Whistle in the Dark
--=0347 HOURS - 2008-AUG-22 - S.C.O.R.P.I.O. Facility, Sanctuary=--
Only the sound of footfalls echoed along the walls of the deserted locker room. It was early morning, or late night depending on who you asked. Andrew McConnell, otherwise known as the Celtic Arrow, had the entire exercise facility to himself and he took advantage of the peace. He needed to clear his mind.
Now walking into the locker room from the showers, he still wasn't sure what to do next. While some people call it curiosity he preferred to just call it insurance. Knowledge was power, and when it came to people, especially those in power he always liked to have an ace up his sleeve. Usually it wasn't quite this hard. When he'd started digging into the past of his newest boss, Rikki Jericho, commonly known as Cherry 9, he'd found a history filled with holes and redacted information.
His contacts at the Pentagon had come up empty handed. Her file with them contained a bit more information on her Rikti War activities, but not much more then the available records through S.C.O.R.P.I.O. intel. She'd be classified as part of Project Allegiant Horizon during the war. Basically it meant she was on the short list of people who showed promise working with Rikti Tech.
During the war Rikti Tech became a commodity. Engineers that showed promise in subverting and reverse engineering Rikti Tech became an even hotter commodity. During the early months more then a few went MIA or bought it. Even at war the profiteers were hedging their bets, and the feds responded by creating Project Allegiant Horizon.
Members of the project were classified to the highest level with need to know access only. No one person at any time knew exactly who was involved. It had been a success and the military managed to finish the war without any more losses related to Rikti Technology.
However, Project Allegiant Horizon was only one of the reasons intel on her was so scarce. As far as the DOD was concerned those records just didn't exist. People who should have been able to access them couldn't, or found more empty and incomplete records. Something else was going on and it wasn't within DOD command, at least not directly.
Turning the corner to step into the dressing area of the locking room he froze in mid-step for a moment. At the end of one of the benches sat a man in a robe. The shadows converged on him a bit but he could still make out the eye patch over his right eye. In his hand he held a glass of amber colored liquid and he wore a poker face that could make even a statue jealous.
Catching himself Andrew continued into the locker room nonchalantly nodding to Jack, "Evenin', boss."
"You've been quite busy."
"They say idleness is tha mother o' all evil"
"Tell me, how was the weather in DC?"
Their conversation had seemed innocent, almost casual until now. Jack knew or at least had an idea of what he'd been up to. "Aven'et been, sorry."
"You don't say?" Jack stood from the bench as he took a sip from the glass as he began to walk out of the dressing area pausing slightly next to the other man as he spoke, "Mark Twain said once, 'We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that a savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.' Sage advice don't you think?"
Jack didn't wait for an answer as he walked out of the locker room leaving the room in silence. Exhaling the breath he didn't realize he was holding while turning to the locker a renewed sense of determination boiled within him. If Jack knew, someone else did.
--=2351 HOURS - 2008-AUG-22 - HURLBERT AIR FIELD, FL =--
It hadn't taken much checking to find out the itinerary for Colonel Steven Lyons more affectionately known as Saint Tact. Given his position within the 823rd and the USAF's RED HORSE program his itineraries were fairly public. Just to be sure however he'd verified it a few places.
The Colonel was currently off site and on location at a training exercise in Arizona. Stepping into the dark office Celtic gave a quick glance around. The room was cast deep in shadows, his tactical goggles gave him a quick read out and affirmed the room was empty.
If anyone had more data on her it would be the Colonel. After the war he'd been extremely territorial about Cherry refusing her transfer anywhere. Stooping down to read the labels on the filing cabinet he pulled open a drawer and began to leaf through the file folders. He reached where the folder for Rikki Jericho should be and instead found it empty.
Time froze for a moment, the sound right behind his ear was deafeningly loud in the silent room, even through his cowl. But it wasn't the sound the bothered him as much as the unique feeling of a pistol resting against the sweet spot at the back of his skull.
"Well Cap'n McConnell, I'd say ya got yerself into a hellva situation." The voice was gruff, an older man with a heavier southern accent then Cherry. A match flicked to life tinging the air with burnt sulfur followed by the smell of burning cigarette.
"Nothin' to say fer yourself? Guess I ain't surprised you Jarheads never were much for talkin. Good thing I can do plenty fer the both'aus."
The other person said nothing for a long moment before continuing, "You see son I find myself in a curious situation, I'm hopin' you can give me a bit of clarity. When I agreed ta let Slayton take Jericho I gave him everythin' on 'er, includin' the stuff that ain't in her official file."
Smoke curled past him as the ther man exhaled, "So what I wanna know is why yer 'ere diggin through ma files looking fer more. Jack can be a sonuvabitch but sloppy he ain't. Which means you ain't here wit his blessin'. So tell me son, why exactly are ya here digging through my files at an hour well past decency."
Inhaling slightly Celtic began to check off the options in his mind. I was obvious this was the Colonel, it was also plainly obvious his intel had been wrong, he made a mental note to deal with that later. What was more unnerving however what it seemed the Colonel had known he was coming and exactly what he'd be looking for.
Could be Jack but the moment he thought it Celtic immediately doubted it, not Jack's style. Right now however this was a sticky situation and with that gun at the back of his head he was going to be short on options. He could try and dodge to the side and hope he was faster then the old man's trigger finger but that was a gamble with the sort of odds he didn't like.
"I'm 'ere on my own accord. Yeh coul' say I 'ave an interest in tha lass."
Silence reigned for a long moment, the smell of burning tobacco prevailed again as the other man exhaled breaking the uneasy quiet. "I'd say ya have more'n an interest. I know yer type Cap'n McConnell, or should I say Sergeant McConnell? Me, I got a good idea of exactly what yer interest is, yer the type who thinks that knowin' everything is the only way to be safe. Always diggin' for the truth or fact you think is bein' hidden from you. I got this feelin' you ain't going ta find exactly what yer lookin' for in this situation."
"Nothin' wrong wit' lookin' for tha truth. I'd rather know who exactly I'm workin' for."
Behind him a chair creaked as Saints sat down with a weary sigh. "I shoulda just shot ya, damn kids don't know when to well enough leave things alone. If your determined enough ta come diggin through ma stuff fer it you'll be stupid enough to try and get it from Jack."
Taking a cue from the older man's change in tone Celtic turned cautiously on his heel and got the first good look at the other man. Saints was older, much older looking in person then the pictures had made him seem, but this was certainly Saint Tact himself.
Saint Tact was damn near legendary, but he was a legend well past his prime. His hair was a shock of white, his face stoney and lined with years. But it was probably his eyes that told the true story, they were hard and a bit cold. They were the eyes of a man who had seen more in his lifetime then any single human being should.
Old man he might be, it didn't mean he wouldn't put up a hellva fight. It was a fight that Celtic was far from spoiling to have, this whole thing was already way to far out of his control for comfort.
Picking the cigarette from where it hung on his lower lip Saints took along drag and stubbed it out before lighting up another. His eyes never left Celtic for a moment, watching, studying him, you could almost see him calculating the multiple scenarios in his head. They didn't call him Saint Tact for nothing.
"Got word you were at the Pentagon pullin' up her file, you may knowpeople Cap'n McConnell but I've been at this game fer a fair bitlonger. However given that I'll assume ya' know she was part'a ProjectAllegiant Horizon. Pretty early on it was obvious the girl was good atsubvertin' Rikti Tech, probably too good. Bought her tha' attention ofcommand, an' you know as well as I, that ain't usually a good thing."
Saints took another drag from the cigarette and leaned back in the chair, the gun rested on his knee. Celtic could help but notice it was pointed directly at him, a finger rested just a bit tensely on the trigger. The old man definitely wasn't stupid, or playing games.
"Jericho was the first ta crack the Rikti portal tech and their comm arrays. War was going bad, and it didn't give us an edge so much as it let us avoid larger casualties. We couldn't do it on a large scale but what she found enabled us to create those disruptin' fields that kept the bastards from porting directly into our bases."
"Varnell, you probably know 'em as Harbinger, was leading the 823rd Airborne team down range. He saw what was happening and started minimizing the info in his reports on 'er activities. Didn't make command or the feds happy, things got heated and there was talk of pullin' her out of the frontlines. Both me and Varnell knew it was a bad idea, she was damn good at more'n just playin wit Rikti Tech. However I didn't get much time to argue ma case to command before shit went ta hell'n a handbasket."
"Three weeks," pausing a moment to take another drag on the cigarette something dark crossed the older mans countenance for a moment. "Her'n Varnell went MIA in hostile territory on a retcon gone bad for three weeks. At the time they were assigned ta a special forces team, US Army mostly and a Rusky team of Spets. Intel got the numbers wrong, way more of the bastards on the air base then they'd expected. The pull out went south quick, the 823rd pulled out with them, but Jericho and Varnell stayed behind to keep the portal disrupter going."
"Thats probably the only reason there weren't mass casualties wit our boys."
Erik "Harbinger" Varnell, it was a name Celtic knew well, they'd worked together on a few operations and the circles that special forces wandered in weren't that big. Varnell was a class of special forces hardass that didn't come around very often.
Easily one of the best Airborne Rangers you could have ever wanted to work with. Didn't matter how difficult the drop or situation, he was the man you wanted on point. Varnell had a way of turning shit to gold. Celtic knew Varnell had been assigned to the 823rd, primarily for helping the formation of the Airborne contingent of RED HORSE. However,no one knew how Saints had managed it.
Varnell was also well versed in dealing with the crap that could come down the piples from command. It made sense, if Cherry was that good Varnell would have wanted to keep her down range. It was always hard getting good engineers during the war, especially early on.
It was also like Varnell to be the last man out. Not that he was the martyr type, he just truly cared about anyone in his charge and firmly believed in leaving no man behind. So far everything was fitting into what he did know. What he'd never heard was that Varnell had gone MIA at any point during the war before he bought his farm in Paragon, that bit was brand new to him.
"Bein' honest we were pretty sure they'd both bought it. No one had managed to come back from that sorta situation before, least not alive."
Taking a deep inhale on the cigarette Saints shook his head justslightly, "I'm sure you can jus' imagine our shock when they both showup 4 kilometers from where they'd gone MIA. Command was convinced theywere decoys, or a trap, I can't say I didn't think the same thingma'self. Seemed a bit to convenient fer comfort."
"Jericho didn't remember a blessed thing, Varnell did but none of it made sense, least not at the time."
Taking a drag from the cigarette Saints rested it back on his lower lip and used his free hand to open a drawer pulling out a flask. He never once took his eyes off Celtic. Opening the flask with one hand and taking a pull without even moving the cigarette he offered the flask to Celtic.
Celtic took the flask taking a small pull mostly out of politeness. The taste of Old Crow bourbon whiskey was unmistakable and left a burn in his throat as he handed the flask back.
"Feds put 'em into quarantine, let the teeps take over ta see what they could pull. Wasn't much, but enough ta confirm they were held by the Rikti. Varnell continued insistin' they weren't Rikti but something that looked like Rikti but didn't act like em. Command classed it as post traumatic stress. One thing however was it cleared em both of any question on their motives upon returning. They'd been primarily focused on Jericho, but the details were hazy, mental blocks is what they assumed."
Early war mind scans also weren't to abnormal, especially if someone was suspected of subversion. Lot of the telepaths from the early war took early retirement of just disappeared into obscurity. Most assume its because of what they'd seen in the minds of soldiers or captured Rikti.
Exhaling a bit Saints continued without much concern for Celtic's thoughts. "If Varnell had been protective of 'er before the incident hewas down right fanatic now. Now here is the part you won't find in anyreports. Bless her heart the teep that did the scan didn't share this.If she had they woulda been in a bigger mess then they already were."
Pausing again Saints sat forward stubbing out the cigarette and lighting another shaking his head a bit. "Not that I can blame 'em, that situation given the opportunity I'd probably do the same thing. Landed my third wife that way. Well not exactly the same but, you get the idea. The teep told me as an aside, and I laid into Varnell. Not that it mattered, command had em back in the field within two days ofthe all clear."
"Jericho was different too after that, knew things she shouldn't. Seemed able ta read the Rikti script, though it was never verified. Varnell didn't report any of it. I knew cuz I had Munoz reportin' directly back ta me, wanted to keep an eye of em. He never saw anything though, they worked together jus' as closely as they had before they'd disappeared. Sometimes though I think the boys wouldn't have told me anyways even if they were."
"I green lighted them fer the Paragon operation even against my better judgment." Taking a pull off the flask Saints paused for a moment before continuing, "Varnell didn't like it, he didn't like goin' into the middle'a hell without any solid intel with a buncha supes. But frankly there wasn't anyone else that could do the job."
"An' well, everyone knows how that ended. One big clusterfuck thanks tothe damn supes and vanguard." Saints took a long drag on the cigarette,"Jericho took it badly, she was good for the first few days after, evengoing back to the site and doing retrieval on the bodies. After a fewdays though reality set in and she snapped."
"She wasn't the only one, more then a couple of the survivors had serious issues right after. No one sees that many of their mates get popped off at once and walks away from it alright. The Air Force Cross was the tipping point for Jericho."
Chuckling a bit to himself, "She threw that thing in that bastard general Dineen's face and stormed out. Never seen that old fat bastard so angry in ma life."
"Trust me son you got no idea what it took for me to keep her outta aboiling pot of dog shit. Lotsa favors and she spent 2 months in psyche eval. An if that wasn't the worst part the feds were looking for herfor their own projects. So I sealed everything up as tight as I could,kept most of it unofficial. It worked till Jack came knocking on my door."
Shaking his head and standing dropping the cigarette on the floor and stomping it out a bit in disgust, "Sorry if you were hopin' for some grand conspiracy son, but ain't nothin' more then a girl who is too smart fer her own good an a old man wit a promise. "
"Before the cluster fuck in Paragon Varnell made me promise to watch out fer her should something happen to him. Boy was never stupid he knew the sharks would be circling at the first scent of blood in the water."
Turning away from him and setting the safety on the gun and walking for the door, "Least a man can do is keep the dying wish of anotha. Jericho has some issues but she means well. Never did find out exactly what hadgone down wit her and Varnell aside from what the teep told me. Judgin' however by how she reacted, well its kinda obvious. There is a difference in how a soldier mourns another soldier an how a woman mourns a man close to 'er."
"Now get the hell outta my office before I decide ta shoot you anyways." The door shut behind Saints as he disappeared into the hallway leaving the room again in silence with Celtic staring at the empty folder in thought. Several moments later the room was again truly empty.
--=2042 HOURS - 2008-AUG-22 - S.C.O.R.P.I.O. Facility, Sanctuary=--
The red tethered ball rocketed across the room propeled by a well aimed kick from Tyler Jankowski. Wobbling in the air, the ball, unevenly weighted was almost a blur of haphazard movement. Tyler finished following through the kick spinning to watch as the ball was volleyed back towards him swatted non-chalantly by the hulking metal form of the Cyber Knight.
Cursing to himself Tyler dropped back into a fighting stack shifting his weight to his rear foot. Snapping his leg forward it was a flawless, high powered round house kick, unfortunately it also met with dead air. Allowing gravity to take its course he finished the kick falling into a low sweeping crouch steeling himself for the potential impact of the missed ball. It was in that brief moment that he realized he no longer heard the sound of the ball straining against the tether.
Looking back towards Cyber he expected to see the snapped tether line. Instead he was greeted by the glowing green grin of a skull. The ball was stationary where it had been caught in mid air. Standing up from his crouch Tyler eyed the apparition, "You better have a damn good reason to interrupt training Kowalski."
Dropping the ball on the ground Bowman pulled off the skull mask and shook his hair out. He was sporting a new cut on his left cheek and wore a smirk, "Not particularly, but jus' I couldn't resist the chance ta join in on tha reindeer games. I'm lookin' fer Jericho."
"Pity for you, she ain't here." Tyler crossed the short distance picking the ball up and glancing to Cyber, "Least this time you didn't snap the tether."
"Correction Lt. Jankowski: If you had not missed the ball it would not have broken the tether, " the voice was female, Cyber's onboard AI, D.
"No it probably would have broken my foot."
"Irrelevant: Your original complaint was of the broken tether. Probability of your foot being broken: low, 1 in 35,431; statement: inconsequential"
Tyler snatched the towel off the bench and sat down ignoring the AI.
"What do you mean Jericho ain't here. She ain't got a life, what the hell else could she be doing?" Bowman chuckled a bit, "Been workin' on a bit of, ah, research, fer her."
Toweling the sweat off vigorously Tyler looked back at Bowman after a long moment regarding him. Potential replies ran through his mind as he took the time to debate exactly how much he wanted to tell the other man, "No clue, she took the weekend, didn't bother tellin' me till the last minute. It was approved months ago by Slayton, so I'd take your beef up with him if you feel lucky."
Rubbing his head and tossing the towel into the bin Tyler started towards the locker rooms, "I'm not the skipper's keeper, she'll be back Monday."
"Personal vacations, who has time fer those?" Shaking his head Bowman yanked his mask back on the air shimmering around him a moment before he began to fade from view the skulls grin was the last to disappear, "I'll grab her Monday, its not time sensitive."
"Correction Lt. Jankowski, as the Spec-Ops officer under Captain Jericho you are designated to be her direct keeper."
Pausing in midstep Tyler turned back slighty to regard Cyber cooly. Cyber raised his hands waving them, this time it was the pilot speaking, "It was D, not me."
"I know it ain't you tinman, could you shut her up?"
Snatching his beer from the wall Tyler stalked off, "Another smartass woman, just what we need."
"Correction Lt. Jankowski: I am not..."
Raising his voice as he walked out of the room, "I know!"
--=1022 HOURS - 2008-AUG-24 - Chapel Hill, NC - USA=--
It was a quiet neighborhood, the sort you could easily find yourself retiring into. House number 890 was a small cottage, modest in size but comfortable. In the outside garden a woman putered about tending to a rose garden humming quietly to herself.
It was a short walk from the gat to the side of the house. Looking up as Celtic came around the corner the woman smiled broadly and waved him over. She was older, well into her 70s, but as healthy and hale as anyone could hope. Her smile was genuine, her face lined from years of sun and smiling. In many ways she was exactly as he had imagined her to be.
Katherine Varnell was perhaps Erik's most popular topic when he was in the mood to socialize. An unrepentant momma's boy he'd never been saved the teasing jabs by his comrades, but regardless he'd been proud of it. No one ever questioned whether or not Erik Vsrnell loved his mother.
"You must be Andrew, " her voice was as friendly and genuine as her smile, her southern accent only a slighty bur on otherwise perfectly inflected speech, "I was surprised when you called me this morning, its been a long time since I've had any of Erik's friends from the military visit me." Dusting her hands off on her gardening jacket she slipped the gardening gloves off.
"I'm sorry for the impromptu visit ma'am, I dinnae know I would be here until late last night."
"Oh thats neither here or there, I'm always happy to get a chance to meet people who worked with my boy, " looking startled for a moment she flustered, "Oh how rude of me, please come in, I can make some lemonade."
Waving him along she entered the house through the kitchen door at the rear she didn't give him the chance to decline. Removing her jacket and hanging it neatly on a peg she slipped off her gardening shoes in favor of a pair of flats. She moved through the kitchen with grace and practiced ease, declining any offers made for assistance with a tsk or a cluck of her tongue. It was short order before they were sitting at the table with fresh lemonade and still warm biscuits with honey butter.
Celtic had always thought Varnell was exagerating a bit about his mother, but after that display he was ready to believe every bit of it. Katherine Varnell was dying type, dedicated, fair and kind, but tough as nails. She'd raised Varnell on her own, his father had been killed during his military service. Erik never knew him.
Smiling again after taking a sip from her lemonade, "You asked over the phone about Erik's belongings from the Rikti War."
"Yes Ma'am, " he had to pause a moment to take a sip of the lemonade, the biscuit had been heaven but the lemonade was the best he'd ever had, just enough sugar, and still blissfully tart. "We served together last right before his assignment to Paragon City. There was this guy we both knew, but I lost track of him, was hopping it might be in his journal, he was crazy about keeping everything."
A change came over the older woman's countenance for a moment, sadness, no regret, it disappeared as quickly as it appeared with a smile, "Humor an old lady Captain McConnell. I didn't raise a boy on my own without becoming an expert in identifying when they lie."
"Erik told me everything, about the missions, the people, classified or not. My boy loved his country, he gladly gave his life to protect our freedom, but there were times when he didn't really trust those in command." she took a small sip of her lemonade and regarded him with a soft smile, "So please, the truth."
Setting his glass down on the table Celtic steepled his fingers. At least now he knew his assumption was right, Varnell had used his mother to keep the information. The question was whether or not she had his journal.
Shaking his head with a smile, "Aye, ye got me, truth is I'm tryin' the verify an account of his activities and his squad from the war. Trying to find out more about what happened in Paragon."
Nodding she pushed away from the table her smile thinning slightly as she crossed the room opening a cupboard, "Thank you for trying to spare this old lady. Erik knew Paragon was going to end badly, he visited me the week before when everyone got 48 hours leave."
Pulling a fireproof lockbox from the cupboard she walked back towards the table. Celtic jumped up and took it from her carrying it back and setting it on the table. She lifted a small chain from around her neck and unlocked the box with the key.
"He mentioned you a few times, was always impressed by your work, knew he could rely on you to get the job done." she shifted through the box, it was filled with medals and various other items. Letters in their original envelopes and a few papers that looked like official reports.
At the bottom of the box was a simple, beaten leather book. Celtic recognized it, he'd seen Varnell writing in it. He'd kept a journal of everything.
"I'm getting to old, its time someone else had this never could do a bit with it my self. Much of the information was over my head, maybe it'll make some sense to you, " clasping her hands she looked back into the open lock box her eyes misting over a moment. She quickly wiped her eyes with her handkerchief and stood, "Ah pollen must be gettin into mah eyes."
"He knew that he was going to die?"
"Wasn't suppose to, but he knew people, so he got some measure of warning. They were never meant to walk out alive."
Resting a hand on his forearm, it trembled slightly as she moved away towards the rest of the house disappearing through the door leaving Celtic alone for a time. Thumbing idly through the book he glanced over a few pages.