Listen very carefully; I shall say this only once...
Disclaimer: Eric, Kimberly, Wes, Jen, Lucas, Katie, Trip, Nadira, Mr Collins, Dr Zaskin and Taylor Earhardt are completely not mine. Alice, Paul Miller and Rob Logan are partially not mine. Ben belongs to Ekat. Everyone else is mine. That which is borrowed is not earning me any money. That which is not borrowed may be, but please ask me first.
Many thanks to Vanessa (beta reader and gopher extraordinaire!) and Jacks (beta reader and cliff-tester). Many, many thanks to Gamine -- beta reader, plotter, co-conspirator and all-round wonderful human being.
Please offer feedback, it tells me how I'm doing. Things are about to get interesting!
The room was lavishly appointed. Piles of cushions and drapes of satin and silk emphasised the hedonistic luxury of the room while the subdued candle lighting gave the surroundings a seductive air.
It was sexy.
She felt sexy.
It didn't matter to her that she didn't know where she was or how she'd got there. It somehow didn't seem to be important.
She looked up at her name, searching for the speaker. The way he said it made it sound exotic. Beautiful. It made her feel special.
Her gaze finally found him. He was casually leaning against the wall, his face hidden in the shadows cast by the guttering candlelight. The whole pose gave him a mysterious air.
"You look even more beautiful than I imagined," he continued. "So very, very beautiful."
She felt heat rush to her face and she looked down. "I'm not beautiful."
"But you are." He pushed away from the wall and walked towards her.
"No I'm not. I...I'm not thin...not leggy...not blonde."
"Thin, leggy and blonde doesn't automatically make someone beautiful, Alexandria." He reached her and she felt his fingers gently stroke her cheek. "Yours is not a hollow beauty. Your face is exquisite, but beneath that, your being is stunning."
"I'm just the baby," she murmured, head drooping lower.
His fingers reached her chin and gently forced her head up until she was looking into his face. "You are not just anything, Alexandria, least of all 'the baby'."
He offered her a smile. "You are so much more than that."
He leaned in but she pulled away, unsure. "That's not what they say."
"Then they are fools." This time, as he leaned in, she didn't pull away. His lips brushed hers. "You are so much more than that." He ghosted another kiss. "You can be so much more than that."
"Tell me how," she found herself murmuring. "What do I need to do?"
"Love me," he answered. "Love me and I will give you the world and the moon and the stars. Love me and I will be your slave."
Lexia's eyes snapped open, heart thudding against her ribcage, breath catching in her chest. Just a dream. She wasn't there...not for real, this time. It was just a...nightmare.
She closed her eyes again and groaned. No, it wasn't for real this time, but it had been real. It had happened. She had given in to Mirracon. Even if she had later defied him, she had still given in. Even if she'd defied him and trapped him, she'd still been an accomplice.
She knew the whole story now; thanks to the way she'd trapped him. Every excruciatingly humiliating detail. Her capitulation to him, her willingness to help, had enabled Mirracon to weave a link between them, and for the four weeks between then and arriving in Mirracon's maze he had been able to leach all manner of information from her. Information he'd used to build his maze. Information he'd used to judge when to attack.
It was her fault.
Gina sorted the morning's mail and wondered what the day was going to bring. There was a subtle air of anticipation hanging over SGHQ, a slight tension that told her something was going to happen. Like we need any more excitement around here, she thought, snorting softly.
"Good morning, Gina."
Gina turned to face the new arrival. "Commander Myers." She smiled. "Early?"
Eric smiled faintly. "Wanted to beat my victims in."
Gina winced as she recalled that Eric was going to be conducting post mortems over what had gone on the previous day. He had stopped by on his way home the previous evening and mentioned it while he waited for Dr Jackson to treat John for a broken wrist. Judging by John's...novel mode of dress, those explanations were certainly going to be interesting. "It's not going to be that bad, surely?"
She watched as he shrugged. "As a whole, no, probably not. As individuals..." He trailed off and shrugged again. "Trouble is," he continued, "I'm not going to know what's the what until I actually have some remote clue as to what the hell actually happened yesterday afternoon."
"I see." Gina offered a smile. "Maybe it won't be as bad as you think."
Eric just lifted his eyebrows. "One word. John."
Eric sighed again, shoulders slumping. "It's not going to be fun."
Gina watched as Eric headed into the building and felt a frisson travel the length of her spine. Something was going to happen today. Something big and bad. For a full second, she debated going after Eric to warn him.
Warn him of what? I have a bad feeling? Gina shook her head. And then the hallway door banged shut behind Eric. Well I can't do it now. Gotta wait until Robin gets here to cover reception...
Almost as if cued by that thought, the phone started to ring. Gina frowned. It was early for a business call; in fact, the switchboard had only just gone to normal daytime function. Early calls were seldom good news.
Gina's frown deepened as she picked up the call.
"Hi Gina." The voice was hoarse and unrecognisable. "It's Robin."
"Let me guess," Gina answered, "you're calling in sick."
"'Fraid so," the morning receptionist answered between hacking coughs. "I didn't feel great when I went home yesterday...didn't sleep at all last night."
Gina winced. "You sound..." She searched for a polite term.
"Like shit, I know," Robin cut in. "I feel worse. I'm sorry."
Gina smiled faintly. "Not your fault, Robin -- you take yourself off to bed and get some rest, and don't you dare try coming in until you feel one hundred percent."
"Yes boss," Robin replied, a faint chuckle lacing her voice, although that led to another paroxysm of coughing.
Gina finished the call and put the phone down and grimaced. That left only three members of the administration team not out sick -- and that was counting both herself and John, who wasn't really a member of the administration team at all! Whatever it was that was going around was vicious.
Eric made a brief stop in his office to leave his sandwiches on his desk before heading down to the med-centre to get Jackson's report on the assorted injuries of the previous day. And the worst of this is I know this will be the most fun I have today. It's all down hill from here, he mused morosely, descending the stairs.
Maybe Gina was right. Maybe it wouldn't be as bad as he feared. Maybe... He shook his head. John had effectively gone AWOL. Lexia, it seemed, wasn't insubordinate only because Taylor gave her consent to Lexia's little escapade. Frax -- or more accurately, the remnants of the Frax clone's Cyclobot army -- had held both Shawn Clingleffer and Paul Jones captive and had done 'things' to them. Clingleffer, in particular, seemed to have been a victim of more future memory tech.
Nope. Whichever way he turned this, there was only one silver lining from yesterday's debacle: No-one was seriously hurt. Eric smiled thinly as he reached the entrance to the med-centre. At least, no-one had seriously been hurt, so far as he knew.
"Commander Myers -- good morning." Jackson seemed to be his usual perky self.
Eric wondered if that was a good thing. "Dr Jackson."
"May I have a word before I hand over the reports?"
Eric felt his heart sink. "Of course."
"About Rick Collins," Jackson continued, leading Eric into the small CMO's office just off the main med-centre.
Eric blinked. "I wasn't aware he was injured yesterday!"
"He wasn't," Jackson replied dryly, the perk leaving his voice now. "What he was, was insubordinate, violent and ill-tempered on a par with Taylor Earhardt on a bad day."
Eric stared at his CMO. "Excuse me? Rick Collins was what?"
Jackson repeated his description, then added, "And I have a lump on my skull to prove it."
Eric felt a migraine coming on. Not going to be as bad as I thought? Gina, you're right. It isn't. It's worse.
JJ waited, nervously, in the main conference room, unsure of what, exactly, was going to happen. Also waiting were the other members of Taylor's patrol from the day before, Shawn, Alice, Lexia and Taylor herself, along with the real Paul Jones -- who looked as if someone had kicked him down several flights of stairs at the very least. The final two people in the room, John and Rick, hadn't actually been involved with the patrol but both had somehow become thoroughly mixed up in events, John to the point of getting his wrist broken by Mirracon.
He sighed. He'd have liked to have talked to Lexia about this -- see if she had any more idea of what was going to happen -- but when he'd walked in, she'd been sitting in the corner of the room, giving out serious 'leave me the hell alone' vibes. He'd started to approach her anyway -- if nothing else, he wanted to know what was wrong -- but a movement half seen out of the corner of his eye had stopped him. Looking round, he'd seen Rick shaking his head, the implication clear: Lexia was better left alone for now.
At that point in his thoughts, however, the conference room door opened to admit Commander Myers. Shelving his thoughts, JJ turned his attention to the here and now.
Myers moved to stand at the front of the room. "This is a relatively informal proceeding. This is not a disciplinary hearing; at this point all I want to do is establish exactly what went on yesterday afternoon. Things were far from SOP yesterday and people got hurt. I want to make sure that the same mistakes don't get made again at some point in the future." Myers leaned against the edge of a convenient table. "Any questions so far?" No-one moved. "OK. Commander Earhardt, you want to get this under way?"
The plaza was crowded. Perfect cover, Namir decided. The busier the location, the harder it would be for The Master to learn anything from this meeting. He shivered. It seemed so wrong for him to be thinking like that. He was only ten! Except that as far as the outside world was concerned, he was in his early twenties, and except that he had information floating around in his head that no ten year old had any business knowing.
He gave a grimace and did his best to dismiss that train of thought. It served him nothing, particularly at this moment in time. He was supposed to be keeping an eye on things here. He was his mother's ace in the hole, in case this meeting went wrong; and the beauty of his presence was The Master had no clue what he looked like.
Namir allowed himself a small smile. That's what you get for giving someone intimate knowledge of covert work and spying. You create the perfect undercover operative.
At that point in his thoughts, he saw his mother enter the plaza. It didn't surprise him to note that she was being tailed. Chances were she knew already, but... A smile crossed his face as he stood up and started moving not towards his mother, but towards the tail. The plaza was very crowded...
Coolly, he walked into the tail -- a man in his mid-forties; balding, paunchy, a face that was completely forgettable. The perfect tail, in fact.
"Oh -- I'm sorry! I'm such a klutz!" Namir exclaimed, injecting just the right note of apology into his voice when he was actually nothing of the sort.
"No problem." The man was terse and not even discreetly attempting to spot his target. Namir had to buy his mother a little more time to meet up with her old friend.
Not a problem. In an effort to disentangle himself from his victim, Namir contrived to trip the older man, sending them both to the ferrocrete plaza floor. They grappled for a few moments. He managed to surreptitiously land a couple of blows to the man even as he very ostentatiously attempted to extricate himself.
By the time they were both back on their feet, Namir knew his mother and her friend were long gone. Good. The man looked livid.
"Ah skip it." With a blood-vessel-bursting snort, the man turned on his heel and walked away.
Namir snickered to himself.
Some days, it was good to be him.
Just once, Eric mused, it would be nice for these things to actually unravel as simpler than they looked. Unfortunately, having heard Taylor's report of events -- with input from Shawn, JJ, John and a strangely subdued Lexia (and that was something that was bothering him for a whole bunch of reasons) -- it just got more complicated.
"OK." He looked around the room. "I still have a few questions that I want to clear up, but that's going to be best done individually. Rick -- you're first."
Rick looked less than enthusiastic.
"Katie, what's going on?" Lucas asked as she all but dragged him into the botanical gardens adjacent to the plaza she'd arranged to meet him on.
She sighed. "It's complicated -- just...make like you haven't seen me in a long time and hug me."
Lucas blinked in surprise. "Um..."
Before he could say any more, Katie had wrapped her arms around his neck in a near-strangulatory embrace. "I've been followed," she whispered. "Namir's probably taken care of it, but we need to make this look as if all we're doing is catching up or talking about old times." Louder she added, "It's so good to see you!"
"And you," Lucas responded, knowing a cue when he was handed one. "I hope you're going to explain this," he added softly as she released her hold.
Rick shifted a little uncomfortably in his seat as Eric sat down behind his desk, wondering just what this was about.
"I appreciate," Eric began, "that you felt Shawn Clingleffer had information that was needed by me."
Rick felt his stomach drop. Suddenly, he knew what this was about and he wished he was anywhere but in Eric's office.
"What," Eric continued, oblivious to Rick's discomfiture, "I would like to know is why you considered knocking the CMO of the Silver Guardians unconscious was your best course of action."
"A man," Eric continued ruthlessly, "who out ranks every single Guardian, including me, when it comes to medical matters."
Rick squirmed again. He could feel his face getting hot now.
"So. Do you have an explanation?"
And before he could quite stop himself, Rick blurted, "Alice."
There was moment of crystal clear silence. Then, so slowly and to Rick's horrified gaze, Eric's eyebrows lifted.
"Alice is not an explanation."
Rick wondered if it was possible to die of humiliation. If it was, it was clearly going to be a long and lingering death. "No sir," he finally managed to mumble.
Rick's head dropped, completely unable to meet Eric's gaze. "I...was worried. 'Bout Alice."
"You were worried about Alice."
"Yes, sir," Rick mumbled.
"Personal fears make it all right to render a superior officer unconscious?"
There was a lengthy pause. Rick risked looking up again and realised Eric was regarding him thoughtfully.
Whatever Rick imagined the next words were going to be, they certainly weren't what he heard. "You like her, don't you."
"Yes." There didn't seem to be a lot of point in denying it, even if Eric's statement was a non sequitur.
"Then here's a question for you: What happens if, because of what you did yesterday, you aren't in a position to help her when she really needs it?"
Rick hadn't thought it was possible to feel worse.
He was wrong.
"It's been so long," Katie gushed enthusiastically. "We really should have stayed in touch better, but what with my husband's job and my son suddenly growing up...it's been difficult."
The oblique reference to Namir made Lucas wince. Another lost childhood. He hadn't known about Namir until after Alice, Rick, John and Lexia had been abducted -- by which time; it was too late to warn Eric and Kimberly, and Wes and Jen. It still felt like a failure on his part. "Well, things have been hectic on my end, too. But when Trip said you wanted to see me I knew I had to do my best to make time."
Katie smiled and linked arms with him as they started to wander through the gardens. "Alan and I are being watched twenty-four/seven," she murmured softly. "Nam's the only one of us who can move freely...and that's..."
"Only because of what was done," Lucas finished equally softly. He made a vague gesture in the direction of some of the flora, as though that was what they were discussing. "Rob and Ven are nearly set. You'll be safe soon."
"Right now, it's not us I'm worried about."
Eric folded his arms and stared across his desk at John. What to say? The plaster cast that was visible around John's left wrist was a reminder of what had gone on.
JJ's interview had confirmed the details what John had actually done in the mirror world -- and from that perspective, Eric had no complaints. John had done the right thing. Except that it had been totally wrong. John shouldn't have been there at all. And the whole mess sounded like something Eric would have done when he'd been John's age.
Hm. Perhaps that was how to start. "You keep telling me," said Eric, "that you're not me." John looked bemused. "So stop trying to be me."
"John, you're right," Eric admitted. "With the scores you got in the assessments...if you'd been anyone else, I would have very probably classed you as fully trained and put you straight onto the active roster..."
"You have been victimising me," John cut in hotly, his temper flaring.
"No!" Eric made a dive for his own temper. Nothing would be served if he lost that. "Not the way you're thinking." Eric paused, hunting for the right words. "You didn't pick out this as a career choice and I don't want to force you into it. I want to give you alternatives. Other things you can be good at..."
"Things that I'm not going to get compared to you over," John finished, anger bleeding rapidly into sheepishness. "Hence the office management and field medicine."
"No," Eric corrected, "hence one of them. You're doing both because you spent twenty minutes arguing over it." John opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it. Eric simply nodded. "As for yesterday..."
"Is this the part where you tell me you're not angry, just disappointed?"
Eric sighed. "Not exactly, John. I am disappointed -- but I am also very, very angry. What you did was extremely stupid and it could very easily have got you killed."
"I know." John's answer was meek and thoroughly embarrassed. Eric just hoped the tone indicated he'd finally got through to his son.
Katie steered them away from the carefully planted 'forest' towards the 'genuine' wildflower meadow. The open space made her less nervous that someone would somehow overhear her.
"What do you mean, Kate?" Lucas asked.
"Alan's been looking at everything that's been done so far. Nam's been collecting information -- he's worked his way into the network...he figures that if he's been given those skills he might as well use them." Lucas nodded. "And there's the info that you gave us."
"He's found a pattern?"
"He isn't sure." Katie swallowed.
"I think he's right about this."
"Katie, what's he found?" Lucas asked.
But before she could answer, his bleeper sounded. Unclipping the device, he looked at the screen and Katie could only watch as his face paled.
"I have to get back to SGHQ," he finally said. "Temporal Investigations have just pulled a real shit-turn."
Katie felt sick. "Someone's being charged with endangering the timeline." Lucas nodded. "We're too late."
"Not yet we're not."
Eric studied Lexia. There were deep shadows in her expression. Shadows that hadn't been there the day before -- and arguably shouldn't be there now. Something very strange had gone on the previous afternoon -- JJ's interview had made that clear, and Shawn's interview had only added to that.
"Lexia..." But Eric got no further as the sounds of a scuffle reached his ears. Instead of his carefully planned speech, he said, "Excuse me."
He stood up, frowning, and crossed to the office door, but before he could open the door, it imploded inwards. Reflexively, he ducked out of the way, avoiding the shower of matchwood.
"What the hell...?"
Standing in the now gaping doorway were two men who both had the build of professional wrestlers and who wore the expressions of Military Policemen who'd been asked to complete a particularly odious assignment. Dumb and Dumber, Eric mentally dubbed them.
"Eric Myers?" cut in Dumb curtly.
The temper outburst that he'd restrained while talking to John returned. It took Eric every effort not to snap, "Yes? You are?"
"Lieutenant Bunton, Time Force Temporal Investigations."
Dressed in standard, twenty-first century clothing, there was nothing about them that said they were anything other than hired thugs, and for all that, Eric wasn't surprised -- even if he didn't recognise the department name. "And I presume you have an excellent reason for destroying my office door?"
"You're under arrest," Dumber contributed. "You will come with us, now."
TO BE CONTINUED...