Duncan laughed at the way Methos was shuffling around the hotel room.
“Ha! You’re shuffling around like the old man that you are!”
Methos merely grunted and returned to the couch holding the TV remote like a prize. He punched buttons searching in vain for a TV channel showing something interesting. He stopped on a cooking show. The presenter was a large Italian lady with enough energy and enthusiasm for three. As she was melting butter and making approving noises at the progress, then adding onions Methos flipped channels.
“Hey, why did you do that?” Duncan demanded
“The woman was tiring me out just watching her. Anyhow, her method stinks.” Methos answered.
“You think you could do better?” came the reply
“As a matter of fact … no … but my Scicilian friend Vincenzo – I told you about him – the Mafia cook?” Duncan shook his head and Methos continued, “Vincenzo made your mouth water with just the mere mention of what he intended to do. The end result was always better.”
Duncan nodded, approvingly, “So what happened to him?”
“Well. Now there’s a tale. See, Vincenzo had fallen in love. Both families, ” Methos made ‘air quotes’ with fingers as he said ‘family’ with a wink toward Duncan, “The families ran complimentary crime operations. He hoped that a cross-family marriage would bring unity and allow them to grow to challenge new territory. I believe that they served la pignolata – lemon-scented crispy deep-fried batter balls covered half with vanilla and half with chocolate icing – at his wedding. He and his new wife, plus the ruling members of both Mafia dynasties all died – the Italian police planted poison in the chocolate. They denied it of course. The Italian police blamed another of the crime families from the mainland, giving the the excuse to take down some of their operations. I had indigestion for weeks after reviving from that incident.”
Duncan was stifling laughter.
“What?” Methos demanded.
Duncan lost it. He laughed. The pained look on Methos’ face only made it worse.
“Death by chocolate? Killed by dessert? Got their just dessert?” He giggled.
“Oh I see … mock my story. Its not good enough that I save your life and have to shuffle around like an old geezer but you mock me as well? I need a drink!” Methos pulled open the fridge looking for something interesting only to find that Joe had filled it with bottled water. The medicinal Scotch that he was planning vanished. Bottled water. He shook his head tearing the cap off one and sipping it.
“OK MacLeod let’s hear you do better: which was your favourite war?”
Duncan looked thoughtful before speaking, “I hate war.”
“Dont dodge the question. Come on – favourite war.”
Duncan nodded slowly, “I’d say Waterloo. I met Darius on the battlefields and it was a turning point. He changed my life, made me the man I am today.”
Methos nodded, “I’m going to have to go with the whole Roman invasion of Great Britain in 43AD – Claudius – nothing ever changes in politics. Margaret Thatcher won another term as Prime Minister of England off the Faulklands conflict, and Claudius secored a solid power base in Rome off his invasion of England. The soldiers held the emerald isle with a kind of mythic awe, ” he puffed out his chest, smiling, “I was living there of course…”
Duncan was just taking a sip of water having shuffled to the fridge and back when he said this. He sprayed water out of his nose as he laughed.
Methos put on a humble act, “One does what one can for one’s country.”
Duncan wiped his face and said “Give me a break. They were just afraid of the Celts.”
Methos changed the subject, “Ready for another one?”
Duncan held up his water, about 75% full, “No, Im doing fine thanks.”
Methos gave a theatrical sigh, “No, another question. I think it’s your turn to ask me.”
Duncan didnt think for long before tossing a question back at the older immortal. They swapped questions for the rest of the afternoon telling tall tales and embellishing them where they thought they could get away with it.
Nigel was still sore from his medical. At the briefing he wriggled tring to find a sitting position that didnt chafe on the hard lumps he felt just below the skin of his torso. Thankfully the implant at neck level wasnt perceptable. Shannon seemed none the worse for a day spent in the mess hall and the gym. Nigel’s dark mood didnt improve after his partner grinned and punched him playfully in the stomach sending a flash of white hot impulses along nerves in the area.
Michelle and Art were nowhere in evidence while all of the other teams had reported back. The officer in charge of the briefing waited for the room to settle, glancing at his watch, then launched into things.
“Before I give assignments I have news to announce. Team five,” the officer paused slightly, “Team five will not be continuing operations on this project. Team six – Lancaster and Conwel – see me after the training exercise.” He went on to explain that a training exercise would commence in 30 minutes in room 8112. Conwel grinned at Nigel and commented, “Thunderdome”.
“OK Methos, I have a question. Answer me this: Favourite sword.”
Methos was laying on the couch with his hands laced behind his head. There was an empty water bottle on the floor next to the couch. Something about his manner made Duncan wonder if he didnt prefer the empty to have been beer rather than a generic mineral water.
“Favourite sword you say? That takes me back. It was about yay big,” he said, unlacing the fingers and holding his hards a vague distance apart, “and it had a handle on one end and…”
Duncan was laughing, “…and a pointy end at the other?”
“MacLeod! You’ve seen it? I’ve missed that weapon!” Methos giggled. Was there something in the water making him drunk?
“OK, my turn.” he said as he giggles subsided.
“Oh no – you dodged the question. You forfeit the question, I ask again. Most outlandish outfit.” Duncan asked.
Methos chewed on a thumbnail before speaking, “There was a time when I lived as a woman for six months.”
Duncan’s eyes widenned, “You never told me that!”
“You never asked! Where was I? Oh, a woman for six months. I was sleeping with the chieftan’s third wife and he returned from a hunting trip too early. For safety I was pulled into the women’s tents and dressed there. That was the night, it turned out, that he’d killed a rival clan chief and the whole caravan went on the road. They didnt settle near a civilized region for a good six months. I spent my time sleeping my way through his harem. Small price to pay for having to wear a woman’s clothing all that time.”
Duncan had trouble imagining Methos in female attire and was shaking his head, smiling. “You shaved your legs?”
“Oh no!” Methos grinned, “the chief liked his women hairy. I guess I lucked out there, huh?”
“Sure did. Alright – ask something.”
“Here’s a quickie: Most intense quickening.”
Duncan shuffled painfully over to the room’s fridge, helped himself to a water, then sat again. “You know the most intense – the double quickenning we shared. I never expected Kronos would pack that deep a punch or cause that much collateral damage. No wriggling this time: whats your biggest lingering doubt or question about being immortail?”
Methos looked surprised, “Getting philosophical?”
Duncan waved the question away and waited.
“Alright. I still have doubts about why we fight. The prize seems so far away. Why bother? Oh, and while we’re at it, why are we sterile? Most animals with a dangeous lifestyle are the ones who breed prolifically. Not immortals. I guess it bugs me at times. What about you?”
Duncan launched into a tirade at the number of women he’d bedded or been romanitcaly involved with over the years who planned to travel with him for a year or two before “settling down and having a bunch of kids” – in all cases he was left within a month of making the revelation.
Sixteen people convened in the large dark, circular chamber that Nigel had already seen someone die in. He glanced at the floor but didnt see any blood.
The ten of them who’d been in the briefing were joined by an older soldier sporting a nasty scar along his jaw on the left side. He was acting as escort to a short woman in white labcoat. Her black hair was tied in a pony tail today and small silver glasses perched on her small nose, but Nigel knew the woman. She had a clipbaord hugged against her chest and was obviously trying to look the part of the intellectual scientist in front of the troops.
The remaining four people represented the range of human conditions – a homeless guy who’d gone through his first bath/shower in years (and Nigel hoped had been fumigated against whatever else he was carrying), a youn army recruit not more than twenty years old, a man wearing blue pin-striped suit who looked to have been plucked from a financial career and carried to the Nosophoros base in handcuffs and a mean looking prisoner – convicted killer no doubt – wearing handcuffs and a grey metalic collar around his neck.
The old soldier called them to order. Nigel was fascinated by the way his scar moved as the man spoke and moved his jaw, missing most of his introduction. He tuned back in as he finished introducing “… the head of our reseach division, Professor Romany Jackson”.
“Pfeh .. She’s no professor.” Nigel coughed to his neighbour.
“OK. Those of you with a tracker, please take a reading.”
Five men pulled out handheld devices and punched buttons. Nigel looked at the device in Conwel’s hand and noticed the distribution of pulsing dots on the screen. He could see that there were two strong readings from the civilians – the homeless guy and the convict if he wasnt mistaken – and five clear blips of team members.
“Turn your the tracker to friend-or-foe discrimination.”
Conwel punched the buttons, obviously familiar with the machine, and the dots changed colour. Five green and two red. There were two faint traces, possibly a couple of bad pixels or blue ghosting on the screen, roughly where Jackson and Nigel were standing. Before he could look too closely Conwel scrolled a cursor over to get a detailed readout from each of the red spots. The tracker seemed to be saying that the convict was the more powerful but the bum was probably older.
“Which of the two would you take down first?”
One of the other teams answered, a bland dark haired squaddie who’s nake escaped Nigel, “Ma’am. The convict.”
Jackson nodded slowly, “Good answer, assuming you were in the wild and it was one-on-one. Here on the base you’ll never see more than one immortal at a time in combat training. This room,” she opened her arms wide and turned slowly, “I designed to focus the many mega-joules of energy released from a quickenning. In the wild you would gain a fraction of the power with most lost to the ambient environment. In here you stand to gain virtually a perfect transfer. And the anwer to the question is which ever one you have been assigned – we will determine the strength and development of our own forces and you’ll be given a target.”
She faced the troops. “Can someone tell me what the other two subjects are?”
Conwel had been playing with the tracker and managed to boost the sensitivity, while filtering out the immortal traces. The young recruit and accountant now lit up on the screen in yellow. He raised his hand.
“Ma’am. The screen indicates them as proto-immortals.”
She nodded, “Exactly. Watch your screens.” Jackson nodded to the older soldier who pulled his 9mm pistol from a holster at his belt and shot the accountant. Nigel noticed a few of the civilians grinning at the irony of shooting accountants. A small flashing icon replaced the yellow trace and a few moments later a shuddering breath was drawn by the downed man. Conwel’s screen switched back to displaying five green and three red traces.
“A violent death causes immortal DNA to be expressed in its fullest form. Team two, the quickening is yours.”
A tracking device was quickly thrust into the hands of a CIA trainer and one of the soldiers stepped forward with hunting knife drawn. With brutal military efficiency he beheaded the accountant before the man had even climbed to his feet. The convict and bum shuffled as far as the assembled soldiers would allow them to, the whole group moving back as mist and electrical discharges began. The soldier remained on his knees after the sparks had stopped. He was panting with eyes closed, the painful experience subsiding.
Jackson pointed, “See how vulnerable he is? Think of the strategic issues he represents right now to your team, if this occurs in the wild. If at all possible, transport your targets to the base before claiming them. Now, recovery time. There are more vulnerable situations to be in.” She nodded to the old soldier, who shot the kneeling solider twice through the chest.
The convict’s eyes gleamed and he surged forward. He made a dive for the soldier’s forgotten knife coming to his feet brandishing it wildly.
“You people are freaks.” he screamed.
Before he could say anything else he was shot.
“Time them, ” Jackson said, “you would expect that our team member would recover first, since he went down first, dont you think?”
They watched and the convict was back on his feet a clear ten seconds before the soldier.
“The more powerful the immortal, the faster his recovery time. Putting him down hard will gain you vital time however. Use it wisely.” She pulled a remote control from her pocket and pressed a button with it pointed vaguely in the direction of the convict. The whine of a camera flash seemed to be building from the collar around his neck and suddenly it went off, a gleaming disk of light carving through his throat in moments. The head fell away from body but no electrical storm echoed in the chamber. The collar seemed to be the focal point of the discharges, with a pall of smoke rising from the body. When it was over the collar sat amidst a pile of ashy fragments.
Romany Jackson smiled slightly and stooped to pick it up, brushing ash off its surface. The cleaning seemed motherly and cradled the collar as others might have held a pet cat. “Standard issue discipline collars. Lasers around the internal edge, ” she traced it with a shapely female finger, “will do the job in moments. The collar is self powered, drawing its charge from the released quickenning energy of a subject.”
She knew she had their attention when she drew the remote a second time taking aim at the soldier who’d just experienced the quickening. She pressed a stud on the controller. This time there was no whine, no warning, just a controlled explosion without any associated quickening.
The old soldier spoke, “All members of the Nosophoros project have had a small explosive charge surgically implanted, replacing Cervical vertebrae C-3 with an artificial construct. Today’s demonstration should be sufficient to maintain a state of ready discipline.” The old soldier turned to the young recruit, the remaining yellow blip, “Son, we have a vacancy on team two.”
The young man swallowed, nodding slowly.
The older soldier continued, “You would have been recruited in the next few days anyhow; we estimate your first quickening would have occured in the wild over the next day or two. Do you understand what needs to occur?”
The young man saluted, “Sir, yes Sir.”
Nigel flinched as the older soldier shot the young man in the chest and waited for him to rise before handing him a short ceremonial sword. The young man turned on the hairy homeless man and took his head. Nigel closed his eyes, not needing to see the rest.
Duncan and Methos werent talking when Joe walked in carrying the pizza. Each man looked sullen and were sitting on opposite sides of the room.
“Whats going on here?” he asked.
Duncan looked up and pointed, “Ask him.”
Joe turned to Methos, “OK. What happened?”
Methos shook his head.
“Is that no, you dont know, or no you’re not telling?” Joe asked with a hint of frustration, “You’re acting like a pair of spoiled children. If you keep this up I’ll send you to bed without any supper, and it’s pepperoni too.”
Nigel waited until there was silence in the base before leaving his room. Well, no, not silence as the guy three doors down snored like a piece of rusty old farm machinery. Nigel passed door after door until he was out of the barracks and walking back past the infirmary. He checked the door, locked as expected. He moved to a crouch and hugged the wall past the isolation ward and looked for a stairwell. Soon he was up at ground level and looking at the stars. There was a chill in the night air and he shivered, berating himself for forgetting a coat.
He looked around making sure that he was alone before pulling the communications device out of his pocket. He activated it and waited for it to establish a fix on the satelite. An orange light, good. He waited until it made a connection to it’s sister unit and established a 2-way encrypted link. Finally it gave a quiet bleep and a second light joined the first. A short pause and both switched from orange to green, link established.
“Hi, Im in. These are definitely the ones. We can proceed to the next step. Oh, and I have secured a sample of the technology. When and where do we meet?”
Duncan had progressed from shuffling around the hotel room to walking, albeit slowly. He figired he could probably match Joe, with his prosthetic legs, if he was given a small head-start. Whatever. He wanted out of the room. It was getting claustrophobic, not to mention a little rank. Methos hadnt appeared to have changed clothes since they’d been there.
The Chinaman nodded sagely as he checked Duncan over, “You’ll do. At least you’re alive. You would have made a better recovery if I had been the donor. The energy was close but not a perfect match. What you need, my friend, is a quickenning. You’re depleted and will heal no faster than a mortal right now.”
Duncan frowned, “Take on another immortal in this state?”
The old man nodded, “Yes. Its the best way.”
“But I am in no condition to fight.”
“That you might not be, but I assure you, you’ll not recover any more than you are at present. Find within you the wellspring of life, find your fire, your passion. Its all still there.”
Duncan nodded, “All this energy I lost, why is it that I still remember everything? If I am diminished and not the man that I was, why is it that I know it all still. Doesnt the lightning of the quickenning carry the power and memory over? If Ive lost it, Ive lost it all. Yet I still remember it. How do you know that I wont regain my strength and power again if I just wait?”
The Chinaman pointed at the light overhead, “electro-magnetic waves. Sometimes wave, sometimes partical. Electricity at orthogonal angle to magnetic. The memories and the power. Two different things, linked but orthogonal. I could give you the raw power to bolster the memories, but I fear that the dose would leave me nothing. I was stopped by your friend from that course. You must seek a quickenning.”
Duncan sighed and nodded, feeling like a death sentence had been spoken over him.
Over the next few weeks he trained until his aching body gave up on him. He pushed himself, timing where the point of utter exhaustion fell. The boundy inched back, minute by minute, until he was no longer finishing the day on his back quivering.
A month after his ordeal, Duncan found himself in a bar. He didnt even know the name of the place, only that it was frequented by Watchers. He didnt really have a plan, only that if there were Watchers then there would most likely be immortals too. He was in luck: a lanky, surly gentleman names “Hans” gave off the buzz that Duncan was looking for. The guy made eye contact and nodded toward the alley outside then left.
Duncan followed. Just as he was turning the corner into the alley an iron bar swung out of the shadows and would have connected with his head had he not stepped back slightly. As it was his left arm was ringing with the impact as he’d blocked its approach. Hans was clearly playing to win!
A figure melted out of the shadows, a mortal given the fact that there was no buzz, branshishing a hunting knife. Duncan laughed as he drew his sword – hunting knife verses a Katana? No contest. Duncan’s muscles ached as he fought. He felt as weak as a kitten. Pretty soon he had disarmed his opponent and laid him out, unconcious, on the ground.
“I’m getting too old for this.” He muttered.
Duncan advanced down the alley looking for Hans with sword drawn and at the ready. He caught a glimpse of movement up ahead and he surged forward despite feeling dog tired. Two men in black were dragging the surly immortal into the back of a van. The lanky German was hanging limply between them, his hands bound behind his back and a grey metallic collar around his neck.
He returned to the man on the ground just as he was coming around.
Duncan grabbed the man by the lapels and slamming him agaist the wall, “Who are you people?” he demanded.
The guy was groggy but no fool: his knee came up and impacted Duncan’s groin with hands knocking away Duncan’s loosened grip. He took off leaving Duncan in pain. Looking down he saw that he’d torn something off the man’s neck in the struggle – metallic tags on a chain – as he gained more focus, his brain concentrating less on his abused parts and more on the world around him, he saw that he’d torn a set of military dog-tags from around the man’s neck.
“NSPHRS-1322” he read, “what’s that?”