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An Old Friend
The cold desert winds were cutting, especially in December. Nicholas stood alone, on a lonely lookout above a battlefield. But he wasn't alone. The sound of gunfire and the smell of smoke was overpowering. Al-Hasan's men were closing in from all sides, and as they appeared they died. With flows of fire and air, Nicholas cut and burned. Where he looked, they died. The smell of burned meat hung heavy in the air, and corpses turned to mush littered the airstrip. He was too tired. Too tired.

Nicholas blinked, and Reed was standing next to him. Ninacska.
She said something, he said something. She smiled. He couldn't hear the words. But he could see the men appear behind her. He felt every bullet hit the ground around him and -

The only thing Nicholas could hear was his heart beating, drowning out everything else. Ba-bump, ba-bump, ba - In another world, a glass dropped to the ground, shattering across the floor. Nicholas clawed his way to his feet, he needed to get outside. He was in a townhouse, in Washington. Jeddah was more than two thousand miles away.

The balcony. Why did the walk to the doors look so far? Stumbling across the room, Nicholas reached it after what felt like an eternity. He clawed for the handle. He tried to reach for the power but it was gone. He had to get outside. The drum in his chest started banging louder, why wouldn't the damn door open? He found the deadbolt and turned. Fresh air blew across his face. He had to see it, it was just a summer day in Virginia. A bird chirped in a tree sprouting from the sidewalk, somewhere in the distance he heard a car alarm going off.

It was still minutes, agonizing minutes, before the ringing in his ears died down and he was able to catch his breath. Jon Little Bird was supposed to arrive in an hour. Why was Nicholas so weak? He'd spent long enough talking to people to know that his story was nothing. So he'd been shot, so he'd killed a few people. In the South China Sea people lost more than a couple weeks spent in a hospital ward. Arms were blown off, legs severed. Why couldn't he get over a few hours in a war zone? Because he was finally a participant and not an observer?

How was a hyperventilating wreck supposed to help the world's rightful superpower stand up to the most powerful tyrant in human history? Nicholas needed a drink. He sighed, and turned back inside.

Edited by Nick Trano, Sep 29 2016, 12:23 AM.
Last night's encounter with Nimeda and Mara was still fresh on Jon's mind as he rubbed his reddened eyes. He had sacrificed his rest last night on the airplane in exchange for his jaunt into the Spirit World, and he wasn't sure it had been a fair trade. He took a large gulp from his black coffee. He'd left the lid off the disposable cup so it would cool down faster so he could get it down.

Apparently he'd gotten away from the Regan airport just in time, having snagged a sedan just before the pavilion had been shut down by the TSA. Something about an argument over a taxi. Everyone was jumpy in this town right now. He'd had to do some extra convincing to get them through the security net. A car alarm went off in the distance back in the direction of the airport but he paid it no mind. Jon just wasn't in the mood for delays. Neither was he feeling particularly curious at the moment.

The sedan sped along the Potomac and Jon stared out at the cherry trees by the bank and gulls swooping down over the bay. Nicholas Trano had given him the address of his townhouse right here in Arlington. Pretty soon the airport landscape gave way to houses built in neoclassical design.

There was a security detail parked outside the townhouse when Jon pulled up. Nothing fancy, just a single man in a black suit parked in a black unmarked sedan in front of the house. Probably a driver designated to him from the local police force. Still, his friend was coming up in the world if he rated protection.

Jon stepped out of the sedan. He tipped the driver and instructed his luggage to be sent to his hotel. His Wallet indicated that he was about fifty minutes early. That was probably just fine, though. The man in the suit stepped out to challenge him.

"I'm Jon Little Bird, here on invitation to see Secretary Trano,"
he said to the guard, showing the guard his Wallet.

The agent scanned the code on Jon's Wallet and pushed some buttons on his own, then pointed to the front door with a scowl. "Go up to the sitting room upstairs and wait for him." The guy must be having a bad day or something.

Jon nodded and walked inside. The place was well furnished, indeed. A wide staircase with a dark wooden banister greeted him to the left, and he could see a formal dining room to his right with place settings for a dozen. Jon took the stairs up to the second landing. There were two thick leather armchairs with wooden legs seated at right angles to each other in one corner, across from a bookcase, with a glass coffee table at the foot. It would be a comfortable cigar lounge. A crystal decanter full of an amber liquid sat atop it with two empty tumbler glasses.

Jon moved to take a seat, but heard a noise. A crash and a thump. It came from the end of the hallway. He reached out and seized the power. It came flooding into him, raging fire and liquid ice. His fatigue washed away like a film peeled away from his skin. He couldn't hear anything. No voices, no footsteps...

Jon took a breath and walked down the hall. At the end of it he found a set of closed double wooden doors. He pushed them open. Inside revealed a set of living quarters, elegant yet simple, and balcony doors beyond. A tumbler glass was lying on the floor, its contents spilled out across the stitched carpet. And there with his back to Jon was an old friend, hunched over a serving tray with a half-filled glass in his hand. Or maybe it was a half-empty glass.

"I hope you don't mind I'm early,"
Jon said. "I see you already started without me."
Nicholas had just finished pouring and taken his first sip when a familiar voice came unheeded from behind. "I hope you don't mind I'm early,"
Jon Little Bird said, "I see you already started without me."
Nicholas turned his head to look; Jon had certainly grown up in the style department since last they'd met. He looked more like a politician than a small private practice lawyer.

Nicholas thought, Not like this.
His hand was shaking a little when he placed the glass down on the tray. He quickly looked himself over; a little disheveled but not at all ridiculous. Turning around, he spoke as he crossed the room. <strong>"Jon, it's been a while."</strong>
He reached Jon and extended a hand. "What've you been up to? Well, other than the school and the murder investigation."
He didn't know how convincing his attempt at normalcy was.

Jon took Nicholas's hand. "I've seen the inside of far too many aircraft lately."
Nicholas saw Jon's eyes trail over to the glass tumbler lying on the floor. "I heard something and came in. I hope I wasn't intruding."

Putting it lightly there,
Nicholas thought. No, Jon had just come damn close to walking in on Nicholas in full freak out mode. Not that Nicholas was afraid of Jon telling anyone, but the thought of showing that kind of weakness... he wasn't ready for that. He'd never be ready.

Nicholas released the handshake and waved Jon to follow him out of the room. The tremor was mostly gone. "It's fine, Jon. I just stubbed my toe and dropped a glass. Nobody's tried to kill me yet."
Jon followed him to the sitting room, and they sat down.

Jon placed his hands in his lap and looked around. "This is a nice place you have here. You've come up in the world."

Nicholas chuckled, only a little bit hollow, and started filling their glasses from the decanter on the table. "You should see my place in Aberdeen if you think this is something, Jon."
His face took on a more serious look. "But you know what the government's picked me up to do. As much as it's good to catch up, this isn't only a social visit."
He offered Jon the glass.

Jon leaned forward and took the glass. He took a sip and sat back. "You always had good taste for whiskey."
He stared at Nicolas in silence for a moment. "I trust that you know what I'm doing with the natives in South Dakota by now,"
he said.

Nicholas leaned forwards, putting his elbows on his knees."Definitely wasn't difficult to find out,"
he said. "I might not run the news anymore, but I still get tips before they go to the public. And besides, you're in my back yard.

Jon nodded. "How many of us do you think there are? In the country, I mean."

The statistics weren't hard to come by. "From the medical records my department's been able to access,"
Nicholas said, "About one in every hundred thousand people get the Sickness - give or take a few tenths of a person. Looking at it that way, it's funny that people act like the Sickness is some kind of pandemic. Probably have a greater chance of dying from lightning strikes."

Jon nodded. "I suppose it isn't significant till you're the one struck by lightning,"
he replied. He downed the rest of the glass and exhaled. "You would think more of us would be visible, though. Where are they hiding, do you think? "

"Hell, I don't think they are, Jon."
Nicholas sat a little straighter. "In my journey through the Custody I ran into you, an Englishman named Dane Gregory, and I had to kill,"
Nicholas stumbled a little over the word, "one of Al-Hasan's channelers in Mecca. Then that general of Brandon's, Michael Vellas, showed up while I was being carted onto a plane."
Nicholas fell silent for a long moment, lost in thought. He hated thinking about Jeddah. He took another sip from the glass.

Jon poured himself another two fingers of whisky. "Just by the ones you've run into you'd think there would be just by chance a high school gym teacher or garage mechanic showing up in this town or that, able to channel. By your telling, it's like we're being drawn together into some grand whirlpool."

"Well, if we are, whoever's running it doesn't want to make things too fun. The numbers don't lie."
Nicholas finished the glass and started refilling it. "Can't decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing for us, but the Custody's got ten times more people to draw from."

Jon cradled his glass in his palm. " They're far ahead of us. And you know as well as I that we're no match for his strength. I've seen that arch of his. I don't think I could do something like that. "
Jon was right, Brandon was freakishly strong. Nicholas took another sip and felt the burn slide down his throat.

"He's had sixty years to learn how to use this, and that isn't a luxury we know we'll have."
Nicholas calmed himself with the help of the liquor, forcing out the darkest of his thoughts, and seized the power. "But we're getting stronger. Tell me you can't feel the difference. With your help, you and I could train all the channelers we can find."
Or even find an American channeler who knew even more than they did.
Jon swirled the whiskey in his palm. A little amber whirlpool formed, a vortex of the liquid moving in time with his hand. Was each individual droplet pulling the others along, or pushing? Or did they all move at once, dancing to the whims of the all-powerful force that was Jon’s hand? Was he just a droplet among the billions of souls on the earth, getting caught up in this whirlpool of fate? Not a thought he cared to relish.

"Oh, yes, I know exactly what you mean about growing stronger,"
he replied. "But I couldn't guess what it would take to get to where he's at. And we know he's had more time and more resources."

He frowned. He could see the picture that he wanted to see, but he couldn’t quite identify what the pieces of the puzzle looked like. But maybe Nicholas knew what they looked like.

Jon stopped swirling his glass and took a drink. "You were in the Navy, right? What does a commander do when he's up against a foe that outnumbers him and has the initiative?"

Nicholas smirked. "Fighting retreat, no point in sacrificing a ship for no gain."
The smirk faded, and he sighed. "But we don't have that luxury. We just have to change the game, Jon. We need to accept that this channeling thing isn't going to be the only dog we have in this fight."

His eyes narrowed at Jon. Something was weighing heavily on his mind, Jon was certain. "But it's still a big dog, and we need to do the best we can."

Jon nodded. They would have to change the game indeed. The question was, how? He had an inkling of an answer, but little else. “I never took Brandon to be much of a pack animal,”
he replied. “When coyotes hunt a larger animal, they aim to make their prey go where it thinks it wants to go, until it’s too late and it is isolated and worn out.”

He set his tumbler glass down. He was already starting to feel the effects on an empty stomach. The Power trembled but he dared not release it, or the fatigue would flood back in.

"What strengths do we have that he can't hope to match, Nicholas?"

"Well, if this were a story we're obviously the good guys."
Nicholas took another sip of his whiskey and leaned back in the chair. Jon kept a straight face. It seemed his friend was as heavy a drinker as ever. "Sadly, this is real life. In all honesty, the bastard has all the cards. He has the numbers, a larger economy, more channeling experience. The only thing he loses on is personality. I can't see the guy sharing anything."

Well, he might not share anything on purpose, but Jon had his ways. Nicholas sounded a touch defeatist. That was dangerous, and sad as well. He tapped his hands together. “I’ve never seen two bears hunt together,”
he replied. That had to be their strength, that they were stronger together. “Has he said anything about female channelers? It’s different with them, you know. They don’t use the power the same way as us. Maybe it’s a different power entirely, yet the same. Like two sides of the same coin. But it’s just as effective.”

"I've only met one woman who can channel, and I think you know who it is."

He took another sip. "When she's not busy inadvertently eviscerating me in the press, she's a representative for South Dakota. But what are you suggesting? That we beat him with an army of women?"

Jon chuckled. "Just speculating. He's probably got less of a clue with women than we do."
Jon frowned. That wasn't how he had meant that to come out. "Do you think Evelyn Avalon really struck a chord when she brought up the issue with channelers being a minority?"

"Of course she did. Even if her interview with Gwendolyn was the dumbest thing I've ever seen that girl do, she's being smart with that one. I'm a conservative, Jon. As reasonable as I can be, that's all everyone else sees. I can't appeal to the left the way she can."
Nicholas smirked. "Making this a civil rights issue and a gun control issue? We can pretty much get the whole country behind us."

And that was the final piece there. The missing puzzle piece that Jon knew had been dangling around somewhere. “You remember Rand Paul's Work Education Program, right?”

His companion snorted. "Of course I do,"
Nicholas said. "Have you ever heard a libertarian shut up about how much of a genius Rand Paul was?"

And it was a brilliant program, the effects of which were still being enjoyed today. It was simple enough, designed for one thing: get the machinery of the economy moving again. People signed up to work for a period of time in exchange for their education paid for by corporations or through public budgets. Paul's critics called it indentured servitude, but no one could argue that it got people to work where they were needed most. And that most importantly it took minimal government involvement.

Jon leaned forward, light flashing off his eye with a conspiratorial glean. “The case should be very easily made that both through the Department of Education and the Department of Labor, that they need to take affirmative action and prioritize their job placement, education and training funds for people that can channel because they are a minority group to themselves. And I’m sure that we can find plenty of private interests that are willing to pony up the dollars to make sure this happens. We’re not talking about raising an army. We’re talking about putting voluntary American talents to their best use. Wherever that may be.”

Jon watched Nicholas’ eyes light up. He could see it too. "And from there, we're ahead of Brandon's game. We can get the jump on the industrial side of things, at least."
Nicholas stood up and walked across the room, looking out a window. "We haven't scratched the surface of this, but I think we both know that with enough brain power and channeling, we can revolutionize everything. Kind of makes you wonder what the world's going to look like in ten years, doesn't it?"

Jon stretched his legs out. "Hopefully we'll both be there to see it."
He put a finger to his temple. "Which reminds me. It isn't too early for you to get your exploratory committee together for a 2048 run. Snagging a high profile public office like this one has done a lot for your credibility. If handled right."
The question on Jon's mind, though, was whether he was still hungry for it.

Nicholas turned back around. He was. "I've been thinking about it, and you're not wrong. I thought I was toast when everybody called me crazy six months ago. That broadcast was the worst mistake of my career."
He chuckled, "Of course, now that Brandon and Dawson are saying I was right all along I look like a brave whistleblower."

Jon stood up and walked over to the same window. He could see the Washington monument from here, standing tall and strong. It probably wasn't actually very sturdy as far as structures went. "Appearances are all that really matter. You made Brandon walk back a bold faced lie."
One that would stick in people's memory each time they saw that damn archway.

"I did, and as much as he pretends nothing came of it, his credibility still took a hit,"
Nicholas said as he turned to look out with Jon. "Wonder if they'd think we were gods, if we went and turned that monument into something stupid and gaudy like Brandon did."

Jon laughed. "We already have one of those. It's called Mount Rushmore."
He chuckled to himself. If they were to mess with the legacy of the Founding Fathers, people would call them things, but gods wouldn't be at the top of the list.

Jon felt a buzzing in his coat pocket. His Wallet. He pulled it out and glanced at it. "Oh, shit. Nicholas. You need to check the news."
He swiped at the feed. "It's Brandon. He's in critical condition. Nick, he's been shot."

Edited by Jon Little Bird, Oct 1 2016, 10:51 PM.

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