Katherine sat uneasily in the passenger seat of the skimmer. Police and fire crews had arrived within minutes of the explosion, but their chief officer's protests at finding Katherine carrying an unconscious body over her shoulder had melted away when Sean turned, letting the officer see the Council shield on his coat. He had fallen over himself to comply when Sean had demanded all records of the incident be deleted, and had promised that no one would touch the scene until a recovery team arrived from the Council. The vampire that had done the damage was still unconscious, and now safely restrained in the skimmer's prisoner compartment as well.
As soon as they were in the air Sean had busied himself reporting in to the Council, requesting all sorts of facilities be made available as soon as they arrived. Katherine seemed to tune him out, as if knowing that her skills as a Slayer wouldn't be needed any further tonight. She idly flipped on the video screen facing her seat and changed it to a 24-hour news channel.
"Good morning, Katherine Allison. Top stories this February twelfth, twenty-one-thirty," the holographic newsreader said in a lively tone, with only a slight flicker as it inserted her name into its pre-programmed introduction, "turmoil in the World Alliance as the American Protectorate States vetoes the Oceanian Conglomerate program to develop anti-demonoid biological weapons. An Oceanian spokesperson insists that new measures need to be introduced to counter the rising incidence of demon activity worldwide. American Administration officials continue to press for Oceania, the Chinese Hegemony and the Russian Consortium to sign on to the Human Defense Treaty. The treaty, now in force in all American states and subsidiary nations, gives the Watchers Council sweeping new powers to deal with demonic activity. Russian ministers have continued to argue that the treaty is a violation of each sovereign nation's rights "
Katherine frowned and shut off the screen, pressing her shoulders back in her seat. Sean glanced at her, but said nothing as he returned his eyes to the flight display on the windscreen in front of him.
"Where did we go wrong?" Katherine said eventually in a small voice. Sean let out an exasperated sigh, as if they'd had this discussion before.
"We didn't," he said flatly, "the Council remains dedicated to the protection of the human race above all else. The Administration recognizes that; other nations should too. It would make our job a lot easier."
"It didn't used to... be this way," Katherine said to herself. "Watchers didn't used to interrogate, imprison people... conduct military operations... I mean, they existed for centuries without anyone even knowing. We used to protect people, not..."
"Times change," said Sean, with a tone that indicated the discussion was over. Katherine frowned to herself and settled in her seat.
The sun was just rising into the red-hued sky when their skimmer disappeared into one of the hangar bays that honeycombed the upper levels of the Council's Cleveland tower.
Watchers Council Headquarters Morning
Jocasta Rosenberg looked around impatiently as she entered the foyer of the Watchers Council tower, finding it largely empty. She was late had slept in, and now had missed the morning rush hour.
"Colonel West," she said, as a handsome black man stepped out of the shadow of one of the foyer's columns and headed towards her.
"Colonel Rosenberg," he answered with a grin. "It's not like you to be late."
"Sorry," Jocasta said, looking away, "I haven't been sleeping well, I guess I missed my alarm."
"No trouble," West said quickly, "frankly it's good not to find you still upstairs pulling an all-nighter when I get here." Jocasta smiled briefly, and the pair fell into step, heading through the foyer to the building's secure section.
"Well, seeing as I haven't been here, what's happened overnight?"
"Oh, you know how it is," said West, waving a hand vaguely in the air. "The codex team is still insisting they haven't got enough people to complete their research anytime this century "
"They've got everyone the Council will give us," grumbled Jocasta.
"Chicago wants us to send someone over there," West continued, as the pair made their way through the building, "they've got a, quote, 'bunch of dead demons with candles and entrails and pentagrams and stuff' and they need to know what it all means. Oh, and the Command Council turned down your request for more resources to be devoted to the portal project."
"No! Damn," Jocasta exclaimed, "we're close on that one. One more breakthrough and it could change the whole way we deal with Hellmouths!"
"Yeah, well I think they're happy dealing with them the way they do at the moment," said West grimly.
"Kill anything that comes out of them," said Jocasta critically, "because that's working so well at the moment."
"Hey, don't shoot the messenger!" said West, raising his hands in surrender.
"Sorry," Jocasta said, "it's just that... oh, sometimes it's like they wish we didn't exist."
"No argument there," West agreed, "I bet there's a few people on the Council who'd love it if all this unscientific magic stuff just went away, and they could concentrate on 'eliminating demonoids' and 'interdicting dimensional transitions'."
"Just because they wish magic didn't exist doesn't make it so," Jocasta said with a frown. She paused and sighed. "Anything else?"
"Just one thing," said West, "maybe nothing, but it might be worth checking out. A Watcher brought in a vampire this morning, no report yet, but remote monitoring pulled up a few odd details about its capture."
"What we've got is on your desk, the vamp's being examined now."
"Thanks," said Jocasta. "See you tomorrow." Colonel West nodded and turned away, as Jocasta headed for the elevators.
Watchers Council Autopsy Lab Moments later
Katherine wrinkled her nose involuntarily, but otherwise controlled her reaction as her Watcher calmly sliced into the vampire strapped to the examination table in front of him. Various stasis units and biometric barrier fields came into play, keeping the undamaged parts of the unconscious demon's body alive and functioning as Sean used a laser scalpel to open its chest and ribcage. A holographic screen displayed everything the examination table's inbuilt instruments were able to discern about the demon's physical structure.
"Not a word of this leaves this room," Sean muttered to her, replacing the scalpel with a microprobe.
"All right," said Katherine hesitantly, unsure of Sean's intentions, but by now used to taking his orders without asking for explanations that were never forthcoming.
"You did well today," Sean continued distractedly. "I'm considering submitting a request to Slayer Command that your assignment with me be made permanent."
"Oh," Katherine said, keeping her voice devoid of any suggestion that the last thing she wanted was for Sean to be her Watcher permanently. Despite her apparent revulsion, she managed a glance or two at Sean's activities.
"The... arm looks cybernetic," she offered, swallowing and trying not to breathe in too deeply.
"Yes," Sean said dismissively, "evidently... I think we'll stick with an examination of the torso and internal organs. Might learn a bit more that way than poking and prodding around at random."
Katherine nodded dutifully, not sure if she understood his rationale, but unwilling to make an issue of it.
"The New York biomechanics research division might be able to help?" she offered after a moment's uncomfortable silence.
"Like I said, not a word to anyone," Sean murmured. "This is... it requires delicate handling, and I don't want the wrong people getting wind of it. There are some people in the Council, even very high up, who we can't necessarily trust to make the right decisions, so for their own sake, this stays between you, me, and the people I know I can trust."
Katherine frowned, but remained silent.
Watchers Council Office Morning
Jocasta went through her usual morning routine as she settled into her office and waited for her coffee to cool to a drinkable temperature, running diagnostics on her computers and taking a moment to check the emails and data transfers that had accumulated overnight. Most were general notices from somewhere within the Council hierarchy, distributed as a matter of protocol rather than efficiency, and she deleted them. The file West had marked for her was strange, but the results of the examination hadn't been made available, so she put it to one side.
She had just started on real work, and the coffee, when the anxious figure of Sebastian Giles appeared outside her office and waved hesitantly. She beckoned him inside.
"Jo," he said politely, seating himself, "how are you?"
"Same old," she replied with a resigned shrug.
"Are your dreams still...?" Giles began gently.
"Yeah," Jocasta nodded, "yeah, still."
"Tara?" Giles prompted.
"Same as always." Jocasta let out a harsh laugh. "I'm starting to wish I'd never read that diary. How about you?"
Giles looked away, searching for words.
"What's the matter?" Jocasta asked, reading her old friend's expression like a book.
"I've got a... well, a bad feeling, but I don't know if it's valid," he admitted.
Jocasta frowned, "Giles, you don't as a rule place much faith in intuition, and you almost never act without solid facts to back you up. Tell me what's troubling you, I'm sure it certainly is important."
"One of the Slayers stationed here brought in a live demon last night," Giles went on after an uncomfortable pause, "a vampire, or so it seemed."
"Colonel West gave me the heads-up about it this morning, but I couldn't get the examination report. Insufficient clearance... was it a vampire or not?" asked Jocasta.
"It was," admitted Giles, "in part." Jo's eyebrows shot up in question and Giles continued. "The Slayer's Watcher performed a deconstructive examination, and then," he blew out an exasperated sigh, "nothing. No report, no data to the biologics unit... either someone's being quite lax in filing their paperwork, or it's being hushed up."
"Wait, wait," interrupted Jocasta, "you said the demon was alive, but the Watcher did an autopsy on it?"
"It was Rayne," Giles said tersely.
"Sean Rayne?" asked Jocasta. "From the London office? The one you said was a cold, callous "
"Yes, him," said Giles with a grimace. "He had the lab set up for a live examination. Stasis units, sterile fields, the whole works. Apparently the demon survived two hours."
"Oh... Eww! So why no report?" asked Jocasta, trying to suppress the shudder that ran through her.
"See for yourself," Giles said, retrieving a data rod from his pocket and offering it to Jocasta. She took it, slipped it into the reader attached to her computer, and watched as the information decrypted and scrolled across her screen.
"This is the report that should have been submitted to the mainframe and the Command Council," Giles went on, "but instead, it was submitted directly to the High Command, bypassing the rest of us completely."
"How did you get it?"
"There are times when it becomes prudent to bend the rules, just a little," Giles admitted with a hint of a grin. "The data transfer to the High Command was accidentally rerouted to the full Council, where that report should have gone in the first place. Most unfortunate."
"This is... goddess," Jocasta said to herself as she studied the data. "Giles, this is way beyond... I don't even know how that's possible, every study I've seen has shown that demon morphic biology is completely incompatible with artificial enhancements."
"That's exactly what the rest of the Command Council thought when it leaked out," said Giles with a shrug, "they're upstairs panicking at the moment. I thought I'd... well, come down here and panic quietly."
Jocasta gave him a ghost of a smile before looking serious again.
"Giles," Jocasta said grimly, "if this is accurate... the enhancements, the regenerative capabilities... this could be the most lethal vampire there's ever been. Someone built this thing?"
"Most of the Council want to know who, and why," said Giles. "Frankly, I'd like to know what it was doing trying to feed off young women in some back alley, as if it were just a common vampire."
"I think I can answer that," Jocasta said hesitantly.
"You can?" said Giles, unable to keep the surprise from his voice.
"Well I have skills. I studied demon biology and human cybernetics, so if you just ignore the fact that this is completely impossible, it's not that difficult. I think part of the enhancement was malfunctioning; it looks like tissue rejection... maybe the vampire's host body, rather than the demon, which is why it wasn't countered by whatever made the rest of it work. There's a unit here that, I think, is there to synthesize hemoglobin and inject it into the vampire's system, but the implant didn't take."
"So our vampire got hungry," mused Giles.
"And tried to feed, like any other vamp," concluded Jocasta, with the bright grin she reserved for a problem successfully solved. She looked up, and noticed a figure in the conference room outside her office. "Giles?" He turned in his seat.
"Rayne," he said quietly, reaching out to push the office door closed before the man had had a chance to see them. Giles turned back to Jocasta.
"I can't go into detail now," he said tersely, "but there's something more going on than a single demon. Find out what you can. I'll deal with Rayne, and then I'll meet you back here later. I've got a couple of sources I need to try." Jocasta nodded, and Giles opened the door just enough to leave, closing it again behind him when he was gone.
Watchers Council Conference Room Moments later
"Well, well," said Sean Rayne as Giles emerged from the office, "look who's here."
"Don't pretend you didn't know," said Giles frostily.
"Just thought I'd pay a friendly visit," Rayne went on, unfazed, "offer a word of advice to my old pal, stop him from making a mistake that could be damaging to his career."
"Really?" said Giles lightly. "And what career advice might a Watcher Captain have for a Councilor?"
"Rank isn't everything," Rayne said hotly, "you never knew how to make the right friends, and one day it's going to cost you. For old times sake, see? You and your fellow bureaucrats on the Command Council would do well to stop poking your noses into things that don't concern you."
"Well I'm much obliged," sneered Giles, "but for now, I rather think that the Council has the right to know what's going on in our own organization. Or have the High Commanders decided they don't require our support anymore?"
"Very glib," spat Rayne, "just remember who does the real work. It's not you and your fellow Councilors." With that he turned and left, Giles's glare boring into his back until the elevator doors closed behind him.
Watchers Council Hallway Late Afternoon
Katherine jumped slightly as the elevator doors opened, and then seemed to force herself to relax as she stepped out onto the twentieth level of the Council tower, the Gray Sector. The various officials and functionaries bustling about the corridors took no notice of her whatsoever.
She only had to stop once to ask the building's computer for directions before she found the door marked 'Rosenberg, J'. She checked her link again, the message summoning her to the offices still displayed. Katherine knocked, and at the lively "Come in" from beyond, pushed the door open and stepped through. She found herself in a conference room with several offices leading off it, and a panoramic view of the city, now approaching twilight. Only one other person was in the room, a pretty redhead in the uniform of a Council analyst, absorbed in the contents of a data pad.
"Miss Rosenberg?" she said tentatively. The redhead looked up.
At the sight of the woman Jocasta felt her jaw fall open. With a quick snap she closed it and opened it again to speak but no words would come forth.
"Um, hi!" she finally managed as she came around the table, "you must be Miss Allison? You are Miss Allison, aren't you?" She took Katherine's hand, smiling at her, and for a moment seemed reluctant to let it go.
"Um, yes," Katherine said, surprised at the friendly greeting, "Katie... if you like, I mean."
"Katie," she said, a strange note in her voice. Katherine smiled uncertainly; Rosenberg was looking at her as if she was trying to figure out a puzzle behind her bemused smile.
"Have we met?" the redhead asked as she continued to examine Katherine's features closely.
"Um, no," Katherine said, shaking her head hesitantly, "no, I don't think so. I mean, I'd remember," the Slayer smirked. Quickly, however, the smile fell from her face and she added the word, "Colonel." Katherine cursed herself for not noticing the rank insignia on Rosenberg's uniform sooner. "Sorry..." she said in an embarrassed mumble.
Jocasta blinked, as if shaken out of some private reverie, and let go of Katherine's hand.
"Oh, no, please call me Jocasta, or Jo for short," she said with a grin. "'Colonel' is just so, you know... I feel like I should be striding around in leather boots inspecting the troops, or something." Katherine couldn't keep herself from laughing, and again Jocasta got that strange look, a mix of confusion and fondness. Katherine composed herself, but smiled in the face of Jocasta's stare. She ducked unconsciously, glancing away to one side.
"I'm sorry," Jocasta said quickly, realizing she had been staring, "I don't mean to... you just look... like someone I sort of know? I thought maybe we met a while ago, and maybe I'd forgotten, not that I would, on purpose, I mean... Please sit down," she said cutting herself short with a shake of her head, catching her runaway mouth before she could really get started. Katherine obediently took a seat next to Jocasta's.
"I've been working on the analysis of the vampire you brought in this morning," Jocasta said, seating herself. "I'd like to get your observations on it."
"It was fast," Katherine said, as if more confident now that the conversation was on familiar ground, "either it had fought a lot, or been trained, as well. And it had the weapons, you probably read about them "
"Yeah, I it didn't hurt you, did it?" Jocasta asked suddenly.
"Huh? Uh, no, no I'm fine..."
"Oh, good," Jocasta smiled, appearing relieved. "It just didn't say... the report, I mean. Whether you were wounded, when you brought it in... it had a small arsenal, after all. Sorry, I interrupted."
"No, that's okay," Katherine said lightly. Her hand touched Jocasta's on the tabletop in front of them, without it seeming as if she was entirely aware of it.
"Like you said, small arsenal," she went on, "and the other alterations we found in the examination. But, you'd want to ask my Watcher about those, I'm not really big on the technology..."
"Don't worry, I can handle the technobabble for the both of us," Jocasta admitted with a grin that the Slayer returned.
"Something else," Katherine said, "when I sensed the vampire, it was... quiet. I'm not sure how to describe it... I'm normally pretty strong with the sensing, but this one, I don't know. If there had been others around, or if I was distracted, I might have missed it."
"Weird," Jocasta murmured, frowning at the puzzle. Katherine nodded in silent agreement, and then appeared to get distracted by the cute little furrow that had appeared on Jocasta's brow as she thought. Both women looked up as the main door opened again, admitting Giles.
"Councilor!" said Katherine, springing to attention.
"Please don't do that," said Giles wearily.
"He's got a kind of anti-authority thing," explained Jocasta in a stage whisper, as she gently took Katherine's arm and lowered her back into her seat, "even though he is the authority."
"Good afternoon, Miss...?" Giles asked Katherine, ignoring Jocasta's comment.
"K-katherine Allison," she said shakily, glancing quickly at Jocasta's hand on her arm.
"She's the Slayer who brought in the cyber-vamp," explained Jocasta, "I thought she might be able to help us."
"Sebastian Giles," Giles introduced himself politely, "just 'Giles' will do, I don't like to stand on rank. Good idea," he added to Jocasta.
"Did you find anything?" Jocasta asked.
"Perhaps," Giles said, taking a seat. "You work with Sean Rayne?" he asked Katherine.
"Yes," she answered, "I'm afraid so." She clamped her mouth shut at what she'd said, and Jocasta smiled at her contrite-yet-shyly-amused expression.
"It's all right, I understand. I worked with him in London for some time," Giles explained.
"Oh," Katherine said, "I see. Um, has he... always been so...?"
"Yes, he has," Giles confirmed with a grimace.
"Not that I mean he's not good at his job, or..."
"Just a pain in the arse," said Giles, "I know. Do you know what he proposes to do about this vampire?"
"He doesn't really tell me his plans in advance," Katherine admitted with a frown, "he... actually, he asked me... well, ordered me, not to discuss it with anyone..."
"Oh! I didn't know, I'm sorry," Jocasta exclaimed, "I didn't mean to put you in that position, I should've asked" Her hands clenched on the tabletop as she exclaimed, then she briefly took Katherine's hand in both of hers, in an apologetic gesture.
"No, it's okay," Katherine assured her with a squeeze before they broke apart, "I-I mean, you outrank him anyway..."
"Yeah, but still," Jocasta frowned, "that's like a privileged trust, Slayer and Watcher, I didn't realize I was asking you to go against that."
"No, it's not that at all," Katherine said, with a slight touch of desperation in her voice. She ventured a smile. "Actually, I... well, I don't think I really trust Sean. Not, you know... really."
"Same old Sean," said Giles. "At any rate, it's probably best that you know this as well as Jocasta. I've approached some of my unofficial sources, and they're all... well, most of them are packing up and leaving. The ones who would talk to me didn't know much, but by the sound of it the benign demon population is making some sort of exodus."
"Why?" asked Jocasta.
"Bloody good question, I wish I knew. There's a general feeling that this is not a safe place to be. You know how much trust demons place in auras and premonition. Only one source I spoke to had even a vague idea why, and his source never showed up for a meeting they'd planned. All he got was a number, three-fourteen."
"Hmm, that sounds vaguely familiar... Is that supposed to be a date?" Katherine wondered.
"That's in a month's time," Jocasta added thoughtfully.
"I don't know what it means," said Giles, "my source didn't know what it meant, only that it's connected somehow to whatever's going on. If the benign demons are scared, that usually means something dangerous is on its way. My guess is that our enhanced friend down in the autopsy room is the tip of the iceberg."
"Three-fourteen," Jocasta murmured to herself, frowning.
"You recognize it?" Giles said sharply.
"I don't know," she said, "I've got that annoying I-almost-know feeling... I'll check it out at home, see if anything shows up."
"Would you like me to come along?" asked Katherine. "I could give you a full briefing on the vampire... and," she added, glancing at Jocasta nervously, "maybe I could be useful?"
"Yes! Yes, that'd be great. I mean, we can research, and... much more efficient," said Jocasta with a smile, "I'll just get my stuff. Giles?"
"There's a meeting of the Council to discuss this," he said ruefully, "no doubt a lot of pompous windbags making no progress at all, but I'm expected to attend. Call me if you find anything important. In the meantime... tell no one."
"Will do," Jocasta said, grinning as Giles left the room with a long-suffering expression on his face.
"I'll just get a few things from my quarters," Katherine said to break the silence, then she paused and shot a puzzled glance after Giles. "Does he always wear those..." she gestured vaguely to her eyes.
"Glasses," said Jocasta, "yep. In some ways he's not really happy with the twenty-second century." She shrugged ruefully. "A lot of ways, actually. You're sure you don't mind working through the evening?"
"It's fine," Katherine said, "I'd like to... I... I probably shouldn't be saying this, but I think... maybe there's something dangerous going on, and I'm not sure if, perhaps, Sean might be involved. He's... acting strangely, even for him." She looked up at Jocasta. "I'd like to not be in the dark. I know I should trust my Watcher implicitly but "
"I know how it is," Jocasta said sympathetically, "there're a lot of people in the Council now with their own agendas. I'll... tell you what, I'll log you as assigned to Gray Sector while we check this out, Sean won't be able to recall you without a formal application, and according to Giles he hates going through proper channels, so he might decide to do whatever he's doing alone. And in the meantime we'll figure out what's going on, and... well, if Sean's mixed up in something, you'll be safe from it. Okay?"
"Okay," Katherine smiled. They stood together, and remained facing each other for a moment. Jocasta finally took a step back, smiling shyly, and waved a hand towards her office.
"I've just got a couple of things to finish up," she said.
"I-I'll stop by my quarters," Katherine nodded. "And I'll meet you in the lobby.
"See you in a few minutes?" Jocasta asked in an enthusiastic tone.
"Absolutely... Jocasta," the Slayer remarked, making sure to stress her given name as she'd been asked before she left.
Jocasta continued to stare at the door with a slight grin long after Katherine had gone.