Disclaimers in Part 1
Lennox asked, "Are you sure about this, Bobby?"
"Yeah. I need to stay active duty, because if I retire the insurance will cost an arm and a leg to cover D'andre's care. But, Mo won't be able to take care of him and the other kids too if I buy the farm. Those damn doctors seem to think we oughta put him someplace. What would you do if it was Annabelle?"
Will said, "Me? I wouldn't have to lift a finger, it's what Sarah would do that they ought to worry about."
Bobby nodded solemnly. They'd never find the body if Sarah Lennox saw anyone as a serious threat to Annabelle.
"Hmmm. I got an idea. I'm going to put you in for a promotion to staff sergeant and put you in charge of facilities management. It'll mean a raise, and it's a desk job. You won't go into the field anymore. But you'll still be able to keep your readiness up, in case we have a problem here at the base."
"I don't know how to thank you, sir."
"None needed. You're the best person for the job, you proved that at the Cape, and Graham and I really do need someone in charge of this stuff. I'll shove the paperwork through by the time you get back from Malibu."
As the Sidhe of the Seelie Court had held the land of Tir Nan Og since the days of the Great Ice Barrens, so the Unseelie Court held the Underhill, a land of endless crystal caverns reached through portals often concealed within burial mounds.
The crystal caves were the only home that Evanon remembered. He knew he and the other humans who lived here and served the Fair Folk were different from them, but at barely fourteen, he didn't fully understand how.
Evanon had never been treated especially cruelly, unlike some of the others. As a baby, he had been given to a servant with a child of her own to nurse. Once he started crawling, he had become the Fair Folk's pet.
He grew up speaking Sidhe, and learned quickly to be cute and submissive. Beautiful though they were, the Sidhe of the Unseelie Court were fickle, cruel...and deadly, as his foster mother had learned when he had been only four. Her boy had ended up with another slave family, but Evanon had found himself in the barracks, under the care of Morithel, Queen Medb's champion.
Thoughts of Morithel encouraged him to hurry his pace through the twisting back tunnels. Morithel had told him to take a message to a guard post and run straight back. Her orders were never to be questioned, only to be obeyed to the letter—but he had learned that doing so kept him out of trouble with the other Sidhe, and saved him many a cuff or a jinxing. Morithel had worked hard with him to make him useful to her kin. He could handle a sword well for his age—well enough to spar with the Sidhe youngsters. Then, his swordmistress had convinced Medb that it would be entertaining to teach him a few minor charms. Medb had agreed, with the restriction that he was to learn no attack spells. Instead, Morithel had taught him to cast fireworks and small sleight of hand charms for the entertainment of the court.
She had taught him good manners, so that he could sit at Medb's feet while she ruled from her Rosethorn Throne, that which he was never allowed to touch, for the thorns would flay anyone save Medb who dared to sit there.
He had learned to sing and play a little lute, for the Sidhe had loved his high, clear child's soprano. But when his voice began to break, he had been forbidden song. That it broke his heart? That was not the concern of the Unseelie Fae. No human's pain was.
Evanon reached the guardhouse and took the stairs to Morithel's office two or three at a time. Out of breath, he stopped in front of her desk and bowed deeply. "I delivered your message to Guard Captain Kerion, Mistress. He said to tell you that it will be as you command."
"Yes," she said. "Evanon, go and bathe and dress for court. Her majesty requires our presence at her table this evening."
"Yes, Mistress. Should I prepare to entertain the court?"
"Not tonight, child."
He bowed again, and slid down the banister to the ground level. Morithel smiled, and watched sadly as he ran toward the servants' bathing cave.
She called her personal servant. "Draw my bath. After Evanon and I leave, pack up his things and bring his bundle to my tack room. Have the groom saddle a horse for him, as well as my Nightrunner. And, Beanie?"
"I expect all of his things to be in his bundle, do you understand? No one had better help themselves to any souvenirs."
"Yes, Mistress. It will be as you command."
Morithel went into her armory and collected an epee, the edged mate to the sparring blade which Evanon had learned to use. There was also a marshdrake jerkin. Non-sentient relatives of dragons, the marshdrakes of the Fen Lands were prized by the Sidhe for the fine leather which could be crafted from their hides. Morithel had charmed this one herself to protect against magic as well as the sharp edge of a blade.
She opened an oaken chest, careful to touch it in just the right places so that it would not spring out a poisoned needle. From the chest, she took her court jewelry, as well as a small coffer.
The coins within were true gold, though Evanon would have to be told to melt them down before selling them. No moneylender where Evanon was going would recognize the faces or inscriptions upon them. Still, she packed enough into a charm-lightened bag to give him a generous start in his new life.
Medb had decreed that it was time for the changeling left in Evanon's place to return and claim his birthright. There was no longer room in Medb's court for the little human lad who had once been Jason Brierly. The boy would be returned to his people, while the Sidhe lad who had taken his place would be taken from the only home and family he had ever known and returned to his birth parents.
Morithel profoundly disapproved of leaving changelings with human families, but it was the only source of protection against cold iron that they had. Because they spent their earliest years among the humans, before their magic emerged, eating their food and being baptized into their church, the Unseelie gained the ability to live unseen among them for the rest of their lives. But it was never without a cost, never...
She sighed, and put the coffer away. Her vows bound her to obey Medb's commands, but her honor demanded that she do all she could to lessen the cost to Evanon.
Morithel took the things into her chambers, and stripped off her armor and clothing, leaving them for her slaves. Only her swords did she put away herself—a slave touched a warrior's blades on pain of death.
She sank into the tub of hot water. Beanie brought her a sparkling crystal glass of blood red wine. "Which gown would you prefer this evening, Mistress?"
"No gown, Beanie. Tonight I will require my dress uniform."
"As you wish, Mistress." The slave bowed, and busied herself with laying out the ornate uniform, making sure each button was polished, each bit of braid in perfect order, and the black boots shined to a mirror finish.
Before they went to the Queen's Hall, Morithel inspected Evanon to be sure there was nothing about him that would annoy Medb. "Now listen to me, boy. Mind your manners, and no matter what Her Majesty orders you to do tonight, do it without question. No complaints, no hesitation, do you understand?"
"Yes, Mistress. Have I done something wrong? Am I in trouble?"
"You have done nothing. Understand me, child, you have done nothing wrong, and you deserve no punishment. But you must be strong and brave. Your life is going to change tonight. I have done everything I could to prepare you for this change, and you are ready. No matter what happens now, remember, you have done well, and I am proud of you."
"Thank you, Mistress."
Morithel closed her strong, scarred hand over the boy's thin shoulder for a moment, before they walked together into the uncertain future.
North of Eureka, US 101 followed the California coast sixty miles through redwood forest to Crescent City. The sea foamed and crashed against the rocky beaches, and the huge sequoias towered over even most Cybertronians as they reached for the sky. To the east, the mountains dwarfed the redwoods.
In this place, one knew one's position on the universe's scale of importance, and that...was very small.
Bumblebee had rarely been able to afford the time to experience awe at the handiwork of creation. Now, there was a new "wow" around every bend.
Bumblebee thought it was one of the most beautiful areas he had ever seen. Anywhere. Not just on Earth.
About halfway between Eureka and Crescent City, not far from Klamath, he and his passengers, his Guarded Sam Witwicky and Bobby Epps, rolled into the small town of Sequoia Falls. It had a few bed-and-breakfast inns, a motel for the less picky, an artist colony, and a couple of camp stores which supplied the backpackers and kayakers and campers who supported the town's tourist industry.
It would have been nothing more than that, if not for a fenced-in high-tech complex that overlooked the town. None of them knew what that complex was, but from the number of cars in its parking lot, it was an important employer in a town this small.
Bobby said, "Wonder what that is?"
Sam shook his head. "Looks...scientific, I guess. But it isn't a chemical plant, they'd have big tanks and things outside. Pharmaceuticals, maybe?"
"Maybe. If they make drugs in there, that would explain all the security. See the armed guards?"
Sam hadn't, but once Bobby pointed them out, he paid attention.
That place was locked up tighter than Fort Knox. He wondered exactly what they did do in there...and if it had anything to do with Sector 10.
Bee pulled into the motel's parking lot and settled in a space near the office, enjoying the evergreen-scented fall air while he waited for Sam and Bobby to pick up their keys. It was sunny, but much cooler here than at the base.
He saw movement high above, and thought of Laserbeak, but it was not the late Decepticon spy. It was a bald eagle.
Bumblebee did not notice a curtain twitch in the front window of a house across the street from the motel, or a hand reach for a telephone.
Jazz backed down the ramp of one of NEST's CH-47 cargo helicopters in alt form. It felt good to be back in action, even if he was only providing transportation for Chip to go talk to an old man named Lester Hardy, a retired DARPA official who had worked with James Smith in the early 1980s.
Locating the man hadn't been easy, because after his retirement, he'd dropped off the map, while his retirement checks still went into his old bank in San Diego. Jazz located his daughter, who took care of his finances for him. After he convinced this very suspicious, protective gatekeeper that they were not, in fact, out to take advantage of her father in any way, she eventually told them where to find them. At present, he was living with his current girlfriend, a former starlet, in her Malibu beach house.
Their route took them through El Segundo, Marina Del Ray, Venice Beach, and Santa Monica, then west along the shore to Malibu. These were places that had existed for Chip only in movies. With Jazz navigating the infamous Los Angeles traffic, he was free to sight-see all he wanted. Jazz ended up saving a lot of image captures himself, especially as they passed Pacific Palisades and followed the Pacific Coast Highway through the area's famous state parks and beaches.
Jazz put his top back—this time, he'd made sure to scan a convertible, and he'd found a 2009 model. "What kinda music you want to listen to?"
"We're in California, buddy, gotta be beach music!"
Jazz made an appropriate mix and cranked it up. They were a couple of happy campers, especially when a red jeep full of bikini-clad coeds pulled up alongside and checked them out.
Chip gave them a freckle-faced grin and a friendly wave, but the unwelcome thought intruded that none of them probably knew the difference between RAM and ROM, or had ever had grease under her perfectly manicured fingernails.
Then his imagination helpfully supplied an intriguing image of a certain apprentice medic wearing the blue string bikini one of the girls had on. More or less.
The girls turned off at the exit to one of the beaches, waving bye-bye; one of them even blew a kiss. Chip flirted back, laughing, but for once his heart wasn't really in it.
That damn ice-princess had got under his skin, but good.
Jazz slowed down as they reached the city limits. They didn't see any movie stars, but the area was as well-known for its famous, wealthy residents as for its glorious surfing beaches.
Past a row of beachfront hotels, they started passing private homes. Jazz checked his maps and took a turnoff.
According to her Wikipedia entry, Felicia McDowell had acted in a string of sci-fi B-movies during the eighties, and was now a space-princess regular at conventions all over the world. If People Magazine was to be believed, apparently she had settled down from the string of boyfriends she'd had during her glory days, and was quoted as "being happily involved for nearly five years now."
Jazz pulled into the driveway of a well-kept home with a red tile roof and a wooden stairway from the end of the drive down to the beach, where a jogger passed by, accompanied by a large Irish setter.
Jazz opened his door and disengaged the restraints clamping Chip's chair in place. Chip carefully turned the chair, aware that Jazz' interior could be a little sensitive to bumps and scrapes, and used the chair's stair-climbing function to step it down from Jazz' alt form.
Once Jazz closed his door, he jumped to Chip's chair, leaving a thread of energy connecting him to his alt form so that he could get back nearly instantaneously if necessary. Bobby's and Sam's experience in Florida was on both their minds.
Chip rolled up to the door and rang the bell. Presently a young Hispanic woman opened it. "Hello, may I help you?"
"I'm Chip Chase, here to see Mr. Hardy." He presented his identification, which she examined.
"Is he expecting you?"
"I'm Stella Garcia, Miss McDowell's assistant. Come in, I'll find Mr. Hardy for you."
She showed him to a sitting room overlooking the beach. It was a warm, friendly space with eclectic furnishings and a comfortable, homey feel. The only career memorabilia in evidence were two movie posters and the gold record for Felicia's one-hit-wonder movie theme from one of them, and a couple of scientific awards that must have belonged to Hardy. Felicia asked, "May I get you a drink, Mr. Chase?"
"No thanks, ma'am, I'm fine," he said with a smile. Then he noticed that Stella was wearing an engagement ring.
Not so long ago, that wouldn't have stopped him.
Hardy came in. He was wearing board shorts and surf shoes, and his long gray hair was tied back in a ponytail. He had the wiry frame of an athlete who seriously cross-trained—Chip thought probably the triathlon. He had a dark tan, no matter how politically incorrect that was these days.
"Welcome, Mr. Chase. How are you?"
"Fine, sir, yourself?"
"Oh, fine. And it's Les."
"Chip." The two men shook hands.
"Have a good trip?"
"Sure did, I've never been to California before. It's great."
"Yeah, I've been a lot of places, and never saw anywhere I like better. Sure I can't get you a drink?"
"Well, I wouldn't mind a soda or something."
Les got into a beer fridge under the bar and pulled out two cans of soda, poured them over ice. He brought Chip's drink and then seated himself nearby. "I understand you had some questions about Jim Smith, a guy I used to work with thirty years ago?"
"That's right, sir. He's involved in an investigation. I'd like to ask him a few questions."
"Well, I can't help you with where he might be. I haven't seen him in, oh, it's been twenty years now."
"You and Smith worked on a computer project together, is that right?"
Les nodded. "Yeah, we were working on a better method to talk to computers, or to other people using computers, than keyboards and mice or even touch-screens."
"Direct neural interface technology."
"That's right. You know your stuff."
"That's kind of what I'm doing now." He took his hand off the chair's control and moved it around. "The controls work through an interface patch on my back."
Les grinned. "I'm glad to see our work being used to help people heal. We were expecting it to be used for military applications, didn't really see a medical application at the time but it makes perfect sense."
"I don't have a problem with military development, Les, I'm a veteran myself."
"Yes, sir. What can you tell me about Smith's work?"
"I can show you an early prototype." He got up and unlocked a cabinet. On the top shelf was a heavy helmet with a big, awkward visor containing two small television screens, and equipped with large, ear-muff like headphones.
Chip accepted the device, surprised at how heavy it was, and turned it up to see two old-fashioned metal contact pads.
"Wow! Does this work?"
"It allowed control over the computers of the time. But, it's heavy and hot, and still tethered the user to the computer by means of a cable. The idea was ahead of its time. What you could do now with the lighter components we have available, and wireless technology? Light-years beyond this."
"Standing on the shoulders of giants," Chip quoted, looking at the helmet.
"Don't know how 'giant' I'd say," Les demurred.
"You did everything I've been doing—and with beer cans and baling wire to work with. That's pretty giant to me."
Les smiled, and went on to ask about the chair's controls. Chip was happy to explain.
Jazz jumped into the headset to check it out while no one was paying attention, then returned to the phone.
Communications interfaces went two ways. And now he knew exactly how the people at Premium Software had been killed. He had seen that MO before, but he hadn't recognized it in humans. If he'd seen a melted CPU, with damage radiating towards the poor bot's wireless modem, he'd have known immediately what happened. Someone had stumbled onto Soundwave's net shadow.
Now, it was possible for the telepath to kill organics in cyberspace as easily as he could other mecha.
Jazz was so lost in thought that he didn't notice the interview was over until Chip wheeled back to his alt form and texted him to open the door. The saboteur shook himself awake and hopped back to his alt, quickly waking it and letting Chip get his chair situated.
Once they backed out of the drive and headed back to LA, Jazz said, "Sorry, man."
"Ah know who did it, an' how."
"Soundwave? It had to be but...I don't get the 'how.'"
"We never knew exactly, 'cause he always left their processors and main memory completely slagged. Once, one of my operatives just fell offline right next to me—close enough t' reach out an' touch—an' Ah couldn't do a thing to stop it. Now—he can do the same thing to organics, if they got one of them headsets on."
"He's a telepath, right? But I thought that was, like, hacking other bots? How does that work on a human?"
"If Ah can draw energy from either one, 's gotta be similar. Ah got a few ideas t' run past Diarwen first."
"Can we fight him?"
"If Ah can find th' slagger, Ah can sure as Pit put a round through his spark chamber, but on the Net? Ah might have to, but there... Ah just ain't sure how yet."
To be Continued in
A Year in the Life of Optimus Prime: Four