Anna scanned the audience and winced inwardly. The huge conference chamber was quickly filling to capacity in preparation for the presentation that was now less than an hour away. Anna didn't deny that the announcement was important; after all Taelon physicians had now successfully perfected the limb regeneration technique previously attempted with Julie Payton; in fact, she was one of the VIP guests.
The problem was that the news had leaked out and brought the psychos out of the woodwork thick and fast. One group had caused particular concern to Companion security, and surprisingly enough, it wasn't the Resistance movement. It was a group of fanatics called Body Pure that considered any Taelon medicine and particularly limb regeneration as an abomination to nature. They had started with violent protests, followed that with an aborted bomb attempt at the Washington Embassy and their latest threat was an assassination attempt at the conference. Da'an and Zo'or were both scheduled to attend; Liam and Sandoval had put every Companion security agent in North America on full alert.
At that morning's security briefing the security personnel had been shown images of three known Body Pure agents that had been traced to the local area. The two men were in their thirties and had military experience in the SI War. The lone female, identified as Marissa Wright, was in her early twenties and according to the profile was a typical spoiled little rich girl that had stumbled into violent activism out of sheer boredom. Unfortunately for all concerned, Marissa had found her niche, an expert strategist and field commander she moved from cause to cause - where she went destruction followed in her wake.
One other thing had caused the Volunteers concern. Kincaid. He was noticeably tense and primed for something. Many of the Volunteers that were here under Anna's command had been present ten months earlier when the Major had re-appeared from his self-imposed exile to locate Sandoval and Da'an when their shuttle had been attacked. The Volunteers that had witnessed Liam in action at that time had recognised the look on his face, they told the story quietly to the Volunteers that hadn't, the adrenaline levels seemed to rise in the room. Trouble was coming; everybody knew it.
The distinctive sound of a shuttle entering normal space was the signal for the Volunteers to get ready for action. A cordon of Volunteers secured the are surrounding the site where the shuttle was landing and short moments later the occupants emerged. Zo'or and Da'an were accompanied by another Taelon, Na'en. This was the Taelon physician that had worked out the problems in the procedure that had caused the rejection suffered by Julie Payton. Na'en had never been off the Mother Ship and a full security alert was not really the best introduction to Earth but it couldn't be helped. The human medical representatives in the audience had many questions for this particular Taelon.
Sandoval and Liam accompanied the three Taelons. Liam was dressed for action noted Anna; black trousers, black top, short black leather jacket. Surprisingly enough, Sandoval was dressed in a similar fashion. His customary suit and tie were conspicuous by their absence as he too wore a black top and black trousers. As a concession to the fact that he was the designated close security operative for the day and would be the visible presence on the stage he was also wearing a black suit jacket, there was no doubt about it though, the Protectors were ready for the worst.
Sandoval, the Taelons and a Volunteer security squad made their way into the building. Liam signalled Anna with a wave of his hand, she and her squad dispersed into a pre-arranged pattern and began a systematic search of the outside perimeter. Liam himself and two Volunteers hand picked by Anna made their way into the building. Once there they separated to begin another sweep of the inside of the building.
There was little comm chatter, everyone focused on their tasks. There was a sudden burst on the tactical frequency to announce that Anna's squad had apprehended one of the two male Body Pure agents as he attempted to sight a missile launcher at the building. The threat was real. The Volunteers tensed, surely the Taelons and their Protectors would cancel this appearance now. Sandoval did apprise Zo'or of the situation but Liam and he already knew what the answer would be. At their own earlier and private security briefing with Zo'or and Da'an they had been informed that under no circumstances would the conference be cancelled. Any security problems would simply have to be dealt with.
One down and two to go.
Sandoval escorted the Taelons onto the stage and they took their seats next to Julie Payton, Dr Julianne Belman and Renee Palmer, who was there representing Doors International and their medical research division. She approached the dais to introduce Da'an, the Taelon sponsor of the project. She noticed Sandoval tense slightly and shot him a questioning glance. He murmured quietly as she passed him,
"Two down. Just the girl left. Stay alert."
Renee nodded imperceptibly. She had been briefed by Liam and Sandoval and had her own role to play in event of an attack. She approached the dais and said,
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I'd like to introduce the guiding force behind this wonderful and miraculous project, the Companion representative for North America, Da'an."
Da'an approached the dais to the sound of thunderous applause. Renee moved to stand off to the side of the stage, close to where Dr Belman and Ms Payton were sitting.
Liam half concentrated to what Da'an was saying as he moved silently along the lighting gantries above the audience; they were a perfect place for a concealed ambush. What was that?! Focusing more closely he barely noticed when Na'en replaced Da'an at the podium. Quietly drawing his weapon he gave the warning that the third assassin was in the audience chamber. Below him on the stage Sandoval moved position so that he was level with Na'en and the dais. His warning glance to Renee had her primed for action. They could both see Volunteers discreetly swarming into the room through the rear entrances and manoeuvring into position.
Above them all, Liam saw Marissa raise an energy pulse rifle - where the hell had she got that? He shouted a command for her to stop. Ignoring him she continued to target the figures on the stage; Liam shot the rifle out of her hands. He concentrated on Marissa but could hear the sounds of panic coming from the audience. If he had looked down he would have seen Renee hustling Dr Belman and Julie Payton off the stage, weapon drawn. An entire squad of Volunteers under Anna's command was doing the same with the three Taelons. Sandoval remained on the stage, skrill raised, guarding their exit. Marissa snarled and whirled to face Liam; as she did so she drew a knife and flung it directly at him. Liam staggered in shock as he felt it slice his left bicep. He slipped over the side rail of the gantry and there were gasps of horror from some of the Volunteers in the hall as they saw him dangling by one arm as the infuriated Marissa approached him.
Sandoval had been having quiet fits as he was unable to see what Liam was facing. He'd paled noticeably when he saw Liam fall over the side - his heart resuming it's normal rhythm when he'd seen Liam stop his fall. Seeing Marissa approaching the injured man - he'd raised his skrill targeting her. He could actually feel the skrill echoing his sentiment about protecting Liam - why he didn't know, frankly he didn't care right now. Seeing Marissa poised ready to strike at Liam again he fired and watched Marissa fly backwards, over the other railing, landing on a crumpled heap on the floor. Threat averted.
Liam chose that moment to lose consciousness and fall to the floor himself but a group of Volunteers had managed to clear the chairs in time and did their best to brace his fall. Sandoval leaped off the stage and rushed to Liam. He was just about to call out for a medic but saw Anna rushing back into the room with a medic hot on her heels.
The doctors sighed as they looked at the waiting room. Still full of Volunteers and press - no wonder hospital security was having a fit! The Volunteers looked primed and dangerous; it was hardly surprising under the circumstances, the morning's events had been feeding the global headlines all day. They'd calm down when the young man in the hospital room woke up and not before.
In that self same hospital room Sandoval sat vigil at Liam's side. His injuries could have been worse. He'd wrenched his shoulder when he'd fallen off the gantry and suffered some severe blood loss from the knife wound in his other arm. Concussion from the fall was also to be expected - all in all it could have been much worse. Sandoval still sat there, though; he couldn't leave till Liam woke up. He had to hear it from Liam's own lips that he was all right. He sat in his chair and gently smoothed Liam's hair.
At first he didn't notice Liam's eyelids fluttering, but then he saw him scanning the unfamiliar room, tense and wary, until he saw Sandoval. He gave Sandoval a tired smile and said, "I'm going to be fine. Go rest."
Sandoval smiled, Liam should know better by now. He placed a gentle hand on his cheek before pressing the button to call for the doctors. Sandoval excused himself as the doctors ran some checks and went out to inform the Volunteers that Liam was awake. He seemed surprised to see that the press were still there but he made a brief statement to the fact that Major Kincaid was conscious and expected to be back at duty in the near future. Sandoval dismissed all the Volunteers except for those assigned to guard Liam while he was in the hospital. He then returned to Liam's room and his chair at his bedside. The nurses gave up asking him to move and worked round him. That was why, when Anna came to visit the next morning, she found Sandoval asleep in the chair, one hand still resting on Liam's arm. Not saying a word she gently woke the sleeping man and sent him off to freshen up and get something to eat. Anna slipped into his seat and resumed the watch. Renee Palmer was due after lunch, Liam would not be alone in here, someone would be with him at all times till he got out. Then and only then, would Body Pure's death threat against him and Sandoval be mentioned.
Why are hideouts always deserted warehouses? was the disgusted question that Liam Kincaid asked himself as he took position at the side of the door. Renee's posture seemed to indicate that she felt the same. A totally inappropriate thought crossed Liam's mind just at that moment - at least the Resistance hideout that doubled as Augur's home had a bit of class.
Back to business. Liam raised his weapon to cover Renee as she swept open the door and entered the warehouse. Liam followed close on her heels. They met no resistance as they entered - actually, they met no one at all. Sloppy, thought Liam. Very sloppy.
He and Renee were here at Doors' behest to sort out an internal security problem within the San Franciso resistance cell. The cell leader had apparently decided to go into business for himself using ordnance and equipment supplied by Doors for Resistance activities. Liam smiled ironically. Doors seemed more annoyed about the misuse of the equipment rather than the illicit activities involved. He, on the other hand, was furious about what this cell leader was up to. Damn the security issues; kidnapping children of prominent Taelon friendly families and holding them for ransom was just wrong.
Renee signalled that there was a guard ahead and that she was going to distract him. Liam circled round from the other side and approached from behind some of the old, dilapidated packaging crates - warehouses did have some advantages, after all. Short moments later the guard was unconscious, handcuffed with magnetic cuffs, gagged and hidden from view. This manoeuvre was repeated on the other perimeter guard. That accomplished, Liam and Renee moved deeper into the warehouse.
Liam signalled a halt and pulled out one of his new 'toys'. Between friends like Augur and the resources of Doors International, he had to admit that they gave him some pretty nifty gadgets to use in his day to day activities. This particular toy detected heat signatures and the presence of weapons on any person within a five hundred foot radius. Discounting himself and Renee, not to mention the two sleeping guards, Liam was able to pinpoint the location of the two remaining cell members involved in this little operation and their prisoner.
At that point, Liam and Renee pulled out their poly-morphic masks. These masks worked with nano-robot technology and some other techniques to mould to a person's face and to change their appearance. The cell members knew them both; this security measure was for the prisoner. She had to be rescued and returned to her family, but to maintain security they couldn't let her see their faces.
Renee took point and they approached the room - formerly the manager's office - where the prisoner was being held. They swept in like a tornado and shots reverberated round the room. Ten seconds later, when the terrified teenager being held prisoner dared to open her eyes, she looked around and saw her erstwhile captors unconscious on the floor. The girl glanced apprehensively at the newcomers. Liam and Renee made for a fearsome sight, dressed head to toe in black; the girl feared the worst.
Renee smiled reassuringly. "It's okay, Lisa, we're here to take you home."
At that, Lisa promptly burst into tears of relief. Renee holstered her gun and reached out to wrap comforting arms around the girl. She heard her whisper something. Looking Lisa in the eye, she smiled. "You're welcome, sweetheart." Meanwhile, Liam had taken this opportunity to secure the kidnappers. He placed a reassuring hand on Lisa's shoulder before opening his global and calling in the team waiting on standby outside the warehouse. That team swept in, dressed in full urban camouflage gear, and removed the prisoners. There was a transport outside waiting to take them to Doors. He wasn't happy and he fully intended to make this group wish that they had never been born.
Liam and Renee, still in disguise, took Lisa to her house. Standing outside the security gates and just out of view of the cameras - even disguised it was better to take no chances - they said goodbye to Lisa.
She tried to get them to come and meet her parents; this was when they finally told her whom they worked for. To say that Lisa was astonished to find that she had been rescued by the Resistance would be an understatement. Knowing full well her parents' attitude toward the Resistance, she stopped pushing for her rescuers to come with her. Instead, she hugged them both, said 'thank you', and stepped up to the gates and buzzed for admittance.
As Liam and Renee turned and walked away, they could hear Lisa's mother's tears of relief coming from the security speaker at the gates. They smiled - mission accomplished.
An hour later found Liam and Renee entering one of the hottest clubs in town. Their appearance was designed to draw attention to themselves. It gave a 'business as usual' slant to their presence in the city. Renee had been there since the day before on a whirlwind tour of the Doors International research division based in the city. Major Kincaid was here to do advance work for a Taelon medical conference scheduled to commence two days hence. 'Since it was the follow-up to the conference marred by the Body Pure attack, security had to be tight.
They ate, they drank, they danced, they relaxed. Nobody watching them was given any reason to speculate on their earlier activities; all anybody saw was two friends out for a good time.
Early the next morning found Liam at the site for the upcoming conference, Anna at his side. She had arrived moments earlier with an updated security briefing for Liam, courtesy of Sandoval. Liam had scanned it and grimaced; six new VIP guests added to the guest list. Perfect. Da'an and Zo'or were going all out to show that they were unafraid of another attack. That was all well and good, but security was going to be a nightmare.
Anna was just about to say something when she noticed Liam suddenly fall silent. Oh no! thought Anna. She recognised the look on his face. It was one of his 'feelings' again, and by the looks of things, it wasn't good.
Liam suddenly whirled into action, sweeping his global open he put in a call to the Mother Ship. His even tone belied the seriousness of his message.
"Imminent warning of a major life threatening event. There will be a massive earthquake in San Francisco within the next ten minutes. Repeat, earthquake imminent. Shut down the San Francisco ID portals now! Alert the local authorities here in San Franciso to prepare for a quake and its aftermath. Alert all Volunteers stationed here to make their way to Golden Gate Park as soon as it's safe. I want ten Volunteer squads from the Mother Ship put on full alert. After the quake, have them shuttle down to Golden Gate Park. Have them bring medical personnel, rescue equipment and portable ID portals to transport the injured. Make sure they are prepared for full-scale disaster relief.
"Advise the President, Zo'or and Da'an. Move! I'm heading for the park to prepare for relief activities."
Anna and Liam gave the warning at the hotel. The staff eyed them as though they were lunatics - there hadn't been a quake in San Franciso in over eight years. Having no time to argue, Liam and Anna sprinted for his shuttle. Mere seconds later they were airborne. Clearly worried, Liam had Anna call Renee and warn her to take all possible precautions.
Minutes later they were on the ground and in the shuttle, waiting. The quake struck with tremendous force. The shuttle was thrown about violently, but Taelon engineering kept it in one piece. The noise was awful, the destruction in the city immense.
When it was safe, Liam and Anna exited the shuttle and looked around. They could hear a multitude of alarms, all set off by the quake. Destroyed and damaged buildings were everywhere in sight. It was a scene straight out of hell. Liam sighed. With eyes full of pain, he said, "Let's get to work."
Anna surveyed the scene in front of her and sent out a silent prayer to anyone that was listening that they'd survive the next few hours without any further disasters - they had too much to do as it was.
As soon as it was safe to do so, a steady stream of shuttles had been ferrying Volunteers down from the Mother Ship to aid in the disaster relief efforts. They had been joined by relief workers from the area close to Golden Gate Park. Major Kincaid had welcomed them gladly; everyone was going to have to work together to get through this.
Orders coming from the city authorities had been garbled and confused; the police, paramedics and fire personnel had been relieved to find somebody - anybody - who was taking charge of an organized relief effort.
In the past two hours much had been accomplished. Major Kincaid had appeared to be everywhere at once. A triage section had been established in one area, with Volunteer medics and doctors standing by to treat any casualties. Another area had been set up as a communications centre - a concentrated nerve centre that co-ordinated between the Volunteers on the ground, the Mother Ship, and the civilian authorities. This was where Liam could currently be found.
Anna approached quietly and slipped into position at Liam's right shoulder. The Major acknowledged her with a slight nod and continued pointing at the images laid out in front of them on the briefing table.
The civilians had been quietly amazed when one of the Volunteers had laid a simple panel out on the table, only to have a detailed holographic image of the city suddenly appear in front of them. Then Major Kincaid had started giving orders. The Volunteers quickly jumped to obey; the civilian personnel cast some questioning looks at him, but followed his orders as well.
The Major organized them into teams - some consisting solely of Volunteers, others composed of a mixture of Volunteers and civilian personnel, depending on what the Major wanted, and each team was given a number designation.
"I want twenty teams sent out to the following locations," Major Kincaid said, pointing each area out on the map as he mentioned it.
"Teams two and twelve go here... it's an office block. Four people are trapped in an elevator stuck between floors nine and ten...
"Teams six through nine, here... it's a retirement home. The foundations are severely damaged; immediate evacuation is required...
"Teams three and four, here, the docks. The police are in charge here.
There's a yacht trapped and taking on water. Two of the crew are below decks. Fernandez and Bender are rescue divers; follow their orders...
"All remaining teams, see me in a few minutes and I'll give you grid references to search. Make a thorough sweep of your areas and render all assistance possible.
"Anna, you're in charge here; the teams take orders from you. I want roving patrols of this area to maintain security and prevent any trouble. The pilots will remain on standby to ferry any serious injuries to the appropriate medical facilities. I've already talked to the Mother Ship; Na'en and a medical team are on alert there too. The doctors have been made aware of all their options; they have final authority on medical matters.
"The portals to San Francisco are shut down until further notice. The only authorised portals in use will be the portable ones being used by the Volunteers to transport survivors and the injured. The city has set aside several areas to house the displaced; get the list from communications. I want a Volunteer squad at each site. Have them grow shelters for the people as necessary; Taelon structures are quake-proof. They'll probably feel safer."
"And where will you be, sir?" asked Anna.
"In the city. I'm joining team one."
"You have your orders, Lieutenant Duncan."
Ten minutes later, Liam's team was ready to depart. The four Volunteers in the team were noticeably tense, and eyed the Major carefully. The rest of the team consisted of two paramedics, a police detective, and a beat cop.
When the detective asked why the Volunteers were so jumpy just because Major Kincaid had joined them, the answer was a confusing, "You'll see."
They clambered aboard two Volunteer modified Jeeps and headed out of the park.
The search began, and the non-Volunteers of the group soon began to understand the strange tension of the Volunteers. Kincaid was unbelievable.
After a while, no one questioned how he knew what he knew - they simply accepted it as fact. The Major would order a sudden stop, a faraway look in his eyes. Then he'd either jump out himself or order everyone out of the Jeeps to help. He'd point to building, piles of rubble, overturned cars, and say where the bodies lay, where the survivors were to be found - and he was never wrong.
Then something new happened that had the team sending each other covert looks behind the Major's back.
In one particular area they came across a museum. The outside facade of the building was crumbling, but the Major said there were over three hundred people still inside. By this point nobody doubted that he was right.
They called for assistance, and Anna Duncan said she was on her way with four additional teams, adding that Sandoval was on-site and was assuming command of the main relief area. Major Kincaid had been reluctant to have Anna leave the site; but once he heard that Sandoval had arrived, his team saw a smile grace his face - the first one in hours.
Ten minutes later, four shuttles popped into view overhead. In a display that would have done a demonstration team proud, the squads abseiled* from the shuttles to the ground - there was no safe place to land.
Thus reinforced, Major Kincaid's team entered the museum. Luckily, the first person they found was the ticket collector/receptionist. She had detailed records of all those who had entered the museum before the quake, and since the door security system counted people both coming in and going out, she could give an accurate figure for how many people were still in the building.
Then the detective pointed out a sign hanging from the ceiling of the lobby with a sigh of resignation. It read 'San Francisco welcomes the schools of the world'. He said, "This could get a little difficult." Turning to the harried looking receptionist, he said, "How many different languages are we talking about, here?" She smiled; shrugged, and the detective swore quietly under his breath.
Anna just looked at Liam. He shrugged. The sight of him in that hospital morgue was forever ingrained in her memory; she knew what was about to happen, even if none of the others did.
For the next hour, the teams searched the museum. Several times they came across school children, crying, wandering bewildered, shaken - most of these children had never experienced an earthquake before. They'd see people in uniform and run up, happy to be found. They'd babble on in their native tongues, not realizing that they were making no sense to their bewildered rescuers. Okay, that wasn't exactly true - some of the languages, like French or Spanish, were known to them from school or family influence, but by no means all.
Then Major Kincaid had revealed another ability. Whatever language was being spoken to him, he understood, and could reply in. By the time they had finished the sweep, he was surrounded by children, all of them chattering away happily.
The teams watched, amazed. That he knew all these languages had been a surprise, but did he even realise what he was doing? He was carrying on a multi-layered conversation with these children; he answered whatever questions were put to him in the language they had been posed in - he had to be talking about ten different languages at once in this conversation!
Outside, more rescue personnel had arrived. The museum visitors - including the children - were passed into their keeping.
Anna had been keeping a close eye on the Major. For the last hour she had watched Liam's face grow paler; she had witnessed the lines of pain and exhaustion appearing around his eyes. He had pushed himself too hard, opened himself to too much pain and emotion.
He started to collapse. Anna was at his side instantly. Ignoring his protests, she called for a shuttle to take him back to the relief area.
Sandoval was waiting for them when they arrived. He took one look at Liam and ordered him back to the Mother Ship to rest. Liam tried to refuse; while he argued with Sandoval, he didn't notice Anna retrieve a hypo-spray. Not until, that is, she pressed it into his neck. He barely had time to glare at them both before he sagged forward into Sandoval's waiting arms. Two Volunteers carried him into a shuttle and flew him up to the Mother Ship.
In the days that followed, the quake and its aftermath were headline news. Much was made of the warning given before the quake by Companion personnel. Those few moments to prepare had saved a number of lives.
Also praised were the relief efforts of the combined Volunteer/civilian teams under the command of Major Kincaid. The sheer number of lives they had saved was impressive, but the fact that raised the most comments was that most of those rescued had been unable to call for help. The teams had just arrived, knowing who was trapped, where and how. All in all, it was very strange. However, none of the Volunteers were available for comments, and the civilians assigned to the teams refused to be drawn out on the question.
Sandoval dismissed the image with a wave of his hand. Liam was safe for now. The Volunteers definitely knew that there was something different about him, and the civilian authorities were beginning to realise it too. They were letting it slide and protecting him - for now. Sandoval sighed. He wondered how much longer Liam had before more of his secrets came to light.
Then he turned his attention to the other matter at hand. He looked at the FBI report and frowned. How could four of Body Pure's operatives - who had been under very close surveillance - simply disappear? What on earth had happened with the security teams that had been supposedly watching them?
Sandoval sighed again. Their targets were easy enough to figure out; their previous threat left little room for doubt. He and Liam were in for an interesting few weeks.
It was an anonymous building in the city; nothing noticeable, it was just there. Hundreds of people passed it by every day without even seeing it. Dull and ordinary; that was why he had chosen it.
Chang shifted position ever so slightly; it was the first move he had made in nearly twenty hours. A trained sniper, he had been given the opportunity to make the first attack on the targets. He'd spent weeks studying their movements - this was no easy task. The targets had been forewarned.
Chang frowned; he'd advised against the public threats at the time, but he'd been over-ruled. All it had done, though, was make the targets more cautious. Security was tight; they never went anywhere without an escort of Volunteers. That damn bitch had her people well organised - he'd have to give her that.
There was one hole, though. At first he'd thought it was just a fluke. Then it happened again. Every fourth day, one of the Volunteers assigned to Sandoval would stand at his apartment window - just for a moment. The third time it had happened, Chang had noticed the subtle sign being directed outside, away from the eyes of those within the apartment. Curious, he'd risked taking an image of the Volunteer. He'd sent it off to Seth; the man was a genius with computers. It hadn't taken him long to find the answer to the puzzle. This Volunteer had a sister; a sister who had been filled with false hopes by the Taelons. The experiment she had participated in had been meant to help her with her illness; instead it had killed her.
Chang and the others kept a close watch on Sandoval's apartment. Every fourth day, that Volunteer stood at the window and, every fourth day - for just a split second - he moved out of position. In that instant, there was a line of sight into the apartment; Sandoval was exposed. Which was why Chang was here now. In less than an hour, the new shift of Volunteers would arrive, with one particular Volunteer included in their ranks. Today, Chang took out his target.
Inside the apartment, all was quiet. Sandoval lay on his bed and gazed up at the ceiling. This waiting was torture. He'd much rather be out there leading the investigation, but here he was, the bait. It had galled him to sit on the sidelines, but Anna had been right. His apartment was the perfect place to set the snare; that meant he was the only believable choice for the lure.
What Body Pure didn't realise was that as they watched Sandoval, they were also being watched, and watched closely.
There were cameras located on three of the surrounding buildings, all targeted on the roof currently inhabited by the sniper. Coupled with the sensors on the Mother Ship and the Volunteer teams on the ground, it was under constant scrutiny.
The traitorous Volunteer was obviously no traitor. He was hand-picked because his sister had indeed died as a result of her condition. The part about the Taelons being implicated was pure fiction, but Liam had arranged (probably with his friend Augur's help - but they wouldn't mention that) for falsified records to be created. Records that damned the Taelons. Body Pure's hacker was good; he wasn't that good, though. The ruse had worked.
Which was why he lay here, waiting. The Volunteers would arrive soon and he'd wander about his apartment with what amounted to a target on his back, saying 'shoot me'.
Sandoval glanced over at the clock at the side of the bed. Time to get up and get this over with.
Chang took several deep breaths and steadied himself. Slowly, carefully, he took aim.
Just as he was about to fire, all hell broke loose. There were sirens and flashing lights everywhere. Volunteers came spilling from buildings all around. Chang stared in disbelief. How had he and his associates managed to miss them?
He heard shooting coming from below; he was on his own. The others had obviously been captured.
Refusing to give up, he clambered to his feet and raised his rifle to his shoulder. Fine; if he couldn't get his target, he'd get another.
He took aim at the Volunteers on the ground below him and got ready to press the trigger. He heard a shouted warning to drop his gun; he ignored it.
The next thing Chang knew was a feeling of intense pain in his chest. The blast from the gun knocked him off balance and he staggered back. He felt himself fall back against the edge of the roof and slip over. He never made a sound.
Seconds later, he reached the ground and was killed instantly.
On the roof, Anna lowered her weapon and let out a long breath. It had worked perfectly; well, almost perfectly. Two captured, one dead, one escaped. All in all, not a bad morning's work.
Over the next couple of months, life continued as usual. The last of the four Body Pure agents seemed to have given up; no trace of him had been found. Sandoval, Liam and Anna continued with their duties.
Anna watched and wondered. Things still remained unexplained. She let it slide, though, as did the other Volunteers. They protected the pair. It didn't mean that they weren't curious, though; speculation was intense - behind closed doors.
Then came the trial. Security was tightened once again, but for once, nothing seemed to go wrong. The evidence was overwhelming, after all. Even the defense attorneys knew it was a lost cause. The trial and sentencing came to a speedy conclusion.
Sandoval, Liam and Anna had been there for the sentencing and were leaving the building under close escort by a Volunteer squad. Anna was the first to notice that anything was wrong; by sheer chance, she just happened to look the right way at the right moment.
Not hesitating, she called out a warning while, at the same time, she ploughed into Liam and Sandoval, knocking them out of the line of fire. Three Volunteers opened fire on the assassin - he was dead before he hit the ground.
Shaken, Liam and Sandoval climbed to their feet. Unmindful of the Volunteers' pleas to move to a more secure location, they looked down at Anna and dropped to their knees beside her when they saw the blood. It was spreading ominously fast. A Volunteer medic (Anna had insisted that at least one be in her squad) fell to her knees beside Anna. She looked up into the worried eyes of the two Protectors and wordlessly shook her head. Too late.
Liam's eyes misted with tears, as did Sandoval's.
Anna's eyes opened and she saw both of them there, safe. She smiled faintly, and said in a hoarse voice, "Thank God, you're both okay."
Liam cradled her cheek in his hand. Ignoring the blood that stained his palm, he said, "Thanks to you, Anna. You saved us."
Anna looked Liam directly in the eye. He could see that she was gathering what little strength she had left. In a quiet voice, she asked one last question. "Tell me the truth, Liam. There's a connection between you and Sandoval. What is it?"
Liam took in a deep breath, trying to ignore the anguish in his heart at the thought of another female Volunteer dying to save his life. He looked at Sandoval. The same grief in his own eyes, Sandoval nodded, the message clear. 'Tell her - damn the consequences.' They'd deal with any repercussions later.
Liam smiled. Finally, he could acknowledge the truth in front of witnesses. Looking Anna straight in the eye, and knowing full well that the other Volunteers could hear what he was saying, he said in a soft but clear tone, "Sandoval is my father."
Anna's eyes widened, and she could hear the gasps from some of the Volunteers who had been within earshot of Liam's little bombshell. That was one answer she'd never even considered. She saw the truth in their faces, though. The bond between them seemed so obvious now.
She gave them a last smile and tried to say 'thank you', but no sound emerged from her lips. She was so tired... she'd close her eyes for just a minute, then she'd tell them. Her eyelids fluttered closed and she gave her last breath.
Tears in his eyes, Liam's gentle fingers caressed her forehead one last time. He and Sandoval got to their feet and eyed the other Volunteers.
For a long moment nobody said anything. Then one of the Volunteers called for transport; Major Kincaid and Agent Sandoval had to report to the Embassy.
That was the cue for things to start up again. Anna's body was reverently covered with Liam's own jacket. When permitted by the authorities, it would be removed and a funeral service prepared. Till then, Anna's squad carried out the duties for which she'd trained them; they protected Kincaid and Sandoval.
* Abseiling is something people with a complete lack of common sense do for fun - some people I know have abseiled (for charity) from the roofs of some fairly tall buildings. They're mad, I tell you. Mad!