~*~*~*~

Spring is a time for beginnings. In the headquarters of the Project, the days were rife with beginnings of all kinds. The enemy attack of eighteen months before seemed millennia ago, and repairs and improvements had been made since. Almost no outward effects remained. The fifth Gathering was about to occur, and Command was delighted to know that an eighth Core Member had agreed to come to the HQ. The ranks of the Second Joined were swelling.

In the training halls of the complex, more and more young soldiers practiced for future missions, bright-eyed with idealistic fervor. Inventors invented, doctors healed, programmers programmed and nutrition staff cooked. The HQ had never run so smoothly, and life there was almost beginning to seem normal to the people who made it run. One thing about the HQ was the fact that everyone there had a niche. There was no worry of being useless or not needed, and there was certainly no fear of having nothing to do. There was *always* something to do.

But normality is by definition an illusion, as the members of the Project would soon see. A storm was brewing beyond the horizon, preparing to come boiling over into sight and do its best to sweep them away. They would soon be reminded of a simple fact:

Every new beginning means another beginning's end.


**Chapter 1- Power's Play**

"RUN!"

Sora didn't need Tai to tell her that; she was already running as fast as she could, pelting down the dark, smoke-filled hallway as though her life depended on it.

Come to think of it, maybe it did.

Bullets flew past their ears as they sped along, and when Sora glanced over her shoulder to fire off a shot at their pursuers, she could see the dim shapes close behind, partly obscured by the fog...

She fired, and the recoil from the slug-thrower hit her just as they skidded around an unexpected corner. Sora stumbled, and in that split second, a bullet caught her in the leg. She swore, falling against a wall panel and tumbling to the metal floor with a thump.

"Damn! Tai, a little help would be good here!"

He'd run on a few steps past her, but at her words he stopped and spun. It didn't take him more than a moment to realize what had happened; the skewed positioning of her useless leg told him instantly, as Sora leaned half-sitting, half-lying, against the wall.

"Damn is right," he said, and hurried back to clumsily help her to her feet. "Here, lean on me. No, backward. You fire, I'll steer. Try to hold them off. Come on!"

They got themselves positioned, and took off at an awkward shuffle down the hallway. Sora forced herself to keep a cool head, aiming back and firing at the misty shapes bearing down on them. Once, twice, three times; the first shot missed, but she had the satisfaction of watching the second and third impact, taking one enemy in the shoulder and another down completely. She grinned wolfishly, her leg forgotten, and fired again.

Instead of a bullet, her gun let out a *click*.

"What the...?" Sora quickly twisted open the back of the gun. Empty. "Shit! Tai, I'm out!"

"Oh, great," Tai muttered. Sora started to let go of him. "Hey, what are you doing?!" Tai cried as she stumbled back from him.

"You can't take me along!" Sora said. "I'm dead weight without any ammo, Tai! Just go!"

Tai hesitated for a long moment, eying the approaching enemy...

And then cracked open the ammo well of his own gun, tipping half the bullets inside into his hand.

"Here," he said, grabbing her gun and loading it. "Now you can shoot." He handed the gun back to her, as Sora stared at it.

"But Tai...your bullets..."

"Hey, if they protect you, they protect me," he said with a grin. "I almost lost you twice, remember? I'm not going through that again." With that, he slid an arm around her waist to support her. Sora gave him a look that was half exasperation and half affection, and they headed off down the corridor without another word.

They were both breathing hard by the time they reached a small maintenance ladder. The enemy was still coming on, but more cautiously than before. They evidently didn't want to take any more chances with this supposedly 'helpless' prey. Tai and Sora exchanged glances, looking from the tiny, precarious ladder to Sora's useless leg to the misty shapes bearing down on them. It wasn't a very long climb, just to ceiling height, but the flimsy ladder looked hard for even an unharmed fighter to hold on to. Sora gave her gun a pat.

"You go ahead, Tai. It should be right above us... I'll cover you."

Tai nodded. "Right..." He knew that there was no way she could get up there on her own, however much he wanted her to be out of danger first. He grabbed the rungs and began to climb quickly toward the tiny access hatch above.

At the far end of the corridor, the enemy had figured out what they were up to. A rain of bullets filled the air around them. Sora swore, aiming and firing back. One, two, three shapes fell...a fourth tried to rush her, but she kept her cool, plugging it right in the center of mass. It let out a yell and collapsed.

"Uh, Tai? Anytime now would be good!" Sora called up the ladder shaft. Above her, Tai's face popped into view, followed by both his arms.

"I'm up! Grab my hands!"

Sora closed one eye, sighting along her barrel, and let loose a rain of cover fire. As more enemies dropped, tripping and slowing those behind them with their falling bodies, she holstered the gun in one swift motion and leaped with all the strength in her good leg, catching Tai's arms in a firm grip. He braced himself and pulled, as she kicked off from a ladder rung, and the combined effort brought them both up into the next story, tumbling across the floor land in a heap against a blinking bank of machinery and lights.

Sitting up dizzily, Sora remembered where she was and immediately snapped out of her daze, rolling across the floor to the access hatch and slamming it shut. Only just in time: she could see the startled face of an enemy soldier staring up at her as the hatch closed with a bang. Slapping the locks into place, Sora turned back to the little room with a sigh of relief. They were safe for a few minutes...but it was a precarious safety. They were sitting ducks up here as soon as those soldiers managed to regroup and get out into the courtyard; the room was right at the side of the tower, sheltered from the outside only by the large sheetglass window that filled one wall. The other three walls were bordered with computer equipment. Tai was already bending over one of the machines, pulling a small metallic object out of his pocket and shoving it into the nearest disk drive.

"Okay, Drac, do your thing," he muttered, standing straight. The little disk was Izzy's brainchild; it 'sucked' the information out of a system, downloading it into itself in mere minutes or less. Coupled with his other latest gadget, a disc that flooded the system with a fatal virus, it was perfect for both espionage and sabotage. The techs that worked on the project had nicknamed the discs Dracula and Swamp Thing, respectively.

"Tai? We're gonna have a problem up here really, really soon..." Sora's voice was a bit strained, and with good reason. Tai could already hear the tramping of enemy feet coming toward the courtyard below.

"C'mon, c'mon!" he hissed to the machine, as if it could hear him and download faster. The seconds dragged by...

Suddenly, a shot whizzed past Sora's ear, accompanied by the crash of shattering sheetglass. Both operatives hit the deck, hands over their heads.

"We've got company!" Tai yelled. Sora nodded.

"Yeah, I was kinda figuring that..."

At that moment, the indicator light on the outer edge of the disk lit up with a ping. "Yes!" Tai exclaimed, lunging and snatching it out of the drive. He tossed it to Sora, who caught it and tucked it into her own pocket before pulling out another small disk.

"Catch," she called, as Tai obliged. Without waiting for him to insert the disk, she sat up, firing off several shots out through the now-empty window frame into the growing crowd of enemies below. A stray shot flew past her head, taking a few strands of loose hair with it, and she winced; still, for the moment the cries of chagrin from below outnumbered the bullets coming up. "That should keep their heads down for a few seconds at least," she muttered, ducking again.

A few seconds were all they needed. Swampy's part of the job was much faster; it didn't take long to release the virus, and it would multiply on its own.

"Ow!" Tai yelped, as a bullet hit his arm. He grabbed the now-useless limb, swearing.

"Hang on!" Sora shouted. "Almost there..."

The second disk whirred, made a soft hissing sound...and pinged.

Both humans froze...

~*~*~*~


"The Double Fortress"
Book 2 of the Shadow of the Xenophobe trilogy by Bandit

*The Project gang returns in summer 2002!*