Katherine’s Quarters – Afternoon
Jocasta had her ear pressed against the door to Katherine’s workout room, a look of intense concentration on her face. Willowgram stood on the coffee table, arms crossed. Her expression lay somewhere between bemusement and disapproval.
Apparently unsatisfied with her unaided hearing, Jocasta tiptoed over to the table to grab the eavesdropper’s ultimate weapon: a water glass.
Willowgram cleared her throat. “Are you sure you should be eavesdropping?” she asked.
“It’s not eavesdropping,” Jocasta explained, frowning defensively. “I’m just trying to, you know, overhear what’s going on.”
“Isn’t that what eavesdropping means?” the translucent figure asked reasonably.
“No,” Jocasta stated firmly. She looked at the glass in her hand and then back at Willowgram. “Well, yeah, maybe. I…it…I guess it could be taken that way, if ya wanna get all grammatically exact and stuff.” Jocasta paused, as if considering her actions, and then her face brightened as if she had hit on the answer to her moral quandary. “And if it wasn’t me doing it,” she explained.
Conscience clear and glass in hand, Jocasta spun on her heels and returned to the door, which opened just as she was about to put the glass to it. She quickly put the glass behind her back.
“That’s the point,” Livia said as she came out of the workout room. “I’m not whatchya call subtle. I’m the Council’s blunt instrument. Their hammer. And that’s what this calls for: get in, hit hard, and get back out before they get back on their feet. Slayer-stuff, not witchy stuff.”
Jocasta sidestepped the two slayers, keeping the glass behind her. “How’s it going?” she asked innocently. “Float anything?”
Katherine smiled brightly. “Yeah, Livia actually floated a feather. I know it’s not much, but it’s a start. It shows that she does have power that she can tap into. Now, we just have to exercise it to build up her strength.”
Livia snorted. “That’ll come in real handy next time I’m attacked by a Feather Demon.”
Katherine just sighed and shook her head as she walked Livia to the front door.
“Same time tomorrow, okay?” Katherine prodded.
“Nah, tomorrow’s another practice run with the Seraphim armor. You know—the thing that’s gonna get me in and out in one piece? How ’bout we make it same time next week?”
Katherine rolled her eyes. “All right,” she said in a reluctant voice, “but just think about what I said, okay? Promise?”
Livia was half out the door when she stopped and turned. “Yeah, I’ll keep it in mind. Thanks.” She started to leave, then stopped again. “How about day after tomorrow for another session?”
Katherine brightened. “Sounds good,” she answered.
“Here, right?” Livia asked. “I feel like a lab rat when we meet at Gray Sector.”
“That’ll be fine,” Katherine assured Livia.
The door closed behind Livia, and Katherine turned to Jocasta, who was putting the glass back on the table.
“Thirsty?” the blonde slayer asked with a smirk.
“Oh, ah, yeah, big thirst here, huge,” Jocasta answered.
“She was eavesdropping,” Willow offered helpfully.
“Hey!” Jocasta objected. “We’re gonna have to have a long talk about social niceties, like not tattling on people who are practically your blood relatives—in a really strange, digital kind of way.”
“Okay,” Willow said. “Perhaps we can cover eavesdropping in the same conversation.”
Jocasta growled, but Katherine interrupted. “It’s okay, Jo. I think it’s cute when you get jealous.” She shared a sideways grin with Willowgram.
“Jealous?” Jocasta exclaimed. “No, no, no! I was just…well…it wasn’t that long ago that you two were being all slayery with each other and about to rip each other’s throats out with your bare fangs, so, yeah, there was a little concern on my part. But no jealousy, nope!”
“Jo, seriously, we’re good now. There’ll be no ripping of throats. I just wish she would take this more seriously. The ability to use magic could make all the difference in that place. I still think I should be the one to go.”
“Would I be a bad person if I admitted that I’m glad it’s not you? Besides, you’ve never even tried on the Seraphim armor. There’s no way you could be brought up to speed in time for the contest. It has to be either Livia or Mira, and since Livia pulled rank, it looks like it’s gonna be her.”
“I know, I know. It’s just…” Katherine trailed off into thoughtful silence. After a moment, she seemed to shrug off the mood. “Sooo…not even a little jealous? A smidgen?” she teased.
“Well, I gotta admit that I’m jealous of anything that cuts into my Katie-time.” Jocasta grinned mischievously. “But the whole floating-feather thing does give me ideas. Unlike a certain slayer, I can think of several good uses for feather-floating, and I just happen to know all of a certain other slayer’s ticklish spots!”
Channel 21 News Studio – Green Room – Later
Colonel John West paced nervously in the waiting area of the Channel 21 news studio, the local affiliate for WorldNet News. When he wasn’t pacing, he was watching the digital clock that hung on the wall. His companion, on the other hand, was the picture of calm—comfortably relaxing in an overstuffed chair, occasionally jotting down notes on a data pad.
“Just relax, John. You’ll do fine,” Kevin offered.
“Oh yeah? Like Chairman Giles did when he was bushwhacked by her the last time? Tell me again why we’re doing this, Kev?”
“Because the Chairman was bushwhacked the last time. We have to recoup that loss. We also have to show that the Council isn’t going to back down from a challenge, regardless of the forum.”
“So, why me? Why not you or one of the other of the Council’s PR guys?”
“Because you’re not a PR guy and we don’t want to come across as too slick. And because you can be damned convincing when you get going. I oughta know,” he added with a grin and a wink.
John had just opened his mouth to reply when the door to the room opened.
“You’re on,” announced the production assistant, a young, overly-perky woman.
“Moment of truth,” John muttered as he followed her through the door.
Channel 21 News Studio – Anchor Desk – Moments Later
“This is Lisa Lance,” the reporter said to the camera, “bringing you an exclusive interview with one of Hubris, Inc.’s top guns—Eris Pantelles, head of Hubris’s weapons division, Department: Ares.”
Lance shifted to face the second camera. “Also joining us is Colonel John West, one of the Watchers Council’s rising stars. Colonel West will attempt to explain why the Council should control of the Human Defense Treaty, despite its many missteps in the past few months.”
Before John could protest this statement, Lance turned smoothly to Eris. “Ms. Pantelles, let’s start with you. Isn’t Hubris living up to its name by attempting to wrest control of the HDT away from the Watchers? There are those who believe that watchers and slayers are chosen by fate—by the higher powers—to protect humanity from the forces of darkness. Isn’t it the height of arrogance to suggest that your organization is better suited to the job than these ‘chosen ones’?”
Eris smiled and tucked a lock of dark hair behind an ear as she leaned back in her chair. If she was ruffled by the question, she didn’t show it in the least. “It seems that your reputation for asking tough question is well deserved,” she said. “I appreciate your straightforwardness, and I’ll be just as straightforward in my answer.” Eris paused dramatically for just a moment and then stated with confidence, “Yes.”
“Yes?” Lance asked, raising a puzzled eyebrow.
“Yes,” Eris repeated firmly, focusing her gaze directly on the camera, addressing the viewing audience rather than the newswoman. “Yes, we are arrogant in saying that we are better suited than those who have been ‘chosen’ for the job. Hubris, in its purest form, is pride. Pride that defies the gods and challenges the notion that ‘mere mortals shouldn’t do that’—that we should know our place and leave our destinies in the hands those who are better suited to managing them.”
Eris turned to meet Lance’s eyes momentarily. “We simply reject that way of thinking. We reject the idea that humanity’s destiny belongs in anyone’s hands other than our own. It’s time for us to stand up and make our own destiny.”
Eris turned back to the camera. “We at Hubris didn’t choose our name at random, unaware of its meaning. We knew quite well what we were doing and what message our name delivers. We accept not only the superficial meaning of the word, but, more importantly, we also embrace the deeper, core meaning of the term. It’s time for humanity to have a little pride, a bit of hubris,” she said with conviction as she turned back to Lance.
“You do understand that this frightens people?” Lance asked. “Belief in the gods—or the higher powers, if you will—stopped being a matter of faith in the early twenty-first century when the truth about the supernatural was brought into the light. While everyone from theologians to nuclear physicists to my hairdresser may have their own theories as to the nature of these beings, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who doubts their existence. Or their power. Isn’t it possible that it may be dangerous to piss them off?”
“Of course it’s frightening,” Eris replied. “And, on some level, there is a certain amount of danger involved. There always is with change. Uncertainty and risk are always there when you change the rules. But the alternative is to meekly accept the status quo, and that’s what you’re doing if you leave the Council in charge. You’re saying that the number of lives lost each year to vampires and demons is acceptable, that it’s unavoidable. You’re accepting a paradigm in which the entire world teeters on the brink of destruction on a regular basis, and it’s just considered par for the course by the people charged with keeping it sa—”
“Wait just one minute,” John interrupted. “That’s a gross oversimplification of the situation. You have no idea what kind of forces the Council deals with on a regular basis.”
Lance remained silent, watching her guests intently.
“Is that so, Colonel West?” Eris asked. “And the Council is familiar with these forces because they’ve dealt with them for some time now, correct?”
John leaned back in has chair, as if considering the question and looking for some type of verbal trap. “Yes. We’ve had considerable experience with these issues. Millennia of experience, if you count the history of the old Council. We’ve also had experience with groups who thought they could do the job better than the Council. And you know what? They always failed.”
Eris ignored the barb. “Millennia?” she questioned. “That’s a long time to be fighting a war with nothing to show for it. Are you sure you’re even trying to win?” Eris spread her hands out palm up. “You have, what? Thousands of slayers at your command, where once, one girl, one girl in all the world, sufficed. You’ve replaced stakes and crossbows with electro-stunners, poly-carb bullets, and UV lasers, but you’re still no closer to victory. In fact, when the new Council was formed, it even went so far as to change its motto to reflect the idea that the battle it was fighting was not one that could be won.” Eris leaned toward John. “I ask you this: If you begin your war with the belief that you cannot win, how likely is it that that belief will become reality? Does the Council even want to win, given that winning would mean that there was no longer any need for a Watchers Council? Who benefits more than the Council if the world is kept under constant threat?”
Eris turned to the camera and said, “I have to ask the question that I’m sure everyone watching wants answered: With all the power it has at its disposal, shouldn’t the Council have won by now?”
Eris looked pointedly at the camera then turned her gaze to John. The colonel was quiet for a moment, then he leaned forward and locked eyes with Eris. When he spoke, it was with a quiet intensity, “I’m not the one you should be asking that question.”
“If not you, then who would you suggest?” Eris asked in return.
“Ask the dead, Ms. Pantelles,” he answered. “Go to the Council cemetery in Cleveland, and ask the thousands of young women and men buried there whether or not they were trying their best to win. Go to the Slayer memorial, and ask those whose names are written there if they gave less than their all. Ask the dead, Ms. Pantelles, who benefits the most.” John leaned back and crossed his arms. “Ask the dead, Ms. Pantelles, if they think you can do the job better than they did.”
There was slight pause before Lisa Lance flashed her trademark smile and turned to the camera. “We’ll be right back after these messages,” she said.
Channel 21 News Studio – Monitor – Same Time (on-screen)
A series of scenes flashed across the screen: snatches of historic moments and pivotal events recreated with digital imagination and a large dollop of poetic license.
VOICE OVER (announcer, breathlessly): “There are moments when history is decided. Moments when momentous events decide the fates of nations, even the entire world. Many are not recognized until after they have passed, and as a rule, few are observed. In three days, we break that rule! In three days, we’re giving you a front row seat to history-in-the-making!”
The screen changed to a series of photos of the Anomalous Zone.
“In three days, exclusively from WorldNet News, you will have the chance get a firsthand view of one of the most dangerous places on earth: the Waxahachie Anomalous Zone.”
A group shot of the Flutie Expedition crew appeared on the screen.
“The site of one the most catastrophic scientific disasters in history will be entered for the first time since the National Geographic sponsored Flutie Expedition met its horrific end.”
The screen changed to show Lisa Lance on location standing dramatically in front of the Waxahachie city limits sign, with her arms crossed and a stern look on her face. Behind her, the abandoned city glowed from the light of the nearby Anomalous Zone.
“In three days, join WorldNet News as our own Lisa Lance hosts The Battle for the HDT! It’s your front row seat to adventure and history. Don’t dare miss out!”
Channel 21 News Studio – Anchor Desk – Moments Later
“I want to thank you both for your time,” Lance told her guests. “I believe that our audience has gained a greater understanding of the positions of both of your organizations. Ms. Pantelles, I’ll give you the last word so that you can respond to Colonel West’s allegation that, despite all of your talk of what Hubris will do if it wins the HDT contract, you’ve shared very little about your actual plans for defending humanity. Can you assure our audience that you really do have a plan for winning the battle against demonkind?”
Eris pushed a strand of hair back behind an ear and leaned confidently back in her chair. “Well, Lisa, we don’t want to give away too much to our adversaries, but you can rest assured that we do have plans. Very large and very powerful plans…”
Dark Alleyway – Night
The Vutch demon strode boldly down the alley and came to a stop, towering over the much smaller figure of Sean Rayne. “You have the money?” it asked in a voice that sounded like stone grinding glass.
“But, of course,” Rayne replied. “Wouldn’t want to upset a fellow of your size and reputation, now would I?” He nodded towards the end of the alley. “It’s on that barrel there. All you have to do is walk down there and take it.”
“What kind of game are you playing at, little man? You didn’t track me down and arrange this meeting just to give me money. What’s the catch?”
“That would be me,” a metallic voice announced. From the shadows stepped a huge, armored figure. “I’m your catch.”
“A trap? You think you can lure me into a trap and survive?” the Vutch demon demanded. It spun towards Rayne and, with a speed that seemed out of place for something of its size, it grabbed for Rayne’s throat. Its hand passed harmlessly through the renegade.
“Now, now,” the former watcher admonished. “Do I look like a madman to you? Simple holographic technology—gotta love it. It’s saved my ass more than once. As for this being a trap…think of it more as a simple contest. The money really is there. All you have to do is get through my friend there. Should be simple enough for someone of your stature and reputation.”
The Vutch growled. “I will deal with your companion, then I will hunt you down, little man. You have to be somewhere close at hand.” He turned back to the armored figure. “But first, I shall deal with your tinker-toy.”
The demon drew up to its full height. “You think you’re safe in your shell, human? I am Vutch! My kind hunted the night while your kind were still huddling around campfires, staring fearfully into the darkness! You think your forgings will protect you? I am Vutch! Slayer of slayers! Metal tears like paper under my touch, and the mightiest of your weapons are no more than toys to me! I am Vutch! I shall peel you from your shell and devour your beating heart before your dying eyes! I am—”
Crack! The armored figure’s shoulder cannon barked, and a spent-uranium cylinder hurtled though the air at just under the speed off sound. Mid-flight, it split into three separate pieces, each of which then split into two other pieces connected to each other by micro-fine razor wire. The three wired devices sliced through the demon as if it were as much of a hologram as Rayne.
“—Vutch!” the demon finished, as it slid to the ground in three separate pieces.
“Oh, hell!” Rayne yelled. “Osbourne, you idiot! Didn’t you bother to read the bloody briefing papers on these things? They have cloning powers. In a minute, you’re going to have three of the ugly brutes to deal with!”
The shoulder cannon retracted with a ka-shnict. “Yeah,” came the reply. With a klik-snact, the cannon was replaced with one of an entirely different configuration. “I know all about its cloning powers.” The cannon gave a little, almost experimental, burst of flame. “I just wanted to make sure it’s a halfway fair fight.”
Three fully-formed Vutch launched themselves at Dixon Osbourne, and the battle was joined.
End of Teaser