"Or what? You beat the shit out of me? Your own soldier? Is that what we should expect from you as a leader?" Joe's words hung heavy in the air. Mike's field of view narrowed until only Joe existed, his scowling rectangular face a monument to the day's failures. Mike flexed his corona.
"People coming," Tracy said. "You two might want to save the macho bullshit for later."
Joe stepped back, eyes still broadcasting hostility. Mike turned to look in the direction of the Pentagon. A vehicle had parked at the edge of the lot and three figures in uniforms were approaching them at a steady pace. "Sergeant Spencer, we've got friends dropping by."
"Understood, Centurion." Spencer regained her feet and put on a stoic expression.
Everyone turned to watch the approaching figures. The man in the lead wore an Air Force service dress uniform which had the insignia for a full bird colonel on the shoulders. Mike almost went to the position of attention at the officer's approach, then forced himself to stand casually. He was no longer an enlisted soldier in the US military. He didn't understand exactly how the Centurion rank translated into normal military command structures, but he knew for certain that he was the acting commander of the EDA force in the field at that moment. He would treat this colonel as his equal.
"Centurion Dombroski," the Colonel said, "I am Colonel Payton of the Defense Intelligence Agency."
Mike nodded. "What is the purpose of your visit, Colonel?"
The man hesitated at Mike's tone and seemed to think over his next words before speaking. "I would like to formally request your assistance."
"We are dealing with a casualty at the moment, Colonel. Is your request urgent?"
"We could use some help detaining and interrogating a wounded enemy combatant. He is bleeding out from a gun shot wound, but we can't get close to him because he is using the noetic talent to suppress thought."
Mike grunted. The fact that this guy could correctly identify the talent being used made him wary. The knowledge might have been shared by Cassandane as a gesture of good will, but it also could have been acquired through some form of espionage. Bugged meetings rooms, bribed students from the City of Pittsburgh, maybe even someone implanted in their ranks -- perhaps Joe? "You said you worked for the CIA or something?"
"DIA. You can think of the Defense Intelligence Agency as the military cousin of the CIA."
"Do you really need our help or is this just an excuse to watch us in action?"
The man snorted the most fake laugh Mike had ever heard. "You want the DIA, the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, and every other intelligence agency we have on your side. Trust me, Michael Dombroski, we are the political allies the EDA needs right now."
Mike squinted at the man. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Let me share some intel with you. The Fleet has communicated its desire to begin selling attunement to the talents. Their proposed agreement is that in exchange for the government not interfering, they will attune only within American cities. The President expressed his intention to accept their offer. Following his disappointing attunement, he is not a fan of your organization. The value of your training is about to plummet, which will have financial and political implications. The DIA can use its influence to help the EDA if we can claim a strong working relationship with experienced talents."
"You realize my team just saved the nation's capital?"
The Colonel nodded. "For which the whole country is grateful. You also saved the lives of three soldiers involved in a helicopter crash. No matter how this conversation ends, the EDA will receive the credit it deserves for protecting us. What I am suggesting is that we transition into a joint operation that would demonstrate to everyone the value of a strategic partnership. I work for an intelligence agency, so of course I will be studying your team and asking questions, but that doesn't mean I'm not an ally."
Mike glanced towards Woodrow's corpse. He did not like the thought of leaving him behind while they went on a side mission.
"We have people who can handle the deceased in a professional, respectful manner. Let us know what his wishes were and which funeral home we should contact and everything will be handled."
"Tracy," Mike said, "can you call up Varanelli and have her get in touch with Woodrow's emergency contact?"
"Yes, Centurion," Tracy murmured.
As the arrangements were made, Mike left the majority of his team behind as an honor guard for Wilson and flew himself, the Colonel, and one of the two civilian DIA employees back in the direction of Arlington. He found their target reclining on a grave stone, warily eyeing the ring of police and security forces around himself. Mike ignored the boundary and descended directly above the middle-aged balding man who had signed up to terrorize a nation. The continuous meme blast sent Mike's passengers into a daze, but it hardly registered to him.
He reached out with his corona and pressed on the bloody abdomen until the man screamed and let his meme blast die. Mike landed in front of him and released the DIA agents. When the man stopped reacting to the compression of his wound, the meme blast resumed momentarily before another poke at the injury summoned another scream. Mike waited for the man's spasms to subside. "In case you haven't figured it out yet, every time you do a meme blast, I'm going to give you a belly rub."
"That's torture," the man spat.
"I don't give a fuck. You killed one of my people."
The hot rage within Mike cooled at the cavalier celebration. "You think that's good, do you?" His teleotic sense reaced out to the body before him.
"It was one of your people or all of my people," the terrorist said. "Nallit has my entire family hostage. My entire community." He leaned further back on the headstone and stared up at the sky. "I just did what I had to to save my family. You would have done the same."
"You think I would rampage about a military cemetery to bait out soldiers to kill?" Mike found the path the bullet had traced inside the man. It had somehow missed all the important organs on its trip through. And now a combination of pressure to the wound and clotting had stemmed the flow of blood.
"If you saw what he does to that Twelve fellow, you would do anything to protect your loved ones from him."
Mike bared his teeth in an imitation of a smile as he studied the platelets in the man's blood. "How bad did it burn your racist heart to bow down to a black man?"
The man's eyes closed for a moment. "Nallit ain't no man. Might be he's a demon or part of god or whatever story he wants to tell next, but he ain't human."
"Who the hell is Twelve?" Mike found the key to the platelets and smiled.
"We used to think it was victim number twelve. Then Nallit said he was number one and his 'special frenemy' was number two. The fucking Angelship has a number, too, but Nallit hasn't decided which one yet. It has a name, too: Kerzon. I don't understand his crazy. I just know my mama can't be one of victims. Twelve has had his hands and feet amputated. Every morning, Nallit pours a steaming hot cup of coffee over him while he giggles like fool. We watched him cut off the guy's nipple with a pair of safety scissors. It took a long ten minutes for that one." The man stopped talking as he noticed the stream of blood pouring from his swelling abdomen.
"That looks bad," Mike said.
The man's skin had gone pale with blood loss. His eyes somehow managed to express betrayal as he stared at Mike. Perhaps he had thought the good guys wouldn't execute a prisoner of war. Mike turned to the Colonel. "You got any questions for this guy? I don't think he's long for this world."
"I do," the Colonel said. "How did this Nallit choose your group?"
"Bad luck," the man muttered. "Our leader ran his mouth at Nallit."
"What does he want?"
The man, tears streaming down his face, slumped down the side of the tombstone. "He just hates us."
"People," the terrorist whispered. "He hates people."