“Status,” Colonel Peters called out as a single word command. The conference room was mostly empty. Just his immediate operational section heads were present, Sergeant Sanchez for technology, Captain Payne for the Guardians, and First Sergeant Wilcox for the Angels.
“The gear is holding, sir” Sergeant Sanchez reported. She thumbed across a tablet reading intently as she went. “We need replacement equipment though, sir. It’s only a matter of time before we have an unrecoverable failure.”
“I will reach out to General Pontus and Senator Radcliff and see if we can get the replacement requests expedited,” he said. He shifted his attention to his oldest living friend on the planet, First Sergeant Jack Wilcox. The first sergeant immediately moved into his own report, acknowledging the silent order.
“Sir, all Angels have been moved to the same rotation as their Guardians,” he stated. “No incidents to report at this time.”
He nodded, silently acknowledging the report and moved on to the senior member of the team for her status.
“Sir, Guardian Three, Angela Magdala, is currently in the Ether scanning for the target,” she stated very formally. “Guardian Eight, Billy Ransom, is in the barracks getting some rack time before his reconnaissance shift begins. Since the target Robert Dante disappeared off our screens we have had a sentry posted scanning for his face around the clock in four hour shifts. No sign of him has been detected for the past six hours, sir.”
“Sergeant Sanchez, what do we know about the whereabouts of Robert Dante?” he asked. He thought he already knew the answer but he wanted to start this meeting by having it formally stated, not to make the sergeant look bad but to have it fresh in everyone’s mind as they started looking for alternatives to finding him.
“Sir, all readings on his presence in the world still seem to indicate he is…” the Sergeant paused formulating her words carefully. “Well, sir, there’s just no way else to say it. He’s dead, sir. As far as my instruments can tell anyway.”
“Could that be fallout to using the jury rigged equipment?” he asked. Sanchez had done an amazing job not only getting the equipment to function, but just finding it all in the first place. She’d ransacked every wall locker, barracks common room, and piece of luggage on the base to gather gaming consoles, laptops, and electronic hardware of all types. He’d seen her workspace and the number of plastic shells she’d gutted for parts were just piling up in there. The joke had become that her office was where old computers went to die now. People had begun bringing her anything that plugged in, and she’d been making use of most of it in an exemplary fashion, but even her ingenuity had to have its limits.
“No sir. That equipment is still functioning normally,” she said with no hint of pride or bravado in her words. “We are receiving all the data streams we should be. His data just isn’t represented anymore, like the first time.”
“Like the first time,” he repeated.
“Speculation?” he asked, opening the floor for any input from anyone.
“de Payens and Planche said he was in Hell, sir,” the first sergeant said, speaking up first.
“You can’t go to a place that doesn’t exist First Shirt,” Captain Payne said.
“Just reporting what they said, ma’am,” First Sergeant Wilcox stated without emotion. “Guardian Eight’s report of what he saw behind one of the doors when they vanished off our scopes sounds pretty much like Hell to me.”
“One man’s personal problems represented inside the Ether,” Captain Payne responded. “The question is, why we can’t read him when he’s trapped inside his own delusion?”
“We’d still be able to read him there, ma’am,” Sergeant Sanchez added. “I mean we’d get something on one of the data feeds, not this. I’m getting totally flatline. Zero. Nada. No data of any kind, not marginal data or limited data, nothing at all.”
“Are we even sure the guy we saw was the target, Robert Dante? His face was similar, but there were differences,” the colonel said. He picked up the remote from the table and pressed a few buttons. The main screen in the conference room shifted and displayed the image of Captain Payne’s avatar in the Ether being sucked into the chest of the man who entered the hospital room where Robert Dante’s sister or mother, they weren’t sure, was convalescing. The man had an expression of both anger and astonishment on his face. The colonel pressed another button and a photograph of Robert Dante faded into view aligned next to the man’s astonished face in the freeze frame. The two men looked similar, but very different at the same time.
“They’re close, sir. But clearly not the same man,” Captain Payne said.
“Visually, yes,” Sergeant Sanchez agreed. “However, the data I received from the man in that room says it was Robert Dante.”
“Can’t be,” Captain Payne said flatly. “You can’t do plastic surgery that fast and have it heal at all let alone that cleanly. Not the same guy.”
“The data says it is, ma’am,” Sergeant Sanchez stated.
“How does that happen exactly?” Captain Payne asked. “Answer, it can’t.”
“We’ve got to think outside the box people,” he’d heard enough of the back and forth, besides, they were dealing with a realm none of them knew anything about, except the two Frenchmen, if you believed what they had to say. He decided to give voice to his thoughts. “We’re dealing with a world outside our experience so we need to broaden our ideas of what is or is not possible. Until we have evidence to the contrary, we will accept the initial explanation from Hugh de Payens that Robert Dante is hiding from us in Hell.”
“You can’t be serious, Colonel?” Captain Payne asked, placing both her hands on the table palms down. “We don’t even know who those frogs are.”
“They came in after you and pulled your butts out of there,” he said. “I’m not saying we trust them fully, but they’re the only ones who seem to not be confused by what is happening right now. We listen to their advice and act on it where prudent until such time as our data proves them wrong.”
“Yes sir,” Captain Payne said, resigning to the wishes of her superior officer. “But that still leaves us with the question of how we either get to him or bring him to us? It would be nice to know something more about our enemy before we launch a mission into his turf.”
“I have an idea on that front,” he said. “Sergeant Sanchez, could you isolate Private Farrow’s workstation without her knowing, but still grant it access to the internet?”
Sergeant Sanchez looked a little astonished as he stared at her. He kept his gaze locked on the sergeant though, and she dropped into thought as soon as she realized he was asking a serious question. She started scratching her head a moment and then turned to her laptop, typing furiously. Everyone in the room remained silent as she gathered her data. Finally, she stopped typing and surveyed something on her screen before locking gazes with her commanding officer.
“Yes, sir. I can,” she said. “I can isolate her workstation on a separate VLAN on the network with access only to the Internet. I can spoof the system to make it think it’s attached to the rest of the network. Any files she needs can be copied over there without her knowledge, and I can give her unfettered access to an outside connection, but we’ll see everything that comes in or goes out and can pull the plug at any time.”
“Excellent,” he said.
“What are your intentions, sir?” First Sergeant Wilcox asked.
Instead of answering his First Sergeant, he turned to the guard at the door and said, “Send a runner to bring Hugh de Payens, the man called Planche, and Private Farrow in here please.”
“Yes sir,” the guard said, then saluted and departed.
He turned back to the table and said, “Set up your isolated connections Sergeant. We’re going fishing for demons.”
Guardians of the Herald is a weekly serial published and copyright by The Cavalier, Mark Malcolm. To catch up on the first 45 issues you can either read them for free on the web site or purchase the compilation, Guardians of the Herald Issues 1-45: Angels and Demons for the Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/Guardians-Herald-Issues-1-45-Angels-ebook/dp/B00IJIFXSY.
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