Standard Disclaimer:

This is not a standard Nifty story: there may be sex in this story, but only insofar as it shows up in real life, and I'm goign to try and take a closed-door approach to it. This is not a porno story, it's intended as a serious novel. That said, I still need to provide certain disclaimer's if I'm going to post on Nifty:

You're all probably familiar with the standard drill: this story may contain sexually charged scenes including same-gender pairings, abuse, incest, rape, and more. If reading such is illegal in your area, please do not continue.

I have my own website, and am also hosted at other sites, including and Redemption, and Guardians before it, are not my only stories! If you drop by my website, it tends to be the most comprehensive source of stories for your reading pleasure, but you will occasionally discover stories that haven't reached it -- such as Unexpected Reactions at

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Frank had a lot of blood on his hands, and he'd always wondered -- always worried -- about his reception when he reached the Other Side. But all he felt as the darkness claimed him was a calm peace. He knew now, without a doubt, that he had nothing to fear. And, despite what he had always believed would happen, he did not die alone, with no one to comfort him or see his passing.

As if in benediction, the roots he'd hidden among slowly bent and twisted, lowering his now cooling body into the welcoming earth. The wind whispered softly, almost sounding like words. Not a eulogy, as might be expected at a burial, but a gracious welcome unto an honored soul. For all the blood he'd shed, for all the darkness in his soul, there was no evil. He had died as he had lived, doing what he believed to be right, and he was welcomed here. And, as in ages past, again the Light could shed some of it's blessing upon his physical form. Hidden, it would provide no clues or aid to his enemies, no way to revenge themselves upon his friends and family.

Above, the lightning storm continued to grow in strength.

"Alright, remember," Dill and Bri were reminded again, "wait until we call you in. Your most important job is to provide local knowledge, and as the one pair of faces anyone inside will recognize as friendly."

"We remember," Dill answered, checking his weapon one more time.

"Good," Theodore answered, checking his own weapons. "Ready!"

Dill crouched by the door and watched as their three-man insertion team marched up to the front gate of the facility. There was a few moments of discussion and argument, but the managed to march past the front gate and up to the door, where they were let in.

"Feed is live!" someone commented, and Dill glanced over his shoulder at the displays that had been hastily installed in the rear of the van. The quality wasn't the best, but the technicians were rapidly breaking it down and using it to build a partial map of the facility's current state, comparing that 'on-the-fly' to the data they'd already amassed. Dill didn't understand half the details, but by comparing their current input on their best guesstimates of the inside, they could improve the maps they were using significantly. And that, 'obviously', was good.

"Looks like the maps our contact drew were pretty accurate, so far at least," one of the techs commented.

"Yeah, well, 'so far' doesn't cut it," someone snapped. "Keep an eye out!"

The technician's lips pursed in irritation. "I am keeping an 'eye out', just letting you know that so far they've been accurate," he snapped back.

"Can it! All of you!" someone else ordered. Dill wished he'd had more time to learn faces and names, but that had been deliberately discouraged. 'What you don't know, you can't tell if you're captured' had been the rule of the day. All he had were code names for a few of the more important individuals.

Hopefully, that wouldn't be an issue.

"Alright, that looks like a control center to me!" someone cheered.

"Dagger is a go. I say again, Dagger is a go!" 'Poppa Wolf' ordered over the radio. Dillon glanced over his shoulder at the monitors, where controlled carnage raged as the insertion team pulled their weapons and engaged the guards.

Between sheer surprise and the light nature of the arms the guards were carrying, it was a quick fight.

"Assault team, go," went the second order, and suddenly a dozen forms seemed to materialize around the van and run for the gate. Dill tensed himself as the sudden, oddly quiet firefight erupted in front of him. The gate house was overwhelmed before its guards could react and return fire, and no alarms were triggered. "Second phase, go," the same voice ordered.

The assault team in front of him charged the facility itself, the large building seemingly unaware of their presence for the moment. Dill had no illusions on how long that would last once they bashed their way in, but with most of its 'guard' force off, they stood a pretty good chance at winning. Or so the experts had told him.

The assault team didn't even hesitate, the leader simply shot the locking mechanism off the door and then applied his shoulder to it. For a few long seconds nothing happened, then alarms began to wail and spotlights stabbed out, seeking the intruders.

Unfortunately for the guard force, they had very accurate data on where all the spot lights were, and more importantly the guards attached to them. Snipers rapidly took their targets down, and then proceeded to put the spotlights out. "Second team, move!" the order game, and Dill didn't hesitate. His shoulder hit the door and he sprinted for the door to the facility, exactly has he'd been told to do. A bullet whined its way past his cheek and he didn't even hesitate as someone to his left went to their knees and opened fire. No silencers now: the game was blown wide open, and the extra firepower was more important than quiet. Another shot caught him in the chest and Dill stumbled, but he recovered and was moving again before the man behind him could catch up. Thankful for the body armor, Dill pushed his way into the building and found a covered spot to hide in.

Moving up when and as ordered, Dill watched carefully for any sign of trouble. He wasn't an expert, he wasn't trained, but better safe than sorry. And if something went wrong, he was just as killable as-

Dill threw himself to the right on instinct alone, spinning left and bringing his pistol up and targeting by reflex. The startled look on the guard's face was forever imprinted on Dill's mind as he pulled his trigger.

The guard swayed, dead with two bullets through his heart despite remaining on his feet for a few long moments. Then he fell sideways, and Dill felt his gorge try to rise as he stared at the corpse for a moment that seemed to stretch into eternity. He'd killed the man in cold blood. Just shot him dead like-

"You OK?" someone shouted, grabbing him by the collar and hauling him to his feet.

Dill swallowed and shook his head. "I'll live," he answered.

"Good, now move!" the man ordered him, shoving him down the corridor as someone else checked the side corridor.

Dill found himself in the control room pretty quickly, and almost gagged at the horrific smell of it. The stench of blood and sewer was almost overwhelming, but he forced his gorge back down... again... and focused on the job at hand.

"Found it!" someone shouted from one of the consoles. "Inputting the master code now... and... yes! I have control!"


Dill saw Bri standing on the other side of the room, and considering walking over to talk to him. The icy glared that Bri sent his way convinced him otherwise, and he stayed right where he'd been put.

Bri swallowed as Dill looked away. So, he still wasn't ready to apologize, was he? Fine, whatever.

"Sir, I pulled the schematics up, it's time to go," someone told him. With one last glance over his shoulder at that ass he called a lover, Bri let himself be led away to Sammy.

But his eyes lingered until the last second on Dill, who really should... Damnit!

"Can we use the radio? Dill should be here for this," Bri asked softly.

The man guiding him pursed his lips for a moment. "Will you promise me -- swear to me! -- that you won't let your argument get in the way?"

"I swear to you that I won't let it get in the way... again," Bri answered, ashamed of himself.

The flicker in the man's eyes told him that Bri had hit it right, through, and the man nodded as he put a call out over the radio, "Precious Two would like Precious One's presence as we pick up Precious Three and Precious Four."

"Understood, precious One looks eager to depart," someone commented wryly.

"Currently at-"

"Tango tango tango!" someone cut in. "We have reaction force moving in from the north east. Looks like the base commander at Fort Rucker was a bit quicker off the bat that expected!"

"Shit! We do not have the firepower to deal with them!" someone swore. "ETA?"

"They just left the base, and I make it thirty minutes until arrival," the report came in.

"Unless someone delays them," someone else said.

Bri didn't understand it, but he clearly heard the grim, almost... resigned tone. "No," someone else said flatly.

Dill showed up with his own escort, and the four of them resumed moving towards Sammy as the argument raged over the tac net. Bri glanced over at Dill and saw the same horrified realization beginning to form. The person talking about delaying them was talking about a suicide mission.

"Poppa Wolf, you can give orders all you want, but some things have to be done," the volunteer said flatly. "And from what I'm hearing, there really are kids -- kids, boss! -- in that place.

"I am not-" Poppa Wolf began, then took a deep, and audible, breath. "Frank-"

"No names, remember?" came the wry reply. "Unless of course, for some reason my remaining nameless just became less important."

"You've stuck me between a rock and a hard place, Frank. Or rather, between common sense and the first rule of command."

"Common sense, or sentimentality?" Frank replied with a laugh. "Here they come around the corner. Been nice knowing you... get the kids out."

"God bless, Frank," Poppa Wolf said grimly. "Alright people, you heard the man! Enemy reinforcements are coming and he is not exactly going to be able to hold them off for long!"

Frank eased himself back into the underbrush a little as he lined his sniper rifle up carefully on the target. These men probably didn't know what was going down, and he didn't want to kill any more than he absolutely had to. So he had to make his first shot count.

When traveling at the speed limit of fifty-five miles per hour, a tire going flat is a fairly large problem. When a very large wheel, for a very large vehicle, traveling at well over eighty miles per hour is hit by a specially designed, armor-piercing HE round designed to take out tanks, you have what is professionally known as a Big Problem.

The driver was well trained and managed to pull the vehicle to a controlled stop that only blocked half the road. But that blockage was enough. Frank quickly put a round into the engine block, locking the vehicle in place. As an officer hopped out to examine the problem, the vehicles following him turned to use the other side of the road, splitting their column to go around on both sides to save time. Just as the officer examining the first vehicle recognized what had happened to his vehicle, two more bullets into engine blocks finished blocking the road.

"Game over," Frank said grimly, and started fading back further into the underbrush. He didn't have much hope of avoiding interception, but maybe if he got lucky he could get down past the next intersection. He'd studied the road maps pretty well, and there weren't many routes those soldiers could hope to take to get to the facility without going hours out of their way. With this road blocked, the next quickest route would take them through the intersection less than a mile away... and it would take them a good half hour to reach it. If he hurried he just might get lucky enough to be in position to lock that intersection down too.

Of course, if they took the second option, and accepted the additional fifteen minutes in transit it would impose, they'd be able to avoid him completely. And if the officer in charge of that mess was halfway smart, he'd probably split the difference and send his column down both routes. The quicker one just in case Frank couldn't get into position, and the longer one to ensure he got men on the ground sometime soon.

A sound in the underbrush to his right caused Frank to freeze, and grimace. And maybe if said CO were dumb enough to send men straight into the woods in a rush, he'd succeed in either pinning Frank down or forcing Frank to kill men he really didn't want to have to kill.

Some days, you just couldn't catch a break. Then again... with so many people just running into the woods, maybe one more wouldn't be noticed, and they were all wearing cammo gear almost identical to his own...

Thomas shook Sammy awake. "Hey kiddo, I think some friends are coming by to say 'hi'," he told the sleepy eyed kid.

"Friends?" Sammy whined, trying to burrow back under the covers.

"I thought you wanted to get out of here," Thomas tried.

"Out?" Sammy asked. Blinking, he sat up. "Out? As in home?" he asked excitedly.

"Well, judging from the sounds that's a very real possibility," Thomas told him. The sounds of gunfire were softened by distance and the walls of the cell, but Thomas had recognized them quickly enough. Especially with the softened wail of sirens going off to draw his attention. There weren't any alarms in the room itself, but the sound proofing wasn't very good so the sirens elsewhere were quite audible.

"Brian?!" Sammy asked, eyes bright.

"That's one possibility," Thomas smiled. Knowing Paul, Sammy's big brother probably would be out there somewhere. But it was doubtful Brian would be the first one to show up, Paul would want the place 'secured' first. So the real question was going to be if it was Paul who opened the door, or one of the guards executing their contingency orders to make certain that no one escaped.

For 'escaped', read 'survived'.

"Come on, help me get dressed, would ya?" Thomas asked. Being paralyzed from the waist down really sucked.

With Sammy's enthusiastic help, Thomas was able to get dressed long before someone started unlocking the door. Thomas closed his eyes and tried to reach out to feel who was on the other side of the door, but the implants ringing his neck gave him a nasty shock for his efforts. Clearly they hadn't been shut down yet. Which suggested...

"Sammy, get behind me. Now!" Thomas ordered. Sammy obeyed almost instinctively. He hadn't known Thomas very long, but there are very few eight year old children who will challenge an adult who ordered them in that tone. Not without really good reason, anyway. It wasn't like Thomas was a stranger, after all!

"Hey Thomas, glad to see you got dressed," Corey quipped as he walked in behind the guard.

"Corey, what a pleasure to see you," Thomas drawled. "And the gun is for... what, exactly?" Thomas asked, looking at the pistol the guard was aiming at him.

Corey smiled. "Oh, that thing? Well, the guard has his orders, don'tcha know, and I wouldn't want to interfere with those!"

"Orders," Thomas said flatly. "Sammy is just a kid. Me I could understand, but the kid?"

"I'm afraid you don't quite understand," Corey said, grinning.

"I don't see what's so funny," Thomas asked angrily.

"I suppose you wouldn't," Corey laughed.

"Sir, are you alright?" the guard asked, looking away from Thomas for a split second.

"Oh, I am. For the first time in a long time, I'm not just alright, I'm good, I'm fine, I'm happy!" Corey giggled, then winked at Thomas.

Thomas felt his face grow slack as his eyes widened. It couldn't be-

Before he could finish the thought, Corey's arm whipped out, deflecting the pistol and throwing the guard off balance. Corey didn't have any telekinetic ability worth mentioning, but he followed the arm up with a strong telepathic assault to disorient and distract the guard while he drove in with martial arts.

"Poor bastard never had a chance," Corey sighed as he backed away from the dying man. Recovering the pistol he turned and smiled at Thomas. "We can have this conversation later, but methinks a few apologies might go over very well." He held the pistol out, butt first, to Thomas.

"Yeah, more than a few apologies," Thomas remarked. "You played your part very well."

"As did you," Corey admitted. "I'm sorry I couldn't explain, but if they'd seen the truth in your mind..." Corey shrugged.

"They wouldn't have," Thomas told him.

"Thomas, the slightest hint and they would have dug in, and with that collar on-"

Thomas couldn't help it, he laughed in Corey's face. "This damned collar is very effective at any number of things, but make no mistake, it only crippled active use of my powers. It neither prevented me from using them at all, or my use of passive powers."

It was Corey's turn to gape. "You mean you could have... no," Corey shook his head. "There is no way you could still have escaped."

"No, I couldn't have. The security was plenty effective against that possibility. The gaps were too small, too tiny. I could hide things in my own mind, but trying to attack someone else?" Thomas sighed. "No way."

"Alright, we need to cut this short before another guard shows up. The very last thing we need is for someone to catch us gabbing and keeping the two... three... of us from getting the hell out of here!" Corey said. "I'll go first, and we'll move as quickly as you can in that thing. I'll distract guards, you use that thing to deal with 'em."

"Alright," Thomas agreed with the plan. "Sammy, I need you to stay behind me. Push if I need it, but if guards open fire on us, just run. Don't try and help me, just run. Got it?"

"Yes," Sammy whispered.

"Good. With any luck we'll be finding Brian soon," Thomas smiled.

Corey poked his head out of the door and looked around before motioning for Thomas to follow him.

"Alright, if I've got my bearings straight..." the guide mumbled to himself.

"Are we lost?" Dill asked, looking down the hallways leading from the intersection.

"No, we are not lost," the guide said testily. "Simply... directionally confused. They threw some deliberate errors into the facility map we pulled out of the computer, and it makes life a bit difficult some times.

"We're lost," Brian laughed. "In the middle of a secret-"

"This way," the guide cut him off and started walking down the corridor to their right. Glancing over at the numbers on the cells, he nodded sharply. "Yeah, this is the right way. God, this place is huge!"

Dill and Bri shared an amused glance, and then looked forward just in time to see one of the security guards turn the corner. "Crap!" the man swore, backpeddling.

Their guide was an accomplished soldier, and was bringing his weapon to bear almost before the guard saw him. The guard's finger was already squeezing on the trigger when suddenly he started shuddering, a strange grunt emerging from his throat as he shook his head.

Dill saw the guard's intent look at their guide and understood instinctively that he was behind this. Even as a well-dressed man pushed his wheelchair around the corner, Dill drew his own pistol and aimed in one smooth motion.

The crack of the pistol and the sharp jerk of the recoil were familiar, but the sideways lunge of his pistol ruined his aim. "What the fuck?" he swore, as the man in the wheelchair bent over in clearly apparent agony.

"Brian!" a child's voice called out. Dill's eyes narrowed, remembering the last time he'd heard that voice.

"Sammy!" Brian shouted joyously, pushing past their guide. He was already bringing his own weapon to bear as the grinning boy pushed past his two jailers. "Get down!" he ordered, taking careful aim at the man in the wheelchair. The guard wasn't armed, but he'd seen the pistol in the other man's hand.

"Hold your fire!" the man in the wheel chair cried, but Brian just snarled as he zeroed his sights on the bastard's forehead.

"No!" Sam shouted, tackling his brother at shin level. Brian snarled as he fell backwards, aim thrown completely off.

"Sammy, what the hell do you think you're doing?" Brian shouted, even as Dill brought his pistol back and targeted the guard again.

"They're friends!" Sammy shouted, even as the guard shifted his glare from their guide to Dill.

Dill shook his head as intense, rapidly shifting waves of discordant stimuli rolled over him. In an instant he was burning hot, then freezing cold; his hand hurt, then felt really, really good; then he was both cold and hot; then he didn't feel a thing, just numb all over. He was hearing red and seeing Sammy's words, he felt the tang of spent gunpowder and tasted the sharp feel of the gun in his hand. His senses were scrambled and then re-scrambled as false sensations rolled over him to complete his confusion. But where the guard had been completely crippled by the rush of strange and contradictory sensory data, Dill just snarled wordlessly and threw his will against it. There, at the very edge of his ability to reach it was a way out... he felt the energy around him flowing and recoiling at the conflict between his will and his opponents. Nothing else existed for the moment. Nothing else needed to. He sensed how his own howling voice and shuddering body allowed him to manipulate that field. Reaching out he grabbed hold of the energies and twisted.

"What the fuck?" the guard shouted, clutching his head as he stumbled backwards. Dill didn't bother to answer, just bringing his weapon snapping up and aiming.

"Check fire!" the soldier who had guided Dill and Bri this far shouted, knocking his weapon aside. "Friendlies!"

"Friendlies?" Dill asked, confused for a moment, but holding his fire.

"Thomas here is a friend of Paul who was held prisoner, and I'm the local fifth column," the guard said.

"Fifth column?" Dill asked, confused.

"He's a friend, and so am I," the man in the wheelchair said. "The name is Thomas, and from what your friend here said I think you were sent here to see me?"

"Yeah, Pa-" Dill cut himself off and shook his head. "An old friend of yours got the message."

"I figured he would," Thomas smiled. "Now, lets get to the command center... this way, if you would!"

Thomas had managed to find a much quicker route back to the command center than the one they'd taken out, and even managed a few sketchy introductions during the trip. But that didn't help much with the essential problem they faced.

"What the hell do you mean you don't have enough lift to get everyone out?!" Thomas screeched at Poppa Wolf.

"Old Friend told us that there were vehicles available, here," Poppa Wolf explained slowly. "He also agreed that purchasing and assembling enough vehicles of our own would leave fingerprints we couldn't possibly manage to hide, and that that was, to put it simply, a bad idea."

"So what happened to those vehicles?" Thomas demanded.

"Our informant either forgot to mention or didn't know that those vehicles all have locator beacons attached. And those beacons went live the second the alarm sounded," Poppa Wolf said disgustedly. "We can't possibly use those vehicles without giving away the safe-house we have in mind, which basically leaves us fucking screwed!"

"Fuck," Thomas swore, collapsing back in his wheelchair.

"They have locator beacons?" Corey asked, surprised. "When did... oh, those paranoid bastards!"

"I'd say to hell with it and fuck the risk, but Old Friend can only be in one place at once. If they attack us while he's off giving the Pentagon hell, we risk all the kids' lives," Poppa Wolf snarled, frustrated. "So, stalemate. We were hoping you might have a better idea.

"How long can your men hold this place?" Thomas asked.

"Not long enough," Corey broke in. "There are security charges all over the place. If the proper dead man's code isn't put in every couple of hours..."

"Old Friend was able to give us all of those."

"What? How the hell did he get a hold of those? Even I couldn't-" Corey exploded.

"That's my fault, Corey," Thomas told him guiltily. "The basic training I gave everyone in the program was sound enough, but by the time we got more than a year or two in there were enough... disagreements that I decided to leave some holes in your education. And whatever your handlers thought, the training wasn't even half finished before I decided to hand in my resignation."

Thomas looked at him for a moment, shocked, before breaking into laughter. "'Resignation', you call it!" he giggled.

"I've always had a way with words," Thomas agreed.

"What's so funny?" Poppa Wolf asked.

"His, ah, 'resignation' was putting the psychopath the military put in charge here through a brick wall, head first. And then proceeding to do similarly nasty things to most of the staff before they finally managed to take him down by flooding the entire area with sleepy gas," Corey said, holding back a laugh. "He damned near got all of us out, despite the military's best efforts."

"And by way of thanks they put the damned collars on all of us," Thomas pointed out.

"Collars?" Bri asked, confused.

"We call them collars, but they're really a series of subcutaneous implants. They run wires up into the brain to keep a really good 'eye' on certain sections, and deliver a good jolt to others if they don't like what they see," Thomas said grimly. "The primary equipment is installed in a ring around the neck, and attacked to the wires run up into the skull. That way they can 'upgrade' and 'replace' them as needed without brain surgery every single time."

"My God!" someone swore.

"The initial batch killed almost half of the people involved, and half of the rest were left with permanent neural damage," Corey pointed at the wheelchair Thomas was stuck in. "And these days they still kill nearly one in ten of the children involved," Corey said venomously.

"I almost wish I could kill these bastards again," someone growled.

"Save your rage for the living," Corey said grimly. "This is the primary facility where most of the kids receive their initial training, but there are satellite facilities all over the nation which handle 'advanced' training. And almost three quarters of the technicians trained in implanting 'collars' are dispersed to those facilities."

"Fuck," Dill swore.

"Worse yet, for security reasons no one here even knows where those satellite facilities are; each one of the facilities is completely compartmentalized," Corey added. "Old Friend is going to have to take down the HQ at the Pentagon to even figure out where those facilities are, and after that you're going to have to move quickly enough to catch them before they can relocate to their individual safe-houses. The data on which is not kept at the primary HQ. So once they get there, even the Pentagon can't track them down until they want to be tracked."

Silence fell over the room. They'd known the problem was bad, but... this... this was...

"Ladies and gentlemen," Thomas said, using the tac radio they'd given him to broadcast his speech. "The situation is grave. Indeed, one might call it desperate. I do. But be not faint of heart. Do not yield to the counsel of despair. The darkness is brightest before the dawn, but the dawn will come. God is on our side, without question. The Darkness shall part before the Light, and we will smite those who would turn the helpless into pawns in their war. We will strike without hesitation, without mercy, giving no quarter to those heartless, undeserving bastards. We are wounded. We are weakened. Our foe seems overwhelming. But we will win through!" Thomas paused and looked around the room. "We will win, because to fail is inconceivable. We will stand true, because to yield is out of the question. We will stand true because that's what we do. Let the Darkness come!"

"A pretty speech," Poppa Wolf said, "but did you really need to break radio silence?"

"The enemy already knows we're here and in control of the facility," Thomas said. "And I just served them notice as to who they fight. Perhaps they'll... reconsider their plans."

"What the hell does that mean?" Poppa Wolf snarled.

"The quote is pretty clear," Bri said softly.

"Quote?" Poppa Wolf asked. "It did sound vaguely familiar, but what does that have to do with anything?"

Bri smiled. "Because of who he was quoting."

"Alright, who was he quoting?"

Poppa Wolf asked, frustrated.

"Koken. The Koken," Dill said softly.

"From just before we did our 'Charge of the Light Brigade' impression," Thomas said softly.

Poppa Wolf glanced at him then shook his head. "That's unfair. The Charge of the Light Brigade was one of the worst military disasters in history; you guys won. You didn't just win, you broke those bastards. You shattered them as a group and ground them into nothing before the night was over!"

"Four," Thomas said flatly. "Just four. And of those, three were so broken we quit. Just gave up. Dead in heart and soul if not body, broken in ways I can still feel. You ask me, that number should be one. The rest of us are are just taking slightly longer to die of our wounds."


"No, we didn't," Thomas said sadly. "We got Jason into position to end it, mostly. And then we left Paul to clean up the mess."

"Mess?" Poppa Wolf asked.

"We didn't know. That's the one God-damned saving grace. We didn't know," Thomas looked away. "It's not important. What is important is that when the military picks this apart, they're going to know exactly who is behind this. The man I quoted is dead, but his legacy still strikes fear into the hearts of certain high-ranked military officials. You see, they know."

"Know what?" Poppa Wolf asked, then his eyes widened. "You mean they know about Old Friend?!" he asked, aghast.

"I used to be a Guardian, but these days I am Colonel Thomas Brandon Little of the United States Marine Corps," Thomas said. "Paul Koken was given the rank of General after the dust settled. Oh, they know alright."

"And the idea that he might get involved has them pissing in their pants," Corey said with a grin. "I was in on several skull sessions on how to deal with it if Paul decided to get involved, and every single time the answer came up the same: bend over and grab our ankles."

The crude humor set a wave of laughter rolling across the room. "This is all well and good, but time is short and we have a problem," Dill said, pointing at the clock. "Best estimate is those bastards show up in another twenty minutes or so and blow us all to hell!"

"True enough, so does anyone have any ideas other than taking as big an escort to hell with us as we can manage?" Poppa Wolf asked.

"Maybe I do," Bri said slowly. "I take it you can't remove the tracking bugs?"

"No, as much as I wish I could the one technician we've been able to spare to look for the damned things hasn't found them yet," Poppa Wolf admitted. "He thinks they were hidden somewhere inside the engine block, but he admits he isn't even certain about that much."

"Then forget about hiding our movements. If we can't do it, we can't do it. So let's make good use of what we can do," Bri said, grinning.

"And what exactly would that be?" Poppa Wolf asked, curious.

Brian grinned as he laid out his plan, and Poppa Wolf started laughing. It would take a fair bit of luck to work, and would be less than pleasant on the kids, but it was far better than the alternative.

Frank shifted, slowly, as he pressed his hand against his side. The bleeding was slowing, thankfully, but the pain wasn't going away. If anything, it was slowly getting worse. Frank forced the blackness away, just in case...

Closing his eyes, Frank thanked God that he'd managed to hold on. It looked like the entire damned reinforcement column was heading straight down the road to him. Lining his rifle up, he shot out a wheel again. This time he was 'lucky' enough that the vehicle blocked essentially the entire road, leaving no room for the follow up trucks to pass on either side.

But that was the only luck he got, and he groaned as he watched bodies spill out of the overturned vehicle, bouncing and rolling to a stop. Some of them started slowly picking themselves up, apparently unharmed, but they were in the minority. Limbs, and in some cases necks, simply didn't bend that way.

Frank looked away, saddened, which saved him the site of the second truck failing to stop before it hit the first. The overpressure wave from the fireball rolled over him, and he froze in shock. Looking up, he saw a scene from Hell playing out before his eyes. "God have mercy..." he whispered. "Poppa Wolf, this is Roadblock Eight," he transmitted. He deliberately transmitted in the clear, letting the enemy hear him. "Estimate a minimum of forty-five minutes before they arrive, assuming they manage to avoid any other traps. Blockage achieved at position echo-niner, subsidiary blockage at echo-eight. My injuries are bad. Don't bother sending medics."

Roadblock wasn't even his codename, but he figured Poppa wolf would understand exactly what he was trying for. And the report would definitely help.

"Understood, Roadblock eight," Poppa Wolf replied. "And God bless. Roadblocks one through seven are in position, and roadblock eleven is changing position."

"It's been good, Boss," Frank said. "Tell my wife..." Frank swallowed. "She and I didn't get along very well towards the end, but..."

"I'll give her your love, Frank," Poppa Wolf said. "Obviously I won't be able to tell her everything, but... I'll see what I can shake loose."

"Boss..." Frank whispered. "Didn't think... she's... a... child psych..." Frank coughed, and froze. Raising his hand to his lips, he pulled away and saw a dark stain on his fingertips. Apparently, he wasn't going to be captured.

"Frank? Are you alright?" Poppa Wolf asked.

"Goodbye..." Frank tried to say, but it came out a gurgled mess.

"The Lord bless you, and keep you: the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace," someone whispered over the tactical radio net.

Frank had a lot of blood on his hands, and he'd always wondered -- always worried -- about his reception when he reached the Other Side. But all he felt as the darkness claimed him was a calm peace...

"Frank? Are you alright?" Poppa wolf paused, but nothing came back except a wet gurgle. "Say again Frank, what was that?" Poppa Wolf tried, knowing it would be in vain.

"The Lord bless you, and keep you: the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace," a technician recited slowly, painfully. Bri remembered his codename was 'Blindman' -- apparently a reference to an engineer from a TV show.

"I think he was trying to say his wife was a child psychologist," Bri said. "Do you think... was he suggesting we bring her in?"

"It makes a certain degree of sense," Poppa Wolf agreed. "If they recover his body, tracking him down won't take them very much effort. A little time, but not much of that, either. His wife needs to disappear, fast. And bringing her in... if she'd come... damnit, Frank!" For all his determination not to show it, the pain Poppa Wolf was feeling exploded with the expletive.

"We need to focus on the now," Thomas said sadly. "I'm sorry about your man, but we have upwards of fifty children to evacuate. And by preference, I want enough time to reduce this place to rubble before we leave."

"Alright, you've got a point. We can grieve later," Poppa Wolf agreed. "Status report, did we get all the guards?"

"Doesn't look like they understand the concept of surrender, sir, but it looks like we've finally managed a clean sweep of the facility," someone told him.

"Alright then. Thomas, I understand you know these kids fairly well?" Poppa Wolf asked.

"Moderately so. I've been training most of them for a while. The younger ones trust me pretty explicitly, the older ones less so," Thomas told him.

"How will they react to strangers showing up to their doors and asking them to follow?" Poppa Wolf asked.

"With these damned collars in place, they won't be able to use their powers, except for a few trusted ones like Corey here," Thomas jerked his thumb as the young man. "So you don't have to worry about your men having their brains scrambled. Past that, I really couldn't hazard a guess as to the general reaction. Some of them have been brainwashed hard enough that they'll fight you; others will go with you, others will just dig their heels in, and generally they'll just be kids. Completely unpredictable, but without the body mass to try and fight back."

"Are you telling me to just drag them out of their rooms?" Poppa Wolf asked, shocked.

"No, he's telling you your men are going to have to play it by ear, but that under no circumstances should any of them be left behind," Corey told him. "There just isn't any useful baseline; some of them have been here for years, and others are brand new."

"Alright, I'll get the men moving," Poppa wolf answered. "Thank God Old Friend insisted on a lots of hands for this part of the operation, we're going to need them."

"You'll need to get into the collar control routines and set all the collars to travel mode, or we won't be able to go anywhere," Corey added. "Amongst their other 'features', they act as anti-escape devices."

"I think we're already into that section of the system, we just didn't understand what we were looking at," Blindman commented, leaning into the computer he was running, fingers flying over the keyboard as he brought up the system in question.

"There are a bunch of controls here, along with names that cross-check to the roster of 'psi enabled personnel' they kept," he confirmed. "I'll start setting everyone to 'travel' mode now, and once I'm done I'll fry the circuits involved."

"Is destroying that a good idea? What if we need to use our powers?" Thomas asked.

"It's the only way to make sure the bastards can't try and use it once we pull out," Blindman explained. "I have no clue what the range on this system is, but I really would rather not have them activate 'capture' mode on your collars."

"That... would definitely be unpleasant," Corey agreed. "Fry it. Fry it all."

"Consider it as good as done. In fact, the very last thing I'm going to do before I leave," Blindman fished out a disk from his equipment, "is load this little beauty into every single system I can. And since it looks like we're linked into the DOD's systems from the inside, that's going to cause a lot of damage."

"What? This place is linked into the DOD?" Poppa Wolf asked.

"Yep, directly into multiple, supposedly secure military networks. I release this baby, and the military is going to know something went wrong somewhere," Blindman said, smiling.

"I'm not entirely comfortable with attacking the military as a whole, what if they just label us terrorists?" Poppa Wolf complained.

"Sir, this is a smart virus," Blindman explained. "It will intelligently identify and shred any data related to its origin facilities, which should protect most of the military's databases and systems, and it will also provide a manifesto of sorts which will clearly spell out why we're doing this."

"Manifesto? That's why you asked me to write one?" Poppa Wolf asked, now grinning.

"Yes sir," Blindman agreed. "Not only will that document appear on almost every computer connected to the networks in question, the virus will attempt to forward it to a number of news agencies. Along with all sorts of documentation I'm pulling out of this system and vetting in my copious 'spare' time."

"Well now, isn't that going to be... interesting," Poppa Wolf grinned.

"Yes sir, the only thing that worries me is there is no way to guarantee it reaches the places I'm aiming it at. This place doesn't have a direct internet connection, and I have no clue how many firewalls the virus will have to breach to reach the 'net. So I'm going to have to keep a copy of this stuff 'on hand' until I figure out how to upload it to the net safely," Blindman complained.

"Well, work on it," Poppa Wolf ordered. "For now, let's start evacuating the kids to the trucks. I suspect that's going to take a while."

"That's pretty much everyone," Corey said, checking names off a printed list. "We're still missing Anthony Murray and Wesley Nelson."

"Alright," Bri said, activating his radio link. "Poppa Wolf, we're short two sheep, Anthony Murray and Wesley Nelson."

"Understood," Poppa Wolf replied. A moment later he came back on the line. "According to the records, Anthony Murray was about to be transferred to another facility. They don't show him having actually been transferred, but he definitely isn't in his room, so..." Bri could almost hear the shrug. "As for Wesley Nelson, he shouldn't be on your list. He's still in 'pre-acquirement', and if you remember Old Friend's plans..."

"Any word on those?" Bri asked, curious.

"There was some combat chatter a little while ago, sounds like they got their assess whooped," Poppa Wolf informed him.

"Alright, just about time to move out then," Bri said. "Are you going to try and do a room-by-room sweep?"

"We don't have the time we need for a full one, but I've ordered the men to do what they can," Poppa Wolf told him. "Oh, and your job is to keep those kids calm and in those trucks, understand?"

"Yes Sir," Bri snapped, "I am not in command here Sir!"

"And don't you forget it!" Poppa Wolf agreed.

"Sir?" one of the soldiers waved at Bri. "Some of the kids need to piss."

"Oh fuck" Bri swore under his breath, and looked around. "Blindman, can you check the schematics for the nearest restroom to the vehicle pool?"

"You should have dealt with that before the mission," Poppa Wolf growled, angry.

"Not for me, sir; the kids."

"Ah hell," came the frustrated response. "I should have predicated that..."

"Precious One, there should be a small restroom attached to the motor pool office," Blindman replied, chuckling. "And I'm glad you're the one who gets to deal with this!"

"Found it!" one of the soldiers waved his hand to get Bri's attention before making a thumbs up gesture and pointing through a door. If it hadn't been for the tactical radio, Bri would never have heard him.

Bri fiddled with the loudspeaker he'd found sitting on the ground nearby. "Alright everybody!" Bri announced, loud enough to be heard even over the clamor of children talking, crying, and wining. "We're going to be going on a road trip soon. And I know that a lot of you probably need to pee. If you need to, or even think you might need to, ask the adult who's caring for you at the moment and he'll arrange it. We won't be able to stop once we get going, so ask now or be prepared to go in your pants!"

Bri wasn't quite expecting the giggle he got back, but he suppose he should have. Kids would find that amusing... right up to the moment they discovered he was serious about not letting them out of their restraints even to pee. Not once they took off. And once they started walking, it'd get really bad. They didn't dare let the little guys walk off the road to go, if only because of the risk that a thorough search mind find some sign that they'd been there, and give away the entire plan.

The clock ticked down as they cycled the kids through the attached restroom. Thankfully, it looked like they had just enough time to get all the kids who'd asked through the toilet. Bri was just ready to breath a sigh of relief when his tac radio crackled to life.

"Corey, I'm sorry about all the things I've said to you," Thomas said as he let the young man push him down a corridor. Thomas was the only one whose collar was set to 'active', and that only because he was able to use his mind to 'scan' and see if the missing kid was tucked away in a corner somewhere they couldn't find it. The computer records were clear: Anthony Murray was most definitely still in the facility, even if he wasn't in his room. Where he was was another matter altogether. They'd already tried several announcements over the loudspeaker to get him to come out, but either he couldn't or he wouldn't. They'd set his collar to 'active' to see if he'd use his mind to try and contact anyone, but so far no luck. Hell, if he was scared enough he might be using his powers to try and hide, which meant Thomas was the only person with a chance to find him.

The collar's built in locator wasn't much help either, it gave a fairly good general location but it's accuracy was low enough he could be practically anywhere in the building. Which meant that if anyone stood a real chance at finding him, it was Thomas, and his long underused abilities.

Strange, though; those abilities were unusually sharp and strong. Perhaps it was the years of honing his mind that he'd done to try and get around the damned collar, but Thomas didn't think so. Something else was at work. Something about the situation nagged at his memory, but he just didn't-

"Oh crap!" Thomas swore. "Stop!"

It took Corey a moment to understand his order, and by then it was too late. He couldn't bring the wheelchair to a halt in time.

Thomas's mind flashed out, lethally strong and with murderous intent. The soldier at the end of the corridor was well trained, though, and managed to get a single shot off before Thomas's mind paralyzed him. Thomas wasn't nice about it, rending and shredding at the parts of the man's mind responsible for motor control. With enough time and therapy the soldier might -- might -- be able to control his own bowels again. Anything more complicated, like talking or standing, would be impossible.

The soldier used to be a crack shot, but Thomas had acted quickly enough that his aim was already a bit shaky by the time he pulled the trigger. Instead of going cleanly through his heart, the bullet took Thomas squarely in the gut.

Thomas moaned as the pain hit him. The installation of the collar had cut much of the nerves responsible for the waist and below, but by God it still hurt. The nerves for sensation hadn't quite been cut, and pain -- by some quirk of chance -- had been completely missed.

"Shit! Thomas!" Corey cried, fumbling with the tactical radio he'd been given. "This is Turncoat One, Precious Four has been hit. I need a medic!"

"Understood, where are you?" Poppa Wolf asked.

Thomas reached down and touched the blood, still in shock. Thankfully, the pain was already wearing away. Probably as a result of shock and blood loss, some small corner of his mind noted, just as it noted Corey babbling about their location and what had happened. The wound had definitely managed to sever an artery as it punched through his body sideways. The twist he'd managed as he went around the corner, trying to face his opponent, made guessing which artery almost impossible. But the bright scarlet left no doubt in his mind.

And the sheer amount that had already bled definitely suggested, to his clearing head, that the wound would most assuredly prove fatal.

"Don't bother," Thomas transmitted over the tac net. "The bullet definitely took out an artery on its way through, and I'm already bleeding out. There's too much blood loss; by the time you get a medic on scene..." Thomas swayed in his chair, lightheaded.

"We've got medics to spare, you're the only person injured in this whole raid," Poppa Wolf told him.

Thomas looked down at the wound, and gasped. It wasn't possible. It wasn't. But... "Don't bother. I'm dying, and I know it. There is nothing a medic can do for me now."

"Medics can do a lot of miraculous things, son, and Old Friend really wanted you alive," Poppa Wolf told him.

"Tell Paul I glowed, and he'll understand," Thomas told him. Already the bleeding was slowing, and the glowing light that leaked out of the wound left no doubt in his mind. It was impossible. He'd given up his powers, blocked them away so even he couldn't get at them.

But, impossible or not, he could feel them again. Placing one hand on each of the wheelchair's armrests, he carefully tested his feet. It was difficult, so difficult after so long, but he placed each of them carefully and then stood. Slowly, unsteadily, but by God he was standing again!

"The good news is that someone has been nominated to play rearguard," Thomas said firmly over the tac net. "I have about an hour left to live, if the old rule of thumb actually applies to me anymore. The more energy I spend, the less time, but it won't take much energy to just stand around and wait."

"Listen, you're talking, not passing out. The medics-" Poppa Wolf began.

"The medics..." Thomas swallowed back the tears. "The medics can't help me. The only reason I'm not already unconscious is because I used to be a Guardian. Apparently, I didn't set aside my powers as well as I thought I did."

"If you're a Guardian again, then you can heal, damnit!" Poppa Wolf complained.

"Poppa Wolf, shut up," Corey managed to choke out. "I... I did some research..." the tears in his eyes were spilling freely. "A flame burns brightest just before it burns out."

"Yes, that is the analogy we always used," Thomas agreed. "What's happening might look like me being better, but it's just the rest of my life force, the energy that would have sustained me for years, being burned in mere minutes. And at a guess, it's that sheer strength, that sheer power that's restored my abilities. Speaking of which..." Thomas turned and looked down the corridor the soldier had been guarding. Raising his hand, he sent three needle sharp bursts of flame blasting through the walls. "I've found Murray, and neutralized the half-squad of guards watching him. From the looks of things, they were trying to keep him out of our hands... and only three of the guards were here to keep us away; the fourth was to make sure he wouldn't fall into their hands."

"I don't understand, what do you... mean..." Corey's speech slowed and then stopped. "Bastards! He's not even eight years old!"

"And for their crimes, I killed them," Thomas reminded him. "Let go of your hate. You don't need to burden yourself with hatred for the dead."

"What about their living superiors?" Corey growled, dashing tears out of his eyes as he walked past Thomas. "What about this bastard?" he kicked the man in the side, hard, as he passed him.

"Leave him be, I've inflicted punishment enough on him," Thomas said softly. Closing his eyes, he reveled in the renewed sharpness of his senses, both physical and psychic. And, of course, the restored mystic senses that he'd been without for so very long.

"Come on, we need to hurry," Thomas reminded Corey.

"Coming," Corey said, emerging from the room he'd entered, a shivering eight year old ridding piggyback. "Poppa Wolf, we have the strayed sheep."

"Glad to hear it, Turncoat One. Now get to the barn," Poppa Wolf told him. "And Precious Four, are you sure... I mean, can't the medics at least look at you?"

"Just execute bug out the moment you can. I'll make sure they can't follow you too closely," Thomas told him.

"Understood, and God bless," Poppa Wolf agreed.

"Thomas," Corey turned and looked at him.

"Don't," Thomas told him, taking the two unsteady steps he needed to touch his finger against Corey's lips. "Don't say it," he blinked away a few tears of his own. "You've waited long enough to say it, and now isn't the time."

"I'll never get another chance," Corey told him, urgently.

"No, you won't," Thomas agreed. "I am eight years your senior, thirty years old. Nearly thirty one. You're barely twenty two. I'm too old anyway, and I'm dying. You-"

"It doesn't work like that," Corey told him sadly. "My heart, rightly or wrongly, has been bestowed for a very long time."

"Wrongly, most definitely wrongly," Thomas told him. "Listen, I don't have... I don't have much of a family, but Paul can find them. Tell them... tell them how I died. Tell them I love them. Tell them..." Thomas trailed off. "Just tell them, and God bless."

"I... I can't go," Corey said.

"You must," Thomas told him. "You're the only one some of these kids will trust, and you're the only one that can control them once the collars come off. You will be needed. Alive."

"They need you," Corey told him.

"They can't have me," Thomas said sadly. "So go, and take with you this blessing." Thomas shouldn't waste the energy, he knew that, but he leaned forward, grabbing hold of Corey's head to bend it, and placed a kiss on his forehead. Slowly, so slowly, a fragment of his own energy, his own being, flowed out and wrapped Corey in its protective cocoon. Corey would need it.

"Now this is goodbye, because if we wait neither of us will be able to say it. Farewell, Corey," Thomas shoved Corey ahead of him. "Farewell," he repeated when Corey didn't move.

"Goodbye, Thomas," Corey said softly, turning.

"Bye Mr. Thomas!" the boy on his shoulders peeked up long enough to squeak out. The boy looked over his shoulder as they left, seeing the smile Thomas was bestowing upon Corey. As they reached the massive underground room that held the trucks, the boy realized Corey hadn't looked back and let go with his right hand long enough to press it against Corey's face and project the image. Corey fell to his knees, sobbing, but a pair of soldiers quickly grabbed the two of them and got them in place. They closed the cloth flaps on the back of the troop truck just in time to keep Corey from seeing Thomas walk into the room, eyes locked on a single, specific truck.

"Goodbye," he mouthed one more time, before turning and looking around.

Poppa Wolf walked up and saluted him. "It's been an honor and a pleasure, sir!"

Thomas returned the salute, and despite neither of them being in a military uniform it felt right. "Get your ass in gear."

"We're moving," Poppa Wolf pointed at the door to the tunnel that would take them out of there, where the first of the trucks was already moving. "That tunnel is nearly a mile long, and from what we can tell the incoming troops don't know where it comes out. Reports indicate they've already bypassed three turns that would have taken them to the exit, anyway."

"That's good," Thomas agreed. "But why do you still have men upstairs?"

"Just a small... caretaker staff. They're going to wait until everyone is out, and then set their 'goodbye' programs in place. Worst case scenario, they'll still be gone ten minutes before the badguys show up, and we have almost five times as much lift waiting for them out front as they'll need, already staffed with drivers. Even if one or two vehicles break down, they can move into the other units quickly enough, with plenty of time to place a surprise or three on the stuff they have to leave behind."

"A surprise?" Thomas asked.

"We don't want to leave anything behind, like DNA or fingerprints, that might lead back to us. And sufficient C4, combined with a specially designed incendiary, will make sure of that," Poppa Wolf told him. A blaring horn behind him reminded him time was running short; almost half the trucks were in the tunnel already. "Time for me to go. The techs will sound a warning before they close all the blast doors on you. Are you sure... we could still call a medic to look at you..."

"Go," Thomas ordered Poppa Wolf. "And to the lingering Spartans tell: that here, obedient to their laws, I fell."

"I'll be sure to do so," Poppa Wolf brought himself to attention and saluted. "Fair winds and following seas!"

"Fair Winds and Following Seas," Thomas repeated, returning the salute. Poppa Wolf held the salute for several moments after Thomas released it, and then nodded and turned. "And God bless," Thomas added to Poppa Wolf's rapidly retreating back.

Poppa Wolf hopped into the last truck to leave just as it shifted into gear, ready to depart. Once it drove through the gate, the large, thick blast door started lowering. "Are you sure you don't want to go?" Blindman asked over the tactical network. "I could open the blast door back up, and there are a few cars left behind that you could catch up in..."

"Worry about yourself," Thomas ordered. "And try to leave a few pointers in the direction of the motor pool, if you would; I don't have long, and it would be rather unfunny if they showed up after I was already dead."

"Don't worry, they already know," Blindman told him unhappily. "We caught a scrap of radio chatter; the troops don't have access to the locator beacons, but it turns out turning the vehicle's engines on sent a status report to their HQ."

"Fuck, that's going to ruin the plan!" Thomas swore. "Inform-"

"No, it's not," Blindman said smugly. "They know the engines were turned on, but I already uploaded that virus I mentioned into the military networks. They'll be able to pull up the satellite records on the trucks, eventually, but it looks like it's going to take them a couple of hours just to contain the virus. Restoring the databases it's already shredded will take days, even with the hard-copy backups they should have somewhere. And I'm not sure any of this place's records had proper hard-copy backups; I found a few memo's suggesting that some brass, somewhere, thought the info was a little too 'sensitive' to risk that." Blindman's tone added all sorts of pejoratives he didn't bother to actually say.

"Understood. So they're going to be coming for me?" Thomas asked.

"Yup. Somebody just realized they don't know where the actual motor pool access point is, and was angry enough to broadcast their opinion on that in the clear. They have to go through the motor pool to find out where the tunnel leads, and their orders are to get there first and secure the rest of the facility second."

"Alright," Thomas said. "Thanks, Blindman."

"Don't mention it. I've got some work to do, but if you need anything -- anything -- just call," Blindman told him. Thomas settled in to wait, pulling a chair to where he'd have a good view of all the doors. Looking up, he saw a hatch that gave him an idea.

"Blindman, there's a hatch over my head," Thomas started to ask.

"It's an access shaft to let them lower heavy machinery in and out. According to records, it's never been opened," Blindman informed him after a moment.

"If you open it, can I see the sky from here?" Thomas asked.

After a moment's pause, Blindman came back online. "There's a shack on top of it. Easy enough to demolish, but you aren't going to get a view of the stars. There's a nasty thunderstorm brewing overhead."

"A thunderstorm is perfect," Thomas told him. "Could you arrange to demolish the shack... actually, could you just open the shaft and let me get a good look?"

"Sure, give me a moment..." the hatch stayed still for a moment, then started to slide open with a horrible grinding noise. Pulling a flashlight off the harness they'd so thoughtfully provided him, Thomas directed the light into the shaft above. It wasn't just a single hatch; several separate blast doors were slowing opening, and above them he could just catch a glimpse of a simple corrugated metal roof.

"Blindman, it looks like the only 'roof' on that shack is sheet of corrugated metal, can you confirm?" Thomas asked.

"Sec... records indicate it's made out of plastic, not metal, but yeah," Blindman agreed. "Listen, this is fascinating, but..." Blindman broke off, and Thomas was willing to bet he was shaking his head. "Never mind."

"Blindman, I'm not asking out of idle curiosity; I want to arrange a little special surprise for those troops. Is there any way you could slave the control over those hatches to me, so I can open them on my own?" Thomas asked.

"Actually, there should be a switch near the tunnel door that controls them," Blindman told him. "At least, that's what the records show."

"Perfect. Could you get rid of the roof on that shack, without jamming the doors?" Thomas asked as the hatches started to grind shut. They were quieter, smoother now that they'd been used a little, but some rust was starting to drift downward and Thomas stepped quickly away. The motion started the world spinning around him, and he felt his heart hammering in his chest. No! It was too soon!

Reaching deep inside he calmed himself. There hadn't been time for detailed statements, but he'd seen the symptoms before. He was dying, or if you preferred the label dead. The only thing keeping him going was the raw life energy that he would have spent over the course of years. And the body wasn't designed to burn the energy that quickly. When the time came, when he needed it, he would be perfect. He wouldn't hesitate, he wouldn't stumble. But until then his body was screaming in defiance of the ruinous, fatal overload it was stuck in.

"Consider it done," Blindman told him. "Can you tell me what kind of surprise you're aiming for?"

"Let me just put it to you this way," Thomas told him, "when you leave, put the pedal to the metal and make damned sure you aren't within a half mile or so when they get down here."

"There are some farmhouses, with civilian families, nearby!" Blindman told him. "The nearest is almost three quarters of a mile away! Any big explosions-"

"There will be explosions, but it's not going to be a single big boom. It'll be drawn out. Lots of sound and fury, but no fragments or overpressure waves to speak of," Thomas assured him.

"What the hell kind of surprise are you talking about?" Blindman asked, confused.

"The kind you do not want to be here to see," Thomas assured him. "This place will be so much rubble and glass by the time I'm done."

"Glass?" Blindman asked. "I thought you said-"

"Trust me," Thomas told him.

Blindman sighed, audibly, then answered, "Alright. But by God if you play me false..."

"I'm dying, Blindman; in a sense I'm already dead. I have no need to lie," Thomas told him.

"More like no way for me to threaten you over it," Blindman snorted.

"Then trust in my honor, the honor of the Guardians," Thomas told him.

"Alright, done," Blindman agreed. "Just about time for me to go; anything else you need?"

"No, I think I've got it all," Thomas told him. "It's been an honor and a pleasure."

"That it has. Semper fi, Thomas," Blindman said solemnly.

"Semper Fi, Blindman," Thomas replied. "Now get out!"

Not even static greeted his answer, and he sat down to wait. Deep, cleansing breaths kept his energy flowing with maximum efficiency. He sensed energy flagging, but it wouldn't take much. Not with a thunderstorm already brewing overhead. He didn't spare the energy to get on his knees for prayer, he just kept a simple, cross-legged position leaning against the wall for support.

Blindman had cut it closer than he should have; less than seven minutes had passed before a loud 'boom' announced the first of the blast doors in the main facility going. Alarms sounded, again, and the speaker system announced in a steady progression the failure of various blast doors and security checkpoints. The automated security grid hadn't even had a chance to spin up before the insertion team had managed to shut it down, so there wasn't much damage to it, and it slowed the soldiers down further.

Eventually they hit the last door and it exploded outward as the C4 detonated. Soldiers poured through, and Thomas held his hands up in surrender after hitting the 'open' button on the switch he'd sat under.

"Who are you?" one of the officers demanded.

Thomas leveraged himself up, slowly. He was so tired. But he had one last trick to play. He staggered a little as he lifted himself to his feet, and it was less of a play act than he would have liked. "I am Colonel Thomas Little of the Marine Corps. I am Thomas Little, Guardian. I am a dead man, and quite possibly the last voice you are ever going to hear."

"Are you threatening us?" the soldier demanded, as everyone tightened their grips on their rifles. He didn't have any weapons -- he'd even stripped off his shirt so they could see he wasn't wearing a bomb -- but they were still on hair trigger.

Not that it would help them. Farewell, Paul! Guard them well, my friend! Thomas thought, putting just enough power behind it that Paul would hear it.

Thomas? No! Don't! I'll be there soon! Paul sent back, but didn't try again. Thomas knew Paul had recognized the strange timbre of his mental voice, and tasted his plan in his mind. It was time.

"Surrender, and promise not to chase the children, a promise bound by the power of the Guardians, and I will... I will..." Thomas fell to his knees. It was now or never. His energy wasn't lagging; it was gone.

"I will make no such oath. Surrender, or die!" the soldier demanded. Thomas looked him in the eyes, and felt his power welling up around him. He drew every last erg he could together as he looked up. Even as he fell, dead, the energy continued, momentum pushing the spell through even after his will fell away.

Straight up into the sky, in a ragged column, lightning blasted upwards into the heavens. For a few moments the soldiers gaped, shocked, then just as they decided it hadn't worked the heavens answered.

As if angered by his act, by the massive bolt of energy he'd sent arcing up into the sky, the heavens opened up with the full fury of a thunderstorm that would have covered hundreds of square miles, condensed into a mere quarter of a mile.

Zeus's own fury slammed down through the open hatch, a column of lightning nearly ten feet across. When it struck it incinerated Thomas's body instantly, but the concrete beneath wasn't so lucky. It didn't simply melt; the energy transfer was too sudden, too hungry for that. It exploded, razor sharp splinters flying outward with lethal force. The shaft itself splintered and shattered under the impact, collapsing downward. Those soldiers at the edge of the room might have survived if that had been the only impact. The facility itself was decimated as the heat rolled over it, instantly igniting anything flammable, but in the bunker-like conditions of the room they might have survived until rescue arrived.

But that massive bolt wasn't the only one to strike. Fresh on its heels two more struck down, less focused, less directed. But these didn't simply strike and vanish; they dragged themselves across the ground for a few moments before faltering. And by the time they died four more had landed, then ten, then twenty three. The lightning slammed down and the thunder rolled in one long, continuous cacophony. Far enough away it might have been a low growl, but up close the sound itself turned into force, shattering trees and the roadway itself under it's sheer force.

In a funeral pyre unmatched in modern history Thomas called down the sheer fury of an entire thunderstorm, and nothing survived. As it turned out, he'd underestimated the effects of his blast -- not surprising, given the infrequency with which Guardians had dared experiment with the technique. At least in part, though, his underestimation came from overestimating the area affected. The devastation was restricted to little over a quarter of a mile, though the sheer noise broke more than one window further away.

Again and again the lightning came down, and a local meteorology station later issued an estimate of nearly five hundred of those monstrous, unnatural columns slamming down, some stationary and others dragging across the area. The station didn't bother to estimate the number of 'normal' lightning strikes that also landed; simply applying the label 'thousands' to it. The monster strikes were tightly centered on the facility itself, and reduced it to a smoldering slab of glass nearly thirty feet deep and almost eight hundred wide, with crushed rubble beneath cemented by a few drooling tendrils of that glass. The damage further out was less severe, but the 'regular' lightning strikes were still deadly. A lightning bolt is hotter than the surface of the sun, and thousands of such bolts striking down in a ring successfully created a circle of glass around the center. The result was an entire plane of glass a quarter of a mile across, with the slightest of dips in the center. An imperfect circle, true, but close enough.

Three nights later the military dropped it's efforts to keep people away, unable to come up with any decent excuses. And a single, shadowy figure drifted in late at night, a single red rose in hand. "Farewell, my friend," he whispered before laying the rose at the shattered edge off the glass. Walking in to the reach of where the glass wasn't broken, he knelt down and touched the it.

As he'd suspected, massive, unimaginable amounts of power were buried in the glass. An entire thunderstorm had dissipated all of its fury, its energy, into this place. Such things leave their mark, and he could shape it, if he chose.

He shaped his pain, his sorrow, his rage, his need, his desire, and called forth that power. As he poured the power into the emotions he'd called, he poured the emotions back into the sea of power he was drawing on. They merged, one into the other, layer after layer merging and mixing, until it settled in the center of the pool.

It was unnatural. Everyone agreed on that. But however it had come to pass, it had. A great mirror, almost a quarter of a mile across. The sheet of water that gathered inside was pure, crystal clear, and the seemingly unbreakable glass beneath provided a perfect reflective surface. And no matter the wind, the water was smooth and undisturbed. Drop a pebble in and the water would ripple, but the ripple would quickly die out, and wouldn't reflect off the edge.

And nature didn't drop anything in. Despite the wild lands surrounding it, and the dusty blacktop of mankind's roads that went near it, not so much as a leaf or mote of dust fell into the pool. And when some unthinking human was silly enough to drop something into this sacred place, nature would correct it. A bird would fish a pebble out; rain would raise the level of water in the shallow pool enough that water poured off it... and any contaminants would be the first to go.

And the stories that surrounded it guaranteed pilgrims, and those pilgrims guaranteed strict rules to protect the 'unique' nature of the pool. Those stories varied in nature, but all agreed on one point. Despite its mirror perfect finish, despite the name that attached to it, that surface didn't always reflect the sky above. Normally if you looked down into the pool you would see the sky above, the starry night or the brilliant azure blue of sky, but sometimes -- just sometimes -- you saw something else. Sometimes it was a vision of the present, a loved one you missed or something you needed to find. Sometimes it was a vision of the future, of some event to avoid or embrace. Sometimes it was of the past, some truth you needed to see.

And for a precious few pilgrims, those who truly believed or those who truly needed it, they saw something else. They would see the life and death of a man who meant so much to so many; they would see the proof that sometimes, just sometimes, a human being could rise above and become something different. That because of his refusal to quit, his determination to do good, his will to fight what he saw as evil, he became something else. Something they could emulate, could become themselves: A hero.

A Guardian!