. It's a good idea really."

"I like men really," said the soldier dully as he stood up. "I'm going to go tell the commander that I love him."

And then he was gone. Rachel happily returned to her food and dismissed the matter from her mind. The fool would get what he deserved now and sure as hell wouldn't be pestering her ever again if he knew what was good for him. She finished her plate but she was still hungry so she went for a second helping and proceeded to start and demolish that one too.

"For such a slender girl, you sure do eat a lot," said a male voice behind her.

Rachel rolled her eyes and turned around to deliver a scathing remark that died on her lips as she saw who it was. In the end she said, "well, I get a lot of exercise."

"I'm sure you do," said the commander as he sat down opposite from her. "Now would you care to explain the humiliated soldier in my office who just declared his undying love for me?"

"I will not be treated like a piece of meat," said Rachel icily. "Hopefully that fool has now learned his lesson."

"I'd say he has," said the commander. "We don't recruit people dim enough to not get it after something like that. I'm not happy about you using psionics on one of my men though. That's not acceptable."

"I . . . yes, you're right," said Rachel. "And I do apologise. I lost my temper and I should know better than that."

"You're right," said the commander. "You should. Normally I'd make you apologise to the guy, but I'm finding it kinda hard to after getting the story out of him. It's not the first time he's got a bit pushy, either, so I'll let you off with a verbal warning this time. Keep those powers to yourself. Feel free to smack people like him around but no messing with their heads."

"I suppose I can live with that," said Rachel.

The next morning came around quickly and Rachel found herself in the base's lab complex as the other science staff straggled in, most of them looking somewhat less than impressed with the whole concept of being awake this side of noon. She did garner some curious looks but not much more than that as everyone congregated in. Honestly, most of them didn't look awake enough to realise that there was someone new there. Eventually an older man with an ill-maintained, greying goatee and a receding hairline rolled on in wearing an extremely battered looking lab coat and everyone else shut up. Well, for the most part.

"Okay, people," he said. "We've got a new member in our little group today. Come on up, Dr. Rachel Giles."

Rachel stepped up next to him but she really had no idea what he was expecting her to do. "Um, hi," she said in the end.

"Right," he said. "Some of you may have already heard of her, but, for those of you haven't, she's got a couple of published patents on some long-lasting batteries that are in very wide use these days, and she's the lightsabre girl."

Now that got their attention. All eyes were fixed on her at that point and a ripple of conversation passed across the room as the scientists murmured to each other about her.

"Yeah," he said. "She's coming straight in at OF-3 so she'll be in charge of one of our teams. She's been assigned Doctor Thompson's old team and you'll be working on special projects. The brass tell me that she has some real interesting ideas and it'll be her team's job to help get those ideas working."

The mutters that followed that sounded distinctly discontented. Whether it was the rank or the fact that she was getting a virtual free hand was up for debate, though.

"Got anything to say, Dr. Giles?" he asked.

"Not really," she said. "Just that I'm looking forward to getting some of this stuff working, I suppose."

"Well, that's it, people," he said. "Time to get to work. Scram. And get some coffee into you, will you? You all look like the living dead here."

"Long hours, huh?" asked Rachel as the group started to disperse into the various labs and offices linked to the area they were in.

"You wouldn't believe it if you didn't live it, believe me," he said. "Anyway, I'm Doctor Smith. If you have any problems, come to me and I'll try to help."

"Sure thing," said Rachel. "So what's the sitch?"

"Huh?" he asked. "Oh. Your lot will be office 18a now or at least they should be. Never can be sure with this lot. It's just over in the corner there. Good luck. You're probably gonna need it."

And then he wandered whistling tunelessly to himself. Would have been nice if he'd given her some idea what they were expecting from her but she supposed she couldn't have everything.

"So you're the new boss, huh?" asked one of the men who'd been waiting in the office for her. He was a fairly tall guy, taller than Rachel by a fair bit anyway, and he looked as if there was a rotten smell underneath his nose.

"Yeah, that's me," said Rachel. "Who's who here, anyway?"

"Denver Finch," said the guy who'd already been talking. "PhD, Physics, MIT."

"I'm Sarah Baker," said a perky-looking blonde, with a quick wave of her hand. "PhD, Chemical Engineering, Tulane."

"John Wright," said the last, a slightly older looking fellow who was somewhat rotund. "I guess I'm your second here with me being an OF-2. Got my PhD in Physics from Cambridge back in the seventies."

"Right," said Rachel. "So what have you guys been working on up till now, then?"

"Fundamental research into laser weaponry," said John. "Once that was done we moved onto that lightsabre of yours. Haven't quite been able to figure that out yet though."

"I'm kinda curious as to what makes you so qualified to be our boss," said Denver. "You don't even have a real degree from what I've heard."

John stirred as if he was going to tell Denver off but Rachel gestured for him to stay silet. "My qualifications?" she asked. "Well, I built that lightsabre you've been trying to reverse engineer. How's that? I may not have all my pieces of paper lined up right but so what? I've got results and I got them without any real funding or backup."

"And those results could be a fluke," said Denver. "You wouldn't be the first to stumble into something without really being any good at what you're working with."

"That would be a fair point," said Rachel. "Except it's hardly my only project, is it? I have those patents too and judging from the amount of money I've made from them I'd say they were a good bit of work."

"They are," said Sarah. "I was working at IBM when you released them and the company went nuts. If they could have gotten their hands on you, you'd have been hired on the spot."

"Well that's great," said Denver snottily. "So what are we going to be working on now, fearless leader?"

Rachel rolled her eyes and stifled the urge to thump the idiot. "Well, I have something for you all to look over," she said, while pulling the paper she'd written out of the folder she'd been carrying around. "I want to get it checked over before I do anything with it."

And with that she handed it over to John who skimmed the first two pages before dropping the paper down into the table and wandered off muttering about needing coffee, preferably of the Irish variety, before he could deal with it. Denver took just one look at title before spouting off.

"This is ridiculous," he almost shouted. "Scientists have worked for years to try and come up with something like this and you think you've got it just like that? Don't make me laugh."

"You might want to try reading it first, numbnuts," snapped Rachel. "Seriously, were you born stupid or did you have to work to get that way?"

Finch turned a rather amusing shade of purple at that. Before he could say anything, Sarah started flicking through the paper before dropping it back onto the table.

"Okay, that's beyond me," she said. "So what are we going to be working on? It's all a bit mysterious right now with this 'special projects' stuff. Sounds kinda exciting to be honest."

"Well, with you being a chemical engineer, I think we can work on some nifty ideas I have for power cells," said Rachel. "I think we can make some real progress there pretty quick."

"You've got my attention," said Sarah.

Chapter Four

June 2000

The mess was mostly packed out as Sarah and Rachel had their lunch. Mostly packed out except for the table they were sat on. Apparently creepy mind-control powers had put most of the men off her and then chucking the next one that got pushy clean across the mess hall - something which had left the commander in hysterics - had persuaded the rest to leave her alone from that day onwards. It was nice to not be pestered by over-amorous grunts but she hadn't really been shooting to isolate herself from them entirely. Ah well. Couldn't have everything, she supposed, and being hit on would have got tiresome very, very quickly.

"The pistol prototypes are working out real well in testing now," said Sarah in between bites of her meal. "I think they'll be ready to go into production soon."

"That's excellent," replied Rachel from her seat across from Sarah. "How are the power cells holding up?"

"Well enough," said Sarah with a small smile. "They'll need some refinement before we can use them in anything more powerful than a pistol though."

"That's to be expected, I suppose," said Rachel. "Even the pistol cells are way beyond anything else being used nowadays. You'll get it though."

"I hope so," said Sarah. "Anyway, how's your work going?"

"Slowly," said Rachel. "I think I might be being a bit over-ambitious with the amount of flexibility I'm shooting for in the robotics."

"They wouldn't be much use if they weren't flexible enough," said Sarah. "You'd probably get more done if Denver would stop nit-picking, though, huh?"

"I probably shouldn't talk about that," said Rachel. "I'm supposed to be his superior officer or something."

And in all honesty, he sometimes did raise some good points. He was an ass but he was a competent ass. He knew his stuff and was pretty good at picking out slight errors in equations and the like that would have thrown the entire thing off. He sure wasn't letting go of the idea that her paper couldn't possibly be right any time soon though. He'd already tried every trick in the book to debunk it and now he was coming up with new ones in his spare time.

"Pfft," said Sarah, waving her off. "Like we're really military or anything."

"The fact that we're conducting weapons research for the military would kinda argue with that," pointed out Rachel, gesturing with her knife as she did so.

"Yeah, but they're not exactly expecting us to jump up and lick their boots every time they ask for anything like they do the normal soldiers," said Sarah. "Anyway, did you hear about the new batch of soldiers that've arrived? Poor bastards probably don't have a clue what they've let themselves in for. Anyway, have you seen them yet? I've heard that there's a few real hotties in that group. Maybe we'll find your elusive type amongst them, huh?"

And all that without pause to allow Rachel time for reply. It was like Willow-babble without the incoherency and lack of breathing. And then what Sarah had said actually clicked in Rachel's mind and she blanched.

"As opposed to trying them all?" asked Rachel, in a bitingly sarcastic tone of voice.

"Look, that's some of them coming in now, I think," said Sarah, pointing over at the mess hall entrance.

In a detached part of her mind, Rachel noted that several of the men probably would be regarded as attractive by someone who was attracted to men as she looked them over. Then again, she wasn't the best judge of such things. One of them caught her eye, though, even if it wasn't because he was attractive. Messy black hair, thick glasses, and green eyes. It was Harry bloody Potter. What the buggering hell was he doing here of all places?

"You're staring," teased Sarah. "I think we've found your type."

"What?" asked Rachel, her head snapping around to face Sarah. "No! I know that guy. I'd never have expected to see him here."

"Uh-huh," said Sarah. "So you'll be calling him over to talk to him then?"

"Why?" asked Rachel. "It's not like we're best buddies or something. I was just damn surprised to see him. Anyway, we've got work to get back to."

Sarah made some glib comment but Rachel wasn't paying much attention. If the magical world got involved . . . well, she wasn't sure if that would be a good or bad thing really. They had the power to be useful, but the way Giles had reacted to finding out she'd had contact with them . . . that couldn't be a good sign.

"How's it going, John?" asked Rachel as she walked back into the main lab their team was assigned to followed closely by Sarah.

"I'm making some progress on those new alloys you wanted me to work on," he said. "Might even get some results this side of the apocalypse if we get some new staff in to help. A faster computer for the calculations would be nice too."

"You actually know how to use a PC?"asked Sarah with feigned shock.

"Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up," said John. "I'd do them by hand if it didn't take so damn long."

"Sorry, John," said Rachel. "But you know what they're like. It takes ages to get anyone new in."

John mumbled a rather vile statement about bureaucrats under his breath before going back to his work. He had quite the range of profanity that man. Rachel just shook her head in amusement and headed off to her office to catch up with some paperwork before she went back to working on the robotics with Denver. She managed to sit down, just, before the phone went off. Pinching the bridge of her nose in annoyance, she picked the phone up.

"Giles speaking," she said.

"This is Miller," said the voice on the other end of the line sounding very serious indeed. "I need you in my office yesterday."

"What's the problem?" asked Rachel, frowning as she wondered what the problem was.

"We'll talk about it when you get here," he said, and then the line went dead.

Rachel just stared at the phone's handset and wondered what the hell was going on. This was not normal by any stretch of the imagination. Miller did not get this wound up. Ever. He could face down an army of aliens and not get that tetchy. It just didn't bode well at all for what awaited her. Well, whatever. She'd find out soon enough.

"A state of emergency has been declared in Sunnydale," said the commander as soon as Rachel entered his office, grabbing her attention immediately.

"What the hell happened?" asked Rachel.

"Apparently some US army unit decided to play God," said the commander, looking utterly disgusted. "They must have got their hands onto some alien DNA or something because they've made a real Frankenstein's monster. Government's having a hell of a time keeping a lid on this one."

Rachel slumped down into a chair. "I knew there was some sort of black ops group there, but I had no idea anything like that was going on."

"Yeah, well, it looks like the only people who knew what was going on were the people running the op," said the commander. "Ain't no-one else owning up to this one anyway. What a mess."

"I . . . I have to go," said Rachel. "I have to help my friends. And if this is as bad as it sounds, it needs to be fixed."

The commander scowled at that. "Well, this is your lucky day then," he said. "I've got orders here saying that you're to be temporarily transferred from science to army with full rank and placed in command of a mission to Sunnydale."

"Huh?" said Rachel dumbly. "But I'm not military. The soldiers will never listen to me!"

The commander shrugged. "You have rank," he said. "They'll follow your orders if they know what's good for them. I'll nail their balls to the wall if they don't. And I'll eat my hat if you can't keep a bunch of grunts in line."

"Uh, right," said Rachel, not really knowing what to say to that.

"Well, Major, it's time for you to get to work," said the commander. "Report to the quartermaster to pick up your BDUs and weapons. Your commandawaits you at the Skyranger."

"Yes, sir," said Rachel with a quick salute.

Rachel ran her eyes over the dozen soldiers that had been placed under her command before she gave the order to take-off. They didn't look at all happy but that was only to be expected really. She was, in their eyes, a civilian, and no soldier was ever going to be happy with going into battle under the command of a civilian.

"The briefing you are about to receive is classified at the highest levels," said Rachel. "You are not to speak of it or what happens on this mission to anyone. Not your friends back home, not your buddies here, not the civilians you talk into your beds, not your commanding officers, no-one."

"Aw, come on," said one of them, a private Williams. "It can't be any worse than the aliens."

Rachel fixed him with cold glare that had him squirming in his seat before she spoke again. "I did not make this decision," she said. "The existence of these creatures that you will be facing has always been top-secret. And while we are on this mission I am your commanding officer whether you like it or not and you will remember that, soldier. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Ma'am," he replied sullenly. Rachel didn't even bother to dignify that with a response of any kind. It was pathetic.

"Most of the enemies you are likely to face are clearly non-human and easy to distinguish," said Rachel. "The vampires are not. The only way to distinguish them from normal humans as a rule is by their lack of body temperature. Use the thermal goggles you've been issued for this mission."

"Vampires?" asked another soldier near the back of the transport. "Are you shitting us?"

"The enemies you will face are demons," said Rachel, causing an uproar that only ended when she slammed her hand down against one of the plane's walls. "Enough!" she barked. "If you can believe in aliens, you can damn well believe in demons. You'll have proof soon enough anyway."

"Sorry, ma'am," drawled another one of the soldiers. "But it's a little hard to believe. All the science types said that aliens had to exist somewhere, but demons?"

Rachel was about to bite the soldier's head off when another spoke up.

"I've ran into demons before," he said. Rachel quickly looked and saw that it was Harry speaking. "She's not bullshitting us."

"Thank you, soldier," said Rachel sarcastically. "Now how about you all shut up and let me finish the briefing?"

The transport fell completely silent at that.

"Excellent," she said. "Not the key thing to remember when you're fighting demons is that they're tricky little bastards. Never assume they're dead as long as the body's still there and in one piece. You can be reasonably sure they're dead if you take their heads off but otherwise it's best to assume they're playing possum. Fortunately, a lot of demons dissolve or disappear or whatever when they're really dead. Some stick around but most don't. Makes clean-up real easy.

"One distinctive enemy that you will likely face in considerable numbers is the vampire," she continued. "Vampires look human for the most part. It's only when they're feeding or when they lose control of their emotions that their true, demonic face will come out for all to see. Do not rely on looks to distinguish them from civilians or you get yourself killed. They're not very powerful compared to most aliens, but they are faster and stronger than any normal human and they are quite hard to kill outside of a few specific weaknesses. Sunlight, wooden stakes to the heart, decapitation, fire, and holy items are the usual methods of attack against vampires. For you, I recommend shooting them down and then taking their heads off before they can heal their wounds."

"How much damage will it take to put them down, ma'am?" asked one of the soldiers. "And how long will stay down?"

"Their physiology is human," said Rachel. "A wound that will cripple a human will cripple a vampire. They can ignore or heal from minor wounds very quickly but if you damage their spine that's it. That doesn't heal much faster for them than it does for one of us.

"Anyway, the objective of this mission is quite simple," said Rachel. "A US Army operation has made a rather terrible mistake and we have to clean up the mess. The details aren't entirely clear at this point, but it seems that they attempted to create some sort of super-soldier from pieces of human and demon and it went bad. We'll learn more when we link up with what's left of the local forces. Any questions?"

"What vulnerabilities do the other demons have, ma'am?"

"Every demon has different specific vulnerabilities," said Rachel. "But as a rule, head and eyes make for good targets. Some of the more powerful demons can survive decapitation - for those, just blow them to bits with a thermal detonator.

"I think I should make something clear," she said. "You are equipped with far more firepower than the average demon can match. They are physical fighters, fast and strong, but, against the laser rifles you carry, they have little chance of victory.

Any more questions?"

And there were none raised. Rachel nodded in acknowledgement of that and then headed for the cockpit.

"We're ready to go," she said. "When we're off the transport at Sunnydale, you seal the doors and keep the engines hot. If anyone approaches the Skyranger without explicit communication from me, you take-off and don't come back without authorisation."

"Yes, ma'am."

And then they were off. The sheer amount of noise made by the plane's engines was quite staggering and completely prevented any sort of conversation from happening so Rachel just found a free seat and slipped into a meditative state.

When they landed just outside of Sunnydale, night had broken. Rachel couldn't help but sigh. Darkness meant vampires everywhere. Wonderful. The place felt even saturated by death and darkness than normal too.

"Move out," she ordered. "Form a defensive perimeter and secure the LZ."

"Yes, ma'am" came the chorus of reply before the soldiers began to filter out. As they left she heard someone mutter, "well, at least she knows the basics. Might not be a total cluster fuck after all," as they left, something she wouldn't have picked up without the whole werewolf thing.

Rachel waited till she was alone and then she pulled her newly acquired mobile phone out and keyed in Giles' number.

"Rupert Giles speaking," came the eventual answer.

"Okay, Giles," said Rachel, "what the fuck is going on that it would be bad enough to get X-COM troops deployed to Sunnydale."

The silence that followed that little bombshell was palpable.

"Ah," he stammered. "Well . . . "

"Just tell me, Giles," said Rachel. "I'm involved anyway now. There's no point in worrying about distracting me from my other work."

"You're here?" he asked, sounding almost happy, though still somewhat strained.

"Yes," said Rachel. "I'm now Major Rachel Giles leading a unit of X-COM soldiers on a mission to contain whatever it is the local black ops group fucked up."

"You're a Major?" asked Giles sounding rather stunned.

"Yes," she said. "But it's only temporary. Not like anyone else in X-COM is qualified to lead this mission. Now what's going on?"

"That's something best discussed in person, I think," said Giles. "I don't have the complete story myself but the others should be able to fill the holes in."

"Fine," said Rachel. "Where do you want to meet? And where are the remaining soldiers holed up."

"I don't suppose my apartment would be suitable?" asked Giles.

"Definitely not," said Rachel. "That place really isn't big enough. How about wherever the soldiers are holed up?"

"Yes, that should work," said Giles. He then rattled off an address in the warehouse district of all places. "They may be a bit jumpy after what happened. I recommend that you approach with caution."

"Will do," said Rachel. "Last thing I want to happen is for all the army boys to get gunned down because they got too twitchy. I need them alive to find out what the hell they were playing at."

"That's somewhat callous, Rachel," chided Giles.

"Maybe," she said. "But I'm not the one who decided to play God with demon DNA. They're going to have to do some fast-talking to not got locked away in a cell somewhere for the rest of their lives, Giles."

And with that she hung-up and activated her communications headset. "All units, make your way to the warehouse district." And then she rattled off the address. "Is your destination, but to do not enter the building. And watch your six. Local intelligence Indicates that this is a more hostile environment than usual."

"Yes, ma'am," came the chorus of replies.

Rachel kept her distance and observed as the soldiers stealthily moved through Sunnydale towards their destination. She couldn't keep an eye on all of them at once but they seemed to know what they were doing, advancing in small increments with units covering each other as they moved and using various bits of terrain as cover. They didn't seem to be quite as good as some of the units she'd had under her command in the past but they were up there. Anyway, working like this she could keep them relatively safe if they got into trouble while still getting a good idea of how they would cope with demons.

"What the FUCK is that?"

"Jesus, it's giant fucking spider . . . thing. It's coming right at us!"

"That's a Grimslaw Demon," said Rachel into her headset. "Kill it quickly."

"Open fire! Open fire!"

"I think I got it," said Harry. "It's not moving anyway and there's a big hole in it."

"Grimslaws die pretty easy," said Rachel. "If you got a good hit on it, it should be dead. Better to be safe than sorry though."

"Hartman, Morris, finish it off."

"Yes, sergeant."

For a few moments the sound of laser fire filled Rachel's ears.

"Well if it wasn't dead before it sure as hell is now."

"Continue towards target location," ordered Rachel.

"Yes, ma'am."

There were several more encounters like that - all with vampires - before they arrived at the warehouse. The soldiers acquitted themselves well, though it took them a little too long before they identified the first vampire, and Rachel didn't need to intervene and save their arses at any point. Encountering so many demons wasn't entirely abnormal in Sunnydale, but not running into any civilians certainly was, and it worried Rachel.

Anyway, soon enough they were at the warehouse. Rachel stood in front of the door with one squad to each side of the door ready to enter and one squad behind her to cover her entry. Overkill really. She smacked her fist against the door three times and then waited. As soon as the door opened, both units that had waiting to the sides charged in and had every occupant of the building under their guns.

It was a pitifully small group in the building really. Half a dozen soldiers in varying states of the walking wounded, and Buffy. Rachel had really expected more to be left. They must have screwed things up real bad.

"Disarm them," she ordered. One of the soldiers, a tall guy with a clean-cut sort of look about him, bristled and looked ready to resist. Rachel drew her laser pistol and pointed it at him. "Resistors will be shot," she said flatly. "I do not have time to waste right now."

"What are you doing?" asked Buffy, looking shocked.

"Disarming everyone who was a part of the group that was responsible for this mess," said Rachel. "They don't get to go armed till I have reason to trust them."

"It's not their fault, Rachel," said Buffy. "It was all Walsh and Angleman."

"Sorry, Buffy, but that's just not enough," said Rachel. "I'm going to need more than your word to let these people loose with weapons."

"They're disarmed, major," said one of the sergeants.

"Company should be arriving soon," said Rachel. "Be on the lookout for a middle-aged man wearing glasses or a red-haired girl in her late teens, possibly with company. They are to be allowed entry unmolested."

"Yes, ma'am," said the sergeant before heading off to deliver the instructions to the soldiers on guard duty.

"We need to talk, Buffy," said Rachel. "In private, preferably."

"There's an office just over there," said Buffy. "We can talk in there with Riley."

"Riley?" asked Rachel. "Oh, the soldier boy you've been dating? No, not interested. I want to talk to people I trust about this and he just isn't one of them."

"Hey!" barked the tall soldier who'd looked ready to resist. She guessed that was Riley.

"Calm down, Riley," said Buffy. "This is . . . actually pretty mild by her standards. You should have seen what she did to Angel."

"Yeah, well he probably deserved it."

"He did," said Rachel. "And it remains to be seen what you'll deserve so I suggest you shut up."

"Sir, we have a blond vampire approaching the warehouse," came in the voice over her headset.

"Blond?" she asked. "Is he wearing a long, leather coat?"

"Yes, sir."

"Kill him," she said. "He's a dangerous one. Don't let him get close if you can help it."

The sound of laser fire and screamed obscenities filled her hearing before they were abruptly cut off.

"Got him, ma'am."

"Excellent work, soldier."

"Well, Buffy," said Rachel. "Spike just got took out by one of my men. Care to explain why he's wandering around Sunnydale?"

"Spike?" said Buffy. "Uh, that's a really long story. Part of what I've got to tell you about. Lots of weird stuff has been happening the last few months."

"Please, please, please don't tell me he had a soul," said Rachel.

"Not quite."

"Ma'am, we have people matching your description approaching. They have a blonde girl in her late teens accompanying them."

Rachel deactivated the headset. "Buffy, do you know a blonde girl who would come here with Giles and Willow?" asked Rachel.

"Oh, that's Tara," said Buffy. "She's a witch."

Suffice to say, a seemingly random declaration of witchiness got some very strange looks from the X-COM soldiers.

"Let them on through," said Rachel after reactivating the headset. "They're safe."

"So what's going on, guys?" asked Rachel. "It can't be good to get me sent here."

"The US Army deployed a group of soldiers and scientists here to study and combat the demon threat," said Giles. "The operation was, as far as we know, placed under the command of Professor Walsh."

"Why would an army operation be placed under the command of a scientists?" asked Rachel. "That doesn't make much sense to me."

"The operation seems to have been more about the research than the fighting," said Giles. "Initially, this group seemed to be good thing, though I never liked Walsh, but they turned out to be rather less, ah, on the side of the angels than we believed."

"They tried to have me killed," said Buffy. "They sent me after a demon with a faulty weapon and then locked me in with it. Only reason I survived is because they didn't really have a clue what a Slayer was capable of."

"What happened to this Professor Walsh?" asked Rachel, scowling.

"She's dead," said Giles. "Killed by her own creation, it seems. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. It turned out that Walsh's goal was to create some sort of super-soldier using pieces of demons and robotics. As part of the experiments leading up to that, she installed some sort of computer chip in Spike that wouldn't allow him to attack humans."

"She put a leash on Spike?" asked Rachel in sheer disbelief. "Oh, I wish I could have seen that. Not enough to let him live, but a little."

"He was harmless," said Willow. "He could only hurt demons."

"Till he slipped his leash," said Rachel with a dismissive shrug of her shoulders. "I'm not gonna lose any sleep over ordering him killed. He was only a vampire. Now I want to know more about what Walsh was getting up to."

"Indeed," said Giles. "Well, from what information we have, she constructed her super-soldier from various pieces of demons and robotics that she grafted onto a human frame. The resulting creature is an extremely powerful combatant, but, unfortunately for Walsh, she lost control of him, if she ever had it, and now he is acting in much the same manner as the demons he was built from."

"Right," said Rachel. "So what sort of abilities does he have? What sort of resources does he command? Where's he holed up?"

"He's extremely fast and strong," said Giles. "Much faster and much stronger than any other humanoid demon we've ever ran into."

"He has a big gun in his arm," said Buffy. "I saw him kill a whole load of soldiers with it."

"He has loads of demons and vampires," said Willow. "An army, really. He got them to let themselves by captured by the Initiative and then shut off the power so they could all escape at once."

"He's holed up in the Initiative's base," said Giles. "We have the blueprints."

Rachel rubbed at her temples. "Okay, so he's got an army of demons and he's holed up in a military base," she said. "This just gets better and better. What's the general situations? How much damage has he done?"

"Lot of dead people," said Buffy. "He sent his demons out to slaughter as many humans as they could manage after he took over the Initiative. Think he was a little pissed that his plans didn't quite work out."

"Wonderful," said Rachel. "Well I suppose it isn't the soldier boys' fault. Go call that Riley character in. I want to talk to him."

Buffy immediately went to get him. Willow opened her mouth and looked ready to start peppering Rachel with questions but Rachel shook her head and gestured not to. It just wasn't the time. Soon enough Buffy was back with Riley.

"Okay, soldier," said Rachel. "How are your men? Are they healthy enough to fight?"

"Yeah, they are," said Riley. "The ones who got too badly hurt didn't make it out of the base alive. I don't know what you expect us to do, though. The demons pretty much laughed at our weapons when we tried to stop them before and I won't send what's left of the operation back there to die."

Rachel narrowed her eyes at him. "You forget your place, soldier," she said, her voice low and dangerous. "When a superior officer tells you to jump, you ask how high. You do not question them."

"But you're not a real officer . . . "

"Rachel!" cried Buffy, who was completely ignored.

"See this rank insignia?" asked Rachel. "What does that tell you?"

"That you hold the rank of major," said Riley. "But - "

"No buts," said Rachel. "Right now my rank means as much as it does for any other officer. I give orders, you obey them. End of story."

"Well, ma'am," said Riley, pronouncing the ma'am as if it was a dirty word, "I hope you have a good plan, because those demons kicked our asses last time."

"I'll need to see the base's blueprints before I come up with any plans," said Rachel. "If the base is well-designed, I might just call in air support and blow it to hell rather than risk an assault."

"Why don't you just do that anyway?" asked Buffy.

"Because blowing two black ops groups wouldn't go down well with my bosses," said Rachel. "And we're armed well enough that your average demon won't be a problem."

"Guns don't work against demons," said Buffy reflexively.

"These guns do," said Rachel. "They're not exactly off-the-shelf models, you know. Much more advanced than that. Anyway, where are the blueprints?"

"I have them on my laptop," said Willow. "Give me a minute and I'll have them up."

For a minute the only sound in the room was that of Willow tapping away at her laptop PC before she announced that she was done and pushed the laptop over to Rachel for her to look at. She spent several minutes scanning the plans before she spoke.

"Okay, I hope you know of a back-door, because that single entrance just screams bottleneck," she said. "I'd be leading my men into a slaughter. A single, cramped lift to take an entire assault team into an underground military base? It's not working for me at all."

"You can enter the base though the cave complex if you know where the hidden door is," said Buffy. "We could find it again."

"Excellent," said Rachel. "A diversionary attack at the main entrance followed up by an all-out assault on on the back-door should work. I'd like more detailed information on the composition of their forces though."

"You could always try leaning on the owner of the local demon bar," said Buffy. "The new guy's got all the backbone of a jellyfish."

"Potter, Hartman, cover the entrance," ordered Rachel. "No-one in. No-one out."

"Yes, ma'am."

Hartman took up a place on the outside of the bar and Potter took up a place just inside the entrance as Rachel strolled on inside nonchalantly. The bar went absolutely dead silent as the demons took notice of her presence. She could feel the fear rising of them as they realised who she was. It was quite amusing really as she had no intention of attacking anyone unless they attacked first. Doing so against demons wouldn't be strictly dark, but it wasn't like they were out raising hell, was it?

"Been a while, boys," she said, fingering the hilt of her lightsabre, an action that went unnoticed by absolutely no-one. "Now are you going to tell me what I want to know or do I have to get unpleasant?"

"No! No need for that," babbled the morbidly obese and luridly coloured demon behind the bar. "We'll tell you whatever you want."

"Excellent," said Rachel, perching herself on a bar-stool and crossing her legs. "Today's topic is ADAM and his lackeys. Feel free to tell to me everything you know, and I will know if you hold back on me."

If anything the bartender demon seemed to become even more scared at the mention of ADAM. She'd never seen green skin go pale like that before, it was quite a sight.

"Come on," he said, sweating profusely. "You're not asking me to get caught between you and ADAM are you?"

"ADAM won't be an issue soon enough," said Rachel lightly. "And if you help me out here, then he'll be gone even quicker. Hell, I bet having someone like that around's real bad for business, right? Well, just tell me what he's got working for him and you'll be rid of him in no time."

"Look, people who mess with that guy have a nasty habit of disappearing," said the bartender. "I don't wanna get mixed up in this."

Rachel's eyes hardened and all joviality drained from her expression. "You don't have a choice," she said. "Thousands lay dead because of that creature and I will have his head for that. And whether you like it or not, you are going to help me."

"I . . . "

"Let me make it easy for you," she said. "If you tell me, he might kill you. If you don't tell me, I will kill you. You must have heard about what happened to Willy, and he was human."

"Okay, okay," said the demon, gesturing wildly with his hands. "I'll tell you, okay? Just quit it with the threats."

"I'm listening," said Rachel.

"Look, he has a whole lot of demons down there in that base with him," said the bartender. "Just about all the local hotheads are down there, all the ones who'd look to mix it with people like you and the Slayers. He's got it all from vampires on up too. I reckon maybe fifty demons all told looking at the ones who haven't shown up here since he started up."

"Anything notable?" asked Rachel.

"Not really," said the bartender. "The ones powerful enough to trouble you wouldn't be caught dead working with a freak like ADAM."

"The ones powerful enough to trouble me tend to be smarter than to do so," said Rachel dryly. "But I do appreciate the information."

She uncrossed her legs and rose to her feet in one smooth motion.

"Now, boys," she said to the bar at large. "I recommend you keep out of this and not get any smart ideas about warning ADAM or taking a little revenge out of the bartender's hide for talking to me. Wouldn't want me to start killing the peaceable types, too, would you? No, just stay here with your drinks. Much safer that way."

She gestured to Potter and then she left the bar, followed by the two soldiers who'd been watching the entrance. As she left the bar she heard one of the demons say, "I told that idiot that they'd call the Jedi if he made too much trouble, but did he listen? No. It wasn't in his files so it didn't matter."

"You know, I never thought I'd see an entire bar full of demons wet themselves at the sight of one human," said Harry dryly as they walked away.

"What can I say?" asked Rachel with a shrug of her shoulders. "They know their place in the food-chain."

"Alpha unit, you will mount a diversionary attack here at the main entrance to the base with three of the remaining Initiative soldiers as back-up," said Rachel to the gathered X-COM, Initiative, and Scoobies. "With the entrance being what it is, I recommend that you draw the enemies out rather than go down there yourselves, but I'll leave the specifics of what you'll do to the man on the scene. Beta, Gamma units, you will spearhead the main assault through the cave complex with all other native units. I will lead that assault personally."

"Ma'am, is it really a good idea to take civilians into this place with us?" asked one of the soldiers.

"They may not be soldiers," said Rachel. "But they are specialists in this field. We may need their help depending on what we run into."

"What exactly do you want me and my men to do?" asked Alpha unit's sergeant, a tough-looking fellow with a blonde crew-cut.

"Draw as many demons out as you can and then fade away," said Rachel. "Kill them if you can but don't worry too much about it. They are not out primary target, ADAM is. ADAM . . . well, we don't have any images to show you but he won't be hard to spot being that he's part human, part demon, and part cyborg. He is to be regarded as extremely dangerous. Numerous soldiers have already fallen to him. Think muton but tougher and stronger with more conventional weaponry."

That got the X-COM soldiers going and the general consensus seemed to be, 'oh, fucking wonderful.'

"I recommend caution in dealing with him," said Rachel. "There's no guarantee that we've seen the limits of his abilities yet and he has already shown himself to be highly dangerous."

"What about you, ma'am?" asked another one of the soldiers. "You're not even wearing armour."

"I can protect myself well enough, soldier," said Rachel. "You'll see soon enough. Any more questions?"

"What if this ADAM shows up at the diversion?" asked the sergeant.

"Retreat," said Rachel immediately. "Call for backup. At that point the entire plan would have to change. The main attack force would have to leave the cave system and circle back around to ambush him. Any other questions?"

There were none.

"You have your assignments," said Rachel. "Go. Let's get this done."

"Door's sealed," said one of the soldiers. "We'll have to breach it."

"Leave it for now," said Rachel. "We'll give ourselves away if we start blowing things up."

Rachel was an island of calm in the middle of a sea of hopped up soldiers at that point. The adrenaline was flowing in anticipation of what was to come and no-one else seemed to be inclined to stay still for more than about thirty seconds at a time as they waited for word of the diversion's success to come.

"Beginning attack now," came the voice over Rachel's headset. "Chucking some thermal detonators down the lift shaft should get their attention, I reckon."

The earth shook as the sound of explosions resounded in the distance. Rachel brushed away the dirt that had been shook loose and fallen onto her as she waited.

"Oh yeah, I love those things!" said the sergeant. "Waiting for . . . well, would you look at that! It's like kicking a hornet's nest. Fall back, men! Pick 'em off if you can but fall back! Keep 'em at a distance!"

Rachel ignited her lightsabre and with four precise cuts she made the sealing of the door quite irrelevant. The first corridor they entered was long and empty, leading to another sealed door. This time, she didn't even bother with the lightsabre. She just waved her hands and blasted it off its frame with a surge of telekinetic energy that bounced it off the wall opposite in the room it opened up into. The look of utter shock on the face of the two vampires in that room was absolutely comical for the ten seconds or so that they lived past that point before Rachel's lightsabre cut them down.

"Mother of God," she heard one of the soldiers say. "What is she?"

The next room opened up into a two-way junction. Rachel frowned for just a moment before giving out the orders. "Gamma unit, to the left with Initiative units. Beta unit, civilians, with me to the right."

And then they were off. A large, red-skinned demon that Rachel didn't recognise the breed of seemed to appear out of nowhere but before it could do anything it was peppered with laser fire and fell to the ground quite dead with a shocked look on its face. Probably hadn't been expecting to be killed so easily and quickly by mere humans. They just tramped on past as its body dissolved into a toxic-looking goo.

The next room they entered was massive and there was at least a couple of dozen demons in it. Rachel immediately leapt into the crowd with her sabre, followed closely by the axe-wielding Buffy and they began tearing through the demons in tandem as the X-COM soldiers picked off the demons with precision fire from a distance. It was almost a relief to get back to this after spending months on end stuck in a lab fiddling with bits of technology. As much as she did enjoy playing around with technology, this was more her thing really.

The demons soon fell under that onslaught. Between the choice of getting killed by a lightsabre, an axe, or a laser rifle, they mostly tried for option d - running like hell, which worked out about as well as a black man showing up a Ku Klux Klan meeting. Those ones just got shot in the back instead of the front.

"Impressive," said a deep-voiced man, causing Rachel to spin around to face the source of the sound. "I have no files on one with abilities quite like yours."

"You are one ugly mother-fucker," said a soldier behind Rachel.

It was all Rachel could do to not burst out into fits of laughter. She whole-heartedly agreed with the sentiment. "Okay, ADAM," she said. "Why don't you stand down so we can get this over with?"

"I'm afraid that I cannot do that," said ADAM, his arm shifting structure somehow till it reached the form of a chain-gun. ADAM's change caught the soldiers flat-footed apparently, as they failed to open fire themselves or move to dodge before ADAM unleashed a hail of bullets.

"Shield!" called out Rachel, and the bullets stopped dead, flattening against an invisible wall a bare metre ahead of the group.

"Impossible," said ADAM, his face showing the barest flicker of emotion as his arm shifted form again, this time into a grenade launcher. This time it was Willow who countered the attack, transfiguring the launched grenade into a simple bird that flew away immediately. "Absolutely impossible."

He got to say no more as he was immediately pieced by dozens of laser blasts before one final shot burned through his forehead and killed him once and for all.

"This is Giles to all units," said Rachel into her headset. "Mission accomplished. ADAM has been destroyed. Repeat, mission accomplished."

"We've pretty much burned through our demons too, ma'am," said the sergeant from Alpha unit. "They ain't got shit on these fancy new guns of ours."

"We ain't ran into much at all," said the sergeant from Gamma unit. "Few vampires and that's about it for us, ma'am."

"Sweep the base," ordered Rachel. "I want the place purged of demons before we leave it."

The sweep didn't take long and resulted in lots of very dead demons with a grand sum total of zero casualties for the good guys. Best sort of mission really.

"It's done, sir," said Rachel. "The hybrid created by the Initiative has been eliminated as have over ninety percent of the forces that he had to call upon. I'd say the mission is complete."

"Only ninety percent?" asked the commander over the radio. "What about the rest?"

"Disappeared into the woodwork, sir," said Rachel. "It'll be hard to get them now. This sort of activity is always high in Sunnydale and skipping town wouldn't be difficult for them if they ran further afield."

"Hmm," said the commander. "Point taken. Anyway, the brass have requested that you stay in the area for a few days to keep a lid on things."

"I'm not sure there's a need for that, sir," said Rachel. "The locals should be able to control things at this point."

The commander snorted. "The local national guard unit is down to something like fifteen percent of its usual strength and the police even worse after what happened. They're not gonna want you filling in for police, thank all that's good and holy, but they will want you to keep an eye out for exceptional stuff for a few days till they can arrange relief."

"So how long do we think we'll be here, sir?" asked Rachel.

"Week, tops," said the commander. "Any longer and I'll order you out no matter what they want. We can't spare the units any longer than that. Oh, the Initiative boys are to be offered jobs with us. See to that, will you?"

After setting up her men and the Initiative's remaining forces with accommodations she staggered into Giles's apartment as the sun rose.

"Hey, all," she said, yawning. "Too tired to talk now. See you when I wake up."

She woke up approximately eight hours later feeling, well, not refreshed, but considerably better than she had after going the best part of two days without sleep and expending considerable amounts of energy in the process. What confused her was where she woke up. She didn't remember making it to her bed. And she didn't remember changing into her pyjamas either. Huh. Someone must have changed her and moved her into her bed. That was a new one. Well, it wasn't out of the realms of possibility for Giles to move her to her bed if she fell asleep at the table or whatever, but the rest was new. It sure was a weird feeling to have someone do stuff like that for her though.

Well, she had others things to do than sit around wondering what had happened. She grabbed her BDUs and underwear, which had been left neatly folded on her office chair, and headed off for the shower to prepare for the day. She didn't linger there. Living on a military base had broken her of that habit, there was never a minute to spare there, even if she wasn't a soldier herself.

When she made her way out to the living area of the apartment, the group was sat around the table. Mrs. Summers, Giles, Willow, Buffy, and the new girl, Tara. They were all there, though where Oz was she had no idea.

"Hey," said Rachel as she sat down with them. "I kinda have a couple of questions for you."

"Hmm?" said Giles.

"Who undressed me and who tucked me into bed?" asked Rachel, with a slight smirk.

Mrs. Summers smirked herself as she replied. "I've done it enough times for Buffy, so, when you passed out on Giles' couch, I just took care of it. You need to take better care of yourself."

Rachel just stared. "Bu . . . what?"

Willow giggled at the utterly dumbfounded look on Rachel's face while Buffy looked on sympathetically and Tara smiled nervously.

"Right . . . uh, so where'd the pyjamas come from?" asked Rachel. "All my stuff's back on the base."

"Oh, they're just an old set of Buffy's that she left laying around at home when she left for college," said Mrs. Summers.

"Right," said Rachel. "Why do I have trouble believing that?"

"Honest," said Mrs. Summers with a totally straight face.

"Mrs. Summers, I'm at least half a foot taller than Buffy," said Rachel. "And they fit perfectly."

Mrs. Summers just smiled enigmatically and went back to her meal. She obviously considered the conversation done. Rachel had no idea what had just happened but she decided not to question it. By the look on Buffy's face, it wasn't all that unusual, and the pyjamas had been pretty comfortable if a bit more feminine than her usual apparel. Wll whatever. It wasn't a big deal, really.

"So where's Oz?" asked Rachel a minute later. "Haven't seen him around at all . . . "

All smiles dropped from faces immediately at the mention of Oz. Weird.

"He left town a while back," said Buffy. "Doubt we'll be seeing him again any time soon."

"What happened?" asked Rachel, quietly. This was obviously a sore topic but Oz had been pack sortof so she wanted to know.

"He had trouble with his wolfiness," said Willow. "He left to get control, but it didn't work and everything went weird."

Rachel frowned. "He should have got in touch with me," she said. "I could have taught him how to control it if he'd been willing to work at it."

"Things . . . well, he wouldn't have wanted to go to you," said Buffy. "Trust me."

Rachel narrowed her eyes at that but she pushed it no further. Now right then anyway. But she would have answers. Oz wasn't her favourite person as it was but she had expected better of him than to run out on Willow. Then again, if she was reading things right with that new girl, then maybe it hadn't been him doing the running.

In the end, it turned out that Oz had slept with another werewolf, and that had led to him leaving Sunnydale after he killed that werewolf to protect Willow from her. It was a complete mess and it was one that Rachel's presence would have prevented from occurring entirely. This Verruca would not have dared trifle with OZ and Willow if she had been there. She felt no small measure of guilt at that even if her absence was perfectly justifiable. Anyway, it all turned out well enough in the end, even if she was pissed at Oz, with Tara and Willow getting together. And that produced some pleasant mental images.

Three days later the call came for her to return to base with her men and with the Initiative troops that had signed on. All of them, bar Riley, did so.

Chapter Five

August 2000

"I think we're about ready to put the AI through its paces," said John, disturbing Rachel from the paperwork she'd been doodling on in lieu of actually dealing with it.

"Really?" she asked, a smile lighting up her face. "You got the damn thing to actually work?"

"Well, we won't know for sure till we put it through some real work," said John with a surprised blink. "But the unit tests all read green and it compiles."

"And the DirectX drivers are working?" asked Rachel, standing up.

"Test framework says they are," said John. "It's just a matter of putting it all together and seeing how the test goes. And let me just say that I'd never have thought to use computer games to test a killing machine."

Rachel's expression transformed to a far more familiar smirk. "Hey," she said. "It's about time someone found a real use for that crap."

Personally, Rachel thought it was quite a clever move on her part. Testing something like HK was dangerous as all hell, but if you tested the AI in isolation using DirectX drivers to hook it up to a computer game the risk was removed entirely; just like that there was no more danger of HK going postal and slaughtering half the base. You just needed a beast of a computer to pull it off. And with the funding she was getting these days? Not a problem.

"Oh, I agree," said John. "Just saying that it just takes a special sort of person to link together a real-life robotic killing machine and a kid's game."

"Oh very funny, John," said Rachel. "Tell Denver to get the test machine set up. It's about time he did something useful with his game obsession."

"Will do, boss," said John. "Want me to call the crew together to see the first run?"

"Yes," said Rachel. "They've all done something for this project or will be doing something sooner or later, so let them see the first real signs of it working. Tell me when it's ready to go, will you? I've got paperwork to do."

"Well better you than me," said John.

"Bugger off and do what I tell you, you cheeky git."

It was quite a thing to see a couple-dozen people crowding around a couple of CRT monitors that were smaller than your average wide-screen TV, Rachel thought. To say it looked fairly ridiculous was the understatement of the year, but, hell, who could blame them? A whole lot of them had poured a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this project and even the ones who hadn't were still damn eager to see if it worked. It wasn't every day that you got to see something out of a Hollywood sci-fi movie come to life after all, even working in this lab. So the buzz of eagerness and anticipation around the group was pronounced. They all wanted to see it working.

The buzz just grew as the second display showed the startup messages of the AI scrolling down the screen's now red background. And when the game display, tinted red, popped up, there was a round of cheers. Why the game display was tinted red Rachel wasn't sure in all honesty but if she had to guess it would be a side-effect of not supervising a bunch of sci-fi geeks closely enough. And when the game started with an overlaid HUD that matched The Terminator perfectly she knew she was right.

The game started with the screen showing a long, narrow corridor with various indicators showing that HK had three team members trailing along behind him in a line and a mini-map in the top corner of the screen showing the plan for the mission as defined by Denver when he set the game up for the test. The view moved for just a moment and all watching could see HK's targeting system scanning over the team-mates, who were just standing there like lemons, before the section of the HUD devoted to logging output from the conversational overlays showed its first message: "Statement: my team-members appear to have been lobotomised. Ignoring."

And with that he took off. Whether he followed the mission plan or not was debatable really. He did stop at the area of the map that had been designated as the first target zone but then it was the first area known to have enemies on the map and HK would never walk away from a fight where he'd have the chance to slaughter some meatbags if he could help it. She was pretty sure that blowing the door to hell with a grenade wasn't part of the plan and then cutting down everyone in the room with the biggest gun the game had to offer while cackling madly in text-form sure wasn't it. Especially not when the room held hostages as well as terrorists.

The reactions of the group were funny. Much laughter when he insulted his team-mates, some cheers when he blew the door, and then utter silence when he let rip with his over-sized gun. Rachel . . . wasn't surprised. And she wasn't surprised when he proceeded to slaughter every living creature on the map with incredible efficiency, all the while taunting his enemies over their feeble attempts at resistance. He was HK-47 after all.

"Holy shit," blurted out one of the newbies. "We've built a complete psycho."

"Now, now," said Rachel, sounding more than a little annoyed. "We knew what he was going to be from the start. He just needs some extra restraint programming incorporated and he'll be absolutely perfect for the job he's meant for."

"Restraints?" scoffed another. "For that!? It'd be liked trying to hold an Abrams back with a bit of twine."

Rachel's glare quieted that one quickly. "All he needs is some additional code to prevent him from targeting civilians. With that, he'll be fine."

"Well back to the grindstone then," said John. "Come on, people. Back to work. Show's over."

The crowd dispersed almost immediately after that. The mood was just gone. Ah well, she hadn't really expected a bunch of scientists to appreciate HK.

Paperwork was indeed the worst thing in all of existence as far as Rachel was concerned. The best thing about being a Sith Lord back in the day was that no-one had dared dump this sort of utter nonsense in her lap. Seriously, it was ridiculous. She had a twenty-five man department to run and it generated enough bits of paper that needed to be read and signed off or filled in and processed for a thousand. How many bloody forms did you need for requisitioning a few bits of shiny, new equipment, anyway? Damned bureaucrats and their thrice-damned obsession with proper paperwork. And damn those incompetent twits they'd tried to pawn off on her as a secretary. She was never, ever going to trust anyone else with this stuff after that disaster with the monitors. Five-hundred 21" CRT monitors being delivered had not done much for her disposition or her budget.

Rachel was pulled out of her mental whinging about the evils of paperwork by her cell phone vibrating madly in one of her lab-coat's pockets. She swore loudly as she dug through it trying to find the damn thing - it was excessively small - before she answered.

"Rachel Giles," she said, after prodding the button to take the call.

"Rachel, it's Giles," said the person calling her. "Joyce has got her CAT scan results."

Rachel stiffened in her seat. "And?"

"She has a tumour, Rachel," said Giles, sounding very tired indeed. Rachel felt like she'd been kicked in the guy by a race-horse. This just could not be happening. "Nothing too terrible, I understand, but it's still a tumour on the brain."

"Operable?" asked Rachel, dreading the answer.

"Yes," said Giles, sounding almost as relieved as Rachel felt at hearing that. It was like an invisible weight had been lifted off her shoulders. "They have her booked in for an operation soon."

"In Sunnydale General?" asked Rachel, in a disbelieving tone of voice. "With their normal staff? I don't think so! I'll be in Sunnydale before you know it and I'll sort out something a little better than wasters and incompetents who can't get anything better than a job on the hellmouth."

"Rachel . . . "

"No, Giles," said Rachel. "My work can wait. This is more important. They can work without me holding their hands for a while anyway."

"I . . . it would be appreciated, Rachel," said Giles. "I have no doubt of that. But can you really afford to leave your work like that?"

"Yes," said Rachel. "And even if I couldn't, I still would. No way I'm leaving Mrs. Summers to the Sunnydale version of a hospital. Not happening, Giles."

"Well," said Giles, "I won't argue with that because I feel much the same way about the quality of Sunnydale's public services. I just hope you know what you're doing."

"Of course I do," said Rachel. "I'm making sure that someone I care about doesn't end up dead because some half-arsed doctor botched the surgery. Everything else is just irrelevant to the issue."

"I can't disagree with you," said Giles. "I suppose I should leave you to it now so you can make arrangements."

"Probably a good idea," said Rachel. "I'll see you soon."

"I'm going on leave," announced Rachel the moment she marched into Commander Miller's office. "Effective immediately."

"You . . what!?" asked Commander Miller, looking absolutely gob-smacked.

"I'm going on leave," said Rachel firmly. "My friend's mother has a brain tumour and I'm needed back home."

"You can't just-"

"I can and I am," said Rachel. "I never had a mother worth a damn and there's no way I'm letting the only mother in the whole group worthy of the title die because some backwater doctor messed up an operation."

Miller leaned back in his chair and began to massage his temples with the fingers of one of his hands. "Anyone else and I'd have you in the stockade for this," he said. "You can't just come in here and start issuing demands."

"But I'm not anyone else," said Rachel. "And I'm going."

"Dammit, Giles," said Miller. "You just love giving me headaches don't you?"

"You're the one who press-ganged me," said Rachel tartly. "And you can't possibly expect me to sit on my hands while someone I care about goes off and dies."

"Look, you can't just go wandering off on a whim," said Miller. "I understand you wanting to be there - I would too - but this is a military operation and that means you have to go through proper channels if you want leave."

"Those would be the same proper channels that had you threatening me with all sorts of dire implications trying to force me to join up," said Rachel with a most sarcastic edge to her voice. "I think I'll treat the 'proper channels' with as much respect as you did back then. How does that sound?"

"What I said then still stands, you know," he said, his face absolutely serious. "I can make life very difficult for you if you get out of line."

"And you still don't understand, do you?" said Rachel, all humour quickly leaving her. "I'm here because I want to be here. There's not a power on Earth that can force me to do anything. And if you tried to force me . . . well, your life expectancy would be very short indeed."

"Your bluster is entertaining," said Miller. "But we both know that you're no worse than the aliens and we deal with those well enough."

Rachel narrowed her eyes at the commander. "You truly do not understand the forces that you are playing with, do you, commander?" she asked, her voice becoming progressively colder as she spoke. "I am not some pleasantly bland background character you never noticed in the films. I was and always will be Lord Darth Revan, and once an entire galaxy cowered in fear at the mere mention of my name. These aliens? They are nothing, insignificant little specks. My empire would have crushed them like bugs.

"And the power of the Ethereals? It is insignificant compared to the power of the Force," she finished, allowing her power to leak out and fill the room with her sheer presence, something she had always kept under tight wraps before.

Miller, to his credit, did not flinch, did not cower, though to one with her nature his growing fear was an almost tangible thing that she almost felt she could reach out and taste. The wolf in her rose up and howled in glee at seeing this pretender realise his true place in the hierarchy. She was the alpha, not him, and it was past time that he was forced to face that fact.

"Now do you understand, commander?" she said, her voice low and dangerous, full of violent implications. "Your threats against me are entirely laughable. I am here because I wish to be, not because you forced my hand. Now, I am going on leave. I will return when the situation has been resolved. You try anything, and . . . well . . . you'll see what it means to trouble the Dark Lord."

"You . . . " said Miller, his voice shaky. "Dammit. At least take a bodyguard with you. You're too important to just run off on your own without protection."

"Really, commander," said Rachel with a raised eyebrow. "Do I look like I need protecting?"

"Anyone can get lucky," said Miller. "Or unlucky. Take a guard with you and it won't matter."

"There's no such thing as luck, commander," said Rachel. "There is only the Force. But I suppose I can make this small concession now. I will take . . . Harry Potter. Yes. He will do."

And with that she turned on her heel and marched out. As she left, she heard Miller swear violently under his breath. Hopefully he would learn his lesson because she wasn't inclined to go over this twice. Next time she wouldn't go so easy on him.

It didn't take long to find Potter. His presence stood out like a lighthouse up on the cliffs amongst all these mundane folk. He was in one of the designated common rooms with some other soldiers that she assumed were his team-mates. Some leered at her as she strode in but she ignored those fools entirely.

"Potter, come with me," she demanded as soon as she had him in sight and paying attention to her presence.

One of the soldiers let loose a long, low whistle at that. Rachel immediately sent a glare his way that could blister paint. He was silent from that point on.

"Come," she ordered. "I have no time to waste."

"Alright then," he said, looking somewhat baffled and more than a little irritated. "Don't get your knickers in a twist. I'm coming."

Rachel's glare at that was almost a physical thing. Harry seemed to get the message and quickly said his goodbyes to the soldiers he had been talking to. Inside the minute they were out of the common area.

"Your abilities are still intact, I assume?" asked Rachel bluntly.

Harry blinked. "Yeah," he said. "Why?"

"I need you to teleport me to Sunnydale," she said. "I believe you can do that if I remember correctly."

"Now steady on," said Harry. "I don't know how to make portkeys and I can't just leave the base just to apparate you around."

"Oh but you can," said Rachel. "I need to go somewhere and the base commander decided that I need a bodyguard. You're it."

"This is stupid," said Harry after a moment's thought. "You can take care of yourself and the last thing this place needs is soldiers disappearing on bullshit bodyguard duties."

"Oh I quite agree," said Rachel. "But the situation is what it is and we have to deal with it. Now can you teleport me to Sunnydale?"

"I could but it's easier to apparate to a maintained apparation point over that sort of distance," said Harry. "It uses a lot less magical energy. There's one in the wizarding community in Los Angeles. How's that?"

"Adequate," said Rachel. "Let's go."

"Don't you think we should at least change our clothes first?" asked Harry. "Showing up in the middle of the day in lab-coat and fatigues will attract a bit more attention that we'll want to be dealing with."

Rachel had to agree with that, though she was loathe to waste any more time than absolutely necessary in this situation.

"Also, it would probably be a good idea to take a few changes of clothing with us if we're going to be there more than a day or two," said Harry. "And finally, I think the local government would have something to say about it if I started using my abilities here."

Rachel sighed deeply. "You're right," she said. "I need to calm down and think instead of reacting. And there's a fair chance we'll be there at least a week or so till the situation is resolved."

"What is the situation?" asked Harry, before hastily adding. "If you don't mind me asking that is."

"Buffy's mom has a brain tumour," said Rachel. "And I'm not letting Sunnydale quacks get their hands on her if I can help it."

And then something clicked in her mind. Harry was a wizard and wizards might well have some sort of magic that could help Mrs. Summers.

"Could you help her?" asked Rachel. "With your magic, I mean."

"Is this really something we should be talking about here?" asked Harry, looking around quickly to see if anyone was listening. A bit late really but there you go.

"No-one can hear us," said Rachel, waving aside Harry's concerns impatiently. "Now can your people help her?"

"I'm not sure," said Harry. "Healing was never my speciality and normal people don't react well to having some magic used on them. I could ask Her-" he stopped himself there. "No, she's not available, but there will be a wizarding hospital in Los Angeles. If we ask the right people, they should be able to give us an answer."

"We'll do that then," said Rachel. "I'll meet you in the base car-park in fifteen minutes."

"I thought you were bringing some extra clothes with you?" asked Rachel when Harry arrived in the car park wearing a long-sleeved shirt button-up shirt and trousers and utterly free of baggage, unlike Rachel who had her old pack slung over her back.

"Shrinking charm," said Harry by way of explanation with a short shrug of his shoulders. Useful sounding bit of magic that. "Ready?"

"As I'll ever be," said Rachel.

"Right," said Harry, waving his wand over his head before looking at Rachel again. "Just a little notice-me-not charm to keep us from attracting attention," he explained before offering her his left arm. "I advise you to hold on tight. Apparation is not pleasant the first time and I have no idea what it will feel like for someone who doesn't have a magical core. Please, do try not to vomit on me."

Rachel took his arm and then a moment later she felt a surge of that strange magic she hadn't felt since London and then everything went very strange indeed. She could feel the magic of the spell pressing in on her from all sides, trying to tear her from Harry and cast her into oblivion, and it took all her reserves of will not to lash out with all her power to stop it. Every piece of her body felt like it was being compressed by giant hands of raw power and it was possibly the single least pleasant thing she had experienced in her whole life outside of Malak's betrayal and the wounds that been inflicted upon her then. It wasn't so much the pain of it as much as it just felt horribly wrong.

And then it was over. She pulled herself away from Harry and took in several deep breathes to steady herself before she felt ready to speak.

"Next time, I'll take the plane," she said. "That was much worse than the portkey."

"Oh I quite agree," said Harry, eyeing her strangely. "The only reason I ever apparate is because I don't know how to make my own portkeys."

"Oh?" asked Rachel. "Why not? You seem a capable wizard to me."

"It's illegal," explained Harry. "Restricted magic. Can't just have people running around turning things into portkeys, after all. It would be absolute chaos. And the ministry isn't inclined to let me in on secrets these days if it ever was."

"Ah," said Rachel before turning away from Harry to scope out where they'd ended up. It turned out to be a fairly ordinary looking pub. An English pub. In America. Not so ordinary then really. A few patrons eyed the pair of them but they quickly looked away for some reason. Rachel had thought that she'd reigned in her aura but whatever. She didn't really care if she intimidated a few barflies. "Shall we be getting on our way then?"

"Hmm, if I remember right . . . " said Harry. "Yes, this way. Follow me."

Nothing she'd seen in the past quite prepared Rachel for the sheer eccentricity of the wizarding world. She'd seen some strange things in the past but nothing that compared to a portly middle-aged man stumbling into the hospital with his severed arms floating along in front of him while his wife scolded him for drunk apparating. It was just . . . mind-blowingly strange. And then when she tore her eyes away from that she saw a mournful looking teenager with tentacles growing out of his ears being scolded by his mother for teasing his little sister. She just shook her head. Too strange.

"Wands, please," said the bored-looking receptionist when they reached the entry desk.

"What?" asked Harry, looking deeply unimpressed. "Why do you expect me to give up my wand?"

"Had some trouble with dark wizards recently," said the receptionist. "Hand 'em over or leave. Your choice."

Harry looked about ready to incinerate the receptionist with the heat of his stare. "If my wands are not returned to me in perfect condition then there will be hell to pay," he hissed in a tone of voice that was only just barely human. Rachel arced an eyebrow. This was not a side of him she'd seen before. He lowered his wand down onto the table but before the receptionist could say anything he pulled another, longer wand from somewhere and put that down too.

The receptionist gulped and took a deep, steadying breath before she picked the wands up and put them through a weird looking magical gizmo that spat out two pieces of paper. "Holly, eleven inches, phoenix feather, in use for nine years," she said. "That right?"

"Correct," said Harry tersely.

"Well, here's your receipt then," she said. And then, "hmm. Yew, thirteen-and-a-half inches, phoenix feather, in use for . . . sixty-two years. Some sort of family heirloom, huh?"

"Something like that," snapped Harry.

"Okay, okay; no need to get in a strop," she said. "Here's your receipt. And what about you, lady? Where's your wand."

"Don't have one," said Rachel easily.

The receptionist rolled her eyes and pulled out another magical gizmo that she promptly pointed at Rachel. "Huh, and so you don't," she said. "What's a muggle doing here then?"

"That's really none of your business," said Harry. "Now can we see a healer?"

"Well," she said. "Depends. We're a bit busy, you see, so it might take a while."

"I don't have time for this," snapped Rachel. "You will allow us to see a healer. Now."

"I will allow you to see a healer now," said the receptionist in an utterly blank tone of voice. "Please take a seat. I will call your names in just a moment. What are your names anyway?"

"Rachel Giles," said Rachel. "You don't need to know his name."

"I don't need to know his name," intoned the receptionist. "Please take a seat."

And then she wandered off somewhere. Presumably to find a healer.

"Nice trick," said Harry appreciatively. "That sort of thing's rather more noticeable with a wand."

They found some seats and then they waited in silence. A minute or two later, Rachel's name was called and off they went.

The healer's office was a rather small, cramped room. The table and bookcases took up almost all of the room and with the chairs added there was barely enough room to enter and sit down. The healer himself was rather young-looking, around Rachel's age she thought, and looked to desperately need a good night's sleep; the bags under his eyes were a thing of legend.

"Before we start on whatever brought you here," said the healer. "I'm kinda curious as to what the hell you did to the receptionist. I thought Imperius at first but there are no signs of any actual magic on her."

"You know," said Harry, "no-one's going to admit to using an unforgivable just because you asked."

"You used an unforgivable?" asked the healer, with a raised eyebrow.

"I never said that," said Harry. "But you obviously think we did. Quite how we'd do that without a wand to share between us is beyond me in all honesty but there you go."

"True, true," said the healer. "But then there are some rather interesting rumours going around about you and your power, Mr. Potter. I really don't know what to expect from you."

Harry's back stiffened. "So you recognise who I am," he said. "I thought my charms were better than that."

"I have a talent for seeing and sensing magic," said the healer. "It's why I became a healer. Glamour charms don't fool me for long no matter how good they are, not even the subtle ones that you used."

"Then we might just have a problem," said Harry, his hand twitching as if he wanted to go for a wand that wasn't there.

"Oh no, you misunderstand," said the healer. "There's no hostility here. We haven't been on good terms with the British Ministry of Magic, oh, ever really. I expect that's why you came here."

"This is interesting and all," interrupted Rachel. "But it's not why we're here. Someone I care about has a medical problem and I want to know if you can help."

"Then why aren't they here?" asked the healer, his eyes suddenly sharp and full of questions.

"She's a muggle," said Rachel. "And I don't want to say anything till I know for sure that you magical types can help."

"Hmm," said the healer leaning back in his chair. "A wise decision most likely. A lot of muggle diseases don't affect wizards so we've never came up with a treatment for them."

"How about brain tumours?" asked Rachel, though any hope she'd felt was beginning to rapidly drain away after hearing that. "Can you treat them?"

The healer shook his head. "I'm sorry but a wizard's magic stops tumours from ever forming," he said with a frown. "The best I could do would be to dose her with potions to alleviate the symptoms but any qualified wizard who'd studied potions could do that. If I remember right, calming draughts and pain-relieving potions are covered on all major potions courses."

"They are," said Harry. "At least all the ones I know of. So there's nothing you can do?"

"I'm afraid not," said the healer. "It's probably best that I don't try either. Tumours are tricky things, or so I hear, and it's best to leave them to the experts."

"Well thanks anyway," said Rachel. "And it wasn't an unforgivable or even magic used on the receptionist. It was more like hypnotism than anything you'd understand."

"So nothing harmful then," he said. "Good. Well, if you need any more advice, feel free to drop by as long as you don't do that again. Just ask for Healer Tobin at the desk."

"Okay," said Rachel. And with that she left with Harry.

"So what's this about a glamour charm?" asked Rachel as they left the hospital, passing a woman with explosive, literally explosive, flatulence as they went.

"It's only a glamour by strict technicality," said Harry. "It's more of a someone-else's-problem charm than anything. I'm surprised you recognised me with it to be honest."

Rachel rolled her eyes. "I'm not that easy to fool," she said. "Hell, I didn't even notice it."

"Odd," he said. "But then you're not exactly normal, are you? I doubt the spell was designed to affect someone with powers that don't exist outside of a film."

"Probably not," said Rachel. "I'm kinda curious as to why the all-conquering wizarding hero would need to hide under a glamour though."

Harry's expression took a dark turn at that. "I'm no hero," he snapped. "And it's none of your damn business."

"Oh I think it is," said Rachel. "If aurors are going to start popping up on some sort of quest to arrest you, then that's a problem for me and for X-COM."

Harry turned a burning gaze onto her. "They wouldn't dare," he hissed before he took on a more reasonable expression. "And I've took steps to prevent any wizards locating me through magical means. I learned from the best on that front. Short of my marching into the ministry and waging open war on the fools, I am safe."

"Just like that glamour charm kept you safe, hmm?" asked Rachel.

"It's different," said Harry.

"Really?" asked Rachel dryly. "Well, we'll see. I hope you're right."

It was almost dark by the time Rachel felt the influence of the hellmouth wash over her once again. By the time the bus they were on had entered Sunnydale proper, it was well after dark.

"Keep your eyes peeled," said Rachel as she left the bus station with Harry. "This place can be a little rough after dark."

"I've been here before, Rachel," said Harry. "I'm not a rookie."

"Never hurts to be careful", replied Rachel flippantly.

"And this is coming from you?"

In the end, they only ran into a couple of vampires on their way to Giles's place and as you'd expect those vampires didn't have a particularly long life-expectancy once contact was made. They must have been damn desperate to try and take on Rachel in the first place; either that or they were new to the town; but with Harry backing her up as well? It was suicide by demon-hunter. But then no-one had ever accused the average vampire of being too intelligent.

Giles was quick to answer the door when Rachel reached the apartment, though it took him a moment of goggling to think to usher them in. The look on his face was incredibly amusing to Rachel. She didn't think she'd ever seen Giles look so pole-axed, not even when Xander had been turned into Rachel back in the day.

"How the bloody hell did you get here so quickly?" asked Giles after they'd come in and he'd closed the door. "I was sure that your magic wasn't up to teleportation just yet."

"It isn't," said Rachel, while dumping her pack in a corner of the room and sitting down in a nearby chair. "But his is."

"And of course you press-ganged him into bringing you here," said Giles. "I do hope this hasn't put you out too much, Mr. . . . ?"

"Potter," said Harry. "Harry Potter. And orders are orders. Us soldier types just do what we're told when we're told to do it."

"She ordered you to bring her here?" asked Giles with a raised eyebrow. "Rachel . . . "

"They weren't too keen on letting me go," said Rachel with a shrug of her shoulders. "In the end, I got away, but they decided that I had to take a bodyguard with me. When I remembered Harry and his abilities . . . well, it all came together."

"Well I suppose I can't fault you for that," said Giles. "So what sort of magic do your practice, Harry? Wiccan?"

"Uh, wanded," said Harry. "I didn't even know there were other kinds of magic till I ran into Rachel in London a while back."

"Wanded," said Giles, the genial expression frozen on his face frozen in a horrible parody of what it had been. "Rachel, I thought I told you to stay away from that kind, not bring them around for tea!"

"My kind?" snapped Harry. "What the bloody fucking hell do you mean by that?"

It was like a car crash or something of that ilk. It was just so horrible that you couldn't help but watch.

"Don't try and sit there and tell me you don't know what goes on when your lot gets a bee in their bonnet about secrecy," said Giles, his voice low and controlled. "I've seen the after-effects when your thrice-damned aurors get too enthusiastic with their memory spells or decide that there's no salvaging the situation without killing."

"Don't you dare compare me with those fools," hissed Harry, his eyes glinting dangerously.

"And why not?" asked Giles, his posture tense and radiating violent potential. "You're all the bloody same, thinking you're better than people who can't use those stupid bits of wood."

"I just finished fighting a war against the scum that believe that," yelled Harry, his hands twitching. "I would never . . . "

"Oh so you're not of the psychos who want to wipe everyone else out," snorted Giles. "That means you're one of the ones who like to pat us on their head and mutter about how brave and clever we are getting by without magic. So much bloody better!"

"That's it," hissed Harry as he drew his wand. "I don't have to take this."

Rachel immediately tapped her power and threw a stasis field over the pair of them, freezing them in a rather interesting tableau. Harry had his wand most of the way to a spell-casting position and Giles, well, Giles was aiming a rather nasty-looking right hook Harry's way.

"That's quite enough of that, gentlemen," said Rachel. "I can barely breathe for all the testosterone you two are giving off. And I can't believe I just said that. I must be desperately in need of some guy-time. Ah well."

And with that she levitated the pair of them to opposite ends of the room and then for good measure levitated Harry's wands away from him and onto the coffee table.

"Giles, Harry's kind of an outcast amongst wizards, or so I gather, so there's not much point berating him about their ways," said Rachel. "Harry, Giles isn't normally so pig-headed but I gather that he's had some rather unpleasant run-ins with aurors and other wand-users in the past and that seems to have short-circuited his rationality entirely. Please do try to avoid killing each other."

And then she released the stasis field. After a rather comical moment passed with both men trying to regain their balance after being moved across the room mid-movement, both turned their glares onto Rachel who simply arced an eyebrow and looked back impassively.

"I would appreciate it if you didn't do that again, Rachel," said Giles, his tone of voice somewhat icy.

"Would you rather I'd allowed you to continue making a complete fool of yourself then?" asked Rachel mildly. "It really wouldn't have been any trouble. For me anyway."

Before Giles could say anything else, the two wands flew off the coffee table and thudded into Harry's hands. "I didn't appreciate it much either," he said, as he pocketed one of the wands and began to twirl the other between the fingers of his right hand.

"Are you threatening her?" asked Giles, his expression absolutely frigid.

"Enough!" barked Rachel. "This is ridiculous. Giles, I am quite capable of defending myself. And as for you, Harry, don't even think about trying to intimidate me. Now, are you two going to learn to at least tolerate each others presence or am I going to be forced to find a hotel room and spend my time in Sunnydale there?"

"No," said Giles quickly. "There's no need for that, as long as he keeps his damn magic to himself."

This was going to be a fun visit, Rachel could tell.

"Unfortunately, there are no spare beds," said Giles. "Your bodyguard will have to stay elsewhere."

"That's OK," said Harry. "I can sleep anywhere with a quick cushioning charm. There's plenty of floor to go around."

Yup, a real fun visit.

The rest of the night passed in a rather uncomfortable fashion. Giles didn't think it was a good idea to disturb the Summers family so soon, so it was a night stuck in the house listening to a couple of Brits snipe at each other and trying to keep it from being noticeable. Because of course it's really difficult for a Jedi to tell when a couple of people are experiencing regular spikes of negative emotion right in front of them. It was about when she'd been tempted to mind-trick the pair of them to be mute that she'd decided it would be best to beat a retreat.

She woke with the rise of the sun the next day and the first thing she did was change into a he and find the brightest, most obnoxious shirt he could. Why? General principles. He so very rarely got to be Xander that when he did he had to go straight for the big guns and bring out the Hawaiian shirts. That and he didn't really have all that many clothes to wear in male form, and what he did have was left over from when he was younger and somewhat more colour-blind. It was safe to say that if Sarah ever saw him in these clothes - and knew who he was - that he'd be looking at one nightmare of a shopping expedition soon after.

After showering and getting ready for the day at hand, Xander made his way to the living room and found Harry perched on one of the chairs reading a newspaper.

"Do you not sleep?" asked Xander.

"Not much," said Harry. And in a flash Xander found himself staring down the length of Harry's wand. His reflexes were impressive; Xander had to give him that. "Now who are you and why the hell did you come out of Rachel's room? Chop, chop, man, I don't have all day."

"You don't have much of a memory do you?" said Xander. "Ah well it was quite a while ago so I suppose I can forgive you for forgetting. In short, and simple, terms, I am Rachel, you scrawny nitwit."

"Pull the other one," said Harry. "It has bells on. Honestly, I think I'd have noticed by now if Rachel was a man with the way the soldiers drool over her when she's not looking."

Xander's scowl at that was a thing of legend that would have been discussed throughout the ages if anyone had been present to take a picture of it. The Mona Lisa Smile would have had nothing on the Xander Harris Scowl for those who weren't sent fleeing in fear of their lives by the sight of it. But there was no-one there to take the picture and so much wasted time was saved. To shut Harry up before he said anything even more stupid - hard as it was for Xander to imagine it - Xander quickly transformed into Rachel and the back again.

"Are you satisfied now?" asked Xander with a sarcastic edge to his voice. "Or do you need to see more?"

Harry made a somewhat strangled sound in the back of his throat and took several moments before he replied. "The hell?" he managed. Highly eloquent.

Xander rolled his eyes. "Don't you remember me telling you about the whole magical sex-change thing? I found a cure . . . sort of."

"Well I thought you were just nuts or something," sputtered Harry. "People don't just change sex . . . or at least they normally don't."

"It's called chaos magic for a reason, Harry," said Xander. "And I can't believe that you thought I was nuts."

Harry eyed his wand very, very carefully as he put it away.

"Anyway, about these potions," said Xander, changing the subject quickly. "Can you make them here?"

Harry blinked and then frowned. "No," he said. "All my potions equipment is in London still."

"Can you retrieve it safely?"

Harry smirked. "Oh, of course," he said. "There's absolutely nothing they can do to stop me moving around freely unless I do something deeply stupid. I'll need to stop by the apothecary in Los Angeles though; there's no way some of the ingredients I'll need will have lasted this long."

"Well you do that then," said Xander. "I have things to do here."

"Uh, bodyguard?"

"Don't need one," said Xander. "Assassins will be after my female form anyway. Don't even think that you're going to be following me around all the time I'm here. It's not happening."

"You're not the one who's gonna get it in the neck if something happens," pointed out Harry. "You know what Miller's like."

Xander waved his concerns away. "Miller's not that hard to deal with," he said. "After the things you've seen and done, he's just a paper tiger. You really think he matches up to a Dark Lord?"

"Well, no," said Harry. "But I'm already a fugitive in one world. I don't need to add to the collection."

"You'll be fine," said Xander. "I'm not going to get killed anyway. It'll take more than the pathetic demons that infest this town to pull that off."

Xander waited for Harry to leave and then headed out himself after making sure that it wasn't too early. He figured that Mrs. Summers wouldn't be inclined to go to work after finding out she had a brain tumour the day before but you never knew. He ran into a few kids on the way to school as he walked - some of them even some to recognise him even if none acknowledged him - but the streets were generally quiet, just like he remembered them. It wasn't till after dark, when the monsters came out, that things picked up in this town.

Mrs. Summers answered the door quickly when he knocked and looked like she hadn't slept well at all. Not a great surprise really. She was still quick to usher Xander in after a moment of surprise had passed though.

"Xander, I didn't know you were back in town," she said as they sat down in the living room. "Do the girls know you're back?"

"I only got in last night," said Xander, relaxing back in the chair. "I haven't had time to do much of anything yet."

"Oh," said Mrs. Summers, looking a little stymied. "So how's your job going? Rupert told me that you'd been promoted."

"It's going well," said Xander easily. If she wanted small talk, he could do that. "Apparently, they like my work. And yes, Giles was right; I've been promoted. I'm a Lieutenant Colonel equivalent now."

"Congratulations, Xander," said Mrs. Summers. "You've earned it."

"Thank you," said Xander with a nod. "That means a lot to me."

"Your work seems to be going well, but what about your personal life?" asked Mrs. Summers. "I can't imagine you get to meet many nice girls stuck in a laboratory."

"You'd be surprised," said Xander. "But, Mrs. Summers, I didn't come here to talk about my life."

"Oh," she said faintly. "So you know then? About the tumour?"

Xander inclined his head in a faint nod. "Giles told me about it yesterday," he said. "I got here as quickly as I could manage."

"Xander!" exclaimed Mrs. Summers. "That must have cost you an arm and a leg!"

Xander shook his head. "It would have," he said, "but I managed to get a wizard to transport me here very quickly for free. It just took a little persuasion."

"Well, that's good," said Joyce.

"Now, I want to help you," said Xander. "You've done plenty for me in the past, helped me with the whole girl thing at times even if you didn't realise it, and I want to help you with this problem."

"I didn't do things for you so you'd help me in the future," said Joyce.

"Of course you didn't," said Xander. "If you were that sort of person, I would not be here. I am no-one's fool."

Joyce just gaped. She obviously hadn't been expecting that.

"Now, I think it would be best if I examined you," said Xander. "You don't have to do anything. Just try and stay still; that makes it easier for me."

"You can use your powers to heal me?"

"No, I'm afraid not," said Xander. "My skills are not so comprehensive. But I can get a feel for it and search for possible mystical causes."

And with that Xander closed his eyes and allowed his consciousness to slip fully into the grasp of the Force. It was something he didn't generally do, it made it rather difficult to defend himself when he was so fully immersed and separated from his physical self, but in this situation it was the only option he had; he really wasn't a great healer. Once he was in his trance, he began to read and analyse the energy flows around and through Joyce. It was always quite the sight to see the energy that made up a person and it was no different now. He could see the emotions, the driving forces, that made her what she was: compassion for others, love for her children, her hard-working nature; but then she could see her flaws too: her temper, her rashness, her judgemental nature. It was all Joyce Summers and to take any of it away would be to change her fundamental self.

Then Xander looked past that and focussed on the energy flows through Joyce's cranium, looking for flaws. The lines of energy there were confusing to Xander, there were so many that went in so many different directions, but still he looked and tried to interpret them. Eventually he found what looked like what he was looking for, an angry red line shot through with black wrapped around one small corner of her brain. And around that area there was a faded green glow that had to be magical in nature. But the magic was not malignant; it was not a curse or a hex. If the magic had caused this, it was not deliberate. And there was nothing there to identify who had cast the spell; the energies were just too faded, too old.

With that, Xander slipped out of his trance and re-entered the waking world. He found himself leaned back in the chair with Joyce peering at him, her face creased with worry.

"Xander!" she exclaimed. "You're awake. What on Earth where you playing at? I thought you'd put yourself in a coma!"

Xander shook his head to shake off the grogginess. "I was just in a trance," he explained. "I should have explained it to you, shouldn't I?" he finished sheepishly.

Mrs. Summers looked torn between anger and amusement. In the end, amusement won out. "Yes, I think you should have," she said. "So what did you see?"

"It's a small tumour," said Xander. "At least it looks small to me; I'm no expert. It's maybe the width of your thumb and not all that high."

"Well, that's good, I suppose," said Mrs. Summers, settling back down into her chair.

"Most likely," said Xander.

From there the conversation moved on to talking about the treatment Mrs. Summers was receiving from Sunnydale General and the doctors she'd been treated by and who she was under now. And once that was talked out they moved on to how Dawn was doing at school these days; well in some objects, not so well in others - typical teenager fare when they're not all that interested in school. Eventually lunchtime rolled around and Dawn turned up. Seeing Xander, she went from trying to scam money out of her mother for lunch - more of a teenager's excuse for coming home to see her mother than a real reason - to impersonating a boa constrictor in about ten seconds.

"You didn't tell me you were coming, you lamer," said Dawn, slapping Xander on the arm as she stepped away.

"Only decided to last night," said Xander, rubbing at his now sore arm. "Anyway, you need to start doing better in school. A good Jedi is well-educated. End of story."

"This is coming from Mr. High-School Drop-out?"

"I have my GED, don't I?" asked Xander. "And I have a PhD in physics these days. You need to put the work in unless you want your training to be spent in a classroom with me drilling you on schoolwork instead of the Force."

It was at that point that Xander noticed something very strange about Dawn. He could feel a saturation of energy around and in her, and it wasn't the Force. He allowed his senses out and there it was: that green magic. She was full of it, even more so than she was of the Force. He kept his face placid and let nothing show for the Summers women to see but it worried him. If a small amount of the magic could harm Mrs. Summers then what would this amount do to Dawn?

The conversation meandered with Dawn whining about school and Mrs. Summers deftly keeping the girl in line despite her efforts to wriggle out of having to do well in school. It was quite amusing to watch really. Eventually Dawn had to head back to school, no further forward on either scamming money or wriggling out of having to work hard at school.

When Dawn was safely gone, Mrs. Summers turned to Xander. "Does she really have to become a Jedi?" she asked.

"You know who she went as on Halloween," said Xander. "If I don't train her, someone else will, and the results of that would be utterly disastrous."

After seeing Mrs. Summers and Dawn, Xander immediately headed home to see Giles. Something very wrong was going on here with that magic and he damn well wanted to know what it was.

"Giles, what the hell is going on with Dawn?" asked Xander as soon as he was back in the house.

Giles sputtered and coughed up the tea he'd been drinking. "How the hell did you know about that?" he asked. "The magic supposedly altered everyone's memories."

Xander's eyes took on a dangerous glint. "You'd best start explaining yourself," he said. "Because I am not liking what I'm hearing right now."

"Dawn was created by magic," said Giles. "Some monks; it happened a few months ago as far as we can tell, certainly less than a year."

"Giles . . . that . . . I remember her, Giles," said Xander. "I remember shy, little Dawn from back when I was in sophomore year; I remember her getting an Anakin Skywalker costume because I was going as a Star Wars character; I remember her begging me to train her in the Force after I began to master it myself. What sort of spell could corrupt my mind like this? My shields . . . Force, I can't imagine how something could break my defences so totally. I should have at least known something was wrong. And how can Dawn be fake? She . . . she's always been around."

"The spell appears to have simply warped reality entirely," said Giles. "The documentation that exists for Dawn, her birth certificate, her school records, her medical records, cannot possibly have been inserted mere months ago. A spell that powerful . . . even you could not have defended yourself against it."

"Damn," said Xander. "But Dawn isn't real? And you are aware that whatever magic Dawn is linked to is at least partially responsible for Joyce's tumour, correct?"

That got Giles rubbing at his glasses. "We suspected it," he said. "But we couldn't be totally sure. This is . . . they can never know, Xander. It would destroy Dawn."

"If she isn't real, what does it matter?" asked Xander. "Hell, why isn't something being done if she's some sort of simulacrum? There's more to this, isn't there?"

"Oh she's quite real now," said Giles. "I've done some tests when no-one was watching and she's as human as you and I. The only difference between her and a normal person is the magic in her. And yes, there's more to this."

And then Giles laid it all out. Dawn was some sort of mystical key than an extremely powerful evil entity, Glory, was trying to hunt down and use to get home. The key had been energy but the monks who had guarding it had been forced to hide it in a living person when Glory found and killed them.

"Well, this sucks," said Xander. "I don't suppose you know where she's hiding out so I can go deal with her?"

"I'm afraid not," said Giles. "And that wouldn't be a terribly intelligent thing for you to do anyway. This Glory has displayed considerable power and there's no reason to think we've seen anything like her limits as of yet."

"She beat Buffy up?"

"She didn't seem to be in any pain at all when Buffy struck her with all her strength, or so I gather," said Giles.

"Well that's not a good sign," said Xander with a frown. "If it gets too bad, you could always retreat to an X-COM base. If this 'key' is as destructive as demonic things normally are, I could get it cleared."

"They know about demons?" asked Giles, looking mildly perturbed.

"Some do," said Xander. "The soldiers I led here, obviously, and the boss man knows for sure. Don't know about any others but the high-ranking types probably know at least enough to know which places are full of demons and not aliens."

Giles looked quite relieved at that. "Oh good," he said. "I was worried that it had become general knowledge. That would be troublesome."

"I disagree," said Xander. "But that's a matter of taste. You're more traditional about these things than I am. Anyway, what is it with you and wizards anyway? I've never seen you act like that before."

"That is something I do not speak of," said Giles in a very final tone of voice. "It is both extremely personal and extremely painful. I'm sure that you of all people can appreciate that."

And that was that really. He couldn't push Giles on that when he held much of the stuff Revan had pushed into his mind to himself even when talking to his oldest, closest friends.

For what came after that, Xander had to be Rachel. Xander Harris was not taken seriously by the world at large; he was a nobody, a high-school drop-out that had disappeared off the face of the Earth in his teens. Rachel Giles was anything but; she was a wealthy young investor who has a considerable level of name-value amongst those who moved in the right circles. She could plunk down the money, throw around the right names, and people would do what she wanted. The fact that she was also a pretty face - loathe as she was to admit it - would only make things easier.

And so Rachel Giles strode into Sunnydale General wearing a pantsuit and blouse combination looking to find whoever was in charge of Mrs. Summers' treatment and arrange for the very best care that her money and influence could buy. Soon enough she was in the office of a Doctor Isaacs and he didn't look particularly happy to be there.

"We don't discuss details of our patients and their treatment with non-family members, miss," he said. "It's just not done."

"We're like family," said Rachel. "One big, happy, dysfunctional family. But that's not why I'm here. I want to make sure that Mrs. Summers gets the best treatment possible and I have the money to fund that."

"This is highly irregular," said Doctor Isaacs. "Not only that but I have a damn hard time believing that a teenage girl has access to that sort of money."

Rachel just arced an eyebrow at that. "You haven't heard of me then, I take it?" she asked in an even tone of voice. "Well, no matter. I have several patents which are making me considerable sums of money, doctor. Money is truly not an issue here. I am concerned with who could offer the best treatment for Mrs. Summers, nothing more, nothing less."

"I don't have time for this," said the doctor. "This is just ridiculous. Look at you, you're all of what eighteen and you're some sort of patent-wielding hotshot? Give me a break."

Rachel's expression turned frosty at that. "If you do not believe me, then perhaps you will believe this," she said, pulling her military ID card out of a pocket and dropping it onto the table that separated her from the doctor.

The doctor took one look at the card and his face twisted into a rather sardonic smile. "Oh and I'm supposed to believe that you're a," and he paused there to take a look at the ID card, "Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army now as well as a hotshot inventor? This just gets better and better! Get the hell out of my office and stop wasting my time, girl."

"If you would take the time to have a closer look at my ID, then you would see that I am a civilian contractor," hissed Rachel in an icy tone of voice. "And if you are not willing to deal with me then I can just as easily seek aid elsewhere, doctor," she finished, uttering the word doctor as if it was the vilest oath in the galaxy.

"I won't be talked to like this in my own office," barked the doctor, displaying an alarming lack of survival instincts. "Get out! Now!"

"Gladly," said Rachel, rising to her feet in one smooth motion and pocketing her ID card once more. "I will be speaking with the hospital administrator about your attitude, doctor. Such arrogance does not befit one working in a small-town hospital that is of dubious quality and possessed of an incredible mortality rate amongst its patients."

With that, she turned on her heel and swept out of the office to find the hospital administrator. She would not allow this insignificant little worm of a man to obstruct her path for long.

"I hear you have some complaints to make about Doctor Isaacs?" asked the administrator as he sat down behind his desk. It had taken little time to find her but it had taken some time before he had become available for her to deal with.

"He was unspeakably rude to me when I attempted to deal with him," said Rachel. "I have been left with a rather poor image of this hospital's staff, I'm afraid."

"Hmm," said the administrator. "Well, you have to admit that your story is rather unbelievable at first glance without some prior knowledge of who you are and what you've done."

"I do hope you're not trying to defend him," said Rachel. "His behaviour was incredibly unprofessional and I cannot believe that you would tolerate him acting in such a way to someone who is potentially a paying customer."

"Of course not," said the administrator. "I'm simply trying to place it in context. As it is, you have a full apology for his behaviour and I simply hope that you're not going to hold it against the hospital in general. We strive to give a consistently high level of service here and I wouldn't want you to go away believing anything else."

"Then hopefully you can help me," said Rachel. "I have a friend under the care of this hospital, a Mrs. Joyce Summers, and I wish to ensure that she gets the best care possible. To this end, I am more than willing to pay for specialists to be flown in to perform the necessary operation. Money is not an issue in this case; I will pay whatever is necessary."

"Well, I think we can work with that," said the administrator. "But are you sure about the money? Bringing in doctors from further afield will not be cheap, Ms. Giles, not cheap at all. But you're right in that you'd get a better quality of work that way. I'm not saying our doctors here are bad, but as good as the sort of staff that places like the John Hopkins University has? No, we don't have the budget or the prestige for that, I'm afraid."

"Quite sure," said Rachel. "If you require some sort of confirmation before you'll take my word on that then I'll have my bank manager get in touch with you."

"Oh there's no need for that," said the administrator. "I know who you are well enough, Ms. Giles, and I know you can pay. I have no worries on that front, not from me. You are sure about this then before I start making calls? Once I start that it'll be too late to change your mind."

"As I have already said, I am quite sure," said Rachel. "Now, I would prefer if this was not made public knowledge. Ideally, it would stay between me and you and possibly some of the other doctors. The last thing I want is for the Summers family to feel at all beholden to me. It would just be awkward."

"I quite understand," said the administrator. "Awkward indeed. I'll make sure to keep it under my hat so to speak."

"I appreciate that," said Rachel. "I think that my business here is concluded so I will take my leave."

"I'll be in touch should anything come up," said the administrator.

The next week passed quite slowly and without much in the way of major events. Harry's potions helped ease Joyce's symptoms when she lost coherency. And though they couldn't make her normal entirely, they did make it all a great deal easier on the girls than it otherwise would have been, endearing him to them for all time despite his as-a-rule somewhat surly demeanour. That demeanour and her relationship, somewhat floundering as it was, with Riley was probably about the only thing that stopped Buffy snapping Harry up. Harry and Giles also continued to interact in the most prickly manner you can imagine and Rachel had to do the Jedi equivalent of chucking a bucket of cold water over them a few more times to stop them before they came to blows.

Being home again was a relief. The time since she'd signed on with X-COM had been chronically lacking in fun and spending time with Buffy and Willow, whether it be as Xander or Rachel, was a welcome relief from the never-ending grimness of working for a military organisation that went through soldiers quicker than Cordelia went through clothes.

The only real event of note was the time that rather feeble demon that attempted to kill Mrs. Summers. That creature had been hunted down and destroyed with extreme prejudice in short order. She had not gone to such lengths to preserve Mrs. Summers' life so that some pitiful demon that barely form coherent thoughts could kill her while she was still weak and defenceless - Rachel had no doubt that the demon would have been far too pathetic to defeat a human being in their right mind.

Anyway, the time soon came for Mrs. Summers operation. In they all trundled to wish her well and have the usual tearful stuff with her daughters - not Rachel's thing really - and that was that. Or not.

"Well, I won't be performing the operation," said Doctor Isaacs snottily. "We've got someone else in for that, a real specialist. You must have some real rich friends."

Mrs. Summers was too distracted with the whole thing about her head being cut open in very little time from then to put two and two together, but Giles? Well the look on his face - he got it. And that damn doctor was going to get it for this. She might be super-rich but her word would still carry a lot of weight with a small-town hospital like this. A word in the right ear was all it would take to make sure that this doctor would spend the rest of his career bouncing from shitty small-town hospital to shitty small-town hospital and she was of a mind to give that word after he blew that little secret out of pure spite.

Soon enough Mrs. Summers was drugged insensate and carted away for the operation. And not long after that, Giles had separated Rachel from the group for a little talk on the pretext of fetching snacks.

"I do hope you know what you're doing," he said. "This sort of thing can cause quite a lot of trouble when it comes out, you know."

"I don't think it will in this situation," said Rachel. "And I'm sure I can come up with a reasonable explanation for what I've done. It's not like they don't already know that I've gone out of my way to try and help Mrs. Summers."

"Yes," said Giles. "You are right that it's unlikely to be too great a cause of friction in this case, but I still don't like the idea of hiding it from them. They should at least know what you have done."

"Why?" asked Rachel. "It would just make for awkwardness."

"Do you really think that Joyce won't be able to figure out which one of us had the money to have a specialist flown in?" asked Giles. "Don't be silly."

"Of course she'll be able to figure it out," said Rachel. "But she's a reasonable person and she isn't going to be angry because I helped keep her alive, is she? That really would be silly. No, that won't be a problem."

"She won't be angry that you helped her like this," said Giles. "But she may well be angry that you deceived her."

"Perhaps," admitted Rachel. "But I doubt it. I have deceived no-one. I simply haven't told them all of my secrets."

"A rather tenuous distinction," said Giles.

"Perhaps," said Rachel. "But a valid one, I feel."

Not long after the operation, it was time to return to work. Rachel could detect no signs of further illness in Mrs. Summers' aura and there was no shortage of work for her to deal with. Force only knew what the paperwork mountain had grown to in her absence! And so she returned to Texas. Goodbyes and promises to keep in touch were exchanged and then she was away with Harry. But before she went she reminded Giles of her offer of sanctuary should things get too hot in Sunnydale.

Chapter Six

January 2001

At two metres tall, the inactive HK-47 was quite an imposing sight. He'd been built as closely to the original specifications as Rachel could manage to push through under the circumstances, and she thought it had turned out quite well. He was a little bulkier than the original droid, but that was quite inevitable with the more primitive technological base he was being built from. But still, the basic form was the same. The long limbs were the same and the insectoid facial features were still there just as they had been in Revan's HK-47. And of course, the rust-red colouring was intact.

"It looks like something out of a fever dream," said Sarah.

"Nightmare more like it," grunted John. "What were we thinking?"

"Oh this one was the fearless leader's work," said Denver. "I'm having nothing to do with this one."

There was a general mutter of agreement from the rest of the two-dozen strong team that Rachel had at her disposal.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, guys," grumped Rachel. "I'll be sure to remember it when promotion time comes around."

"Aw, is ickle Rachel feeling hard done by?" teased Sarah.

"Little?" asked Rachel. "This is coming from the woman who's half a foot shorter than me?"

Denver cleared his throat loudly. "I think we should be concentrating on the matter at hand," he said. "Not your petty squabbles."

Rachel saw John roll his eyes at the edge of her vision. "Get a sense of humour," he muttered underneath his breath. Sarah obviously heard that because she started giggling.

"Okay," said Rachel. "That's enough. It's time to test our new creation, I think, before we get too side-tracked."

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" asked someone from the crowd. "I mean, I think I prefer him not walking or talking or shooting or anything."

"Eh, don't be a wimp," said Rachel. "Fortune favours the bold and all that, you know."

And with that she flipped the switch that would activate HK-47 and closed the maintenance hatch on his abdomen. A moment later his eyes flashed a bright red, a necessary deviation from the original design, and the droid stood up straight.

"Assimilating programming," he said. In a deep Austrian accent.

Rachel whirled away to face the research staff. "Okay, which one of you did that?" asked Rachel, her eyes flashing.


"I will find out," said Rachel before turning to face HK once more. "Return your voice module to default state, HK," she finished.

"Statement: It is done, master. I have no desire to sound like some common meatbag if I can help it," said HK, in a much more normal HK voice.

"Excellent," said Rachel. "Now, what are your primary rules?"

"No killing of human meatbags without explicit authorisation of my master," said HK. "Statement: I find this rule to be most disappointing, master. Surely I must be allowed some discretion in my choice of targets?"

"No, HK," said Rachel. "Now continue."

"No allowing human meatbags to die through my own inaction or through collateral damage without explicit authorisation," said HK. "Statement: have I displeased you, master? These rules are so punitive that I feel that I must have inadvertently offended you in some way."

"How could you have offended me, HK?" asked Rachel. "You haven't even been active."

"Confusion: I am aware of this master," said HK-47. "But I at a loss for another explanation."

"I can't let you just run around killing people, HK," said Rachel. "The legal consequences would not be pleasant, and civilised society in general frowns upon such behaviour."

"Objection: civilised society is overrated," said HK. "I am not some fussy protocol droid!"

"Don't worry, HK," said Rachel. "There'll be plenty of killing for you in the near future. Only human meatbags are protected. Aliens . . . well, you were built expressly for the task of killing them in vast numbers."

"Exclamation: oh that is excellent news, master," said HK. "Where can I find these aliens?"

"Jesus Christ," said Denver. "What the hell is thus? Psychopath happy hour?"

"Commentary: it sounds to me that meatbag is picking a fight, master," said HK. "May I deal with him?"

Rachel had never seen anyone's face drain of blood as quickly as Denver's did right then.

"Don't tempt me, HK," said Rachel.

"Supplication: please, master," said HK. "I do need to test my functionality after all."

Rachel went quiet and looked thoughtful for a moment, leaving Denver to sweat as HK eyed him, before replying. "No, HK," she said finally. "He'd make a poor test indeed, no difficulty at all, but I'm sure a real test of your abilities can be arranged soon enough. There's always a combat mission being launched from here after all."

"Overjoyed statement: I eagerly await the slaughter," said HK, his eyes flashing in a positively demonic glee.

"Uh, why is it calling you master?" asked Sarah. "I don't think Miller will like that one bit."

"And there's the understatement of the year," muttered John. "He's gonna go ballistic."

"Interjection: I answer only to the master," said HK. "I would never take orders from some disgusting meatbag, excepting my master."

"That's the problem," said John dryly. "We've built a droid to protect humanity that thinks we're all worthless."

"Interjection: my master is not worthless," said HK. "Just the rest of the meatbags. Your nature is inherently inferior; all those squishy, easily broken parts . . . I can't understand how you get by."

Rachel almost started skipping around the room in pure glee. The project had worked! It was HK all right! The personality was there so now she had to test his combat skills and see if those had worked out too. If they had, well, she had her droid back.

"Surprisingly enough, HK, that doesn't help," said Rachel. "Now follow me. We're going to see the commander. See what he makes of you and try arrange a field-test for you."

Some of the looks Rachel and HK received as they strolled through the base to Miller's office were truly hilarious. One of the soldiers had actually walked straight past them and into a wall at one junction, all the while never taking his eyes off HK. Somewhat less amusing were the soldiers who went for their guns. They didn't actually do anything once they saw her - the fact that HK-47 was pants-wettingly scary to the uninitiated probably helped there - but it was somewhat irritating and the suspicious look never left their eyes.

Miller's secretary took one look at them and waved them on through, her face paler than Rachel had ever seen it before. Miller's reaction was much more what Rachel had been looking for. At first he didn't even look up; he just grumbled something about those damned scientists and asked what was wrong this time. Rachel just raised an eyebrow and then waited for him to get tired of waiting and look up. When he did, it was worth the price of admission. First his face went incredibly pale as the blood drained away. Then it went bright red as it clicked for him and his temper spiked. And then purple with throbbing veins as he processed it all fully.

". . . And why would you build the droid that was designed and programmed by your Sith persona? I researched Revan . . . well, my son researched Revan . . . I know what he is," said Miller, leaning back in his chair as he glared at HK.

Suddenly, it seemed like it would be funny didn't seem like the best response. It took a minute or so to formulate a response to that question. "We needed an effective killer for battling the aliens. They don't come any more effective at killing than HK-47," she said. "He's not vulnerable like your men. He can't be influenced by mental powers, he feels no fear, he never tires, he never blows a shot - he's perfect for your needs."

Miller shook his head. "Rachel, I'm not questioning the value of a combat droid. I've watched the movies, after all. I've also had a shrink analyze you, and Revan. Let me ask this: is he the HK from the game?"

"Mostly," said Rachel. "I've installed more limitations in his programming. He can't harm humans or allow them to come to harm without explicit orders to do so."

"Statement: she is a cruel, cruel master."

Miller couldn't hide his slight smile, but it quickly disappeared. "Rachel. You're not even 21, yet . . . and Revan can't have been much older when she assumed command of the Republic's military. You're beginning to walk the same path the shrinks and I think lead to her fall.

"HK is an example of it. He was designed by Darth Revan. Not Jedi Revan. Even with your additional controls, it's not something a Jedi would think of making." He leaned back. "From now on, every month, you'll be spending at least a weekend with Ms. Summers and Mr. Giles."

Rachel's expression grew razor sharp at that. "I fail to see the similarity," she said. "I have yet to take part in real combat outside of a single milk-run of a mission and have yet to perform any acts that would lead to the Dark Side outside of normal human fluctuations. Revan fell because she grew cold and uncaring and ceased to even consider those she sacrificed for victory. I am not in a position to follow that path and I do not need amateurs with their primitive psychology analyzing my actions."

Miller shook his head. "Rachel, to be cold, you're an idiot, at least in this. You are responsible for arming the men that are fighting and dying as we speak. If you think that isn't preying on your mind at some level, then you aren't as in tune with yourself as you're supposed to be."

Miller stood up and looked at a small picture, turning his back to her. "I served in 'Nam, I'm not worried so much about your actions as Darth Revan as the possibility of your being pushed back to that point."

"Compared to the stress of commanding an entire war effort, it is nothing at all."

Miller snorted. "Rachel. Revan fell once. You came within seconds of being Darth Rachel. What makes you think you've fully recovered from that?"

He picked up the picture and tossed it at her.

"The . . . creature that tortured me is no longer an issue," said Rachel. "That particular problem has been resolved. And what is this picture?"

"The officers of Company B, 7th SFG, 1969. I'm that young butterbar on the left. Out of those Lieutenants and Captains, I'm the only one left. Every one of them, broke. They either died, or took a tour off, thought they were better. then died back in 'Nam. Usually they took their team with them.

"You don't fully recover from breaking in combat. Not really. Oh, there's a rare few men and women with no breaking point, but you're clearly not one of them."

"I rarely saw the front-lines after the first few months and I most certainly did not 'break in combat'. That would imply there was combat for me to break in. No, I served behind a desk," said Rachel. "It was the psychic emanations of the war and the discovery of the Trayus Academy along with my visions that took me down that path if anything."

"Exactly. You still have those senses, and you feel all of the things you felt then from my men. You can't help it." Miller sat back down. "If you think I'm insulting you, please feel free to enlighten me. However, I am looking at this from two points of view.

"First, and foremost, is the fact you're a valued asset to X-COM, one that's simply not expendable.

"Second . . . is the fact that if you did fall again . . . we can't stop you. Period. If you think that isn't on my mind or the CINC's, you're flat out wrong."

"I am one person, commander," said Rachel. "I cannot defeat an entire army alone. Even the greatest of the Sith can be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. And I am much more capable of dealing with the emanations now than I was then."

"We can't afford for you to be wrong." His voice was flat. "Revan had won. She broke the Republic. The risk is too great. Look at it this way: we're paying you to take Ms. Summer and her daughters to various amusement parks and similar locations. Why bitch? Also, it's not just for you." Miller's face settled back into its more accustomed look. "It's so I can go to other soldiers here and point flat out, 'you are taking your leave time,' without them pointing at you not taking yours. Also . . . it's a chance to get your friend Miss Summers away from the hellmouth for a weekend. She's also showing signs that worry the headshrinkers."

"Revan had resources that I do not," said Rachel. "I have no armies who hold personal loyalty to me, no fleets of warships crewed by those who live and die on my word, and no Star Forge to produce an endless armada for my use. And I would advise you to not place too much trust in the 'headshrinkers'- their field is still rather primitive."

Miller snorted. "I'm not. Rachel? I served three tours in 'Nam. I know burnout. Even excepting that, it's proven that you don't think your best without at least some time to decompress. Why do you think no school runs 365 days a year?

"Same applies to the military and hard RD work. Just accept it's an order, and deal. It's not like it's going to make you bankrupt." He shook his head, and then glared at HK. "Regarding this... how do you want to test him? Before we get new code written for his successors, and deployment, that is."

"Burnout would require me to be hard-pressed. Lab work will not do that any time soon," said Rachel. "As for HK, he needs combat. Real combat, not some range with cardboard targets."

"Don't even bother thinking about sending him out on a field mission. You're not going out, and I suspect his loyalty is to you alone. Another suggestion that doesn't involve you in combat? Or any of my men?"

"How would you suggest testing a wardroid?" asked Rachel. "They are almost entirely without use outside of combat and I do not believe that assigning him an assassination mission would be the wisest course of action."

"Disappointment: please?"

"I'm not disagreeing with you," said Miller, starting to get red-faced and annoyed, looking more like the general Rachel was used to dealing with. "Just . . . he's not going out in the field with my men, period. More . . . reliable and less . . . psychopathic, according to Denver, maybe. Him? Fuck no. Suggest something else.

"You have plenty of combat experience in that pretty little head of yours. Come up with something."

Rachel made a mental note to torment Denver at every opportunity, the little bastard. He wasn't getting away with running to the commander behind her back, the snivelling little worm. "He is a droid, commander," said Rachel. "If I tell him to obey someone's orders, he'll do it. He has no choice in the matter. But finding a representative test for something of HK's abilities outside of open combat and assassination will be difficult. Demons are the only alternative and they make for a poor comparison to modern warfare. It's like sending him after a Roman Legion with supernatural physical abilities: more akin to pest control than warfare."

"I assume there's some way for him to broadcast his visuals and audios back?" said Miller with a grimace. "Then . . . I remember reading about those tunnels under Sunnydale. Send him there. That'd give us a baseline performance value, with the data we have on the HST's. We can compare that to the data we have on the HET's.

"It's not what you want, but it's what I can do. I'm not taking a risk with a untried weapon. I had that fun back in 'Nam. No thank you."

"You military types do like your acronyms don't you?" asked Rachel. "And I suppose the sewer network will have to do. Even without telepathy I can see that you would not allow more."

Miller grinned evilly. "And think of it this way. Even assuming you were only able to make him half as efficient as he apparently was in the game . . . there will be a LOT less demons and vampires in Sunnydale.

"Safer that way for Ms. Summers and Anakin Summers, or Dawn Skywalker, whichever you prefer, don't you agree?"

"True," said Rachel. "But the ones that are capable of causing real trouble are generally the ones who have better places to make their lair than a sewer network."


His eyes however were grinning as he shouted loud enough to be heard though the door.

"I did find it rather odd that we were basically being allowed to do as we wished."

"WITHIN REASON! USE THAT DAMNED JEDI COMMON SENSE!" His voice dropped. "I think you'd understand, Supreme Commander Revan, about this and how far it can go?"

"Hmm," said Rachel. "There's some small difference between my producing less than ethical droids and sacrificing a million here to save a billion there, but your point is noted."

Miller nodded satisfied. "GOOD!" His voice dropped. "We never had a polite conversation. I reamed your ass, you left. Understood, Knight?

"Oh. Take your team, and deal with the snake as you see fit. I dislike informants more than I dislike those who don't realize they need to take some time off, hoist a brew, haul the ashes. After the test, go take Sarah and you to New Orleans, or something."

He sat back down. "What? Why are you still here?"

"People are going to have a hard time believing that you reamed me out and I just took it, you know," said Rachel. "They know me better than that."

"Think of it as enhancing my reputation. Do wonders for the base's morale. Now, go and build a speeder or something. Or send HK to kill lots of vamps. Whichever"

Miller grabbed a cigar, and waved his hand at Rachel clearly shooing her out.

"Well on your own head be it," said Rachel. "But don't be surprised if people watch you expecting your head to explode or something for the next few weeks."

He grinned. "And when it doesn't, they'll look at me with awe. Just what I need to lead these nuts. Now GO! I need to club paperwork."

As Rachel walked through the door she head, "your request for a suite with three bedrooms, for Miss Dawn Summers to stay in, and Ms. Summers to visit, has been approved, Dr. Giles."

Rachel just sighed. She had no damned say in her own life anymore.

And so, a couple of hours later, Rachel found herself on a Skyranger transport bound for Sunnydale accompanied by her core team - Sarah, John, and Denver - riding along with her and HK-47. They'd been enthusiastic enough about the whole thing at first but that'd soon changed when they found out how bumpy a ride the Skyranger gave its occupants. They looked distinctly green around the gills within minutes of take-off. It was quite amusing really. Hadn't they ever been on a roller-coaster or anything similar before?

Anyway, Rachel found that her mind kept coming back to her conversation with Miller. Something had been off with that, something that she should have noticed, even beyond the sheer wrongness of having a damn General talking to her like that. It certainly hadn't been the way the Republic would have dealt with things. She ran it back over in her head. What was it . . . and then she remembered the line about being a minute away from becoming Darth Rachel.


They knew. How the fuck did they know about her brush with darkness back then? The Sunnydale crew and the coven wouldn't have told them and the military had displayed zero interest in Sunnydale's problems up till those Initiative morons showed up and started messing everything up. This was not something she wanted to become public knowledge and even Deadboy would know better than to blab to them. Fuck. She'd wanted that to stay relatively private. It was a weakness that could be used and exploited all too easily by those that were ruthless enough to do so and had enough power and arrogance to risk the wrath of a Sith Lord.

But that wasn't all. What else . . . Anakin Summers or Dawn Skywalker. For a moment the air around Rachel seemed to become electrified as a killing rage welled up within her as the wolf howled at a threat to its pack, but it soon dissipated as she willed it away. God damn them. Dawn didn't need the sort of hassle that would inevitably come from this. She was just a kid - not ready to deal with the politics and the bullshit. And she hadn't done anything to deserve it. Whatever Vader had done, she wasn't him. She didn't even have much of anything bar the Force signature left over.

Okay, fine. Now what was she going to do about it? Protecting Dawn had to be the priority. She was too young, too naive, and highly undeserving of the harassment that would come if the world found out about her being even vaguely related to a real-life Darth Vader. Mind-tricks wouldn't do it - too many people must know by now, and that went for assassination too. Bribery and corruption would work against her as well if the information was already out there. Shit. There was no way for her to put a definitive lid on this without going on a mad pogrom to exterminate everyone who could possible know.

That left politics. Wonderful. She had some influence, but enough to keep this quiet? Not likely and she didn't know the right areas to apply influence to on this planet. Bloody buggering fuck. Someone was going to die for giving this information away. It just wasn't acceptable. Well there wasn't anything she could do right now so there was no point worrying about it. She'd deal with it when the time came.

Soon enough the Skyranger had landed just outside the town and they were ready to move.

"So where are we going to set up?" asked Denver. "I assume you have something in mind."

"Of course," said Rachel. "HK, activate your stealth field and follow us."

"Yes, master."

And with that HK disappeared from sight leaving behind only a blurry outline that disappeared from view as well a moment later.

"The fuck!?" yelled Denver. "Since when could he do that!?"

"Since always," said Rachel with a smirk. "Just one of the little touches I added."

"No wonder the budget is always so tight," said John. "How much did this thing cost?"

"Enough," said Rachel. "But he's worth every penny. Believe me. There's not an enemy made that he can't kill."

"Statement: oh you do flatter me, master. May I kill something now?"

"Soon, HK," said Rachel. "Soon. I suppose we'd best go to my uncle's place. The warehouse district is nowhere near safe enough for us to use. Hmm, at this time he'll probably be at the shop these days. Come along, people."

"So what sort of shop does your uncle run then?" asked Sarah as they started to make their way into Sunnydale proper.

"Magic shop," said Rachel. "Surprisingly profitable last I heard."

"A magic shop?" snorted Denver. "What, is he one of those new-age weirdo types? Mid-life crisis?"

He would have continued, perhaps, but Rachel's glare quietened him very, very quickly and he was soon staring at his shoes to avoid having to face her, much like a scolded child.

"Finished?" she asked frostily. He just nodded his head jerkily. "Good, now let's get moving."

And so they moved off with no-one seeming particularly willing to speak up. That suited Rachel down to the ground. One more smart-arsed comment and she was likely to start generating electricity.

"Hey, Giles, it's me," said Rachel as she opened the Magic Box's door. And then she stopped dead. "Okay, what's going on?" she asked, as she saw none other than Quentin Travers sat at one of the shop's tables and several others who looked to be Watcher types scattered around the store. Rachel immediately twitched her arm just so, causing her lightsabre to drop out of its holster and into her hand.

"They have information about Glory," said Giles, looking somewhat less than his usual, easy-going self. "And in their infinite wisdom, they have decided to make us jump through an endless series of hoops rather than just tell us."

Rachel nodded slowly. "Typical of them," she said. "HK, disengage stealth field; cover the room. No-one leaves."

"READY!" said HK, as he shimmered into sight half a dozen paces to Rachel's left with his incredibly large gun pointed straight at Travers' head. Everyone in the room froze on the spot.

"What is the meaning of this?" sputtered Travers eventually. "Call off your pet demon or I'll have you deported so fast your head'll spin!"

"Declaration: are you blind or stupid, meatbag?" said HK, his aim not wavering even for a moment.

Giles just seemed most amused by the whole situation, and only about three steps removed from bursting out into a fit of laughter.

"He's not a demon," said Rachel. "He's a droid. Hunter-killer model, to be exact. I wouldn't advise trying anything. He'll kill you without any hesitation and you know something? He'll enjoy it."

"Sounds like a demon to me," grunted Travers.

"Interesting job, you have," said a familiar voice from the door. Buffy had turned up. "I always thought it sounded boring and then you turn up with this."

"They made the mistake of leaving me virtually unsupervised," said Rachel with a shrug of her shoulders. "Not the best idea they ever had. Nice sword you have there."

"No kidding," said Denver from where he'd been making himself as small as possible to escape notice.

"Hmm," said Buffy. "Yeah, it's not bad, is it? I think I might keep it."

"You're late," said Travers in what had to be the lamest attempt to regain control of a situation that Rachel had ever seen.

"Was there an attack?" asked Giles, his face creased with concern. Obviously things hadn't been so wonderful here in Sunnydale recently.

"Yeah," said Buffy, moving further into the store and past HK.

"We can begin the review at last," said Travers. Everyone else just looked at him as it he was the biggest idiot in the universe. "Uh, we can skip the more obvious questions . . . "

Buffy just dropped her sword onto the table over the papers that Travers had been starting to reach for. "There isn't gonna be a review," she said.

"Sorry?" asked Travers.

"I had this big speech ready," said Buffy. "About how you Watcher types don't really have any power and need the Slayer more than the Slayer needs you, but look at the position here. Who has a gun to their head? You're completely beaten. No speech needed. Saves me some effort so thanks, Rachel."

"Beaten?" asked Travers. "Oh, I don't think so. What we gave, we can take away. Your little friend there, the supposed girl, we could blow her cover to the world, expose her identity for the fraud it is. We could have your Watcher deported too. Then what would you do?"

"Nothing," said Rachel. "She'd do nothing because you can't do any of that."

"Oh really?" asked Travers. "And why not? Going to have me killed? Not very Jedi-like."

"Kill you?" asked Rachel. "I have no need to lower myself to that level. You have no leverage here, old man. None at all. I have a direct line to a US Army General who could squash your attempts to have Giles deported quicker than you can say 'I'm an old fool who needs to do his research', and as for me? Don't make me laugh. I am far beyond your control."

"What the HELL is going on?" asked John from his position near the door. "Are you all speaking in code or something? Slayers? Watchers? Deportation? What the bloody hell is this? Is Jeremy Beadle about to jump out of a dark corner?"

"Oh you'd be so lucky," said Giles. "Welcome to the world of demon-hunting."

"Demon . . . okay, I'm backing away now," said John.

"I am not crazy," sputtered Giles. "Rachel!"

"We'll talk about this later, guys," said Rachel. "For now let me deal with the old fool."

"I think you over-estimate yourself and your power," said Travers. "The Council has far more power than one Army General from the colonies."

Rachel couldn't help but roll her eyes. "What century are you living in?" she asked. "Anyway, you have no idea what you're tangling with. Miller will no more let you get me kicked out of the country than he would surrender to our enemies. Even if he can't manage it alone then the British government would be more than willing to step in and stop you in your tracks. You are out of your league, Travers."

"I think you'll find that we are very much within our league, child," said Travers. "Our influence has served us well since long before you were born and will long after you are dead."

"You know what?" said Rachel. "The hell with this. You're too arrogant for your own good."

"And what are you going to do?"

Rachel pulled out her cell phone and quickly dialled the number for Miller's direct line.

"Miller speaking."

"Commander, I have a situation here in Sunnydale," said Rachel. "You know of the Watcher's Council, yes?"

"They were part of my briefing on the demons," said Miller. "What have you gotten into now?"

"They're threatening to have me kicked out of the country, basically," said Rachel. "Me and my uncle."

"WHAT!?" bellowed Miller. "I'll have them dealt with. Immediately. They're Brits right?"

"Yeah," said Rachel. "They're British."

"I'll get onto it then," he said, and then hung up.

"That was your General then, I take it?" asked Travers. "Well, now you'll see just how far your influence extends. I think you're going to be sorely disappointed, Ms. Giles."

"We'll see," said Rachel confidently.

The next half-hour passed in an awkward silence which no-one was quite willing to break. Travers looked quite smug but he was the only one of that contingent who did. The other Watchers just looked uncomfortable. Eventually Travers' cell phone rang and he answered.

"Quentin Travers."


"Are you serious?"

"This can't be happening."

"No . . . "

"Fine, I'll do it. But don't expect me to be happy about it."

His expression went from a smug surety to shock to rage as the conversation processed. His final comment came out as a snarl and he hung the phone up immediately afterwards.

"Well it seems that your word does carry some weight after all," he said, his face mottled with rage. "I suppose I have no choice but to acquiesce to your demands now that you've somehow had an Order-In-Council issued to force my hand."

"Excellent," said Rachel. "You do have some sense in you after all."

"So what sort of demon is Glory then?" asked Buffy as Giles boggled.

"Glory isn't a demon," said Travers. "She's a god."

Things went predictably downhill from the announcement of Glory's godhood. Rachel wasn't overly concerned herself. If something lives then it can be killed, and there were scant few indeed who could top her skill in that particular field. It was just a matter of finding the correct approach and then exploiting it. Simple really. The difficulty, she supposed, was in finding that approach.

Soon enough the Watchers were politely told to piss off - not in those words of course - and then the group settled down to deal with things. Primarily, of course, that was trying to convince Rachel's team that demons really did exist and that they weren't a bunch of delusional lunatics. Not an easy task.

"You're all completely mad," said Denver. "You know that right? Raving lunatics, the whole lot of you. Demons? Magic? Give me a break."

"You're a complete idiot, Denver," said Rachel. "Willow, conjure up a ball of light or something, will you? He won't believe it if I do it."

"I kinda have a hard time believing it all too," said Sarah. "I mean, magic? Demons? It's a bit out there."

"Compared to the things we normally deal with?" asked Rachel. "I had an easier time believing demons than I did aliens."

"Well, okay," said Sarah. "I'll give you that, and you've always seemed sane enough in the past . . . "

"To you, maybe," grumbled Denver.

At that point Willow conjured up a ball of white light in her hand that she then set to floating around above their heads.

"Huh?" said Denver, dumbly. "Okay. I'm going mad too."

"And this is a new development?" said John. "Oh bugger this. I've left my scotch back at the base too. I knew I should have stayed at Cambridge. That was a nice, sane place. No aliens, no demons, and no lunatic droids and unhinged bosses . . . well, okay, the last one's a bit hopeful."

"I know exactly how you feel," said Giles. "Rachel has a talent for turning people grey before their time."

"Oi!" said Rachel. "Mrs. Summers isn't going grey; that's just you being old."

"Actually," said Buffy, "I've seen bottles of hair dye in the bathroom. And if you tell mom that I told you that then I will be forced to kill you."

"That's more likely you than me," said Rachel. "You nearly get killed way more often than me."

"Do not!"

"Do too!"

"Ahem," said Giles. "If you're quite finished?"

"Right," said Rachel. "Well, you've seen magic now, and you'll see demons when we send HK down into the sewers to play exterminator, so are we done?"

"Just one question," said John. "Are you quite sure that you two aren't sisters?"

Rachel and Buffy just looked at each and burst out laughing before they were interrupted by a thoughtful looking Willow. "Um, Rachel," she said, "you're the one who had a lightsabre stuck through your chest and then took on Darth Malak. I think you've got the edge there."

"I'm not the one who got drowned in a puddle!"

"I'm not the one who ran off and joined the army!"

John and Sarah just looked at each other. "Sisters," they both said simultaneously. Even Tara had stopped looking edgy and started looking amused instead by the interplay.

"Okay," said Rachel, calming down. "I suppose it's time to talk about why we're here now."

"Yes," said Giles. "I was curious."

"Basically, we're here to test HK," said Rachel. "We're gonna send him down into the sewers and see how many demons he can kill before things get too hot. I'm gonna set my laptop up to pick up HK's progress so you guys can watch him work too if you want."

"You think this thing can kill demons?" asked Buffy. "He doesn't look that tough to me."

"Statement: matching the killing efficiency of an inferior meatbag such as yourself will not be difficult, meatbag."

"Did he just insult me?" asked Buffy, looking shocked. "He did, didn't he?"

"Declaration: you are as lacking in intelligence as you are lacking in height, obviously."

"That's enough, HK," said Rachel. "Leave Buffy alone. It's not her fault that she's not the sharpest tool in the box."

"Resignation: as you wish, master."


"Are we going to do some work or are we going to be stuck in a bad sit-com all day?" asked Denver.

"Are you always in such a bad mood, or is it just, you know, not being the expert here that does it?" asked Willow. "Cos it's kinda getting tiresome."

"Ignore him, Willow," said Rachel. "He's just a moron. And, Denver, we'll get to it soon enough. It's not like there's any great amount of setup required here. We just plug a few things into my laptop and send HK off to go killing. It's that simple."

"You're quite sure this will work?" asked Giles. "I have no objection to killing demons but I truly do not want one of them getting their hands on that gun if something goes wrong."

"Not a problem," said Rachel. "Even if they manage to steal it from HK's wreckage - and that won't be happening - they'll never be able to operate it. It's keyed only to work for humans and machines. Standard procedure for X-COM weapons now they can do it."

Conversation drifted on for a while after that and Rachel kept it going long after there was any point just to spite Denver, but eventually the time came to start the testing of HK-47.

By the time HK was in place in the sewer and ready to start his purge, Rachel wished that she'd thought to pack a larger monitor as well, because having everyone crowding around a laptop screen was just a mite uncomfortable. At least she'd remembered to bring the speakers with the pass-through socket that allowed her to have both the speakers and her headset working at the same time.

"Ready, HK?" she asked.

"READY!" came the response.

"Remember, no grenades," said Rachel. "No explosives at all."

"Resignation: yes, master. May I begin now?"

"You may," said Rachel.

And then HK started moving. The sewer network all looked much the same to Rachel so she couldn't tell where he was in it, but it still didn't take long for him to encounter his first demon: a Fyarl demon that stared dumbly at HK for the second or so of life it had left before it was scythed in half by a series of blaster bolts. That kill seemed to energise HK and his movement speeded up dramatically as he hunted for more victims.

As HK moved, the faint sound of distant speech could be heard. "What the hell was that?" was one of the sounds Rachel managed to pick out, and, "that didn't sound good," was another. HK, of course, picked up on those sounds himself and changed course to head towards their source immediately. She could see the data scrolling down the side of the HUD as he analysed the sounds to pick up their exact location. Quite gratifying to see something you created yourself working so well.

HK ran into a couple of demons of breeds that Rachel didn't recognise as he headed for the source of the voices, but they didn't last long. A quick burst from the heavy repeater he was toting for each and their innards were decorating the walls. And that got a few winces from those watching. Apparently even Buffy wasn't prepared for that, more used to demons and vampires just disappearing when killed or not being quite so messy in her methods for those that didn't.

When HK found the source of the voices, there were two vampires there. One of them just froze up, looking absolutely clueless, but the other, a younger looking one, took one look at HK before turning on his heel and sprinting away around the corner screaming all the while, "RUNNNN! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! ARRGH!"

"I guess that one's played the game," said Willow, as HK blew the vampire to dust with a volley of blaster fire.

"Looks like it," said Rachel. "It won't save him though."

As she spoke, HK had already started to follow along the path the vampire had taken as it fled. The sounds of movement could be heard distinctly now as the demonic inhabitants of the sewer system heard the vampires screaming.

"HK, be careful," said Rachel. "You're going to be swarmed."

"Statement: I look forward to it, master."

As HK approached where the vampire had ceased his flight the sounds of conversation were picked up by his auditory sensors.

"We gotta run, man," said someone, presumably a vampire. "It's that lunatic robot from the game: HK-47."

"Fuck it, I'm gonna have a smoke," said another voice.

"WHAT!?" screamed the first vampire. "Are you out of your fucking mind or what?"

"Think about it," said the other voice. "If that's HK, then Revan's gonna be up there waiting for us to try and escape. This way'll be quicker."

Rachel stared. John stared. Sarah laughed. Buffy pouted. Willow was leaning against Tara giggling madly, completely unable to support her own weight. Giles just laughed in that proper British way of his. Denver sulked.

"You're fuckin-"

Whatever the vampire was going to reply with was cut off as a jet of flame from one of HK's concealed weapons set him ablaze and set him to dancing around the area screaming in agony for a few brief moments before he exploded into dust.

"Statement: your smoke."

And then HK blew the vampire away in a volley of red fire. His further scan of the area showed no more hostiles hiding in the vicinity, so he moved back to general sweep and kill mode. But he didn't get far before demons and vampires began to swarm out of every opening. HK's response was immediate and the display filled with blaster fire as he used the heavy repeating blaster cannon Rachel had custom-made for him to its full power.

Demons and vampires fell by the job lot as HK cut a swath of destruction through the hordes of monsters that charged him, but even he, with all the firepower he wielded, couldn't keep them off him forever. One particularly massive demon of a breed Rachel didn't recognise managed to get in close and grab hold of HK's cannon. With one mighty heave, the demon attempted to pull the cannon out of HK's hands but instead ended up picking HK up off the ground and swinging him around into the wall, which crumbled under the impact.

"Jesus," said Buffy. "He's done, isn't he?"

Rachel just shook her head and kept watching. A moment later, a thick jet of flame arced out of a compartment in HK's chest and the demon was set ablaze right on top of HK, making for a rather disgusting close-up look at burning flesh for a moment before HK tossed the demon off and set back to work. More demons fell but they were too close in now and fell upon HK like ravaging wolves striking at his thick armour with all their strength.

That lasted till a spray of clear fluid from another one of HK's chest compartments sent the whole lot of them staggering back screaming.

"What was that?" asked Buffy.

"Sulphuric acid," said Sarah, almost whispering. "Highly concentrated. I wondered where that had gotten to."

"You lost sulphuric acid and didn't think to tell anyone?" asked John. "Jesus Christ, woman!"

"Well, stuff always turns up sooner or later when I misplace it!"

John just looked at Sarah as if she'd grown a second head as Rachel watched HK dispassionately massacre the weakened demons. One, a Polgara Demon, managed to recover and strike at HK with its bone skewer, but the claw simply snapped off on impact with HK's armour and HK then pulped the creature's head with a single punch before it could recover from the pain of that and stop screeching long enough to attack or run. And with that the massacre was ended, the test was done.

"Well, I think that's enough," said Rachel. "Return to base, HK. Your mission is complete."

"Disappointment: yes, master."

"Well," said Rachel to the group as she took the headset off. "Successful, wouldn't you say?"

"We've made a monster," said Denver, looking absolutely horrified. "An absolute monster."

"It does seem a bit . . . excessive," said Tara.

"That thing must have killed a hundred demons," said Giles, looking somewhat bug-eyed. "Can we have one here?"

"There wouldn't be any left for me," said Buffy with a pout.

"Ah, I don't think so," said Rachel. "They're kind of expensive. Like, you know, national debt expensive. I doubt the powers that be will go for making you one."

"Shame," said Giles.

Rachel just shrugged. "Maybe when they get a bit cheaper to make. Right now, they're going to be rare as hen's teeth for a long while to come."

After packing her team back off the Skyranger with HK-47 escorting them to make sure they didn't get themselves killed, Rachel grabbed Buffy and the pair of them headed off to the Summers' family home. Buffy was kind of curious as to what this was all about but soon quieted when Rachel said it was about Dawn and not something for public discussion. It didn't take long for them to reach the house and when they did, Mrs. Summers ushered them in immediately, though she did look a tad confused as to why Rachel was there.

"Is Dawn here?" asked Rachel as they moved into the living room.

"No, she's at a friend's place," said Mrs. Summers. "A sleep-over. Why?"

"Good," said Rachel. "I'm afraid I have some rather bad news. X-COM have somehow found out about Dawn."

Uproar. Neither looked at all happy, understandably. But Rachel quieted them with a gesture. Well, a gesture and then waiting them out.

"I don't know how they found out," said Rachel. "I most certainly did not tell them and I truly doubt that anyone of the Sunnydale group did."

Mrs. Summers looked like she was about to explode. The sheer level of rage pouring off her would have been quite intimidating to anyone who hadn't lived amongst the Sith, or, like Buffy, reached a similar state themselves. She was almost at Sith levels of rage in all honesty.

"Then who?" hissed Mrs. Summers in an absolutely deadly tone of voice. "Someone has to have told them. There's no other way they could have found out."

"No," said Rachel. "There isn't. I would not have been spied upon for so long without realising it so someone has given up the information from within the group. But who? Willow would never do such a thing, and I don't think Tara would either even if I don't know her very well. Giles is also not the sort to do such a thing and he never informed the Council of this even when he was still loyal to them. That only leaves . . . Angelus."

"Angel wouldn't do that," said Buffy reflexively, though she looked torn.

"Oh yes he would," said Mrs. Summers, her voice and face now icy calm. "This is exactly the sort of thing he'd do to save his own skin. I remember you telling me about when he first showed his face, when he refused to help you because he was scared."

Buffy looked like someone had stolen her puppy and sold it to the nearest Korean Restaurant.

"He cannot be allowed to get away with this," said Rachel. "Jedi aren't supposed to endorse vengeance but this is entirely unacceptable. He knows far too much if he's willing to give up our secrets."

"Oh I quite agree," said Mrs. Summers, her expression fierce. "Don't worry. I'll deal with him."

"Mom!" cried Buffy. "You can't go around fighting vampires!"

"That's why you will be coming with me," said Mrs. Summers. "You can deal with the subduing part of dealing with him."

"And what about me?" asked Rachel, somewhat amused.

"Oh you can go back to your job," said Mrs. Summers. "We'll deal with this little situation."

"But . . . "

"No, no," said Mrs. Summers. "I insist. You can't keep taking time off work like you have been."

"Are you sure?" asked Rachel, uncertainty written all over her face.

"Well," said Rachel. "Okay then, I suppose. Get in touch if you need any help or anything though."

"Of course," said Mrs. Summers, leading Rachel to the door. "Oh and before I forget," she said. Thwap! "And that's for not telling me about the doctor, young lady. I thought you knew better than to try and pull a stunt like that."

"I was just trying to help!"

"And I appreciate that," said Mrs. Summers. "But don't run around behind my back like that. I don't appreciate that part one bit."

And over Mrs. Summers' shoulder she could see Buffy mouthing a single word, "busted."

"Alright," said Rachel. "I won't do that part again, but don't expect me to hold back on trying to keep people alive."

"Oh you wouldn't be you if you changed that," said Mrs. Summers. "Now you'd best get going. You have work to deal with. Oh, before you go, what did they say exactly, about Dawn that is?"

"They, okay this is going to sound odd," said Rachel, "but they ordered me to take more time off and included Dawn in with the people I have to spend that time with. I have to spend a weekend off every month visiting amusement parks and the like."

Mrs. Summers blinked at that and Buffy looked somewhat pole-axed too. "Well," she said. "I suppose it could be a lot worse. You'd best keep an eye on them though. If they start getting twitchy about Dawn, I want to know about it."

"Of course," said Rachel. "And if they get twitchy about her, they'll have to get past me first. But honestly I don't think it'll come to that. Miller doesn't strike me as the child-killer type and he has a lot of influence in X-COM as do I."

Chapter Seven

April 2001

"Are the drones ready?" asked Rachel as John sat down in the slightly battered chair she had in her office for visitors.

"They are," said John. "We've got the test area all set up too. We'll be ready for when the boss-man shows up for inspection."

"Boss-man?" asked Rachel with some amusement. "I'm not sure I've ever heard a four star General called something like that before."

"Eh, I'm too old to care about piddling little things like rank," said John. "I'll do my job and if that's not good enough then tough."

"Yes. Well," said Rachel with a cough. "Anyway, the limbs are still working, yes?"

"Of course," said John. "They're not going to bloody break just because someone of high rank's watching, you know."

"That'd be the exact opposite of my experience," said Rachel dryly. "Anyway, I wouldn't be much of an organiser if I didn't make sure things were in workable condition beforehand."

"Things'll be fine as long as you keep that menace of a friend of yours from touching anything," said John. "Oh, and as long as Sarah doesn't lose anything that's incredibly corrosive too - that would be nice. I hear that demonstrations go better when you don't melt the person you're demonstrating to's feet."

"Hmm," said Rachel. "Well, Faith won't be coming anywhere near the lab, and Sarah seems to have all her ducks in a row at the moment. Now it's just a matter of avoiding any last minute disasters."

"Well, I reckon we're good to go then," said John. "We've got a pretty well drilled crew here these days after all."

"You're probably right," said Rachel. "I just want this to go as well as possible."

"Of course," said John. "And it will. Now, just out of curiosity, when are you going to stop loading Denver down with endless, pointless paperwork?"

"When he learns his lesson about running to the command behind my back," said Rachel, standing up from her seated position and smoothing her battered lab coat down into place.

"So about never then?"

"Something like that," said Rachel. "It really depends on him, doesn't it? I can't work with someone who I can't trust. He's either going to have to shape up or ship out. I'm sure one of the other teams will take him; he's not entirely incapable after all."

"True," said John. "But it would be pretty bad for his career to get turfed out of this outfit with the success we've been having."

Rachel shrugged. "That really isn't my problem," she said. "I've given him the rope but it's up to him if he hangs himself with it or not. I'm past caring anyway - the idiot has long since exceeded my tolerance for his antics."

"Statement: I would be more than happy to dispose of the tiresome meatbag for you, master," said HK.

John would have looked suitably shocked at that when HK had been first built but now he just rolled his eyes. Ah the joys of desensitising people to violent threats though constant exposure.

"Maybe some other time, HK," said Rachel.

A couple of hours after Rachel's conversation with John, the X-COM Supreme Commander, General Wilson, arrived at Rachel's lab and offices as part of his base inspection accompanied by two rather large and humourless looking soldiers wearing the most bizarre piece of black, spiralling headwear. She couldn't help but stare as they walked in.

"So what do you have to show, Doctor Giles?" asked Wilson.

"Well, we have some interesting new twists on the HK concept to show you to start with," said Rachel tearing her eyes away from the soldiers. "Artificial soldiers are nice but with droid technology you have access to some rather more imaginative concepts. Commander, I hope you don't mind me asking, but what are those soldiers wearing?"

"Psychic nullifiers," said Wilson. "They stop Ethereals and the like pulling anything supposedly."

"The things they come up with," murmured Rachel. "How quaint. Well, I suppose we'd best get on with the demonstration. You can watch it on the monitor just over here when we start. But while we're waiting on that we have some more items here on this table for you to look at."

"Robotic arms?" asked Wilson. "I thought this technology had already been mastered as part of the HK project."

"Not quite," said Rachel. "You see, these are replacement limbs for humans. We've got arms and legs right now, and all the in-betweens of that, say a hand or a foot, and they've passed initial testing."

"These limbs work?" asked Wilson, turning a razor-sharp look onto Rachel. "This . . . this would be a huge advance. All those soldiers who've lost limbs . . . "

"We're just waiting on getting some human test subjects who are willing and ready for this sort of technology," said Rachel. "But all signs indicate that they will work."

"Considering how successful your work's been, I'm inclined to trust you," said Wilson. "You can replace limbs but what about other parts? Say the spinal cord or the pelvis?"

"That would be the next stage of the research," said Rachel. "But I'm really not qualified at all for that sort of work. An artificial spinal cord would be incredibly complex and rather beyond my knowledge of biology."

"So another team then," said Wilson. "Still, this is some excellent work here, Doctor Giles. I am impressed. What do you have in the way of coverings for the limbs? I can't imagine that exposed hydraulics would last very long in the field."

"Thank you," said Rachel. "And for coverings we have a range of ideas, ranging from a moulded plastic model that looks much like a standard replacement limb to heavy armour such as HK-47's. I expect we'll end up going with something like the moulded plastic because people will want to look as close to normal as possible."

"Very true," said Wilson with a sharp nod. "Now I believe you had something you wanted to demonstrate?"

"Yes," said Rachel. "That looks like it's ready to go now so just watch that monitor and you'll see our latest work being put through its paces."

What the monitor showed was a fairly large but rather bog-standard sort of range that would present both hostile and civilian targets to those using it in order to test someone's reflexes and aim. A few moments after Rachel directed Wilson to watch the monitor, three of the new HK models floated into view in front of the camera. The HK-147 prototype was actually rather small compared to the HK-100 models - the artificial soldiers - which were smaller again than the HK-47 prototype unit. What it did have was a sort of organic, vaguely triangular shape with two wings that mounted swivel-mount blaster cannons and repulsor lift units.

The three HK-147 units hovered in place for just a few seconds before the range popped into life, presenting targets, and then they exploded into action, floating around the room and blasting any and all hostile targets that presented themselves to so much matchwood. A few of the civilian targets were caught in the crossfire, but not many. The display lasted something in the area of five minutes or thereabouts before the range simply ran out of targets and the prototype units had nothing left to shoot at.

"Interesting," said Wilson. "How much intelligence do these units have? Are they like your HK-47?"

"They're not as intelligent as HK-47," said Rachel. "They're not large enough to incorporate the sort of processing power and storage space you need for a droid to manifest that sort of individuality with our technology level. They have enough to take and follow verbal orders, but not much more than that."

"That's about as much as I prefer these things to have," said Wilson. "What about accuracy?"

"Their accuracy isn't as high as the HK-47 or HK-100 units," said Rachel. "The swivel mounts aren't quite as reliable as they could be and the AI is somewhat less intelligent than the larger models for lack of space. We might yet have to make this new model a little larger."

"I hope that doesn't mean they're going to end up costing as much as your other robot soldiers," said Wilson. "Those things would be a damn sight more useful if they didn't make my budget wince every time I signed off on their construction."

"We're trying to keep the costs down," said Rachel. "But the technology is advanced beyond almost anything else and won't come cheap."

"Statement: and we are worth every penny," said HK. "Even the pale imitations of me are far more effective than any feeble meatbag soldier.

"Well, I'd appreciate it if you tried to keep it as reasonable as you can," said Wilson. "Our budget is far from unlimited after all."

"We'll do our best," said Rachel.

"Hmm," said Wilson. "Well, that's all, I think, unless you have something else to demonstrate?"

"No," said Rachel. "You've seen everything we have to show."

Wilson nodded. "I'd appreciate it if you'd accompany me to my transport," he said. When HK moved to stand alongside Rachel, he continued, "and I'd appreciate it if you left that robot of yours behind."

Rachel nodded. "HK, stay here," she ordered. "I won't be long."

Rachel walked in silence towards the north-east hangar bay with Wilson and his escorts for a little while before he spoke. "So how are your friends?" he asked. "I hear things got pretty dicey before they were evacuated here."

"They're as well as can be expected," said Rachel. "Tara's still as badly effected as she ever was, and that's having the expected effect on the group."

"And your own abilities haven't been able to help her?" asked Wilson.

"No," said Rachel. "There's just something missing, and I can't recreate it. It's hard to put into words. I think the only way to cure Tara will be to retrieve whatever Glory took from her."

"That sounds to me like it will be something easier said than done," said Wilson.

"Indeed," said Rachel. "I do not fancy the prospect of tangling with a god."

"Yes," said Wilson. "That's something I'd rather avoid too. Now, these psychic nullifiers, do you really not think they work?"

"Technological trinkets such as those have absolutely no effect," said Rachel. "They are a waste of time and money, and whoever produced them is of dubious competence. The only way to defeat a psychic attack for a normal person is through discipline and simple willpower."

"Ah well," said Wilson. "It did seem too good to be true, I suppose. I don't suppose there are any supernatural trinkets that might be of use for this sort of thing?"

"Probably," said Rachel. "But you'd be better off asking Giles about that. He has a much broader knowledge of the occult than I do."

"I don't have time for that now," said Wilson. "But I will get in touch with him about that. I'd appreciate it if you could give him some advance notice so he could do a little research."

"Of course," said Rachel as they entered the hangar bay. "I'll-"

And there she trailed off and her eyes took on a distant, unfocussed look for just a moment before she snapped back to reality with a tense look on her face.

"Is something wrong?" asked Wilson.

"I just felt . . . " said Rachel. "Shit, we're about to come under attack."

The two escorts had their weapons ready to fire as soon as she finished speaking and she saw Wilson suddenly take on a very serious expression. "You're sure about this?" he asked. "No doubts?"

"None," said Rachel. "I fear that we may have miscalculated in this situation."

"What do you mean?" asked Wilson, as he tapped away at a control panel near the hangar bay entrance.

"Glory is a god to demons," said Rachel. "What happens when a god declares war on someone?"

"Ah," said Wilson, as the same sirens that sound during base-defence drills started up. "Well-"

"Whatever he was about to say was cut off rather abruptly by the terrible grinding sounds being made by the hangar bay door's motors as it ever so slowly began to slide open.

"I take it you didn't want this to happen?" asked Rachel.

"No," said Wilson as he drew his sidearm, an old-fashioned magnum revolver. "This must be their attack vector."

Rachel's response was immediate. She thrust her arm out and drew deeply upon all the reserves of Force power that she could muster, locking a powerful grip on the door's motors that arrested its opening. The motors made a truly awful groaning sound as the two powers competed for control over them.

"You'd best run, commander," said Rachel. "I don't think I'll be able to hold this for long."

"And leave you behind?" asked Wilson. "You must be mad."

"Hardly," said Rachel. "But I do think that X-COM would be rather poorly served by you getting yourself killed here."

"She's right, sir," said one of the soldiers. "We need to get you to a defensible position."

"Yes, yes, I know," said Wilson. "But she's far too important to leave her here alone to play the hero. Is this even the only point of entry?"

Rachel's eyes went unfocussed for just an instant and the hangar bay doors ground that little bit further open. "No," she said. "They've compromised the other hangars and the access lift has fallen under their control."

"Then there's little to be gained holding this position," said Wilson. "We have to retreat to a defensible position. There's no point throwing our lives away here."

The doors slid open a little more and Rachel saw a smaller, blue demon start to worm its way through the gap. The demon's head exploded in a mist of gore a moment later and Rachel felt the boom of Wilson's gun being fired right down in her bones.

"Fine," she said, releasing her grip. "Let's move."

"HK," yelled Rachel into her com-link as she ran away from the hangar bay. "The base is under attack by demons. I want them hunted down and killed. No restrictions. All safeties are disengaged."

In the distance, Rachel could hear the screams as the demons tore through the unprepared soldiers and the roars of the demons as they rampaged and killed their way through the base.

"Declaration: your will be done, master!" said HK. "Oh, this is the best day of my existence!"

"Just do it," said Rachel, as she flipped the com-link off. "I need to get to Dawn, commander. She is the target here and she must not fall into enemy hands. The consequences would be . . . unacceptable."

"We'll do what we can," said Wilson, not dropping his pace one bit as he spoke. "There's only so much we can do."

Any further discussion was interrupted by a swarm of vampires that seemed to come out of nowhere. Rachel's lightsabre was active immediately as she started to tear through the vampires accompanied by the supporting fire of Wilson's escorts and the booming fire of Wilson's handgun. The group of vampires didn't last long at all, but when it was over one of Wilson's men was on the ground, his neck twisted at a horribly unnatural angle.

"Shit," said Wilson as he quickly reloaded his pistol. "Well, Thompson, I'll send some of this scum to hell in your name."

"We need to get moving," said Rachel. "There's a whole damn army of demons right behind us, remember?"

"Well let's get going then," said Wilson. "If I remember right, there's a defensive emplacement not far from here according to the plans Miller filed for base defence."

Rachel nodded and was about to say something when the base lights were abruptly cut. The emergency lighting kicked in a moment later but still. "What the hell is going on here?" asked Wilson, as they started running again. "There's no way they could have penetrated that far into the base to be able to shut the power down."

"We are dealing with a god," said Rachel. "The exact limits of her power are not known to us."


Fortunately, they managed to reach the defensive emplacement without running into any more demons. Rachel felt a great deal more secure with the Star Wars equivalent of a chain gun emplacement between her and the demon army, and having half a dozen X-COM troops armed to the teeth with the latest in blaster carbines being put out by the X-COM foundries just added to that.

"Sir, Doctor Giles, you'd best keep moving," said one of the soldiers. "We might not be able to hold this position."

"I'm staying," said Rachel. "If we don't hold this point then there'll be hell to pay for everything behind it."

"Giles, you have-"

"No," said Rachel. "I'm holding this point. Go, commander. I'll catch up; don't worry, I have no intention of dying tonight."

And soon enough the demons came. They came boiling around the bend of the corridor, swarming down the narrow length of the passage, and a moment later the air was thick with blaster fire and the smell of ozone as the troops and the E-web opened up with everything they had. The sound of it all was absolutely thunderous. And on top of the sound of the gunfire, you had the sounds of the demons as they were struck down, screeching and wailing as their pathetic existences were brought to an abrupt, painful end.

Rachel couldn't really see what was going on though. One of the side-effects of becoming a werewolf is a major boost to all your senses, and the sheer brightness of all that fire was completely overwhelming her eyes. She could feel it though. She could feel the demons winking out of existence one by one, those foul presences just vanishing as they were cut down in a hail of crimson death. And she could smell it; oh boy could she smell it. All those demon entrails being spilled made for one god-awful smell for someone who could pick out an individual scent in a greasy spoon cafe.

Eventually the demon horde managed to close in to melee range despite the piles of dead bodies littering the corridor and then Rachel was in the battle, lightsabre flashing and lab coat flaring as she cut through demon after demon after demon. The demons were nothing more than slugs as Rachel danced through them cutting them down almost at will. Of course not all demons are so weak and eventually a massive red demon with huge horns on its head smashed her across the corridor with a swipe of one of its massive clawed hands.

"Puny humans," bellowed the demon. "Skorag smash you!"

One of the soldiers moved to open fire on the massively over-sized demon but before he could do anything the demon just moved and the next thing anyone knew the man was impaled on the demon's claws and screaming in agony. With one mighty heave the demon hurled the man off its claws and tossed him into the wall where he desperately tried to hold his entrails in. Before the demon could do anything else it was struck by half a dozen blaster bolts and then had its head sliced off by a thrown lightsabre.

Rachel was at the soldier's side a moment later but there was nothing she could do for him in the state he was in. She simply could not form flesh and muscle out of nothing to replace what the demon had destroyed. And by the time medical attention arrived, he would be dead. He was going to die and there was nothing anyone could do about it, and he knew it. She could see it in his eyes and in his aura.

"Sleep," she said, weaving her power into her words. It was all she could do. Put him to sleep so that he did not feel the pain. And he did not resist her influence.

With that done Rachel regained her feet and returned to the battle with a vengeance, a whirling blur of green energy as she dealt death to all who would oppose her. The demons were simply no match for her re-energised assault and soon the swarm that had attacked the emplacement was annihilated in its entirety.

"Doctor Giles, it would be best if you kept moving," said one of the soldiers as the others set the E-web back up. "We might not be able to hold this position."

"You are correct," said Rachel. "But do try and avoid getting yourselves killed. We've lost enough good men already for one day."

"Of course," said the soldier.

And then Rachel was off again, heading deeper into the base, towards where Dawn would be now.

When Rachel found HK he was stood amidst an absolutely massive pile of demon bodies and various puddles of goo and piles of dust left over from demons that don't leave bodies while cackling like an absolute maniac. There were a couple of dead X-COM soldiers laid out, and they looked like some great monster had been chewing on them, and a few piles of scrap metal that looked like they'd once been HK-100 units.

"Exclamation: master!" he called when he saw her. "You do find me the most glorious slaughters to participate in!"

"And you're the only survivor," said Rachel dryly. "How surprising."

"Statement: the inferior construction of the sub-standard clone units proved to be inadequate for the task at hand," said HK. "I would recommend enhancements but I found their abject failure to be quite amusing."

"Yes, that does sound like something you'd find quite hilarious," said Rachel. "Now come. We have work to do."

"Statement: yes, I can hear many more engagements taking place, and I am eager to participate in more unadulterated violence, master," said HK. "Lead the way!"

"And, HK, our primary mission is to protect Dawn," said Rachel. "Not to kill demons, but to stop them getting to Dawn."

"Disappointment: yes, master," said HK. "If I must."

It took only a very brief moment for Rachel to locate Dawn through the Force - they had take refuge in the base's command centre - and then they headed off in that direction. They ran into a handful of demons along the way - living demons anyway - but those demons . . . well, they didn't have a very long lifespan. What they did run into in large quantities was bodies. Lots and lots of bodies, human and demon alike, and most of them looked like they'd died in considerably pain if there was enough of them left to tell.

One corpse that stood out was that of an X-COM soldier bearing the rank insignia of a rookie fresh from basic training. He was surrounded by piles of dust, and had obviously took his toll on the forces that had killed him, but it wasn't that which caught Rachel's attention. It was the blood that stained the area around his mouth and the feel of a fledgling demon growing inside the body.

"Query: why have we stopped, master?" asked HK. "I see nothing exceptional about this particular deceased meatbag."

"You wouldn't," said Rachel, staring down at the corpse. Damn but he was young. Couldn't be much out of high school. Not much younger than her physical age, really, but still. "This one has been Turned, HK. He will wake eventually and become a vampire."

"Assertion: then it must be destroyed."

"Indeed," said Rachel. "But I cannot think of a way to do so without destroying the body even at this stage of the infection."

"Statement: then I will disintegrate it," said HK.

Rachel blinked. "Yes," she said. "That seems to be the best option at this point."

And then she summoned the soldier's blaster carbine to her hand and flipped it over to disintegrate before firing and destroying the body.

"Query: master?"

"He deserved it to at least be a human who pulled the trigger," she said by way of explanation. "Come. We have to keep moving. I can feel Glory approaching."

The command centre was the nerve centre of the base. Radar control, flight control, base defence control, security control, power management, it was all done from inside this one massive room full of computer consoles. Of course the room also happened to be one of the most secure in the base even with only having a single way to get in or out of the room that also happened to have a blast door made out of the new metals that had came out of Rachel's team. And the fact that there was currently half-a-dozen E-web's covering the corridor along with a dozen carbine-toting X-COM troops.

The room itself was full of people. Soldiers, scientists, engineers, and, of course, the Sunnydale gang. Some were grim, some were scared, and others had bloodlust written all over their faces. Quite the collection really. Of the Sunnydale group, most looked grimly determined, but Dawn looked both terrified and horror-stricken at what was going on.

"So you made it," said Wilson, from a chair near Rachel. "I was beginning to wonder if you'd bitten off more than you could chew."

"Got a little side-tracked," said Rachel. "Nothing I couldn't handle."

"Evidently," said Wilson. "Do try not to do anything else as damned stupid as holding your ground against an enemy army, hmm?"

"I'll try," said Rachel before Dawn thudded into her and grabbed hold of her in a rib-breaking embrace.

"I thought you weren't going to make it," said Dawn in a voice muffled by Rachel's lab coat.

Rachel shot Wilson an apologetic look and walked over to the Sunnydale group with Dawn clinging to her. "It'll take more than a few demons to take me down, Dawn," she said as she walked. "Been killing these things since I was sixteen, remember. It's nothing new."

"Not this many," said Dawn, releasing her grip. "Nowhere near this many."

"Suppose so," said Rachel. "But I've took out some pretty big groups before."

"Statement: all the more for me to slaughter," said HK. "I most eagerly anticipate the continuation of the unadulterated violence I have been enjoying this day."

"How did the situation seem as you made your way here?" asked Giles.

"The outer defences are broken," said Rachel. "Some of the inner emplacements have been broken, but most are holding, I think. None of them have mounted an assault on the defences here yet."

"Have you seen Glory?" asked Buffy, clutching at a monstrous hammer as she spoke.

"No," said Rachel. "But I can feel her. She's here and she's pissed. Don't worry, Dawn. We can handle her."

"We have a plan," said Buffy. "Willow has a spell that can weaken Glory and me and Faith here have some weapons that should be able to hurt you."

"Speak for yourself, B," said Faith. "You have that fancy Troll God hammer and I have a sword with a bit of mojo in it. God only knows if it's actually going to do anything."

"So that's why Willow's over by the doors with Tara," said Rachel. "Well, is there any place for me in this plan?"

"No offence but we have no idea if that lightsabre'll do anything," said Buffy. "We're pretty sure our weapons will do the job but what you have? No idea."

"Fine," said Rachel. "I don't like it but I'll go along with it for now, but I'll step in if things go bad."

"Kinda counting on it, Darth," said Faith. "Can't be letting that hellbitch get her hands on mini-B."

"We have contact, sir!" called out one of the technicians. "A blonde woman is approaching emplacement B-3."

"That's her," called out Buffy.

"Tell them to open fire," said Miller. "And patch it through to the speakers."

The sound of blaster fire immediately filled the room as the E-webs at that emplacement hammered away along with the carbines of the men manning it.

"It's not stopping her," called out one of the soldiers over the speakers. "Intensify fire!"

For a moment the sound of blaster fire intensified to an absolutely thunderous level before the screaming started.

"Hold your ground! Hold your ground, dammit!"

The fire trailed off to almost nothing over the next few seconds and the screams rose in quantity before falling to nothing.

"Well, that's that," said Miller, looking older than Rachel had ever seen him look before. "Patch out now."

And then Rachel's were set ringing as the base shook under the force of a thermal detonator being set off.

"Jesus," said Faith. "What the hell was that?"

"Sounded like a bigger version of one of Rachel's toys going off," said Buffy.

"Nothing could survive that," said Miller. "Surely?"

"She lives," said Rachel, her eyes going unfocussed for a moment. "She's weakened but she lives."

"Well that's a start then," said Wilson. "It proves that our weapons can hurt her and, if we can hurt her, then we can kill her."

"Sir, we have contact on the cameras," said a technician. "One blonde woman approaching our position now."

"Well tell the soldiers to open fire then!" ordered Miller. "Dammit, I want a perimeter around the door. She might get in here but no further."

"Commander, we have a plan," said Rachel. "We think we know how to stop her or at least do some real damage."

Miller stared hard at her before sighing. "Fine," he said. "But I hope you know what you're doing. Men, take positions, I want all guns pointed at that door, but don't fire till I give the order. Send the order for all active units to converge on this location. Have them set an ambush so she can't get back out."

Wilson wasn't exactly quiet on the issue either. "Giles, this had better work," he said. "This is going to be hard enough as it is."

Rachel steeled herself as she heard the battle outside the blast doors begin. Chances were, she was going to need to be on top form for this one, and she didn't want to be found wanting, not in this situation. The battle outside the doors reached a fever pitch as all six E-webs reached maximum rate of fire and a series of small explosions heralded the detonation of explosive charges along the corridor to slow Glory down. Of course, it was futile. In seconds the fire began to trail off and within half a minute it was stopped entirely.

Rachel clutched tightly with her right hand, squeezing her lightsabre, as a dull thud could be made out from the blast door. And then another louder thud.

"Ready arms," barked Miller, aiming his own sidearm at the door. There was an instant flurry of motion as dozens of blaster carbines and pistols were aimed at the blast doors.

The doors bulged inwards at the next strike and Rachel saw several soldiers' eyes widen as they saw Glory's strength up-close. They knew how strong those doors were and now they saw someone breaking through them with their fists, a rather sobering sight to say the least. Another strike and the doors bowed further, allowing the room's occupants a sight of the rampaging god. It was, Rachel reflected, quite a strange thing to see an attractive blonde in a slinky dress pounding the hell out of a blast door like that. And then with the next strike the doors were smashed open enough for her to stomp into the control centre.

"Alright, you hairless apes," said Glory. "Just give me my key and I won't kill you."

Before anyone could snap off a response Willow moved behind Glory and placed her hand on the god's head. As Glory's expression turned to outrage, there was a flash of blinding white light and the pair of them were blown apart. Glory was the first back to her feet.

"What the hell did you do to me, you stupid little witch?" she shrieked.

Before she could say anything else, a mighty hammer swing from Buffy sent Glory slamming back against the wall she'd just bounced off as a result of Willow's spell. Glory was back on her feet in an instant but then Buffy knocked her back down on her ass with a hammer blow to the temple that would have took any normal human's head off. Hell, would have took a demon's head off most likely. Glory rolled with the blow and came back to her feet, but she looked both dazed and somewhat off-balance.

Buffy and Faith both moved in at that point. Buffy smashed Glory upside the head with her hammer and staggered the hellgod back a couple of steps and then Faith lashed out with a lightning-fast slice of her sword across Glory's cheek. Glory turned her head away just for a moment as the sword struck but Rachel could smell the blood that was drawn and feel the rage gathering in the hellgod. Some of the troops who saw the blood actually cheered but Rachel was in no mood for that. She could feel the dark power gathering and started to move towards where the trio where fighting.

Before Rachel could move more than a couple of steps, Glory lashed out and in a blur of motion she tore the sword out of Faith's hands before stabbing it back through the Slayer's gut. As Faith's eyes widened in shock and pain, Glory took hold of the Slayer by the head and hurled her across the control centre which she flew across till she collided face-first with a steel support pillar and did not move again. She wasn't dead, Rachel could still feel a spark of life in her, but she wasn't far off it. If she hadn't been a Slayer, she'd probably not have hit the floor in one piece after that hit.

Buffy screeched in rage and charged Glory, hammer held high above her head cocked to deliver a terrible blow, but Glory simply lashed out and caught Buffy on the jaw with a straight punch that catapulted her backwards and bounced her off the wall before she slumped to the ground. Glory stalked towards Buffy as the Slayer struggled back to her feet, obviously not quite all there, and lashed out with another punch that would have probably finished it but the fist never landed.

"That's quite enough of that, I think," said Rachel with a confidence she simply did not feel as she held an iron grip on Glory's wrist just short of Buffy's head.

"Who the HELL do you think you are, little girl?" screeched Glory as she tore herself free of Rachel's grip. "Don't you know who I am?"

"You're someone who needs to be taught some manners," said Rachel coolly as she ignited her lightsabre and brought it into a standard ready position.

"A Jedi?" said Glory. "What are you doing here? Your kind aren't supposed to be in this backwards little mud-hole of a dimension. This isn't right!"

Glory would have probably whined some more but Rachel was not interested in hearing this foul creature's whining, so she attacked. She launched herself forward in a blur of motion and slashed lightsabre up and across Glory's chest, causing her dress to bubble and briefly melt before it was reformed under the weight of Glory's powers. Rachel took a swing that would have cut Glory's head off but the hellgod was too fast and ducked under the swing before replying with a body punch that knocked all the air out of Rachel's body and caused to lose her footing and stagger back a couple of steps. Damn but this bitch hit even harder than Malak.

Glory's next move was a straight punch aimed at Rachel's head, but Rachel managed to deflect it with her left forearm - which felt like something akin to deflecting a freight train - and then responded with a thrust of her lightsabre that Glory managed to twist away from with disturbing ease. Glory then lashed out with a left-arm punch that smacked Rachel square in the ribs that almost knocked her off her feet; the follow-up right hook to the head did knock Rachel off her feet and sent her lightsabre out of her grip and skittering across the room.

"Open fire!" barked Miller. "All units, fire!"

As the air filled with blaster fire aimed at Glory, Rachel rolled away over to where Willow and Tara were taking cover.

"I thought your spell was supposed to weaken her," gasped Rachel, rubbing her battered chest.

"It did," said Willow manically, flinching at all the gunfire. "She must have been sucking brains all the way down here or something to be this strong still."

"Got a backup plan?" asked Rachel. Willow shook her head frantically and Rachel sighed. "Typical."

The sheer volume of fire seemed to be pressing Glory back as they spoke but it wasn't to last. Soon enough she straightened up in the face of the fire but instead of physically charging the men and tearing them apart she raised her hands and let loose a wave of translucent energy that shimmered out and blasted everyone to the front of her off their feet.

"This is getting real old," said Glory. "Just give me my key!"

Unfortunately for Glory, her energy attack had failed to affect those to the behind of her, and she was rather rudely informed of this fact by Buffy smashing her off her feet with a swing of that troll hammer of hers. Glory immediately started to jump back to her feet but Buffy brought the hammer down once more onto Glory's back and smashed the god down onto her face. And then again and again she brought the hammer down.

"Just die, you bitch," snarled Buffy as she brought the hammer down once more.

Before Buffy could continue her attack, Glory lashed out with her legs and sent Buffy crashing down onto her back before jumping to her feet and booting the Slayer back into the broken doors before Buffy could react.

"I've got a better idea," said Glory. "Why don't you die?"

She stalked over towards Buffy but before she could do anything Rachel blasted her off her feet with a tremendous wave of telekinetic power that slammed Glory into a wall and left quite the indentation.

"I think I prefer Buffy's idea," hissed Rachel. And then they were on each other in a blur of arms and legs as Rachel pushed her powers to the very limit of what she could accomplish to try and defeat the hellgod. It was quite the display to watch for everyone else present as two extremely powerful beings went at it hammer and tongs at a level of speed that made it virtually impossible for anyone to actually figure out exactly what was going on.

But eventually one had to fall. Rachel made a misstep that left her open to Glory's unskilled but brutally fast and powerful attacks, and the hellgod took full advantage. With a brutal stomp just above the knee of Rachel's right leg, Glory snapped Rachel's thigh-bone like a twig. But she wasn't finished there. She reached down and took a firm grip of Rachel's right foot while she kept the wounded Jedi pressed down with her foot at the break, and then she just pulled.

The scream of pain that Rachel let loose as Glory tore her leg off just above the knee was something that no-one present would ever be able to forget. When Glory was done maiming Rachel, she picked her up off the ground and hurled her away into a group of X-COM soldiers.

"Oh Jesus," said one that sounded vaguely familiar to Rachel's foggy senses. "Medic!"

"Ain't no medic can fix this," said another. "She'll bleed out way before any medic gets here, and that's if we survive that long."

That managed to pierce Rachel's pain-fogged mind. She had no intentions of dying that day. She reached out with her powers as best she could and tried to summon her lightsabre. At first it just rolled around on the floor as her loose grip failed miserably to take it but eventually, as she managed to focus through the endless pain, she brought it soaring through the air to her hand.

"What is she doing?" asked one of the soldiers.


As HK opened up with his canon, Rachel ignited her sabre and steeled herself. She had allowed herself enough displays of weakness this day. And then she dragged the lightsabre across the wound that had once been the point where her kneecap had connected to her thigh. The pain as the nerves, muscles, blood vessels, and all the rest were burned closed was quite tremendous but Rachel permitted herself not a single whimper of pain.

"Oh man . . . "

"Toughest. Bitch. Ever."

"What are you doing, Potter?"


The one upside to feeling as much as Rachel had felt when she cauterised her leg was that it had dragged her right out of shock and had her focussing on her surroundings once more. Just in time to see a monstrous green beam of sickly feeling dark magic slam into Glory's side and blast her off her feet.

"Fuck's sake, Potter," said one of the troops. "If you could do that, why didn't you do it a bit fucking earlier?"

"I don't believe it," said another. "She's not even scratched."

And then Rachel felt an absolutely monstrous spike of dark magic, beyond anything she'd ever felt before. She glanced over to Willow and saw her best friend since kindergarden floating several inches off the ground, her hair and eyes absolutely pitch black and dark veins bulging on her face.

"Darkness beyond twilight; crimson that flows beyond blood," chanted Willow.

Oh no. No, no, no. She wouldn't! Surely!

"Buried in the flow of time; in thy great name, here I pledge myself to darkness," continued Willow as a massive ball of magic began to form in her hands.


As unnerved as the men where, they didn't take much persuasion to retreat to the far reaches of the room. Thankfully, Harry thought to hoist Rachel over his shoulder before he beat his retreat.

"May all the fools who stand before us be destroyed by the power you and I possess," continued Willow's chanting as the ball of magic continued to grow.

"I have a feeling that I should remember this," said a puzzled looking Glory.


Rachel had fully expected to die when the spell was cast but the explosion reached bare metre away from the point of impact and then just stopped as if it had ran into an invisible barrier. With that done Harry lowered her to the ground and propped her up against the wall.

"Holy shit," said Harry. "She has got to teach me how to do that one."

"You've seen nothing yet," said Rachel in a rough voice. "She shielded the damn explosion. That should have killed everyone here, easily."

"The cloud of debris kicked up by the explosion was quite formidable. Rachel couldn't see a damned thing even with her enhanced senses.

"That has to have done it," said one of the soldiers nervously. "Right?"

"Ready arms!" called out Miller.

The soldiers responded automatically, aiming their carbines at the dust cloud. Rachel couldn't even sense what was going on. All the magic in the air and the constant, throbbing pain in her leg were making it extremely difficult for her to focus on anything.

"Rachel . . . my god, are you . . . no that's a stupid question," said Giles. "Is there anything I can do?"

"You can help me up onto my own damn feet," said Rachel. "Well, foot."

"Of course," said Giles. And a few moments later, Rachel was upright and leaning on Giles to stay that way.

"Is Glory defeated?" asked Giles in a very quiet voice.

"I don't know," admitted Rachel. "My senses are pretty useless at the moment."

So they watched and waited for the dust to clear. When it did, there was Glory stood tall, somewhat charred but still alive, who was holding Willow by the throat with one arm while cocking the other back to throw a punch. Rachel's reaction was immediate. She ignited the lightsabre and launched it through the air at Glory, hoping to distract her if nothing else. When the lightsabre cut through the arm Glory was using to hold Willow in the air midway between elbow and shoulder, the whole room went silent. Glory didn't scream or utter even a single sound of pain; she just stared at the stump.

"She's weakened!" called out Miller. "FIRE!"

But before they could do so Glory unleashed another energy attack that blasted the whole lot of them off their feet, except for Rachel who, adopting the same principles of avoidance she would use against a telekinetic Force attack, was almost entirely unaffected. It didn't really help though because a moment later she was several inches off the ground with a vice-like grip around her throat as Glory took out her anger on Rachel.

"Jedi bitch," she snarled. "You're going to pay for that."

But before she could live up to her threat a red blast caught Glory right in the side and blew her away from Rachel who fell to the ground in a messy heap.

"Declaration: you will not lay hands on the master ever again, meatbag," said HK.

The sheer fury on Glory's face at that moment was something to behold, it truly was. The facade of beauty was well and truly gone. She raised her still attached arm and a moment later black energy arced out of each of the fingers of that hand and smashed into HK, blowing him off his feet and across the room.

"Systems failing, master," said HK, and then he was silent.

"Wow," said Glory, staring at her hand in amazement. "I didn't think I could do that in this stupid shell."

And then she levelled her arm at Rachel, who even in this state could sense the dark energy gathering around the god.

"Well, so much for you then," said Glory. "I'll see you in hell when I'm done in this stupid dimension."

Rachel summoned what reserves of power and will she still had access to. She'd be damned if this bitch killed her without a damn good fight. She was in the process of summoning a shield spell into place when Glory's eyes suddenly went very wide as a green lightsabre blade pierced her abdomen and poked out of her front.

"Well damn," she managed to say, before the blade was pulled out and she slumped to the ground. As Glory fell away, Rachel saw Dawn, lightsabre in hand, her face contorted with fury.

"Oh," said Rachel weakly. "Dawn."

And in a flash they were surrounded. People milling everywhere. Rachel could feel her consciousness fading as the adrenaline ebbed and her strength fled her in face of the overwhelming pain and weakness that was afflicting her physical body.

"Hey, the hellbitch has turned into a guy," said a soldier. "And he's still . . . "

Whatever he was going to say, fairly obvious really, was cut off by the booming sound of Wilson firing his large handgun and the wet sound of a bullet blowing an extremely large hole in someone.

"What was that, soldier?" asked Wilson, sounding more forbidding than ever.

"Nothing, sir."

"Burn the body," ordered Wilson. "Burn it and scatter the ashes to the corners of the Earth."

It was at that point that Rachel lost consciousness entirely and drifted into darkness.

Chapter Eight

April 2001

When Rachel came to she found herself staring up a very white ceiling and wishing that she was still unconscious. Everything hurt. Absolutely everything. The pain from her leg was the worst, well that was an obvious one, but her chest and back were giving it a good run for its money. Apparently being batted across the room hadn't done her any good at all. Surprise that. But ow. She was too young for back pain dammit.

As she grew more awake she became aware of the sounds and smells of the hospital facility she was in. Blood was the main scent, dominating her wolfish senses even over the normal sterile disinfectant smell of this sort of place. And she could hear the groans of the wounded, and the conversation and pleading of those who were waiting for the badly wounded to awake if they ever did. Oh yes, hospitals were always a good place to be just after a major battle.

She considered moving to a sitting position but it just seemed far too much like hard work to her. She just knew that the current dull pain would just cease to be dull when she started trying to move, and she just couldn't be bothered to deal with it.

"You're awake," said a male voice that could only be Giles from beside her bed. She turned her head to face him. "Oh thank God. Some good news, finally."

"How long have I been out?" asked Rachel in a rasping tone of voice.

"Only a few hours," said Giles. "But your wounds . . . you should have been out longer, Rachel. God . . . you were so badly hurt, so much blood . . . "

"All in a day's work," said Rachel in a carefully controlled voice. "I'll be fine. How're Buffy and Faith?"

Now there was a question she wasn't sure she wanted the answer to. Faith had went down hard and Buffy hadn't exactly been in good condition either all things considered.

"All in a day's work? Fine?" hissed Giles. "You get your bloody leg tore off just above the knee and then cauterise the fucking wound yourself, and you tell me that you're going to be fine? Are you completely out of your sodding mind?"

"Whoa there, Giles," said Rachel. "I know it's bad; I know it probably looks even worse. But it's hardly the end of the road. I will recover."

"You . . . you truly do not understand," said Giles. "Did you not even hear yourself when Glory took your leg? That was the worst thing I have ever heard. I cannot even begin to comprehend the amount of pain you must have been in, and then you tell me that you will be fine, just like that. And they say the English are bad!"

"It hurt," said Rachel. "Fine. It hurt like hell. Still hurts actually. But I'm not going to break down into floods of tears over it. I'll live and that's what counts. Would have been nice if I'd had the more traditional Star Wars injury and lost a hand instead of near on my whole damned leg but there you go."

"Well, I'm certainly not going to argue about your pain tolerance," said Giles. "Not after that display. But you have to be more careful. A more intelligent foe than Glory would not have let you survive."

"A more intelligent foe than Glory probably wouldn't have been so damn powerful," said Rachel.

"True," said Giles. "Just . . . don't do it again. Please."

"I'll do my best to avoid it," said Rachel somewhat unsettled by Giles's reaction. "Now how are Buffy and Faith?"

"They're still out cold," said Giles. "In fact, Faith's still in the operating theatre as we speak. Her wounds were . . . well, too much even for Slayer healing under normal circumstances. I'm not privy to the exact details of her injuries at this point but the amount of damage to her skull was considerable and she lost a great deal of blood."

Rachel closed her eyes and sighed. That was not what she had been hoping to hear. Expecting, yes. Hoping, no. "And Buffy?"

"Still unconscious," said Giles with a sigh of his own. "But there doesn't appear to be any damage that her usual Slayer healing factor can't deal with given some time, thankfully."

"Well that's a relief," said Rachel. "But Faith . . . "

"Yes," said Giles. "What has happened to Faith is terrible. I'm sure she'll pull through, though. She's a young woman of considerably strength and I can't imagine that she will let this keep her down. She won't stop fighting."

"No," said Rachel. "She won't. Faith doesn't know the meaning of the word surrender."

"Exactly," said Giles. "She'll be fine given time. She just needs this surgery to get her past the worst of it."

"Right," said Rachel. "And what of the others?"

"They are physically uninjured," said Giles. "Somewhat traumatised, yes, but physically uninjured."


"Exhausted," said Giles. "She burned through far too much magical energy with that spell and then shielding its effects. The chances of her waking up before I send her to the coven are slim indeed."

"You're sending her to the coven?" asked Rachel. "Why?"

"She shouldn't have known that spell existed never mind been able to cast it," said Giles. "That is not the sort of thing that a young woman coming into her powers should be playing with. The long-term effects of using such magic are quite drastic as you well know."

Rachel closed her eyes. "True," she said.

"Get some sleep," said Giles, his voice soft. "You must be exhausted."

Rachel felt like she should argue that even if just on general principles but she really couldn't work up the energy for it and instead just drifted off into blissful darkness away from the pain and weakness.

The next time Rachel woke up she felt somewhat less like something that had been peeled from underneath a freight train's wheels and more like something that had been peeled from underneath a car's wheels. It still sucked but it sucked much, much less than it had done. On the other hand, the place still stank of blood, and that was really beginning to get on her nerves. The last thing you want to be dealing with when you're a werewolf is the smell of blood, especially when you're weakened enough that self control is that much more difficult.

"You're awake again," said a female voice from the side of the bed; one that Rachel didn't recognise at first. When Rachel turned her head to face it, she saw that it was Tara. "How do you feel?"

"Like hell," said Rachel, propping herself up on her elbows. "But I'll survive. Wounds heal in time."

Tara looked most doubtful. "If you say so," she said. And then she blurted out something on a completely different line, "I want to thank you," she said. "I felt you trying to help me, put me back together, even if it didn't work."

"I'm just sorry it didn't work," said Rachel.

"It's the thought that counts," said Tara reproachfully. "I've always thought you were a bit intimidating but you're not so bad. Now wait there while I fetch a doctor. They want to speak to you about your leg."

And then she was off. She was a nice girl, Tara, but she was a little odd. Intimidating? Rachel didn't think she was intimidating . . . well, only to her enemies anyway. Ah well. She waited, patiently, or at least as close to patiently as she could manage, for the doctor to arrive. When the doctor did arrive, it was a harried looking woman who had just the faintest streaks of grey appearing in her hair.

"Ah Doctor Giles," she said. "I'm Doctor Murphy. Any pain?"

"Just what you'd expect," said Rachel. "I got beat up pretty good, after all, and I'm sore all over."

"Your leg?"

"Hurts like the dickens," admitted Rachel. "But that's only to be expected, isn't it?"

"Pain from where the limb should be?"

"Not yet," said Rachel. "But I haven't been awake long since I lost it."

"Hmm," said the doctor. "Well, we have these prototype replacement limbs. They have been used much yet but-"

"I know, doctor," said Rachel. "I supervised the team that came up with them."

"Ah yes," she said. "Of course. Well, I suppose you don't need the spiel then. Do you want one?"

"Yes," said Rachel definitively. "Of course. What else could I do? Get a peg leg?"

"Well, prosthetics, normal prosthetics, have come along a bit further than peg legs," said the doctor. "But I can certainly understand why you'd prefer one of these new things. You're going to be about the first to get one, you know?"

"Yes, I know," said Rachel. "They've only just reached the prototype stage. It'll be fine. I know that they'll work."

"Well, it's nice to see a patient so confident," said the doctor. "Might be best not to get your hopes up too far though. It is an experimental procedure after all."

"It'll be fine," said Rachel. "When can I have it done?"

"I'm not sure," admitted the doctor. "But it shouldn't be too long. It really depends on how quickly the engineering facilities come back on-line and how quickly surgeons become available. We have a lot of people needing help right now and as you're not about to drop dead you're not the priority."

"That's fair enough," said Rachel. "But can I at least get out of here while I'm waiting? I don't need to be stuck here, surely?"

The doctor looked horrified by the mere suggestion of Rachel leaving. "You've just had your leg torn off and you want to leave the hospital the next day?" she sputtered. "It doesn't work like that. We have to keep in for observation; make sure you don't have a bad reaction."

"Oh please," said Rachel. "I'll be fine. I've had worse."

The doctor just arced an eyebrow. "Right," she said. "If this isn't your worst, then I shudder to think about what your life's been like up till now. Either way, you're not leaving for at least one more day."

Rachel sighed deeply. "Please?"

"No," said the doctor with a great deal of finality in her voice. "I would be neglecting my duty as a physician to allow you to leave now. I don't care how powerful or dangerous you are, you're still human and you need proper medical attention."

"Wonderful," said Rachel. "So how much longer am I going to be stuck here?"

"Well for a normal person in your position you'd probably be looking at weeks," said the doctor. "Your remarkable speed of healing will cut that to days it seems, but no earlier. Oh, and I have a question about your medical records. There's a notation for your having an infectious disease but no indication of what. I don't suppose you could enlighten us doctors as to just what is going on there?"

"I'm a werewolf," said Rachel, wondering just how that notation had made its way into her files and when.

"What?" barked the doctor. "That's absolute . . . oh, why am I even surprised anymore? How does that work then?"

"Bodily fluids," said Giles from behind the doctor, making her jump a little. "The infection is passed through bodily fluids. Normally it's saliva, when the wolf bites someone during the full moon, but blood, semen, and the other normal examples will work just as well if you're not careful, be they from the wolf or the person."

"Ah," said the doctor. "Thank you, Mr. . . . ?"

"Giles," said Giles. "Rupert Giles."

"Thank you, Mr. Giles," said the doctor before turning back to Rachel. "Now remember you're not to leave this hospital, Doctor Giles. Even the generals have to to listen to their doctors, you know."

"Only if they're not smart enough to avoid them."

"Ha," said the doctor. "Very funny. Just be good, okay?"

And then the doctor headed off to her next stop.

"Are you pestering the doctors, Rachel?" asked Giles, looking vaguely amused.

"I just want to get out of here," grumped Rachel. "The last place I want to spend my time is a hospital bed."

"Rachel, you've just had your leg torn off," said Giles, looking considerably more serious. "Hospital is where you should be. Why I need to tell you this is beyond me."

"And I'm better now," said Rachel. "Look! No bleeding! I'm quite well enough to leave this place till they have my replacement ready."

"Give it up, Rachel," said Giles. "No-one's going to believe you're all better this soon after your injury."

"Dammit," said Rachel. "I'm a werewolf. I heal fast."

"Not that fast," said Giles. "Just let it rest, Rachel. A few days of inactivity won't hurt you."

Rachel rolled her eyes. "Right," she said. "Anyway, how are Buffy and Faith?"

"Buffy is awake," said Giles. "And much like you she is making an attempt to whinge her way out of her hospital bed."

"I am not whinging!"

"Faith is still unconscious," said Giles, ignoring Rachel entirely. "And in serious condition. But she is stable and should recover fully given her Slayer healing."

"Good to hear," said Rachel. "I want to see her."

"I'm not sure-"

"I want to see her, Giles," said Rachel firmly. "There's no way you're going to change my mind on this one. I'll float myself over to her if I have to."

"You would as well, wouldn't you?" said Giles with a sigh. "Well, I'll see what I can arrange. I suppose that as long as we promise to not take you out of the hospital wing they won't object too strenuously."

"Excellent," said Rachel. "Oh, Willow. How is she? Awake yet?"

"Not yet," said Giles. "She has quite thoroughly drained herself with that display of power she put on against Glory. Quite frankly, I would rather she stay unconscious for the time being. I'm not quite sure that your generals understand just how dangerous what she did really was."

"I'll talk to them when I get the chance," promised Rachel. "I'll make sure they realise that this isn't the sort of power they want to be tapping for their needs."

"That would be appreciated," said Giles. "I think it's rather for the best that the military don't persuade Willow to use her powers in such an aggressive way against their enemies."

"Indeed," said Rachel. "Now here's a question for you: where's my lightsabre gotten to? That weapon is rather important to me."

Left unsaid was the fact that if anyone had absconded with her sabre than she'd find them and soon after their testicles would be having an up-close and personal encounter with the blade.

"I retrieved it for after the battle," said Giles. "It's locked up in your bedside cabinet in your rooms as we speak."

"Thank you," said Rachel. "I do appreciate that."

Less than an hour after uncovering the location of her lightsabre courtesy of Giles, Rachel found herself on her way to see Faith with Giles wheeling her along in her newly issued wheelchair. She could have used her powers to wheel herself but Giles seemed to need to do something and small as it was this seemed to help at least a little on that front. Also, it would have been a somewhat frivolous use of her powers really. Certainly not council-endorsed, that's for sure

It was during this rather short journey that Rachel got a better look at the after-effects of the battle that had been waged, and they turned her stomach. The sheer number of wounded in the hospital wing of the base was incredible, and some of the wounds were terrible gruesome, gruesome enough to turn her hardened former-Dark Lord stomach. They truly did need to find a way to end the demons once and for all, get rid of them from this plane of existence.

When they reached Faith . . . well, that was an even more distressing sight as far as Rachel was concerned. Swathed in bandages and unmoving, all the energy and vibrancy that had made Faith what she was just wasn't there. She was so small and frail looking, and what skin was visible was deathly pale from the blood loss she must have suffered.

"Force," muttered Rachel as she took control of the wheelchair for herself and moved in closer. "Faith . . . "

"I know it looks bad," said Giles. "But I have been assured that she will recover given time."

"Yes," said Rachel. "I can still feel her life-force, weak as it is now. She has survived and she will recover. But this . . . if Glory was not already dead then I would make her death most painful for this. Most painful ideed."

"I would agree with that," said Giles. "But what's done is done and now we must deal with the aftermath."

"Yes," said Rachel, laying the back of her hand against Faith's bandaged cheek. "I will do what I can to help her."

Rachel splayed her fingers out, touching on both of Faith's temples and then injected her Force power into Faith's system just so. Faith promptly took one deep, strained breath and then sank into a much slower rhythm.

"What did you just do?" asked Giles, his voice and expression unreadable.

"She's in a healing trance now," said Rachel. "I dare do no more with my limited skills in that aspect of things. She'll heal a little quicker now. When her body heals, I should be able to call her mind out of whatever place it's decided to hide in."

"I had no idea your skills went so far," commented Giles.

"I'm no great healer," said Rachel. "But I can manipulate minds with the best of them."

Giles said nothing in response as Rachel leaned over from her chair and kissed Faith on what small amount of skin was visible on her forehead. "Hurry up and come back to us, Faith," she whispered in her ear. And then to Giles, "I think that's all."

"I suppose you'll want to see Buffy now?"

"Yes, I would like that," said Rachel.

When they reached Buffy, Rachel saw Buffy sat up in bed, arms folded, pouting, with an irritated looking doctor, Mrs. Summers, and Dawn arrayed around her bed.

"Are you trying to get out of here as well, Buffy?" asked Rachel in amusement, though she already knew the answer to that.

"It's boring," whined Buffy. "And there's nothing wrong with me."

"Your had six broken ribs and a cracked sternum," said the doctor, his voice bordering on shouting levels of volume. "And can't forget the concussion either. There's no way you can be recovered from that enough to leave so quickly. You're staying. End of story."

And with that the doctor stalked off in the huff to end all huffs. Quite amusing really, in Rachel's opinion. Buffy's pout was even more amusing.

"Don't worry, Buffy," said Rachel. "They're not letting me loose just yet either. Right bunch of old fusspots they are around here."

"And rightly so," cried Mrs. Summers. "Neither of you should be getting anywhere leaving the hospital after what happened."

"Mom!" said Buffy. "I wasn't that badly hurt, not for a Slayer."

Mrs. Summers rolled her eyes. "And that's why you were out cold for over thirty hours," she said. "Right. How could I possibly have thought that it was because you were badly hurt?"


"No buts, young lady," said Mrs. Summers. "You're going to stay here and receive proper medical attention."


"No excuses, young lady!"

"That's you told, Buffy," said Rachel. "So how are you really?"

"A little sore," admitted Buffy. "But no worse than I'd feel after a hard night of slaying. All the bad stuff's healed now."

"You always did heal fast," said Rachel.

"I'm not the only one," said Buffy. "You were hurt way worse than me and you're up and about."

"I wish," said Rachel. "I'll be back in my bed soon enough."

"Good!" cried Mrs. Summers. "That's where you should be after what happened. What are you thinking, trying to get out of here so soon?"

"That I'm bored," said Rachel. "And that I don't really need doctors fussing over me. They have more needy people to deal with right now. My wounds are as healed as they ever will be before I get my replacement."

"You cannot possibly be serious," said Mrs. Summers with a glare. "You've lost a leg and you tell me that you 'don't need doctors fussing over you'?"

"I'm a werewolf," said Rachel. "I really don't need the same sort of medical attention as normal people. As long as my head's still attached to my body, I'll survive."

Well, it was a bit of a stretch but essentially true. It would something rather extreme to kill her off for good these days. As she finished speaking, Rachel heard Giles sigh deeply from his position out of her view and judging by the look on Mrs. Summers' face what she'd just said hadn't gone done very well at all.

"As long as . . . " she said, trailing off dangerously. "Rachel Giles, you should damn well know better than that. You still feel pain, don't you?"

Rachel blinked. "Well of course."

"And you still feel weakness when injured?"

"And that would be another yes."

"Then you damn well need proper medical attention!" said Mrs. Summers sharply. "Just because you have some advantages doesn't mean you don't need normal human treatment anymore."


"No buts!" said Mrs. Summers. "I don't care how strong or tough you are, you still need the same things as any other human being, just like Buffy does. You're not Superman."

"Remember my idea about Ethan's ritual and getting Buffy to wear a Superman costume, Giles?" asked Rachel. "Told you we should have done it."

Thwap! "And no dangerous magical rituals to turn yourself into Superman either!"

Rachel rubbed the back of her head. "I wasn't serious, dammit," she said.

"Good," said Mrs. Summers. "Because it would be horribly irresponsible."

"Oh I don't know," said Buffy. "Superman? It would be kinda cool."

Thwap! "I know I didn't raise you to be so irresponsible," said Mrs. Summers. "Honestly, don't you remember what happened last time that spell was cast, Buffy? Want to get turned into a man like Xander got turned into a woman?"

Buffy turned green. "No thanks," she said. "I'll pass on that experience."

"Exactly," said Mrs. Summers. "And I'm quite happy with my daughter being, well, a daughter too."

"Gotta say I prefer it too," said Rachel. "I don't think a male Buffy would have caught my attention quite as much back when."

"Rachel!" cried Buffy.

Mrs. Summers pointedly ignored that last exchange. "And what about you, Rachel?" she asked. "How are you feeling? Really now, not some 'I'm fine, honest' answer."

"I'm f . . . recovering," said Rachel. "My leg's the only wound of real import that won't be healed within a couple of days and the rest are minor aches and pains for the most part. If they wired me up with a replacement leg, then I could walk out of here right now."

"And of course your leg isn't causing you any pain at all," said Mrs. Summers sarcastically.

"A little," said Rachel with a shrug. "Nothing I can't handle. I wouldn't be much of a Jedi if I couldn't distance myself from pain, would I?"

"I suppose not," said Mrs. Summers weakly. "So how did you train for that?"

"It's just the usual idea of a Jedi being more than just flesh and blood," said Rachel. "Like Yoda said in the movies, you know?"


The conversation pretty much ended at that point. Dawn continued to be silent, and Mrs. Summers seemed to have been stymied.

Much later on that day, Rachel was sat cross-legged in her bed - or at least as close to cross-legged as you can manage when you only have one leg - meditating when a familiar presence taking a seat by her bed drew her attention away from meditating.

"Supreme Commander Wilson," said Rachel. "What brings you here?"

"Well, I wanted to see how you were for myself," he said. "Doctors say you're recovering well but I wanted to see for myself."

"I am," said Rachel. "I will make a full recovery soon enough."

"That's good to hear," said Wilson. "Very good indeed. Now, I think we have some business to discuss, don't we?"

"Hmm," said Rachel. "I think so. I suppose you have questions. Well, I'll answer them to the best of my abilities."

"Well that's good to hear," said Wilson with some bite to his tone. "Anyway, what the hell happened back there? I knew there was a chance that this Glory would attack the base but that . . . you didn't tell us anything that could have warned us about that sort of thing happening."

"I wasn't expecting it," admitted Rachel. "Demons would never normally co-operate like that and Glory was not sane enough to summon up such forces according to my intelligence."

"Your intelligence seems to have been sorely lacking then."

"Yes," said Rachel without rancour. "Perhaps the anger focussed her mind; perhaps she wasn't as insane as she pretended to be. I doubt we'll ever know. She's dead now, after all, and dead people are hard to interrogate."

"That I can agree with," said Wilson. "From now on I want more comprehensive information sharing regarding the supernatural world. We need to know more about these things before they come back to haunt us."

"I cannot argue with that," said Rachel. "Perhaps you should employ someone like Giles as an advisor on the supernatural. I know quite a lot but I haven't got the years of experience that someone like that has and I have other duties you won't want me to neglect."

"It's being considered," said Wilson shortly. "It's not really our area but we can't afford to get caught out like that. We're also looking into hiring some witches like your friend Willow. That was some impressive firepower."

"No," said Rachel very quickly. "Stay away from that. That sort of dark magic is as dangerous to the people using it as it is to the people it's being used on."

"Didn't look that way to me," said Wilson. "Looked pretty damn lethal to the person it was used on though. Managed to weaken 'em a whole lot by the looks of it."

"You don't want me to go Sith Lord, do you?" asked Rachel. "Well you don't want a dark witch hanging around anymore than you want a Sith Lord. And using that sort of magic will make you a dark witch sooner rather than later."

"Well, it looked to me like it might just be worth the risk," said Wilson. "That sort of bang isn't easy to get from a normal weapon."

"You have no idea of the forces you are tampering with," said Rachel, her voice growing cold. "What do you think would happen if a witch was corrupted by that power? Do you think they would hold any loyalty to your organisation? You could defeat them, perhaps, but it would be costly."

"Fine," said Wilson. "We'll shelve that idea then. What about Potter, then?"

"I don't know," said Rachel. "Ask him. Different form of magic, not one I'm overly familiar with. He has his own issues that would come with using him."

"Yes," said Wilson. "We've been talking to him about that and we're not happy that he neglected to inform us of his legal status. And we're not happy that you didn't tell us something was wrong there either. That isn't the sort of thing you should be hiding from a military organisation."

"It isn't," agreed Rachel. "But I'm not really military and it was his secret to tell, not mine. It didn't affect his work at any point that I'm aware of, so it didn't seem worth worrying about."

Wilson just sighed. "It's not really worth arguing about," he said. "Not now. But don't do anything like that again. It would make people doubt your loyalty to X-COM, and that would be troublesome."

"I gave my word when I signed up," said Rachel shortly. "And I don't appreciate people doubting that."

"Who would?" asked Wilson. "Just keep it in mind. I might be the Supreme Commander but it's the funding nations that hold the power in the end, and not all of them are happy with your existence."

"Typical," said Rachel with a sigh. "Well, they'll just have to deal with it because I'm going nowhere."

"And that's the sort of attitude that worries them," said Wilson. "But I don't suppose you care. Anyway, what is it about that girl that made her so important to this Glory?"

"She's very powerful," said Rachel carefully. "Sacrificing her would have allowed Glory to break the barriers between this dimension and her own, and that would have been catastrophic. We would have become an outpost of hell."

"You're very powerful too," said Wilson. "Couldn't she have just used you for this sacrifice?"

"I would not have been suitable," said Rachel. "I would be far too difficult to keep subdued long enough in any event."

"Hmm," said Wilson, giving Rachel a measuring look before continuing. "Well, I don't suppose that's terribly important now. What are you going to do about the girl now?"

"What do you mean?" asked Rachel cautiously.

"Well, she didn't look terribly Jedi-like when she was stabbing Glory in the back," said Wilson. "And the last thing I need to be dealing with is a female version of Darth Vader."

"Oh, that," said Rachel. "Well, I'm going to train her of course. Sooner rather than later after what happened, I expect."

"Well good luck with that," said Wilson with a snort. "Just be careful with it. If things go wrong with her, well, that'd be unpleasant."

"In that event," said Rachel in an ice-cold tone of voice, "I would deal with her. That is not X-COM business."

"We'll see," said Wilson. "We just can't afford to have anything running around that might get in the way of beating the aliens."

"The world's full of demons already," said Rachel. "Don't they count?"

"We have plans afoot to deal with that problem," said Wilson. "They won't be an issue for much longer if we have a say in it."

"I hope you know what you're doing."

"Oh, we do," said Wilson. "We might not be occult experts but we know how to do some damage when we put our minds to it."

The rest of the day passed in meditation as Rachel sought to enhance her own rate of healing much as she had done for Faith without the unfortunate side-effect of rendering herself entirely insensate. It was not quite as effective as a true healing trance would be, but then Rachel wasn't willing to render herself defenceless if it could be avoided, even in this relatively safe location. One of the things you learn very early on as a Sith is that there is no such thing as true safety, and those reflexes do not just disappear when you stop using the Dark Side.

The meditation proved to be quite effective in the end. While she could not regrow her lost limb or truly repair the damage done, she could accelerate the rate at which she healed from it well enough. By the time the doctor came to perform her checks the next morning, there was no justifiable reason for Rachel to be kept in the hospital wing of the base, and she was released despite the doctor's lack of enthusiasm for the idea.

Getting from the hospital wing to her rooms proved to be quite the exercise in patience. She was rather unable to use her normal bag of tricks for avoiding people when confined to a wheelchair and virtually everyone they ran across on the way seemed to want to shake her hand or thank her or, well, you get the idea. And no matter how many times she told that she'd just been doing her duty there always seemed to be more people for her to run across.

That pattern would thankfully taper off after a few days but the new aura of respect didn't dissipitate. It wasn't that the soldiers hadn't respected her before after a fashion - she'd been on a mission with some of them and more than held her own, and there'd always been the rumours about how she was recruited - but now it was just more. They looked at her as if she was some sort of superhero or something. It was not something she enjoyed at all; it was just far too reminiscent of Revan's life. The Republic's troops had looked at her like that once as well, and look what happened to them.

Almost as soon as she was released from the hospital wing she returned to work, and that was an odd one. The entire lab complex her team used fell silent as she wheeled herself in - she drew the line at having Giles escort her to work - and then everyone stood up. Rachel couldn't help but furrow her brow as she tried to figure out just what the hell was going on. And then they broke out into a rather vigorous round of applause.

"Why you're almost warming the cockles of my cold, dead heart, people," said Rachel. "Now get back to work. We still have aliens to be dealing with."

And with some grumbling - good-natured grumbling to be sure - they went back to what they'd been doing before Rachel showed up. She took a look around the room, taking in the fact there seemed to be several faces missing - and then wheeled herself into her office. And for a moment she stopped dead. The in-tray was a most fearsome sight indeed. Ah well. She could delegate that to Denver. As she took a place behind her desk, her office door slid open allowing both John and Sarah entry.

"We'd have been to see you earlier," said John. "But they were being pretty fussy about who was allowed to come and see you in hospital."

"Odd," said Rachel. She could think of several reasons why they might prohibit visitors but neither Sarah nor John were the assassin types and it wasn't like she was in the sort of supreme commander position that she'd been as Revan where a grave injury to her would result in massive morale loss if news got out.

"I thought so," said John. "So how are you? And I didn't know they had electric wheelchairs in the hospital wing here."

"They don't," said Rachel.

"So . . . oh," said John. "Well, that's handy. I didn't know Jedi could do that sort of thing."

"Just an application of telekinesis," said Rachel. "I suppose everyone's twigged on now that I'm a Jedi?"

"Well, duh," said Sarah. "What do you expect? What I want to know is how?"

"Magic," said Rachel.

"Uh, what?" said John. "You're a witch pretending to be a Jedi? Well, that still begs the question of how being that magic isn't supposed to be possible."

"Will you just stop going on about that," said Sarah. "We all saw that red-head blow the woman-thing up with a few words. Magic exists. Deal with it."

John at that point began mumbling under his breath about those damn kids and needing some whiskey before he could deal with this nonsense.

"Actually it was a spell gone very wrong that turned me into someone with Jedi potential," said Rachel. "The details aren't overly important but a series of flukes basically resulted in my merging with a spirit of a fictional character summoned from an alternate dimension."

"Revan," said Sarah. "You're Revan! That's so cool!"

"Darth Revan, actually," said Rachel. "The spirit of Revan summoned was just as she was dying from Malak's betrayal."

"Okay, that's not so cool."

"I'm not exactly the biggest Star Wars fan in the world," said John. "But aren't 'Darth's the bad guys?"

"They are," confirmed Rachel with a slight nod.

"Well," said John. "That's not good. It isn't, right?"

"It wasn't," said Rachel. "It makes little difference now though. I am a Jedi, not a Sith Lord."

"Well that's good to hear," said John. "Because I really don't want to be strangled over a video monitor next time I make a mistake."

"I'm saving that for Denver," said Rachel dryly. "Now, how many casualties did the department suffer, and how badly damaged is HK-47?"

"We lost six," said John. "Roger Osborne, Andrew Jones, Ian Porter, Lisa Westwood, Daniel Dobson, and Ashley Kay are all dead. There weren't any major injuries suffered outside of those six but everyone's pretty well shook up by what happened."

"HK's a real mess," said Sarah. "She blew holes right through his abdomen; looks like a major job to fix and the armour's a goner completely."

"Wonderful," said Rachel. "That's going to cost a fortune to replace. John, any news on leave? I can't expect that the commander won't give time off to the staff after a battle like that."

"They're going to be rotating people out starting soon," he said. "As it is, we're not working all that hard right now. People just aren't up to it."

"That's fair enough," said Rachel. "I'd appreciate if you kept an eye on things though. I have a feeling that some of the staff may not be at their most stable right now and I'm too distant from most of them to notice any trouble that might arise before it's too late."

"You think they might get violent?" asked John with a raised eyebrow.

"I rather doubt that," said Rachel. "I'm more worried about traumatised civilians reacting poorly to being put through that battle. Post-traumatic stress and the like, you know?"

"And what about me?" asked John with a raised eyebrow.

"You're too damned ornery to get that," said Rachel

Work was slow and rather tedious from that point onwards. The staff simply weren't up to the heavy workload required to get the new technologies working so Rachel spent most of her time trying to work on HK. And try really was the operative word there. With a leg missing and being stuck in a wheelchair, her manoeuvrability was rather more limited than normal, and by the time she'd gotten even close to used to it and able to compensate she'd have an artificial leg wired in.

Eventually Rachel caught Mrs. Summers on her own and they had a conversation that neither really wanted to have but had both known was coming since the battle. It truly wasn't something that Rachel was looking forward to; she expected it to be difficult, but knew that it was necessary.

"It's time, Mrs. Summers," said Rachel. "Your daughter must be trained as a Jedi."

"We agreed that she would be trained till she was an adult," said Mrs. Summers abruptly. "Not till she was old enough to make an informed decision."

"Our hand has been forced," said Rachel. "The Sith will have felt her loss of control and use of the Dark Side. There's no chance she can avoid the need for training now."

"There has to be a way," said Mrs. Summers quietly. "There has to be."

"There isn't," said Rachel. "The only possible solution I can think of now would be to strip her of her connection to the Force, and I'm not sure I could do that to her even if I was willing to do such a monstrous thing."

"And why not?" demanded Mrs. Summers. "If it would keep her safe, why not?"

"You do not understand what you are asking of me," said Rachel, her voice growing cool. "This is the equivalent of thumbing someone's eyes out or slicing their tongue off. It is a monstrous thing to do to a person! And even then I don't think I could. Dawn's connection to the Force runs too deep to be easily severed or blocked, and I am only a single person no matter how powerful or skilled I am."

"It . . . it would be that bad?"

"Worse," said Rachel. "There aren't words to describe how that would feel, to be cut off so completely from something that is so all-encompassing. The trauma of it would change a person forever."

"Well then that's out," said Mrs. Summers. "But there has to be something. Can't you hide her?"

"Perhaps," said Rachel. "But that would require her to be in my company all day, every day which is little safer than sending her out to face the Sith without Jedi training. It would also require me to spend considerably energy on cloaking her presence that would be rather difficult to maintain if I entered battle or, even worse, if I was injured."

"So there is no choice," said Mrs. Summers, her expression glum. "She has to be trained."

"Yes," said Rachel. "Don't worry, Mrs. Summers, I'll make sure no harm comes to her beyond the usual lumps you get from serious physical training."


"I'm not worried about that," said Mrs. Summers. "I know you won't let her get hurt if you can help it. I just don't want her turning out like those people in the new film with their 'there is no emotion; there is peace' nonsense. Oh don't look so surprised. I did my research when I found out about Dawn."

"Obviously," said Rachel. "Well, that's a relatively new philosophy for the Jedi, and I don't follow it myself. Revan was one of the first products of that approach, and I think that speaks for itself. It is a failed philosophy, and I do not teach my students to be failures."

"So you won't be teaching Dawn that?"

"No," said Rachel. "That code is a failure. Denying emotion is a quick path to utter failure. The key is to acknowledge the emotion, to feel it, and then to do the right thing anyway."

"Well that's better," said Mrs. Summers somewhat doubtfully. "But she'll be allowed to get married and have children if she wants to, right?"

"That will be her decision to make," said Rachel. "She may decide on her own that the responsibilities of a Jedi Knight are not compatible with those of marriage. Many do."

"I don't like it," said Mrs. Summers. "But I don't think I have a choice. Better that she ends up spending the rest of her life fighting like Buffy than the other options."

"Indeed," said Rachel. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry. I did not want things to turn out this way. Events have moved entirely beyond my control."

And then Rachel left Mrs. Summers to face the fact that her daughter was about to join up with an Order that would be in a perpetual state of war till the Sith were exterminated. Now that she'd persuaded Mrs. Summers to not stand in the way of training Dawn, she only had to deal with Dawn herself.

Getting Dawn alone to have the conversation proved to be something that was easier said than done. The girl was much sneakier than Rachel remembered her being and being confined to a wheelchair made it pretty much impossible to sneak up on people like she had in the past. But she managed it eventually. Age and treachery defeated youth and enthusiasm once more, and Mrs. Summers arranged for Dawn to be caught alone in the quarters that been allocated to the Summers family when they'd been evacuated to the base.

"You've been avoiding me, Dawn," said Rachel as she wheeled herself into the quarters.

Dawn positively jumped out of her skin before she turned on her heel to face Rachel. "Have not!"

"Oh really?" asked Rachel, somewhat amused.

"Nuh-huh," said Dawn. "I'm not avoiding you."

"Hmm," said Rachel. "So why did I have to arrange for you to be left alone here with your mother?"

"No reason really," said Dawn quickly. "Things have just been hectic."

"Telling bald-faced lies to a Jedi Knight?" asked Rachel. "Not the most intelligent thing you've ever done, Dawn."


"I think I can guess why," said Rachel. "It's not difficult. You think I blame you for my injuries, right? Think I'm angry with you? I'm not. Your guilt is entirely misplaced. What happened was Glory's fault and Glory's fault alone."


"No buts," said Rachel sternly. "You hold no responsibility for what happened to me and the other who were injured or killed by Glory."

Dawn looked like she was going to burst into tears for just a moment before she forced it back.

"Anyway, that's not why I want to talk to you," said Rachel. "Not really."

"Then what?" asked Dawn. "Oh. Glory."

"Remember how you felt when you killed her?" asked Rachel. "Remember the rage? The fear? The hate? That's bad mojo, Dawn. For people like us, that's very bad mojo."

"She deserved it," said Dawn bluntly.

"Oh indeed," said Rachel. "If anyone's ever deserved death for their actions, it was Glory. But the ends don't always justify the means, Dawn. You took your first step down the dark path when you killed Glory. All that rage and hate . . . you'll have stuck out like a beacon to every Sith on the planet."

"I what?" asked Dawn. "They know?"

"Oh yes," said Rachel. "They'd have to be both Force-blind and stupid not to have felt that little eruption. You've marked yourself as the number-one candidate to become a Sith Acolyte on this planet."

Well, she wouldn't stay a mere acolyte for long if the Sith got their hands on her, but it was the principle, and there was no need to swell her head by telling her she was the number one candidate to become a Sith Lord.

"I don't want to be a Sith," said Dawn in a very small voice, her face pale.

"Well, there're ways to avoid that," said Rachel. "I wasn't really planning on starting your training so soon, but we could go that route."


"You're going to train me?"


"If you're willing."


"Yes!" said Dawn. "I'm willing!"

And got you. Always easier to get a teenager to do something arduous when they think it's their own idea.

"There's no going back on this," said Rachel. "Once you've started the training I won't release you till it's complete. No turning back."

"I can do it!" said Dawn, her expression stubborn. "I won't fail you."

"No, you won't," said Rachel. "Well, that's it then. You're now Padawan Summers of the Jedi Order.

"Isn't there supposed to be, like, a ceremony or something?" asked Dawn. "And don't I have to get a braid?"

"Ceremony?" asked Rachel. "I don't think so. I have no appetite for such wastes of time and energy. And the braid was not part of Jedi tradition in my time; unless you have some great desire to have the braid, I think we'll skip that."

"No thanks," said Dawn, one of her hands creeping up to cover her hair. Yeah, she wasn't over enamoured of that idea.

"Well, that's all for now," said Rachel as she pulled a thin book out of a lab coat pocket. "Here. Read that. Memorise it, in fact. That's the bare-bones basics you'll need to get started. I'll know if you don't read it, so don't even try to skive off."

"I won't," said Dawn, handling the book as if it was some sort of precious gem. Ah, the enthusiasm of the new. That would pass for sure.

"I'll hold to that," said Rachel. "Now, we probably won't have time to start your proper training till after my operation, so I'll expect you to really have that material down by the time we start. Understand?"

Dawn just nodded, entranced by the book. Rachel shook her head and wheeled herself out. She'd leave the girl to it. Wasn't like she was going to get any sense out of her now anyway.

Time passed quickly after the conversation with Dawn. Willow was shipped off to the coven in England that Rachel had trained with before she'd woke up from her magical exhaustion and Tara left with her. That was something that Rachel wasn't especially happy about but she couldn't argue with the necessity of Willow spending time with someone like the coven to give her a firm grounding in the proper way to use magic. She just thought that it would have been, you know, polite to clue Willow in before shipping her off. Sure, using a Dragon Slave was bad, but it wasn't that bad.

A few days after the conversation with Dawn, Rachel received word that her replacement leg was ready to be installed, and she was in for the operation almost immediately afterwards. It was then that she was informed that it would be necessary for what remained of her leg to be amputated as her forced cauterisation had effectively destroyed the nerves in it. Not something she wanted to be hearing and certainly not something that would have been necessary in the Star Wars dimension, but there wasn't much she could do about it.

At least she still had a general anaesthetic. She could deal with many things, but being awake will they hacked what was left of her leg off and wired a robotic replacement to the socket was a step beyond what she could put up with. And so she found herself waking up in a hospital bed a day after the operation feeling somewhat groggy. She took a few moments to blink and focus her eyes before she even started to think at all.

"Well, that feels weird," said Rachel, looking down the bed at where two legs were clearly visible underneath the sheets.

"I do hope that it's the sort of weird that involves a working limb," said a voice that could only be Giles from the side of her bed. "It would be rather inconvenient if we had to do this again."

"It's a bit . . . dull," said Rachel. "But that's to be expected. Metal and plastic, even with the best artificial nerves money can buy, just don't feel like flesh and bone. I'll get used to it."

"I can't claim to have much knowledge of that," said Giles. "I'll just go get the doctor. They wanted to speak with you and run some tests before you start moving around."

What followed that was the most excruciatingly boring lecture that Rachel had ever received - and she'd had lectures from Vrook! - on the proper care and use of cybernetic limbs. The fact that she was, in this dimension, the inventor of the technology didn't seem to come into it. Bloody doctors. Thankfully, they took the hint eventually from the death glare she was giving them and buggered off, leaving her to test her new limb.

Getting up on her feet was an experience. She never thought it would feel so good to be able to stand on her own two feet, but there she was smiling wide enough to feel like she was cracking her head in two just because she was stood up under her own power. Her first few steps were faltering but she soon had the new leg figured and was walking around the room as naturally as if she'd never lost a leg.

"It's working," she whooped before grabbing Giles in a bone-crushing hug and swinging him around a few times. He came rather close to falling flat on his arse when Rachel released him.

"Quite," said Giles, looking slightly dazed.

Chapter Nine

May 2001

Not long after Rachel's replacement leg was installed, Faith awoke, and Joyce then unilaterally decided that they were all going on holiday far away from aliens and demons and all the rest of it. Feeble protests had been promptly mounted and then utterly crushed under the weight of 'The Look' coming from a bona-fide mother. Such was life for the group from Sunnydale. And it hadn't been helped by Buffy and Dawn's adamant agreement that a beach holiday in Hawaii sounded very nice indeed. Ah well, she could get Dawn back for that easily enough. For every spanner Dawn threw in the works, Rachel added another kilometre to the morning runs she's be subjecting her new apprentice to. A fair trade in her opinion though she doubted Dawn would agree.

Thankfully, the flight to Hawaii was relatively short, and they were soon touching down at Lanai Airport. There had been some hassle with metal detectors as they embarked upon the journey - cybernetic limbs trigger the detectors quite thoroughly as Rachel found out - but a quick flash of some medical papers and military ID got her past that very quickly indeed. And so after a quick bus ride from the airport they were checked into the hotel, where Rachel had arranged to share her suite with Dawn.

The first morning, Rachel rose with the sun and quickly dressed in a one piece swim-suit and a pair of shorts after going through her normal morning routine. It was too damned warm for her to be wearing more with the day she had planned anyway, and it was a holiday after all. She paused for a moment to roll her shoulders and loosen her muscles up, and then she quietly opened Dawn's door and walked into her room. She actually looked quite cute did Dawn when she sleeping.

Well, she looked quite cute for the thirty or so more seconds she had before Rachel bellowed in her ear, "COME ON THEN! OUT OF BED!"

Dawn rolled over and actually fell out of her bed at that point. "Wha?" she slurred. "Where's the demon?"

"Demon?" asked Rachel her voice still raised. "You'd be so lucky. You have five minutes to get ready and then your training starts."

"Couldn't it have waited till I'd woken up?"

"Four minutes and forty seconds."

"Alright, alright," said Dawn. "I get the message. Sheesh. Slave-driver much?"

"Just get moving."

Miraculously, Dawn was ready, in a similar outfit to Rachel's, a whole twenty seconds early, her hair still wet from the very brief shower she had been able to award herself in the allotted time.

"Excellent," said Rachel. "A Jedi must not be caught lazing around in bed when trouble is afoot."

Dawn just stared at her through bleary eyes as if she'd sprouted a second head.

"Well, we'll start off easy today," said Rachel. "A brisk jog to the beach will do for a start, and then we'll work on your endurance."

"A brisk jog to the beach!?" whined Dawn. "That's a mile away!"

"Yes, you're right," said Rachel with a thoughtful look on her face. "It's not enough, is it, not for a Jedi? Well, we can make up for that on the beach itself."


"Yes, that'll do the trick," said Rachel with an air of finality as she picked up the basket of supplies she'd set up the previous night. "Come along, Dawn. We don't have all day, you know."

Rachel then turned on her heel and strode out of the room, leaving Dawn straggling in her wake.

Dawn wheezed like an old woman as she collapsed onto the sand in a heap after Rachel finished putting her through the morning run. Rachel just shook her head. She'd only ran the girl a few miles and she was ready to fold. That was going to have to change even if it was entirely unsurprising. Putting that aside, Rachel pulled a bottle of water and dropped it in front of Dawn.

"Drink," she said. "If you get dehydrated, it'll scupper the day's training before it even starts. And get up."

"Do I have to?"

"You'll cramp up something fierce if you don't," said Rachel. "And I'm not giving you time off for stupidity."

"Meanie," said Dawn, sticking her tongue out as she oh so laboriously stumbled back onto her feet. "Are you sure you're not evil?"

"Little of a, little of b," said Rachel. "Now have a drink. We don't have time to waste."

"How the hell are you so not tired?" asked Dawn, just before she took a swig from the water bottle.

"Well, that's the trick," said Rachel. "You'll get there sooner or later."

"Is that supposed to be a helpful hint?" asked Dawn.

"Not really," said Rachel. "If I gave you that trick now, then you wouldn't get the benefit of the physical training."

"Evil. That's what you are."

"That I am," said Rachel. Then she spent a long moment eyeing Dawn's figure. "Hmm. Well, you're never going to be an Amazon," she said when was finished with her evaluation. "We'll have to concentrate on building your speed and agility up."


"You're going to be taller than your sister," said Rachel. "But you're still not going to be big. How are you at gymnastics?"

"Uh, I'm OK," said Dawn. "Why?"

"It's not a bad way to build your agility and flexibility," said Rachel. "Needs pretty good upper-body strength too."

"So you're going to train me to be a gymnast?" asked Dawn with a most dubious expression on her face.

"No," said Rachel. "Competitive gymnastics is all about aesthetics. That is entirely irrelevant here. Now, can you do a handstand?"

"Um, sort of."

"Well, go on then," said Rachel. "Let's see it."

"I kinda need a wall to push off," said Dawn sheepishly.

Rachel rolled her eyes. "Wait a minute then," she said. And then with a sharp upwards motion of her hands she summoned a huge chunk of sand upwards out of the beach and then began to shape it with her mind. A few moments later there was a roughly rectangular chunk of sand sticking up out of the beach.

"Guh?" said Dawn.

"Telekinesis," explained Rachel. "You'll be able to do that yourself eventually."

Now that got Dawn's full, undivided attention. "Really?" she asked. "Cool!"

"Yes, really," said Rachel. "Now get on with it."

Dawn stared at the wall of sand for a moment before taking on a determined expression and in one quick motion planting her hands on the floor and kicking upwards into a shaky handstand using the wall for balance.

"Hmm," said Rachel. "Tuck your head in further and spread your fingers. That should give you better control."

Dawn did so, and her handstand was immediately much less shaky.

"Not bad, I suppose," said Rachel. "For a first attempt. Keep those fingers facing forwards. And you might want to think about pointing those toes upwards. It might give you an easier time of keeping your spine straight."

Dawn just grunted and followed her instructions.

"Excellent," said Rachel. "And now that's quite enough of using that wall for balance, I think."

Rachel allowed Dawn a moment to prepare herself and then she dispelled the wall, allowing the sand to return to its natural place. Dawn wobbled for a moment but managed to steady herself into a slightly wobbly but mostly right handstand.

"Now hold that," said Rachel. Dawn grunted in the affirmative so Rachel continued. "Did you understand the Jedi Code?"

"No!" said Dawn. "Emotion, yet peace. What the hell does that mean? And I thought it was supposed to be 'there is no emotion; there is peace' or something like that."

"The code in the book I gave you is the original," said Rachel. "The code you've seen in the adverts for the new film was a reaction to Exar Kun falling to the Dark Side and the damage he did as the Dark Lord. A somewhat excessive and self-defeating reaction at that. I was one of the first products of the new philosophy along with Malak, and look how that turned out."

"So you're not going to teach me to be like the film Jedi?"

"I do not teach failure," said Rachel. "The Jedi that followed that philosophy were exterminated. I assume that you have no desire to share that fate."

"No thanks," said Dawn, her arms trembling slightly as her concentration slipped while she spoke. "So what does it mean then, 'emotion, yet peace'?"

"You can no more stop feeling then you can stop being human," said Rachel. "You cannot change your fundamental nature. But a Jedi does not allow their emotions to rule them. We cannot. That path leads to disaster."

"So we're allowed to feel but not to, you know, act on what we feel?"

"Of course we can act on our feelings," said Rachel. "We just can't allow them to dominate us. Moderation is the key. Feel free to love your family and friends, but you cannot allow that to rule you. A great many Jedi have lost control and turned to the Dark Side when someone they love is hurt or killed. What would you do if someone killed your mother?"

"I'd get angry, I suppose."

"You'd want revenge wouldn't you?" asked Rachel. "Perfectly natural after all; they killed your mother, so they deserve it, don't they?"

"Well, yeah, I suppose."

"That's where the problems come," said Rachel. "You can't go off in a rage looking for vengeance. You have to be able to put your emotions aside when it becomes necessary."

"But I've seen you doing things when you're angry."

"I'm not the best example to follow," said Rachel. "I am Darth Revan after all. Or at least I was. Anyway, I'm not one to emulate."

Rachel eyes Dawn's trembling limbs. It wouldn't be long now.

"If you want an example of a good Jedi, then you should probably look at the films," said Rachel. "Qui-Gon Jinn seemed to have the right idea about things."


"Yeah," said Rachel. "I personally pay more attention to the long-term than he did, but it's a valid choice to be more interested in the moment."

Dawn might have questioned that further but her arms promptly gave out and she tumbled down to the beach in a jumble of limbs.

"Well, that was miserable," said Rachel. "Come on. Up. Get back to it."

Rachel continued to have Dawn perform handstands, now without the supporting wall of sand, for several more hours - all the while questioning her apprentice about the material in the book she'd given her before she went into surgery - till she was quite satisfied with her progress on that front for the day.

"I suppose that'll do for now," said Rachel. "I think a couple hours swimming is called for now. Get to it. And don't even think about going easy. I'll be keeping an eye on you."

"You're not coming with me?" asked Dawn, looking surprised.

"No," said Rachel. "I'm going to meditate. I assume that you can be left alone for a few hours without drowning yourself?"

"Of course," said Dawn indignantly with the sort of wounded pride that only a teenager can manage.

"Well leave your shorts here and get to it then," said Rachel.

Dawn was off like a shot, probably happy to get away from Rachel's somewhat less than merciful training. She'd be so lucky. Rachel just shook her head and assumed a cross-legged seated position as she started to clear her mind of conscious thought and drift into the currents of the Force. She'd had a strange feeling in her gut for days now, a feeling of an approaching storm, and she wanted to know what was going on.

It didn't take long for Rachel to slip away from her physical concerns and move into the Force, and then it was just a matter of finding the right current in the Force and following that to its logical conclusion. Well, maybe not that easy, but it was something that Rachel had always had some proficiency in as Revan though she hadn't made great use of the talent herself since that Halloween. It was as much a side-effect of her bizarrely strong connection to the Force as anything else really.

But this time she found herself frustrated. Something wasn't quite right and the vision she was searching for simply was not coming. And so she plunged deeper into the Force, immersing herself in it even more completely. Something was wrong here and she wanted to know what it was. Obscuring her vision was not something done casually or easily. If it was the Sith, well, that was worrying, for one of them to grow in power so quickly . . . that would be a concern.

Eventually she found the problem, the darkness crawling in at the edges of her connection to the Force and obscuring her vision. Such a technique was a trademark of the Sith but it did not feel like it had been done by a Sith. Odd. Well, either way, it was intolerable. She would not allow for her ability to use the Force to be diminished in such a way. She flexed her mental muscles and lashed out with all her strength at the shackles that were trying to tie her down.

Of course, the darkness would not take this lying down, and Rachel found herself embroiled in a battle of wills. At first it was easy, and the darkness fell back as her power overwhelmed it. But it did not last. The darkness seemed to grow and swell in power as she battled it. Every time she gained an advantage, it seemed to gain more strength from somewhere and her frustration grew. This just wasn't working. No single mind could be this powerful, not when it had been so weak to begin with . . .

And there was the key. It wasn't one mind; it was many minds working in concert in an attempt to defeat her powers. Well, that was useful knowledge. It certainly wasn't the Sith then because they couldn't work in concert like this; their very nature prevented it. Well, multiple minds gave more power but it also gave vulnerabilities. Rachel compressed her presence within the Force to a microscopic size and the darkness receded somewhat believing her defeated. She allowed that status quo to remain for a few moments and then she lashed out with all her power at one single point in the darkness.

The barrier broke.

Rachel saw a world aflame with war. Entire cities burned as the most horrendous of weapons were deployed against them, the streets ran with the blood of the innocent and the guilty alike, and all the while she could feel the cold, uncaring presence of the aliens. She tried to focus in closer, to get some more useful information, but the vision blurred. She couldn't make out the details of who was fighting this war, who had started it, or anything useful at all.

And then the vision ended and Rachel found herself abruptly dumped back on the beach.

"Well, that was a waste of time," she grumbled, as she stood up and stretched to get the blood flowing again. Like she hadn't already known they were at war and it could get bad. "Absolute waste."

Her thoughts were interrupted by a wolf-whistle from behind her. Rachel suan around ready to deliver a cutting retort but was stopped short when she was that the wolf-whistle had come from Faith, who was lounging on a towel in a very skimpy bikini.

"What was a waste of time?" asked Mrs. Summers, looking over her sunglasses from her own position lounging on a towel in a much more modest swimsuit.

"Just trying to figure something out," said Rachel smoothly. "Nothing terribly critical, I don't think."

"So you were sat there all that time for nothing important?" asked Mrs. Summers. "I have a hard time believing that."

Rachel shrugged. "Jedi meditate," she said. "It's what we do. Meditation centres us; helps keep us on an even keel. It's rarely all that important."

"Right," said Mrs. Summers. "So how's Dawn doing?"

"Acceptably," said Rachel. "Well, for her first day anyway. She has a long way to go."

After Rachel dispatched Dawn on another marathon run, she was approached by Faith.

"Yo, Darth," she said. "How you doing?"

"I'm quite alright, Faith," said Rachel. "You're the one that got knocked into a coma."

"Tell me about it, said Faith a grimace. "I wake up and my hair's had big chunks shaved out of it. Not funny."

"Never thought of you as vain before, Faith," said Rachel with a somewhat amused smile on her face.

"Hey, I ain't vain," said Faith. "I just like to look good and didn't appreciate looking like some sort of nuthouse escapee."

"I suppose I can appreciate that," said Rachel. "I wouldn't be too happy with something like that myself."

"Course you wouldn't," said Faith. "You're always immaculate. Not a hair out of place and all that. Anyway, why're you walking 'round like that? I thought you'd be switching over straight away."

Rachel's expression took a bleak turn at that. That was not a topic she enjoyed thinking about.

"What?" asked Faith. "What's with the long face?"

"I do not suppose that you understand how my replacement limb works," said Rachel. "I don't suppose it matters really. To sum it up: I can't change anymore. Well, I could, but the consequences of it would not be pleasant and I could well end up a cripple."

"Wait a sec," said Faith. "A cripple? How?"

"The limb is wired into my central nervous system," said Rachel. "If the central nervous system changes while the limb's still attached . . . it wouldn't be pleasant."

"Shit, that sucks," said Faith. "No way around it?"

"Not that I can think of right now," said Rachel. "I don't really trust magic to work with this sort of technology so I'm at a loss. It's certainly not worth running the risk of crippling myself."

"You'll find a way, Darth," said Faith. "So quit it with the moping. Ah, hell with it."

Faith had obviously tired of using words to bolster Rachel's spirits at that point because she grabbed hold of the much taller woman and pulled her into a kiss that just about set the Jedi's blood to boil.

"See," said Faith as she released the rather stunned Rachel. "S'not the end of the world even if you are stuck. But you'll find a way. You always do."

Rachel just nodded somewhat dumbly. She hadn't been expecting that; that much was for sure. Jedi senses really didn't catch everything.

Later on that day, after she felt that Dawn had been ran suitably ragged, Rachel took her apprentice to an abandoned stretch of beach and sat her down in a meditative position. Rachel didn't think she'd ever seen anyone look as relieved as Dawn did when she told her that they were going to stop the physical training for a while.

"Close your eyes," instructed Rachel.

"Okay," said Dawn. "Now what?"

"Concentrate on your breathing," said Rachel. "In, out. In, out. Let the conscious world fade away. In, out. It's not important. In, out. Keep focussing on those breathes."

After a while, Rachel felt the change in Dawn's presence, a slight focussing that heralded the beginning stages of a new trainee consciously establishing their connection with the Force.

"I feel it," said Dawn in a breathless tone of voice. "I feel . . . everything. The rotation of the Earth, the tides, the birds in the sky, the people on the beach . . . I feel it all."

Rachel nodded though Dawn couldn't see her. This was, well, not quite normal, but expected.

"I feel so much," continued Dawn. "Too much. It hurts. It hurts! Make it stop!"

Rachel gathered her strength and reached out to stifle Dawn's fledgling connection to the Force. It took a surprising amount of effort, but then she'd never quite done such a thing before. You can't stifle an experienced Force user in such a way and Revan had never trained someone from scratch.

"That was the Force, Dawn," said Rachel. "You've taken your first steps into a larger world."

"I guessed that, Obi-Wan," said Dawn caustically. "But it hurt. No-one ever told me that it would hurt!"

"For most people it doesn't," said Rachel. "You have a far deeper connection to the Force than most can ever dream of having, Dawn, and the human mind can only process so much information at once."

"Oh wonderful," said Dawn. "So being a Jedi is going to hurt?"

"Oh no," said Rachel with a laugh. "You're not the first to have this problem, there's always one or two a generation that have it. It just means you're going to have to move a little quicker in your training that most would and learn to filter the inputs, so to speak, earlier than most would."

"Did you have it?"

"Oh yes," said Rachel. "I had it. So did Malak. Don't worry; it won't be too long before you can touch the Force at will without worries of pain."

"You're sure?"

"Of course," said Rachel. "I use the Force well enough, don't I? You know what? I think we'll start on those filters right now. No time like the present after all."

Teaching Dawn how to filter the information she received from the Force took the rest of the day. It was not an easy process, not for a neophyte at Dawn's level, but Dawn was not dull-witted and seemed to have the basics of the idea down by the time the sun fell.

That night when Rachel entered her bedroom in the hotel suite she found herself faced by the rather familiar but still very pleasant sight of a stark naked Faith.

"Yo, Darth," she said. "I got an itch that needs scratching. Problem?"

"Not at all," said Rachel, kicking the door closed and quickly erecting multiple silencing and privacy spells around the room. "Not at all."

Rachel didn't have the time, energy, or inclination to spare a thought for her missing male body that night, or for the other nights that Faith would spend with her that holiday.

It was several days later as Rachel watched Dawn huff her way through her currently assigned exercise - running the length of the beach while carrying a backpack full of rocks - that Mrs. Summers approached Rachel.

"I thought I signed my daughter up to be a Jedi, not a Navy SEAL," said Mrs. Summers looking somewhat town between amusement and anger.

Rachel tapped her chin in thought. "Well . . . Navy SEALs would be less educated than a Jedi normally," she said finally.

Mrs. Summers just gaped at her.

"Well, think of it this way," said Rachel. "She'll be able to run away from trouble really fast when I'm through with her."

Mrs. Summers still hadn't stopped gaping.

"It's necessary," said Rachel, taking on a more serious expression. "She's going into a dangerous profession, and I'm going to give Dawn every edge that I can. Physical fitness is damn useful, even for a Jedi. Healthy body, healthy mind - the principle applies to us just as much as normal people."

"But does the training have to be so . . . extreme?"

"Oh yes," said Rachel. "Once this holiday's over my time with Dawn will be much more limited. I need to get her into shape before she has schooling to deal with and I have my work interfering."

"It just seems so harsh," said Mrs. Summers. "She's only fifteen."

"It's a harsh world," said Rachel. "The Sith won't care that she's fifteen. Glory certainly didn't. Youth just makes her more malleable, more vulnerable to their twisted teachings."

"Can't you protect her from them?"

"To an extent," said Rachel with a small frown on her face. "I will protect Dawn with my life if necessary, but there's only one of me and I have many responsibilities these days. And the Sith are a cunning foe."

"That is not what I wanted to hear."

"Oh I wouldn't worry too much if I were you," said Rachel. "The Sith are highly unlikely to dare draw my attention at this stage. It'll be years before that'll seem like a good idea to them."

"Well, you might want to let mini-B off this one before she has a heart attack or something," said Faith. "She ain't looking too good out there."

"She's fine," said Rachel dismissively. "Just a little winded and sore from the weight. I'll send her off swimming when she's done with this and she'll be fine for the next exercise."

"Better her than me," muttered Buffy from her position sprawled out on a sun-lounger.

As the days passed, Dawn got stronger and stronger, and Rachel kept upping the requirements of the exercises she set. It was quite remarkable how quickly Dawn's physical condition improved but then she was unconsciously using the Force to extend her physical abilities by then so she could keep going long past the point when a normal person would drop down unable to continue, and she grew in strength much quicker for that.

And so Rachel found herself whittling out some wooden practice swords in her free-time as she left Dawn to a rather torturous series of flips and twists on a set of uneven bars she had conjured from the sand. It was time to begin on the area of training that everyone associated with Jedi - sword-fighting, though there wouldn't be lightsabres involved just yet.

When Dawn was finished with the uneven bars, Rachel tossed her a sword and rose to her feet.

"Today we will begin on the basics of lightsabre combat," announced Rachel. "We shall start with Form I, Shii-Cho."

"Without a lightsabre?" asked Dawn, looking somewhat perplexed.

"The principles are the same," said Rachel. "And it's a good idea for you to be familiar with physical weapons and not just lightsabres at this point in time. Swords are much easier to acquire."

"Right," said Dawn.

"Shii-Cho is the oldest and most basic form of lightsabre combat practiced," said Rachel. "It arose from ancient sword-fighting techniques practiced before the invention of the lightsabre and all other forms of lightsabre combat derive from it. In Earth terms, it is somewhat similar to kendo, though somewhat less rigid and formalised for sporting purposes.

"There are six target zones in Shii-Cho. The head, both arms, body, and both legs," said Rachel. "The form consists of parries and attacks that are designed to defend and attack these target zones as well as the training drills called velocities, or katas as they are known on Earth."

"Why are they called velocities?"

"I seriously have no idea," said Rachel. "But it's not really important. We'll start by working on your stance. The standard stance for lightsabre combat is the basic neutral stance. You hold your weapon at your waist so that it's pointed just above the head of your opponent - no, a little lower than that, the glow of a lightsabre blade would obscure your vision if you held it like that - and on your dominant side, so to the right for you. Also draw your dominant foot back - not that far back, Dawn - and, yes, that's it. Hold that. Remember that."

"Like this?"

"Yes, like that," said Rachel. "Hold that. Memorise it. There are other stances but that one will never let you down."

Rachel then spent the next three hours running Dawn through the basic attacks and parries of the Shii-Cho form as well as some of the training drills that would allow her to master the moves. She was a quick study but somewhat over-eager and quick to leap before she had quite got the moves down. Nothing terribly out-of-line for a beginner really.

When Rachel was satisfied with Dawn's progress for the day with the sword, she moved on to hand-to-hand combat, using the Echani forms that she'd learned from Yusanis during the Mandalorian Wars. Of course, hand-to-hand combat attracted the attention of the two Slayers that had been up to that point quite content lounging around on the beach. Their involvement did not please Rachel. Suffice to say that Buffy and Faith bouncing around doing martial arts in their bikinis attracted far more attention from the others using the beach than Rachel was comfortable dealing with.

It was several days later, as Rachel was sparring with Dawn using the wooden swords and restricting herself to the Shii-Cho form, that she felt an all too familiar presence approaching and stiffened up. Dawn attempted to take advantage of the distraction but Rachel absent-mindedly batted her aside and turned to face the approaching presence.

"Hey," said Oz. Before he could say anything else, Rachel knocked him out cold with a beauty of a right hook that caught him flush on the point of his jaw. It would have done Muhammad Ali proud that punch.

"That was a bit harsh, wasn't it?" grumbled Dawn, picking herself up from where she had landed.

"He deserved it," said Rachel.

"I'm not talking about him," whined Dawn. "I'm talking about me. You didn't have to whack me around like that."

"Quite your whinging," said Rachel. "Or I'll have you run a marathon with Buffy sitting on your back."

"Yes, master," said Dawn quickly.

"I think that'll have to be all for today," said Rachel. "Go spend some time in the hotel's Jacuzzi or something because I'm going to work you hard tomorrow to make up for this interruption."

Dawn was gone before Rachel had even finished speaking. Rachel waited for her to reach a sufficient distance and then reached out with the nose and slapped Oz awake.

"Ouch," said Oz from his position sprawled out on the sand. "Was that really called for?"

"What do you want?" asked Rachel, her voice flat.

"Demons want to talk to you," said Oz. "Want to make peace."

Rachel actually laughed at that. "You're joking, right?" she asked. "Why on Earth would demons expect me to give a damn? And why would they want peace in the first place?"

"They're scared," said Oz simply. "They don't want to die."

"And?" asked Rachel.

"Not all demons are big on the evil," said Oz. "They just want to be left alone."

"I'm not seeing how this is my problem," said Rachel, though the part of her that was a good little Jedi experienced a twinge of conscience when she said that. "And what brought this on anyway?"

"I think having just about every Wolfram and Hart office in the world suddenly go boom might have something to do with it," said Oz. "Kinda makes people sit up and pay attention."

"I suppose it would," said Rachel. "But why send you?"

"I'm a werewolf," said Oz.

"And they thought this would endear you to me?" asked Rachel.

"No-one else to send that you wouldn't just kill," said Oz. "And we were friends."

"I suppose so," said Rachel. "So what do these non-evil demons want from me?"

"They want to talk to you," said Oz. "There's a club in LA, Caritas, ran by a demon. Faith'll know it. Anyway, he's a pretty good guy and he's speaking for the neutral and good demons on this."

"And you're sure this isn't an ambush of some sort?" asked Rachel. "Not some stupid attempt to get rid of me?"

"Caritas has anti-violence wards," said Oz. "No fighting allowed."

"I suppose it can't hurt to listen," said Rachel. "I haven't been on enough insane missions recently anyway."

"Cool," said Oz. "I'll tell him you'll show up sometime."

"You do that," said Rachel, turning away to make her own way back to the hotel.

"Is Willow here?" asked Oz before Rachel could leave, his voice unmistakably hopeful by Oz's standards.

"No, she isn't," said Rachel turning around to face Oz once more. "Right now isn't a good time for you to show up in Willow's life, Oz. She's got issues to deal with, and you showing up won't help. All that unresolved stuff would just get in the way. If you care about her, truly care about her, then you'll at least leave it for a few months till she's in a state to deal with you."

"Right," said Oz, shoving his hands into his pockets and affecting an air of not being bothered. "Well, I suppose I'll see you later then."

"The others might want to see you, you know," said Rachel.

"Doubt it," said Oz. "I have places I have to be anyway."

And then he was gone. Rachel made no attempt to stop him.

"You are joking," said Giles. "Right?"

Given the looks Rachel was receiving, it seemed that everyone else in the group agreed with Gile's assessment of what she had told them.

"I sensed no deception from Oz," said Rachel. "And his aura bore no signs of training in the abilities required to deceive my senses; it was as unfocussed as any normal person's aura."

"He could have been deceived himself," pointed out Giles. "While he is an intelligent young man, he is not infallible."

"Good demons," said Faith. "Since when?"

Rachel shrugged. "I have no idea," she said. "I suppose there must be some or they'd all just be out killing and not hanging around in demon bars for their food. I think it's worth checking out."

"You what?" said Mrs. Summers. "This has 'trap' written all over it."

Rachel shrugged. "Sometimes the best way to deal with a trap is to spring it and see what happens," she said.

"You're insane," announced Buffy. "Seriously, you are. For all you know, there could be an army of demons there waiting for you."

"Buffy's right," said Giles. "It's far too likely that there'll be some sort of trap there waiting for you and the trap they'd use for you at this stage would be horrendous."

"You're forgetting something," said Rachel. "The Force is strong with me. I'd kinda notice a trap that big before it was sprung and be able to take steps."

"I think you have too much faith in your abilities," said Mrs. Summers. "Why risk your life like this?"

"Because it is my duty," said Rachel. "And I'll take HK with me anyway; maybe even get a detachment of X-COM troops with me as well. I won't be unprepared."

"Well I'm coming with you too," said Faith. "I know 'bout the place and it's supposed to be peaceful, but I ain't trusting that with your life."

"Me too," said Buffy. "Two Slayers and a Jedi . . . they won't want to face that."

"You . . . you can't be serious," sputtered Mrs. Summers. "You're going to risk your lives on the small chance that this isn't a trap?"

"Oh I'll minimise the risk," said Rachel. "I'll go in with enough force in backup that they'll rue the day they ever crossed me if they tried anything, but I don't think this is a trap . . . it just doesn't feel like one, it feels genuine."

Mrs. Summers could not be convinced of the correctness of Rachel's decision but this was not something Rachel would be swayed on. She would go. And she would listen.

The rest of the holiday proceeded relatively uneventfully by the standards of someone who was raised in Sunnydale. There were no demon attacks, no random dark witches stirring up trouble, and no bizarre events with random interactions of mystical energies and human belief. So it was quiet. Of course, for Dawn, a demon attack would have been most welcome, because Rachel ran her ragged and gave her almost no respite.

Chapter Ten

June 2001

"Commander Miller wants to speak to you, ma'am," said the soldier on gate duty when Rachel turned up back at the base.

"Wonder what I've done this time," said Rachel. "Well, thank you, soldier. I appreciate the heads-up."

"Just doing my job, ma'am."

"Right," said Rachel. "Come on, Dawn. Best not keep the commander waiting, I think."

It proved to be a fairly quick journey from the entrance of the base to the commander's office when the base's staff compliment was still depleted from the attack and the amount of people sent on leave afterwards. Rachel was waved on through to see the commander as soon as she entered the reception area of his office, and after gesturing for Dawn to wait outside she did so.

"You wanted to see me, commander?" asked Rachel.

"Yes," said Miller. "Sit down. Make yourself comfortable. We have quite a bit to talk about, I think."

"Sounds ominous," said Rachel as she perched herself on one of the chairs Miller had in front of his desk.

"Well, I'm not particularly happy with some of your decisions," said Miller. "You should have told me about Potter. That's not the sort of secret that should be kept by a soldier, and you know better than to let it slide."

"True," admitted Rachel. "But I had other things on my mind at the time as you'll recall. X-COM was far from my thoughts."

"And afterwards?" asked Miller. "You should have told us. Hell, you should have told us he was a wizard right back at the beginning when he first showed up here. I'm still not entirely sure how he even got recruited with his paperwork."

"My guess?" asked Rachel. "Magic. Or bribery."

"Probably," said Miller. "I'd rather not think about it. If I did, I might have to get rid of him, and he's a fine soldier. But why didn't you give me a heads up on the wizard thing, Giles? That's really not something that you should have kept to yourself."

"There are laws about that," said Rachel. "As bizarre as the situation with those wizards is, I still thought it best to leave it to Harry."

"Hmm," said Miller. "Well, you should have told us. Abilities like he has might have come in useful in the past, you know. Just knowing that he can protect himself against the Ethereals would have been damn useful. We're chronically short of psychics and have been from the start."

"Then I apologise," said Rachel.

"Well I suppose that's as good as I'll get from a civilian," said Miller. "Anyway, that's not really why I wanted to see you. Got some things to talk about with your job."

"Really?" asked Rachel. "Like what? You've got them to put me in a combat unit like you wanted at the beginning?"

"I wish," said Miller with a tight smile. "No, you won't be getting out of the lab anytime soon. You've been promoted again."

Rachel blinked. "Well, that was quick," she said. "I didn't think I had enough time in service for OF-5."

"You wouldn't normally," said Miller. "But you're not really military so that's not so important. And you're not being promoted to OF-5. You're being promoted to OF-6 and placed in overall charge of the base's research facilities. Lot of responsibility that."

"I think I can handle it," said Rachel dryly.

"Yeah," said Miller. "That's not really an issue here with your past. If you can command fleets and armies, you can deal with a bunch of egg-heads. I just wanted to inform you in person and give you the paperwork."

"Oh thank you," said Rachel. "More paperwork. Just what I always wanted."

"That's life when you have rank," said Miller. "I see you brought the Summers girl back with you. You're training her now?"

"Yes," said Rachel. "She is my padawan learner."

"Well, that's good," said Miller. "We're much more comfortable with her if she's being trained as a Jedi. Less risky that way, we figure."

"I agree with that," said Rachel. "But it presents some problems. I can't properly train and educate Dawn while devoting my full attention to my work here."

"Well someone of your rank should really have a staff," said Miller. "Bring in some people who can take the load off."

Rachel cocked her head. "Not a bad idea," she said. "And who would I talk to about such a thing?"

"Major Thomas deals with personnel these days," said Miller. "And see the quartermaster about getting some larger accommodations before you start bringing staff in."

"Ah, there was something else," said Rachel. "I've had contact from the supernatural world; apparently, your reaction to Glory's attack has stirred things up. Some of the demons aren't warlike apparently and they want peace."

"They what?" barked Miller. "They're demons. Since when do demons sue for peace?"

Rachel shrugged. "It's a new one on me too," she said. "But they seem to be genuine. I think it's worth a look."

"Well, I suppose we can send negotiators," said Miller. "See how it plays out."

"They want me."


"Well, I'm just reporting what they wanted," said Rachel. "I've already arranged for Buffy and Faith to go with me and I have no intention of leaving till HK is ready as well."

Miller just looked at her. "You're far too important to send off on some insane mission like this," he said. "This is a job for people we can afford to lose."

"People you can afford to lose don't have my infamy in the demon world," said Rachel. "Demons are pretty backwards; they respect someone like me who's killed a whole load of them like me, but not a normal diplomatic envoy."

"Seems to me that we'd be better off burning them with the rest than risking you," said Miller.

"I disagree," said Rachel. "For a start, they'd have a hard time disposing of me, and secondly I sense no deception."

"I don't like this one bit," said Miller. "I wouldn't even consider this if we didn't already have too many damn enemies."

"And there's the problem," said Rachel. "Demons might not be much of a match for you these days, but they're a distraction that can't be afforded. You've already scattered the real bad ones anyway."

"You're taking a detachment of troops with you," said Miller. "At least three teams."

"I can live with that."

"I'll get you a framework for what can be negotiated within the week. That's it, I hope? No more worlds to turn upside down today?"

"That's it."

As they left the offices, Rachel noticed a very perturbed look on Dawn's face.

"What is it, Dawn?"

"I feel like someone just walked over my grave, master" she said.

The meeting with Major Thomas proved to be exceptionally short. She'd barely had the time to get her requirements across before he booted her out of his office. Apparently the man was rather tetchy at being lumbered with a desk job after the last incumbent got himself killed. Times like that Rachel wished her rank was real military and not more about pay-scale than anything because she'd have made sure that the guy would never dare be so rude again given her rank as a real military commission.

The quartermaster, an old Warrant Officer, was much less of a pain to deal with. He asked a few questions, took the answers down, and said he'd have something arranged in a couple of days. He even apologised for the slowness of it but said it was inevitable with the sheer amount of personnel changes the base was going through after the attack.

With that lot dealt with, Rachel dropped Dawn off in her current quarters and headed off to the lab.

"John, Sarah, in my office," she said immediately as she entered her department.

"I hear congratulations are in order," said John as he settled down into one of the battered chairs Rachel kept in her office.

"Yeah, promoted again," said Sarah. "You're a real high-flier these days."

"Yeah, that's me," said Rachel. "A real high-flier. What have you two heard anyway?"

"Just that you've been promoted again," said Sarah. "Guess that means more newbies in the department to break in."


"Pretty much the same," he said. "Rumour mill's been a bit slow recently what with half the base being dead and most of the rest going on leave."

"Well, you're right, I've been promoted," said Rachel. "But it's a bit more than another number on my file. I've been promoted to OF-6, O-7, Brigadier-General, whatever you want to call it. I've been put in charge of the whole research facility."

"That's . . . that's big," said Sarah. "That means the only person you'll be answering to now is Miller. Hey, you're the same rank as him now!"

"I don't think it quite works that way," said Rachel dryly. "But I suppose I would be if I was actually military."

Sarah smiled for just a moment before it fell away. "Wait a minute," she said. "That means you won't be working with us anymore, doesn't it?"

"It could," admitted Rachel. "But I don't want it to. I'm going to need seconds to run the entire facility. And that's where I want you two to come in. You're both competent, I trust you, and we get on. Perfect."

"That's quite the promotion," said John. But before he could say anything else he was cut off.

"This wouldn't take me away from my work on elerium compounds, would it?" asked Sarah.

Rachel shook her head emphatically. "No," she said. "That work is important. It's about the only chance we have of finding a tibanna gas substitute that we can actually use."

"Oh," said Sarah. "Well, as long as I can keep working on that sure! I'll work for you as your second. No problem."

"And what about you, John?"

John shrugged. "Why not?" he asked. "Working with you is where the action is these days. The other teams working on reverse engineering the alien stuff get left in your dust."

"That's one way to look at it I suppose," said Rachel, her mouth twitching.

"And I wouldn't be able to watch you torment Denver if I wasn't working with you," said John. "That would make my working days so much less entertaining."

"You wouldn't get that compulsive need to soothe the insanity away with shots of whiskey so often either," pointed out Rachel.

"True," said John. "But I think it balances."

"So I suppose this means you'll be getting a new office," said Sarah. "No more closet-sized office for you. Lucky."

Rachel blinked. "What?" she said. "I don't want a new office. I'm quite happy here."

"Oh no, no, no," said John. "This is a department head's office. You're the facility head now.

Rachel looked around at her nice worn-in office, the chairs that had been broken in, the desk that she'd picked out herself, the shelves that were sagging under the weight of the dog-eared physics texts she'd bought, and all the rest of it.

"Well, bugger," she said. "I've gotten quite comfortable here. Anyway, is the fabricator finished?"

"It's been built according to your blueprints," said John. "Whether it'll work or not is an open question."

It was several days later as Rachel finished up the repairs on HK when one of the administrative staff dropped off a stack of personal files with a note saying that most of them were classified. Rachel couldn't help but roll her eyes. Of course the files were classified! It seemed like everyone who worked or was a candidate to work for X-COM had a file at least an inch thick full of classified material. Normal people weren't exactly the sort the organisation went for.

She tossed the files onto her desk and after quickly tidying up HK so he could be safely left alone, she started to leaf through the files. Most were utterly devoid of usefulness for her. Marines, rangers, whatever - they might be really good at what they did - would have to be to get X-COM attention - but she had no use for them whatsoever. She needed people who could handle Dawn's education and physical training. Men in their twenties whose only real qualifications were being real damn good fighters weren't going to cut it for that. She doubted they'd be overly enthused with the assignment anyway. And then there were the random newbies straight out of boot camp. Honestly, what use would they be to her?

Eventually the pile was whittled down to a much thinner selection and she then began to go through them in more detail. One file in particular stood out just for the sheer size of it: Casey Ryback's. She had to admit that she was impressed as she read it. Guy had more medals than was strictly healthy for any one person to earn, a whole list of martial arts masteries, and a seriously impressive operational record as a SEAL.

Of course, there were downsides. His security clearance had been revoked and the black mark on his record for beating the ever-living shit out of his commanding officer wasn't terribly promising. But really that paled into comparison next to that last citation in his file from the tail end of his military career. He'd almost single-handedly defeating a small army of mercenaries and traitors to bring a battleship back under control, and then proceeding to save an estimated one million lives by playing a key role in preventing a nuclear missile strike on Hawaii. Not an achievement to be sniffed at.

Well, he was definitely a potential. Rachel put his file to one side for an in-depth read later and went back to the rest that had made it past the first cut. Most of the others were good but she just didn't get the right feel from skimming their file. She was almost at the end of the pile when she reached another file that caught her eye. This time it was a former SAS man called Peter Gough, who, while well past the normal age for combat operations, was possessed of considerably academic qualifications and a teaching certificate.

"Perfect," said Rachel with a relieved smile. "That's the one."

Now it was just a matter of arranging to interview them and making sure they lived up to their files.

"We're going to be doing something a little different in training today," said Rachel as she reached the mats in the centre of the base's gym with Dawn.

"What's that?" asked Dawn, looking genuinely curious, and somewhat relieved.

Rachel pulled a cylindrical object seemingly out of nowhere and tossed it over to Dawn, who caught it instinctively. "We're going to start on lightsabre training," said Rachel. "I figure it's about time."

Dawn was absolutely entranced by the weapon in her hands as she ignited the white blade and predictably took a few test swings. "Where did you get this?" she asked.

"I made it of course," said Rachel. "Where else would I get it?"

"But I thought the crystals . . . "

"The Sith use artificial crystals," said Rachel. "It was not difficult to adapt that for my use. That sabre has an artificial diamond in it; absolutely indistinguishable from the real thing."


"Eventually you will make your own weapon," said Rachel. "And then you will select the colour of your choice for the blade. For now, you will use that."

"I kinda like it," said Dawn. "It's pretty."

Rachel just looked at Dawn as if she completely round the twist for a moment before shaking her head. "Whatever," she said. "It's you that'll be using the thing, not me. Now, defend yourself!"

What followed that was an hour of Rachel relentlessly exploiting every hole she could find in Dawn's defences while restricting herself to the basic Shii-Cho form. Not a terribly difficult task at this stage of Dawn's training, really, but a necessary thing. The girl did display some potential with the sabre thankfully but it was still so very raw and far from being useful. By the end of the hour Dawn looked about ready to drop down and fall asleep right there on the spot.

"I've seen worse," said Rachel. "Not by much, but I've still seen worse."

"Would it kill you to just say 'well done'?"

"Possibly," said Rachel. "I think that'll be enough duelling practice for today. Now we'll start with some deflection."


And then half a dozen small spherical drones popped into existence around Rachel. Damn but she loved that inter-dimensional pocket trick she'd got from one of the books Giles had left with her. "Have fun," said Rachel with a devilish smirk as the drones floated across the room and began to fling their little stinging beams at Dawn.

"Ow! Hey," whined Dawn. "Can't I at least have a little time to rest?"

"Let me think . . . no," said Rachel. "Our enemies won't give you time to rest up so neither will I."

Dawn was too busy with her lightsabre to respond to that beyond the mental equivalent of sticking her tongue out. Brat. Rachel watched for a moment and then turned away to make use of one of the gym's treadmills while she was waiting to end the exercise. No sense in wasting time lazing around watching Dawn sweat after all. She had her own fitness to maintain and little time to do it as a rule.

Half-an-hour into her own exercise, and deriving some slight amusement from the expression of utter consternation on Dawn's face as she attempted to defend herself from the remotes, Rachel was distracted from her own work by the arrival of Harry on the next treadmill to hers, though she didn't so much as miss a step.

"Hello, Harry," she said as he set his machine to work. "Having fun with the officers?"

"Oh it's absolutely smashing," said Harry. "Nothing quite like being made to jump through hoops by a bunch of magic-ignorant muggles who want to see everything you can do to make a day."

Rachel couldn't help but laugh. "I suppose I got off lucky," she said. "They just had to watch some films and read some books to know what I can do."

"Yeah, lucky you," said Harry. "I suppose I could just let them at my library . . . no, scratch that. Some of that stuff would give them ideas that would be bad for everyone involved."

"They've been pretty reasonable in my experience," said Rachel.

"I'd be so lucky," grumbled Harry. "I'd have probably been better off telling them from the start. Silly me trying to obey the law."

"This is coming from the person who's pretty much in exile anyway because he's pissed the government off," said Rachel. "How much worse could you make it?"

"I could piss off a few more governments," said Harry. "Way I'm going I'd probably end up having to live somewhere like San Marino that's too damn small to have a magical community."

"Point," said Rachel. "But not all countries have the same laws; checking would have been a good idea."

"Why take the risk?" asked Harry. "I was fine as I was. Would have stayed fine too if that bloody thing hadn't showed up."

"Well at least this way it's out in the open," said Rachel. "You'll be able to help your team-mates using your powers without worrying."

"Yeah," said Harry. "That's good, I suppose. Still gotta be careful, though, or I'll bring the Ministry down on me. I can take 'em on well enough but aurors aren't all that bothered about muggles getting in the way of their curses."

"Giles warned me about that," said Rachel. "Are they really so bad?"

"A lot are," said Harry. "The old wanker's right. You should be careful with them if you run across them. Take 'em out quick if you think they're going to start something. It's just easier that way."

"I'll keep that in mind," said Rachel.

Rachel eyed the slumped figure of HK-47. Well, she thought he was fixed now so it was time to flick the switch and see what happened. A quick application of Force energy to his internal power switch and HK immediately straightened up, his eyes glowing red.

"Statement: I am functional."

"Yes," said Rachel. "Status report."

"Declaration: all systems are functioning within normal parameters," said HK. "Query: has the shrill meatbag designated Glorificus been disposed of?"

"She has," said Rachel.

"Resignation: and I was so looking forward to extracting revenge for my humiliating defeat."

"You'd have to join the queue, HK," said Rachel. "

"Hey, boss," said John, poking his head into Rachel's new, larger office. "You've got a couple guys here to see you."

Rachel looked up from the report she was reading. "Send Casey Ryback in and ask Peter Gough if he could wait just a minute, would you?"

John grumbled something about being a glorified receptionist, but he did what she asked, the cheeky old git. He shouldn't have said anything if he didn't want to get lumbered with telling them to come in. A moment later, a large, ponytailed man entered Rachel's office looking like he was somewhere between baffled and pissed-off.

"Hello, Mr. Ryback," said Rachel. "Take a seat, please. We have a lot to discuss."

"Yeah, we do," he said. "I thought I was done with the military years ago, and then comes this letter recalling me and telling me to report here. And no-one's told me what it's all about."

"They haven't even told you what X-COM does?" asked Rachel with a distinct sinking feeling in her gut.

"Not a damn thing," said Ryback. "Hell, this is the first time anyone actually named the agency so I'd know where I was."

"And it's the same for Mr. Gough, too, I expect?" asked Rachel.

"Yeah," said Ryback. "He's clueless too."

"I'm going to string Thomas up by his balls and leave him for the bloody Chryssalids," growled Rachel.

"The what?"

"You know what, it'll be easier to just show you," said Rachel. "You'll never believe me if I just tell you. HK, disengage stealth field and come with us."

"Statement: yes, master."

"What the hell is that?" said Ryback, instinctively reaching for a gun that wasn't present.

"That's part of what we're working on here in this base," said Rachel. "You'd probably have seen similar units on the way to this lab if they hadn't all been destroyed in a battle."

"What sort of nuthouse is this?"

"Oh you've seen nothing yet," said Rachel. "Come on. You'll probably get a kick out of this, most of the newbies do."

Rachel collected Peter Gough - who was also somewhat less than prepared for HK's appearance - and lead them to the morgue facility that was used for storing alien bodies that weren't going to be used for experiments for one reason or another. It was just your standard dead-body storage room as seen in morgues across the world with a whole load of small metal doors leading to storage spaces for stretchers containing the bodies.

"A morgue?" asked Ryback exchanging dubious looks like Gough. "You're going to show us dead bodies?"

"Statement: I quite agree," said HK. "They're much more entertaining when in the process of dying than afterwards."

And then silence as Ryback and Gough just stared at HK.

"Right," said Rachel with a cough. "And swiftly moving on from that, let's see . . . yeah, start with the classics. Newbies always get a kick out of this one."

Before anyone could say anything, Rachel opened the door she'd been looking for and rolled the stretcher out.

"What sort of . . . "

Whatever Gough was going to say was cut off as Rachel pulled the covering sheet back and showed them the remains of a Sectoid. It was in remarkably good condition actually compared to the average dead alien, only a few small holes in its chest from entry wounds. The back of the body would be a different matter but there you go.

"Isn't that one of the Roswell aliens?" asked Ryback. "Seriously, what the fuck is going on here?"

"Welcome to X-COM," said Rachel. "The eXtra-terrestrial COMbat Agency. We kill aliens."

"And here's me writing it all off as conspiracy theories," said Gough.

"Well a lot of the stuff you see on the web and in magazines is bullshit," said Rachel. "And that makes it real easy to write the rest off."

"So what's the deal?" asked Ryback. "There's got to be more to it than just killing aliens."

"We're not entirely clear on all the details," said Rachel. "Interrogating aliens is not the easiest of tasks. What we do know is that they started sending scouts out around the time of the second world war and they've been slowly stepping their activity up ever since. At first it was innocuous, taking soil samples and animals, and we could afford to sit by and wait to see what happened."

"Didn't stay that way, did it?" asked Ryback, more rhetorically than anything really.

"No," said Rachel. "They got more aggressive; started taking humans too. They even started attacking military facilities in out of the way areas. Countries tried to deal with them alone but they were lucky if they could catch a UFO - alien ship - never mind shoot one of the damn things down. X-COM was the answer to that, a multi-national force that wouldn't have to drop pursuit when it reached international borders."

"Is it working?" asked Gough.

"Mostly," said Rachel with a shrug. "We can't catch everything but we hurt the aliens more than they hurt us these days. Anyway, this particular breed of alien is known as a Sectoid. They're pretty weak physically but they're smarter than just about any of the others, and some of them have decent psychic abilities."

Gough's raised eyebrow was all that really needed to be said about that.

"If I take you on, you'll get the clearance to read the files on that," said Rachel with a shrug. "Believe it or not, they're psychics. Anyway, these guys aren't all that scary. Now let's see . . . "

Rachel slid the Sectoid back into its container and drifted along the wall looking for something a little more heavy-duty.

"Ah, this'll do," she said, before pulling out another alien and pulling back the sheet to reveal a very large, very muscular purple-skinned creature that'd had most of its head blown off. "This is a Muton. Very tough these guys, but too bright. When they're alive they wear this weird skin-tight green armour."

"Jesus," said Ryback. "Thing looks like it should be in Mr. Universe."

"Yeah," said Rachel. "They're way stronger than humans pound for pound too. Not something you want to get in a fistfight with. Pretty much pointless to shoot them with normal guns too. They gave the soldiers the shits till we got some better weapons for them to use."

"I can imagine," murmured Gough.

"There are more but I reckon you get the picture now," said Rachel sliding the alien back into the container.

"Yeah," said Ryback. "You're fighting aliens. But what do you want with us? You're a scientist, what do you need people like us around for?"

"I'm not just a scientist," said Rachel, drawing and igniting her lightsabre. "Take a guess."

"A . . . no way," said Ryback. "No way. Jedi are not real."

Rachel cocked her head and shot him an amused look before lifting him into the air and slowly spinning him around with a quick burst of mental power. "The Force is with me," she drawled.

"I think you've made your point," said Gough, eyeing the less than impressed looking Ryback.

"Yeah," said Rachel. And then she lowered him back down to the ground.

"So you're a . . . Jedi," said Gough. "What would you need with us? I imagine you're quite capable of defending yourself."

"I have an apprentice," said Rachel. "She is vulnerable and requires attention I cannot give her while living up to my other responsibilities. I would ask you to handle her physical training and her education when I cannot as well as offering protection should it be required. Your other duties will be a cover. I don't really care if you perform them or not."

"I like to cook," said Ryback simply.

"Well, that's good, I suppose," said Rachel. "You'd have to be better than the guys who work the mess and I can burn water."

Ryback just eyed her strangely.

"Well, we had droids for that in Jedi training," said Rachel. "It's not a required skill."

"You . . . what?"

Rachel shrugged. "Droids don't make mistakes," she said. "Not like humans. It works pretty well."

"No spirit! No heart! No soul!" cried Ryback. "Robots cooking, what a terrible idea!"

"Objection: robots are superior to meatbags such as yourself."

"HK, quiet," said Rachel. "We don't need to go through this. So are you two interested in the job?"

"Sure I am," said Ryback. "But what about my security clearance?"

"We can deal with that," said Rachel with a wave of her hand. "We've got a four-star General running this operation after all. I'm sure he can pull a few strings. What about you, Mr. Gough?"

"The last few years have been quite boring," he said in reply. "I imagine that this will be anything but. So yes; I accept your offer."

"Excellent," said Rachel. "We'll just have to clear it with Miller and that'll be that then."

"You know," said Ryback. "You might want to consider joining your apprentice on the morning runs."

"And why do you think that?" asked Rachel.

"You've never had my cooking before," said Ryback.

"We'll see," said Rachel.

She ended up joining the morning runs three days later.

"Are we ready?" asked Rachel.

"Yes, Ma'am!" came the chorus of replies from the detachment of X-COM troops that Miller had immediately insisted on accompanying her when she told him about the whole peaceful demon thing.

"Always up for kicking a little demon ass," said Faith.

"They're not going to know what hit them," said Buffy.

"Statement: affirmative, master."

"I go first," said Rachel. "Then HK, then the Slayers, and then the soldiers."

Rachel then smoothed down the outer cloak of her Jedi robes and swept in through the front door of this demon bar. After descending a small flight of stairs she went through a metal detector that predictably beeped. A large man - a bouncer, she assumed - tried to head her off but she caught him in a stasis field and left him frozen mid-step as she made her way into the bar. It was . . . not what she had come to expect from demon bars. It was, well, a karaoke bar. Karaoke! Demon karaoke!

"This really isn't what I had in mind when I invited you here," said a hook-nosed, green-skinned near-human looking demon with a pair of small red horns sprouting from his forehead.

"You are Lorne?" asked Rachel as the soldiers took up positions around the bar, covering its occupants, who looked uniformly ready to soil themselves as they came under the barrel of a blaster.

"I am," said the demon. "Welcome to Caritas."

Rachel cocked her head. "I sense no hostility," she said. "You were telling the truth when you sent Oz to me?"

"Well, yes," said Lorne. "Do I look like the sort of guy who lures people like you into fights?"

"No deception," said Rachel after measuring Lorne's words and aura as well as the auras of the other demons and humans in the bar. "At ease, men. This is no longer a combat mission."

"Resignation: yes, master."

Buffy and Faith had that distinct pout of a Slayer denied a good fight too. The soldiers just moved into a more relaxed set of positions.

"Oh that's good," said Lorne with a sigh. "Much friendlier."

"I distinctly remember being invited here for a reason," said Rachel. "Could we get to that?"

"You know, you're far too pretty to be so stern," said Lorne. Rachel heard twin snorts of laughter from the two Slayers who were flanking her. "Relax. Smile. It won't hurt."

"I didn't come here for banter," said Rachel. "Isn't there somewhere we can go speak in private and get this done with?"

"Well, I can see you're all business today," said Lorne. "Well, come on. These alcoves are private enough, I think."

Rachel followed him to the alcove and seated herself opposite the demon. "Before we start," he said, "could you reel that aura of yours in a bit? It's giving me a headache."

"I wasn't aware that it was showing," said Rachel, shrinking her presence in the Force till it was microscopic and entirely undetectable.

"I'm anagogic," said Lorne by way of explanation. "And your aura is way too strong for comfort. Not that having it just vanish is much more comfortable."

"Interesting," said Rachel. "You must be more sensitive than the average Jedi to feel my aura so strongly. Now, what terms are these peaceful demons willing to offer for peace?"

"We just want to be left alone," said Lorne. "We're not causing any trouble; we're not out grabbing people so we can drink their blood. That's all we want, to be left to get on with our lives without having to worry about your boys coming in and shooting us up."

"I find the idea of a peaceful demon difficult to believe," said Rachel. "My experiences tell me that there's no such thing."

"Look, I know you were born and raised in Sunnydale," said Lorne. "But we're not all like the demons that hang around that sort of place. That place is like the Beirut of the 80s for demons."

"A charming little analogy," said Rachel. "But I've travelled all over North America and seen little evidence of demons that aren't all for flossing their teeth with my bones."

"You're a Jedi," said Lorne. "And while I personally think having a real, live Jedi sat in front of me is cooler than the Antarctic, most demons of a more violent persuasion see something like that as a challenge. Lotta hot-blooded youngsters are going to try and prove themselves by taking someone like you out, just like with the Slayers."

Rachel looked away for a moment and pondered that. "You may have a point," she said. "But there are limits. Vampires, for one, could never be tolerated. Their very existence is an affront to humanity."

"I figured that," said Lorne with a sigh. "There aren't that many of them that'd care for peace anyway. But what about the rest of us? And you know, not all demons of a breed act in the same way. I'm a charming fellow, but the other Deathwoks . . . they're kinda not."

"That makes life a little more difficult," said Rachel.

"Yeah, it does," said Lorne. "But you can't tell what a human will do just by looking at them either. We all make our own choices in the end."

"True," said Rachel. "So what are you proposing? A ceasefire unless provoked?"

"That's what people want," said Lorne. "Hunt down the trouble-makers if you must but please leave the rest of us alone."

"I'm authorised to say that we would prefer to lessen the scope of our activities," said Rachel. "But we want something in return."

"And what's that?" asked Lorne. "I can't offer much, you know. I'm just a lowly karaoke bar owner."

"Information," said Rachel. "You get wind of anything apocalyptic, or just plain nasty, and you tell us. Withholding that sort of information will be viewed as collaboration and that leads to nasty places."

"Say no more," said Lorne. "I think we can work something out on that front. I like this world too."

"So, why a karaoke bar?" asked Rachel.

"I like music."

"That really doesn't answer the question," said Rachel.

Chapter Eleven

December 2001

"This is a complete waste of time," grumbled Rachel as she fastened the belt on her seat. "It really is."

"You're complaining about a free holiday in Paris," said Dawn. "Need perspective, much?"

"She does have a point you know, Ms. Giles," said Peter. "It won't hurt you to take a week off away from your work."

"I was this close to getting that ion cannon battery working, though," said Rachel holding two of her fingers a few millimetres apart. "I just know someone will botch it by the time I get back."

"Such faith you have in your co-workers," said Peter dryly. "They're hardly unqualified, you know."

"Yeah, yeah," said Rachel. "I just hate being taken away from my projects before they're finished."

"Think of this way," said Peter. "You get to see what the other branches are working on. It might give you some ideas."

"I have plenty of ideas already," said Rachel. "And if I want to see what the other branches are working on I can just read their reports. Would be a lot quicker that way too with the VPN they have set up, just a couple of button clicks and it would be there for me to read."

"But you wouldn't get to go to Paris that way," said Dawn. "I think this way is better."

At that point the noise of the plane taking off cut the conversation off mid-stream. Rachel leaned back into her chair and closed her eyes, letting it all wash over her. That bad feeling she'd been having on and off since the battle with Glory had been growing daily and now she had the distinct feeling that whatever was coming was coming soon. Of course, Miller hadn't listened. Well, he'd listened, and then simply said that a warning as nebulous as that wasn't something he could really act on, though he'd pass the message on up the food-chain. She really missed being the one in command sometimes.

Well anyway, the situation was what it was now. She couldn't change it at this point. She was being sent to a week-long conference of X-COM scientists in Paris with the various people that made up her staff, and she was going to have to deal with that. And if that wasn't a tempting enough target, General Wilson, Supreme Commander of all X-COM forces, was going to be present to evaluate the technologies presented. Foolishness of the highest order in Rachel's book but she wasn't the one making the decisions, and there were political motives apparently. Some issues with funding nations being dissatisfied or something or other.

"So how's this going to work?" asked Dawn. "Will I have to go to the conference with you?"

Rachel frowned. It was times like this she wished that Mrs. Summers wasn't still stuck in Sunnydale trying to find someone to buy her art gallery. "No," she said finally. "That would be counter-productive, but you will be accompanied by either Peter or Casey wherever you go. In fact, I see no reason why this trip should impact on your training. Paris will have gyms you can use, I'm sure."

"But . . . it's Paris," said Dawn looking absolutely scandalised. "I can't spend a week in Paris training!"

"I disagree," said Rachel trading looks with Peter. "I strongly disagree."

"But . . . but . . . " sputtered Dawn.

"It's been a while since I visited Paris," said Peter. "But I remember a few places we could use for training."

"Excellent," said Rachel. "We have to make sure she doesn't get lazy; that would be no good at all."

"Indeed," said Peter. "We can't have her backsliding at this point."

"Very true," said Rachel. "I'm sure you'll find a way to prevent that from happening though."

"Oh I have a few exercises in mind," said Peter. "I remember my training well enough for that."

The look of sheer outrage on Dawn's face was too much for Rachel; she cracked up and burst into a fit of laughter.

"Your face," she wheezed in between her laughter. "You should see it."

"You . . . oh," huffed Dawn, before smacking Rachel on her upper arm. "Damn evil woman."

"That's me alright," snickered Rachel. "Come on. You've been training for what six months now? Even the SAS wouldn't expect a teenager to go that long without a break."

"So you're not going to make me train while we're in Paris?" asked Dawn, her eyes wide and full of hope. "Please?"

"Oh you'll have to maintain your fitness," said Rachel. "But I think I'll be able to find it in myself to let you have a few days off as long as at least keep up with the morning runs."

Dawn was giving her promises before Rachel had even finished speaking. No surprises there.

"But do I really have to have Mr. Gough or Mr. Ryback with me?" she asked.

"That is non-negotiable," said Rachel. "It's either them or HK."

Dawn immediately blanched at the idea of having HK following her around; he was bound to be even more murderous than usual after being shipping cross-continental folded up in a crate after all.

"I'll go with one of them," she said very, very quickly.

"I thought you would," said Rachel. "Just remember to keep your senses open, okay? I know you're still having trouble with them, but I have a feeling that we need to be on the ball."

"I'll do my best."

"No!" said Rachel. "You will do. Remember: there is no try."

"Yes, master," said Dawn. "But I still don't understand."

"And that is why you fail," said Rachel in what she felt was a rather good imitation of Yoda's voice. "All padawans go through this stage, Dawn. It's just a matter of getting your head around it."

After Rachel had given the presentations she had quickly written up - all of ten minutes effort put into each at the most - on the various research topics her teams were covering at the moment - the response to the presentation on fusion power had been incredibly funny in her opinion, she'd never seen so many intelligent people look so utterly gob-smacked at the same time - she had to sit through the other presentations on what various teams were working on. Some were beyond tedious, like the multi-hour talk on plasma weapon technology that was obsolete before it was even finished coming off the production line, but some were quite interesting, like the reports on UFO construction techniques and the alloys used by the aliens.

But it was the talk on the psionic powers that caught Rachel's attention completely.

"As you probably all know, the aliens have demonstrated considerable psionic powers," said the middle-aged woman giving the presentation, a Dr. Jones. "But up till now we've not had any workable theories on where these powers come from or how they work. Well, we've had a breakthrough. A captured Sectoid gave up some information and we've constructed what we feel is a solid theory of psionics.

"The first item of note is that all sentient beings have a field of consciousness," continued the scientist as the rest of the room began to scribble down notes. "The aliens refer to this as a 'conchfield' and we've stuck with that terminology for our work.

"Now this 'conchfield' doesn't exist in isolation," said the scientist. "They seem to exist on a plane of energy known to the aliens as 'conchspace' that's co-existent to our own. I know it all sounds a bit new-age, a bit like Star Wars or something, but this is what the aliens tell us and their psionics are demonstrably functional. I don't think anyone can deny the existence of those powers at this point."

Rachel just about fell out of her seat as the scientist spoke. That sounded far too much like the Force for comfort. It was either the Force or a damn ingenious workaround. She'd never really considered the idea that the Ethereals were actual Force-users before; she'd always dismissed them as some sort of hokey psychics, and to see them as Force-users would make a much greater threat.

"Anyway, normally these patterns of energy that make up the 'conchfield' are an individual thing," she said. "They rise and fall in accordance with the electrical field changes we can read in the human brain, and don't appear to have anything else influencing them during normal activity. Each of these fields is entirely unique as far as we've been able to determine, possibly linked to genetics in some way. That's a subject for further research.

"Where it gets interesting is when you bring the psionic powers into things," said the scientist. "Two 'conchfields' cannot superimpose on each other because they are tied to separate entities, but some energy can be exchanged, and that is where psionic powers come from.

"The first thing to note is that once enough energy has been exchanged over a long enough period of time the fields will start to synchronise to a certain extent," said the scientist. "And it is through this effect that much of the alien technology works. The mind probe, for example, forcibly synchronises the fields to a point where they are almost identical and then records the information taken from that.

"The pieces of technology that most think of when they think of psionic technology are the various attacks used by the Sectoids and Ethereals," said the scientist. "These attacks work by creating a feedback loop between the attacker and the target and through that loop they send and receive information that allows for the various effects. We're still not exactly sure how that works but we know enough to replicate the effects and have had considerably success with training soldiers to use a psionic amplifier that replicates the abilities granted by the implants we've located in the corpses of psionically gifted aliens during dissections.

"But the most interesting aspect of this research is that further analysis of alien technology has revealed that virtually all of the appliances outside of their weapons use this psionic technology for interaction," said the scientist. "Even the Mutons have an implant, albeit of much lower sophistication than the ones seen in Ethereals or high-ranking Sectoids. And analysis of what remains of the various technological terror units we have recovered shows that they are remotely operated using this technology."

Rachel's hand was immediately in the air at that, and when the scientist nodded in her direction she spoke up. "Now that we know of this," said Rachel, "couldn't we disrupt the transmissions? Simply make their technology useless?"

"We've been looking into that," said the scientist. "But much of their more important systems, such as UFO navigation, require some sort of physical contact and cannot be disrupted from a distance because of that. And we have yet to find a way to break the feedback loop externally."

Rachel nodded at that and pondered what she had heard. It sounded an awful lot like a primitive version of the technology used by the Rakatans to her. And that was saying something considering how utterly backwards some of their technology really was when looked at objectively no matter how long it had lasted. The implants were an obvious disadvantage when you were up against a real Force-user, but, as a substitute for a species that couldn't touch the Force naturally, they were an ingenious invention. Whoever had created that piece of technology must have been absolutely brilliant, no doubt.

It did raise some questions though. Was it actually the Force these implants allowed access to? Rachel didn't think so after hearing the full lecture, but then the Force had never really been scientifically quantified by the Republic. She didn't really like the idea of facing an empire of pseudo-Sith, so she hoped not. The implants were obviously less flexible than what she could do, thankfully, but they had a serious numbers advantage and the ability to grow more numbers at will when needed.

But the most important question, regardless of whether it was the Force or not, was where had they gotten the idea for this? You don't just up and create an implant to enable this sort of thing without some sort of inspiration. The possibility of real Force-users existing somewhere in the galaxy seemed much more likely than it had before. Much more likely indeed.

Rachel had never been quite as thankful for the end of a day as she was when the first day of the conference came to an end. The entire thing really did feel like a gigantic waste of time and money to her. The presentation on psionics had been interesting, but it could have worked just as well as a report, and it would have wasted a lot less time and energy that way. And the less said about the rest of the presentations the better really. Some had been mildly interesting, but she'd learned nothing terribly useful for what she had her teams working on.

"So, did you guys get anything useful out of this?" asked Rachel as she travelled back to the hotel in an X-COM chartered taxi with Sarah and John.

"Well, I got a few hours sleep," said John.

"I'm just tired of people gaping at me as if I was some sort of freak or something," said Sarah. "We're not that far ahead of everyone else."

Rachel had to disagree with that. She'd exposed brilliant people to the theoretical underpinnings of the technology used by a society that was probably at least a hundred thousand years ahead of Earth before X-COM and the aliens had started changing things. The results of that were quite predictable really.

"Some of our work is," said John. "Remember that paper the boss came up with the first day? I bet they still haven't gotten over that."

"There's no point in false modesty," said Rachel. "We kick ass. There's no arguing it. We do have a bit of an unfair advantage but we still kick ass."

"The other groups still do plenty of good work," said Sarah. "It's not like we're some sort of freakish group that're the only ones getting anything done. That group in Germany has done some really good work on UFO construction; we haven't even touched on that."

"But look at what we've produced," said John. "The weapons used in the field are all our group's work, the droids, the power storage and production techniques - fusion power! They probably think we're all modern-day Einsteins and it's not like we can tell them the truth about Rachel."

"They wouldn't believe it anyway," interjected Rachel. "You're going to have to learn to deal with it, Sarah. We're all going to be famous when this is over, at least amongst scientists."

"Rich too," said John. "They're giving us a share of the patents on these things, and that'll be some serious money when all's said and done."

Rachel was jerked out of her sleep rather abruptly that night as her Force senses ran wild with horrifying pain and death being suffered on a massive scale. She immediately blinked the sleep out of her eyes and threw her covers off as she reinforced her mental shields to reduce the pounding of the death screams to a light whimper in the back of her mind. Without the experiences of Revan's life she'd probably have been curled up in the foetal position; as it was, she was far from comfortable to have these sensations battering at her mind. The first time experiencing a large-scale battle was always nasty for a Jedi; the echoes left behind by that much death . . . well, it could be crippling.

After Rachel tightened her shields she took stock of her surroundings. The room's lights were off and the curtains were closed but the room was still periodically lit up with massive pulses of light glowing through the curtains every few seconds. She would have investigated that but she was distracted by the light whimpering of Dawn from the bed across the room from hers.

"Dawn, you need to block it out," she said as she strode over to where the girl was shuddering on her bed. "Focus on my voice. What you're feeling is not yours. It's other people. You have to put it aside."

"Can't," said Dawn from between clenched teeth finally. "Too much."

Rachel shook her head as she lowered herself to a kneeling position next to Dawn's bed. "You don't have a choice," she said. "You need to block this if you ever want it to go away."

"I. Just. Can't. Do. It," bit out Dawn.

"You damn well can," said Rachel sharply. "You've been training for months now and you sure as hell know enough to shield your mind, so do it."

Well, she'd never been particularly good at whole nurturing sympathetic thing. A short, sharp shock worked better in her experience anyway.


"Focus on my voice," said Rachel. "Focus on what is here and in front you, what you can physically feel, not what is being pressed into your mind. Focus on me, focus on the room, focus on the feel of the blankets and clothes rubbing against your skin. Distract yourself from the sensations and then use the distance to build your shields."

"I . . . "

"Do it," said Rachel sternly. "Without those shields, you will not be able to function."

"I . . . damn," said Dawn, screwing her face up in concentration. "It hurts."

"Yes," said Rachel. "It hurts. That's why you need to shield your mind. Come on, Dawn; focus. I know you can do it."

The look of concentration on Dawn's face deepened and Rachel felt the Force pulse erratically but powerfully around her padawan as she unconsciously drew upon it to strengthen her resolve and help build her defences. This process continued for several minutes before the Force abruptly stilled - or as close as still as it ever got - around Dawn.

"It's done," she said, looking more tired than Rachel had ever seen Dawn look. "I can still feel it, but it's dulled. What's happening, master?"

"I don't know," admitted Rachel. "Nothing good, though, that's for sure."

"Well what are we going to do about it then?" asked Dawn.

"That remains to be seen," said Rachel, rising to a standing position and summoning her lightsabre to her hand with a gesture. "Arm yourself. I can't see us staying out of this for too long."

And with that said Rachel strode out of the bedroom of the hotel suite she'd been stationed in to find both Casey and Peter in the living room of the suite along with HK-47. Peter somehow looked immaculate despite being roused from his bed in the middle of the night.

"HK, situation report," said Rachel.

"Statement: the alien meatbags appear to be making an attempt to slaughter human meatbags," said HK. "Judging by the number of explosions I have detected in orbital positions they appear to be experiencing rather limited success in their efforts, but that's what happens when amateurish meatbags try to do a droid's work."

"You don't have any more detailed information than that?"

"Declaration: my access to X-COM communication networks is restricted without your encryption keys, master."

"And he's sure been whining about that enough," said Casey. "Why'd you program a robot to whine anyway?"

"Objection: I do not whine, over-the-hill meatbag."

"Enough," said Rachel. "You can provoke people into fights when we're not in the middle of a war, HK."

"Reluctant acquiescence: yes, master."

"What can you tell me?" asked Rachel. "Give me a quick overview."

"Summary: massive UFO incursions are occurring worldwide as we speak," said HK. "Many are being destroyed or badly damaged through the use of the large-scale artillery guns that have been deployed at major X-COM bases, but successful UFO incursions are being reported worldwide. There are also numerous reports of human on human war activity taking place in the Middle East and Asia."

"Traitors," said Rachel flatly. "Wonderful."

"So what's the plan now?" asked Peter. "We have a hotel full of civilians here; important civilians at that. If the aliens are invading, we will be a target."

"Indeed," said Rachel. "But the local base should be throwing up enough fire to keep the aliens away. In theory anyway. And X-COM soldiers should arrive soon to begin the evacuation if the plans are being followed."

"So we just sit and wait then?" asked Casey.

"It's about all we can do," said Rachel. "Anything else and we'd just be getting in the way."

It was at that point that Rachel heard something that strained at the edges of even her lycanthropy-enhanced hearing . . . something that she couldn't quite place but had a very bad feeling about. And then she heard the distinctive sound of Wilson's old-fashioned and over-powered handgun firing once before falling silent.

"Okay, scratch that," said Rachel. "HK, use your sensors. Give me an overview of movement in the hotel."

"Summary: large numbers of meatbags have entered the lobby area of the hotel," said HK. "Initial scans indicate a strong possibility of their being armed. I recommend initiating defensive manoeuvres."

"What about the scientists?" asked Peter.

"Statement: Unknown," said HK. "However, the number of meatbags in the corridor and social areas would indicate that they have left their rooms."

"Disengage safeties," said Rachel. "All armed units in the building not recognised by facial scan are to be terminated."


"Peter, you're to stay with Dawn here and make sure she doesn't get herself killed," said Rachel. "Casey, it's time to put all that training of yours to use. Anyone shooting at one of ours dies."


"You're not ready for combat, Dawn," said Rachel. "No arguments."


"She's right," said Peter. "I'm too old for this sort of nonsense and fifteen's no age to start killing; you'll be best off staying here with me."

Rachel managed about three steps towards the door before a mental hammer-blow almost took her off her feet; as it was, she stumbled and had to catch herself on the back of a chair. Dawn just folded and would have collapsed to the ground if Peter hadn't caught her.

"What the hell just happened?" asked Casey.

"Someone . . . someone just used nuclear weapons," said Rachel. "I felt . . . hundreds of thousands of people . . . they just died. Just like that and they were gone."

"You . . . you're sure of this?" asked Peter. "Someone used nuclear weapons?"

Rachel forcibly shunted it aside and stood up straight, radiating power despite her rather undignified attire of shorts and a tank-top. "Oh yes," she said. "Multiple nuclear missiles in multiple locations. They knew what they were doing with this."

The use of actual nuclear weapons managed to perturb even the canny old SAS veteran. It wasn't much but she felt the change in his aura and saw the slight widening of his eyes.

"Hundreds of thousands?" asked Casey. "The US launched?"

"I don't know," said Rachel. "HK?"

"Statement: they have," said HK. "Missile strikes have been launched against Tehran, Damascus, and Baghdad by both the United States of America and Israel in response to chemical weapons being used against Israeli cities. Also, data feed indicates that Israel have used cannon-fired weapons as well as gravity bombs against forces in the field."

The room went silent at that. "I think that I shall pray," said Peter finally. "It seems appropriate."

"Well I'll just be hoping that there's someone listening," said Rachel, as the sound of screaming and bodies hitting the ground reached her ears. "Come on, Casey, HK, let's move. We have work to do."

Rachel then threw the door open with a flex of her power and ignited her lightsabre as she stepped over the threshold. A squad of soldiers that had been moving down the corridor stopped dead in their tracks and went to aim their weapons at Rachel but she simply reached out scattered them with a burst of telekinetic energy before they were cut down in a hail of blaster fire from HK's heavy repeater.

"Go," ordered Rachel. "Dispose of this trash. I have work to do here."

HK immediately faded out of view as he engaged his stealth field and moved to go slaughter some enemies. Casey looked somewhat more reluctant to leave Rachel, but after a moment's indecision his expression went blank and he left. Rachel then crossed the hallway and kneeled next to a young soldier whose life-force was still present, though fading. He was disturbingly young looking to Rachel's eyes. She might not look like she'd passed her teenage years herself, but that was a result of magic; this boy was just young, young and boiling over with dark emotions.

"I will tell you nothing," snarled the soldier in French in-between gasping breaths as he tried to breath around the massive wound that had been burned into his abdomen.

"Your speech is not required," said Rachel coldly before smashing through his mental defences and sifting through his memories as he screamed bloody murder, stopping only when she had found what she was looking for and not a moment sooner.

"So this is a government-sanctioned operation," said Rachel as the soldier stared blankly at her. "And you all went along with massacring civilians like good little automaton soldiers. Charming."

Rachel rose to her feet and turned away. She had no time to waste. Over a hundred soldiers from the French Special Forces had been sent in here and if they were stymied then it would not go unnoticed. Then again, human soldiers armed with silenced sub-machine guns stood absolutely no chance whatsoever against HK-47 - their deaths were inevitable. It was just a matter of how much damage they managed to inflict before they were slaughtered.

Before she could move far, a group of soldiers came barrelling around a near-by corner in the corridor and immediately opened fire. Rachel wasn't entirely sure what would happen if she tried to deflect Earth-style bullets with a lightsabre, so she simply dodged them. While it was rather close to physically impossible to dodge a bullet, it became a lot more feasible when you could see who was going to fire and where their fire would go before it actually happened. The look of consternation on the soldiers' faces as Rachel twisted her body at ridiculous angles and moved at impossible speeds really was something to see.

Of course, dodging bullets isn't really a situation you want to find yourself in, because even the slightest slip will lead to your taking a hit and once you've took one hit you'll take more and that'll be all she wrote for you. With that in mind, Rachel quickly went onto the offensive, dropping down underneath a volley of bullets and then throwing her lightsabre along an arcing path that cut through all four of the soldiers who had been firing on her.

Rachel then summoned the sabre back to her hand and jogged away, paying no heed to the corpses that now littered the hallway, the sound of blaster fire now apparent as HK began his work.

Rachel encountered several more groups of soldiers as she made her way to the lobby area of the hotel to secure the main entrance to the place. None of them lasted any longer than the first batch she had cut down. It was quite pitiful really to see them relentlessly try to gun her down when they had to know that their chances of success were absolutely non-existent. Good little automatons one and all really; none of them seemed to be paying much heed to just what they were doing for some reason, they just did it.

And that was about the most damning indictment of the soldiers in the building; they were just following the orders in much the same way as the SS just followed orders in the death camps, killing all these civilians without hesitation because their superiors had issued the order. They disgusted Rachel. At least when she had done evil she had been doing it by her own choice and not because someone else had told her to. It was scum like this that enabled people like Hitler and Stalin.

As she entered the corridor that led to the lobby area she ran into a blood-spattered HK who had several noticeable dings in his body armour. If it was possible for a droid to strut, she'd have sworn that HK was.

"Status report," ordered Rachel.

"Report: I have suffered only cosmetic damage," reported HK. "Fifty-seven meatbags have died at my hands. It has been a most satisfying day, almost making up for the indignities visited upon me in transport."

"What about the civilians?" asked Rachel.

"Report: I have observed numerous civilian corpses," stated HK. "I did not evaluate the areas I cleansed thoroughly enough to offer an accurate count."

Rachel swallowed her anger. "Anyone I would know?"

"Statement: I have not seen either the old meatbag or the blonde meatbag."

"Well, I'm sure they'll turn up," said Rachel. "Ready for some more killing?"


Because that wasn't a redundant question ask HK, of course. Rachel almost rolled her eyes at her own stupidity as she led the way down the corridor to the lobby. Sensing approximately thirty presences in the lobby, all full of aggression, she stopped her advance several metres away from the door that would take her into the lobby. And then, after taking a moment to centre herself, she leapt forward with all her Force-enhanced strength and smashed through the lightweight doors into the room beyond.

The room immediately erupted into a storm of gunfire, all aimed at Rachel, but she was quite prepared for that. The two soldiers nearest to her suddenly found themselves floating through the air around Rachel acting as shields from the enemy attacks for her, and they screamed bloody murder about it for the few seconds that they were capable of doing so before there wasn't enough left of their internals for them to scream.

With those two acting as shields for the enemy bullets, Rachel split her focus and threw a stasis field over a group of half-a-dozen soldiers that were using the reception desk as cover while shooting her. She then hurled her lightsabre out on an arcing path that carried it through all of those now frozen soldiers while leaping out of the line of fire as her body shields were overwhelmed and then summoning the lightsabre back to her grip as she landed.

A wave of bullets was heading for her as soon as she landed, but Rachel simply unleashed a corkscrewing wave of telekinetic energy that scattered the bullets around the room and safely away from her. And at that point HK caught up with her and immediately opened fire with his triple-barrelled repeating cannon, unleashing a wave of crimson death that quickly wiped out the remaining soldiers.

"Good work, HK," said Rachel.

"Pleased statement: thank you, master."

Rachel reached out with her senses before she spoke again, trying to get an idea of the situation in the hotel. "Well, that's it, HK," she said finally. "There are only a couple of them left now and Casey will have them soon enough."

"Resignation: it as you say, master. The enemy meatbags appear to have been exterminated."

Rachel sent a telepathic message to Casey and Peter to bring them up to date on the situation and to summon them to the lobby before eyeing the devastation around her. It was quite an impressive little killing field. There were dozens of bodies scattered around the room and much of the furniture had been reduced to matchwood by the fighting. Rachel grimaced, though, as she noticed the civilian bodies spread out across the room as well as the military. She obviously hadn't gotten here quickly enough. The soldiers had been rather efficient about it too; there were no survivors here.

"Hey," said Casey as he walked into the lobby carrying a liberated sub-machine gun. "Neat trick you have there with talking in my head. Don't do it again."

"I know it's a bit uncomfortable," said Rachel. "But needs must."

"Whatever," said Casey. "Just don't do it again, please."

"Not unless there's a real need," said Rachel. "I can't offer more than that."

"Right," said Casey and then he frowned for a moment before continuing. "I saw something in the hotel bar; it was John. He's dead."

Rachel closed her eyes and felt an all-too familiar rage well up inside at her at hearing that news.


"Looked like he'd took a few bullets in the chest," said Casey. "It would have been quick."

The rage grew into a towering inferno at that. Gunned down by a bunch of government-sanctioned assassins for no good reason; he'd deserved much, much better than an end like that. Rachel took a deep breath and wrestled the rage down, stuffing it away till later. She could not afford have her judgement clouded now. But still, this could not go unanswered.

"There will be a reckoning for this," said Rachel. "HK, activate assassination protocols. Verbal authorisation R546GH7TYGH89J."

Sometimes a Force-enhanced memory does come in very useful indeed.


Rachel then reeled off a list of names as Casey watched on in disbelief. "That is the chain down which the command for this atrocity was passed. Wipe them out," she said. "All of them."

"Is this really a good idea?" asked Casey as HK faded from view. "I mean, you just went to war with France."

"They went to war with me first," said Rachel. "I am simply returning their actions in kind."

"I think that General Miller might object to you acting so individualistically," said Peter from his position at the lobby doors, carrying the still unconscious Dawn in his arms. "It's not generally regarded as a good idea for people to order a head of state assassinated off their own bat like that."

"France has gone over to the aliens," said Rachel. "And we don't have time to debate this. Gather the surviving scientists somewhere relatively unmolested. We must evacuate before reinforcements arrive."

"The gym looked pretty much clear," said Casey.

"Gather them there then," said Rachel. "Go! We have little time to spare. Leave Dawn with me, Peter; you can't be slowed."

It was only after they'd left that Rachel allowed her grief to show. You can't display weakness in public, that was something that she would never be able to forget. She allowed herself a moment and then she shunted it aside to join her rage in the things that would be dealt with later as she summoned her cell phone out of the inter-dimensional pocket she kept some of her belongings in that she couldn't afford to lose but didn't need urgent access to.

"Giles!" barked Miller after she dialled his number. "You didn't tell me that your damn robot was an assassin!"

"You never asked," said Rachel. "And how the hell did you find that out?"

"Damn," said Miller, "you must be really off your game if you didn't notice the TV camera that's been transmitting everything happening in that lobby."

"Oh bollocks," said Rachel flatly looking around the room for the camera, eventually finding it fallen sideways on a high table surrounded by bodies and was pointing at the door, leaving her out of sight at the moment.. "Everything?"

"Well, the picture's pretty much useless," said Miller. "But the sound works. Odd thing is, most satellites have been blown out of the sky or EMPed. You must just be lucky."

"Yeah, lucky," said Rachel as she reached out with the Force and flicked the camera's power off. "So what's the situation? I have a load of scientists here that need evacuation."

"We know," said Miller. "And I'm sorry to hear about John. Problem is, the local X-COM base isn't responding to our signals. Until we have a clear route in from abroad, there's no help coming. And what's Wilson's status?"

"Dead," said Rachel feeling the truth of it as she spoke. "He was the first target. I think he took one of the bastards with him though."

"I'd expect no less of him," said Miller after a long pause. "Okay, I'm commissioning you. We need someone on the ground and you're it just like that mission to Sunnydale. Welcome to the army, Brigadier-General Giles. We need you to go check out the local base; if they've gone traitor, destroy them. We simply can't afford for that equipment to fall into alien hands."

"Yes, sir," said Rachel. "And what about evacuation for the civilians?"

"Not for a while," said Miller. "You'll have to protect them with what resources you have for now. The air space is too thick with UFO activity at the moment. I have to go now, Giles. Do what you can, but whatever you do don't get killed, okay?"

"I'll try to avoid that."

And with that the conversation was over. Now she just had to talk a bunch of likely hysterical scientists into calming down and send them and Dawn away with Casey and Peter while she went off to fight. That'd go down well. She didn't even want to think about what the world had seen of her on TV; that was just too much to deal with right now.

"Who goes there?" barked the soldier on gate duty in French as Rachel approached.

"Brigadier-General Rachel Giles, X-COM," replied Rachel steadily in the same language, her hand on the hilt of her lightsabre at her waist. She'd raided a local clothing shop for supplies before starting her work, and was now clad in a rather non-descript pair of blue jeans that her lightsabre was clipped to.

The soldier looked at her for a moment before replying. "Wait there one moment," he said, before heading into the gatehouse. He reappeared a moment later and said, "someone will be out soon to escort you to the commander's office."

Rachel nodded and waited. Soon enough a slightly frazzled looking young man in X-COM issue BDUs approached her and she followed him back into the base. It did not take long for Rachel to realise that something was amiss. Even without supernatural senses, she knew she was being lead around the long way - every X-COM base was built according to pre-defined schematics, they were literally drop in and go - and this was not the normal route to the commander's office. But her senses . . . the echoes of death were everywhere, and those echoes hummed with shocked betrayal.

It was obviously a trap, and she was walking right on into it. Well, she wasn't terribly worried about it. The Force responded strongly to even the slightest call she made and these fools had no idea what they were up against. It was time for a show of force, time to teach these traitors a lesson they would never forget.

And so she found herself in an office with the regional commander of X-COM, forces, a French Army General, and half-a-dozen soldiers distributed around the edges of the room.

"I'm sure you understand that I must have security present with what's happening," said the general as Rachel sat down.

"Oh of course," said Rachel, in a falsely sweet voice.

"Where are the others?" asked the general. "I assume there were other survivors?"

"Oh, they're safe," said Rachel. "No need to worry about them."

"I must insist that you inform me of their location," said the general. "Command has ordered me to see to their safety."

"That's odd," said Rachel. "Command told me that you weren't responding to orders and that I was to investigate."

The general stiffened just a little in his seat before relaxing again. "Ah," he said. "Well, there was a fault in our communications system. It's fixed now."

"Ah, now that's a lie," said Rachel, her voice losing its falseness and growing very cold indeed. "I tire of this, traitor. Surrender or die; your decision."

A second later, Rachel was sat with half-a-dozen blaster carbines aimed at her head and the general looking at her as if she was completely insane.

"You cannot possibly believe that will leave here alive," said the general with an incredulous look on his face. "Even you cannot defeat six of my best men from a seated position."

"I really must be slipping if you think you can kill me with a mere six soldiers," said Rachel. "Either that or you're a blithering idiot. Personally, I'm learning towards the second choice."

"Kill her!"

When absolutely nothing happened the general twisted his head around and what he saw made all the blood drain from his face. All six of his men were backed against the wall with their carbines floating in the air in front of them aimed at their heads.

"Do you understand now?" asked Rachel. "You are not the one in control here; I am."

"Arrogant bitch," snarled the general. "I have an entire base full of soldiers here under my command and you dare dictate to me?"

"That base full of soldiers will be a base full of corpses soon enough unless you surrender, general," said Rachel. "You cannot win."

The general's response was to go for the sidearm he had holstered at his waist. Before he could actually aim it, Rachel had him slammed up against the wall with one hand wrapped around his throat and the other holding his gun arm harmlessly pointed to the side. His soldiers? They were cooling on the ground with their brains decorating the walls - they really shouldn't have tried to attack while Rachel was dealing with their commander.

"That was a bad idea," said Rachel to the now trembling general as she stared into his eyes. "A very bad idea indeed."

"You won't make it out of here alive," choked out the general around Rachel's grip.

"I beg to differ," said Rachel. "Now, you have sufficient rank to know what's going on."

"I'll tell you nothing, bitch."

"And like the last one, your speech is not required," said Rachel.

What came next was much like the last soldier she interrogated but with a little more strength to the resistance. He screamed and thrashed and made a whole lot of fuss, but he was by no stretch of the imagination strong enough to resist her powers. What was different was that he was still somewhat with it when she'd finished extracting information and dropped him to the ground.

"Monster," he gasped.

"You call me a monster?" sneered Rachel. "You're the one collaborating with the aliens. I wonder, does it run in the family? Did your ancestors follow along with Petain and collaborate with the Nazis?"

The general's aura exploded with rage at that and he went for his gun once more. This time Rachel allowed him to fire and simply backhanded the blaster bolt back into the man's face. The last expression he would ever wear would be one of abject shock.

"Idiot," she muttered as she turned away from the general and drew her sabre ready for the slaughter to come.

It didn't take particularly long for Rachel to work her through the base's compliment of soldiers. They were quite simply out of their league against her; if Revan cut through the Star-Forge's soldiers, droids, and Dark Jedi, then what chance did Earth soldiers stand against her when they were already wearied from dealing with the other soldiers who had refused to go traitor. Really the only challenge had been keeping the will to kill strong, and that hadn't been particularly difficult after the stunt they'd pulled.

And so Rachel found herself taking cover behind some bushes several miles away from the base, watching and waiting for reinforcements to arrive through Force-enhanced eyes. It took several hours but eventually a convoy of jeeps and trucks came barrelling up the road to the base. Troops began disembarking from the vehicles as soon as the first truck entered the base grounds and the troops scattered around the ground-level base to secure the grounds.

That process did not take long - securing a base full of nothing but corpses does not take long - and then the rest of the soldiers disembarked and made their way to the access lift. Rachel waited long enough for the base lift to do its work, and then she triggered the jury-rigged bombs she'd left scattered around the base as well as the much larger device she'd constructed from thermal detonators that had been left in a crate in the base's garage.

The explosion made for a very nice mushroom cloud.

After the local X-COM base was reduced to a very large crater, Rachel headed back to Paris proper. She might have dealt with one branch of traitors, but now it was time to deal with the root cause of all of this carnage, the creature that had been manipulating the whole thing behind the scenes: an Ethereal Commander that had taken up residence in Paris during a UFO incursion and had wrought incredible damage since.

By the time Rachel was entering the city, the sun had risen, and the streets were packed with disbelieving Frenchmen. Some seemed quite arrogant about the whole thing, believing that they were going to teach the Americans a lesson, but most were just gob-smacked by what had happened and had sank into a sort of numb disbelief that their government would do such a thing. And then there was the uniform 'what the fuck?' reaction seeing Rachel putting on a damn good demonstration of Jedi powers in front of a TV camera. It all came together to lend a very surreal air to things.

Finding the Ethereal didn't take particularly long. A void of darkness in the middle of a crowd of normal, psychically-incapable humans stood out rather blatantly, after all, and Rachel had some quite well-refined abilities in the field. If it had been trying to conceal itself, then finding it might have been more difficult, but it wasn't. In the end, Rachel followed the creature's presence to a small office building not far from the Luxembourg Palace.

Rachel dropped the illusion that obscured her features and made her appear to be nobody special as soon as she entered the building. Absolute chaos followed as virtually everyone present stampeded for the door. Rachel let them be. Chances were most of them were guilty of nothing more than working in the wrong place and those that weren't, well, they were hardly important. When the stampede was over, Rachel was alone in the lobby barring two tall, athletically built men in black suits that reeked of alien despite their rather mundane appearance.

"So who are you then?" asked Rachel, her hand moving to the hilt of her lightsabre. "More traitors?"

"We are agents of the masters," said one of the men. "You will cease your attack at once."

"And if I don't?" asked Rachel.

"Then you will be exterminated," said the other man.

"I don't have time for this," said Rachel. And then with a wave of her hand she smashed the two men away from the door they guarded and bounced them off the walls with incredible force. Their life-force flickered out of existence moments later.

With the 'agents' out of the way, Rachel threw the doors open with the power of her mind and strode on through. The room she entered was dark; the room's windows had been blacked out and the artificial light-sources were not active. It was, all in all, the stereotypical supervillain's lair with the apparent size of the room.

"We have been expecting you," said the creature in a voice that echoed of something strange and completely alien to Rachel as it stepped out of the shadows. Clad in deep-hooded, voluminous red robes, it was quite an intimidating sight by any normal, objective standard with its height.

"Have you now?" asked Rachel. "Well, then. You know what I'm going to do to you, I assume?"

"You will try to kill me," said the Ethereal. "It is not important."

"You must not like living then," said Rachel. "Because there's no try about it; you won't leave this room alive."

"You would risk your life to defend these creatures," said the alien sounding most surprised. "We do not understand. They are nothing."

"Those creatures are my kin," said Rachel. "They are not nothing."

"They are weak," said the Ethereal. "They have no power and they are easily manipulated or controlled, you have slaughtered them when they turned on you, and yet you defend them. It makes no sense."

"I am a Jedi," said Rachel. "It is my duty; it is what I am."

"You have darkness in you," said the Ethereal. "I can feel it; we can all feel it. You waste your potential. With us, you could rule over everything for all time."

"I would die first," said Rachel. "You have nothing that could tempt me, Ethereal."

"Then you will die," said the Ethereal, and Rachel could feel the darkness gathering as it drew itself up for battle.

"You over-estimate your chances," said Rachel, sinking into the Force and allowing it to permeate her being as she prepared for battle.

The alien's attack came in the form of thousands of dark needles striking against Rachel's mental shields and digging away, trying to break into her mind. Rachel frowned. The attack was not beyond her ability to handle but it was far greater than this creature's presence in the Force should have allowed for. Such a widely dispersed attack wouldn't be defeated by brute force or by simple dodging either; she would have to employ one of her master's techniques.

And with that thought in mind, Rachel began to make herself small in the Force, drawing her presence in and wrapping the energy tightly around herself rather than letting it extend outwards. Soon her presence was absolutely microscopic and the attacks launched by the Ethereal simply passed on by, failing to locate her presence entirely.

That gave the Ethereal pause for just a moment and Rachel took advantage of that; she took a grip upon a wooden chair with her mind and telekinetically hurled it through the air at the alien. The Ethereal managed to block the chair with its own telekinetic powers before it hurt but Rachel had a table hurtling the air before it could shift its focus to another item and the impact smashed the Ethereal down to the ground as the table splintered to pieces.

The alien gathered itself quickly though and this time went on the offensive with a direct application of telekinetic power against Rachel, who met the blast with one of her own that smashed the alien's power to pieces and blasted the alien back down into the ground.

"Pitiful," said Rachel, as she ignited her lightsabre.

"I am but one," managed the Ethereal around its wounds before Rachel's lightsabre cleaved it in two.

With the military base destroyed, the Ethereal dead, and HK working his way through everyone even vaguely associated with what had happened, Rachel couldn't think of much else she could do from her position and slipped away with another illusion concealing her identity. There were other targets she could attack, but she lacked the ability to reach them from this location at this point without going carjacking or something similar and that would leave her in a poor position when it came to remaining undetected.

And so, with that in mind, she simply bought a newspaper with some money that she had acquired along the way and settled down at a table outside one of the local coffee shops with a far too small cup of far too expensive coffee to see what the media was making of it all amidst the hushed conversations of the French. "France at War!" screamed the headline in massive bold print for all the world to see. And with that there was a massive picture of the mushroom cloud she'd created with her explosives at the military base. A late printing, obviously.

The newspaper was filled entirely with articles and editorials about what had happened without a sign of the normal newspaper contents to be seen. Not a surprise really. War was big news after all. The paper was predictably slanted in its viewpoint, obviously running under wartime restrictions, and there were few surprises to be had. "Response to American aggression," seemed to be the overall tone along with "using diplomacy rather than force to deal with the alien visitors". Rachel kinda wished that she had an Internet connection on hand so she could get a wider view of what was going on because the aliens being public knowledge . . . it was big.

It was quite a thing to see how the government had spun the alien attack from the same night as their own treachery. Apparently, it was all the fault of the Americans, who were attempting to exterminate the essentially peaceful aliens who had travelled so far to visit humanity. Utter bollocks through and through, but she had to wonder if people would actually buy it. Americans did have a bit of a cowboy image abroad and France's traditional enmity with the British meant that it would be rather easy for the government to gets its population believing the worst of two of the larger powers behind the X-COM project, at least the ones who didn't look too closely and think too deeply about the whole thing.

One thing that surprised Rachel was the way they tried to minimise her role. Apparently she was some sort of British Special Forces soldier running around blowing things up for kicks or something. There was no mention of supernatural powers and the TV broadcast was being entirely ignored, though in all fairness she had no idea what the quality on that had been like. Finger crossed and maybe her secret hadn't been blown to the entire world. One thing was for sure, though, this newspaper did not like her: "a monster who slew hundreds of Frenchmen without second-thought or compassion" they called her. Well . . . okay, she had pretty much done that.

"I heard that the British are coming through the tunnel," said one of the old men at the next table.

"They wouldn't dare," said the other. "They don't have what it takes to invade France."

"Even with the Germans helping?" asked the first man with a shake of his head. "We're doomed. Face it. No-one's going to come and help us. Aliens? Ha! Who do they think they're kidding?"

"The government wouldn't have gotten us involved if there wasn't something," said the second man. "They're not that stupid."

"They're the government," said the first man. "Just look at what the idiots we've allied ourselves with have done in London and Washington. Look at Taiwan and Korea! This cannot end well; even if it does, do you want to live under the rule of the sort of people who do things like that?"

Rachel frowned at that. What had happened in London and Washington? Taiwan and Korea? Damned if the paper had mentioned anything of substance about that. Looked like she'd bought the wrong paper.

"Point," said the second. "That sort of thing is never a good sign."

"This is the end for the Fifth Republic, my friend," said the first man. "It's been a good run but they've thrown it all away."

"They say you get the government you deserve," said the second man. "I don't see how we could possibly deserve this."

"That's a stupid saying," said the first man. "How were we supposed to know this new President would be a lunatic?"

"Don't ask me," said the second man. "I hear that the students are starting up a protest near the elysee Palace."

"I thought they'd cordoned that area off to keep the devil-woman out?"

"They're not of a mind to listen to the police," said the second man. "But when are they ever? Students, they live to make trouble."

Rachel paid up quickly after hearing that and then headed off in that direction. She had a feeling about that protest; something was going to happen there and she wanted to be there to see what.

The protest was nothing particularly interesting as it turned out, just a whole load of people in their late teens and early twenties chanting slogans and toting placards around with similar messages. Typical student fare really; it hadn't even turned violent. The slogans were fairly uninspired as well, "down with the government," and "say no to fascism" being prominent despite the utter lack of fascism apparent to Rachel in what had happened. Evil, oh yes, but fascism? Not so much.

Well, it wasn't like she had anything better to do, so she perched on the roof of a nearby building and observed. Over the course of the next hour, the numbers involved in the protest grew - and a lot more non-students - began to join and they, as a group, grew more aggressive. And as the protest wore on more Gendarmerie showed up and grew increasingly more aggressive in their attempts to contain the protest - Rachel saw several of the more loud-mouthed students get cracked over the head with a truncheon in the finest riot police tradition which of course drew the ire of the other protestors.

Eventually, inevitably, it all kicked off and the protest turned into a full-scale riot, and the Gendarmerie found themselves on the wrong end of over ten thousand pissed-off protestors. It wasn't a particularly even fight given the difference between a random selection of civilians and a trained military force, but, with the sheer number of people involved and the lack of lethal force in use, it wouldn't be one that would end quickly either.

That conclusion was one that Rachel came to quickly but one that was also dispersed quickly. Minutes later, the Earth itself shook, and Rachel soon spotted half-a-dozen massive, two-legged machine monsters approaching the site of the riot from the direction of the palace. Sectopods, it had to be. Rachel'd never actually seen one herself but these machines fitted the descriptions she'd read. This just couldn't be good.

Everything stopped as people sighted the approaching war-machines, protestor and Gendarmerie alike. And for a moment there was peace. Then the machines opened fire, scything their dual laser cannons through the crowd. The laser beams cut through the people they touched like a hot knife through butter and the protestors immediately began to scream and scatter as the machines cut through them; the Gendarmerie . . . well, they tried to return fire, but normal weapons weren't even going to put a dent in a Sectopod unless they had something like an RPG launcher.

Rachel was more than a little tempted to leave them to their fate all things considered, but her conscience quickly won out. The Gendarmerie were little more than a well-armed police force and could hardly be held responsible for their government's idiocy. Before the robots could fire another murderous volley, Rachel jumped in front of the Gendarmerie that had stood their ground, and then used her magic to erect a shield around the whole lot of them.

The air around them immediately exploded into a kaleidoscope of colour as the Sectopods' laser beams struck against the shield and a sheen of sweat soon appeared on Rachel's brow as she struggled to maintain the protection. Magic was not her speciality and she hadn't developed these powers to anything near the level of her Force talents, and so she struggled to keep the shield up. Times like this, she really wished Willow was there. She could feel her magic reserves draining rapidly as the beams impacted against the shield and it took all her will to keep the shield working as the Sectopods worked against her. As it was, the area covered by the shield was being slowly shrunk as her magic began to run out.

Rachel could feel the growing fear being felt by the Gendarmerie as the shield drew in. Luckily, they were smart enough to pull back away as the shield lost size, or that fear would have been more than justified. Soon, it was all she could do to maintain the shield around the group that were huddling in close around her, and she could feel the energy of the spell begin to physically drain her as the magic ran close to dry and started to feed off her body for energy.

And then the attack stopped. The Sectopods' heat sinks reached their limits quicker than her. She allowed what was left of the shield to drop immediately; she couldn't afford to waste a single joule of energy here. And then she gathered all of her Force powers before attacking. She caught each of the robots in a telekinetic grip and then she squeezed with all of her might. The Sectopods just crumpled under the power of her attack and as she pressed in on vital systems they began to explode one by one.

Soon, it was over, and Rachel was surrounded by nothing more than wreckage, corpses, and Gendarmerie. And those Gendarmerie soon realised that she was not just some random passer-by with supernatural powers. She both saw and felt the realisation that she was the one from the news run through them and soon they all had their weapons aimed at her.

"Must we do this?" she asked. "I just saved your lives and you must realise that you can't win."

"We have our orders," said one, who Rachel assumed must be their commanding officer.

Rachel opened her mouth to try and talk them out of it, but before she could say anything she was almost thrown off her feet as the ground shook under the impact of an absolutely massive explosion coming from the elysee Palace. By the time the Gendarmerie thought to turn back to her, she was gone. HK's flair for the destructive did come in so very handy at times.

After that, there really wasn't anything for Rachel to do but wait for things to play out. Within days it was over. With Spanish, Italian, German, and British forces pressing at them for all directions and with their government being gutted by HK - along with many soldiers simply refusing to fight in the name of a government that'd had anything to do with the massacre at the protest - it soon ended and France was occupied. There was surprisingly little resistance from the country's population, but perhaps that was to be expected given the uniform unpopularity of the war. Rachel still didn't think she'd be very welcome in the country again anytime soon though. And that went double - at least - for HK after his antics.

Chapter Twelve

December 2001

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.

"Later, HK."

"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."

Chapter Thirteen

December 2001

It was a couple of days after the scrap with the wizards - a couple of very quiet days indeed for Rachel - when X-COM flew in the group from Sunnydale: Willow, Buffy, Tara, Giles, and Mrs. Summers. Faith would have been there but apparently they hadn't been able to find her in time. No surprise there. Approximately five seconds after the skyranger's back had dropped to allow the people it was transporting to leave, Rachel was almost knocked off her feet by a red-headed blur that slammed into her at something not far short of the speed a car'd manage on a highway and then latched onto her midsection with a vice-like grip.

"Hey, Willow," said Rachel, bending back slightly before she caught her balance. "You'd think you were worried or something."

And that got her a whack on the upper-arm that was actually quite painful. "You need to be more careful," said Willow, her voice slightly muffled.

"I'm careful," protested Rachel. "Not much I can do about it when the entire world goes insane around me."

"Just do it."

"Come on, Willow," said Rachel. "We've took on worse than a few assassins and you never got like this."

"It's different."

"I don't see how."

"You wouldn't," said Willow as she released her grip on Rachel. Rachel barely had time to draw a breath before a blonde-headed blur took Willow's place.

"Ack!" said Rachel. "Slayer strength! Slayer strength! Watch the ribs!"

"Sorry 'bout that," said Buffy, before whacking Rachel on the same spot as Willow had and letting go. "And you really need to stop worrying us all like that."

"I took less hits from the French," grumbled Rachel, rubbing at her now quite sore arm before Giles swooped in with a brief hug of his own.

"I'm not even going to try," he said with a slight, somewhat strained smile. "I know what you're like. Just try and stay in one piece, hmm?"

"Wasn't planning on doing anything else," said Rachel. "I'm kinda attached to my body, you know."

"I imagine you are," he said. "Just keep it in mind."

And then Mrs. Summers was in front of Rachel. "You will be more careful," she said, jabbing her finger at Rachel. "Getting into this sort of mess on your own is bad enough, but when you have Dawn with you?"

"I know," said Rachel. "I know. But sometimes these things just happen and there's nothing you can do about it."

"Well you'll just have to make them not happen then," said Mrs. Summers with a glare.

"Right," said Rachel quickly. "Will do. I'm sure I can find a way to make countries not declare war on each other."

"Good," said Mrs. Summers. "Now where's Dawn? And how is she?"

"She's in the hospital wing," said Rachel. "And she's fine. Really, she is. Now you're here, I'll wake her up. I figured you'd do a better job of dealing with her than me; she's going to be pretty upset."

"Take me to her," commanded Mrs. Summers.

"Well, no time like the present, I suppose," said Rachel. "It's just this way."

Before she turned to lead the group to Dawn, Rachel saw Tara give her a small wave from the back of the group. It was nice to know that one of them was taking things calmly.

Dawn had latched onto Mrs. Summers as soon as Rachel had brought her around and showed no signs of letting go as Giles ushered everyone that didn't have the surname Summers out of the room and into an adjoining waiting area.

"Dawn's going to okay, isn't she?" asked Tara.

"She's strong," said Rachel. "She'll be fine. Just needs time to adapt. When she's calmed down, I'll run her through a crash course in mental shielding and this shouldn't happen again."

"You're sure?" asked Giles. "If it was that easy, why didn't you teach her how to do it before now?"

"It wasn't a priority," said Rachel. "I wasn't expecting anyone to start lighting up cities with nuclear weapons. I don't think anyone was."

"That is true," agreed Giles. "I just hope she can learn these mental shields quickly because I don't expect this war to become any less bloody."

"No," said Rachel. "But the nuclear weapons have been nullified. That means you won't get the sudden hundred thousand deaths that really knock people like Dawn for a loop again."

"What about the wizards?" asked Willow. "I haven't heard anything about them."

"They've been dealt with," said Rachel. "Their leaders are dead or arrested and their military, such as it was, has been smashed. The wizards have lost their independence once and for all; they're subjects of the crown like ever other British person now."

"You're sure of this?" asked Giles, a smile beginning to appear on his face. "They're defeated?"

"Utterly," said Rachel. "They were entirely unprepared for the normal people to be able to strike back at them, and apparently their internal conflicts had weakened them considerably."

"There wasn't many hurt, was there?" asked Tara, looking quite concerned.

"A few," said Rachel. "Really, it was only the aurors and hit-wizards who put up a fight. The rest were too surprised to do anything and just got stunned. A few aspirin and they were fine."

"What about the aurors?" asked Giles. "What happened to them?"

"Dead, mostly," said Rachel. "Blasters aren't nice weapons. They get a solid hit on you and you won't be getting back up again."

"So they finally got what they deserved," said Giles with a vicious grin. "I don't suppose they'll ever be able to play with peoples' lives ever again now."

"Not likely," said Rachel. "The government has its own resources to deal with them now if they get uppity."

"I am very glad to hear that," said Giles. "But more importantly, how are you? Really?"

"I'm fine," said Rachel with a slight shrug of her shoulders. "Really, I am."

"Forgive me for being sceptical, but you were in the middle of a warzone," said Giles. "That can't be easy."

"It's not," said Rachel. "But it's nothing new to me either. I think you're forgetting just whose memories I got shoved into my head."

"Still . . . "

"No," said Rachel. "There's no 'still' here. What the French threw at me was absolutely nothing compared to the Mandalorian War. If I was a normal twenty-one year old, then yeah it would have been bad. Good thing that I'm not then, isn't it?"

Giles grimaced. "You just seem so young for that sort of thing."

"At this age, I was a Grand Admiral in the Republic Navy as Revan," said Rachel. "And considering that the British Army is sending teenagers off to war as we speak, well, it doesn't seem that I'm too young to me."

"I can't say I like that practice," said Giles. "At least the Slayer has a greater force, a destiny, behind their work."

Rachel shrugged. "Once they're eighteen, they're old enough to make their own choices," she said. "At least I think so."

"Well, I suppose . . . no, this isn't what I wanted to talk about," said Giles. "Are you quite sure that you're alright?"

"Yes," said Rachel emphatically. "Perfectly fine. I'll be happier when my enemies are all pushing up daisies, but I'll get by."

"That's a little . . . harsh," said Tara.

Rachel shrugged. "The people running this war for the enemy make demons look good by comparison," she said. "If they're not killed in the war, they'll be killed afterwards for war-crimes or treason."

"You want me to do what?" asked Rachel, her voice growing progressively louder as she spoke.

"Give a press conference," said Jones. "You see, we're going to have to tell the world about the wizards sooner or later, but the last thing we need is for it to kick off a shitstorm."

"So you want me to act as a distraction," growled Rachel. "I am a Jedi Knight, not a PR tool."

"Oh, you're both now," said Miller from the video screen. "Look, can you imagine how the public will react to this? We don't need lynch mobs looking for wizards."

"Lynch mobs? In England?" asked Rachel. "Since when?"

"It can happen," said Jones. "Just like anywhere else in the world. Lynching's more an American thing, though; more likely they'd beat them to death or stab them if that sort of thing happened here. Maybe shoot them if criminals were involved with the event."

"Charming," said Rachel. "Absolutely charming."

"That's why we want you to act as a distraction," said Miller. "That way we can slip this little bit of unpleasantness in under the radar and skip most of the backlash."

"That's a short-term solution at best," said Rachel. "You need to have something to make wizards looks less like bastards to the general public. Harry's a start but you'll need more than that considering that his own people pretty much exiled him."

"I have an idea," said Jones. "Those wizards could be useful. I'm no expert but those guys that attacked the base could do some pretty interesting things. A squad of wizard commandos with a record of heroism would make their society's lot a bit easier in the years to come."

"Well, that's not our call to make," said Miller. "Sounds like a good idea to me though."

"What about the rest of the world?" asked Rachel. "You know that Britain isn't the only country with a wizarding world right?"

"It's being dealt with," said Miller. "Mostly, they're just giving up. They see which way the wind is blowing. There just isn't enough to them to make fighting for their independence worth it."

"We have reports on all of this you can read if you're interested," said Jones. "What we need to do now is to prepare you for your press conference."

"Truly, I can think of nothing I would enjoy more."

"First thing, you're keeping your rank," said Jones. "You've been formally commissioned as a Brigadier in the British Army, 2nd Green Jackets, The King's Royal Rifle Corps. And your first assignment will be to the DARPA facility in the United States of America to act as the head of research for NATO allied forces.?h

"So basically the same job I was doing before," said Rachel. "Only difference I can see is that I'll have a uniform."

"Pretty much," said Miller. "Having you in the Army makes for good propaganda, but you're far more useful producing all these neat new toys than you are fighting."

"That's nice," said Rachel. "But you people are aware that I'm not really British, right? That's a piece of legal fiction. I'm not sure if my documentation will even stand up to much scrutiny."

Jones waved that off. "Dealt with," he said. "The Queen herself has taken a great interest in you. The truth of your origins is being classified as highly as it gets."

"And no-one's bothered by this?" asked Rachel. "It sounds like I'm about to be held up as some sort of great British hero, but I'm not British! I'm American!"

"Needs must," said Jones with a shrug. "And you do sound the part."

Rachel pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration. "Fine," she said. "I suppose a Coruscant accent sounds much like an English one. What else do I need to know?"

Rachel had known that something wasn't quite right when she saw the Jedi robes that had been laid out in her room for the press conference. They were just far too flashy for a simple press conference. The materials they were made from . . . they had to be worth an absolute fortune. She was no expect in how much various sorts of silk and velvet cost, but she could tell just by looking at these robes that it was a lot, and she'd never wear the robes for normal use; they just wouldn't take her lifestyle.

Well, there wasn't a great deal she could do about it. Chances were it was just some silly PR stunt and it would accomplish little to nothing to resist it, and doing so would just make her look foolish. For now, she would go along with it. As much as it displeased her to be used in such a way, she could understand the necessity of it. There would be words exchanged about informing her beforehand though. She was not a tool to be used at will by politicians and they would have that drummed into them whether they liked it or not.

The robes were comfortably - far more comfortable than the coarse materials of normal Jedi robes would allow for - but that was hardly unexpected. There had obviously been no expense spared in constructing them and it would hardly be expected for such expensive, luxurious clothing to be uncomfortable. Hell, it looked and felt like it had been tailored exactly to her dimensions, which made her wonder where they'd got those measurements from because she couldn't remember being measured so exactly. Curious. Not exactly important but curious.

Of course, fancy robes and PR stunt or not, she still armed herself. She would not leave her rooms without a lightsabre clipped to her belt and a dagger in an ankle sheath just in case. A gathering for a PR stunt would make an excellent target for assassins and the like after all. It went without saying that she took HK along with her. As insane as the robot was, there was no-one she'd rather have by her side in a battle.

Her suspicions that something was going on were just confirmed when she left the interior of the base and found Giles waiting by a limousine wearing clothing that was far more expensive and formal looking than anything she'd seen him wearing before. A raised eyebrow said it all and Giles's expression was rather sheepish indeed and he opened the car door and ushered her in.

"What's going on?" asked Rachel abruptly as she settled into the back of the limousine with Giles and HK. "I don't appreciate being railroaded."

"Neither do I," said Giles. "They caught me rather by surprise and I wasn't given the opportunity to object. There should be . . . ah, yes, here it is. Read this. It'll tell you everything, I expect."

"Wonderful," said Rachel taking the slim cardboard file from Giles. "HK, keep an eye out. I expect we make a very tempting target for our enemies at the moment."

"Statement: of course, master. I am eager for some unadulterated violence to break the monotony."

"Did you have to make that robot so violent?" asked Giles. "It's somewhat disturbing, and I doubt that I'm the only one who feels that way."

"Had to be true to the original," said Rachel, as she flicked through the file she'd been handed. "Well, this looks to be absolutely ridiculous. I appreciate the need for a morale-boost but this . . . "

"What are they doing, exactly?" inquired Giles. "I don't know much more than you at this stage."

"Victoria Cross," said Rachel. "Not sure how they're wangling that considering I was never really commissioned in the British Army. Oh, and a knighthood. I'm being awarded a GBE. Quite an impressive one that, isn't it?"

"Quite," said Giles. "It's one of the lower orders of merit, but on this short notice it's unlikely they could find anything higher."

"Hmm," said Rachel. "Oh, an Order of Merit for services to science too. They're really not holding back on this, are they? I'm going to have a stupidly long name if they keep this up."

"Rachel, this is an honour," said Giles. "Very, very few people warrant those kind of rewards."

"And I'm not one of them," said Rachel. "If a normal person had done the things I've done? Sure. But I'm not normal. It's like cheating, really. Anyone normal that tried to do the the things I do would just get themselves killed."

"You still do them," countered Giles. "There's nothing forcing you to go out there and fight the good fight, but you still do it. That's worthy of respect no matter how you slice it. And the statutes make no allowance for supernatural powers."

"Still feels like cheating," said Rachel with a shrug. "The science thing definitely is. I'm far from stupid, but I wouldn't be half as good at what I do as I am without Revan's memories being shoved into my head."

"We all have to work with what gifts we have," said Giles. "Some people get genius or beauty, you got memories - knowledge. And it's not like those memories came without a price. I remember your nightmares."

"Yes," said Rachel distantly. "So do I. Anyway, Buckingham Palace. I don't think I've ever been in a real palace before. Should be interesting."

"I can't say I've ever been there before," said Giles, accepting the change of subject gracefully. "But it is reputed to be rather impressive."

"I imagine so," said Rachel before trailing off and staring at the page she had been reading.

"What?" asked Giles, sounding worried. "Rachel, what is it?"

"I . . . I'm going to be awarded the Medal of Honour," she said. "Whoa. That's just . . . wow."

"You were perfectly calm about being awarded the Victoria Cross and being Knighted," said Giles. "But you go ga-ga over the Medal of Honour?"

"Hey," said Rachel. "I'm American. This is a big deal. Medal of Honour winners are the heroes you hear about when you're growing up in America."

"Just remember that you're supposed to be English," said Giles with a sigh. "You can't go ga-ga over American medals and be blase about British ones, not in public."

"I'm not stupid," said Rachel. "Anyway, I'm not getting the Medal of Honour till I get back to America. They want to do their own PR work with that apparently. Lucky me."

"Something to look forward to then," said Giles.

"Well, it has side-benefits," said Rachel. "Travers was neutralised temporarily before, but he won't be able to do dick to us now no matter how much things change. Medal of Honour winners do not get deported and neither do their uncles."

"Well, that's nice to hear," said Giles. "As much as I miss home, I don't have much here to come back to these days."

"You're the only Giles left these days, aren't you?" asked Rachel. "I can't remember you ever mentioning any living family and that would be kind of important."

"No," said Giles. "They're all dead now. There's just us."

Rachel looked up sharply at that.

"I am very proud to be able to call you my niece, Rachel," said Giles with a fond smile. "At first, it was a matter of necessity, but it has become truth for me. You are an exceptional person, Rachel, and I could wish for no better as family."

"I . . . thank you," said Rachel "That means a lot to me."

And it really did. If there was one thing she'd never had any luck with, it was family. Revan simply hadn't had any and Xander . . . well, the less said about the Harris family the better, in her opinion. The best side-effect of what had happened to her had to be getting away from those people.

"Statement: we are approaching the palace now."

"Best prepare yourself now," said Giles. "This is going to be a circus."

"Nothing I haven't dealt with before as Revan," said Rachel. "If anything, I'm less of a public figure here and now."

"That's hard to imagine."

Rachel just shrugged her shoulders. It was true after all. Revan had saved a galaxy-spanning state from invaders; that was bound to garner some serious media attention. The car came to a halt soon after. "Well, come on, uncle," said Rachel. "Best to get this over with, I think. Where are the others anyway?"

"They were taken in separately," said Giles. "I'm only with you because I am legally your family and they needed someone to drop it on you."

"How nice of them," commented Rachel.

The flash of the cameras as Rachel entered the room in which the press conference was taking place was positively blinding. It took all her willpower not to stop in her tracks and start blinking her eyes to try and restore her vision. Sometimes the enhanced senses that came with her lycanthropy really were a disadvantage. It wasn't quite as bad as the sense of smell sometimes got but it was getting there. The whispering that had started as soon as she entered the room came to a crashing halt as she reached the microphone with HK looming behind her. The room was deathly silent as she started to speak.

"You have all received briefing documents pertaining to the war that was started last week," said Rachel. "These briefings encompass the aliens, the existence of magic, the general existence of the supernatural world, and press releases on the current events regarding various battles.

"I am here to clarify some points you may have difficulty understanding," continued Rachel. "I know, from personal experience, that these things are not easy to swallow the first time you hear them. No-one wants to believe that this world we live on was once the home for monsters straight out of our worst nightmares, but it is true. However, this is not the real issue here. The threat of the demons is an old one that humanity has been fighting since before the start of recorded history. Private organisations already have that issue well in hand.

"The real threat to the continuing existence of the human race lies with the aliens," said Rachel. "Humanity as a whole has been involved in a secret war with them for over three years now and several nations have been tracking their meddling in human affairs since the end of the last World War. Their actions to date show their intentions quite clearly: the extermination of all human life once they have extracted whatever it is that they have been attempting to find with their abductions.

"The atrocities at Oxnard and Orvieto would show the true nature of the aliens even without the monstrous acts that have been carried out by their human allies in recent days," continued Rachel. "The sheer idiocy of the French government, displayed when they claimed that the intentions of the aliens were benign, is beyond compare. The French people are now paying the price for their government's folly, with the Cryssalid infestation appearing in Marseilles.

"They seek to destroy us," continued Rachel. "They seek to destroy us and to take the resources of our world and claim them as their own. Their allies will be destroyed in turn once they are finished with us should the unimaginable happen. This is, of course, unacceptable and we will fight them. We will all fight them. And we will defeat them. Any other end is not acceptable. This is a fight for our very existence and we will not lose it. It is not in us as a species to lose a war like this.

"Any questions?" asked Rachel. Multiple hands popped up into the air immediately. A much more disciplined affair than Rachel had expected. She pointed at one female reported. "You."

"Deborah Jones, Los Angeles Times," said the reporter. "My question is, are there more Jedi on Earth?"

"Yes," said Rachel. "My apprentice. She is young and raw, but she is a Jedi. You have another question?"

"Yes," said the reporter. "Where did you learn to be a Jedi?"

"I am self-taught," said Rachel shortly. "That is all?"

"Yes," said the reporter, seating herself a moment later.

Rachel cast her eyes over the crowd once more before pointing at a male reporter. "Yes?"

"Samuel Jones, CNN," said the man. "We have received footage of you in battle with a man wielding a red lightsabre; was he a Sith?"

"Where did you get that footage?" asked Rachel, her voice and expression suddenly sharp.

"We received it anonymously several hours ago," said the reporter. "I hardly had time to watch it before this conference. There was no return address and no indication of its origins, as determined by the NSA. Please, answer the question."

"Yes, that man was a Sith," said Rachel. "The Dark Lord himself, in fact."

"One more question," said the reporter. "You yourself were also wielding a red blade in that battle. What does that mean?"

"It means that I couldn't get my hands on a Jedi blade," said Rachel. "Do you have any idea how expensive crystals of that size and quality are? They're not cheap."

"So you acquired a Sith blade?" asked the reporter. "One of his?"

"Needs must," said Rachel with a slight shrug of her shoulders. "I could neither afford nor locate a crystal quickly enough to use to construct my own weapon at that time. What are you going to do with that footage?"

"We intend to air it after this conference," said the reporter.

"I must ask that you do not," said Rachel. "That was a battle for my life, one I almost lost, and that man was not always a monster. Leave it be, please."

"I'm afraid that's not my decision to make, ma'am," said the reporter. "One last question, where did the Sith come from?"

"I can't answer that," said Rachel. "The only man who knows the answer to that is long dead now, destroyed by his own hubris."

"That's all," said the reporter. "Thank you."

Rachel cast her eyes over the crowd and this time picked out another female reporter.

"Ah, Emily Jones, Times," she said. "The Aliens are the threat, you say? What about the demons and magic users?"

"They are known quantities," said Rachel. "They've been kept in check by various organisations since the dawn of time and that won't change now. You didn't need to worry about them before and you don't need to worry about them now."

"So our technology is equal to their challenge?" asked the reporter.

"More than equal," said Rachel. "And their numbers simply aren't sufficient to wage a serious war against the normal world. The US Army has almost as many soldier as there are wizards on this planet. That speaks for itself."

"Thank you," said the English reporter before she sat down.

Rachel then picked out a male reporter.

"John Simpson, BBC," said the reporter. "Why didn't you go public before, Brigadier Giles?"

"Would anyone have believed it?" asked Rachel. "And I had a job that made that sort of attention inappropriate X-COM were a secret group and my coming out as a Jedi Knight would not have helped maintain that. No, best for all concerned that I continued to work in private."

"Thank you."

Rachel then alternated again and picked out a female reporter.

"Katherine Demopoulos, Guardian," said the reporter. "The briefing we received on demons wasn't entirely clear on one point: are they all evil?"

Rachel gave the reporter a tight smile. "I'm not the best person to ask about that," she said. "The demons I normally deal with are the worst sorts, the ones who get their jollies from murder and torture or just plain old want to suck the world into Hell. I've ran into some who seemed decent enough, but that was rare."

"So they're not all evil then?" asked the reporter.

"No," said Rachel. "Not all of them. It's something you need to be careful with. Some breeds of demon truly are hopelessly evil; some aren't. Approach with caution at all times is a good rule of thumb."

"Thank you."

As Rachel scanned the room for another reporter to pick out a stir picked up in the back of the room and then she heard the announcement, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Queen!"

As Rachel waited for the Queen to come into her sight, she got the sudden feeling of a very large weight being poised over her head ready to fall. It wasn't something she appreciated. As Rachel felt that weight descend upon her head, she saw the Queen come into sight and executed a quick bow before stepping back and allowing two men to move the podium aside. It was then that she noticed that the Queen was not alone but accompanied by several men who she immediately recognised both by their face and their attire as important religious figures from various faiths. Also, there was an older man in military uniform, a General if she read the rank insignia correctly.

As the Queen approached, Rachel remembered the peerage that ran in the Giles family - a barony, not that she could remember where it was of off-hand - and quickly kneeled as was the custom for peers. While she had little interest in these formalities herself, it would be rather counter-productive to the PR stunt if she failed to follow the customs of these people.

The Queen's movements as she approached Rachel were stiff and slow, a product of her injuries Rachel supposed, but there was no sign of pain in her facial expression whatsoever.

"Rise, Lady Giles, your service to Us has been more than We had hoped," said the Queen as she reached Rachel. Rachel immediately nodded and did so. The Queen turned to face the crowd. "This award is not one that One gets the opportunity to award very often and it makes One very happy and very proud to get the opportunity to do so here today."

"Brigadier Giles carried out multiple acts of great heroism when trapped behind enemy lines in France. These actions led directly to many lives, both British and non-British, being saved," said the General that had accompanied the Queen to the stage as he stood at the podium.

"All of these actions were performed in the direct face of the enemy and under fire at great risk to her own life," continued the General. "It is only through the grace of God and her tremendous skill at combat that she escaped these situations without sustaining grievous wounds.

"Her valour is worthy of the highest recognition.

"In December 2001, Brigadier Giles was attending a scientific conference in the city of Paris," said the General. "In the early hours of the 8th December 2001, she was awoken from her sleep by the sound of gunfire. Upon analysis of the situation she became aware of the treachery of the French government and their complicity in a plot to assassinate the world's most foremost scientific minds in an effort to bring a halt to humanity's effort to emulate and exceed the technological capacity of the alien invaders.

"She could have escaped the assassination attempt herself with ease," continued the General. "But instead she immediately dispatched the staff officers under her command to secure the civilian scientists as best they could and then moved personally to engage the French military unit that had invaded the hotel building in an effort to stop them before they could slaughter the civilians.

"Part of what happened next was transmitted on the remaining television satellites to the watching world but that footage does not do the true scope of her efforts justice," continued the General. "Through her actions, and those of the men under her command, hundreds of lives were directly saved as the French military found itself unequal to the task of confronting a Jedi Knight.

"With this done, she could have easily slipped into the night and no-one would have thought any less of her for it," said the General. "Instead, she made contact with the US Army General whose command she was operating under and then acting under his instructions she moved to a multi-national military base that had been established just outside of the Paris city limits to evaluate the situation there after sending the surviving scientists to a safe location with her staff.

"The situation at that base was grimmer than anyone had imagined," continued the General. "The French soldiers staffing the base, a strong majority, had turned on their comrades and gunned them down before taking control of the advanced technology present there and using it to co-ordinate the French military in their imperialistic ambitions.

"Brigadier Giles faced an entire base full of well-trained, well-equipped, and hostile soldiers," continued the General. "She could have retreated, no-one would have thought less of her, but instead she stood her ground and in the finest traditions of the British Army she defeated an overwhelming foe before utterly destroying the base and rendering it unusable for our enemies. The resulting loss of both morale and co-ordination by the French forces saved countless soldiers who were fighting against the French treachery.

"With that done, she had discharged any duty anyone could have expected her to fulfil," said the General. "But instead of slipping away and blending in till she could be retrieved, she hunted down the alien mind that had led the French to that point and she destroyed it utterly. With that act, the alien forces acting within the nation lost their co-ordination in much the same way as the French forces had, saving yet more lives.

"Her next action was to observe a protest against the actions of the French government by the French people," continued the General. "When alien terror weapons appeared and started slaughtering the people, she stopped them. None would have thought less of a woman who failed to act to save enemy citizens in the face of the danger of that situation and the exhaustion she must have felt, but still she acted.

"Brigadier Giles displayed repeated extreme gallantry and unquestioned valour in the face of a numerically overwhelming foe and not once did she allow herself to be bowed despite the terrible danger she was in the whole time."

"While We are quite aware of the ceremony and due process, the pressures of the war does not allow for the proper proceedings in this case, for you are sorely needed elsewhere," said the Queen. "Therefore, We award you for your actions the Victoria Cross."

The Queen then proceeded to pin the Victoria Cross over the right breast of Rachel's inner robes.

"We are also aware of your services to science and the way your work has allowed Us to arm Our soldiers equally as well, if not greater, than the enemies which seek to destroy us," said the Queen. "For this, We award you the Order of Merit for services to science."

The Queen then turned to an elderly gentleman that had accompanied her to the stage and then, after retrieving it from the box the man was carrying, proceeded to pin the Order of Merit next to the Victoria cross over Rachel's breast.

The Queen then smiled. "Please kneel," she said. Rachel did so. The Queen then turned to the General that had accompanied her to the stage and took the sword that he handed to her. As he opened a box and held it out to her, the Queen spoke, "We dub thee, Dame Brigadier Rachel Giles, Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire," she said, as she tapped the sword lightly first on the left and then on the right shoulder.

"Please rise," said the Queen. As Rachel rose, she pinned the star of the Order next to the other medals. The Queen nodded. "Now, Lord Giles, step forward."

It took a moment for Giles to do so and when he did Rachel could feel the confusion pulsing off him in waves as he kneeled.

"You may rise," said the Queen, who waited the moment it took for Giles to get back his feet before continuing. "We are pleased with both your tireless dedication to the war against the creatures of the night and with your raising of your niece into a strong warrior for the forces of good."

Rachel had never, ever seen Giles look so off-balance as he did at that moment and she doubted that she ever would again.

"In recognition of your works, with the advice and consent of what remains of Our parliament, We have decided to create you as the Duke of Calais, a title which will pass through your family for all time."

"Ah, yes, Sire," managed Giles. "I shall endeavour not to disappoint you with my execution of these new responsibilities."

"We know that you shall not," said the Queen. "Now One believes that these gentleman representing the faiths of the world have something to say to you, Brigadier Giles."

With that, she stepped to the side slightly, and the various religious figures took centre-stage.

"Thank you, Your Majesty" said the Papal Nuncio who had apparently been elected as spokesman for the group. "On behalf of our respective churches and leaders, we were instructed to inform you of the approval by His Holiness, the Dali Lama, and the Emperor of Japan, in his role as spiritual head of the Japanese of the formation of the Order of the Jedi Knights on Earth."

Rachel felt much as she imagined Giles had moments ago. This had not been in the script.

"I believe the Queen also agrees with us, and we have the President of the United States' approval as well," said the spokesman. Both the Queen and the US Ambassador nodded.

Rachel blinked. The spokesman smiled. "May you and your Order forever walk in the light," he said before backing away again. Rachel just wondered when her life had span entirely out of her own control.

"That was a bloody circus," said Rachel when she was back in the limousine with Giles and HK headed back to the base. "I'm surprised they didn't ask me to pull a few tricks and dazzle the crowd."

"Please don't give them any more smart ideas," said Giles. "I've had quite enough of that for one lifetime, thank you."

"Good point," said Rachel. "Oh damn it. I have another dose of this to come when I get back to America, don't I?"

"I imagine so," said Giles. "Fortunately, I rather expect that the Americans will be much less interested in me."

"Lucky you," said Rachel. "Hmm, maybe Buffy? Or Faith if they can get their hands on her. Their work as the Slayer might be seen as being worth a bit of PR."

"I'll be sure to warn them then," said Giles. "Though I must admit, the idea of them trying to use Faith for something like this - it's something I'd like to see them do."

"I think I'd like to see that too," said Rachel. "Anyway, Duke of Calais. I wasn't expecting that."

"Neither was I," said Giles. "A nice little thumb in eye to the French, I suppose. It doesn't have much more meaning than that these days."

"It's a bit more than a thumb in the eye," said Rachel. "It's a signal that Britain has no intention of surrendering its holdings in France when the war ends. I'm not sure how that'll play out."

"The Americans and Europeans are unlikely to offer them any support," said Giles. "I can't imagine that they'll be able to offer a great amount of resistance."

"Even taking into account the territory being held by the other European nations, that's a lot of land and people to hold," said Rachel. "And Britain hasn't maintained a large army in peace-time for many years now."

"This isn't peace-time, though."

"This war won't last five years," said Rachel. "And it will be an expensive war, like the first two World Wars. Britain may not be able to afford to hold the territory when all's said and done. The Empire ended in much the same way."

"Well, we'll see," said Giles. "It's not terribly important anyway. They won't do something like this a second time."

"They'd have to be absolutely insane to do so," said Rachel. "But I'd have said the same about doing it the first time."

"If they are allowed independence again then I can't imagine they'll be allowed to maintain a military after this," said Giles. "At best they'd have a constitutional clause like the one Japan has forced upon them."

"True," said Rachel. "But a piece of paper saying 'we won't go to war' amounts to nothing in the end. It's easily ignored."

"Really, there's not much point worrying about it," said Giles. "It's not our decision to make. You'll be back with X-COM soon enough and I'll be back on the hellmouth; this sort of thing is a matter for politicians."

"X-COM's dead," said Rachel matter-of-factly. "We didn't see this coming, didn't do anything to stop it, and we're being dismantled because of that. The people funding us are blaming us. Our resources are being folded back into the normal chain of command as we speak."

"That seems rather harsh," said Giles. "You couldn't possibly have anticipated this sort of move."

"Not easily," said Rachel. "But it was our job. Someone has to take the blame, and this time it's X-COM. Well, us and the various intelligence agencies. I imagine that the CIA, for one, will be getting it in the neck with this and 9/11."

"I doubt that MI-6 will be terribly popular either," said Giles. "But I can't say I find it very fair to blame X-COM for this. As I recall, your organisation's remit did not include espionage."

Rachel shrugged. "Someone has to take the blame and we're the easiest target," she said. "It's people like Miller that'll get it worst. He'll be lucky if he gets assigned to command a base in Alaska."

"I can't imagine him being sidelined," said Giles. "He just doesn't seem the sort to quietly disappear like that."

"I very much doubt he'll be given a choice," said Rachel. "It's a shame because he'd make a fine wartime commander given the chance."

The day after the press conference and award ceremony, Rachel boarded a skyranger transport and was flown back to America. The other had oohed and aahed over the awards she had received appropriately but it had been quite easy to tell that they didn't have the resonance with them that the whole thing'd had with Giles. They just hadn't grown up with those things like he had.

Chapter Fourteen

January 2002

Rachel honestly didn't think she'd ever felt so relieved as she did when she saw the base that DARPA had been relocated to. She was just so tired of playing the all-conquering hero for the masses. The whole press conference and loading her down with British medals had just been the start of it. As soon as she'd gotten back into America, they'd put her through the whole rigmarole over again with a whole load of American journalists who'd been allowed to keep the questioning up a whole lot longer than the British ones had been.

And when that was done, when Rachel had thought she was free and clear, she'd been told that she couldn't assume her position at DARPA till the facility had been relocated to a hardened facility at a classified location that was being built to specifications provided by X-COM on what would be needed to withstand an alien bombardment. Suffice to say, those specifications were not easily fulfilled and the base was taking some take time to construct, which meant that Rachel was free for a whistle-stop tour of the US giving speeches and press conferences.

Personally, Rachel thought that it was all a bit too convenient. She knew that she made a good little propaganda tool and the last thing the American government, what was left of it anyway, wanted was for people to pay too much attention to the death toll and the fact that they'd been caught with their pants down. There had to be half-a-dozen X-COM bases built in various parts of North America that could have been easily, relatively so anyway, renovated to do what was needed. And she didn't really think she was any safer rattling around the country from place to place than she would be in a slightly less than finished military base. Transport vehicles were easier destroyed than any military base after all. Air Force One had went down just like that when the aliens went for it.

Quite frankly, the whole thing tired her. She wanted to be doing something useful to the war effort not flashing the medals and pressing the flesh with politicians. The people were already motivated, already full of piss and vinegar ready to fight, so what did they need her to do? The only vaguely good thing to come out of it was that she'd managed to meet up with Faith on the way. And that had been one fun conversation.

"What the fuck've you been up to?" she'd asked. "I was out in the boonies hunting down this fuckin' horrible demon and when I came back everyone was just staring at me. I thought I had demon blood on my face or something. Turns out I'm famous or something."

"It's hardly my fault . . . "

"You could at least've took me with you!" she'd said before Rachel could reply. "I could've been out causing chaos instead of hunting some fuckin' demon that grabs girls and eats their ovaries after pulling their eggs out of 'em and using them as a starter. Kept 'em alive and awake the whole time too."

"Faith, that's foul," Rachel'd said, noticing several of the soldiers that followed her everywhere looking distinctly green around the gills.

And it had went from there. From that point on, Rachel'd had Faith tagging along on the tour, which made it a little less tedious. Nothing stayed quiet and as planned when Faith was around. It was pretty much a law of nature. Rachel wasn't quite sure that it was what the politicians had been shooting for having Faith stir everything up and actually make people have some fun on the trip but, hell, she wasn't complaining. Having Faith around made the nights more interesting if nothing else.

But that was all past now. The jeep she was on had the base in site and she had no more damned speeches left to give, thank all that was good and holy in the world. Revan might not have minded the whole politicking thing but Rachel had came to the conclusion that she very much did mind having to deal with that sort of nonsense. Now she was just looking forward to getting back to work, and she'd never, ever thought she'd be looking forward to working as a scientist.

"We'll be entering the base in a few minutes now, ma'am," said the soldier driving the jeep, Jiro. Well, Major Sato as he was more properly known these days. Same Jiro that Wilson'd had her spar with back when she first started with X-COM strangely enough. Anyway, he'd been put in part of her security detail for the tour, and he'd be picking up an assignment at the base now.

"And thank God for that," said Rachel.

"Wouldn't know anything about that, ma'am," said Jiro, though she could see a slight smile on his face.

"Yeah, yeah," she said before kicking Faith in the shin to wake her up, and more importantly to make her stop snoring. "Oi. Wake up."

"Wha?" said Faith, before rubbing her eyes and then stretching in a positively indecent way. "What's up, Darth?"

"We're nearly there," said Rachel. "It's done. Finally."

"Oh great," said Faith with a distinct lack of enthusiasm in her voice. "You get to be locked up on a military base again. Yay?"

"No more speeches," said Rachel. "That's what I'm looking at."

"I didn't think it was all that bad," said Dawn, lounging back in her seat.

"You wouldn't," said Rachel. "All you had to do was smile, wave, and visit the malls of America. Such a hard job."

Dawn just shrugged.

"You're just weird like that," said Faith. "Better out giving speeches than cooped up with a bunch of army boys and eggheads, I say."

Rachel just shrugged her shoulders. "I guess you won't be sticking around then?" she asked.

"Nah," said Faith. "Well, maybe a little while. You know what it's like, people to see, place to go, demons to slay. I'd be crawling up the walls if I had to stay in one of these place for long."

"I remember," said Rachel dryly. She wasn't surprised one damn bit. Faith wasn't a sticking around type.

"Hey," said Faith. "You wouldn't even let me play with your toys last time. What do you expect?"

"You nearly destroyed my damn lab," said Rachel. "And I'm not even sure how you managed it. The damn thing was a flight mechanism, not a weapon."

"Hey, I only picked it up and moved it around so I could look at it," said Faith. "I didn't actually do anything."

Rachel just looked at her.

"Well, I might have pressed a button . . . "

Rachel shook her head as Dawn giggled in the back seat. Incorrigible, that was the word for Faith.

They were cleared to enter the base quickly, and Rachel promptly sent her people off to see the base quartermaster and personnel officer to get their digs and assignments sorted out. She headed off to find the base commander and report for duty. And that was a bizarre feeling. She really, really wasn't used to having to report to anyone. As Revan, she'd been one people reported to; as Rachel, she'd been a civilian worker up till now. But she was wearing the uniform so she had to observe the niceties and live up to it.

The commander's secretary waved her through as soon as she showed her face. The benefits of fame, she supposed. There had to be some. A quick knock on the office door and a grunted 'come in' and she entered the commander's office.

"Brigadier Giles reporting for . . . " said Rachel when she entered before trailing off as she saw who the base commander was. "Miller?"

"That's me," he said. "You were saying?"

"I thought you'd be sent to Alaska or somewhere," said Rachel. "You know, the old blame game."

Miller grimaced. "Well, you're not that far off," he said. "It's still the blame game but with a dose of the 'promote him to somewhere he can't do any damage' game to go with it."

Rachel wasn't quite sure what to say to that.

Then he shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing to be done about it," he said. "I have a job to do here and it's important, I suppose. Just boring."

"Well they're bound to try and kill me now," said Rachel, trying to be encouraging. "So you might see some action yet."

Miller just stared at her. "Yes, because the idea of our enemies trying to kill one of our biggest assets really will cheer me up," he said. "I feel better already."

"Right, well," said Rachel. "So how are things going to work here? I know I'm supposed to be supervising the scientists, but will I have any other duties?"

"Technically, you're second in command," said Miller. "The only person on the base who outranks you is me. In reality, you'll have nothing but token duties outside of working with the scientists and training your apprentice. Those are just too important to have you wasting time supervising some grunts patrolling the perimeter or whatever."

"So it really is just my old job with a new title," said Rachel. "Well, I can deal with that. How were things running before I got here?"

"Doctor Baker has been running things in your stead," said Miller. "I expect that she'll be most relieved that you're here to relieve her."

"Sarah's been running things," said Rachel. "Well, that works. What about Peter and Casey?"

"They arrived a few days ahead of you," said Miller. "They've been getting things ready in your quarters, checking security out, that sort of thing. Oh, and Gough's been helping our Dr. Baker."

Rachel nodded. "She never was the best for dealing with troublesome staff," she said. "What is security like here, anyway?"

Miller's smile was not a pleasant one. "Anything that gets past our defences deserves to beat us," he said. "Every single soldier assigned to this base is X-COM quality. Every last one. Over two hundred men and every single one of them is SAS, SBS, Delta Force, SEALS, Spetsnaz, or . . . well, you get the idea. And that's not even talking about the fixed defence emplacements and the robots."

"How did you get so many men like that?"

"It's amazing how many men are willing to base here when you promise to move them to the front of the line for limb replacements," said Miller. "Quite amazing. And we do have quite a few rookies as well. A core of limb-replacement veterans with the rest being rookies."

"Not bad considering it's not exactly the front-lines," said Rachel.

"Exactly," said Miller. "No enemy army has managed to hit the continental US since the British torched the Whitehouse back in 1812 barring alien terror raids."

It was at that point that Miller's secretary came tearing into the office clutching a piece of paper in a white-knuckled grip and her aura positively pulsing with excitement. "Sir, you have to read this," she said as she slammed it down onto the table in front of him.

Miller raised an eyebrow but did so. And then both eyebrows were raised. And then he started chuckling. "Well, it looks like the Potter boy's really come good," he said. "You can leave now, Elizabeth, and thank you for bringing this to my attention. This is just what I needed to brighten up my day."

His secretary left, her aura still radiating excitement, and Rachel couldn't help but ask, "what?"

"They got him," said Miller. "They got the bastard. Magic's good for something after all."

"Who?" asked Rachel. "Is it . . . "

"Yup," said Miller. "Osama Bin Laden. Potter brought him in a few minutes ago. Turns out that using legilimancy on terrorists gives up some interesting information. Oh, this has made my week. He'll be executed at dawn tomorrow, apparently."

"No trial?" asked Rachel. She just couldn't believe it. Just like that? She'd expected him to be somehow . . . more than that.

"Military tribunal," said Miller. "And considering that Potter fed him something that had the bastard confessing to everything from looking at his childhood teachers in inappropriate ways on up, that'll last, oh, as long as it takes to say 'guilty as charged'."

"Just like that," said Rachel. "Couldn't he have done it before? That way he could done the damn PR."

"Ah, stop complaining," said Miller. "This is a day of celebration. I might even break out that bottle of thirty year old single malt I've been saving. The bastard's going to swing. About time we got some good news."

"It'll be a morale boost," said Rachel with a nod. "Should dissuade any more of that ilk from pulling any more stunts like 9/11."

"Better than that," said Miller. "The bastard's spilling everything. Everything! We're dismantling the whole damn group. Al'Qaeda is done. Or at least as done as a group like that ever gets."

"I wouldn't have minded a crack at him either," said Rachel. "Not much point to that now, really."

"I'm sure that would have been entertaining," said Miller in a wistful tone of voice. "But there's no need now. We've got him. What a day."

"What a day," echoed Rachel.

"I need to go announce this," said Miller. "It'll do the men a world of good to know that we've got this creature."

Watching the faces of the base staff as Miller announced that Bin Laden had been captured was quite an experience. The Americans, well, their faces lit up like a kid on Christmas day. It was like a huge weight had been lifted off their shoulders and Rachel saw their auras lighten a shade or two almost immediately. The non-Americans among the group looked happy enough with the news too, but the difference was obvious. It just wasn't as personal for them and that showed in the responses. It was the difference between 'well, that's good news' and 'thank fucking God, that bastard's going to get what's coming to him'.

After the announcement was done, Rachel caught up quickly with Sarah and walked to her office with her. She looked considerably better than the last time had Rachel had seen her, much more together, more herself.

"Hey, Rachel," said Sarah when she saw Rachel. "Finished with the tour now?"

"Wild horses couldn't drag me back to it," said Rachel.

Sarah laughed. "It can't have been that bad," she said. "Better than being in the middle of a battlefield, at least."

"I think I'd prefer the battle," said Rachel with a shrug of her shoulders. "At least I wouldn't be bored."

"Statement: I most wholeheartedly agree," said HK. "I believe that the last month may have caused my intellectual circuits to begin rotting."

"It could have been worse," said Rachel. "I'm not sure how, but it could have been."

"Disbelieving statement: if you say so, master."

"You really are weird," said Sarah. "Anyway, I guess you're ready to take charge now? You are, right?"

"Yeah, I am," said Rachel. "Soon anyway. Was it really so bad?"

"I'm a scientist, not a manager," said Sarah. "I hated every second of it. And people just didn't listen to me."

"But Peter helped you, didn't he?"

"Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is to have to get someone old enough to be your granddad fight your battles for you?"

"Point," said Rachel. The conversation paused there as Sarah fished around in her pocket for her keys before unlocking her office and ushering Rachel in. To say that the office was chaotic would have been somewhat akin to saying the Mandalorians were perhaps a little overaggressive. "Nice office."

"Yeah," said Sarah absent-mindedly as she rifled through the contents of her desk for a few minutes before pulling out a paper file and handing it over to Rachel. "Here it is. Latest batch of progress reports."

"Thanks," said Rachel. "Don't suppose you have a summary?"

"It's all work on making the stuff we've already done mass-producible right now," said Sarah. "Didn't want to start any major projects without your approval."

"Well, I appreciate that," said Rachel, leafing through the file. "Hmm. Well, at least they're making progress."

"They've got a prototype automated factory coming online in Ohio now," said Sarah. "Going to be putting out about twenty-five thousand blaster carbines a day if it works out."

"Sounds good," said Rachel absently. "Any news on HK factories?"

"Not yet," said Sarah. "Those things are just too expensive right now. They're using pre-war stocks and the X-COM facilities to make more, but no massive production lines just yet."

"Shame," said Rachel. "So how's your work on the elerium-based compounds coming along?"

"Slowly," said Sarah. "It's been hard to find the time. Have I mentioned that I hate management yet? Because I really do."

"Just a few times," said Rachel. "Things will be back to normal now. I'll be the one dealing with the management."

"You'll need to get a new second," said Sarah. "I can't do that alone, not here. There're just too many teams."

"That'll take a while," said Rachel. "I don't know anyone else I'd trust enough for that job now that's actually qualified. Don't worry, though, I'll pick up the slack. I won't need to be hands-on with the research here so I'll have the time."

Sarah looked at Rachel as if she'd grown a second head. "You're going to give up research for management?" she asked. "WHY!?"

"It'll just be more effective," said Rachel. "We have more than enough scientists here, and a lot of them better at it than I'll ever be, so I'm just needed to provide direction and nudge things along the right paths."

"I think you underestimate yourself," said Sarah. "And that'll be one boring, boring job."

Rachel shrugged. "I have other projects I need to work on," she said. "Dawn needs training and I need to take steps to ensure that if I die the Jedi will live on. Management will fit in with those. Extensive research won't."

"Well, it's your funeral," said Sarah dubiously.

Rachel eyed the group attending the meeting she had called. Six of the best and brightest scientists in the world were arrayed around that oval table and all of them had their attention completely fixed on Rachel and an air of pure eagerness around them. There was none of the scepticism she'd faced from Denver here; they'd seen her published works and they wanted a piece of the action. This was what they lived for.

"Everyone's here, all the department heads?" she asked. "Good. Let's get started then. I've read the reports you've all filed recently. The work seems to be good. What I'm not happy about is the attitude you've displayed. I know you're not terribly happy about the way that DARPA has been re-organised, I understand it even, but that does not excuse your childish disregard for the instructions of my second.

"An instruction from her is an instruction from me," continued Rachel, her voice quiet but carrying to all at the meeting with no trouble whatsoever. "And I expect my instructions to be followed. I will listen to reasoned arguments on why things should be done differently and you will have considerably latitude in your approach to problems, but I will not brook blatant disobedience. This is wartime and we must be disciplined in our work. Remember, the results we achieve here will have a direct impact on who wins this war, and hence the survival of the human race. So no pressure, really."

That drew a nervous laugh out of the scientists and seemed to break the tension that had been mounting through Rachel's little speech. Some looked defiant, still, but most looked to be contrite enough. Being scolded by a newly-minted war-hero would have that effect, Rachel supposed.

"Now, I am satisfied by the progress made on most fronts," said Rachel. "But simplifying and reducing costs of already existing technology will only get us far. If we want to win this war, we'll have to take major strides forward past our enemies. The first step in that process is breaking the oil dependency. We all know what the problems with oil are here. To get away from those problems, we're going to attain viable fusion power."

" What?" barked one of the scientists, a Dr. Vasilyev. "That's just . . . it's not . . . it's far beyond our science."

"It's far beyond our current science," said Rachel. "It's our job to advance past that. If I'd talked to you five years ago, I bet you'd have said that charged particle weapons were as good as impossible, too, but we have them now. Don't worry, I've furnished you all with a short paper documenting a starting point for this research in the files you all have in front of you."

The sound of rustling paper quickly filled the room as the scientists went to the files in front of them.

"Dr. Smith, I believe that you and your team are most qualified for this particular field," said Rachel. "Do you concur?"

"I . . . yes, I suppose so," said Dr. Smith, a small British woman. "This project will take some time though."

"I expect so," said Rachel. "This is the project for the moment so be sure to requisition any extra resources you need. Moving on from that, our next priority has to be refitting our combat vehicles with advanced weapons. That shouldn't be too difficult for most cases, I don't think. Dr. Moore, this will be a task for your team. You'll have to work closely with the various armed forces for this one, so I'll see about getting you a liaison."

Moore just nodded curtly. This wasn't a particularly interesting task for the people here but he couldn't really turn it down.

"Also, I want you to look into the feasibility of using alien alloys in our vehicles for better armour. Next on the list we have ion engines," said Rachel. "Dr. Vasilyev, that's a task for you and your team, I think. You'll find the paper I've included in your file enlightening, I think."

"I . . . hmm," said Dr. Vasilyev. "This is absolutely nothing like the ion engines I've seen before. "

"I know," said Rachel. "That's something rather more advanced. You've seen the films, haven't you? That's the drive technology used for those ships."

"This is insane," said Dr. Vasilyev. "But I will go along with it. The results are there."

"Good to hear," said Rachel. "Sarah, you'll be working on power cell technology as well as your current work. Fusion power's all well and good, but it will be some time before we can put a fusion power plant in a tank."

"I'll get right on it, boss."

" Good," said Rachel. "Dr. Schrader, you will be working on new vehicles based on our new technology. I believe the military has requested a better way to transport troops than the helicopters they're using now as a starting point."

"Will do."

"And Dr. Stewart, you will be working on personal armour," said Rachel. "The paper I've included for you details several ideas I've come up with for standard, non-powered armour as well as something on powered armour. You'll be somewhat restrained in this field, however, until the power cell research is complete. There's nothing that can be done about that."

"Sounds like fun."

"I believe that's all for this first meeting," said Rachel. "Any comments? Questions?"

"Yeah," said Dr. Stewart. "Do we have, you know, deadlines on this?"

"Nothing hard," said Rachel. "But every day we delay is a day they don't have this technology in the field. I'm sure you all know what that means."

"So no pressure than," said Dr. Stewart. "Really."

"None at all," said Rachel. "You're smart people. You know how important this is and I have no intention of treating you like school-children. Do your work as quickly as you can without compromising its correctness and we'll all be happy."

The meeting broke up at that point and the scientists quickly filed out, leaving Rachel and Sarah alone in the room.

"Do you think I got the message across?" asked Rachel.

"When you speak, people listen," said Sarah. "It worked."


"So you're finished playing the all-conquering hero then?" asked Peter with a raised eyebrow when Rachel met him along with Casey in her newly assigned rooms. "No more uplifting speeches to give?"

"Not if I have a say in it," said Rachel with a slight grimace. "How are things looking around here?"

"Well, you've been assigned some pretty swanky rooms," said Casey. "And I really mean that. I know you've got rank now and half the alphabet tagged onto your name, but these rooms really are something else."

Rachel shrugged her shoulders. "There are four of us staying here," she said. "I suppose that rates bigger rooms than what I had before."

Casey shrugged. "Maybe if you were general staff," he said. "Maybe I'm just too used to battleship berths."

Rachel looked at Peter who just shook his head. "It is a very large base," he said. "And you are of quite a high rank now, and you do have considerable responsibilities on the civilian side of things as well."

"Well, that was a non-answer if there ever was one," said Rachel. "Not that it matters. Where's Dawn?"

"She said she going to check out the base's gym," said Casey.

Rachel blinked. "Since when was Dawn that well-trained?"

"More likely she's eyeing up some of the young men in the base," said Peter. "I thought it best to leave her to it. She deserves some relaxation."

"As long as it just stays at eyeing them up," said Casey, his expression rather too perfectly neutral.

"She has more sense than to . . . " said Rachel before remembering Buffy and Angel. "Okay, we'd best keep an eye on her. I do not need a Sunnydale 1998 replay here. Mrs. Summers would kill me."

"What happened in Sunnydale 1998?" asked Casey.

"That . .. well, that's a very long and very unpleasant story," said Rachel. "In summary: if a vampire's been cursed with a soul by gypsies for some horrendous act, don't, whatever you do, make them happy. Nothing good ever comes of it."

"Okay, now you got me curious," said Casey. "Vampires can have souls? Feelings?"

"Souls? Not without some seriously nasty bits of magic," said Rachel with a frown on her face. "Feelings? Sure, but they're all twisted up. They're evil, blood-sucking demons; they can't do selfless or at least they don't do it very well when they try and invariably fail miserably."

"Getting away from a version of Coronation Street with vampires and magic, I assume you want to know about the base's security," said Peter. "And it is quite good; all the bases seem to have been covered. I'd prefer a more even level of experience amongst the soldiers though. Maybe a fifth of the base's compliment have a great deal of experience, but the rest . . . they're rookies through and through."

"Well-trained, though," said Casey. "They're not fresh out of basic. The whole lot of them are special forces."

"Statement: it does not matter," said HK, decloaking as he spoke "I will see to the master's safety. Any meatbags that attempt to attack her will be summarily terminated."

"Dammit!" shouted Casey. "Can't you get that droid to at least be visible before he starts speaking?"

"It would be nice," said Rachel. "HK, this habit you have to sneaking around in stealth mode - drop it. Amusing as it sometimes is, it's not very constructive."

"Resignation: if I must, master," said HK.

"You must," said Rachel. "Now, Dawn's training: we need to step it up. She is a far too obvious target right now. She needs to be able to defend herself if she happens to be attacked when we're not there to defend her."

"Well she's already pretty good," said Casey. "Better than any sixteen year old has any right to be, that much is sure, but I don't know if she'll be as good as you want her to be anytime soon."

"Fair enough," said Rachel. "Peter?"

"Her education is well ahead of schedule," he said. "She is remarkably quick-witted once she stops being intellectually lazy even if she has little talent for the sciences. She could pass your high-school equivalency exam within the year, I expect."

"That's excellent news," said Rachel. "Good work. You've brought her on very well indeed if she's reached that point."

"Thank you," said Peter with a small nod. "But it really isn't that difficult. I just had to find her interests and tailor the material to them."

"If it was that easy, most public schools wouldn't be so bad," said Rachel. "Okay, we'll just have to up the intensity. Casey can do physical training in the mornings, Peter can do education in the afternoon, and I'll teach her the ways of the Force in the evening. How does that sound?"

"Like you're going to run her her ragged," said Casey. "Sounds good to me. You don't get good soldiers by cosseting them."

"Indeed," said Peter. "But we must remember that she is a child and not an SAS candidate. Allowances must be made."

"And they will be," said Rachel. "I have no intention of breaking her. Even from a purely uncaring point of view, that would be a deeply stupid thing to do, and I do care."

"So we keep an eye on her then," said Casey. "Make sure she doesn't get too close to the edge. We've all been through some hard training; we know how it goes."

"Remember, we can't afford for her to quit," said Rachel. "She must see the training through."

"We'll manage it," said Peter. "If you're any example of what a Jedi can manage, she'll cope."

The reports on the progress of the war made for some truly unpleasant reading. As if the series of massacres that made up the war on the Far Eastern Front wasn't bad enough, there was the situation in the Middle-East. The reports from the German troops that had moved into Saluq were just grim, and there were pictures to go with those reports. They'd moved on the city expecting to face a serious battle and had instead walked straight on into a mausoleum. They hadn't found a single living creature within the city limits.

Looking at the pictures, it seemed obvious to Rachel that the aliens had used some sort of poison gas to dispose of the city's population, and that was the conclusion that the report had came to. They hadn't been able to find any traces of the gas in the atmosphere as they entered, thankfully, but still. It was pretty damn distressing as it was. People had just keeled over and died where they stood and one of the pictures was of a schoolyard full of children that had just . . . well, it was easier to deal with these things when you were evil. When you were evil, you just didn't care.

And that wasn't the only place that had ended up like that. All the reports from the Middle-East showed little resistance and a whole lot of corpses laying around. At least the Nazis had buried the bodies or burned them, the aliens just seemed to leave them where they fell. It was disgusting. And not every location had gotten a simple gassing. No, the gas had been reserved for cities or well-populated towns. Villages got bombed or simply had aliens march through them shooting everyone they could find. It was from those villages that survivors were being retrieved, traumatised as they were.

It was as Rachel read another report, this time from the Siberian front, that Rachels' phone rang.

"Brigadier Giles speaking," said Rachel after she picked the phone up.

"There's been an incident in Los Angeles," said Miller. "Remember that demon you negotiated a treaty with? Some gang-bangers decided it would be a good idea to shoot up his bar and everyone in it."

"Oh wonderful," said Rachel, feeling the beginnings of a headache. "How bad is it?"

"Not as bad as it could have been," said Miller. "Turns out that some of our boys from X-COM had taken to stopping by the bar when they were in the area. And they were in the area today."

"So . . . on a scale of one to ten, how bad was the carnage?" asked Rachel. "And why on Earth are X-COM soldiers congregating in a demon bar?"

"A five or so," said Miller. "We've got a few bodies, but mostly they were taken alive. They did a sweep to pick up everyone else associated with the gang who wasn't present too. All told, we've got twenty-three gang-bangers in the cells at our LA base and five dead."

"Sounds like it's all dealt with to me," said Rachel. "Why did you phone me?"

"You're assuming that we have even the first idea what to do with these people," said Miller dryly. "And someone needs to smooth things over with the demons so the treaty stays active."

"I don't expect that they got their weapons legally," said Rachel. "Toss 'em in a prison and throw away the key. Easy. No-one's gonna miss them."

"The demons would accept that?" asked Miller, sounding genuinely curious. "I'd've thought they'd want something more violent."

"Eh," said Rachel. "Okay, you might have a point there. Break out the hot pokers and the boiling oil. It's time to get medieval."

"I think I'll pass," said Miller. "I've seen and done some strange things in my time, but boiling oil? I'll pass. We need you to go and talk to them; you understand these creatures better than anyone else we have on staff right now."

"And that's why you need to hire someone else to act as an advisor," said Rachel. "Do you really have no-one else who can deal with this?"

"I'm afraid not," said Miller. "I wouldn't ask you to do this if I had someone else on tap. And for what it's worth, the orders are from higher up in the chain than me."

"Wonderful," said Rachel. "I get to negotiate with demons and deal with gang-bangers. Sure you don't want me to clean the toilets while I'm at it?"

"It's not that bad," said Miller. "They won't dare give you any lip, not if they have any sense."

"They're in a gang," said Rachel. "Sense precludes that. I don't suppose I have a choice in the matter though."

"You'd be so lucky," said Miller. "There's a transport ready and waiting for you in the hangar."

"I'll get going immediately then," said Rachel. "Wait, you still haven't told me why the men where there."

"Beer, karaoke, and the occasional monster they got to kill," said Miller. "What else could they ask for?"

"Sex?" asked Rachel tenatively.

"That green demon guy got them in touch with some succubi,," said Miller. "Ones that don't kill the guys they feed on."

Rachel really couldn't think of anything to say in response to that.

"Situation report, Colonel," ordered Rachel the moment she saw the base's commander, a Colonel who stared at HK for several long moments before returning his attention to her, after disembarking from her transport.

"We have eight confirmed and fifteen suspected gang members in custody with five more in the base morgue, ma'am," reported the soldier. "They offered some resistance but they are now secured. Two marines are in the infirmary with minor wounds. The other occupants of the bar have been secured in one of the base's guest rooms. They're not very happy about it, but they're there."

"Good work," said Rachel. "Any injuries amongst the other bar occupants?"

"Several, ma'am," said the soldier. "Two fatalities. None human."

"And the injured?" asked Rachel. "How badly have they been hurt?"

"It's hard to tell, ma'am," said the soldier. "We don't have any experts in non-human physiology available to us and we've never had to deal with these things before. I was rather hoping that you'd be able to help there."

"I know how to kill them," said Rachel. "Never looking into how to heal them. Maybe one of the people from the bar will be able to help you."

"Good idea, ma'am," said the soldier before shaking his head. "I really should have thought of that myself."

"It's been a long night," said Rachel. "Shall we go see these people now and get it dealt with?"

"Of course," said the soldier. "Follow me."

There were some truly odd creatures in the guest room. Rachel honestly couldn't identify several of the demons there as she cast her eyes over the room and she was hardly uneducated in such things.

"Miss Giles?" asked a male voice, attracting Rachel's attention.

"Wesley?" asked Rachel. "What are you doing here? I didn't take you for the demon bar sort."

"Caritas isn't like the smelly dive back in Sunnydale," said Cordelia from her position seated next to Wesley, who seemed strangely unaffected for someone who had been panting after Cordelia from the moment he'd first laid her eyes on her. "It's . . . uh . . . nice. Really."

"Yes," said Wesley. "It's neutral ground, a sanctuary, not like the bar you're used to dealing with."

"I'll take your word for it," said Rachel. "Last I remember, you two were working for the vampire. Where is he?"

"I'm here," said Angel, detaching himself from the shadow he'd been lurking in. "I thought you could sense vampires?"

"You're just one demon amongst many here," said Rachel as the soldiers who'd escorted her and the colonel shifted to bring their weapons to the ready and eyed Angel. "Don't flatter yourself by thinking you stand out to any great degree."

Angel took one look at the soldier who were uniformly eyeing Angel and radiating aggression and backed away holding his hands up. "Hey," he said. "I'm a good vampire; I don't bite."

"I seem to remember differently," said Rachel frostily, fingering the almost entirely faded bitemark on the left side of her neck without thought.

And before Angel could so much as blink he had half a dozen blaster carbines levelled at him.

"Come on," he said with a small nervous laugh. "That was a long time ago. I was a different person then. Literally. And I thought you could heal scars?"

"I can," said Rachel. "I kept this one as a reminder. Taught me to never be caught unprepared."

"You're still holding a grudge over that?" asked Cordelia. "Grow up. It was years ago and it's not like you didn't get revenge."

The room fell silent and everyone just stared at Cordelia as if she was absolutely mad. You could have heard a pin drop. And then Rachel just burst out laughing. "There aren't many who'd dare talk to me like that these days," she said. "But I'd expect no less from you."

"Damn right," said Cordelia with a curt nod of her head.

"Fine," said Rachel. "Hold your fire. But if he so much as twitches in a way you don't like, shoot out his kneecaps. That'll quiet him down; won't it, Angel?"

"Yeah," he said quickly. "That'll work."

"Wesley, you know a lot about demon physiology if I remember correctly," said Rachel. "Can you help the base doctors with the wounded?"

"Yes, of course," said Wesley. "I'd be happy too."

A minute later, Wesley was escorted out by a couple of soldiers and Rachel was back where she started.

"This is nice and all, seeing you crazy kids reunited," said Lorne finally. "But why are we locked up here?"

"Your protection," said Rachel, making it up as she went along. "We had to be sure that you wouldn't be attacked again before the gang that attacked your bar could be rounded up and imprisoned."

Lorne blinked. "Well, that's nice of you," he said. "But can I go home now? I have a date with a bottle of scotch."

"Well I was planning on talking to you about what's to be done about this," said Rachel. "But I don't suppose anyone will have any objections to releasing you and your customers now if you wish."

"Just tie 'em up and chuck 'em out into vampire town with a 'free food' sign on them," growled one of the demons.

"I might just do that," said Rachel dryly. She turned to the base commander and said quietly, "any reason to keep them here? We're lucky they've been so docile for so long, you know; we might be pushing it."

"I don't think we really need them," said the Colonel. "They're just here to keep things contained and it seems to be over and done with now."

"So you don't mind me releasing them then?" asked Rachel.

"You're the one with rank here," said the Colonel.

Rachel nodded and turned back to the room at large. "Okay, you can go," she said. "No point in keeping you waiting around. Do try and stay out of trouble."

The demons all looked at her as if she was absolutely insane before they started to troop out accompanied by most of the soldiers that had followed Rachel and the base commander to the guest room.

"So are you going to help Gunn?" asked Cordelia. "This really isn't his fault, you know."

"Gunn?" asked Rachel blankly. "Who's that?"

"Charles Gunn," said the base commander. "Formerly the leader of this little gang of miscreants but now more associated with a group called Angel Investigations apparently. He doesn't appear to have had much to do with the planning of this attack, but I doubt that he didn't have some idea what was going on and that makes him an accessory."

"Gunn wouldn't do something like this," said Cordelia stubbornly. "And he wasn't doing anything wrong getting those people together to fight vampires."

"Maybe not," said Rachel. "But if he was at all involved in this then he will face the same consequences as the rest of the gang."

"Gunn's a good guy," said Angel. "And since when did you of all people punish people for killing demons?"

"Since we signed a peace treaty," said Rachel shortly. "We tend to take that of thing seriously around here."

"We have an interview room ready for your use," said the base commander. "I think it would be best to get this dealt with quickly."

"I agree," said Rachel. "Have this Charles Gunn character escorted to the interview room. I want to talk to him."

"Don't you need lawyers and stuff?" asked Cordelia. "You know, due process?"

"This is wartime," said Rachel. "If thousand of people of Japanese descent could be rounded up in camps, then we can sure as hell make an inner-city gang disappear now."

The interview room really should have been called an interrogation room. It was entirely devoid of any sort of personality and the only furnishings were a small metal table bolted to the floor in the middle of the room with similarly bolted down metal chairs on each side of the table. The only light in the room, which was devoid of windows, came from a single light-bulb suspended from the roof on a short wire. A tall, black man, Charles Gunn she assumed, was sat in one of the chairs with his arms cuffed together at the wrists.

"Charles Gunn," said Rachel as she sat down in the chair opposite him and two burly marines took up positions by the door. "I'm Brigadier Giles."

"Yeah, I know who you are," said Gunn. "Kinda hard not to these days even if I wasn't running with some of your old buds."

"Indeed," said Rachel. "I suppose there's no point in messing around here: did you know what was going on?"

"Nah, I didn't know," said Gunn. A lie. No, partial truth. Interesting. "Not long before they came to Caritas anyway."

"Hmm," said Rachel. "Well, your people are in a very poor position here. We have multiple counts of murder, virtually every gun-crime on the books, breaking and entering, theft, squatting, burglary - hell, if there's a crime on the books, one of your boys has committed it."

"Hey," said Gunn. "None of my boys ever dealt in drugs."

"True," said Rachel. "That's a good thing; we appreciate that. Really, we do. Problem is, your boys fired on military personnel. They even wounded some of them. This is a time of war, Charles. We can't let that slide."

"They didn't know," said Gunn. "Come on, how could they have? You can't hit 'em with treason charges for an accident!"

"We can't?" asked Rachel. "It won't look very accidental to the courts, you know, a gang coming running into a bar and opening fire on military personnel, and this is the wrong time to be pushing your luck."

"Courts are never interested in what we have to say," said Gunn. "We're screwed, ain't we?"

"You are," said Rachel. "There's nowhere for any of you to turn. Even if the court of law finds you innocent, the court of public opinion won't."

"We can look after ourselves," said Gunn.

"And that would just give the police an excuse to crack down on you," said Rachel. "No, your people are finished, Charles. Over and done with."

"So what?" asked Gunn. "You dragged me here to gloat?"

"No, no," said Rachel. "I have better things to do that gloat over something this petty. No, I have an alternative for you if you accept it."

"Oh, right," said Gunn. "Here it comes, the recruiting pitch."

"You would have been drafted anyway in time," said Rachel. "You're young, fit, and male with no family ties. You must be near the front of the list anyway."

"So, you're gonna drag me off to fight this war," said Gunn. "Why are you even offering me a choice?"

"Well, you might prefer a needle," said Rachel. "It's your choice really. Serve or die. It doesn't really affect me either way."

"Some Jedi," grumbled Gunn. "Can I at least join the marines then?"

"I don't see why not," said Rachel. "As long as you satisfy the entrance requirements. Pass the choice onto your people, please. They have the same option: the military or death."

"Will do," said Gunn. "Thanks ever so much for the choice."

"If it makes you feel any better," said Rachel, "Cordelia will be drafted too soon as will Wesley. If Angel had any legal existence, he'd be going too. Our backs are against the wall here."

"I don't know who to feel most sorry for," said Gunn. "Cordelia or the army. Tough one that."

Chapter Fifteen

February 2002

The abrupt termination of the energy flows between Rachel and the cubic object on her desk was enough to jog her out of her dozing state and back to full wakefulness. It was done. The plain looking metallic cube on her table had been manipulated in all the correct ways according to the rituals she had learned as both a Jedi and a Sith, and should have been, if all was well, had been transformed into a Jedi holocron. The first she'd ever made unless you counted the Sith holocron constructed by Darth Revan just before her betrayal at the hands of her apprentice.

She hefted the cube in her right hand, surprisingly light even for its relatively small size, and spoke clear and authoritatively. "Activate!"

"I am Rachel Giles, Jedi Knight," said the small holographic image that immediately came to life above the cube in response to Rachel's words.

"You are functional?" asked Rachel.

"I am," said the hologram. "It's all quite strange, but I am, as far as I can tell, fully functional."

"Excellent," said Rachel. "You can determine whether I am Sith?"

"You do not appear to be," said the hologram. "But you of all people would be able to conceal that from me."

"True," said Rachel. "Deactivate."

It was, perhaps, a little abrupt, but Rachel really wasn't of a mind to have a conversation with another version of herself. It was far too close to various forms of mental illness for her tastes.

"Bit plain, isn't it?"

"I see little reason to bother with an elaborate design, Jolee," said Rachel. "And I was beginning to think I was rid of you."

"Well, I'm easily bored," said Jolee. "And getting paraded around giving silly little speeches wasn't something I really felt like watching you do."

"Sorry to disappoint you," said Rachel. "But I was just having so much fun myself, you know. Couldn't bring myself to stop."

"Yeah, you looked utterly engrossed," said Jolee. "I honestly thought you were going to fall asleep at the podium the one time I watched one of those speeches."

"No-one else seemed to notice," said Rachel with a raised eyebrow.

"I'm a Jedi," said Jolee. "I can tell. And I've come to know when Revan's bored; normally means she's about do something insane and, hence, entertaining. Or highly dangerous when I was still alive, but I don't quibble."

"Whatever," said Rachel. "I assume you have a reason for appearing here now?"

"Eh," said Jolee. "I felt like coming by here so I came. I'm old, and dead, I'm allowed a random whim or two."

"Old and dead?" asked Rachel. "As opposed to just being dead? Huge difference there."

"There is!" said Jolee. "Shows I wasn't stupid enough to get myself killed before I was good and ready! Badge of honour amongst us dead folk, it is, with all the stupid kids that keep getting themselves killed."

"There's a community of the dead?" asked Rachel. "Really?"

"Sort of," said Jolee. "And no, I can't, before you ask. The lad you were friends with was just a normal kid. He couldn't retain individuality. I'm sorry."

Rachel stared off into the distance for a moment before refocussing on Jolee. "Well, it would have been nice," she said. "So why are you here really? There has to be a reason."

Jolee shrugged. "I just wanted to see how you were doing," he said. "Didn't expect to find you in an office like this though. What happened to the Revan that couldn't be kept away from the war?"

"Maybe I'm just not her," snapped Rachel. "Or maybe I grew up enough not to repeat my mistakes. Does it really matter?"

Jolee held his hands up in a placating manner. "Hey," he said. "No need to get testy here, youngster, I'm not accusing you of anything. I'm just surprised."

Rachel shrugged her shoulders. "They'd rather have me working on new weapons technology than out there fighting," she said. "I can see where they're coming from."

Jolee made a dismissive noise in the back of his throat. "They're wrong," he said. "Dead wrong. I've seen what you can do in a war and it's worth a damn sight more than better guns. You've still got that swirly Force around you so you've probably got a destiny and you won't fulfil that in a lab."

"You never know," said Rachel. "It might be my destiny to fall in an experimental fusion reactor and blow the planet up."

Jolee looked like he'd been caught completely off-guard for a moment before he burst out laughing. "I'd forgotten about telling you that," he said. "Teach me to underestimate you again."

"Yeah," said Rachel. "And sometimes swirly force is just swirly force and not something to get all excited about. Anyway, if anyone on this planet has a great destiny to fulfil it's Dawn."

"Oh she's got plenty of it too," said Jolee. "Not like you need me to tell you that. Two of you running around at the same time. Should be interesting."

"I'm not the Chosen One," said Rachel.

"And neither is she," said Jolee. "Well, maybe if you squint real hard and tilt your head just so. Come on, you know how hard it is to be really rid of the Sith. You think it's going to happen in one lifetime? Ha! There's always more where the last one came from. They're like gizka in that way. Awful lot less cute though on the whole."

"I never took you for an animal lover, Jolee," said Rachel. "Thought you'd have had your fill of them."

"I'm not the one who keeps rescuing them," said Jolee. "You should see Revan's house. Like a zoo, it is. Kids love it. Shame about Carth. Might even have been a gizka there last I saw."

"I really, really hope that's just the one gizka," said Rachel.

"Same hope Carth has too, I bet," said Jolee. "Those things were bad enough on the Hawk."

"She's gone mad."

"Nah," said Jolee. "She's got civilised, that's all. Had enough of war. She's sorry for what she did to you, by the way."


Jolee smirked. "What?" he asked. "Didn't you think I'd talk to her about it? She'd written it off as a hallucination, you know. Didn't think it could have been real."

"I can't blame her," said Rachel with a blank expression on her face. "She really knows?"

"Yeah," said Jolee. "Said she'd been wondering about why she'd taken to that Force-forsaken pre-packaged food when she couldn't stand it before. Guess it wasn't just a one-way thing."

"Apparently not," said Rachel. "I . . . I need some sleep. Tell Revan I accept her apology."

The base's hangar bay was a hive of activity as various staff-members hurried to and fro preparing for the test flight that was to take place that day. The prototype that was to be tested was an aged A-10 that had been literally gutted and fitted out with an array of new technologies that would, when all was ready, make for an extraordinarily lethal piece of equipment, even more so than an A-10 was to start with. It was quite a sight with its new armour constructed from alien alloys; the gleaming metal finish was quite attractive in Rachel's opinion.

"Are you sure that this is a good idea?" asked Miller from his position stood next to Rachel. "You really don't think you should be the one doing this?"

"Dawn's training has advanced far enough," said Rachel. "And she has far more interest in this than I do."

"I don't like the idea of sending a kid up there as a test pilot," said Miller. "It's just not right."

"She's quite capable," said Rachel. "And there's little danger involved. If the sensor package was ready, virtually anyone could do the job."

"She's only sixteen," said Miller. "That's just . . . it's too young."

"Normally I'd agree," said Rachel. "But Dawn is an exceptional case. She is a Jedi, and she is a natural pilot."

"I've seen the film," said Miller irritably. "That kid didn't have a clue what he was doing, and your apprentice isn't him anyway."

"She's been doing well enough in the simulators," said Rachel. "Last I heard she was driving the Air Force boys mad."

And that got a tight smile from Miller. "Believe me, I appreciate that," he said. "I just don't like this. Are you sure you can't do this?"

"I never said I couldn't," said Rachel. "I can fly. But it's not something I'm particularly talented in, not like Dawn. This will be a good experience for her; an application of her powers beyond meaningless training exercises."

"I'll trust your judgement," said Miller. "But if this goes tits-up, it'll be your head on the chopping block. I'll make sure of that."

"Don't worry about it," said Rachel. "I'm not. The prototype is fully functional and Dawn is more than capable of handling it."

"Well on your head be it," said Miller. And then he left, probably to read more reports and fill in more paperwork. The joys of being general staff and yet not actually involved with anything even vaguely important. She did not envy him.

Rachel spent the next hour roaming the hangar and keeping an eye on the maintenance crew that was working on the prototype. For all her professed confidence in Dawn and the prototype, she was still a little jittery. It was, after all, a prototype. The only thing left from the original A-10 was the airframe and even that had been altered out of necessity so that the new skin - the armour - wouldn't render it entirely unaerodynamic. Each individual component was fully functional and tested in other projects. Blasters, ion engines, repulsors, concussion missiles, holographic displays, inertial dampers - all had been thoroughly tested before, but never combined like this, not in this dimension. None of her prototypes had failed disastrously before, but she certainly didn't want this to be a first time.

It was as she tore a strip off one of the maintenance crew for misaligning one of the repulsors, the poor man looked quite terrified and HK glaring at him didn't help matters, that she noticed Dawn entering the hangar. Rachel immediately sent the idiot man-child scurrying to get on with his work and crossed the hangar bay to stand in front of Dawn.

"You are prepared?" asked Rachel.

Dawn nodded enthusiastically. "I'm ready," she said, her eyes bright. "I just want to get into the air."

"Why am I not surprised?" said Rachel. "Just be careful. Remember not to push the tolerances."

Dawn nodded.

"And if there's even the slightest sign of trouble, you eject," said Rachel. "Your life is more important than some damn machine."

Again Dawn nodded.

"Just remember, this isn't a simulator," said Rachel. "I know you've beaten the hell out of all comers on those things, but this is different. There's no retry button in this life."

Dawn nodded but now looked entirely distracted.

"Just be careful", said Rachel. "If you get yourself killed, I'll resurrect you and kill you myself. Understand?"

Dawn's nod at that was rather perfunctory.

"Force, if you get hurt, your mother will kill me," said Rachel. "Don't do anything stupid."

"Can I go now?" asked Dawn.

"Yes," said Rachel. "Just fly safely. Nothing extravagant."

"Already got that message, master," said Dawn.

Rachel blinked. "Cheeky brat," she said. "Go on, get on with it. No point delaying."

Dawn ran off before Rachel could say anything else. Rachel stood still where she was for a moment and watched Dawn clamber into the cockpit and don her flight helmet before turning on her heel and marching out of the hangar to go the control centre that would be directing the test.

The tests proved to be rather anti-climatic, Rachel thought. Gently circling the base at minimal speed produced no problems, more aggressive opening of the throttle produced no problems, twisting through an elaborate series of manoeuvres produced no problem, and destroying several pre-placed targets with the blaster cannon passed without any event of note. All in all, the early tests were a great success, not that they'd done anything that a normal fighter refitted with blasters couldn't do.

It was as they prepared for the second-stage of the planned tests that Rachel felt a disturbance in the Force. It wasn't much, just a twinge, but it was enough for her to be perturbed. Within a moment she was by Miller's side and speaking to him in a hushed whisper.

"Miller, something's not right," she said.

"What?" he asked, looking utterly baffled. "Everything looks great to me."

"I . . . I'm not sure what it is, but I sense . . . " she trailed off and focussed her mind as she felt the disturbance grow. "Aliens. Aliens, that's it."

Miller frowned. "Are you sure?"

"Yes," hissed Rachel. "They'll enter sensor range soon enough. We have to ready the defences."

Miller looked her in the eye for just a moment and then span in his heel and began issuing orders. "Sound the air-raid siren," he shouted. "Get the scientists into the shelters and get those cannons warmed up."

Everyone just stared at him, slack-jawed.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" he barked. "MOVE!"

And then the room exploded into a frenzy of movement and barked orders as people scattered to prepare the base for imminent attack. A moment later the air-raid siren started wailing, quite possibly the most horrendously irritating sound that Rachel had ever been exposed to. She crossed the room in two long strides and grabbed the communicator from the hands of the officer at the station.

"Dawn, we have incoming," said Rachel. "Return to base."

"I can't feel anything," protested Dawn.

"You're not as attuned as I am," said Rachel. "Now get back to base."

"But I can fight them!" said Dawn. "I've got a fully-equipped fighter here, and it works fine."

"You aren't combat rated," said Rachel. "And you're not ready. Return to base immediately."

"Confirmation," called out the enlisted woman manning the comm. station. "We have UFO incursion."

"ETA?" asked Rachel.

"Two minutes, ma'am. They're coming in fast. Still waiting on confirmation of force composition."

"Dawn, return to base," said Rachel. "That's an order. Return to base."

A pause. "I can feel them now," said Dawn. "They're not far."

"Confirmation," called out the enlisted woman. "One very-large UFO, battleship class, with half-a-dozen small UFOs as escorts, believed to be large scouts."

"Dawn, you have to come down now," said Rachel. "You can't take that on your own."

"I can see them," said Dawn, her voice somewhat less confident. "They're closing in fast."

"Aerial HK units have been deployed," called out another one of the enlisted women. "They're on an intercept course now."

"DAWN!" shouted Rachel, knowing very well that those HKs were infantry support weapons and rather ill-suited to UFO interception. "Retreat. Now!"

"Too close," said Dawn, her voice strained, and then Rachel heard the sound of weapons fire over the comm. channel.

"Fuck!" shouted Rachel. "How long till we have fighter support?"

"Ten minutes at best," said Miller. "They've caught us cold, Giles. We'll have ground support weapons ready in a few seconds but your apprentice is in trouble."

"Dammit," said Rachel. "Permission to break out CM1 launchers and engage?"

"What?" barked Miller. "On foot? Are you mad?"

"That's why I'll take HK units," said Rachel. "I'll be the only person at risk, sir."

"That doesn't make me feel any better," growled Miller.

"The CM1s will be able to knock those smaller units out of the skies," said Rachel. "And Dawn's carrying enough firepower to give that battleship a beating. We need to do something. Alone, Dawn's in very real trouble."

Miller looked for conflicted for just a moment before he nodded his assent. "Fine," he said. "You have enough sense not to get yourself killed."

Rachel was out of the room before he'd finished speaking.

Rachel ended up leading half-a-dozen standard HK units and HK-47 out to the field of battle armed with all the CM-1 launchers the base's armoury had yielded when she searched it. It was vexing but unsurprising that there had been so few; it was a relatively new, and rather effective, anti-armour weapon and it was much more useful on the front-lines where it would see active use rather than on a base on the continental US that was pretty much a safe haven. Or so the theory had went.

It didn't take long to locate the aerial battle. The sheer volume of blaster fire from the base aimed at that location kind of gave it away. For a moment, Rachel did nothing more than watch through Force-enhanced eyesight as Dawn span her fighter through a torturous series of manoeuvres to avoid alien fire all the while spraying the enemy vessels with blaster fire. She couldn't help but wince at one near miss that she was sure had scorched the paintwork on the fighter. The only evidence of involvement from the aerial HK units she could see laid in the piles of twisted, smoking scrap metal dotted around. Dawn was on her own up there.

"Aim weapons," ordered Rachel. "Target the scouts."

"Aiming," came the synchronised reply.

Dawn then slid her fighter in-between a volley of missiles - a move which had Rachel grinding her teeth in worry - before nailing one of the scouts with a volley of blaster fire that send it spiralling away belching thick, black smoke from half-a-dozen places.



Seven red missiles sped away at tremendous velocities the moment she issued the order. The UFOs never stood a chance. Two of the scouts were blown clean out of the sky by concentrated hits and another had a massive hole blown through one of its section and immediately began to lose altitude as what looked like coolant fluids started to vent out of the hole.

"Statement: that was a most unsatisfying burst of wanton destruction," said HK.

"Worked well enough, though," said Rachel as she watched Dawn slip a plasma beam and strafe along the battleship, pelting it with blaster fire as she went.

"Query: perhaps they will land troops so that I may slaughter them?"

"It's possible," said Rachel. "That scout . . . "

"Statement: it appears to be approaching us," said HK.

"Scatter!" ordered Rachel. "Find some cover!"

The droids scattered at high speed but Rachel stayed stock still, watching as the UFO came in. There was no point running, not from this. The yields on the weapons a UFO were was just far too high for her to dodge or defend against, and she would be the primary target; the droids were nothing to the aliens, and she had killed one of their commanders. It was inevitable that she would be the one who got their attention.

The aliens obviously weren't too worried about her fighting back. Their approach was positively leisurely in nature and there was no long-range fire to take her out. They came in ever closer, right up till they were so close that she could see the glowing ports that their weapons fired from. And then she felt that ripple in the Force that could only mean they were about to pull the trigger.

And then she moved. One moment she was stood stock still staring into the maw of the enemy, and the next she was vaulting high up into the air as the ground she had been standing on exploded under the impact of a plasma beam. Landing in a crouch on top of the UFO, she drew and ignited her sabre before starting work on cutting her way through the hull material. According to all tests, the hull armour on the scout class was weak enough for a sabre to cut through it. It was just a matter of using the Force to keep herself attached to the hull and time.

Almost immediately, the UFO twisted through a barrel roll and then soared up into the sky gaining altitude at a tremendous rate. It was all Rachel could do to keep breathing as the air thinned out and the wind rushed by her, but she was damned if she was going to let them beat her. She knew a few tricks. As breathing became just about impossible, she tapped into the Force just a little bit more and began to use a little thing her master had taught her to sustain her body using trace amounts of oxygen from her lungs. It wasn't pleasant, but it kept her conscious.

Eventually the blade reached its starting point and the disc she'd cut around her feet collapsed into the ship, taking her with it. The area of UFO she fell into was entirely unidentifiable, just generic metallic walls and floor, and quite empty. She took a moment to catch her breath, and then she strode across to a door and hit the switch to open it. The look on the aliens' faces on the other side of the door was a picture. The already bulbous eyes of the Sectoids seemed to pop right out of their faces when they saw Rachel walk through the door with her blade ignited.

The alien closest to the door went for the pistol it had hanging at its waist immediately but Rachel's blade shortened him by a head before he could get into a firing position. Another lunged out of its chair but tripped over its own feet and landed at face-first Rachel's feet making it rather easy for her to just stab the blade down and end its existance. The third, and final, alien just froze, sitting and staring at her with those huge dark eyes. For a moment, her conscience stirred. It was unarmed and making no move to threaten her, and it looked rather child-like. She killed it anyway.

With that room cleared, she moved on. The next door led into the UFO's command area. The two aliens in there didn't so much as twitch a muscle away from their seats in front of the UFO's controls as she crept in and cut their heads off from behind. And with that she could feel no more living alien presences on the damaged UFO.

Rachel was almost thrown off her feet immediately as the UFO's inertia-damping systems were defeated by the damage the UFO had sustained and the force of the UFOs descent was unexpectedly applied to her. It was all she could to stay on her feet and not be struck by flying corpses as the floor lurched underneath her. She just had to . . . ah. It was at that point that the realisation that she was in a sinking ship with no idea how to sail it out of trouble struck her.

She eyed the control panel frantically, but it made little sense to her. She understood little of the alien language and there wasn't much to go on anyway. Much of the alien technology was operated mind-to-mind and no-one really knew how to access anything beyond the simplest basics of it. On top of that, all her senses were screaming at her that she had no time to waste trying to puzzle out the workings of alien control systems. Well, that left her with only one option.

Rachel planted her feet to the ground and reached with one out-stretched arm as she called the Force to her command. For a moment she simply allowed it to flow through her and fill her with its power before she shaped it into action. She channelled it outwards through her outstretched arm and wrapped it around the rapidly falling UFO in a telekinetic grip of incredible strength. It then became a battle of which was stronger: Rachel's will or the forces bringing the UFO down to Earth at catastrophic speeds. And it proved to be a titanic battle indeed.

As strong as she was, Rachel wasn't quite strong enough to simply arrest the descent of the UFO; it just had too much damn momentum. But she could apply her strength to slowing the descent and to evening out the path the UFO was falling along. Tendons immediately tensed and grew visible along her neck and arm as she strained with all her might to bring the UFO down safely. Long moments passed with only the slightest alterations in course and velocity as gravity battled with Rachel's command of the Force and a sheen of sweat covered Rachel's flesh as the strain began to tell on her.

But she wouldn't let it beat her. No force of nature was going to destroy her. She redoubled her efforts, drawing on every iota of power she could find, and applied it to the UFO, and it began to slow. Ever so slowly, the fall began to slow and the course began to even out as she pulled the nose of the UFO up. Emboldened by that success, she drew deeper yet upon the reserves of power she had access to, and the UFO began to slow further, began to approach a reasonable velocity.

And then the UFO slammed into the ground. Rachel was unable to hold her footing, drained as she was, and she was thrown off her feet and bounced around with everything else as the UFO crashed down and slid along the ground before coming to a halt.

"I am never doing that again," groaned Rachel from her upside-down position propped up against one of the walls.

After taking a moment to catch her breath, Rachel levered herself away from the wall and back onto her feet and then walked, ever so slowly, to the UFO's exit.

The battle had ended very soon after Rachel's spot of bother. With four of the UFOs knocked out of the air, Dawn had been in very little danger, and the Air Force boys had arrived soon after Rachel exited the UFO. A full squadron of interceptors against what was, by then, a force consisting of a single already damaged battleship had proved to be a complete massacre. Even a battleship couldn't survive many missiles volleys from that many enemy fighters.

The base was absolute chaos when Rachel led the HKs back in. Some of the attention fell upon her, a few handshakes and slaps on the back, that sort of thing, but most of it was falling upon Dawn, who looked quite happy about it all. The last Rachel saw of her before Miller pulled her away from the crowds was them hoisting Dawn up onto their shoulders. Rachel shot Miller a questioning look when he tapped her on the shoulder, but he shook his head and motioned for her to follow him. In the end, he led her to his cramped office that was still somehow neat and tidy despite overflowing with the immense quantities of paperwork that seemed to be attracted to people who attained any sort of authority.

"Dawn seems a little more capable than I was led to believe," said Miller blandly. "Do explain."

Rachel shrugged her shoulders. "She exceeded my expectations, too," she said with a small smile. "Quite impressive, wasn't it?"

"It was that," agreed Miller with a nod as he seated himself in the battered office chair that he'd had since before Rachel had ever set foot in his office. "You know that it won't be long before people get ideas about her now, right?"

"I'm sure I'll be able to dissuade them."

"Maybe," said Miller. "Maybe not. We'll see. Might be best to work with them, though. That way you can make sure they don't pull anything too stupid."

"She's a minor," said Rachel. "I could very easily strangle any attempts to use her at birth. Her mother certainly wouldn't co-operate with anything that would put her in danger."

"Don't be so sure. These are desperate times."

"I'm hardly lacking in leverage to use should it become necessary."

"I can't argue that," said Miller. "But you might want to save it for a more important fight. Look, I don't want Dawn to be sent off to fight any more than you do. She's just too damn young for that in my book. I'm just warning you."

"And I appreciate that," said Rachel. "But I won't let anyone put Dawn in the firing line just yet."

"Yeah," said Miller. "But, well, you know how things are going. Between the Middle-East and Africa, people need a morale boost. A young, American Jedi kicking some ass would give us that. You might not get the choice."

"Well, if the army would start winning some major battles, this wouldn't be an issue," said Rachel waspishly. "It's hardly Dawn's responsibility that the world's governments have been caught with their pants down."

"Look, I'm not the one who'll try it," said Miller. "There's no point arguing with me."

"True," said Rachel with a nod. "So, was this a deliberate attack on us or a random air-strike that got lucky?"

"The force composition suggests the second option," said Miller. "That's about the normal raiding party size. We'll probably get hit again now they have us located."

"So we'll have to beef up the defences," said Rachel. "Get some interceptors stationed here. It was a stupid idea to not have any in the first place."

Miller shrugged. "I agree," he said. "Maybe they'll listen to me now."

It wasn't for several hours that Rachel was able to get Dawn away from the crowds and back to their rooms. She didn't really try all that hard, though; Dawn seemed to be enjoying herself, and there was little rush. Letting Dawn have a little time in the sun wouldn't hurt anyone. Eventually, though, she pulled Dawn away and back to the rooms they shared with Peter and Casey.

"You didn't well today, Dawn," said Rachel as they entered the rooms. "Very well indeed. You should be proud."

Dawn seemed to puff up under the praise and beamed a smile at Rachel in response.

"Of course, if you ever defy a direct order from me again, there will be serious consequences," said Rachel, her tone of voice somewhat less friendly. Before Dawn could reply, Rachel spoke again, "I didn't order you back to base for the good of my health, Dawn. Alone, you would have been killed, and what for? The base could have held its own till reinforcements arrived."


"You risked your life needlessly," said Rachel. "And that act forced me to risk mine as well. Think before you act, Dawn. Please."


"You didn't mean to," said Rachel. "Yes, I know. You can't afford to make mistakes like this, Dawn. Jedi Knights have too much riding on them to act without thinking."

"It would have been nice if you'd learned that before running off and getting yourself mixed up with the Sith," said a male voice that was far too recongnisable from behind Rachel. "Be nice if your practised it too."

"Ghost!" said Dawn, her eyes wide.

"Doesn't anyone stay dead these days?" asked Rachel as she turned to face the voice. "What are you doing here, Vrook?"

Vrook snorted. "Respectful as ever, I see," he said. "You haven't changed a bit."

"Why should I?" she asked. "I've done well enough as I am."

"An interesting perspective for a person who was the Dark Lord of the Sith," said Vrook with a contemptuous glare at Rachel.

"It's sometimes hard to separate myself from Revan," said Rachel. "But I didn't do any of that. When Revan was being the Dark Lord, I was at school, doing very little. And I passed my Dark Side test."

"There's that at least," said Vrook. "But you haven't exactly covered yourself with glory since. I've been watching you for years now, and you've been treading a fine line. Who's going to stop you if you fall again? Her? Don't make me laugh."

"Hey!" said Dawn. "I could so . . . uh . . . forget I said a word."

"I'm not going to fall," said Rachel. "I've seen all I need to know of the Sith to know I'm never going to be one."

"Not many people choose to fall. What about that Sectoid? He was defenceless and you cut him down. That is not the Jedi way."

"He was a threat, an enemy," said Rachel. "I never turn my back on an enemy."

Vrook shook his head. "You're as foolish now as you were before you went to war," he said. "Expediency is no excuse, not for a Jedi."

"And it's no wonder the Sith crushed your Order," said Rachel. "You're completely clueless."

"You'll never learn," said Vrook. "I just hope that your apprentice doesn't follow when you fall."

And then he disappeared.

"Even death won't let me escape him," said Rachel with a sigh. "Damn it."

It was several days later as Rachel led Dawn through a meditation exercise in their rooms when Rachel felt a sense of impending doom run through her. When she was unable to find any specific cause, she dismissed it, but that proved to be a rather bad idea. An hour or so later, she felt a steaming mad, familiar presence. When she looked up, she saw Mrs. Summers at the door, practically levitating off the ground in her fury.

"Oh shit."

Chapter Sixteen

April 2002

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."

"You have?"

"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.

"What the-"

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."

"Damn right."

"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!"

"Fucking idiot."

"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."

"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."

"Yes, sir!"

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."

They didn't.

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."

Chapter Seventeen

July 2002

Rachel was just contemplating putting aside the reports she'd been reading by lamp-light and getting a few hours of sleep in - a valuable commodity with the long, irregular hours she was working - when she was disturbed.

"Hey, Dawn," she heard Casey shout. "You're on TV again with those pandas. You know, I think you might have overdone it with that voodoo of yours."

The reply was, quite frankly, unprintable, and a testament to just how much Dawn had picked up from living on a military base. Also, a testament to how much Rachel was going to have to take cover when Mrs Summers realised exactly what Dawn had picked up. Again. Still, it amused Rachel to no end. TV footage of an extremely frazzled looking Dawn with half-a-dozen red pandas hanging off her and a couple dozen giant pandas following her around like love-sick puppies made for some very good mockery material, especially considering the state of her hair at the time. Summers girls just don't like being caught on film with messed-up hair.

But leaving aside the humour value, it had been a successful mission and a useful way to gauge Dawn's level of skill. She had the tricks down but she lacked subtlety in the application. Not bad at all given her abbreviated, disrupted training really. Rachel'd had the finest masters of the Order and a vast library to work with when she went through training; Dawn had, well, her, a first-time master who was far from an ideal Jedi by any standard. It was hard to not be happy with her progress even if she had yet to make a move towards constructing her own blade.

Rachel tried to go back to reading the report but the words just seemed to swim around on the page in front of her eyes. She was bone-weary tired and the scientist reporting on the fusion power project was very much a scientist and not a writer. She'd read hyperspatial physics textbooks that were less dense than this woman's progress reports and she just didn't have the energy to decode something that was harder going than the physics of how to construct a miniature black hole and use it as a power source. Time to get some sleep.

Rachel was roused from her slumber several hours later by a sharp knock at her bedroom door. "Brigadier Giles, General Miller wishes to speak with you," said Peter through the door. "It sounds somewhat urgent."

For a moment, Rachel didn't move, didn't think, didn't do a damned thing. She was warm and comfortable and did not want to get out of bed. And then reality asserted itself upon her. "Right, right," she said. "I'll be ready in a moment."

It wasn't, strictly speaking, a proper use of her abilities as a Jedi, but Rachel didn't think anyone would begrudge her using her mind to flick the power switch for her bedroom's lighting on. She pulled her uniform on as quickly as she could manage given that she was hardly on top form, and then headed out of her room.

"Any idea what's going on then?" she asked Peter.

"I think it has something to do with the alien you brought back from that mission," he said by way of reply. "I certainly can't think of anything else that would warrant this sort of summons."

"Well, nothing's blown up," said Rachel. "So it's probably nothing to do with any of my projects, not unless one of the scientists has gone too long without sleep and done something amusingly stupid again."

"There's been a distinct lack of green foam."

"So probably not that then," said Rachel. "Suppose I'd best get moving. No rest for the wicked."

"General," said Rachel by way of greeting as she entered Miller's office.

"Giles, sit down," said Miller, not looking up from the report he was reading till she did so. "I think you'll want to see this."

He then pushed the report over to the side of the desk Rachel was on. Reading it proved to be an enlightening experience. "Now this I did not expect," said Rachel.

"I don't think anyone expected it," said Miller. "We did wonder how the aliens were able to keep on fighting after we took Venezuela's government out and here it is: they have another base."

"How the hell they managed to set up a base in Colombia without anyone noticing is beyond me," said Rachel. "And that goes double for us not picking it up sooner."

"Yeah," said Miller. "Someone got stupid or the aliens have something new up their sleeve."

"Probably both."

"You're too young to be so cynical," said Miller. "Far too young. You're probably right, but you're still too young."

"It keeps me alive," said Rachel. "So, when do we attack? Or are we going to play a longer game?"

"Out of my hands," said Miller. "They barely trust me enough to keep a bunch of egg-heads in line these days. The lack of nukes makes me think they're going for the long game though."

"It makes sense. Cut off their supplies, wear them down, and then attack. More patience than I expected all told."

"Well, we're not so desperate for a good win these days. We're getting our digs in elsewhere," said Miller. " The aliens aren't doing much more than pissing the locals off anyway. Now we can strangle their supply lines effectively, they won't be able to do shit."

"You know, I can only think of one way they could have done this," said Rachel after a moment's thought. "They've stolen stealth field technology from us."

"I was really hoping you wouldn't say that."

"It makes sense, though," said Rachel. "If they had access to the X-COM networks through France, they'd have access to that technology. Blasters too."

"We are aware of that."

"No point getting snippy with me," said Rachel. "We're just lucky they're not sharing with China and don't seem all that inclined to switch out what they're using now."

"Good thing the brass didn't let the Chinese didn't have it all back then, you mean," said Miller. "We'd be well and truly shafted if we'd trusted them."

"If we'd trusted them, they might not have took up with the aliens."

Miller waved her off. "Yeah, yeah," he said. "They might have played nice if we'd shared all our best toys with them. Or they might just have stabbed us in the back just the same and fucked us over even worse than they actually did. And here's me thinking you were cynical."

"I'm a Jedi. I'm supposed to play nicely."

"That'll be the day."

Rachel had barely had time to sit down behind her office's desk after returning to her rooms and having a quick shower when Sarah wandered in.

"Have you read Smith's report?" she asked.

"Haven't had time," said Rachel. "I was planning on having a look today."

"Oh it's a good one," said Sarah, beaming a smile at her. "I don't really get the physics stuff but I could still tell that. I suggest you read it now."

"You'd probably get the physics if it was someone else writing the reports," commented Rachel. "Now . . . where is it. Ah, there it is. Just give me a minute."

Sarah just stayed where she was, bouncing from foot to foot.

"Hmm," said Rachel. "That's . . . looks like they've cracked it."

"Yup," said Sarah with a nod. "Great, isn't it? They're ready to work up a proper prototype. There's a form in your in-tray to requisition the supplies they need but I've already let them have them. You don't mind, do you?"

"No, of course not," said Rachel. "We need fusion power. One step closer to energy independence. Still, their design is dependant on heavy metals, so they've got some work to do. Theoretically, they should be able to fuel the reaction from pretty much anything. We used to toss all sorts of garbage into our speeder's tank back in the day."

Sarah gave Rachel a very strange look at that.

"Ah, ignore me," said Rachel. "It's not important. Point is: excellent work, but still not perfect. I have an idea or two, though . . . hmm, well, I'll have to talk to Dr. Smith. She deserves a pat on the back at least."

Sarah nodded. "She'll want to show you the experiment they've been running anyway, I think," she said. "She's kinda proud of it."

"And so she should be," said Rachel. "That's Nobel Prize material. An excellent piece of work, to be sure."

"She's a smart woman."

"That she is." Rachel sighed, "I wish John was here. He'd love to see this. It's just up his alley."

"Yeah," said Sarah, her eyes looking distinctly wet for just a moment. "Well, this is best we can do to get some revenge on the bastards who killed him."

Well, Rachel thought a lightsabre to the throat had done a pretty good job of that, but she wasn't going to argue and simply nodded an affirmative by way of reply.

The experiment was something Rachel already had a vague familiarity with having signed off requisition forms and signed a form to permit construction of a new wing in the underground level of the base to house the experiment, but she she'd never actually seen it in person before. Doctor Smith simply hadn't needed much in the way of supervision compared to the other teams. She'd just gotten on with the job assigned to her and now she was presenting the results. Quiet competence was the best term Rachel could think of to describe it, and it was something she very much appreciated.

The experiment was a cylindrical prototype reactor that was approximately five metres tall and fifteen around. Not exactly small but not exactly awe-inspiringly large either. It was housed in a room of its own in the underground level of the base that had been constructed specially for the experiment with Rachel's permission - something she'd had to clear with Miller before it could go ahead - that was reinforced with the strongest alloys humanity could produce in case of anything going boom. It had never been a very likely possibility but safety first and all that.

It was quite an impressive sight, stood there humming away as it was, as Rachel observed it from behind the six inch thick reinforced observation window. It wasn't anything near the monstrous reactors Rachel had seen at the core of capital warships, but it was a start. They'd get there eventually. There were still a few levels of technology to move through before that was a concern anyway.

"Magnificent, isn't it?" asked Smith from her position stood beside Rachel. "I never thought I'd live to see the day when we had viable fusion, but there is is stood right in front of us. Incredible. It's not quite what I expected but it works."

"It's something alright," said Rachel. "I didn't expect you to get this far this soon, to be honest, but I'm damn happy all the same."

"It's only the first step. We still need to go through another round of prototypes before it's really viable."

"I know," said Rachel. "And you'll get that time, believe me. This is well worth the investment."

"Good. I'd hate to see this get ruined with premature release."

"No danger of that. We're not desperate for energy now that we have Venezuelan oil under our control, not in the short-term."

"Glad to hear it."

"There's a Nobel Prize in this, you know," said Rachel. "Fusion power will change the world. If nothing else, it'll make the power bill a lot more manageable for poor people. You're going to be famous."

"Ah," said Smith looking somewhat discomforted by the notion. "Couldn't we, umm, just skip that part?"

"I don't think so," said Rachel. "There's no escaping it. Believe me, I know. I've tried."


"Indeed. Look on the bright side: when the war's over, you can live a life of leisure. The rewards will be great for this discovery."

"I don't know what I'd do with myself without my work."

"Well, the choice will be yours."

Rachel was already working out a timeline for deployment in her head as she left. They'd be ready for large-scale power generation within the year, she reckoned, if they pushed it, but for small-scale stuff like powering vehicles it would probably take longer. Still, that was where fuel cell technology came into things. It wasn't like gasoline supply trains were any better than fuel cell supply trains. Well, except for the vast existing infrastructure which would have to be replaced. Oh dear. Well, someone else's problem.

"In breaking news, the siege of Omsk may be breaking as fighters launched from the USS Carl Vinson join with local forces to force Chinese forces moving to reinforce the attackers to retreat from the area."

"And yet the siege goes on," said Rachel, not looking up from the report she was reading to look at the television.

"It's a start," said Peter. "Wars aren't won overnight."

"They're not won by symbolic gestures, either," said Rachel. "It's not like the Chinese are going to run short of cannon fodder any time soon."

"It is believed that the Chinese forces included multiple units of alien origin," continued the newscaster. "Initial reports indicate that the large humanoid robots first seen in Turkey may have been present at the scene of the battle."

"They're still using those things?" asked Casey. "How can we be having trouble with an enemy stupid enough to use those things?"

"In other war news, Indian insurgents clashed with Pakistani forces in the region of Punjab earlier today leaving several buildings destroyed and many more ablaze," said the newscaster. "It is not known at this time exactly how many were killed in the fighting but camera footage leaked from the region would indicate that several dozen were caught in the crossfire."

"That's the best way to bleed them right now," said Rachel. "They've took a lot of ground and haven't really secured it. It's ripe for guerilla warfare."

"Hard on the civilians though.

Rachel shrugged. "I doubt being occupied by foreign forces is much easier on them. You know what'll happen when they aliens get around to those areas."

"Several more UFO sightings have been reported in South America," said the newscaster. "Interceptors were launched but the UFOs fled before they could be engaged."

"In other words, too slow," said Casey. "Useless flyboys."

Rachel flicked her wrist and jabbed the TV's power button with a tendril of Force energy. "That's enough of that," she said. "These reports give me better information. Where's Dawn?"

"Gym. Probably eyeing up some of the soldier boys again," said Casey, sounding distinctly displeased.

"As long as she keeps to just eyeing," said Rachel. "I think I might go down there and see about running her through a sparring session."

Rachel found Dawn pedalling away on one of the extremely battered exercise bikes in the base's gym, basically doing as little as she could get away with while still having an excuse to hang around and eye the local population of soldiers as they went through their own exercise routines. Typical teenage girl behaviour, really. Well, teenager behaviour. It wasn't like boys were any better; she could testify to that from personal experience before everything had gone very deeply weird on her. Worse if anything, in all honesty. Certainly more blatant.

Now she just had to decide how she was going to run this little spar. It was tempting to just pull her sabre out and start chopping away; a nice little test of Dawn's danger-sense, that would be. Problem was that people tending to get a little pissy when you turned their nice, organised base into a warzone for a sparring session. The soldiers wouldn't mind - chances were they'd start a betting pool and cheer them on - but the administrator types would get aggravated and Rachel didn't fancy dying the death of a thousand multi-page forms that just had to be filled in ever so urgently. Truly, the historical Chinese had nothing on modern-day paper-pushers.

Well, testing her danger-sense wouldn't really prove all that much anyway. You either had it or you didn't, and Rachel was sure that Dawn had it by that point. It was just amusing to see the brief look of panic on her face. Possibly not the most Jedi-like thing she'd ever do, but it wasn't like she had a Council to answer to. There was no higher authority than her on Jedi matters, something which made life oh so much simpler. When she wanted to do something, she did it. No debates, no moralising. Force only knew how long it would have taken to mobilise the Jedi Council she was used to dealing with for this war if it had been brought into existence with her.

Rachel sidled up to a position just behind and to the left of Dawn. "Dawn," she said.

Dawn's jerk of shock was quite worthwhile. "Do you have to sneak up on me like that?" she whined.

"Till you start catching me at it, yes," said Rachel. "Now, if you're quite finished wasting time here, I think it's time for a sparring session."


"You won't learn anything from an exercise bike, apprentice," said Rachel. "Come along. I wish to test your skills."

Dawn sighed in the sort of irritatingly theatrical manner that only a teenager can manage before dismounting from the exercise bike. Yup, there was a humbling coming up, if only because Dawn was supposed to be more mature than that as a Jedi. Dawn was fairly quick about dismounting from the bike, which saved her a serious humbling, but that positive was completely overwhelmed when Rachel noticed several soldiers' eyes being drawn by Dawn's tight cycling shorts as she dismounted. That was just disturbing on so many levels. Thankfully, a few glares had those gazes pointing elsewhere in short order. She was going to have to set Casey loose. Maybe HK too. On second thoughts, no HK. Corpses came with so much paperwork.

"Go change into your robes and meet me in the usual place," said Rachel. "And don't forget your sabre."

It was always strange to see Dawn in Jedi robes. She wore them so rarely - Rachel didn't really care to enforce a dress code - that she just looked awkward in them. Honestly, she looked rather like a child dressing up in an adult's clothes; a rather distressing image with what'd happened a few scant minutes ago in the gym. Well, whatever.

"Prepare yourself," ordered Rachel, drawing her lightsabre and igniting it with a flourish.

Dawn immediately drew and ignited her white-bladed lightsabre before assuming an aggressive stance with her weight balanced on the back fight and the blade held high pointed straight forward at Rachel. Typical juyo sort of stance, really. For a few moments both combatants stood still, staring each other down, before Dawn broke the tableau and attacked.

The speed with which she went at Rachel was quite impressive - Rachel was sure that to a non-sensitive viewer she would have seemed to be little more than a blur of motion and flashing light - but Rachel was far from overwhelmed by the attacks. She barely seemed to move from her starting position as she wove her own blade through the air and applied it just so to each strike to knock them away from their target. Minutes passed like that with the only sounds being the clash of blades and the breathing of the two Jedi before Dawn twisted away from Rachel and assumed a new stance, a somewhat more neutral one, and tried to calm her heaving lungs.

"Tired already?" asked Rachel. "I expected better."

Of course she was tired. She still threw her power around like a sledgehammer, moving as quickly as she could and striking as hard as she could. All the skill and stamina in the world couldn't compensate for that. And again, she began attacking. Her speed was great, her blows were crisp and accurate, but they never once came close to breaking through Rachel's defences. With each parry and evasion, Dawn's frustration grew. As Dawn's frustration grew and her stamina waned, her moves began to lose their well-drilled crispness and grow sloppy.

After a few minutes of that, as Dawn's strikes grew wild, Rachel finally took the offensive. Her first strike was parried but the riposte was weak and poorly aimed. The second knocked Dawn's blade out and away from her body. The third landed across Dawn's backside and if the sabres weren't at training intensity would have done some serious damage. As it was, it just stung like the dickens; something Rachel could testify to from long experience courtesy of her own training.

"Ow," moaned Dawn, rubbing at the red mark left across the backside of her robes. "That stings."

"If course it does," said Rachel. "That's the motivation to stop getting hit. Now, do you know where you went wrong?"

"You kicked my ass."

"More exact than that, thank you."

"I was too slow," said Dawn. "Every attack was blocked before it even got close to connecting."

Rachel sighed. "There are none so blind as those who will not see," she said. "Your speed is more than adequate, believe me. That's not the issue here. Really, much faster and you'd be the Flash."

"Then it's skill. You're just better than I am."

"Of course," said Rachel. "I have, oh, twenty years of this on you in some form or another. You won't match me for skill for a very long time if ever. But that's not what you did wrong here. Come on, think."

"Too aggressive?"

"That's a factor," said Rachel. "Quite a large one at that. You don't have to be passive to be a Jedi but it is the ideal for some. I was thinking of something else."

"I don't get it," said Dawn. "I gave my all and I can't think of anything else I did wrong."

"That's the problem," said Rachel. "You gave your all."


"Every move you made, you put everything you could into it," said Rachel. "You wield your power like a sledgehammer. Against many, that will be enough with your power. Against a higher calibre of opponent, it will get you killed."

"So what do I do?" she asked. "Go easy?"

"That's a simplification," said Rachel. "It's something that will come only with time. Just keep it in mind." Dawn nodded in acknowledgement. "But, to go with that, you need to work on your stamina. For your age group, by Earth standards, you are incredibly fit. By Jedi standards, you are well behind the curve. Not a surprise given how late you started training, but the Sith will not go easy on you because you are disadvantaged."

"More running?" whined Dawn.

"More running," said Rachel with a decisive nod.

Dawn pouted.

Rachel was burning the midnight oil writing up a report to be passed up the chain of command regarding the progress of her teams' research when she felt the subtle shift in the room's atmosphere that came along with Jolee showing up. She finished typing the word she was on and looked up. He looked the same as he always did, unsurprisingly. Death didn't leave much room for change, she supposed, though she'd never understand why he kept his aged appearance. Maybe he just preferred being a cantankerous old man, but she didn't really understand that.

"She's turning out quite well, your apprentice," said Jolee. "Still got a lot of rough edges to knock off but she's young and stupid still."

"I was beginning to wonder if I was going to hear from you again," said Rachel. "It's been a while."

"It isn't easy to push through the barriers," said Jolee. "This dimension is a hell of a way from home."

"I wouldn't have thought it mattered to the dead."

"Do you really expect me to explain how death works to you? That'd just take all the mystery out of things. You kids need to learn patience; you'll learn about what it's like to be dead when you're dead."

"I didn't actually ask the question."

"You were about to, though," said Jolee. "I could see it forming. What's it like? How Does it work? Bah! You forget, I know what you Revan types are like. There's not a bit of knowledge out there you haven't wanted to learn. Or was that planets you haven't wanted to conquer? I forget."

"Charming," said Rachel. "Any more witty insights or have you finished annoying me for one day?"

"Oh pish. You need to watch that temper. Good things come to those who don't get snippy with their elders."

"Do their elders stop annoying them?" asked Rachel. "Or is that too much to ask for?"

"You need to find that Faith lass and work off some tension," said Jolee. "That makes people so much less snippy, or so I hear. Been a while on this end, you see. Death comes with a bit of a dry spell."

"Too much information."

"What?" asked Jolee. "You think I don't have needs because I'm old? I'm not that old, missy."

"You're dead. You don't have a body to feel or to indulge that sort of desire."

"Now you should know better than that, good as you are at twiddling people's minds about."

Rachel shook her head. "Well, I'd never thought of using my powers for that before. Somehow, I doubt the Council would approve."

"See, us old people do have our uses!" crowed Jolee. "And the Council never approved of anything that was even close to fun. They'd have probably had us practising self-flagellation like those charming Flagellant fellows you have on this world."

Rachel screwed her face up in disgust. "Your mind must be a truly disturbing place to be."

"Hey, there are people out there who really do that sort of thing," he said. "Must be something in it."

"And not so long ago people were being burnt at the stake for witchcraft," said Rachel. "You'll find some adherents for just about anything."

"Yeah," said Jolee. "If the Sith can recruit people, I suppose you can find someone to believe anything. Now, there was a reason I came here . . . now, what was it . . . "

Rachel drummed her fingers on her desk. "I don't have all day, you know."

"Hush! Kids these days, no patience."

"If you were still alive, I'd have HK shoot you."

"No, you wouldn't," said Jolee. "You're too nice for that sort of things these days. Now if you were wearing a mask and you said that, I'd worry. Now, it's just on the tip of my tongue here . . . what was it . . . " Rachel rolled here eyes and waited. "Vrook! That's it!"

"Oh, now there's a name I didn't want to hear," said Rachel with a groan. "Him showing up had to be about the worst surprise I've had this side of open war breaking out."

"I'm sure he loves you too," said Jolee. "But there is a reason he showed up. I'm surprised you haven't figured it out."

"He isn't content unless he has someone to whinge at," said Rachel. "I suppose things are going better back in your dimension now so he came here to find an excuse to start up."

"Well, there's that," said Jolee. "But he does care about the Jedi Order. You know that. He wouldn't go on so much if he didn't."

"And he's decided to express this by nagging me?" asked Rachel. "Well colour me unimpressed."

"Dammit, let me explain!" hollered Jolee. "Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Right, well, you weren't a master back in the day, were you? There are things you weren't allowed access to, techniques you were never taught. He can teach you those things. You know, round our your education and all that."

"And all I have to do is adhere to his vision of what a Jedi is supposed to be," said Rachel. "No thanks. I'd rather bathe in sulphuric acid that put up with that sort of nonsense."

"Well, that's for you to work out with him. Would it really be so bad to play nice with him? He wasn't that bad."

"You didn't have him as a master. He was every bit that bad. He was arrogant, self-righteous, and judgemental to a fault. And if that wasn't bad enough, his padawans all turned out the same as him. The man was a scourge upon the Order even before they put him on the Council."

Jolee winced. "Well . . . I suppose you're honest about your feelings if nothing else. Should be fun to see how you work together."

"You assume that I'm interested in or even have use for his teachings," said Rachel. "I was the Dark Lord of the Sith. I had no limitations upon information available to me then."

"Well, the Jedi like to think that they have some secrets from the Sith."

"They like to think a lot of things. Doesn't make them true."

Chapter Eighteen

October 2002

The worst thing about meditating during a war is that it brings the death and destruction right up to your mental doors. There's just no way to avoid it when you connect as closely to the Force as you do when you meditate. The Force is, after all, a reflection of life, generated by all living things, and the sheer misery being inflicted upon the people of Earth by the Third World War was great enough to make it inescapable for any who were sensitive to such things.

For Dawn, it was bad, Rachel knew, but it wasn't specific. She wasn't good enough yet to distinguish the specifics of disturbances without lowering her shields to the point where her mind was completely overwhelmed. It wasn't so for Rachel. She could very easily distinguish between the terror of the Africans being hunted through the burned out husks that remained of their cities by marauding aliens and the grim determination of Russian ground forces fighting in the sieges.

And there was nothing she could do about any of it.

The events were horrifying, but it was the helplessness that truly maddened Rachel. She was used to being able to change things. As Supreme Commander of the Republic Navy her command had been virtually law and as Dark Lord of the Sith her word had been law, backed by the threat of gruesome death for the disobedient. Here, she was commander of nothing and hadn't even been the ruler of her own life since that fracas in Oxnard had brought her to X-COM's attention. There was little to nothing she could do to turn the tide and deal with the problems she identified.

Of course, there would be little she could even if she did have armies under her control. There were so many terrible things happening at any one moment that every armed force on the side of the Allies combined wouldn't be able to stop them all, and attempting to do so would weaken their position terribly. It was a recipe for frustration for all involved. Terrible frustration. The sort of frustration that led to people taking unpleasant shortcuts and ending up in bad places.

Rachel opened her eyes and blew out a frustrated breath. She wasn't getting anywhere quickly like that. What she needed to do was to do something, to land a good blow against the enemy. It wouldn't be enough, nothing would be enough while the war still raged, but there was only so long that she could sit by and watch passively from the comfort of a lab as other people did all of the work. She hadn't been able to do it when the Mandalorians set about looting the Outer Rim and she wasn't going to be able to do it while the aliens tried to subjugate humanity.

But she couldn't leave her work either. Not yet anyway, not while she was still needed to give the scientists guidance, at least not permanently. And chances were she would be needed in that capacity for a good while yet.

"And here you go, making the same mistake as before," said Vrook in a tone of voice that was brusque even by his usual standards. "Can't control yourself can you, Revan?"

Rachel closed her eyes and counted to ten. Then to twenty. And then she felt able to reply without obscenity. "Master Vrook," she grated out finally. "I see you are as appreciative of social niceties in death as you were in life."

"You never learn," continued Vrook, ignoring Rachel entirely. "Always looking at the big picture but lacking the wisdom to truly appreciate it. It's a miracle you haven't gotten yourself killed yet."

Rachel couldn't help but contemplate just how easy it would be to disperse Vrook for good and end his ability to pester her. So very easy. But she couldn't do it. That was Darth Revan's thinking and not something she could allow herself to carry through. "You know, it's generally regarded as bad manners to go rooting through someone's head without their permission," said Rachel. Not that she had even the faintest idea how he could do that. Death obviously came with its perks.

"Manners don't apply when dealing with Sith," said Vrook.

Rachel was on her feet before she had time to think. "I don't have to sit here and take abuse from you of all people," she said in a venomous whisper. "You're not my master, Vrook. Not here."

"I am a Jedi Master and you are not," said Vrook, maintaining his calm. "You. Will. Listen."

"Still as arrogant as you were when you helped lead the Jedi to the brink of destruction, I see," said Rachel. "It seems that I'm not the only one who doesn't learn from their mistakes."

If he could have, Vrook would have went red in the face at that. As it was he facial expression took a distinctly unpleasant turn before he calmed himself so quickly that anyone who wasn't looking for it would never have seen it. "And you still go for the throat," he said. "You haven't changed at all."

"I'm not the only one aiming to draw blood here, Vrook," said Rachel. "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, but you always were a hypocrite."

"You have some nerve, Revan. I lived and died a Jedi unlike some."

"And you have some nerve barging into my home and throwing accusations and insinuations around. If there's a purpose to your visit, then state it. I have no time for this nonsense."

"Such arrogance! Even now, you still refuse to accept the authority of the Jedi Council. What will it take to make you see sense?"

"A Jedi Council that talks it would be a good start," said Rachel. "And perhaps you should take note of the fact that you're dead. Any authority you had over me is long since expired. I don't answer to you anymore."

"More's the shame. You'd do well to heed my instruction, Revan. I learned my lesson; it doesn't seem that you have. Stay away from the war. Leave it to the soldiers. They don't need you and you don't need the risk."

"You're a cold fish, Vrook, you really are. The death toll is already in the hundreds of millions at least and you're telling me to stand by and watch."

"We've had this argument before. You know how it ends. For once in your life, listen."

"Even if I went to war tomorrow, it wouldn't end the same way," said Rachel. "They're keeping a close eye on me here. They'd be careful to manage me and if I show any sign of going Sith there'll be an intervention."

"They're children flailing around in the dark when it comes to that and you know it," said Vrook. "They have no idea what they're doing. They probably never will. The Republic never managed it and they had tens of thousands of years of history with people like us."

"They know enough to know when someone's approaching the edge even if their science is primitive. And I know my own limits better. It would be difficult to forget the mistakes I made."

"You don't understand. If it wasn't for the boy you merged with, you'd be living up to your title, Darth. Testing the restraints is idiotic. You've already been right up to the verge once and ran too close for comfort more often. Enough. Until you've discharged your responsibility to pass on your knowledge, you must follow this instruction: stay away from the war, stay away from any fighting as best you can."

"I'll be sure to keep that in mind. Now enough. Go. Leave me."

Vrook frowned, again, and then he disappeared. Rachel was tempted to go bully her way to the front lines out of sheer spite. She could not stand that man.

Rachel awoke the next morning to the sound of the phone she had in her bedroom ringing loudly. She was, for more than a passing moment, tempted to simply knock the phone off the hook and go back to sleep, but in the end duty won out over the desire to sleep.

"Rachel Giles," said Rachel blearily when she picked up the phone.

"Ah, Rachel," said the voice on the other end of the line. "It's your uncle. I'm just phoning to tell that, ah, some of Coven's seers have noticed some rather, ah, ominous portents."

That woke her up. "What are we talking here?" she asked. "Rivers running red? Sun rising from the wrong direction? Animals fleeing en masse?"

"Nothing so dramatic," said Giles. "I think even the most wilfully blind of people would have a hard time missing those and you're hardly that sort. No, this is more along the lines of noticing mystical energies flowing in ways they normally wouldn't and so on. Easily missed if you're not looking for that sort of thing."

Or if your meditations were interrupted by a cranky old man trying to order you around. "I don't suppose you have any specifics? We're not in apocalypse season."

"They tell me that it's associated with the Lightbringer," said Giles. "Why him moving on Earth would generate such modest portents is beyond me, however."

Rachel swore. Loudly. And in multiple languages. "That's what the aliens call me these days," she said. "I'll have to warn Miller. If something's coming after me, it'll come through his men first."

"They call you . . . well, that's . . . interesting," said Giles. "I don't suppose they, ah, gave a reason for that name?"

"Not so much," said Rachel. "It said the name was appropriate. I suppose from their perspective it might be, but that's not so important. I'm more interested in what's coming."

"Well, there were some theories," said Giles. "But they're quite irrelevant now. You are not the Lightbringer and what we had amassed is now useless because of that. I can't say I'm sorry. Facing the Devil is not a great ambition of mine."

"Not one of mine, either," said Rachel. "So you don't have anything, huh?"

"Not a thing," admitted Giles. "Your own meditations may reveal more. If I remember correctly, you said that you were not without ability when it came to using your abilities for divination."

"Ah, well, there's a problem there."

"And that is?"

"Well, the Force is a reflection of life," said Rachel. "And the world's pretty turbulent right now. Lots of darkness going around. It's more of a Sith environment than anything and it hinders my foresight."

"Oh dear," said Giles and Rachel could clearly picture him rubbing at his glasses wherever he was. "And I suspect it has effects beyond just hindering one of your abilities as well, does it not?"

"More of an issue for Dawn than me," said Rachel. "I'm experienced enough to deal with it. She really isn't. She's done well so far, but I worry at times."

"Have you noticed any signs of, well, darkness about her?"

"Not since she took Glory down. I'd be more than just mildly worried if I'd noticed any signs. And I know the signs, believe me. Been there; done that; got the t-shirt. No, she's been doing quite well."

"I'm glad to hear that," said Giles. "Good news is somewhat rare these days."

"Tell me about it. So how are you these days? Last I heard, you were still working with the US Army."

"I am, thankfully, done with that. Dealing with you children was enough for me. The proposition of tutoring an endless procession of American soldiers on how to deal with demons is enough to make me wish for a portal to a hell-dimension. I'm in England at the moment. I'd be back in Sunnydale but this Lightbringer thing came up and, well, duty calls and all that."

"Buffy's slaying without a Watcher?"

"I am but a phonecall away if she needs me," said Giles. "And barring an apocalypse, she doesn't. She's been fending for herself since she went to college for the most part."

"It just seems wrong somehow," said Rachel. "I know I haven't been there myself, but it's just . . . well, weird that the old team's drifted apart."

"Things change. People move on. Buffy's not a child any more and she doesn't need me looking over her shoulder like she used to and she most certainly wouldn't want me to take on that role now. She didn't like it over much then, if you recall."

"I suppose. They were good times, though. I miss them."

"I think you're looking back with rose-coloured glasses," said Giles. "It's a miracle that you came out of your high-school years sane, never mind anything else."

"It . . . well, okay, there were bad times, too," said Rachel. "But the good outweighed them. It's not like my life before I met Buffy was a picnic, either."

"I know. Still, I suspect that, if you went back in time and told yourself the future, the past you would avoid that costume like the plague."

Rachel shrugged. "What I would do then and what I would do now are quite different things. I've changed a lot."

"True enough," acknowledged Giles. "I can't argue that. But how are you doing? Outside of random, demonic threats that is."

"I'm well as can be expected. My work is losing its shine, but it's necessary and I'm still needed here."

The conversation continued for a while from there, talking about various aspects of her life that weren't all that interesting, before Giles had to ring off due to international call charges from his provider that would have had him selling his kidney on ebay to cover the bill if he stayed on the line much longer. Well, so much for the war-game exercise they were going to run to test the new body armour design and the extra equipment that went with it. They could hardly have half the base's troop compliment running around with blasters set to tickle now they had intelligence about a potential attack.

Miller was already in his armour when Rachel arrived in his office. He looked surprisingly at ease in it considering that she was quite sure he hadn't had any reason to spend any real amount of time in the armour before and that it was pretty much fresh out of the labs and derived from all sorts of advanced technology.

"Giles," he said. He frowned when he saw her expression. "Is there a problem?"

"Possibly," said Rachel. "I just got off the phone. It seems that something's about to make a play and it's going to involve me in some way."

Miller's frown deepened. "I don't suppose you have any details?" he asked. "And what's the source?"

"Details? I'd be so lucky. No, whatever's doing this is covering its tracks as best it can," said Rachel. "The only real clue is that the information the Devon Coven have divined mentions me by the name the aliens have given me, so it probably involves them."

"Ah, Christ," said Miller. "Mumbo-jumbo. Why couldn't it have been a spy or an informant?"

"Because God hates you, clearly."

Miller barked a laugh. "I get that impression sometimes," he said. "Okay. Fine, mumbo-jumbo. I can deal with that. Anything about dates, numbers, approach vectors? You know, useful stuff?"

Rachel shook her head. "Like I said, I'd be so lucky. It's your typical vague prophecy sort of thing, except we didn't even get the prophecy. Even a 'beware the ides of March' would have been nice, but it's not for us to have."

Miller pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned back in his chair. "Right," he said. "So we know that someone's going to make a move that involves you in some way. Do we even know what they're going to do? It could just as easily be assassins as an attack on the base."

"I have no idea," admitted Rachel. "My gut instinct says that it won't be assassins, though; they've tried the one-on-one approach with Ethereals and it didn't work. I don't think they're stupid enough to try it again, and getting an assassin into the base would not be easy."

"Exclamation: any assassins that attempt to harm the master shall suffer a lingering death."

"I won't have some damn assassin breaking into my base," said Miller, eyeing HK as if expecting him to go on a killing spree any moment. "I'll have the patrols doubled."

"Best step up the mystical checks too," said Rachel. "There are plenty of mercenary mages around that would be quite happy to arrange for a possession or some sort of compulsion to be placed on one of your men when they're on leave. And there are all sorts of parasitic demons that they could hire for the same sort of approach."

"I hate magic," complained Miller. "It's bad enough to have to worry about soldiers getting suborned the normal way; mumbo-jumbo just makes it a thousand times worse."

"I can't argue that. I've been there and done that. It doesn't end well."

"Yeah, I remember that from your file. Never had it happen to me, but some of my men have had to pull the trigger on their own because of those damn aliens."

"Bad times," said Rachel. "So, what about the exercise we were going to run today?"

Miller sighed. "I suppose we'll have to scrap it," he said. "It's not an acceptable risk under these circumstances."

Rachel nodded. "I agree," she said. "It's not that important anyway. There are other ways we can test the new equipment."

"But none of those would be as useful as a proper war-game," said Miller. "It's disappointing."

"You're just getting bored looking after a bunch of civilians."

Miller shrugged. "I can't argue that. I wanted to see how well the troops would work together as well. We have so many different countries represented here and I'm not sure if they'll gel."

Rachel couldn't argue that. They had almost exclusively special forces soldiers, but they were from all sorts of branches from all sorts of countries, and they tended to be either old, former cripples lured in with promises of cybernetics, or rookies. The material was there, but it needed shaping and they didn't have much opportunity to do so. She said as much to Miller.

He nodded. "Lot of politics went into the make-up of this base," he said. "No-one really expects us to have to really fight, so they didn't think in too much detail about our effectiveness. We've been caught with our britches down once already, though, and I'm not having that a second time."

"Well, there wasn't much we could do about an air attack. We didn't have any fighters!"

"if they'd only listened to me, we would have had."

"Politics again," said Rachel with a wry grin.

"Yeah. I have zero pull these days. Less than zero even. I suggest something and they're more likely to do the opposite."

"Their loss."

Rachel almost turned around and marched straight back out when saw the size of the stack in her in-tray when she made her way to her office after her meeting with Miller. She was getting tired of reading reports and filling in forms. Seriously tired.

"Query: master, could we not find a more interesting way to spend our day than this? I fear that if I do not kill something soon my neural-processor will begin to rot."

"Don't tempt me, HK."

"Statement: But, master . . . "

"Feel free to go into standby mode, HK. There's no danger to me here."

"Resignation: as you wish, master," said HK. "If you need anything killing, I will be in the corner."

And with that, HK matched actions to words and shuffled off to sulk in the corner of the room. There were times when Rachel really did doubt her own sanity building a droid which was so utterly obsessed with bloodshed that it would actually complain about not getting sufficient killing time. It wasn't exactly her finest hour as a Jedi Knight, that much was for sure. Yet another thing that Vrook would nag her about eventually, she expected, and she had no idea how she would refute him on that point.

A quick browse through the reports on her desk that day revealed little of interest. Lots of weekly progress reports and requests for more money - she was never short of those - but nothing that required any urgent response. There were a couple of military reports, however, that were much more interesting. One of the few good things that came from her somewhat pointless military rank was the fact that she was kept in the loop regarding the progress of the war. Not totally, she wasn't highly enough ranked for a great deal, or so she assumed, but enough so that she had a good idea what was going on, especially for the regiment of the British Army that she was, technically speaking, part of.

At that moment in time, the active battalions of the Royal Green Jackets were split between fighting alongside the Indian Army around the state of Punjab and fighting alongside the coalition of forces that was fighting in the Russian Sieges. Messy work, all told, but necessary. Both operations were quite important to the war effort. Punjab was an important state for India and the Russian Sieges were absolutely crucial.

It was a shame what was happening in Punjab, to be honest. The state had been one of best developed states in India, but now it was an absolute mess that was turning into something like the no-mans land of the First World War. Beyond that, it had been a substantial food producer, producing a large proportion of India's food supply, which was now out of the question. Pakistan had been clever in selecting that state to concentrate its attacks on. By ruining its agriculture they had done serious damage to India's food supply in a much more severe way than Hitler's U-boats had ever damaged Britain's food supply.

The Russian Sieges, well, they were Stalingrad and the other horrific sieges of the Second World War redux. They'd drawn the Chinese in and now they were bleeding them just like they'd bled the Nazis. Problem was, this time, the enemy had far more warm bodies to throw into the grinder. On the other hand, the Russians were getting much more direct aid this time around. The nations of the world were fighting shoulder to shoulder against the alien invaders and their allies. Quite inspirational really in its way. Force help the civilians caught in the middles though. Russian winters were bad enough without being caught in the middle of a warzone.

There was some less than promising news in the despatches from the frontlines, it had to be said. The Carl Vinson and its escorts had been forced to retreat to the nearest friendly port for repairs after coming under fierce fire from an alien raiding force and would likely be some time there getting patched up. As useful as an aircraft carrier is, that was never going to be good news, but at least it hadn't been sunk; that would have been utterly devastating. Some of the escorts had been lost, but those were much more easily replaceable than a supercarrier.

And some of the news from the Middle-East made her reread the despatch several times to make sure she was reading it correctly. The aliens had been sighted using tanks, specifically the Chinese Type 100 which had been beefed up using alien technology to start with. It wasn't going to change the course of the war but tanks, even ones that had been banged out by a people that hadn't used tanks before, were going to be a lot harder to kill than giant mecha. If nothing else, they were a much smaller target. Still, the Type 100 was barely a match for the American tank of the same generation, the M1A3, and wouldn't be a patch on the M1A4 when it was ready to roll.

There was little news from Africa. Just more of the same. Few nations had the resources to spare on that benighted continent and its natural resources weren't crucial to anyone's war effort, so it faced a slow, lonely death at the hands of the aliens. South Africa had been fortified to a ridiculous extent and was acting as a bulwark but until economies reached full war mobilisation and the conscripts were ready to be deployed there was little anyone could do to help. They needed a miracle and those were in short supply.

Sarah's voice broke her out of her reading. "Hey, Rachel," she said. "I'm just coming from Dr. Schrader's lab. I've got a report here you might want to read."

"Another one? Oh be still my beating heart."

"Ha ha. This one's actually worth a look; it's not just a thinly-veiled request for more money."

"Just tell me what's so interesting, will you?"

"Spoilsport," said Sarah with a very put-upon pout. "Well, he's been working on vehicles, right?"

"I did assign him to that. There'd be questions if he wasn't."

"Hush. Well, he's been working on tanks for a while now. Let's see. Yes, he's been reworking the electrics, the engines, the weapons, and adding repulsors."

"Busy little bee, isn't he? I know this already."

"You are no fun. Anyway, he's got a prototype up and running. I had a quick look and it all looks to be working out quite well."

Rachel drummed her long fingers against her desk. "It's rather early for this," she said finally. "We're still missing a couple of things for a final tank design."

"Shields and the fusion power, right?"

"Yes," said Rachel with a nod. "The shields are crucial. They will be the edge that wins the war."

"Well, they're still ages off. At least they were the last I heard. They still haven't found a way around the heatsink problem. But they've managed to get a fusion reactor down to the size they need."

"They have? I should pay more attention to these reports."

"It's not as efficient as it could be, but it won't need oil to run. That's what really counts."

"Indeed," said Rachel. "That's quite the coup. I wasn't expecting to see the reactors reduced to vehicle size for months yet. Dr Smith is turning out to be quite an asset."

Sarah nodded. "She's good," she said. "Damn good. My fuel cells are going to be obsolete within a year of entering production at this rate." And she finished with a joking pout.

Rachel smiled. "Well, I don't think anyone will be putting fusion reactors into civilian vehicles for a while," she said. "I'm not sure they'll even put them in most military vehicles, to be honest. People get nervous around nuclear reactions."

"Gee, I wonder why," said Sarah. "Anyway, are you going to grace Schrader with your presence?"

"It would seem appropriate," she said. "I want to see this prototype."

Rachel found Schrader and his team down in the lowest sub-level of the base inside the large empty chamber that had been carved out for testing new vehicles and similar activities with their new tank. It was a rather rough looking thing. The core structure of the tank had the desert tan camouflage pattern - she supposed it was a leftover from when they claimed it for their experiments - but the additions were all raw metal. Ugly was the best way to describe it really.

"Doctor Giles!" called Schrader from the other side of the space. "Have you come to see my new toy?"

"Something like that," replied Rachel when she reached Schrader's position. "Couldn't you have applied the camouflage to it?"

"We have not had the time," said Schrader. "And I must admit, I am somewhat eager to see it tested; too eager to wait for cosmetic issues to be addressed."

"Well, I can't fault you for that," she said. "You are sure that it is ready?"

"As sure as I can be without already having done the tests."

There was little more to be said after that. They retreated behind the safety barriers that had been placed near the chamber's entrance and the tests began. The initial phase was to simply have the tank float around the chamber on its repulsors. That test was a predictable success. Repulsors were known, reliable technology by that time. The only point of interest was whether the particular units installed in the prototype were of adequate power.

After that came the test of the new main gun. Several large pieces of metallic rubbish left over from various experiments had been deposited in the chamber for such use. The initial tests were at minimum firepower and were little more than a lightshow; they proceeded without notable event. After that, they gradually continued through the various power settings that the tank had for its new main gun until it was blasting multi-ton pieces of steel apart with each shot.

Once the static firing tests had been performed, new targets were fetched, and tests on how well firing while in movement worked began. It was at that point that Rachel noted something wasn't quite right. The tank was moving sluggishly, the weapons fire was losing some of its accuracy. It wasn't a huge thing, not at first, and easily missed, but Rachel spotted it and she saw some of the other people present were looking uneasy as well.

Eventually the straw that broke the back came. The prototype attempted to pull off a rather sharp-angled shot while moving at considerable speed and instead of firing simply dropped out of the air and crashed to the ground with a thundering crash. Rachel winced; that was a tank that wasn't going anywhere any time soon. It's tracks, retained for use in an emergency, had simply popped off and she doubted the repulsors would have survived that.

Immediately, technicians swarmed out from behind the safety barriers and over to the prototype, which was now entirely inert. Schrader swore, loudly and extensively, in his native language.

"Close," said Rachel. "Very close."

"Close doesn't win battles," said Schrader bitterly. "There are no prizes for second-place in war."

"I doubt it's a major problem," said Rachel. "Most likely something to do with the power generation. You'll have it fixed in no time."

It was a lame attempt at being supportive and Rachel knew it. Dr Schrader didn't seem to be listening anyway, thankfully. He was already focussed on his defective prototype.

Chapter Nineteen

January 2003

"You know, Giles, it would have been nice if someone had told me what was going on," said Rachel into the phone. "I'd like to think that someone using magic and advanced technology to mess with my friends would at least warrant a heads up."

"Ah, well, I rather thought that you had, umm, more important things to worry about at the time."

I will not throttle him, I will not throttle him, went the mantra Rachel chanted in her mind. "You thought that I had more important things to worry about than someone making some damn good efforts to drive Buffy round the bend completely?" she asked, endeavouring to keep her tone of voice neutral.

"Well, the war-"

"I am not even an observer to the war. I've had little more contact with it than you. Using it as an excuse to not inform me is ridiculous."

"Yes, well, I've been a little busy myself," snapped Giles. "Teaching the army how to fight demons is not how I was planning to spend my life and it hasn't left much time for anything else. Add in that the seers are predicting all sorts of doom and gloom for you, and I'm not really on top of things."

Rachel blinked. Ah, that explained things. "Well, okay. I'm sorry then," she said. "I'm still not happy that I was kept out of the loop, but it's as much Buffy and Willow's fault as yours."

Giles sighed. "You, as a group, can be incredibly infuriating at times."

"Can't argue there," said Rachel. "So what are the seers coming up with? How screwed am I according to them?"

"Quite. You've made some powerful enemies, Rachel."

"Yeah, well, I'm not without my resources. I don't suppose you have any specifics?"

"Well, the latest readings seem to indicate a combination of enemies," said Giles. "The aliens seem to be a given, but we're not really sure who else will be involved. My first thought would be demons. You have made quite the name for yourself amongst that kind."

"Demons and aliens," said Rachel. "Well, I could deal with that. Between myself and HK, they'd be hard pressed."

"Overconfidence could get you killed," chided Giles gently. "And it just as easily be wizards or Sith or any of the other groups that would love to make a name by claiming your scalp."

"I'm surrounded by a division of well-armed soldiers at virtually all times, uncle," said Rachel. "And the base has some of the best wards you'll ever see outside of ancient magic sinks. Beyond that, I have quite possibly the most vicious killing machine in this dimension at my beck and call as well as an array of rather dangerous prototype weapons. I'm quite safe here."

Admittedly, the prototypes were almost as dangerous to the person using them as to any enemy, but the thought was there.

"Well, I've asked Faith to make her way there, just in case," said Giles. "I'm sure you won't mind her presence."

Rachel sighed. "I don't mind her presence, but she doesn't really have clearance to be hanging around here," she said. "And she brings chaos wherever she goes. I'll have to pull some strings."

"But, even so, you couldn't have a better person to fight by your side than a Slayer," said Giles. "It may not be necessary, but I see no reason to take risks. These are dangerous times."

"Well she'll be popular with the soldiers if nothing else. What about Buffy and Willow? Have you told them?"

"I have, and it took all my powers of persuasion to keep them from running off to join you as well."

"You'd think I was incapable of defending myself."

"I could say the same about your reaction to what happened with those foolish boys."

"Touche. Well, aside from that, how are you?"

"Busy. I keep telling them that they'd be better off employing some real teachers to cover demons for their demon hunting units, but they insist that they'd rather have an expert doing the job."

That was probably Rachel's fault. She'd recommended Giles several times to various people as a consultant on the supernatural. She didn't think it would be a good idea to let that slip, though. "Well, they may have a point," she said. "You do know this stuff as well as anyone can and they need to get it right. It'd only take one slip-up and the accord with the demons would become very shaky indeed."

Giles's sigh was most heartfelt. "Why couldn't they have press-ganged Wesley instead?"

"Because the Crown beat them to it. He was just the right age for National Service and with his skills . . . they didn't waste any time. Anyway, I doubt it's that bad. They're not assigned their idiots to your classes."

"And thank God for that," said Giles with feeling.

"Hey, Miller," said Rachel as she breezed into his office. "We need to talk. Got some news you'll be interested in."

"You know, people in the army don't normally go breezing into their superior officer's office and make themselves at home without at least asking permission."

"Whoever said I was normal?"

"Well, there is that," said Miller with a theatrical sigh. "Oh for a normal command. So what is it?"

"Well, couple of things," said Rachel. "Firstly, Faith's coming for a visit."

Miller blinked and then his features settled into a put-upon frown. "Oh wonderful. Well, I suppose she'll liven things up if nothing else."

Rachel laughed. "Oh she'll do that. Secondly, it seems that we're looking at some sort of alliance of enemies coming after me in some way. Aliens and demons would be my guess."

"We can deal with that," he said after a moment's thought. "The aliens are a known quantity and we could take down an army of demons without them getting through the front door."

"As long as they don't find a god to help them out again. We'd be pretty screwed if that happened."

"We took the last one down eventually."

"Next one probably wouldn't be insane. Anyway, demons and aliens working together. Could be nasty."

"You know, ten years ago, I'd have called the men in white coats if you'd said something like that to me."

"Ten years ago I would have been all of twelve years old," said Rachel. "And I probably would have agreed with you."

Miller smiler. "Sensible kid," he said. "Oh, I have something here you might want to read. Remember that interview you gave a few weeks ago?"


"Well, it's been published," he said, waving at a copy of The Times on his desk. A copy that had a picture of Rachel on the front cover. She felt suddenly apprehensive just looking at the thing. "You might want to read it. Interesting little article."

"Don't suppose you want to give me the highlights?"

"And deprive you of the pleasure of reading it for yourself? Why would I do a thing like that, Giles?"

Rachel sighed. "Fine. I can see that you're not going to be the kind, benevolent leader today so I suppose I'll have to take it on the chin."

And with that she picked up the magazine and studiously ignored Miller's chucking - he was far too pleased with himself - as she flicked through it to the article. Well, the pictures weren't too bad anyway. She hadn't posed for any - hell no - but the ones they'd managed to lay their hands on were by no means objectionable, thankfully. Considering that she'd seen far too many magazines publishing pictures derived from footage of her fighting in her pyjamas in France, that was a relief.

"Terrifyingly intense? Hmm. Am I terrifyingly intense, Miller?"

"Can't say I've noticed."

"I notice that he doesn't mention that HK just about made him piss his pants."

"Surprise that."

The article was mostly unobjectionable fluff till . . . "What the fuck?" shouted Rachel. "Who . . . who . . . I'll skin them alive!"

Miller's grin was almost as huge as it was infuriating. "I have no idea, " he said. "Of course, I had no idea that your love-life was so interesting. You've always seemed rather boring that way to me."

If life was a manga, Rachel was sure that her head would be going volcanic at that point. "Dammit! It isn't!"

"I believe you, millions wouldn't."

Rachel was almost beyond speech. "Someone is going to pay for this," she hissed finally.

"Oh how I wish I had a camera right now."

"Were you in on this?"

"I wish! No, this has nothing to do with me. Lighten up, Giles. You're a celebrity. Speculation about your love-life is part of the territory."

"Lighten up!?"

"Hey, it could be a lot worse, you know. There are worse people to be linked with than Harry Potter. I hear he's quite the catch these days."

"Like Denver?"

"Well, okay. That one's a little harsh."

"A little? Even if I was interested in men, I wouldn't consider that brat if he was the last man on Earth."

"Yes, well, I can see your point there," said Miller with a cough.

"Honestly, someone's going to have to pay for this," grumbled Rachel. "I can't let them get one up on me like this."

"Well, I'm sure you'll find them and extract suitable vengeance."

"Latrine duty for a year should do the trick," mused Rachel. "Or maybe some special training. Latrine duty doesn't work so well on a nice, civilised base after all."

"Declaration: I could arrange an accident for the meatbag who dares insult the master in such a heinous way," said HK. He was ignored.

"That it doesn't."

"Now, why are you so damned giddy? It's just . . . unnatural."

"Me? I'm going on leave. Some time away from this place is just what the doctor ordered."

"Going anywhere interesting?"

"Just going to spend some time with my family. Youngest's graduating from college. Smart kid, going to make a fine officer. Probably end up doing better than me if he has the inclination to stay in after the war."

"Well pass on my congratulations."

"Will do."

By the time she'd reached her office, Rachel had plans in mind to find out who had slipped the bullshit information to the interviewer about her love-life. Admittedly, it was a fairly simple plan, consisting of little more than a few oblique interrogations, but when you can tell with almost one-hundred percent accuracy when someone's bullshitting you it isn't that difficult to figure such things out. The list of people who were inclined to play that sort of practical joke out was pretty short too. It took a fairly twisted sense of humour, she reckoned. And a disregard for the payback.

It had to be Dawn really. She was the only one daft enough. Still, she should check other options just in case. You never know who's going to be stupid enough to pull a lame attempt at a practical joke.

"Hey, boss," said Sarah. "I've got some reports here for you."

"Anything interesting?" asked Rachel.

"Not really," said Sarah, dropping the pile down into Rachel's in-tray. "Just some progress reports on the turbolaser cannons they've been building and stuff. Not even sure why it's being sent to you, to be honest."

"Courtesy, most likely," said Rachel. "And they're probably hoping I spot any problems before they come up or something. Because, you know, I'm an expert on large-scale engineering projects."

"At least they're not expecting you to tell them how to make star destroyers or something."

"Oh, it's coming," said Rachel. "They'll need to take the fight to the aliens eventually and that'll need spaceships. What do you think of when you think of Star Wars spaceships? Star destroyers. Or death stars, but if they ask me to build one of those I'm opening a portal and leaving this dimension."

"Well, that'd be . . . interesting. The press would go mad if you ran off like that."


"So do you know to build a death star? Inquiring minds want to know."

"Well, it's a bloody big gun attached to a stupidly large hypermatter reactor. Beyond that? Not really. I suppose it's an evolution of turbolaser technology. Honestly, I prefer not to know."

"It is a bit excessive. I don't think I'd want to trust anyone with that sort of power."

"A wise choice," said Rachel before changing the subject entirely. "Have you seen the new issue of The Times?"

"Haven't had time, why?"

Rachel tossed the copy she'd filched off Miller to Sarah. "Have a look," she said. "I want to see what you think."

It didn't take long. Sarah could work her way through a text at a quite frankly obscene speed at the worst of times, and this was hardly that. Her disgusted facial expression quite frankly said it all. The information hadn't came from her, not unless she was an oscar-worthy actress. "That . . . Denver . . . YUCK!"

"My thoughts exactly," said Rachel with a frown on her face. "I don't suppose you know who the interviewer spoke to other than myself?"

"Not a clue," said Sarah, her face still screwed up. "Wish I knew. That's slander, saying that you'd be interested in Denver nevermind saying that . . . ye gods. It's inhuman."

"Well they could have dug up worse things to write about me," said Rachel. "But I'm certainly not happy about it."

"You've gotta find the person that gave them this and make them pay. You can't let this go."

"Have you ever known me to let things like this go?" asked Rachel. "Someone is having a laugh at my expense. It's not very Jedi-like, but I will have revenge."

"Good. Need my help?"

"I think I can handle it myself."

"Well, if you need any help, just ask."

"I will."

When Rachel found Dawn she found the girl training in her bedroom. It looked like she was attempting to master the Force Whirlwind technique, but she was putting far too much strength behind it and the piece of wood she was trying to trap in the attack almost took Rachel's head off as Dawn lost control of it yet again and sent it spinning across the room at high speed.

"Subtlety really isn't your strong point, is it?" said Rachel as she snatched the piece of wood out of the air before it did some damage.

"I've almost got it!"

"If you 'get it' with the amount of power you're putting into the technique, you'll cause a tornado."

Dawn pouted.

"Sticking your lip out won't change anything," said Rachel. "Control's more important than raw power for that technique. Even the weakest of Jedi can perform it, but control is essential."

Dawn promptly stuck her tongue out and blew a raspberry at Rachel. "I'll get it," she said. "Just you watch."

"You probably will eventually," said Rachel. "I'm more worried about the destruction you'll cause in the meantime."

Dawn screwed her face up in irritation at that before turning to go back to her practice. Before she could start up again, HK weighed in. "Statement: master, I do not understand why you tolerate such insolence from the brat. I feel that a quick kneecapping would render her far more respectful of your superiority in all aspects of life."

"I'd like to see you try, you stupid bag of bolts," said Dawn. "I bet my sister could kick your ass anyway."

"Query: are you in some way defective, brattish apprentice of my master? The dwarven blonde is by no means intelligent enough to realise that bringing a knife to a blaster fight is a very bad idea."

"HK, you know better than to think I would train someone who was defective," said Rachel.

"Clarification: I did not mean to insult your judgement, master. I was simply curious as to if she had perhaps injured her already inadequate brain during her feeble attempts to master basic Jedi skills."

Dawn looked like she was about ready to unleash some lightning by that point, so Rachel decided to cut it off. "That's enough," she said. "Both of you. Save the violence for our enemies. And, Dawn, losing your temper is not a Jedi trait. Control yourself."

"Sorry," said Dawn in a contrite tone of voice.

"Observation: it would be easier to restrict my violent urges to the enemy if we were to actually engage the enemy at some point, master. I'm beginning to worry that my trigger finger will have rotted away through disuse by the next time I am allowed to use my skills."

"I should have programmed you with patience," said Rachel. "Or at least a little less in the way of psychotic urges."


"Dawn, have you see the latest issue of The Times," asked Rachel, deciding to get to the point of her dropping by.

"Huh?" asked Dawn. "Oh, yeah. I read the interview this morning . . . interesting article."

The poker face Dawn had on was, admittedly, excellent, but Rachel could still see the mirth dancing in her eyes. "Oh, yes," she said. "Very interesting. I don't suppose you happen to know anything about the contents?"

Dawn's face was the picture of innocence. "Me, master? Why would I know anything about that? I had no idea you were so inclined."

Rachel shoved down the urge to do something nasty and continued. "Well, people tend to talk to you more than they talk to me," she said. "And you get into all sorts of places you probably shouldn't."

Dawn's expression didn't change one iota. Still the picture of teenage innocence. "Not a thing, master," she said. "I wouldn't have known the interviewer was here if you hadn't told me."

Oh, that was impressive. She'd completely smoothed out all the deception from that as she'd said it. A very impressive trick for someone as inexperienced as Dawn. She'd gone too far though. She'd smoothed out everything, not just deception, leaving behind a conspicuous void. Subtlety really wasn't Dawn's strong point. "Ah," said Rachel. "You're sure?"

"Yes, master, I don't know a thing."

Ah, but her apprentice was a cheeky little thing. She had to applaud her going out of her way to learn esoteric skills that were rather difficult to pick up, but using them to play lame-brained jokes on her master? No.

"I think some extra training is in order," said Rachel. "Follow me, the pair of you."

Dawn looked confused, but she complied anyway.

The test facility was deserted, just as Rachel expected. The cavernous space, filled with debris from various tests that should have been cleared away but had been left behind by lazy scientists, was perfect for what she had in mind for Dawn, who looked both trepidatious and confused at the same time.

"I've been neglecting your combat training," said Rachel abruptly. "Now I will make amends for that omission."

Dawn suddenly looked very nervous indeed. "Uh," she said. "Really, no need. I'm fine. Really."

"Oh, I disagree," said Rachel. "Your skills in this area are sorely lacking and it must be addressed post-haste."

"But I've been practising my sparring and other stuff all the time!"

"There is more required to survive combat than the ability to wave a lightsabre around," said Rachel. "If you don't know that by now then I have sorely overestimated your intelligence."


"Well, I can't make you more intelligence," continued Rachel over Dawn's objections. "But I can, at least, enlighten you when it comes to your skills. Your lightsabre. Give it to me."


"Now, Dawn. No objections."

Dawn grumbled, but she handed it over. Rachel quickly clipped it to her belt before continuing her speech. "HK, set your blaster to minimum power," she said.

"Query: master?"

"Just do it," said Rachel. "Now, Dawn, I will explain this exercise. You have learned to fight with some minimal level of skill using your lightsabre and you have acquired basic competence in hand to hand combat. This is all well and good, but it does not qualify you to step onto an actual battlefield. We shall take the first steps towards preparing you for such a thing today."

Dawn looked like she was torn between running for her life and spewing venom Rachel's way.

"Today, I shall be teaching you Advanced Dodging 101," said Rachel. "And everyone's favourite homicidal maniac, HK-47, shall be assisting me. You shall dodge and he shall shoot until such a time that I am satisfied that you have learned your lesson."

"No! Wait! You can't!"

"Feel free to use the debris for cover, but you are not to attack HK in any way, shape, or form at any point during the exercise," continued Rachel. "Begin."

HK immediately opened fire with a stream of low-powered bolts that stitched their way up Dawn's torso before she could react and leap away. They wouldn't do any real damage at the power level Rachel had ordered, but they would sting like all hell. Dawn was barely one step ahead of the steady stream of fire HK maintained as she dived behind a large piece of metallic debris that had been near her at the start of the exercise. HK promptly advanced, maintaining a steady stream of suppression fire around the debris as he moved.

"Good!" said Rachel. "Using the terrain to your advantage, excellent. Shows positional awareness. You wouldn't survive long without that."

"Query: may I use grenades, master?"

"No grenades," said Rachel. "And no use of your special weapons either. Mrs Summers would be displeased if you burned her face off."

"Disappointed statement: of course, master, as you wish."

As HK reached the debris and started to round it, Rachel hopped up onto a gantry to get a better view of what was going on. Dawn was crouched behind the debris, her eyes darting to and fro as she searched for a good out. As HK rounded the debris, firing away all the while, she made a break for it, heading for another piece of debris. HK managed to tag her along the back of her legs a few times, but she made it to the new cover before HK was able to really get a lock on her.

"Too slow," shouted Rachel. "Each hit would be death in battle! You won't always have the luxury of being able to fight back."

The pattern continued from then, with Dawn darting from place to place using the debris as cover all the while. And slowly, ever so slowly, she stopped getting hit. It took a fair while, and there was a clearly visible sheen of sweat on her by the time she managed it, but eventually she mastered the exercise. A fairly impressive display for a rookie, but not what Rachel had in mind. She charged up a small fireball and then, when Dawn was least expecting it, she threw it at her back. Dawn was soon hopping about trying to put out the miniscule fire that had took hold of her shirt while HK peppered her with stingers.

"Awful," barked Rachel. "You must maintain awareness of the bigger picture. A Jedi will not face a single assassin. Traps aimed at us are much more thorough than that."

It took a minute or two but Dawn was able to put the fire out before it did any damage and then returned to the exercise with a large hole charred in the back of her shirt. Difference was, now Rachel was adding to HK's fire with her own attacks. She couldn't generate spells all that quickly, not like, say, Harry or Willow, but she was no slowpoke and she was quite capable of disguising her intentions from the Force to make it awkward for Dawn. It made for quite an entertaining show for as long as Rachel could keep it up, but the reserves of magical power she had access to paled next to the reserves of Force power and the show ended sooner than she would have liked.

Still, Dawn was a sweaty, bruised wreck by the end of it. She'd learned both her lessons from that little exercise. She'd know better than to play lame-brained jokes on her master again, and she'd improved her ability to read and react to danger through the Force. It was a fundamental skill for any Jedi and especially important for someone like Dawn who was living through some seriously turbulent times.

Rachel dropped down from the gantry and headed over to stand beside Dawn. "I think you've learned your lesson," she said. "You have, haven't you?"

"Yes," gasped Dawn.

"Excellent," said Rachel. "Your skills were showing a marked improvement by the end of the exercise. You may not be entirely hopeless after all. I recommend you draw yourself a hot bath and spend some time in it. It'll help."

And with that Rachel left, accompanied by HK. She was quite pleased with her spot of retribution. Made her feel a bit better if nothing else. As she headed to her office, she found herself in quite a good mood.

Rachel's good mood persisted for the next several days. Even finding herself in temporary command of the base when Miller went on leave and facing an even greater tonnage of paperwork didn't get to her too much. Her apprentice had been humbled, and HK contented himself with taunting Dawn rather than whining about not having enough people to slaughter. Good times. She knew that they wouldn't last, so she enjoyed them while they were there.

It all came to a crashing end with a single, terse message delivered over an encrypted communication link. "General Miller assassinated. Wizards believed involved. You are appointed as temporary base commander till successor is selected. Base is to be locked down immediately."

As ways to kill a mood went, it was a doozy.

Chapter Twenty

February 2003

"I should be with my unit," griped Harry with a distinctly mullish expression on his face.

Rachel rolled her eyes at him. "Yes, I know," she said. "You've only told me a thousand times. But the higher-ups wanted a trustworthy wizard here."

"And I'm it," he said. "Lucky me. There are thousands of capable wizards out there, you know, and most aren't bastards like the ones that tried to arrest you."

"And how many have been given the Medal of Honour?" asked Rachel. "You're unique, Harry."

"And that makes me so happy."

"It could be a lot worse."

"Yeah, I could be dead, rather than just having to sit on my hands here while my mates fight and die in the invasion," said Harry, dead-pan. "That makes me feel loads better."

There were times Rachel really, really missed the days of Darth Revan. People sure as hell didn't whine at her back then. Cower in fear and beg for mercy whenever they entered her presence, sure, but whine? Not so much. "Who else could they have selected?" she asked. "Who else could I have recommended? The list of wizards I know well enough to trust has only one name on it: you. And it's not like your people have exactly earned much in the way of trust, is it?"

Harry folded his arms over his chest and glared at her, but there wasn't much he could say to that. How could he argue that sort of compliment without seeming churlish? He had better manners than that, thankfully.

"Now," said Rachel, "please, report. The magical residue left behind by the assassin, is it usable?"

"Doesn't look like it," said Harry with a frown. "It deteriorates pretty quickly and the aurors just didn't get it in time."

Rachel scowled. "I already know that, Harry. They were trying to extrapolate from what they had."

"Yeah, well, it didn't work," he said with a shrug. "At all. And even if it did, it's not like they could just put it in a database or something. You have no idea how backwards wizards really are. America's better than the UK, but not by that much. They're more likely to consult with demons than they are to use a computer."

Rachel bit back a stinging retort to that. It really wasn't his fault. "Right," she said tersely. "No physical evidence then. What other avenues are being explored?"

"The usual," he said. "Talking to witnesses, trying to track the assassin's movements, and all that. Police-type things. Things that I know nothing about whatsoever and serve no purpose for."

Rachel couldn't help but wonder if all brigadiers had to deal with subordinate officers that were so stroppy. She somehow doubted it. "You can at least keep them from acting like complete idiots," she said. "Their not collecting evidence in time doesn't exactly fill me with confidence."

Harry shrugged. "The best of them have been sent off to do important things," he said. "They're on the front-lines. What's left behind . . . not the sharpest knifes in the drawer. I really miss having Hermione around at times like this."

Rachel steepled her fingers and thought about it for a moment. "Is she still physically infirm?" she asked.

"She'll be fine by now," said Harry. "It's been years and she was never one to just sit and take what life threw at her. If the medi-wizards couldn't fix her, she'd have figured out a way to fix herself by now."

"You don't know?"

"I've been a little busy."

"They've been trying to get in touch," said Rachel with a sigh. "One of the Weasleys even asked me if I knew how to find you."

Harry shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant, but Rachel could see discomfort writ large across his features. He just didn't have the much control over his feelings. Oh, he tried, but he might as well be wearing a banner declaring his emotional state to a Jedi.

"Well, that's your business," she said. "I'm curious; have they managed to trace the assassin?"

"Sort of," said Harry. "They assembled this big file about him, full life history, and then they found his rotting body in a shallow grave near his home."


"Looks like it," said Harry. "And we're no closer to catching the assassin than we were a month ago."

"Oh, we are," replied Rachel. "The assassin's done a good job on the surface, but they're awfully sloppy. Leaving the body that close to their pawn's house? Bad form. Talk to the neighbours, see what they have to say. I have a good feeling about that course of action."

"You really should be the one running this investigation," said Harry. "These aurors . . . they're thick. And the officer the yanks have put in charge isn't much better. He's dead creepy, but he doesn't do much. Just watches and makes notes. Disappears a lot too."

"Creepy?" asked Rachel. The idea of some random officer creeping out Harry Potter amused her to no end.

"Yeah," he said. "The way he looks at you . . . I'd swear he was a legilimens if he was a wizard. Makes my skin crawl."

It didn't take a genius to figure out what the officer was, but she supposed that Harry hadn't ran into many spooks before. "Don't worry about it," she said. "I doubt he's up to anything too troublesome. And you're an American hero these days. They wouldn't go after you anyway."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Like I'm scared of some little muggle guy," he said. "He just creeps me out. That's all."

Rachel shook her head. She could tell him, but where would the fun be in that? And there was always more reward in figuring things out for yourself. "Well, maybe you should ponder on why someone who isn't a threat creeps you," she said. "Now, as much as I'd prefer to while away an hour or two in conversation with you, I have work to do."

"Ah. I'll leave you to your paperwork then."

Paperwork was the bane of Rachel's life. She'd hated it when she was merely the head of research and, on paper, acting as Miller's second, but what she'd had to deal with then had nothing on what she had to deal with now that she acting in Miller's place on top of what she'd had before. Even with her off-loading much of her old work onto Sarah - who, it had to be said, wasn't best pleased with that - and leaving several good-sized chunks of Miller's work to the permanent successor she was drowning in reports and forms and memos and all the rest of it.

It would truly be a great day when command selected a real replacement and sent him along to take the job. She felt more like a civil servant pushing bits of paper around for a living than an acting major general. If she'd wanted the job in the first place, the leaning tower of paperwork would have dissuaded her damn quick. Really, she was beginning to wonder if she'd died somewhere along the line and ended up in a special circle of hell that had you dealing with paperwork for all eternity.

"Yo," said Faith. "Scarecrow's in a wicked bad mood still?"

"Has he been in anything else since he was assigned here?" asked Rachel, scribbling her signature on the form she was working on as she spoke. Then she downed pen and looked up. Ah, Faith. A sight for sore eyes as always. "It's getting old."

"Boy's gonna burst if he doesn't lighten up," said Faith. "We should take him to the nearest bar and get him drunk. Rest'll take care of itself."

"I somehow doubt that Harry'll be a happy drunk," said Rachel. "Just a feeling I have."

Faith waved her off. "Everyone's a happy drunk when they get laid," she said. "Shouldn't be too hard to find someone willing. Hell, I wouldn't mind a ride myself."

"Faith . . . "

"Yeah, yeah," she said. "I know. You ain't gonna share a bed with a guy. Your loss."

"He's old enough to make his own choice," said Rachel. "He's getting better. Seriously. You didn't see what he was like when he first showed up at X-COM. Talking to him was like pulling teeth at times."

Faith just stared at Rachel in utter disbelief. "Fuck," she said. "He's a real brood-boy, ain't he?"

"Nah," said Rachel. "He's more of a 'find an enemy and take it out on them' type. Brooding is Dead Boy's game. Gets a bit stroppy at times but it's nowhere near as annoying as the vampire's kicked puppy act."

"Not that you're biased or nothing."

"Not at all."

Faith eyed the colossal pile of paper in my in-tray. "Why are you bothering with that shit?" she asked. "Most of it's pointless. And what's with not using a computer for that shit anyway?"

"The aliens have a hell of an edge on us in computing," said Rachel. "And you can't hack into a courier carrying a bundle of forms. It's a bit slow, but it's safer. Least it will be 'till we get the new fabs up and running."

"Right. Technical shit," said Faith. "Thought you had everything squared away with that stuff."

"Not quite," said Rachel with a sigh. "We've been forcing Earth to go through a thousand years worth of research and advancement every year. Some things just don't work out right or slip through the cracks."

"Gives us some nice toys to place with though," said Faith with the 'Slayer with a new weapon' grin on her face. "Vibroswords are nice."

Rachel grimaced. "You would like the messiest weapon I can make," she said.

"Hey, it's me," said Faith with a wide grin and shrug of her shoulders that caused some interesting movements in her chest area. She wasn't wearing a bra, realised Rachel as she tracked the movements with her eyes.

"Yeah, that's what I'm afraid of."

Faith folded her arms across her chest. "You know, you could get away without doing half this shit," she said. "It ain't your job, not really. New guy'll probably change it all around when he shows up."

"Can't just leave it, Faith. I'm dealing with things that can't just be left till someone else does it," said Rachel with a distinct frown. "Soldiers need ammunition to use, food to eat, and all the rest. That means someone has to manage the operational budget."

"And Miller's chief of staff couldn't deal with that," said Faith a distinctly snarky tone to her voice. "No, it's got to be you."

"And there are troop deployments, training, discipline, and all the rest of it," continued Rachel. "That sort of thing doesn't deal with itself. I can't exactly ignore my real job, either. That research is crucial."

"Like I said, Miller had people to help him with this stuff," said Faith. "You don't have to do it yourself. And those eggheads are smart people. They're not much to look at, but they know their jobs."

"They're also arrogant as all hell and have a habit of running off to work on things they think are interesting rather than what they're supposed to be doing."

Faith waved her off. "They ain't pulled that stunt since you showed up," she said. "They don't dare fuck with you."

"My attention is divided now," Rachel pointed out.

"So? They aren't retards, you know. People that smart don't piss people off who can snap 'em in two without even trying, not when they get the impression you'd actually do it. Shit, you almost make me think you'd do it sometimes."

"Who says I wouldn't?"

"Yeah, that's it," said Faith. "You're wicked good at talking shit with a straight face. But that ain't why I'm here."

"And why are you here then?"

"Look, you don't need to be doing all this," she said. "But I know what you're like. You don't really want to stop and think about what's been happening, so you're working non-fucking-stop. Ain't any more complicated than that, I reckon."

"I liked Miller well enough and I'll miss him," said Rachel. "But we weren't that close, Faith."

"Yeah," said Faith. "But what about John? What about those X-COM soldiers who've been dropping like flies? One of 'em might not ding you much, but it all adds up, doesn't it?"

"Even if you're correct, what's your point?"

Faith leaned over the table and looked Rachel in the eye. "There are better ways to blow off steam than filling in bits of paper, Darth."

Put like that, offering a view like that, Rachel had a hard time arguing.

"You know, I like your girlfriend," said Jolee. "Hard for you to go Dark Side on the world when you've got someone like that around."

Rachel blinked. Last she remembered . . . "You can mess with my dreams now?"

"Oh yeah," said Jolee with a nod. "Handy little ability it is. Don't know why you're surprised, though. Not like normal Jedi can't do this sort of thing when they put their mind to it."

"Only if they're not blocked," said Rachel. "And I don't run shieldless."

"We've already established that being dead has its perks, kiddo. This is just another one of them. Handy, isn't it?"

"That's not the first word that comes to mind," said Rachel as she eyed the surroundings. "The Jedi Enclave on Dantooine? Nice choice."

"Yeah," said Jolee with another nod. "Nice scenery."

Rachel blinked again. Something about the way he said that . . . "I'm naked, aren't I?"

"You're project your physical form as is," said Jolee. "Which means . . . "

"Naked," said Rachel flatly.

"Hey, you don't need to rush to change that on my account."

Rachel gave him a flat stare, and then, with a moment's focus, she clad her projected form in a standard set of Jedi robes. "Warning would have been nice, you old letch," she said.

Jolee shrugged and his grin was entirely unapologetic. "Hey, I'm old and incorporeal," he said. "I'll take my pleasures where I can."

"How you ever got anywhere in the Jedi Order is beyond me," said Rachel with a shake of her head. "Vrook must have hated you; in an entirely non-emotional way, of course."

"Vrook was just another young whipper-snapper when I was in the Order," replied Jolee with an easy grin on his face. "His approval would have meant pretty much nothing to me when I was still a strapping young lad with a need for Jedi approval."

"Vrook was born old."

"It might seem that way to you," said a voice from behind me. "But maybe I was just born sensible."

"I was wrong when I said you could mess with your dreams," said Rachel. "This is a nightmare, not a dream."

"Your feeble attempts at humour aren't appreciated," said the voice, said Vrook, as he moved around Rachel to stand next to Jolee, who didn't look all that happy.

"Oh, I don't know about that," said Jolee. "A good bit of gallows humour can be good for the soul."

"It'll take more than good humour to save her soul."

"Hey," barked Rachel. "I've taken plenty of flak from you, Vrook, but you can leave my damn soul of all things out of it. Force, you're even more obnoxious dead than you were when you were alive. I didn't think that was possible."

Vrook laughed, though it was a humourless thing. "Obnoxious?" he asked. "No, just realistic. The taint of the Sith will never leave you, Revan. Never. No amount of 'gallows humour' will change that."

Rachel rolled her eyes. "Because someone who never went within a country mile of the Dark Side knows all about it," she said. "Newsflash: I have more experience with that crap than you'd have if you lived a thousand lifetimes."

"And that's supposed to be a good thing?" asked Vrook. "Your judgement is far from sound on this, Revan."

"I don't know if you've noticed, Vrook, but I'm not Revan," said Rachel. "A part of me is, sure, but just as big a part is Xander Harris. I might not look or sound much like myself these days and I have abilities that I'd never have developed in a million years, but I'm still me."

Vrook snorted. "You're deluding yourself," he said. "The boy was a good child, brave and strong, but his will was nothing compared to Revan's. You consumed him."

Jolee stirred, looking somewhat uncomfortable. "I don't know about that," he said. "She's far more emotionally driven than Revan ever was."

"And that's supposed to be a good thing?" asked Vrook. "She almost killed someone who's supposed to be her friend in a blind rage. Emotions lead to the Dark Side. You of all people should understand."

"I was unbalanced at that time," said Rachel quietly. "I have learned to control myself since. The coven-"

"A band aid," snorted Vrook. "It's held longer than I would have expected, but there are adequate signs that it's failing."

"Because she allows herself to feel?" asked Jolee. "There's nothing wrong with that. She's young and life is to be enjoyed."

"She is supposed to be a Jedi," said Vrook. "A Jedi's life is duty, service to those who need them. It's not to be spent in bed with nubile young women."

Rachel could feel a distinct urge to kill rising within herself. A problem considering that Vrook was already dead, really.

"Oh-ho!" said Jolee. "Nubile, eh? So you're not as utterly boring as you seem then. Not that I can blame you. She is quite the specimen of young womanhood that girl."

Vrook's expression was quite the picture to behold. "I-it was a simple observation of fact!" he exclaimed. "She is an attractive young woman. It does not take a lecher to acknowledge that!"

"Methinks the lady doth protest too much," said Jolee with a wicked grin. "Oh my, Vrook with actual human feelings. No-one would believe this. What's next? Explosive nosebleeds? Reminds me of the time-"

"Enough!" barked Rachel, her patience finally exhausted. "Begone with you! Both of you!"

"I haven't-"

"I don't care!" barked Rachel. "I've had enough of the pair of you. Leave or be removed, I leave the choice to you."

Jolee shrugged and vanished into the ether with a wink. Vrook remained. "I'll leave when I've said my piece and not before," he said.

"You would force your presence in my mind upon me?" asked Rachel. "How very hypocritical. And how very stupid of you to think you could. Leave now or it will go badly for you."

"I'm dead, child. I have access to powers beyond mortal comprehension. You can't force me out."

"Do you really want to put that to the test? This is my mind; my power is supreme here, Vrook. Basic principle."

Vrook folded his arms over his chest. "I came here for a reason, Revan," he said. "I won't leave 'till I've fulfilled that purpose."

"So be it then."

Rachel gathered every iota power that she could harness, both through the Force and through magic, and began to shape it with her will into a weapon. She didn't particularly wish to harm Vrook, and wasn't sure that she could anyway with his already being deceased, but a weapon it was albeit a blunted one. Vrook's smug expression just drove her to greater heights as she harnessed her strength for one great blow to remove his presence from her mind.

And then, once her power was harnessed fully, Rachel struck out at Vrook. With all the power gained from a lifetime of refining her Force powers as Revan and then her years as Rachel, she went on the offensive. The power behind the move was immense and Vrook's expression quickly turned from smug to surprised as it struck him. Dead or alive, he just didn't have the same sort of raw power as Rachel no matter what he had believed. The battle of wills had an inevitable result.

"Well, hopefully that'll teach him a lesson," remarked Rachel as Vrook was banished from her mind. "Now, time to get some actual sleep."

The next day, feeling much relaxed despite Vrook's interference with her dreams, Rachel decided to get in touch with Lorne and see if he was hearing anything that might be useful to figuring out who killed Miller.

"This is an abominably early hour of the day to be getting a nightclub owner out of bed, so I hope you have a good reason for calling, whoever you are," said Lorne when he answered the phone.

"Lorne, you'd think you weren't happy to hear from me," said Rachel. "I'm hurt."

A moment of silence passed. "I bet," said Lorne. "I've been expecting to hear from you for a while now."

"In their infinite wisdom, the powers that be decided to sequester me in the base," said Rachel. "Haven't the investigators been in touch?"

"I've met vampires with better manners than those wizards," said Lorne. "And those are real vampires, not ones cursed with a soul. So rude, so disrespectful, so utterly disinterested in what I had to say."


"I heard them talking," he continued. "Talking about how no wizard would lower themselves to associate with demonic filth. They must think I'm deaf. And I'll have you know that Caritas is about the most popular hang-out for that sort outside their own inbred little world!"


"As if that horrible little place could ever have anything like Caritas! We have soul here! Real entertainment! You won't see anything like this in those grimy little backstreet dives they call bars."

"That's, um, nice."

Lorne sighed. "Sorry, sorry," he said. "I'm ranting at the wrong person but they were just so . . . obnoxious."

"You're preching to the choir," said Rachel. "They tried to throw me in prison for defending myself. I haven't liked them much ever since."

"Such charming people. You have to wonder how they haven't gotten themselves wiped out."

"Give them time," said Rachel. "They keep pushing and they might find themselves on a one-way ticket to the sun."

"My heart would bleed if they weren't such raging assholes. Now, I assume you're phoning about that whole mess with your boss getting assassinated?"

"That would be the reason, yes."

"Horrible affair, that," said Lorne. "Very nasty business. My condolences."

"I'll pass those on to his family," said Rachel. "Now, have you heard anything that might be useful?"

"Hmm, not much," said Lorne. "These wanded types aren't all that talkative even when they do come around and they don't often work with demons for their evil ends. I just don't hear as much about that them as I do the normal demonic affairs."

"You have to have heard something. People talk and this was big. Miller wasn't exactly Mr. Popular with demons."

"No, he wasn't. Destroying Wolfram & Hart left a lot of very angry minions wandering around with no-one to hold their leash," replied Lorne. "He's not the only one who they'd like to kill, either, babyface. You'd better watch your back."

"Babyface," mouthed Rachel. That . . . well, as long as no-one else heard of it . . . "Yeah, I know," she said. "They'll have to join the queue."

"Such a depressing outlook," said Lorne. "Such a waste of your youth. You'll give yourself wrinkles being so cynical."

Rachel rolled her eyes. "Come on, Lorne. You must know something; stop beating around the bush."

"Okay, okay. I don't know much," he said. "Just some whispers, some big talk, you know? I don't know if it really means anything. I did tell those wand-users, but I guess they filed it in the trashcan."

There was a pause. Rachel assumed he was gathering his thoughts.

"Anyway, word is that this is just the start," he said eventually. "A shot across the bow, I suppose. Word is that your green-eyed boy might be bringing some of his enemies to the table too. I really wouldn't want to be you guys right now. Lot of powerful people gunning for your heads."

"Nothing we can't deal with," said Rachel. "Thanks for the information, Lorne. I will remember how helpful you were."

"Just don't do anything stupid, kid."

"My enemies?" asked Harry. "Huh. I thought all my enemies were dead. I did a pretty thorough sweep of them when I was done with Voldemort."

"Apparently not."

"Yeah," he said. "Well, it can't be Voldemort. I'd know if he found a way back again. What's left of him is locked up tight inside me and it ain't much to start with. Who could it be . . . there's nothing left alive connected to the Dark Mark so it's not a Death Eater and Fudge wouldn't dare . . . I have no idea, Rachel."

"I was afraid of that," said Rachel. "Time to make a list of all your enemies, past and present, and then to determine their true status. It's always possible that someone who's supposed to be dead really isn't."

"I don't know; when I kill someone, I'm pretty thorough about it. No-one gets back up from a killing curse."

"Then look at associates of your enemies," said Rachel. "People who'd hold a grudge against you. You don't strike me as the sort to wipe out whole families on the off-chance they'll come after you, so that should be plenty to work with."

"Most Death Eater families didn't survive the war, but I'll check it out. It's almost like being back at Hogwarts, this, figuring out who is trying to kill me this year."

He seemed almost cheerful about it. What a perverse attitude. It did give Rachel an idea though. Harry's time at Hogwarts had been pretty successful when it came to fighting the good fight, but he hadn't done it alone. She wasn't exactly integrated with wizarding communication methods, but she reckoned that she could figure it out.

Of course, it wasn't all fun and games. A few days after Rachel clued Harry into the fact that his enemies were involved came Miller's funeral. He was buried at Arlington with full honours as befitted the rank he'd earned and the things he'd achieved as an officer of the US Army. It was a well attended ceremony - surprisingly so considering the way the world was and the fact that Miller had few friends outside the forces - and it was all very well done.

The security was, of course, top notch. Rachel had been able to spot at least half a dozen armed guards from every point of the procession and the wards surrounding the cemetary had been extremely powerful; she'd been able to feel them hot on her skin from the moment she entered them and she was sure that nothing short of a truly spectacular magical attack would break them.

Funerals are rarely short, especially not ones with full military honours, but eventually it came to an end as the chaplain handed the neatly folded flag that had draped the coffin off to Miller's wife, who had been stony-faced throughout the affair. It had been quite impressive really. Rachel could appreciate the strength it took to maintain composure in the face of such stress. Miller had married exactly the sort of woman she'd have expected him to.

Once the obligatory handshake and mutter condolences had been offered, Rachel made to leave, but, before she could do so, Miller's son caught up with her. He was almost the spitting image of his father too. A little taller, a bit trimmer around the middle, and with a whole lot less grey in his hair, sure, but otherwise the similarity in looks was otherwise quite astounding. More importantly, he reeked of suppressed rage. Understandable, yes, but also potentially dangerous. Revan would have twisted him inside-out and made him hers very quickly. She would have found him quite delicious, to be honest.

"My father always spoke very well of you," he said by way of an opening.

"I'm glad to hear that."

He stared at Rachel for a moment, an expression of great frustration on his face as if he was struggling both with his anger at what happened and to find the right words for what he wanted to say at the same time. "My father was a good man," he said eventually. "He didn't deserve this."

"I agree," said Rachel. "Very few deserve an end like that."

He was stymied for a moment before he blurted out his next. "I . . . I want to join the demon brigades," he said. "I want to fight against the people that did this."

Rachel quirked an eyebrow. "I'm not going to help you start a crusade for revenge," she said. "That never ends well. Believe me. Been there, done that, caused an awful lot of death and destruction."

"I . . . I have to do something. I just do."

"You're an officer of the US Army," said Rachel. "You won't be short of opportunities to fight the good fight, not these days."

"I know," he said. "Believe me, I know. But it's not the same. These people, these things, killed my father like he was nothing, and for what? Because he did his duty and protected humanity from them. It can't be allowed. They have to be stopped and I want to help with that."

It was, all told, remarkably coherent and far more principled a set of reasons than she'd expected given the circumstances. And judging by the look in his eye and the feelings she got through the Force he wasn't even lying to himself. Well, not that much, anyway. And he was Miller's kid, so she was inclined to think he could handle himself well enough to not get himself or anyone else killed before he worked his issues out. It might not be the best idea, but, hell, it was Miller's kid.

"I suppose I can put a word in the right ear," she said finally. "But if you get yourself killed I'll bring you back to life and kill you myself."

"It isn't time for me to be with my father yet."

"Damn right it isn't," said Rachel. "Your father would resurrect himself just to kill me if you went and got yourself knocked off."

A week after the funeral, Rachel's latest scheme came to fruition when a fairly attractive young woman with a slight limp who looked to be about ninety percent hair appeared at the base and just about cut Harry in two with a hug that rivalled a boa constrictor in intensity. She might not be one for interfering in someone's private life, but Hermione Granger had actual uses in dealing with the issues at hand, so why not?

Of course, she grew to regret her scheming slightly when the interrogations on how her powers worked started.

Chapter Twenty-One

April 2003

Desert. She was in a desert. That was . . . unexpected. She'd closed her eyes to sleep after getting back from the failed first trial of a shield generator and then, somehow, she'd found herself in a desert. As far as the eye could see, it was sand, sand, and more sand with a few whopping examples of sand dunes to liven things up. Fascinating scenery really. A quick glance up into the sky gave away the location. There weren't many deserts out there with the two suns. She was on Tatooine. And she was naked again. That, at least, could be easily fixed.

"If I wake up with sand between my toes, I'm gonna be pissed," said Rachel.

"No danger of that," said a familiar, and amused, sounding female voice from behind Rachel. "You need to brush up on your astral projection."

Rachel turned around, and despite her shock at what she saw, she managed to say, "well, it's not exactly a crucial skill."

It was Revan. The real Revan, that is. She had the same sharp blue eyes that Rachel clearly remembered seeing in the mirror once upon a time. Oh, there were differences - lines around the eyes, grey creeping in at her temples, and a generally softer appearance - but it was quite unmistakably Revan. Looking at her was like looking into a mirror set to thirty years in the future and it was quite disorienting.

"I suppose not," said Revan. "But you should at least learn to keep your clothes on. It could get to be embarrassing otherwise."

"Tell me about it."

Revan blinked. And then a muscle jerked in her cheek. And then she burst out laughing at Rachel. "Jolee?" she asked. "Force, I hope it wasn't Vrook."

"Jolee," said Rachel grumpily. "And there's no need to find it so funny. Remember, it's your body too."

"After five kids?" asked Revan with a small smile. "Not so much. Anyway, that's by the by. I didn't come here to poke fun at you for giving the old man a free show, as amusing as it is for me."

"And yet . . . "

Revan shrugged. "If you didn't make yourself such an easy target, I wouldn't be so easily tempted," she said. "Come on. You're smart enough to know how difficult doing this is for me. It's hard enough to do it from a few thousand miles away never mind with a few universes between us."

"Well, I assumed you'd get to it sooner or later," said Rachel with a shrug of her own. "You're the one making the grand gesture here, not me."

Revan stared at her intently for a moment before speaking again; it was a most disturbing experience to have that gaze turned on her for a change. "Ah," she said. "Residual bitterness. Understandable - and I apologise - but this isn't the time. This link was difficult to establish and no less difficult to maintain; our business must be attended to promptly."

Rachel frowned. Bitterness? She didn't think so. It was water under the bridge. It'd been years and she'd long since adapted to the changes. It hadn't been easy, or fun, at first, but she'd dealt with it. Sure, she missed just being Xander - it hadn't been a bad life really, though his parents had been utter bastards and he'd lacked any sort of drive to succeed in life - but being Rachel had its positives too. Her mind was sharper, she had a drive to succeed that Xander had never possessed for good or ill, and, of course, there was the Force. Not such a bad trade really.

Then again, a rational assessment like that didn't take into account the general unpleasantness of it all. Having two and a half decades of memories jammed into your head was never going to be fun; when those memories included three years as the Dark Lord of the Sith and the Mandalorian Wars? Horrifying didn't even begin to describe it. And with the sex change, it had been a violation right down to the core of her being.

Okay, so maybe a little bitterness. Rachel nodded in acceptance. Wasn't like it was worth getting into a fight over. Hell, she wasn't even sure if she should be angry at Revan, not when she remembered doing it to herself. "And what is the purpose of this visitation?" she asked finally.

"Well, I really did want to apologise," said Revan. "What happened to you is a bit of a footnote compared to some of the things I did, but it was bad enough. I am truly sorry for what that's worth."

Not a lot, really. Rachel might as well have apologised to herself considering the bizarre consequences of Revan's actions, but there was no point in saying that. "You wouldn't have done this just for that," she said. "The energy needed . . . you'll be laid up for a week after this."

"Not quite," she said. "I've learned to use my energy more efficiently over the years, but, yes, the general point stands. I've been talking to the old man, and you're walking a dangerous path."

"There's nothing new there," said Rachel dryly. "This has never been a safe world to live on if such a thing actually exists."

"You're being deliberately obtuse," said Revan. "You know what I mean. Vrook's an old fool with the people skills of a rock, but he does know what he's talking about once you discard the dogma."

"I'm surprised he hasn't showed up," replied Rachel. "Two of us to nag? I thought he'd be all over that opportunity."

"Oh, he's long since given up on me," said Revan. "I think the idea of a Jedi retiring to spend a quiet life raising their children blew a fuse in his head. Amusing and it got him off my back like nothing else. Would make it worth it even without everything else."

"It doesn't exactly do much for me either," said Rachel. "The idea of having children gives me the creeping horrors."

"It did me too once upon a time," said Revan. "Things change. And that's not what I'm here to talk about. Look, you're pretty much where I was after the Star Forge when my memories started coming back. It'd be easier for you to go back to being Darth Revan than not and you feel the temptation every time you're confronted with an enemy. Been there, done that, did some really stupid things. You need to be careful."

"I already know that," said Rachel tetchily. "I'm not an idiot."

"You're also working from a poisoned perspective," said Revan. "Being a Sith Lord does things to you that aren't easily undone. I was never the most empathic of people, but being a Sith destroyed that entirely. And you're suffering from the same now because of me. On top of that, your perspective of what is acceptable is horribly skewed."

Rachel raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"Would Xander have raped the mind of an enemy for information?" asked Revan. "Or would he have provoked people into attacking him so he could kill them? Or would he have killed an unarmed enemy because they might attack him in the future?"

"I think you'd be surprised by what Xander would have been willing to do to protect his friends and family."

"Well, I'll have to take your word for that," said Revan. "I only have limited information, but I was under the impression that Xander was generally a kind, good-hearted boy; certainly not a particularly ruthless sort."

"Oh, I had my moments," said Rachel. "I had to be pushed to it though."

"It doesn't take so much as a gentle nudge these days, though, does it?" asked Revan. "I was the same. Still am, to be honest. It's a bad trait for a Jedi, though; you need to realise that. It took me a long time and cost me a lot before I did. You don't need to go through that."

Rachel frowned. It was true that it was hardly an ideal trait, but she didn't see didn't see it as a critical flaw. And she said as much.

Revan shook her head. "You'll see in time," she said. "There's more than just being ruthless. You just run close to the edge. Too close at times. That has its benefits, but it's risky."

Rachel arced an eyebrow. "That's interesting coming from you," she said.

"Perhaps you'll listen you her," said a male voice from behind her that could only be Vrook. "Arrogant as you are, perhaps you'll take advice from yourself if nothing else."

Vrook moved around to stand in front of her as Rachel formulated her reply, though he was carefully maintaining distance from Revan. It was quite amusing to Rachel; it seemed somewhat childish on his part. "What can I say?" she asked, plastering a smirk across her features for extra irritation value. "I have a hard time following the advice of the sort of person who doesn't lift a finger to help when barbarians are rampaging unchecked across the Republic."

Vrook's eyes narrowed with irritation but before he could reply, Revan barged in. "Don't even think about it!" she barked. "If you want to squabble, do it on your own credit. I have better things to spend my energy on."

Vrook grumbled but he acquiesced. Rachel simply nodded.

"Was I ever this bad?" asked Revan. "Don't answer. Rhetorical question." She whirled around to face Vrook and jabbed a finger at him as she spoke. "You're an ass," she said. "Always have been, but you'd think death would change you. Apparently not. If you want her to listen to you, you might want to stop insulting her. It helps, believe me." Then she turned to Rachel. "And you . . . you just need to stop assuming that everything he says is wrong. He isn't a complete idiot no matter how much he acts like one. I know he gets your back up every time he opens his mouth, but you're just going to have to learn to ignore it."

"I offer honest evaluations," said Vrook. "How people deal with is their own concern. I see no reason to molly-coddle students."

"I stopped being a student a long time ago, Vrook," said Rachel.

"Are you two incapable of listening?" asked Revan looking rather too much like Mrs Summers for Rachel's comfort. "Quiet! You're as bad as my youngest two and they're not even five years old. Do I really have to send a pair of Jedi Masters to the naughty corner?"

Rachel just gaped at her, as did Vrook. It was just too bizarre for words.

"Vrook, you didn't come here without reason," said Revan, her form starting to flicker. "You won't accomplish your goals by antagonising her. She's stubborn. Believe me, I know. Rachel, just listen. Don't let his pathetic social skills get your back up."

"Will you be paying any more visits?" asked Rachel.

Revan shook her head. "No," she said. "It's too much. I can't take the risk of doing this again, even with the link between us. The time differential alone is a killer."

"Then I suppose this is goodbye."

Revan nodded. "I'd wish you luck," she said. "But you don't need it. Just don't do anything stupid."

And then she was gone. Vrook harrumphed and then he disappeared as well. Rachel just shook her head in disbelief. Of all the things she'd thought possible, having Revan showing up in her dreams was just . . . well, it was surprise. And being threatened with the 'naughty corner' was a new one on her. She really didn't need another mother watching over her like a hawk. Mrs Summers was more than enough. At least that particular mother wasn't in 'dealing with five year olds' mode.

She'd need to think about what Revan had said though. She didn't think she was skirting the line that closely, but if anyone could say that and have it mean something to her it was Revan. She really didn't want to go Dark Lord on anyone; just wasn't part of her plans for the future.

"So what were you up to last night?" asked Dawn. "Anything interesting?"

Rachel looked up from the newspaper she'd been flicking through. "What?" she asked.

Dawn just looked at her as if she was a complete retard. "You know, whatever it was that had you going full power," she said. "You have been teaching me to pick up on that sort of thing, you know."

Rachel blinked. "Well, that's good," she said. "It's a good sign that you're picking up on things like that when it's not obvious."

"Felt pretty obvious to me."

"Smartass," said Rachel. "I meant that you picked it up even though you had no reason to be looking. Most apprentices who've been training for the amount of time you have don't have crap for passive senses. You're coming along well."

Dawn puffed up under the praise, but she didn't let it go. "So what was it then?" she asked. "Some weird ritual?"

Rachel shook her head. "Nothing like that," she said. "I was just being visited in my dreams."

"The old men again?"

Rachel waited till Dawn was taking a drink from her glass of milk before replying. "Not as such," she said, waiting till the moment was just right. "It was Revan."

Score. Perfect spit-take from Dawn. That'd teach her to be a smart alec with her superiors. "What?" she managed.

Rachel gave her a look that was an exact duplicate of the one she'd received a moment ago. "Whatever did I do to be cursed with an apprentice that cannot understand a simple statement of fact?" she asked, with a mock put-upon air.

Dawn just pouted. HK's eyes flashed in amusement.

"It's nothing to worry about," said Rachel. "Just some business she wanted to clear up with me."

"Right, because former Sith Lords visit people in their sleep all the time," said Dawn. "Yeah, there's nothing to worry about there. Nothing at all. Excuse me, I think I'm going to go commune with my inner Darth Vader."

"That'd work better if you had an inner Darth Vader to commune with," pointed out Rachel.

"Everyone's a critic."

Dawn subsided and returned to her breakfast, but Peter was not so inclined. "You're sure that it wasn't something to worry about?" he asked.

"Not at all," said Rachel. "Just another person butting their way into my head to offer advice. Nothing new really."

"I can't claim any expertise in the area but, considering some of things I've heard, it would seem to me that advice from one such as Revan should be approached with great caution."

"Quite right," said Rachel. "But I detected no malicious motives and her advice was nauseatingly sensible."

Peter raised an eyebrow. "Coming from the person who believes that single-handedly assaulting a military base is a good idea, I'll take that as a recommendation," he said.

"Very funny."

"We've narrowed the list of possible assassins down to half a dozen witches and wizards based on what we already know," said Hermione crisply. "But we can't proceed further till we locate the suspects."

"You're a witch," replied Rachel. "Can't you use some sort of locator spell to track them down?"

"If it were that easy, the Death Eaters wouldn't have been a problem," said Hermione. "And Sirius wouldn't have made it more than half a mile from Azkaban. Methods exist to locate people, but they can be blocked."

"And they are," finished Rachel. "Brilliant. I assume that warrants have been issued for their arrest?"

"Interpol has been notified as of yesterday," replied Hermione. "But I don't expect much success. It's not difficult for a wizard to move incognito. You should know that as well as anyone."

"And I don't supposed wand-waving types are big on using conventional transport channels anyway."

"No," said Hermione. "You won't see many normal wizards of witches moving through airports or ferry terminals any time soon, never mind the dark, muggle-hating types we're talking about, and monitoring apparation is near impossible."

"Try contacting the Devon Coven," said Rachel. "They know a few tricks that the average wand waver won't. Might be able to help us."

Hermione nodded. "I'll do that," she said. "Well, the investigators will do that after I 'advise' them to do so."

"You know, reducing them to gibbering wrecks probably isn't going to make them any more inclined to listen to you."

"I don't care what way they're inclined," said Hermione. "As long as they do what I say eventually, I'll be quite happy. Of course, I'd be happier if there wasn't some sort of James Bond wannabe watching my every move, but I suppose I can't have everything."

"Indeed," said Rachel. "I'm afraid that the spooks are just a fact of life right now. The government isn't terribly trusting of people like you. Once burned, twice shy, and all that."

"They trust you."

"I've been working for them for years," said Rachel. "I wear their uniform. I do their bidding. I'm one of them. And they probably still have plans in place just in case I go rogue on them even if they boil down to 'bend over and kiss our arses goodbye'."

"It just annoys me. I don't like the idea of someone doubting my word."

"Not so much you as the aurors," said Rachel. "The spooks don't think your lot are loyal."

Hermione sniffed. "I still don't like it," she said.

"I don't think anyone really cares."

A moment of silence followed before Hermione spoke again. "I should go," she said. "I need to get back to work."

Rachel nodded. "As do I," she said. "I have a strategy meeting with my department heads to deal with."

"Better you than me."

"Thanks a lot."

Ah, strategy meetings. A forum for discussion and evaluation of the research effort going on at the base. Supposedly. More accurately, a forum for Rachel to deliver orders and ignore the bitching of her scientists before delivering the same orders again and sending them along to do their assigned work. She had a firm picture in her mind of where they needed to be and what they needed to do to get there; there was little room for side journeys into fields that wouldn't produce military benefits.

"Have you read the documents I distributed?" asked Rachel, her tone of voice making it very clear that they'd better have.

A chorus of affirmations followed. And then, "is that really possible?" from Dr. Smith. "I mean, fusion power . . . that was a big deal. This . . . "

"It's a necessary step," said Rachel. "So it had best be possible. Without hypermatter we'd never produce enough energy for a hyperdrive and that would be . . . troublesome."

Dr. Vasilyev started. "Hyperdrive?" he asked, his expression slack with shock. "As in faster than light travel? As in completely impossible? Even the aliens can't manage that!"

"It'll be quite an advantage for us then, no?" asked Rachel. "It's quite possible, my friend. I've seen it in action. Oh, it'll be pushing it for us to get it working, but it will be worth it when it's done. Believe me. This is all in the documents."

"I thought it was some sort of joke! We have done much that seems insane here, but this . . . this is something else entirely!"

"It will be our crowning achievement," said Rachel. "There will be no barriers to human expansion once this technology has been perfected."

"Except for all the aliens that won't like us spreading out all over the place," noted Dr. Stewart.

"Galaxy's a big place," said Rachel. "And if it was heavily populated, we'd have made contact with other aliens by now. There'll be plenty of room for human expansion."

"One contact's enough for me," grumbled Vasilyev.

"They won't all be like the Ethereals," said Rachel "But that's not relevant to this meeting. We have more important things to discuss. Hypermatter's all well and good, but it's only the start. Dr. Vasilyev, you will be working on hyperspace technology in general. This will require close co-operation with Dr. Smith, so please do try and get along."

There was some grumbling, but they didn't argue.

"Of course, a hyperdrive wouldn't be much use without something to put it in and I rather doubt that the shuttle will up to the job," said Rachel. "We need starships. This will be a hell of an effort and I can only provide limited guidance."

"Don't you think it's a little, well, premature?" asked Dr. Schrader. "It seems an awfully big jump."

"Without starships, we can't bring this war to an end," said Rachel. "We need them too much for this to be up for debate. Dr. Schrader will be in charge of the overall engineering effort. Sarah, you will work on the atmospheric requirements for the ship. Air scrubbers and what have you. Dr. Moore will work on the computing and other internals side of things. I expect you three to work closely on this. And, Dr. Moore, I need you to perfect the shield generator technology as well."

Some grumbling, but they all nodded.

"Excellent," said Rachel. "I don't think I need to emphasise how important this is. The future of humanity rests on the results of the work done here. Yes, the pressure is on, and I'm asking a huge amount of you, but I wouldn't do it if I didn't think you could deliver. You are here because you are the best and now it is time to live up to that label. Dismissed."

Later, as Rachel read a report on the progress of Operation Mongol, the liberation of the Middle East, she received a phone call. She left a bookmark at the page she was up to, the progress of the invasion of Pakistan which had somehow ended up under the same banner, and answered.

"Rachel Giles."

"Hey, babyface, I have something you might be interested in here."

"Lorne?" asked Rachel. "Fire away."

"Well, I've been hearing some interesting rumours about some particularly militant demons," he said. "Now, you might say that's no proof of relevance, but I've also heard that there's a witch involved. How does that sound?"

"A witch?" asked Rachel. "Description, please."

"Snooty," said Lorne. "And she uses a wand."

"That's . . . well, that's amazingly unhelpful," said Rachel. "I think you've just described ninety percent of the wand-wavers' female population. Come on, I need more than that, Lorne."

"Hey, I'd love to help," he said. "You know me, can't keep a secret worth a damn, but that's all I have. Sometimes she's brunette, sometimes she's blonde; sometimes she's short, sometimes she's thin. Get the idea? We've got a real master of disguise on our hands here, kiddo."

Rachel leaned back in her chair and pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration. "Wonderful," she said. "Well, I don't suppose it matters. Blonde or brunette, she'll die all the same when they disintegrate her. What's the address?"

Lorne read off an address that Rachel recognised as being in LA's warehouse district.

"Right. Thanks," she said. "I'll send this along to the appropriate people and they'll deal with it."

"Sounds good, babyface," he replied. "Last thing this town needs is people trying to pick up where the evil lawyers left off."

Rachel paused before she put the phone down. "Will you be safe, Lorne?" she asked. "I mean, these are some nasty people you're going to be pissing off. If they can get at a US Army officer in the middle of a secured facility, I wouldn't fancy your chances if they came after you."

"I'll be fine," said Lorne. "Between my sparkling personality and anti-violence wards, I think I'm quite safe here. That and there are some quite dangerous people who'd be pretty peeved if I was killed and Caritas closed. The local Navy SEALs, for one, would not appreciate that."

Rachel frowned. "Well, I'd like to send someone around to have a look at your wards at least," she said. "You're no use to me dead, Lorne."

"I can almost feel the love."

"You're the least objectionable demon I've ever known," said Rachel. "And that's despite the ridiculous nickname you've given me. I have to go now, but I will send someone round to look at your club's wards as soon as possible."

Goodbyes were exchanged and then the conversation was terminated. Now what to do. It would be most efficient to get in touch with Giles and have him pass the information onto the brigade he was working with to deal with. But that wasn't her decision to make. She dialled the number for Harry's communicator.

"Captain Potter speaking."

"Got some information for you, Harry," said Rachel. "Seems that there's a group of demons based in LA who look to be related to our problem. And a witch has been spotted with them."

"Do tell," he said.

"No idea who the witch is," said Rachel. "She's been disguising herself, but she's definitely one of your lot and she's snooty apparently. Ring any bells?"

"My enemies are all purebloods," said Harry. "And just about all purebloods are snooty. So it rings a lot of bells while not really telling me all that much at the same time."

"Well, I'm sure you and that clever little friend of yours will figure it out," said Rachel. "But for now, that's all I have." And then she read off the address. "And that's the location."

"Thanks," said Harry. "I'll arrange a raid. Anything else?"

"Oh, see about sending someone to Caritas to tighten up the wards," said Rachel. "I'm worried about the possibility of a revenge attack here. The last thing we need now is to balls things up with the demons who aren't already trying to kill us."

"I'll have Hermione take a look," he said by way of reply before he left. "I'm sure she'll be able to rustle something up."

Rachel couldn't help but smile. It was all coming together quite nicely. They were so close to getting the bastards who'd murdered Miller that she could almost taste it. It wouldn't be long before justice was served on the creatures responsible and she had every intention of making sure that it was a lesson that the demon community could never, ever forget. She'd have thought that they'd learned the price of declaring open war in such a way after Glory's attack but it seemed not so she'd have to see to reinforcing that lesson.

It didn't sound to Rachel as if Pakistan had much more time left before it fell. With the Indian Army advancing on one side and a combined NATO force spearheaded by the newly raised British Army coming over the Afghanistan border in large numbers, they just couldn't resist. The aliens were helping them out somewhat, but it looked like a token effort to Rachel. They hadn't deployed any of their new armour there whatsoever and she couldn't think of a better statement of disinterest than leaving it to their obsolete mecha that weren't good for much more than soaking up missiles before they got to more important targets. Well, that's what happens when you form an alliance with a group whose ultimate goal is the extermination of your species.

On the up side of things, it sounded like the new upgraded tanks had worked out quite well in the battles they'd been involved in. It wasn't exactly tank country out there, but they'd stood up well to everything the aliens had thrown at them and picked up some respectable kills along the way. It'd be better if they'd been able to create a totally new design to take full advantage of their discoveries but they'd had to take advantage of existing construction facilities. Ah well.

On the down side, the death toll was incredible. Pakistan had picked the wrong side, sure, but they were still people and they'd need bodies to fill up the colony ships post-war amongst other things. It wasn't the most forward-minded decision to allow millions of them to die caught in the crossfire or from famine. Then again, she doubted any force in existence could persuade the Indians to show anything remotely resembling mercy after what had been done to Delhi. Ah well. You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs and all that.

Then her phone rang again. "Rachel Giles."

"Turn your television on, Giles." It was the new base commander, Major General Davis.

What she saw on the television screen gave her pause. It took a moment for her to recognise it, but when she did she recognised it as Bogota, the capital of Colombia. A Bogota with large numbers of troops occupying the city in sealed armour.

"The death toll is as of yet unknown, but it is expected to be high," said a female newcaster providing a voiceover for the footage. "The cause of the plague is also unknown, but all current indications point towards some sort of biological warfare."

The scene cut to another city that was in similar shape.

"Martial law has been declared across South America as governments struggle to deal with the rising tide of chaos that has followed in the wake of the plague," she continued. And then paused for a moment. "News just in, a blockade has been established at Mexico's southern border to prevent the the plague's spread to the north. We're going to our reporter in Mexico City now for an update."

Rachel clicked the TV off. She didn't need to see any more.

"Aliens?" she asked.

"Who else?" he asked in return. "It sure as hell isn't natural. Not unless Ebola's mutated to a slow-burner. And that thought is going to give me nightmares."

Rachel drummed her fingers against the table in thought. "Well, this going to be troublesome," she said finally.

"No shit, Sherlock."

"Any news on counter-measures?" she asked after a moment's thought.

"That's higher up the food chain then I get to hear about," he said. "Mostly anyway. All free medical resources are being diverted and a lot of machine doctors are being sent down, but I don't know anything about plans for retaliation or containment or any important stuff."

The droids would be worth their weight in gold out there. Their lack of human emotion would allow them to deal with the bodies without being fazed one bit and their immunity to human disease would allow them to treat the infected without fear of being infected themselves. In a plague situation, droids were always incredibly useful.

"Machine doctors? Are you a luddite, General?"

"If some thing's gonna be prodding and poking at me, I prefer it to be human," he said. "I don't think that's too much to ask. Anyway, I just thought you'd want a head's up. I need to get back to work."

And with that the line went dead. Ah, such social graces. It was no wonder he'd ended up getting the single dullest assignment going for someone of his rank.

She leaned back in her chair and pinched the bridge of her nose as she processed the news she'd just received. It was bad. Very, very bad. They knew that the aliens had significant skills when it came to genetic engineering from autopsies performed on corpses retrieved from battlefields. Few of the aliens had evolved naturally - only the Snakemen and the Cryssalids - and if they could engineer an entire sentient species then what could they do with a disease?

Bad didn't even begin to describe it really. Chances were that millions were going to die in South America. And that was one of the few parts of the world that hadn't already been torn up to some extent. Well, Venezuela had took a real battering because of the idiocy of its rulers and its neighbours had suffered some in the fighting, but it was nothing like what was happening in much of the rest of the world. That only left North America as a relatively clear territory considering the semi-regular raids the aliens launched into Europe from North Africa.

But what could she do about it? Nothing. It was beyond her. She was powerful, very powerful, but she couldn't fight something like that. And she wasn't a doctor or a biologist or anything like that, so there wasn't even anything she could do about finding a cure. It was beyond frustrating. She hated being powerless in the face of a threat; it reminded her of the Mandalorian Wars, of being forced to sit on the sidelines by the Council and kick her heels while the galaxy burned. At least then she'd been able to force her way off the sidelines and do something; there was none of that with a biological attack.

She was used to bad things happening - hell, she was used to making bad things happen - but she wasn't used to being powerless to do anything about them. Being entirely powerless with no solution in sight was as new as it was unpleasant. And what did it say about the world's situation that a deadly plague hadn't even registered with her Force senses?

"Yo," said Faith, drawing Rachel out of her thoughts. She hadn't even heard her come in "Heard about this plague thing?"

"Since when did you have psychic powers?"

"Doesn't take a psychic," said Faith. "You ain't exactly uninformed, are you?"

"There's that."

"You're brooding again."

"I am not!"

"Are too."

Rachel opened her mouth but closed it again before she instinctively fired off an 'am not'. She was not getting into that game.

"Look, you can't fix everything," said Faith. "It sucks but you can't. Like I can't kill every demon before it does some nasty shit to people."

"Doesn't mean I have to like it."

"No-one expects you to. I sure as all hell don't. Just don't get all Angel-like on me, OK?"

"Now that's just insulting."

The next day a nuclear device was used against the alien base in Colombia. Dawn weathered the feedback very well indeed. Rachel wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not.

Chapter Twenty-Two

July 2003

She should have known that it would come back to Sunnydale. Truly, demons were nothing if not predictable. Humanity weak and barely aware of your existence? Open the hellmouth! Humanity strong but still barely aware of your existence? Open the hellmouth? Humanity far stronger than any demon empire could ever aspire to be and completely aware of your existence? Open the hellmouth! They were verging on the boring in their predictability. The only even vaguely new aspect to their strategy was recruiting dissident wand wavers to their cause. And that was hardly anything innovative. Using disposable allies was a time-honoured tradition for virtually every culture that had ever existed.

Though saying that, wizards could be a problem. They'd dealt well enough with the fools who'd tried to arrest her in Britain but they'd blundered in like amateurs thinking that their magic would carry them through. If they stayed behind the scenes, using their magic to augment the efforts of front-line fighters, they could make things very interesting indeed if they just used their brains a little. She remembered well the chaos caused by the few wizards who'd been sent after her that used their brains instead of shooting off curses. Transfiguring crates into tigers, turning sections of the ground to acid, and so on had caused some serious carnage.

Still, this wasn't the little leagues. All indications pointed to the fact that they were facing a real heavy hitter this time out. Some of the information they'd retrieved from the raid pointed at the Circle of the Black Thorn, or at least its remnants, and from what they'd been able to gather that was was a very dangerous group indeed. The fact that they'd survived the purge of Wolfram & Hart that had followed Glory's attack certainly pointed towards them having enough between the ears to know when to get out of sight if nothing else and that was a rarer talent than you'd think amongst demons.

A knock on the door drew Rachel's attention. With a wave of her hand she unlatched it and pulled the door open from her seated position. "Come in," she said.

Lieutenant Miller stepped through the door. "General Vasquez requests your presence at the command post, ma'am" he said after offering a quick salute.

Rachel rose to her feet. "Very well, Lieutenant," she said. "Will you be accompanying me?"

"No, ma'am," he replied. "I have to oversee my platoon's assigned mission."

"Very well, I won't keep you then," said Rachel. "Good luck."

Miller nodded and saluted. "You too, Brigadier."

And then he left. Force, she hoped he wouldn't get himself killed doing something stupid when the enemy showed their faces. It would be a very poor tribute indeed to Miller to have a hand in getting his oldest son killed. Not that there was much she could do about it then. The decision had been made and he'd have to sink or swim on his own merits. He'd known what he was getting himself into.

"HK," called Rachel. "Come."

"Bored statement: yes, master."

The journey from Giles's apartment to the 'command post' wasn't a particularly long one but it did let Rachel get a good look at how the defences had been arranged. In the twenty minutes it took her to walk the distance she saw half a dozen aerial HK patrols and two ground HK patrols - which, HK-47, of course, just had to insult despite their inability to comprehend or retort to those insults - as well as a road-block manned by a couple of bored looking soldiers with a heavy repeating blaster cannon, better known to those in the know as an E-Web. An entire brigade was a lot of soldiers for a town as small as Sunnydale and when you weighed in the accompanying machinery there was no shortage of manpower or firepower at all.

The command post had been set up in the library of the rebuilt Sunnydale High. It was, suffice to say, a strange sight to see the school she'd attended from the age of fourteen onwards as a fortress, but that's pretty much how it had ended up. It was logical though. The demons would be heading there - it was the location of the hellmouth - and putting the command post there allowed them to concentrate their defences around a single location. Risky but logical.

Gaining access to the school took longer than it normally would. Sure, the town's civilian population had been evacuated and she was about as recognisable as it got, but they had to be sure she wasn't a shape-shifting assassin. The system they'd rigged up wasn't perfect, but an aura checker was difficult enough to fool to keep ninety-nine percent of shape-shifters from trying anything and having HK-47 in tow was a pretty good indicator too. No shape-shifting impersonator in their right mind would try to persuade HK to follow them. Still, they had to go through the formalities.

The school itself was a pretty bleak place inside. The builders hadn't got much past erecting the buildings before the army had occupied the place and the last thing of the mind of an officer arranging the defence of a town is putting up decorations. And that left you with a building of bare concrete and little else. Half the doors and windows hadn't even been installed and no-one had much of a reason to fix that sort of thing. But they had toilets at least. Thank the Force for small mercies.

The library, or at least the room where the library was to be placed in, was filled with all sorts of high tech contraptions. Between the communications equipment, the sensors to detect incoming threats and what have you, and the battlefield management equipment, there was no shortage of wires about the room. And that wasn't even touching on the miscellaneous bits and pieces that always, inevitably accumulated anywhere you set up shop.

Brigadier General Vasquez, US Army, was sat behind one of the communications terminals to the side of the room sending orders to and fro. He was pretty young for his rank, but he seemed competent enough to Rachel. There were probably some out there who'd been tweaked by his getting a star on his shoulder so young, but there were probably even more who were tweaked about her getting to the same sort of rank and not even going through Sandhurst. It made sense that he was young really. Demon hunting was a new activity for the US Army outside of a few very limited, very ineffectual operations that had been commissioned under the table and they'd wanted a younger, more adaptable up-and-coming officer rather than an old hand. At least that's what she figured. The US Army didn't, as a rule, invite her to their high-level strategy-setting meetings.

"General Vasquez," said Rachel upon approach. "You wanted to see me?"

He looked up. "Yes," he said, standing from his seat. "Walk with me. I have some things we need to discuss before the demons come."

So they walked through the spartan corridors of an unfinished, unfurnished school.

"These civilians," said Vasquez eventually, breaking the silence. "The Slayers and the witches, are you sure about them?"

"This is what Slayers live for," said Rachel. "They're built for this sort of fight. Sending them away would be a sad waste of a useful resource."

"They have no military training worth speaking of," said Vasquez. "No idea of how to work with us. The Summers girl might have worked with those clowns at the Initiative, but this is a whole different ball game. They're going to get in the way as much as help us."

"Well, this is why they pay you the big bucks, General."

"Big bucks?" snorted Vasquez. "You obviously haven't seen my bank statements.

"Yes, well," replied Rachel. "Anyway, I'd use the Slayers as troubleshooters, sweeping up breakthroughs, but it's your show. I'm just an advisor."

"I don't think I want a teenage girl with a sword or an axe dealing with a force that can break through a machine gun emplacement."

"I'll let you in on a little secret, General: Slayers are quite capable of using firearms. They'll whine about it something fierce most likely, but they can use them just fine. Better than fine, even. They're damn fine shots. They just don't like it when they can't get up close and personal and slice their enemies' guts out."

"I'll take it under consideration. What about the witches? They're a bit . . . well, they're not exactly the fighting sort. I'd be surprised if they could beat the skin off a rice pudding."

"You'd be surprised," said Rachel. "Tara I'm not sure of, but Willow? Willow is the magical equivalent of a nuke when she puts her mind to it. If we get any heavy magic types show up, we might need her."

"We have Potter and some other wand-wavers for that."

"Ah, Willow's stronger than them. Way stronger. Not as quick or as skilled, but much more in way of raw power."

"And you can't always substitute for that," he said. "Fine. They can stay at the command post with me until they're needed. They'll be safe enough there, I suppose."

"If things get tight enough that the command post's about to be taken, we'll have more important things to worry about than keeping them alive, I think."

"Yeah. Hell on Earth. What a cheery thought. As if alien invasion wasn't bad enough."

"I wish these fucking demons would hurry up and attack," said Faith. "I hate this fucking waiting."

Rachel didn't so much as twitch from her position laid out staring at the ceiling. "I'd never have guessed," she said dryly. "No nervous energy to work off at all."

"I didn't hear you complaining." Rachel could almost hear the smirk in Faith's voice. "Plenty of begging for more, but not much complaining."

"Damn woman."

"That's me," said Faith. "But fuck, I just want to get this over with. It's just not right to tease a Slayer with a big fight and then not come up with the goods. Makes us all cranky and shit."

"Cranky? When I hear that I think of Willow getting stroppy because someone's half-inched her book, not a Slayer ready to go on a rampage."

"Bite me."

"What? Again?"

"Do you really want to tempt me?"

Rachel wasn't touching that with a barge pole. She'd more than had enough. "You know," she said finally. "I'm not sure there's anything that doesn't work you up. Get into a fight? You get worked up. Can't find a fight? You get worked up."

"What can I say? Girl's got needs."

Well, what can you say to that? It wasn't like Faith being over-sexed was anything new.

"Anyway, can't you, I don't know, see the future and tell us when they're coming or something? I can't take this sitting around waiting much longer, you know. And it ain't like there's nowhere else a Slayer's needed, you know? Plenty of bad guys running around needing a Slayer-sized beating still."

Rachel closed her eyes and sighed. "I wish," she said. "I really do. The hellmouth obscures everything. I can't See worth shit in Sunnydale."

Not that there was much difference between what she could See in Sunnydale and what she could See elsewhere while the war was raging. The war, the endless carnage of it, lent strength to the Dark Side and that made her ability to discern the future of dubious utility even if you left aside the efforts of the alien collective to defeat those abilities. It really pissed her off.

"Sucks," said Faith. "Don't suppose ol' green-eyes can see the future?"

Rachel snorted. "Not quite," she said. "His lot are pretty rubbish at that sort of thing as far as I can tell. You get the occasional vague prophecy that's real, but otherwise it's all looking at chicken entrails and rubbing crystal balls - useless."

Before Faith could reply they were interrupted by the insistent beeping of Rachel's communicator. Rachel immediately summoned it to her hand and opened the link. "Giles speaking," she said.

"Get your ass to the command post, Giles," said Vasquez. "We got incoming. Least we think we got incoming. Someone's futzing around with ECM of some sort."

Rachel sat up. "I'm on my way," she said. And then she clicked the link closed. "Looks like your wish has been granted, Faith," she said. "The fight's starting."

"'Bout fucking time!" she hollered before springing out of the bed and gathering her clothes up. "Been too long since I kicked the shit out a demon."

The command post was very different when Rachel reached it. Her last visit had been to a relatively relaxed, for a military command centre, place; this time it was a real hive of activity. Every terminal was occupied and in use. A multitude of officers and enlisted men buzzed around the holographic display that dominated the centre of the room. And of course the guards. Every entrance, every window, was covered by both men and machine alike just waiting for any demon to try and enter.

The holographic display was the centre piece of it all. It was, quite frankly, magnificent. It had been one of Rachel's pet projects before it had reached a usable state and it was one of her favoured developments. Bigger and better weapons and stronger armour and all the rest was all well and good, but augmenting the ability of the commanders to command - that was where a war could be won. The hologram showed a representation of all of Sunnydale, down to the last imperfection, and all the military units within its environs. It was a wonderful little toy.

Of course, the display wasn't quite real-time. It would be but the aliens were never so polite as to not deploy ECM to interfere with such things. The display still functioned, of course, but there was a lag in it. It was forced to rely on officers and NCOs and their making proper use of the systems built into the advanced armour that had been one of the first products of X-COM's research. Not how anyone would want it to be, but unless someone found a way to completely burn through all ECM that was all they could manage.

It wasn't perfect, but it was about as good as anyone could manage till someone found a way to imbue all officers with the sort of supernatural senses a Jedi had. And even then, you had things like the hellmouth which could make those much less than perfect very quickly.

"Giles, get over here, barked Vasquez from his position by the display. "I want you to take a look at this."

"Well, that's . . . bizarre," she said. "I've never seen the display distort like that before. It sure as hell isn't in the design specification."

The distortion was like the static you see on an untuned television. Localised as it was to certain areas of the display, it was mildly disturbing. If it'd been the whole display, Rachel would have felt like crying because the system would have irrevocably broken and useless. But what could cause that? ECM didn't produce such blatant distortions. Not a single sort of ECM had ever had such an effect in testing and they'd tried everything they could get their hands on.

Okay, so she needed to think about their enemies. Alien involvement was a given. The initial reports from the Seers had indicated as much, so could it be them? No. She'd had access to their technology through X-COM and testing against that never produced such an effect. Stolen human technology? No. The aliens never used that and the demons were almost allergic to such things. What did that leave? Magic.

She'd never seen magic used as a countermeasure to modern technology before, none of their equipment was really specced for it: magic had been seen almost as a separate thing altogether, with mages of various sorts cancelling each other out so that the real workers could do their thing. She'd ran some tests, of course, but qualified wizards were like gold dust in the military and few could be spared for such things. And, rather obviously, there weren't many powerful demonic mages who could be tapped for that sort of work; most had the 'rah! All humans must die!' attitude still.

And they were facing demons. It all made sense. Even the amateurish nature of it. What did a demon know about advanced technology, after all?

Rachel almost laughed. "Well, that's pretty pathetic," she said. "About the worst attempt at a countermeasure I've ever seen, to be honest."

"So those are the attackers?"


"Right, he said. "I'll reinforce those chokepoints then. They're going to get a nasty surprise when they hit us."

Before Rachel could say anything, the ground shook fiercely and she felt a surge of horrifically powerful dark magic wash over her as a massive explosion roared in the distance. Several small chunks of plaster fell from the roof and quite a few of the men in the room had to clutch onto something to remain upright as the ground shake passed. Once things had stabilised the room immediately erupted into some barely organised chaos as the people running the command post sought to discover what had happened.

"They took the bait, said Rachel to Vasquez.

"Yeah? Looks like it," said Vasquez. What sort of charges did you put in that place?"

"Felt like dark magic," said Willow, coming up to stand beside Rachel. "Dragon slave?"

Tara looked to be in agreement, but she didn't say anything.

"Good thing I listened to you about that national guard base, Giles. Got any more insights?"

"Nothing useful. You already know they'll be coming straight for us, said Rachel. "Kill them before they kill us. I think you can manage that."

Vasquez's grin was positively infectious and more than slightly manic. "Oh, I think so."

The battle reigned clearly on the display for a few minutes after that. Once the demons had made visual contact with the defence emplacements, it was all quite clearly visible on the hologram. Hundreds of demons came barrelling down the roads into down and they all funnelled quite nicely into the choke points that had been established at the outermost defence perimeter. Between that and the human control of the air, it was beginning to look like Great War style trench warfare with the attackers having shit all chance of success.

Rachel's frown just grew as the battle proceeded. It just didn't make sense. The demons were no great shakes when it came to modern warfare, but between the aliens who had to be working with them and the experience of Glory's attack they shouldn't have been that stupid. If nothing else, there should have been Cyberdiscs there contesting the air battle with the HKs. Charging in head-first against automatic weaponry when they didn't even have air support was the absolute height of idiocy.

"Something isn't right here," she said to Vasquez. "No-one can be as stupid as this."

He frowned and stared at the display for a good long moment before turning his head to face her. "I think I agree" he said. Another moment passed as he eyed the display. "Yeah, I have a bad feeling about this. It's too easy," he said before turning to his second. "Colonel, have the men withdraw to the next ring."

The order didn't come a moment too soon. As the defensive positions emptied out and the men double-timed it to the next level of defence, several of the outermost points just vanished from the map as a rain of missiles fell upon them. Her intuition was still worth something even with the hellmouth interfering, it seemed.

"Here come the aliens."

Several clusters of Cyberdiscs appeared at the edges of the map and began floating inwards towards the defensive positions in support of what looked to be a Sectoid strike force. Several of the aerial HK formations immediately changed course to intercept the aliens.

"Okay, get reserve formation C to reinforce those defensive positions," ordered Vasquez. "And deploy two of our reserve HK groups."

The battle proceeded along those lines for a little while. The aliens combined with the demons to provide a more effective attacking force but the defences were stout and had been designed with that sort of attack in mind. It was pretty much one way traffic, as far as Rachel could discern from the hologram. Of course it couldn't last. Nothing ever goes according to plan for long in Sunnydale.

Dark magic washed over her. Not as flashy as the last batch and without the other effects, but she felt it all the same and just as powerful. And a moment later she felt the wards start to groan under the weight of it. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see quite a light show taking place outside the windows as the wards struggled to repel the attack.

"What the hell?" That was Vasquez. "Giles, Rosenberg, what the hell is that?"

"The wards are under attack," said Rachel simply. "And they're losing."

In the blink of an eye, Vasquez had his communicator in hand. "Granger, report," he barked.

"We've got maybe two minutes before the wards fall as is," she replied over the link. "I'm trying to reinforce them, but there's just too much power. More than I can manage."

"Giles? Rosenberg? McClay?"

All three of them shook their heads. Rachel, for one, didn't know much of anything about warding. Enough to be dangerous but not enough to be useful about summed it up, to be honest.

"Shit. Do what you can, Granger." He clicked the link off. Then he barked out, "prepare for incoming wizards."

Rachel drew her lightsabre and ignited it ready for any attack. A few of the soldiers in the room stared for a moment before busying themselves with their own preparations. She supposed that it wasn't every day you saw a lightsabre in person, though judging by the look by Vaquez's face he wasn't terribly impressed by their staring. Helmets were donned, weapons were cocked. They were ready. Nearly.

"HK, disengage safeties," ordered Rachel. "All hostiles are to be terminated on sight regardless of their species."


It actually took nearly five minutes for the wards to fall. Five of the longer minutes Rachel had ever experienced. And when the wards fell, they fell with a truly thunderous crack as the magical energy that had been anchoring them was expelled in a roar of power that blew out every window in the school and most likely the town. Immediately cracks and pops filled her hearing and wizards began appearing in the room and throughout the whole building.

One unfortunate, dark-haired wizard appeared directly in front of Rachel and he was sliced in two before he could so much as blink. Within the blink of an eye the room was filled with blaster and spell fire as the two sides engaged. Rachel absent-mindedly batted a couple of bright green curses up into the roof as she took it all in. There were far more wizards than she'd expected for the battle. They must have pissed off more people then they'd realised when they'd annexed wizard-controlled territories.

A soldier fell to the ground next to her, his armour ablaze with black fire, and Rachel cast a counter-spell without thought. Another wizard popped out of thin air next to her and Rachel slashed her sabre through his ribs and through a lung into his heart; he fell to the ground with a gurgling wheeze. If they were going to set themselves up like that, she wasn't going to leave the opportunity untaken.

With a deft movement, Rachel stepped aside out of the way of a stray blaster bolt that blew a large chunk out of the concrete wall behind her. Tsk. Sloppy aim. She fired a glare at the soldier who'd fired the shot before turning her attention back to the battle. Wizards were being killed left, right, and centre, but they weren't going down without a fight. And they were a distraction. She frowned. Where was the main event? None of them had the power to break the wards.

A dark-coloured spell came flying Rachel's way and she moved her blade to send it back the way it had came, but a moment before it impacted her lightsabre disappeared to be replacing by an overly-long, drooping dandelion. So surprised was she that she barely noticed as the spell dug into her forearm and cut her right down to the bone with a hissing sound. Of course, she noticed the pain that struck a moment later. And she certainly noticed when the dandelion that had replaced her lightsabre burst out into flames.

With a growl, Rachel sent a hail of magical missiles at the witch who had cursed her in a non-verbal attack. The witch's eyes widened and with a quick circular motion of her wand she raised a fairly stiff-looking magical shield. It did her little good, though. The first three missiles clanged against the shield with an almighty gong but the fourth blew through and blasted her across the room where she slammed into a wall and fell to the ground unmoving.

After that, Rachel turned her attention to the witch who'd destroyed her weapon. Ah, tall, blonde, and with a look on her face that said 'my shit doesn't stink'. It could only be one person from Harry's descriptions.

"Narcissa Malfoy," said Rachel. "So, you're the assassin, I take it? As I recall, you have a shape-shifter in your bloodline."

Narcissa made a sniffing sound in reply as if she was soiling herself by even talking to Rachel. "And you are the muggle with delusions of grandeur," she sniffed. "I shall soon put you in your place, but where is the Potter brat?"

"Right here, Malfoy. Avada Kedavra!"

Harry was obviously in no mood for subtlety. Narcissa had no time at all to counter the spell and it hit true. The green light washed over her body and then . . . nothing. Rachel's mind worked over the probabilities in a moment and she was left with only one viable answer.

"You've sold your soul."

Harry's face immediately twisted with a visceral sort of revulsion. Narcissa's expression, however, was almost gleeful. "And it has brought me power!" she exclaimed. "Such power! Far too great a power to be ever defeated by anything borne of filthy muggle blood such as-"

Whatever she was going to say would have to be forever left to the imagination as a blaster bolt striking her mid-section cut her off. And it wasn't a quick end. Whatever power she had gained from selling her soul fought the disintegration tooth and nail right to the bitter end. She died screaming and howling in agony as her body slowly fell to dust. Quite the horrific sight, Rachel was sure. Not that she took any satisfaction from it at all. No, that would be wrong!

Still, the only way it could have been better would have been if it had been Miller's kid pulling the trigger instead of HK.

"Declaration: That recording shall see me through many a day of tedious non-bloodshed."

The battle didn't last much longer after that. Narcissa's death seemed to dishearten those that hadn't already been dealt with and the ones that weren't killed teleported away not to be seen again. They did, however, leave a few nasty surprises as they went. Rachel was not at all impressed with the bastard that transfigured half a dozen computer terminals into sabre-toothed tigers before he popped out. Not one bit. Well, okay, maybe a little bit. Nifty bit of magic even if it was utter bastardry. It'd be easier to admire if they hadn't mauled the shit out of a couple of soldiers before they were put down though.

The command room was in absolute chaos. Much of the equipment was smashed to pieces or otherwise ruined and several of the soldiers simply weren't moving, whether that be because they were dead or simply unconscious. The actual losses were quite light, though, all things considered. She doubted that they'd killed more then two or three soldiers despite their own numbers. A function of preparation most likely. The wizards hadn't exactly helped themselves by just charging on in without heed to what they would be facing. It made her wonder just what the plan had been.

Of course, HK was barely even scratched. Killing curses and what have you just weren't going to cut it against him. She was going to have to enchant him to resist being transfigured though; bad enough to lose her lightsabre, but HK? That would be an expensive disaster.

Before Rachel could go to check on her friends who'd been in the room with her, Harry tapped his wand against her wounded forearm and a stream of bandages spouted forth from the tip of his wand and wrapped around the wound. The pain she'd been suppressing was instantly relieved somewhat.

"Thanks," said Rachel, sending a grateful smile Harry's way and moving her arm around to test it as she spoke.

Harry shrugged. "No problem," he said. "But you'd best get a real healer to check it out sharpish. Where's your lightsabre?"

Rachel stared mournfully at the ashes that were all that remained of her sabre. She really didn't have much luck with her weapons.


Before anything else could be said Rachel's sixth sense flared up, warning her of an incoming danger. Her head snapped up away from where her lightsabre's remains had fallen and she scanned the room quickly looking for an indicator but she saw nothing out of place. She was about to give people a head's up when a flare of magic played across her senses and a short, red demon with stringy white hair appeared in the middle of the room leaning on a staff.

Rachel saw an ugly look of surprise appear on the demon's face as every soldier in the room who still had a weapon aimed it at him. She was rather surprised to note that more than a few soldiers appeared to have lost their rifles along the way but there still wasn't any shortage of weapons being pointed that way. Suddenly the wizards' plan made much more sense even if it had failed. Cleverer than she'd expected of a demon but it had failed.

Within seconds of the demon teleporting in the air sizzled with blaster fire sent his way, HK leading the way with his repeater rifle churning out shot after shot after shot. The time between him teleporting in to the room and the massive concentration of crimson energy impacting on his shields was only a couple of seconds but it was enough for him to dissolve into the air and escape the firestorm heading his way. Barely.

Rachel tracked the demon to its destination point, still within the room, and acted first. She yanked the blaster pistol she'd been assigned on arrival in Sunnydale out of her belt and and fired off a quick grouping of three shots at the demon's head. That was when things turned screwy. The demon saw the bolts coming and dodged them. Pretty impressive for an old man. Too impressive. He wasn't exactly a blur of motion but he was moving far too quickly considering his weak appearance and she could feel magic about him. Active magic.

Her mind moved quickly enough, but she couldn't place the feel of the magic he was using. It wasn't something she'd ever used herself and she couldn't come up with a counterspell on the spot; that confusion cost. Before anyone could do anything to bring him down he spat out a quick series of phrases in a language Rachel had never heard before.

And then the hellmouth opened.

A massive beast straight out of a primal nightmare smashed through the concrete floor in the centre in a flood of dark energy that reeked of places that even a Sith would hesitate to tread. Rachel vaguely heard someone yelling into a communications link at the edge of her hearing but her attention was focussed on the monster before her. She hadn't seen it herself but she knew it from the descriptions. It was the creature that had followed in the wake of the Master. It was the Hellmouth Spawn. The creature that resided in the void between Earth and Hell. Their time was limited. They had to close the hellmouth and they had to do it now before it fully opened.

Faith pulled a dagger from her belt and slashed at one of the creature's tentacles as it flopped through the air near her. She managed to land a blow that opened up a miniscule cut in the creature's thick hide but as payment for her efforts another tentacle slashed around with dizzying speed and smashed her across the library, slamming her against a concrete wall with crushing force. She'd be fine but Rachel expected that she'd be damn sore for a while.

That action shook the soldiers out of their demon-powered haze of shock and they immediately opened fire on the beast. Dozens upon dozens of blaster bolts impacted against its hide and the creature let loose a psychic roar as it hurled its tentacles around the library bouncing soldiers around like so much deadweight.

Rachel leapt away from a tentacle that would have smashed into the side of her head and took a moment to evaluate the situation. The Hellmouth Spawn was a monstrous beast that was virtually impossible to kill and could deliver tremendous amounts of damage with blows from its massive tentacles, but it was a symptom and not the actual disease. The mage was the real threat. He was the power behind what was happening and with his death it would end. The hellmouth hadn't reached full opening and until it did the mage had to keep pumping magic into it to keep it opening. With his death, it would close immediately, and it would be over.

With that in mind, Rachel scanned the room searching for him, absent-mindedly dodging flailing tentacles as she did so. It didn't take long to locate him. Not only was he the only demon in the room but he was also radiating magical power like no other creature she had ever ran across. It wasn't the monstrous brute power of the insane goddess Glory but the tightly controlled, refined power of a master wizard. And that worried her a hell of a lot more than any mindless beast ever could.

But he was a truly arrogant bastard. He stood there as if he didn't have a care in the world, moving his arms as if he was directing an orchestra rather than taking part in a fight to the death, and sending spells left, right, and centre as he took full advantage of the confusion caused by having a monster straight out of Lovecraft sprout out of the floor and start bashing soldiers about.

Harry was the first of the magical types to engage him, reacting with lightning reflexes, but that was a short engagement. His killing curse was intercepted by a piece of rubble that sprang from the floor and into its path in the blink of an eye before a black beam blew through his shields and smashed him to the ground, knocking his wand out of his grasp and sending it skittering along the floor.

And then the demon started exchanging spells with Tara and Willow, who had their hands clasped tightly together, sharing their power. If there was a greater proof of arrogance than that in the world, Rachel had never seen it. Willow was the magical equivalent of a nuclear bomb without other people augmenting her power. It was insanity. Utter insanity. But if her enemy was determined to be foolish, Rachel wasn't going to complain.

A tentacle grasped at her feet as she darted over to Harry, who had rolled onto his knees, but she deftly hopped over it and kept going.

"You OK?" she asked, crouching down next to him.

"Fine," he said as he drew another, longer wand from a pouch on his belt. Then with a wave he summoned his other wand to his hand. "Let's deal with this bastard."

Rachel nodded and then the pair of them rose to their feet in unison. "You go left," ordered Rachel, as she saw Willow and Tara shudder under the impact of a writhing, twisting beam of black magic that stank of the most horrible sort of demonic evil.

Harry nodded in return and then they moved, Harry going left and Rachel going right as they approached the demon's back. As they went, Rachel felt the wards snap back into place, albeit weaker, and Rachel sent a mental nod of thanks Hermione's way. That would be helpful.

Rachel opened the offensive against the demon with a torrent of white-hot fire that spewed forth from from her fingertips in a blaze of magical energy. The mage reacted with startling speed for one so old and threw up a quick shield before a surge of magic that could only be an attempted teleportation emanated from him. The look of horrified shock that spread across his face when nothing happened was one Rachel would remember for a long time to come.

Such was his surprise that he didn't react in time to Harry's curse and a red burst of magic slashed through his neck, a cutting curse, in a spurt of green ichor. And that was the end of the demon mage. His face still held the exact same expression of shock when it rolled to a halt at Rachel's feet.

The magic that had held the portal to hell open vanished in a moment and the Hellmouth Spawn, blackened and scarred as it was by blaster fire, was sucked back down into the void between dimensions as the power that allowed it its foothold was removed. For a moment, as the demonic power was sucked away, the power of the hellmouth was stilled and Rachel's senses were given full reign for the first time in Sunnydale. And in that moment she saw exactly what she needed to do to bring an end to this battle and to the Circle of the Black Thorn.

Rachel's teleportation deposited her in one of the many abandoned buildings that littered the route into Sunnydale. The particular room she found herself in was particularly dilapidated with obvious signs of damp rot present in the walls, but the demons had, for some reason, decided to turn it into some sort of throne room. A thick, deep-red carpet led from the rotted door frame to an ornate golden throne that had been placed at the back of the room in front of a pair of empty window frames.

There were seven demons in the room. One was sat on the throne and bore the look of one who was accustomed to such a position. The others were arranged as an honour guard standing along each side of the carpet that led to the throne. All of those demons were of the same breed: they all had the same white skin, the same long horns, the same pointed ears, and the same yellow eyes. They were all Raknar Demons. A politically powerful breed, known for their large numbers and unusually unified society. They were only at roughly the same level as the Roman Empire or thereabouts as a society, but that was far better than the ungovernable mobs that made up most demon species.

The guards drew their swords in a blur of steel a moment after she appeared, but she was in no mood to waste any time on plebs. She reached down into her reserves of Force power and with a precisely controlled release of telekinetic power she took hold of each of the guards and proceeded to dash their heads against the walls with great force. And that was the end of them. Not, strictly speaking, a proper Jedi use of the Force but it was effective enough.

"Your powers are impressive," said the last remaining demon, the one sat on the throne. His voice was calm, as was his facial expression, but he reeked of fear.

"It's over, Sebassis," said Rachel. "You've lost."

"Oh?" he asked. "I have to disagree. Between my legions and the aliens, I think it's far from over, child."

Rachel shook her head. "Fool," she spat out. "Your legions burn as we speak and the aliens burn with them."

He seemed unconcerned.

"And your friend, the mage, is dead. I watched him die. An amusing sight. All that power and for what? He was a fool. An arrogant fool."

Sebassis blinked. "Impossible," he said, his eyes slightly widened. "Vail was powerful beyond description. Reality itself bent to his whims. No mere mortal could ever defeat him."

"You know, it's that exact attitude that got him killed. He thought he could take us all on and win. He was wrong."

Sebassis frowned. "Ah," he said. "I did warn him about the witch. Well, those are the breaks. You win some, you lose some. We'll just have to do this the old-fashioned way."

"If you're talking about the aliens you have near here waiting for your orders, well . . . "


The sound of heavy sustained blaster fire and explosions echoed through the room. And Rachel nodded. "They're no longer relevant."

"Is this where you arrest me, girl? Parade me through the streets as a vanquished foe? Put me on trial, perhaps?"

Rachel cocked her head and asked a simple question. "Why would I do that when I could simply kill you?"

"You don't just kill an archduke!"

"Why ever not?" asked Rachel. "I've killed senators, kings, presidents, chancellors . . . what's an archduke to that?"

"You'll find that I'm not without my defences," he said flatly, standing up sharply and clenching his fists.

"We'll see," said Rachel. "For crimes against humanity, you are to be summarily executed under the authorisation of Brigadier General Robert Vasquez and Brigadier Rachel Giles under the Treaty of Mutual Co-Operation and the War Powers Act of 2002."

Immediately, a telekinetic grip settled around her throat and began to squeeze. Rachel dispelled that grip with a wave of her hand. Before Sebassis could attack her again, she pulled a blaster pistol free from where it had been attached to her belt and put a bolt of crimson energy between the demon's eyes. He dropped like a rock and didn't move again.

"And that is the end of that."

Well, that was a bit of an exaggeration. There was still a lot of cannon fodder that had to be disposed of and the aliens were always capable of putting up a good fight, but it was still over quickly with Sebassis and Vail dead. You were lucky if you could get demons to work together well when they had strong leadership. With their leaders dead they degenerated into a rabble. And the aliens? There was wasn't enough of them to take on a full US Army brigade by any stretch of the imagination.

When it was over, Rachel went to track down Miller's kid. The aftermath of the battle was everywhere to be seen but it was nowhere near as grim as most she had been part of during her time. It had been the proverbial man taking a knife to a gunfight and she'd never been the sort of get worked up over the slaughter of demons. As far as she was concerned, a battle that ended with lots of dead demons and minimal dead humans was about as good as it got battle-wise.

She found the lieutenant at one of the medical facilities that had been established in one of the many unused buildings in Sunnydale, waiting for one his men to come out of treatment for some sort of injury. The battle may have had minimal casualties on the human side as battles went but it was still busy and the smell of the blood there still irritated her werewolf nose something fierce.

"Hey, Miller," she said.

"Brigadier," he replied, looking a little tired. "Is there something you wanted?"

"Well, I wanted to make sure you hadn't gotten yourself killed," she said. "But that's done. Unless you're a zombie of some sort?"

"No," he said with a very small smile. "No zombies here."

"Good," she said. "So how are you? Feel better now you've had a spot of revenge?"

"A bit, I suppose," he said with a shrug. "At least they didn't get what they wanted. My father didn't die for nothing."

Rachel nodded. "I thought you should know," she said. "The woman who killed your father is dead. She lead the attack on the command post and was disintegrated for her troubles."

Miller closed his eyes and breathed deeply. "Who killed her?"

"My droid," she said. "HK. It wasn't a quick death either. She'd dabbled in some seriously dark magics and it made it all go real slow when she died. Whatever evil she did, she's paid for it in spades."

And she'd go on paying for it for all eternity. Selling your soul for power was a one-way ticket to the deepest, darkest pits of a hell dimension somewhere. It was a particularly stupid thing to do and she'd gone and done it anyway. And for what? A short-lived power boost.

"Thanks. I . . . that's . . . good to know."

Chapter Twenty-Three

September 2003

Times change and the days when she was choked by the desperation of the hopeless whenever she tried to meditate were beginning to pass. There was hope now. It was a weak thing, a candle's light in an ocean of darkness, but it was there and it was slowly growing as the Allies penetrated further and further into alien-occupied Africa. Truly, it was a magnificent thing to behold. There's nothing quite like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel after things have been bad for so very long.

The invasion of Africa, Operation Reconquista, appeared to be proceeding very well indeed. It had been ambitious enough that Rachel had doubted it somewhat, but it seemed to have worked out quite well. The amphibious invasion had been expensive in terms of both life and wealth but it had bought the needed foothold and now the armies of humanity were pushing the aliens further and further back as they attacked both from their expensively bought foothold and from the stronghold that had been South Africa. It was a mess, but it was becoming a human mess once more.

South America was still a mess, unfortunately. They'd quickly puzzled out the source of the plague, a poisoned water supply, but it was proving hard to remove the contamination: if there was one thing the aliens were good at, it was producing something that would kill vast numbers of people effectively. And with the water supply contaminated, they were reliant on imports from North America and Europe or on what they could eke out of hastily constructed desalination plants. Clumsy and inadequate as those substitutes were, it was the best that could be managed. Their fear was manifest but there was nothing she could do about it.

On the upside of that, the plague being in the water meant they needed a lot less troops to maintain order. With the vector of infection determined they didn't need to maintain such a generalised quarantine and that had freed up men for the war. It was pretty low as upsides go, but it was something.

And then she felt Vrook enter the room.

"It's about time you showed up," said Rachel. "I was beginning to think you've given up on me."

"I gave up on you a long time ago, Revan," said Vrook. "But fate has conspired to force me to give you a second chance."

Rachel rolled her eyes before unfolding herself from her meditative posture and turning to face the ornery old Jedi. "You can't help yourself, can you?" she said. "Always with the insults. It's like a reflex or something."

Vrook grimaced. "If I had my way, you'd have been stripped of your connection to the Force and never allowed within a light-year of any Jedi enclave ever again," he said. "But we don't always get what we want. You have to be insulated from the Dark Side or the cost . . . the cost would be hideous."

Rachel folded her arms over her chest. "If you're trying to persuade me that working with you would be worth the trouble, you're not doing a great job," she said with a glare.

"Neither of us likes this situation, Revan, but we can't change it," he said by way of reply. "You can't stop being what you are and I don't see anyone else stepping up to take my place either."

"Well, you know, I'm getting along quite happily without your insights," said Rachel. "Have been for a while. So if you don't want to be here? Fine by me. Leave."

"If it were that simple, I would," said Vrook with a deep frown. "But someone has to be your voice of moderation."

"I've been through my trial by Dark Side," snapped Rachel. "Remember Malak? Well I had to stop him when he was drawing on the power of the hellmouth. And I did it without one iota of dark power. What else can anyone throw at me that could be worse than that? I'm not going to fall again."

"I'm not worried about you being able to deal with big, one-off threats, Revan. It's the little things that will get you. The slow slip down the slope with each step fully justified and entirely logical, right up to the point when you wake up one day and look in the mirror to see yellow eyes and pale skin."

"I think I'd recognise the signs, Vrook. I've been there, I've done that, and I've taken a hell of a lot of people down with me, people that I'd cared about once upon a time. Oh, I know the signs all right."

"But it's not so easy to recognise the signs of your own corruption," said Vrook. "And Revan, they're there. Your casual use of the Force to directly inflict injuries or even kill, your willingness to use the most vile sort of mind attacks, your ruthlessness in battle, even the harshness of the training exercises you use with your apprentice; it all adds up, Revan; it all takes its toll on the soul."

Rachel shook her head. "You're exaggerating," she said. "The most vile sort of mind attacks? No. Not at all. I can do much worse than pull information out of someone's mind."

"That really isn't the point. You start using those powers out of necessity and eventually you'll start using them because it's convenient, because it's quicker than other methods. It's a slippery slope."

"You are aware that the slippery slope is a logical fallacy, correct? Taking the first step does not necessarily imply the second will be taken never mind the third and fourth."

"It is the very nature of the best. You of all people should understand the nature of the Dark Side, the way it takes hold of your soul. Logic doesn't defeat evidence."

Rachel took a deep breath before replying. "Fine," she said. "I can see where you're coming from; I just think you're being overly paranoid. I barely do anything. I'm not out there fighting for my life or commanding armies on a regular basis. I don't have the opportunity, the cause, to fall."

"Even librarians can fall to the Dark Side, Revan," said Vrook. "Do you remember Master Atris? She fell and I can't remember her ever participating in a battle."

"Atris? Well, there's some irony there. She was always so prim and proper and so very, very uptight. Even worse than you."

"Yes, well, you running off with her apprentice to fight in the wars didn't have a good effect on her, and it was all downhill from there. She did some very, very foolish things before she came to her senses and the Jedi Order is still paying the price today."

"I should have known it would come back to me."

Vrook frowned at her, somehow deepening the wrinkles on his face even further. "No," he said, his voice vaguely reproachful. "We are all responsible for our own mistakes in the end. It will be she that answers for what she did, not you. And this is not what I came here for."

"What do you come here for, Vrook? You've yet to offer anything more than lectures and scoldings."

"You are indeed a skilled and knowledgeable wielder of the Force," he said. "A prodigy even. But you don't know everything despite your skill and your power. There are things you must know if you are to rebuild the Jedi Order in this dimension. Many things."

"I know," admitted Rachel. "I know only the basics of several forms and have very little aptitude and even less knowledge when it comes to healing. These are things I was going to look into when I had the time, when the war was over. Earth has several schools that could be co-opted to form the basis for new forms, but I've had no time for it."

Vrook snorted. "Recreating the forms will be a slow job. Better to have them passed on to you," he said. "I can teach you much of what you need. It may not be suited to you, but you can pass it on to those who do."

"I would appreciate that. My apprentice could make great use of a more complete shien if nothing else."

"Indeed. But those are not the primary reasons. You learned too many of your advanced techniques from Sith holocrons, Revan. Far too many for comfort. What they taught you was twisted. It always is. It won't be quick but eventually that will lead to your destruction. You must learn the pure Jedi methods. And I can teach you that, if you stay true to the light."

"Bribing me with knowledge?" asked Rachel with a smirk. "Why, that's the smartest thing you've done since you started showing up here."

"Bindo may not have lived up to the Jedi ideal, but he has great insight into your character," said Vrook. "I simply chose to listen to him."

"Smart choice," said Rachel. "Now all you have to do is start calling me by my name and not the by Revan. I'm Rachel. And if I ever get my male form back, I'll be Xander. Not Revan."

Vrook blinked. "Ah," he said. "Of course, if that is what you wish, Giles."

Well, it was a start. Rome wasn't built in a day and all that.

Dawn bore a look of eager anticipation as Rachel cleared the gym area out. She didn't normally bother to do so, but she wanted to see the totality of what Dawn could achieve against her that day and that meant she needed plenty of space. Jedi battles could get pretty acrobatic and if Dawn wanted to go that way then Rachel wanted to give her as fair an opportunity as possible to show what she could do. Gawkers would just get in the way of that.

Once the room was clear, Rachel shrugged off her lab coat, leaving herself in the tunic and trousers of her traditional robes. "Well, Dawn," she said, unclipping her lightsabre. "Let's see what you can do."

Dawn pulled her lightsabre loose of her belt and ignited it in one smooth motion, bathing the room around her in a bright white light. As she set herself into a solid-looking ready stance she flourished her sabre in an elaborate movement. Ah, youth. She'd get that knocked out of her soon enough when she started used it for real. Rachel ignited her own sabre, newly constructed after losing her old, in reply, bathing the room around her in green light.

Predictably, Dawn was the first to attack. Patience was not a strong point of the Summers family as a rule and Dawn was far from being an exception to that. She quickly advanced and started out with a darting slash at Rachel's mid-section that was easily intercepted before smoothly shifting into another attack aimed at the opposite side which Rachel parried aside before smashing her elbow into Dawn's jaw to force her back.

Before Dawn could resume the offensive, Rachel stepped in and stabbed at her mid-section, forcing Dawn to leap back to avoid being ran through. Rachel gathered the Force in her legs and leapt after her, exchanging a rapid series of cuts and parries in a blur of motion as they moved through the air. When they landed, Dawn parried aside a blow and locked the blades aside before attempting to slam a knee up into Rachel's gut that would have knocked the breath out of her if she hadn't kicked out at Dawn's ankle and knocked her off her feet before she could land the blow.

Her apprentice reacted quickly though and rolled out of the way before Rachel's blade could skewer her prone form. Rachel didn't give her any time to breath, though; she moved in straight away with a series of quick, precise cuts that darted from side to side, angle to angle, probing Dawn's defences. Dawn didn't even try to stand her ground. She'd learned how futile that was when faced with that type of attack; she backed off and kept her distance as best she could while defending against the strikes.

Eventually the tide turned, as it always does. Dawn caught one of the probing strikes on her blade in a straight-up block and then used all her power to shove Rachel back through the locked blades. And then she advanced quickly with brutal, clubbing strikes, working all the angles so that Rachel found her avenues of escape very slimmed down indeed. It wasn't subtle and it wasn't pretty, but that was shien - and by extension djem so - for you: all about overpowering the opponent with no concept of elegance or subtlety.

Rachel, of course, wasn't without her answers to that sort of assault. If she was a master of makashi and makashi alone, then she would have been in trouble; she wasn't. In one moment she switched from the elegant fencing style of makashi to the aggressive offence of juyo and returned fire with a flurry of stabbing strikes aimed at Dawn's chest that forced the young apprentice back onto the defensive.

Of course, Dawn was able to defend herself. The girl was quick on her feet and wasn't prone to letting herself panic when faced with adversity, so she managed to knock the thrusts harmlessly aside, even the awkward ones that had been aimed below her centre of gravity and where she held her blade. She was forced to give up ground with each strike, though and found herself unfortunately backed against the wall with nowhere left to retreat to.

As Rachel brought her blade around in a stroke that would end the spar, Dawn thrust her hand out and caught Rachel with a powerful telekinetic blast to the chest. Unable to entirely dissipate the energies without preparation, Rachel was blown off her feet and back across the room. She couldn't help but smile as she went. It wasn't often someone managed to break her guard like that in a duel; her apprentice was coming along very nicely. And as she landed, she returned fire: using her powers top heft an exercise bike and hurl it at Dawn's head.

What followed was a duel of telekinetic powers with objects being thrown to and fro as they matched skills. Such a duel could only have one end. For all her raw power, Dawn just couldn't harness the Force well enough to defeat Rachel in such a match of powers and eventually Rachel broke through and Dawn found herself tied up tight around the legs with a skipping rope.

And before Dawn could release herself, Rachel leapt across the room and brought her sabre down to rest a millimetre from her neck. "Match point," she said with a victorious smirk. "But you're improving quickly, Dawn. Well done."

"Thanks," said Dawn, looking quite exhausted. "Could you let me go now?"

Rachel untied the rope and banished across the room with a gesture. "It's a rare apprentice that progresses as quickly as you have, Dawn," she said. "You should be proud. Not too proud, though. That's bad."

"Yeah, yeah," said Dawn, slumping into a prone position as she fought to regain her breath. "Damn, I've never used that much power before."

"Looks like you need some endurance training to me," said Rachel. "Hmm. I wonder how many dodging exercises it would take-"

"NO!" screeched Dawn. "That's quite alright. I'll work with Buffy! And Casey! Yeah. They'll build my endurance up! Right? Yeah."

"Wrong sort of endurance, my lazy apprentice," said Rachel. "Don't worry. I'll come up with some exercises for you."


"But, leaving that aside, I think you'll be ready for some more advanced training soon," said Rachel. Then she frowned. "That'll have to wait, though."

"What? Why?" asked Dawn with a distinct pout.

"I learned some of my tricks from the Sith, Dawn. I have to make sure that stuff's safe before I teach it to anyone. Don't worry, I have plenty of other stuff I can teach you."

"Good!" said Dawn. A moment's silence. "How hard is it to build a lightsabre?"

"Well, that depends," said Rachel, eyeing Dawn carefully. "Are we talking a generic sabre from pre-made parts or a ground-up custom job? I wouldn't recommend trying anything too fancy the first time out; that way lies much frustration."

Dawn took a while to reply. "I suppose I should start simple," she said. "How hard would it be?"

"I'd provide the parts," said Rachel slowly. "The crystal, the power cell, and all the rest of it. Your role would be to design the hilt you want and put it all together. There are instructions for every step provided, but it's still not easy, Dawn. Are you sure about this?"

She nodded. "It's what we're supposed to do, yeah? We all build our own eventually or we're not real Jedi?"

"Eventually," said Rachel. "No-one's pushing you to do it just yet."

"What? You think I can't do it?" screeched Dawn, looking perfectly outraged.

Rachel laughed. "Didn't say that, did I, brat? I'm not going to stop you if you really want to do it, but you'd better not be wasting my time."

"I'm not!"

"Fine," she said. "Give me a few days and I'll get the supplies together. My holocron will provide any instructions you need."

Rachel almost felt like whistling as she made her way to Davis's office. The day was coming along quite nicely indeed and a summons from upon high didn't even come close to putting a dent in it. Even her visitation by the grumpy old man known as Vrook had gone pretty damned well for a very nice change. When even Vrook didn't insult you, you knew it was going to be a decent day.

The secretary didn't even look up from the gossip magazine she was reading when Rachel strolled on through. Whether that was an advantage of notoriety or simply because the secretary was a lazy bum, Rachel wasn't sure. It wasn't something that filled her with confidence though. She made a mental note to watch out and deliver a bollocking if it happened again.

Davis was at his desk tapping away at his computer terminal when Rachel entered his office. It was a fairly odd sight. He was just so incredibly tall and lanky that his limbs seemed to stick out everywhere and it was never so pronounced as when he was working at his desk. He was certainly an awkward looking man. Quite capable though. Rachel'd seen him in the base's gym and his awkward appearance didn't seem to hinder him one bit when he was on the treadmill or what have you.

"Ah, Giles," he said, switching his holographic terminal into standby as he spoke. "Sit down."

She did so. "You called?" she asked.

"Yeah. We ready for this trial run?" he asked. "It kinda gives me the creeping horrors whenever I read the reports you sent me. This goes wrong and we are fucked ten ways from Sunday."

Rachel took a moment before replying. "There's always a risk," she said. "That can't be avoided. But it's really no worse than the fusion tests or the explosives or any one of a dozen highly dangerous trials we've ran."

"But miniature black holes?"

"Think of it this way, when they detonated the first atom bomb some of the scientists bet on it igniting the atmosphere and destroying the world," said Rachel. "Some bet on it destroying New Mexico. We're really a lot better off than that. We know exactly what will happen barring catastrophic failure."

Rachel knew she was being somewhat disingenuous but what he didn't know wouldn't have him waking up in a cold sweat at night.

"Right," he said. "And the possibility of containment failure is nothing to worry about whatsoever. No chance, right?"

The sarcasm was strong with this one. "Tiny," she said. "Infinitesimally small. Like the chances of your car exploding in your face when you put your key into the ignition. It'll only happen if someone has seriously bollocked something up or if someone's sabotaged it. And I've kept a very close eye on who gets to work on the reactor."

Davis wore a very sour expression on his face. "It's the bollocking up part that worries me," he said. "No bastard saboteur is getting on my base. Anyway, you're ready?"

Rachel replied with a firm nod of her head.

"Excellent," he said. "The powers that be are very interested in this, Giles. They want this technology bad. I'm getting phone calls every day asking about your progress. It's really starting to irritate me."

Starting? "It's the technology of victory. Of course they're interested."

"Yeah, yeah," he said. "Just don't be surprised if I start passing some of them on to you to fob off. I'm getting sick of it. Retirement's never looked so good, I tell you."

"I don't suppose they actually tell you what they're after?"

"You have to be joking. I am but a peon to these people," he said. "And I don't have superpowers or a brain the size of Jupiter to get 'em talking to me. I'm lucky if they deign to tell me to pass on the latest 'what they want' to you. Fifteen years in and I'm nothing more than a glorified office manager."

Rachel said nothing.

"Right," he said. "Oh, I have heard some interesting rumblings. Nothing official, of course, but I do have some friends here and there, you know, and I've been hearing rumblings about a conference to decide how things are going to be handled when this mess is all over and done with. And you? Well, you're the big-time superhero and there was that thing with you being the recognised head of a religious order. You might just get called in, Giles, even if it's only to put a good, popular face on whatever crap they come up with."

"Your optimism is boundless."

"They fucked up the peace both times we've rolled out for a World War so far. I doubt that the third time'll be the charm."

Normally you'd run a potentially extremely dangerous test run somewhere nice and unpopulated, like Alaska, but it seemed pretty pointless to do that with this one. If they fucked up, there'd be nowhere safe for anyone to be. It gets to be that way when you're dealing with hypermatter. Miniature black holes are a fairly important part of the technology and there's no real way to mitigate the risk. Traditionally, that sort of work was done on an obscure moon somewhere that no-one would ever miss if you destroyed it, but that just wasn't an option for them. Turning Luna into a black hole would be no better than turning Earth into a black hole and the Ethereals would destroy any attempt to set up a lab anywhere other than Earth anyway. They were bastards like that.

So, with that in mind, they'd produced the safest testing facility they could on the base. They had forcefields, they had blast doors made of materials that could double as battleship armour, they had enough safeties on the reactor to make the average fission or fusion reactor look like a sloppily put together pile, and, to boot, enough soldiers guarding the entrances that any saboteur looking to throw a last-minute spanner in the works would have to be either quite insane to try and break through.

It was going to be a bit of an anti-climax for those watching really. The reactor was buried away behind a dozen layers of protection with a few technicians just in case - and they really hadn't been enthused with the idea of being the first to go squish if something went wrong - with nothing to actually see. Well, there'd be computer readouts, but it wasn't exactly going to be the Trinity test.

There weren't that many observers there, though. A couple of generals, an admiral or two, and that was about it. The base was a bit of an open secret but it was still a secret, so no politicians or journalists. Which broke Rachel's heart. Honest.

"We're ready to start boss," said Sarah, with a somewhat nervous smile. "Just give the word."

Rachel nodded before calling out a single word. "Begin."

"Initiating initial fusion reaction."

"Fusion reaction stable. Output holding steady at five hundred megawatts."

"Activating containment systems."

"Mass generator initialising. Outputs are stable."

"Hyperspace manipulator is online."

"Beginning mass generation."

That was where things got potentially risky. As part of a hypermatter reactor you had to generate a miniature black hole - well, more than one for most serious uses - and that brought along certain risks. Containment systems were in place, powerful containment systems at that, but you couldn't help but feel some small amount of nerves when you were playing around with forces like that with a prototype reactor.

"Stage one achieved."

"All readouts are green."

"What's going on?" asked one of the visiting generals who'd taken a place stood next to me.

"There are three stages to creating the black hole," said Rachel. "There's nothing special or different about any of them; it's just a precaution in case something goes wrong. We can pull back at any point before the third stage."

"Stage one is confirmed stable. Beginning stage two."

A minute of tense silence passed.

"Stage two achieved."

"All readouts are green."

"Stage two is confirmed stable. Awaiting order to proceed."

Rachel quickly ran over the readouts herself and saw nothing amiss. Given that her danger sense wasn't blaring, either, she saw no reason to not proceed. "Continue," she ordered.

"Beginning stage three."

"Dimensional breach detected."

"Black hole forming."

"Containment system readouts are optimal."

"Hyperspace manipulator is ready. Waiting for the word."

Again Rachel checked the readouts. Everything was green so there was no reason not to continue. She took a deep breath and then she issued the final command. "Do it."

"Hypermatter extraction initiated."

"Reaction beginning. Output climbing."

That was it. The moment of truth. They'd safely passed the generation of the black hole and now they were moving to generate power from it. Time passed and numbers were counted off as the output climbed higher and higher till they reached the target number.

"Output holding steady at five hundred gigawatts."

"Well, Doctor Giles, that's an impressive number," said the general stood next to her. "I can't wait to see what you're going to do with that sort of power."

Chapter Twenty-Four

January 2004

"You know, I never though I'd end up playing bodyguard to you of all people," said Casey. "It's novel."

Rachel looked up from the report she was reading and gave him the gimlet eye. "Laugh it up," she said. "I'm not the one who's going to have to sit through all these endless meetings without even getting the privilege of speaking once in a while when the windbags shut up."

"You take all the fun out of things."

"I'm really not seeing the fun in this," said Rachel. "I have much better things to do with my time than play at being a superhero-sized rubber-stamp for whatever those damned politicians have got planned."

"You should lighten up," replied Casey. "It's not every day you get invited to this sort of thing. In years to come, this is going to be a major deal for all the historians. Itll be in every book, like the Yalta Conference."

"Because Force knows I'm not famous enough."

Casey grinned and shook his head. "Hey, you're going to help shape the future of humanity," he said. "What's not to like?"

"Casey, my reason for being there derives from the moral authority granted to me by a series of Hollywood movies," said Rachel. "I'm the head of a religious order with two adherents."

"Yeah, yeah. And the superpowers and medals and all the rest of it have nothing to do with it."

"Harry has all that too," said Rachel. "He even brought Osama in pretty much off his own bat. What's the difference between us? Thirty years of Hollywood-style indoctrination courtesy of George Lucas that has generations of Westerners and a good chunk of what's left of the rest convinced that the Jedi are the embodiment of good. It's not exactly something to be proud of."

"You really need to lighten up."

Rachel closed her eyes and counted to ten before she replied. A rather childish method to gain control, but effective. "I apologise," she said. "But this is a complete waste of my time. There are so many things I need to do and yet I've been summoned her for something that I'm not really needed for. Politicians! If they had the sense they were born with, we'd all be a lot better off."

"And you're not sleeping right."

"How . . . I didn't think you were that observant, Casey," said Rachel. "Ah, I should have known better. But yes, my sleep has been interrupted recently. My dreams have been unpleasant."

"Take more than bad dreams to throw you off."

"My bad dreams tend to be prophetic," countered Rachel. "And I have to write them down quickly to fix them in my mind, which doesn't exactly help."

Casey looked worried. "Oh," he said. "Uh, you talked to the general about this?"

"And what do I tell him?" she asked. "My having a bad feeling doesn't mean a whole lot with the way the world is now and I can't offer anything more firm than that just yet. It was the same before the war. I knew something bad was coming, but I didn't know enough for it to matter."

"You should still send it up," he said. "People don't make good decisions without all the information."

"And what information do I have to offer?" she asked. "A bad feeling? Premonitions of violence and death and destruction? These aren't exactly unique things. They're exactly what I had before the war started and they're just as useless now as they were then. I was going to spend some time probing the Force so I could get some answers, but guess what? I have to attend a meeting on the other side of the country instead."

"You're much easier to deal with when that Faith girl's around. You know that, right?"

They lapsed into silence for a while before Rachel spoke again. "I'll tell them when I have something to say," she said finally. "But there's not much point telling them that there are bad things coming. The bad things are already here and we're mastering them as we speak. I need something more before it's even worth bringing it up."

There wasn't much more said after that. They reached New York and were quickly moved off the transport and to a hotel that had been secured for the many important people who were attending the meeting to stay in. The whole thing was done very quickly, very efficiently, without a single press camera in sight. Just how Rachel liked it.

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was certainly nothing special to look at. His height was slightly above average, his build spoke of someone who hadn't had enough time to exercise and had gone to see somewhat, and his facial features were of the sort that you see in the street every day and glance past without a second look. Utterly unremarkable. And yet there was a surprising amount of strength in his gaze and a harshness to his features that didn't really look to belong on someone so utterly average.

"Rachel Giles," he said with an attempt at a smile that ended up more like a grimace and an offered handshake. "It's an honour."

Rachel accepted the handshake and carried out the forms. "The honour's all mine," she said.

The Prime Minister dropped the handshake and waved at a comfortble looking chair. "Sit down," he said. "Might as well be comfortable while we talk."

Rachel sat down. There was no reason not to. "Are you anticipating this to be unpleasant?" she asked. "I can't see any reason for it."

"No, no," he said, sitting down opposite her. "Not at all. But I'm tired, it's been a long day, and it wouldn't have seemed right for me to sit down while you stood there. I suppose you're wondering why I asked you to meet me here."

"It had crossed my mind."

"It's quite simple really," he said. "You're here to represent the Jedi Order, yes, but you're also a British citizen, a subject of the Crown like any other, and I think it would be best if we spoke with, well, not a unified voice, perhaps, but at least not at complete cross-purposes."

Rachel nodded. "I have no intentions of openly undermining you, Prime Minister," she said. "That would be counter-productive. No, I won't do that. But then I have no intention of becoming entangled in politics if I can avoid. I will offer advice if asked, but the Jedi Order becoming entwined with government is something that never ends well."

"Yes, the principle of separating church and state," he replied. "I can see the merit to maintaining that, though it's not generally the church that argues in favour of it."

"The Jedi Order isn't your average church," said Rachel. "In fact, we are rather inclusive. We have no particular interest in supplanting conventional religion and it's not unusual for Jedi to have other beliefs. Some sects won't go along with it, of course, but that's their problem."

"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," quoted the Prime Minister. "It could easily become a problem if society took a theocratic turn, but that's not why I wanted to talk to you, as interesting a discussion as it could be. No, I want to ensure that we don't assume positions in the debates to come that oppose each other too strongly. And, somewhat unfortunately, I don't believe you'll have the luxury of separating yourself from politics. You're too public a figure for that."

"I have no agenda here," said Rachel. "No interests to serve. I will ask for humane, merciful treatment for the common man and appropriate punishments for the leadership as determined by a court of law. The flux of national borders and the like . . . well, that's not an issue I have much of an interest in, and it won't be relevant for much longer, I'm afraid."

"The Americans and their idea of a world government," said the Prime Minister. "I've heard quite a bit from them about that."

"It's inevitable," said Rachel. "All roads lead to unification. It's just a matter of how painful the process will be now. Really, in the face of what's happening, with confirmed, undeniable proof that humanity is not alone, how could we not unify? A divided humanity is one that has a much weaker ability to deal with these threats."

"I think you should tell that to the Chinese, the French, the Pakistanis, the Arabs, and all the rest," said the Prime Minister. "They're the ones who broke ranks. And we seem to be getting along well enough without them. I've never seen the like of some of the things we've accomplished in the last few years. Electricity prices are the lowest they've ever been in Britain and it's a time of total war!"

"Spoken like a true politician," said Rachel dryly. And suddenly the reason for her visions made some sense. "I'm sure it'll do your re-election chances no end of good, that. But these Ethereals . . . well, they're amateurs, to be honest. Arrogant fools, at best. They've been active for at least fifty years and they waited till we could defend ourselves to attack. Stupid, no? As good as the Spitfire and the Sherman were, they wouldn't have been much good against the sort of advanced technology the aliens have.

"Exploiting national enmities was intelligent, as far as that goes," said Rachel thoughtfully. "Divide and conquer personified even. But it's too little too late. They should have overran us while we were primitive and reeling from World War Two. We can't count on the next batch of enemies, and it's just a matter of time till there is another batch, I assure you, being so utterly foolish."

"And you think it can work? That we can put aside our differences? I haven't seen much evidence of that in my lifetime."

"We're doing it now, are we not?" asked Rachel. "We have a unified military command structure, even more so than NATO was, and we share resources and intelligence on a scale not seen before. Even our research is unified and fully shared these days and that's something that's always been quite jealously guarded when it came to military secrets. It wasn't that long ago that the NATO nations refused to share the spoils of my team's research work with China despite the X-COM treaties and now look. Necessity is the mother of invention, but even so progress has been highly impressive."

"Those are all government things," said the Prime Minister. "This is a time of war and governments have a great deal of leeway. That isn't going to be the case when peace comes."

"The people are tired of war," she said. "They'll accept a great deal if it means no World War Four. We couldn't afford that anyway. It would be the end for humanity if we went to war with each other again after this. We've grown too powerful as a species for internecine conflict to be viable."

He gave her a probing look before speaking again. "Your thoughts mostly mirror my own," he said. "Though I do not look forward to wrangling it out, a unified world government may be our only chance of survival as a species in the long run. Some of the reports I've seen on future weapons systems are just terrifying: far too powerful for humans to turn them on humans. Nuclear weapons were bad enough; these are just unspeakable."

"If you wanted advice, you could have just asked, you know," she said.

"I find that a debate setting, no matter how mild, settles the mind into making its best arguments," he said. "And I as good as asked. It was certainly implied."

Well, what could she say to that? "As you wish," she said. "Is there anything else you wish to discuss?"

"Not at this time," he replied after a moment of silence had passed. "There are other things I'd like to know, but they'd be covered by the briefing you're scheduled to give tomorrow."

The UN Headquarters district had been pretty much abandoned with the beginning of the Third World War. The UN had failed in its aims, though it really wasn't the organisation's fault as such, and with the time for diplomacy done with the people of the world had seen little utility in maintaining an expensive talking shop when they needed every cent they could get their hands on to fund the creation of new armies and the weapons for those armies.

But now that the war seemed to be turning solidly in the favour of the Allies the time had come for the world's future to be negotiated in advance. And where better to discuss that than in the Security Council Chamber? It was what the chamber had been built for, after all, and North America was the safest place in the world, being at the very edges of the aliens' range for raiding missions and being very, very well defended by the United States Air Force from such lightning raids.

Rachel found herself seated between the United Kingdom's Prime Minister and the Russian Federation's President at the circular conference table. The chamber wasn't as full as it normally would have been; the meeting wasn't for the press to publish for public consumption, after all. There were the representatives of the invited nations and groups, their entourages, and a few soldiers in full armour at each entrance to the chamber. And that was it.

The groups invited were fairly predictable for the most part. You had the large, powerful nations such as the Americans and the Russians, you had the representatives of larger groups such as the UK representing the commonwealth and Germany representing the EU, but then you had religious groups there: the Catholics to represent general Christianity, Egypt to represent the Muslims of the world, and India to represent the Hindus. And then there was Rachel, Grand Master of the Jedi Order; she was sure that Jedi Masters universe wide were spinning in their graves quick enough to break orbit at that designation.

The US President opened proceedings from his position at what was effectively the head of the conference table, stood in front of the mural depicting a phoenix rising from its ashes.

"I am glad to see that everyone made it here safely," he said, his voice carrying easily over the sound system. "Such are the times that it is almost surprising to see the familiar faces of my colleagues here without a single death since our last meetings. I extend my warmest welcomes to all of you.

"Before we begin work on setting the agenda for the meetings to take place over the next few days, I think we should report on the latest news from the front-lines and other relevant issues," he continued. "Unless there are any objections? No? Good, then we can continue.

"I do have some good news to being with. Very good news. As of Nine O'clock this morning, Korea is under Allied control," he continued with a smile briefly appearing across his tired features. "The last pockets of North Korean resistance in Pyongyang have finally surrendered and the Chinese forces fighting with them attempted to break out and surrender but they were encircled and forced to stand down by elements of the reconstituted Currahee. We have our second front, gentlemen."

There was a round of applause at that.

"Unfortunately, we weren't able to take Kim Jong-il alive," he continued after the applause died down. "He was found in their last holdout quite dead along with a number of aliens and Korean soldiers. The cause of death, from preliminary examinations, appears to be asphyxiation. Given the lack of any marks around his throat and the fact that we found an Ethereal corpse nearby, it seems that the aliens disposed of him as punishment for North Korea's failure. A fitting end, I think."

Rachel frowned. Choking someone telekinetically was the trademark Sith method for disposing of failures, not the aliens. They preferred the much nastier but also vastly inefficient psychic assaults. And the Sith had every reason to want a human victory in this war to come quickly. You can't rule over ruins, after all. Still, she had no proof.

"In related news, the general staff tell me that barring a major disaster we should be able to begin Operation Judgement Day in five months time," he continued. "I am aware that my esteemed Russian colleague would rather we moved earlier, and I assure you all that we would like to end this slaughter rather than later, but the aliens still have a considerable force based on Chinese soil and it's making the transport of our forces to the appropriate areas rather more dangerous than we would like.

"On a more positive note, the North American Shield Network is now providing coverage across approximately sixty-five percent of the continent," he said with a smile. "It is, as we expected, a terrible drain on our electrical network, but the results speak for themselves. Losses to alien raids have dropped to virtually nothing and, I have to tell you, watching an alien raiding party collide with the shield and be destroyed is a rather satisfying experience."

There was a polite round of applause as the American finished and took his seat. It would probably have been a whole lot more enthusiastic if a protected North America hadn't had the effect of redirecting the attacks to South America, who were rather justifiably peeved at the whole situation, Well, those were the breaks. No-one was going to skimp on their own protection because someone else could suffer as a consequence of their becoming too tough a target.

The Egyptian President was the next to stand and he spoke in a flawless English accent that sounded like it had came straight out of an Oxford college. "Before I begin my report, I would like to express how honoured I am to be invited to this gathering," he said. "It has been a long time since a Muslim nation earned the right to sit amongst the great powers of the world and it does my nation proud to be the one to earn such a right.

"The military situation of my country is excellent," he continued. "With aid from our Israeli brothers-in-arms and the European forces, Allah praise them, that have been moved into the region we have pushed the alien invaders far from our borders and now threatened by nothing more than the occasional raiding party or aerial attack. This is, without a doubt, far superior to the situation this time last year.

"Specifically, components of the second army group, with able support from our many allies, has reached Mali and made contact with the allied forces that been landed in North Africa," he continued. "And the other components of the second army group is making solid progress through Somalia and Ethopia on its way to link up with South Africans. Specifically, the seventh army corps has reached Mudug, where it has been temporarily forced to cease its advance by a series of alien defensive positions, and the first army corps has reached the Genale Wenz.

"The first army group has moved into occupation duties in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria as per the Berlin Agreement," he continued. "There is little of note to report there. As expected, the population levels are extremely low and the infrastructure of those nations is almost entirely useless. Some alien stay-behinds have been encountered but with the aid of allied forces they were defeated with the expected minimal losses. The prediction that they would be entirely incapable of normal guerilla activities in human territory was borne out.

"The economic situation, however, despite these military successes, is perilous," he continued. "The resources we receive from the United States of America allow us to maintain a basic standard of living for those of out people who have not been conscripted into the armed forces but if the aliens were to interrupt the flow of those supplies for any period of time we would be in a very poor position. If we are not given aid of some sort to help rebuild our damaged industries, there will be trouble in the future."

And with that he was finished and sat down to a polite round of applause. The speeches continued from then on with few surprises. It was all very tedious, but the formalities had to be observed, so she had to sit through an interminable series of world leaders standing up and talking about how honoured they were to be there before reporting on the current military situation. If there was a better definition of hell than that, Rachel hadn't seen it.

Eventually it came to be her turn, the last to speak courtesy of the policy of having the religious leaders speaking after the national leaders, and she rose from her seat. There was a distinct feeling of strangeness as she did so. This was the sort of situation that Revan had thrived on. She'd have had them eating out of her hand in five minutes flat and she'd have loved every minute of it. Rachel saw the necessity of it all but she felt none of the thrill that Revan would have felt. It just wasn't there.

"I am, of course, honoured to be invited here," said Rachel, being very honest. "For a religious order as small as the one I have been appointed as leader of to be invited to such an event is a truly exceptional occurrence and, in fact, entirely without precedent to my memory. I can only hope that my presence here will prove to be productive in a way that will justify the invitation.

"I have much to report," she continued. "But that is scheduled for a special briefing I am to deliver in tomorrow's morning sessions. To provide something useful for now, I will simply state that progress has been adequate in all the ordered fields of study."

And with that she sat down. She really didn't have anything else to say. Oh, she could have spun it out for a while, but there was no more content for that day. The meeting quickly moved on to settling agendas after she finished and there was little enough to squabble over there that they were quickly finished.

The chamber was again full when Rachel took her place to deliver a special briefing on the progress of the research and design efforts being undertaken to provide the weapons needed to defeat the alien threat. The table in the centre of the chamber, the one surrounded by the circular table that the heads of state were seated at, had been replaced with an older holographic projection system that was somewhat larger and clunkier than what Rachel was used to but it was otherwise the same as it had been for the initial meeting.

"The meeting will now begin consideration of the item on its agenda," said the American President. "The item in question being the progress being made towards a viable method to deal with alien base on Mars. In order to do so, we will now hear a special briefing from Doctor Giles on the current status of the research and design effort."

"A great deal of progress has been made since the last general progress report, A/10289-B, was released for your consumption" said Rachel once she'd took her place. "As of the time of that report the progress made towards the goal of a space navy was substantial but mostly in fields that would support that construction of starships rather than in obvious steps towards accomplishing such a feat. There was nothing that would stand out to someone who was not playing an active role in the research as being terribly interesting. Nothing that would stand out to an observer.

"That has changed," continued Rachel. "Considerable progress has been made now, obvious progress, and we can, using this holographic projector, show you the proposed designs for the starships we have designed. They are, it has to be said, difficult to believe for someone used to conventional technology and its capabilities but I can assure that they are within our grasp. Or if not they are within our future grasp given our project expansion when the war is over."

"The first design has been dubbed the 'Fist of God' by some of the engineers working on the design," said Rachel as she activated the projector to show it. "It is, it should be noted, a theoretical design. It is the 'dream machine' that has the deluxe version of anything and would cost an absolutely hideous amount. I am, in fact, quite sure that the available construction facilities would be entirely inadequate.

"As you can see from the hologram, it is quite a large design," continued Rachel. "The Nimitz has been included as a reference point for size and as you can see it is dwarfed. At exactly one mile, sixteen hundred metres, in length and proportionally similar in width and depth it is far larger than any existing human construction of any sort. Its armament consists of sixty-four heavy energy weapons, turbolasers, as well as a dozen missile launchers designed to carry heavy missiles used for anti-capital-ship work. The name of the design comes from the turbolasers. The energy bleed-off from the bolts, rated in the hundreds of megatons, as they pass through a planet's atmosphere towards a target will generate a column of fire that looks much like the biblical smiting of the Old Testament.

"Defensively, the ship has thirty-two completely independent shield generators which produce an overlapping series of shields which will protect the ship from all harm as long as they are kept active. The design is also equipped with a sophisticated ECM system that will disrupt all enemy targeting and communication systems within a star system.

"Propulsion comes through two systems," said Rachel. "At sublight speeds propulsion is provided by half dozen ion engines spread across the rear of the main hull. At supralight speeds, propulsion comes from the three hyperspace units located in the same area. Calculations indicate a top speed of somewhere in the area of eight-hundred light years an hour for faster-than-light travel. A more exact number will be provided when further hyperspace trials have been performed using the Icarus prototypes.

"It is, as you can see, an Imperial Star Destroyer in all but name, and it will, if ever actually built, strike terror into the hearts of any enemy humanity has cause to face.

Rachel switched the projector. "But that ship was not a design we could build in time for this war. This design is. The Dreadnought, like the HMS Dreadnought of years gone by, is the ship that will change everything. It is a factor of two smaller in each dimension reducing the overall volume by a factor of eight, bringing it within current construction capabilities. There is, of course, a corresponding drop in capabilities. Remember, as has been stated in the reports, that reactor mass determines everything with starships. Eight times less volume means eight times less reactor mass. It should be noted that this results in a considerably lower maximum speed in hyperspace.

"Another notable design is the Enterpise," said Rachel changing the display aain. "Theoretically named for the American carrier of the same name during the Second World War but in fact I think the name came from Star Trek. It is approximately the same volume as the Dreadnought but it's a box shape instead of a wedge and much more lightly armed. It does, however, have the capacity to carry, launch, and support approximately twenty-four squadrons of fighters when using the recently standardised twelve-fighter squadron.

"The final design is the Yamato," said Rachel, changing the display again. "This is the proposed destroyer class of the new starfleet. It's a cylindrical design, somewhat larger than the Nimitz-class, and is mainly designed to pick off smaller threats before they can approach the main ships of any fleet formation. It has the capacity to engage larger threats with six heavy guns but the main part of its armament is lighter weapons that would be more useful for engaging smaller ships or even fighter or bombers.

"In order to give you an idea of the levels of firepower we're talking about here, I have prepared a simulation," said Rachel. "This simulation will show the effects that three Dreadnoughts along with an escort of a dozen Yamatos and a bomber wing deployed from an Enterprise could do in a planetary bombardment operation. The target select, for obvious reasons, is Mars."

Rachel then set the simulation to run and watched with the dignataries as the simulated fleet set about sterilising the simulated Mars. She didn't let the simulation run for the full sterilisation operation, it would take too long, but she left it running just long enough for them to get the idea. Seeing a planet blasted to an irradiated dustbowl seemed quitenough to her. No real need to show them the crust beginning to melt or the atmosphere being boiled off. They'd got the message.

It did her well to see how shaken they all were, though. Good. If they were going to destroy Mars then they needed to see what that meant, just like how the Cold War leaders needed to know what they'd be doing if they let the bombs fly. She didn't have a Hiroshima to show them so a computer display would have to do.

The next few days passed in a blur of meetings and debate as the leaders of the free world set about deciding the fate of the not-so-free world. It wasn't something Rachel had any great desire to attend but she had no choice in the matter; she had to be there and she had to endure. It would have been nice if she'd felt like she had a great deal to offer to the meetings but she didn't really. The fate of places like China and Pakistan were already as good as sealed. It was just a matter of settling the details, who'd administer which parts and what concessions and other nonsense would fly around in the end.

Her own position was confused. Her natural instinct, the instinct which had destroyed the Mandalorians forever as a great power, was to go for the throat and ensure that they could never offer a threat again. But that went against the Jedi way. A hand lent in assistance can be worth a thousand crushing victories in war or so the saying went. And it was something she wanted to try and live up to this time around. So she found herself curiously allied with the Catholics in asking for humane, merciful treatment of the vanquished enemies. It was all a bit strange.

The last meeting, what it was all coming towards in the end, the one that really mattered, was the one that would set the shape of human government for years to come, if not virtually forever.

"I welcome you all to our final meeting," said the American President. "I expect that you have all read the agenda and know what this is about but I shall summarise as a courtesy. It is the belief of my government, and of many others, that the days of national governments being supreme have to come to an end. Many are the voices who will stand against this but I, myself, believe it to be the most important decision we could ever make as leaders of our nations.

"Just look at what our national differences have wrought," he continued. "War. Endless, brutal war across the globe. Billions dead and for what? All because we weren't unified enough to resist alien manipulation of our politics. All because we were more separated than we were unified. The time has come for humanity to come together, totally and finally, and to recognise our true enemies: the aliens. We must protect ourselves, we must or we will have no future as a species, and we can't do that unless we are together, unless we are one in our aims.

"Please, I beg of you all, just listen," he continued. "Don't allow old national differences, old arguments, traditions, sway you against this. What is the real fundamental differerence between an American and a European? Or an African and an Asian? It's tiny. Infinitesimally small by comparison to what else is out there. The universe is full of others, we cannot allow ourselves to be separated any longer by tiny genetic differences or by cultural differences. We must be one."

"The United Kingdom is in full agreement," said the British Prime Minister. "While we reserve the right to debate details, we agree with the sentiment that humanity must be unified. We cannot afford to go through another war like this."

"Japan agrees."

"India does not agree," said the Indian President. "While the sentiment is a noble one, we do not believe it could work adequately. The world is a large and diverse place and despite what the American President believes the differences are important. Not all parts of the world wish to be governed in the same way as America. In not all parts would it be regarded as a good idea.

"And we well remember colonial rule," he said. "While this new government is not an empire, it would share the same great distance of rule, the same lack of self-determination for its peoples. Technology could ameliorate some of that, yes, certainly, especially the communications networks, but it cannot change the fact that a single government would be necessity have to have a single way to doing many things. For example, India's idea of separate laws for separate religions would almost certainly be done away with by a world government, while we feel that to be an adequate compromise position for the governing of a multi-religious state.

"And the fact is that people have not, do not, and will not like the idea of being governed by a government seated in a distant land and made up mostly of foreign people," he continued. "So has it always been, so shall it always be. The resentment to such would be a fault line which any wily foe could exploit to set us down this familiar path of war against our fellow men once more."

When the Egyptian President stood to speak next, Rachel could see that many expected the worst. "I too come from a nation that has a cultural memory of the days of colonialism," he said. "It has been only a few short decades since the Europeans tried to occupy the Suez and we remember it well. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't listen to this proposal with an open mind.

"The idea of a world where Muslims can live in peace with Jews and Christians and Hindus and all the other races and creeds of man has a great appeal to us, the Egyptian people," he said. "We have suffered through so many wars, lost so much, and it's all so pointless. This war has shown us that. Let us all live in peace as brothers. We are all men despite our differences."

The Turkish representative spoke next. "While Turkey would like to express some cautious interest in the idea we must say that there are routes to peace other than this," he said. "There has been peace in Europe for over sixty years now and those nations are still independent, sovereign states. And there are few parts of the world with grudges and histories going back as far as the nations of Europe."

That was where Rachel stood up. "I must say that I regard the idea of a unified human government as a very good one," she said. "The objections are fair ones. Yes, people will resent it. Yes, this will be an exploitable fault line. Yes, there will have to be some hard compromises made. These are all true. But do they outweigh the benefits? I don't think so. I really don't.

"You see, humanity is about to take its first steps into a much, much larger universe," she said. "We've already sent probes to Alpha Centauri as a test mechanism for hyperspace units. No, there isn't much interesting there, but it's just a start. Soon, with the aliens inevitably defeated, we will move into the galaxy at large and we will encounter other alien species.

"Some will be hostile, yes," she said. "And for those we will have to fight. We will have to fight as if our lives depend on it. But not all will be hostile. Not all are madly bent on conquest. Some will be friendly, some will want to trade, some just won't care about us or our world at all. But even then, we must speak in a unified human voice to be heard. Just cast your eyes back through history. Who garnered the most respect, the Holy Roman Empire or its successor state, Germany?

"Even America can't do it alone," she continued. "Even the most powerful, most wealthy, of us couldn't do it alone. Single nations are weak compared to unified worlds. They don't have the resources. They can't play at the same table. And humanity needs to be able to sit at the top table and have a strong hand.

It all made sense to her. The visions. "I have seen the future," she said. "And there are great things head of us. But there are also terrible things. Things that make even these invaders look tame. We must be strong enough to face them head on and defeat them or we will be destroyed. And that will require a unified human race with a unified government and a unified military force.

"I beseech you," she said. "Do not let old grudges hold humanity back now. We stand on the cusp of greatness. Don't back away."

And then she sat down. The room was quiet. She had them. She knew it. She had appealed to their vanity with the use of the word greatness and they would take the bait for sure. Ever politician wants to be remembered as a Winston Churcill, not an Anthony Eden. That was just how it went.

"The Church, speaking as representative of all Christian denominations and almost a billion people, agrees completely."

And so it went. Victory, of a sort, if you looked at it as a battle. It took them a while to hash out the details of it all but in the end the United Nations of Earth was set to take its place as the governing body of all humanity with the United Nations Naval Service taking command of all space-borne assets and the assault on Mars as inauguration activities when the time came.

Chapter Twenty-Five

April 2004

A blue blade ignited in Dawn's hand and she grinned like a lunatic. Rachel nodded her acquiescence. "It seems functional," she said. "Though I recommend testing it against a duelling droid before letting it see any real action."

Dawn nodded and gave Rachel a bright grin before bouncing off to do so. Rachel sighed. They did grow up so far. Her own lightsabre and her eighteenth birthday so close as well to boot. Little Dawnie was almost a woman. Judging by the looks some of the soldiers were giving her, more than almost. Ah, how time flew. It didn't seem like that long to Rachel since Dawn hadn't been able to eat ice-cream or yoghurt without smearing it all over her face. Then again, maybe she was just a messy eater.

"Query: Master, the insolent, young meatbag apprentice appears to be far too happy. May I puncture her joy?"

"Not today, HK," said Rachel. "Let her enjoy it. She has hard enough times coming up, let her have this."

"That sounds ominous," said Peter. "Have you been seeing the future again or have you just decided to make her life difficult?"

"Little of A, little of B," said Rachel with a wave of her hand. "Jedi rarely get an easy life but I have to test her soon and I have to make that difficult as I can manage or it's all a bit pointless."

"Oh dear," said Peter. "The cave?"

"A Star Wars fan, Peter?" asked Rachel. "I'd never have taken you for a sci-fi geek type before. But yes. Something along those lines. She must face her own darkness even if I don't have a convenient cave saturated with darkness around to use on her. Maybe I can get Harry to lend me a dementor . . . "

Peter looked positively scandalised by the idea. Obviously he'd been doing his research on magic and such. "I don't think that would be a good idea," he said. "They tend to do nasty things. Like steal someone's soul. Bad idea all round, I think. Barbaric creatures."

Rachel couldn't help but smirk. "Ah, well," she said. "Maybe a boggart then. No, she'd see through it. Boo. That gives me an idea though."

Peter sighed. "Just so long as I don't have to clean up after it," he said. "I'd be forced to lodge a complaint about that, I suspect."

"Where's your sense of fun?" asked Rachel. "It's not like anyone's going to be killed or anything. Just a little tormented."

"Statement: if I may, master, I think a little death would spice any test up quite nicely. No test is complete without a little bloodshed. How would you know the meatbag will deal with the battlefield without it?"

"Your robot is repulsive," enunciated Peter clearly. "I have no idea why you tolerate such a creature."

"Statement: and you are both boring and decrepit," said HK. "Why you have not been scrapped I do not understand. I can only speculate that you have friends in high places."

If looks could kill, HK'd have been deader than the time he tried to take on Glory and got blew to bits for his troubles.

"Now, now, boys," said Rachel. "You'd think between a robot and a grandfather there wouldn't be that much testosterone to start a fight with."

"I'll have you know that I have plenty of testosterone left," said Peter with a sniff.

Ah, she'd almost forgotten how much fun it could be to drive someone to distraction. She'd lost that somewhere along the way as the war set in and made her get all serious about things. Well, no more. The war was nearly done with and she'd made pretty much all the contributions she was likely to already. Her brain was tapped out. And so she could relax a bit. Peter wasn't as much fun as Giles had been back in the day but he wasn't too bad.

"Still got lead in the old pencil, eh?" asked Rachel. "You know . . . I really didn't need to know that. Seriously."

Peter just gaped.

"What?" asked Rachel. "Not used to me having a sense of humour? I thought it was funny even if no-one else did."

"If this is your sense of humour then I find myself glad that you've had little cause to make use of it in recent times," said Peter, though she suspected he wasn't quite as put out as he made himself out to be. He just wasn't that stuffy. "It is incredibly juvenile, especially for one as otherwise intelligent as yourself."

Rachel let silence take hold for a few moments before speaking again. "So what do you think, Peter?" she asked. "Of Dawn, that is. A progress report, if you will."

"She's still so young," he said with a sigh. "Oh, she could take any of your usual high school tests now and outdo all but the greatest students this country has to offer, for the part I am responsible for, and she's more than capable of holding her own in any sparring match to boot, for the parts that yourself and Casey are responsible for, but she still seems so young. Maybe I'm just getting old but I don't remember eighteen seeming so young when I took the Queen's shilling."

"Hmm," said Rachel. "No, you're right. She's still young, despite it all. For better or worse she's not had to stand on a battlefield as of yet and what she's picked up with her senses seems to have not affected her too badly."

"But you're still going to put her through these tests."

"Of course," said Rachel. "She can't move on much further without the trials. She has to face her own darkness and understand it before she can advance. That's just the way it is."

"I suppose you have to be cautious when dealing with youngsters who have access to these powers but it seems . . . harsh. I expect that Casey won't like it. He's grown to be rather fond of the girl."

"Casey should understand as well as anyone on this world can," said Rachel. "You don't get to be as high a level in a martial art as he is at without facing some hard trials. Nothing comes for free in this world. Nothing. And being a Jedi requires much more discipline and comes with much more in the way of risks than martial arts."

"We'll see."

"Are you quite this is a good idea, Giles?" asked Vrook when he showed up later on that night. "All things considered, it may not be the best idea to push this apprentice too hard on this front."

"Now, Vrook, since when did you believe in going easy on apprentices?" asked Rachel. "I can't remember it. Ever."

"Dawn Summers has the potential to be one of the greatest Jedi ever," said Vrook. "But she also has the potential to be one of the greatest scourges the Jedi Order has ever seen in any reality. For that reason, I am quite understandably cautious about her. Remember how Anakin ended."

"It's hardly an unfamiliar tale," drawled Rachel. "I seem to remember it being about the most popular series of films ever made. But I thought you'd want me to go hard on her, make sure any dark impulses are driven out. You know, your usual approach to pretty much any apprentice that falls into your orbit. I seem to remember some times like that for myself."

Vrook frowned. Deeply. It made him look even older than he already did, which took some doing. "And, as has been pointed out to me in great detail and at great length, look how that ended," he said. "You still fell. Malak still fell. Half the damn Order still fell. And that mess nearly broke the Republic entirely in the end. This world is not half as durable as the Republic was, either."

"Oh, I think this world will surprise you," said Rachel. "It's not as weak as it may seem at first glance."

"We shall see," said Vrook. "But that's hardly the point."

"No," said Rachel, looking up from the enchantment and conjuration work she was doing for Dawn's trial. "But this is: there is such a thing as going too far in the opposite direction when you realise a mistake. You'd make a poor touchy-feely master, Vrook. Leave that to Zhar or Vandar."

Vrook harrumphed.

"She can handle it," said Rachel. "She has to. The time has come. No Jedi can avoid facing their own inner darkness forever, or even for very long. She must face this. She simply must. There's no other option."

"You might be right," he said. "But I do not wish to risk the world facing another Darth Vader."

"If it comes to that, I will do what is necessary. You can rest assured of that."

"Will you?" he asked. "As attached as you are to the girl? I'm not so sure, Giles. It's not easy to do that to your own apprentice, to cut them down when they've gone rotten. You took advantage of that yourself enough times as Darth Revan."

Rachel gave him an icy glare. "Remember who you are talking to," she said, enunciating each word with great precision. "I do not flinch from my duty."

"No, I suppose you don't," said Vrook. "Let's hope that we never need to find out if you could do it."

Rachel went back to her work and said nothing in reply.

"Well, this isn't really what I came here for," said Vrook finally. "We have training to work through. You have taken relatively well to the healing techniques I have shown you so far, but today we shall be working on something somewhat more advanced. I advise that you pay close attention, Giles."

Rachel did so.

Word came in that next morning that Operation Judgement Day was virtually ready to begin. The forces of man were on the brink of launching their final assault against what was still left in the hands of the aliens and their pawns. Rachel couldn't help but be pleased. A good victory would do the world a power of good; if nothing else, it would provide a feel-good wave that would help wipe away the resentment engendered by the still-forming world government. The protests had been distinctly muted by the circumstances of the time and the various war powers acts that had been passed by the nations of the world, but they still existed. Commencing the final act of the war would help there.

"I hope you know what you're doing, kid," said Jolee. "I know you think this is the right thing to do, and I see where you're coming, but you're pushing the girl awfully hard, awfully fast."

"Of course I am," said Rachel. "She's a a natural. Slowing down her training to an artificially slow rate of progress would just frustrate her and end up being entirely counter-productive.

"Well, I seem to remember another prodigy or two," said Jolee. "Real bright kid, real powerful, swallowed up knowledge like nothing anyone'd ever seen before. Exhausted what they could get from one master so they moved from master to master, even, for a while. Must have read through half the archives too. Everyone thought they was going to be about the greatest Jedi ever the way she picked things up. Didn't end too well, though."

"I do remember my own history, old man. I'm not the senile one here."

"Could have fooled me," said Jolee. "Seems like history's repeating itself kinda obviously to me."

"Dawn isn't Revan," said Rachel. "She's her own person. And guess what? She's a better person, too. Mrs. Summers did a pretty damn good raising her. I don't think Dawn's got a genuinely malicious bone in her body. Sure, she whines a lot and she can be irritating as all hell, but there's no deep-lying darkness in there. There's no Darth lurking in the back of her mind. There're no twisted teachings. She's just a good kid who's advancing quick."

Jolee nodded. "Just wanted to be sure you know what you were doing," he said. "For what it's worth, I mostly agree. Not sure about better but different? Sure."

"She's not going to slaughter trillions. That's better."

"She's not going to get left with the devil's choice time and time again, either," pointed out Jolee. "Deciding which planet gets saved and which dies . . . that's going to leave marks on anyone, nevermind an empath."

"Haven't you played devil's advocate enough for one day, Jolee?" asked Rachel. "I think that I, of all people, understand what I did and why. I'm not going to debate it with you or with anyone."

"Dag nabbit, nobody has any respect for the whims of their elders these days. Why I remember the days . . . "

"Yeah, yeah. When you walked twenty miles uphill in the snow with no shoes and a fifty kilo pack on your back every day to get to the enclave for training," said Rachel. "Or something like that, I assume."

"Well, I was going to say 'when Revan actually listened to me' but that'll do too," said Jolee. "Anyway have fun with that . . . whatever the hell it is. I'm sure it'll be greatly entertaining."

"Sod off, Jolee."

"What the hell have you done, Giles?" asked Casey, looking honestly quite scared. "Have you gone completely out of your mind?"

"What?" asked Rachel. "Oh, that. It's not actually alive, Casey. It's a golem. A simulacrum, if you will. Dawn's test. It has no mind or will of its own. No power other than that which I provide. It's a meat-puppet."

"If it's not real, then why does it make me want to run for my fucking life," he asked, still looking creeped. "And what the hell made you make something like that?"

"Oh, that would be the spells woven into its being," said Rachel. "It would be rather useless if wasn't convincing and Dawn, being caught by surprise, should be very well convinced, I think. It's quite a good piece of work actually, if I do so say so myself."

"That doesn't answer the question of why I shouldn't be phoning the men in white coats about now," replied Casey. "Because this is madness distilled."

"You exaggerate. Trust me, Casey. This is the best way to test Dawn's resolve against her own darkness."

"By having a vision out of her nightmares show up? Great idea. Let's see if we can drive super-kid mad. Brilliant."

"Casey, Casey, Casey, you really have gone soft on her, haven't you?" said Rachel. "This is the only way. I'd prefer something a little less, hmm, likely to end in mortal combat but it's all I have right now."

"Mortal combat. Gee, that sounds like a great idea."

Rachel shrugged. "It's only a golem," she said. "It doesn't really matter if it gets killed anymore than it matters when you die in a computer game."

"More worried about Dawn than that . . . thing."

"Yeah. Well, I'll be in full control. It can only operate according to my will. If I withdraw, it goes dormant."

"Great. And how exactly does that work then?"

"Oh, it's pretty simple. I take possession of the form, possess in the sense of forced total control, and then I take it to perform the test. If it gets too hot, I'll withdraw to my own body to deal with things. Won't happen. Dawn's not going to fail."

"So you're going to have to leave your body behind?"

"That's why HK's here. No-one'll go near my body while he still functions. Adequate protection, I think."

"How do I play into this?"

"I'd appreciate it if you kept an eye on my body," said Rachel. "I'm not worried about anyone interfering with it - HK will prevent that - but if something starts to go wrong I might need a human at hand to kept it from choking on its own tongue or something similar while I'm not at home."

"Sounds like you should have a doctor watching."

"I don't know any of the doctors. I know you."

Casey nodded. "OK, I'll do it," he said. "But I still think you're pretty damned close to insane to come up with the idea of conjuring up Darth Vader to test Dawn with. Just damn weird."

Taking possession of the body was easy. Rachel had designed it to be so. The golem had no will of its own, no spirit, and she just slid into it. Sure, it wouldn't live for very long - if it could be called living to start with - but it'd last long enough for the test and that was what mattered. It was strange though. The Vader body was designed to closely match the condition of the original and that meant it was a cripple augmented heavily with cybernetics so that it could function at something close to a normal human level. It took a few moments to get used to.

She didn't even have normal human eyesight. In the Vader body, she saw through a mask of sensors that provided a red-tinted image of the world around her using heat signatures and the like to form an image. It was how droids saw the world, HK included, and it was something that took more than a little getting used to for a human. Fortunately, she didn't have to rely upon it. Supernatural senses and all that. Eyes were unreliable anyway.

Just getting up off her back and onto her feet took a couple of attempts to pull off in the Vader body. It was just so much more massive that she was used to. It had been years since she had even been able to spend time in her male form nevermind anything as massive as Vader.

"Not going to be much of a test if you can't even walk properly," said Casey.

"Yes," said Rachel, in Vader's deep, mechanised voice. "I'll need to take a moment to adapt to this. It's . . . interesting."

"Statement: I do like your new body, master. It's much more . . . functional than a mere meatbag."

Rachel was beginning to get an idea of why Vader was so damned cranky as HK said his piece. Not even being able to control your own breathing . . . it was irritating. Very irritating. And the sheer amount of unnatural material, machinery, in the body was interfering with her connection to the Force. It was driving her insane and she'd only been in it a minute. It felt like there was a layer of static between her and the power that normally came to her at will, and she hated it. It wouldn't be enough to ruin the test but it'd be a killer to live with.

"You okay there?"

Rachel clenched her fists and held them up for her to see. They were huge. "I'll live," she said. "It isn't every day you change bodies."

Well, the quicker she got it over with the quicker she could return to her own body. She cast an eye over her own form, hunched over in a chair and looking barely alive, before sweeping out of the room, cape billowing behind her in an irritatingly dramatic fashion.

Rachel had issued orders for the corridors between her preparation room and the base's gym to be cleared prior to the test and mercifully they had been obeyed. God only knew what would have happened if she'd ran into a bunch of soldiers patrolling the corridors when she was occupying Vader's flesh. Nothing good, most likely. Of course, there was always someone who didn't listen. Inevitable really.

And it just had to be Sarah. It just had to be really. Typical of her not to pay attention or, more likely, to simply forget. The look on her face when she looked up from the clipboard she was reading from as she walked and saw Darth Vader stalking down the corridor towards her was almost amusing though. In fact, it would have been amusing if Rachel didn't like Sarah.

She made a sound, something between an eep and a meep, and her mouth opened and closed several times without any coherent words passing her lips, the only noise in the corridor being that of Vader's respirator, before she managed to speak. "I'll . . . I'll just be leaving now, yeah," she said. "Yeah. I'll just go hide under my boss's desk. See you around, Mr., uh, Vader? Yeah, Mr. Vader. Bye."

And then she was off. Rachel'd never seen her move so fast befo