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Interlude Thirtytwo point Six, No Longer So Alone?

Defender slipped down to the comm room and put a call into the Round Table. When the Squire on duty answered, he asked if Dux Brittanicus was around. A few moments later the face of his old friend appeared on the screen. "Defender, what can I do for you?"

"Sorry to bother you in the middle of the afternoon, but I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about your operation. Before I get into that, has the Beggar King shown up in your neck of the woods recently?"

"No, is he missing?" When Defender nodded, Dux continued, "I'll alert my troops."

"He dropped out of our jet when Baba Yaga attacked us. By what we have gathered, he went back to face her alone. I'm sure he meant well, probably trying to buy us time. He's not been seen since. I assumed he would eventually find his way home. Since we were closer to your neighborhood, I thought it wise to give you a heads up. Should have done it sooner, but I got caught up in other things and Max is a big boy."

Defender tried to put on a good face, but knowing that Max was still out there somewhere worried him. "The other subject I wanted to discuss deals with your operation versus ours. We are currently using surplus equipment from the Eagles. While they were ahead of their time then, things are beginning to show a little wear around the edges. With our major mode of transportation now beneath the North Atlantic, we're going to have to focus a little more on business issues here.

"If it isn't classified, I'd like to discuss your backing with an eye for what we might be able to do to improve our operation over here."

"We're government sponsored, you know. Out of the privy purse. There's always some grumbling about us every funding cycle, but our popularity is high, and we don't really cost that much," said Dux.

"What sort of relationship exists between the Table and IPAC?" Defender asked.

"Nothing formal, but pretty cordial. They've got the facilities we need to house the criminals we aprehend, so we need them. At the same time, we're better equipped to stop those criminals than they are."

"Hmm. Sounds a lot like our arrangement. By the way, have you ever taken a tour of their facilities?" Defender asked.

"Some of them. I've looked over the PNDF they've got up north, and we actually share lab-space at one or two specialized facilities," said Dux.

Defender nodded. "Our liaison has offered a tour, but we've never had a chance to take them up on it. Regardless, I brought their facilities up for a reason. I've been considering ways of getting the Protectors more backing. We currently have a charity fund which provides just enough to keep the lights on. IPAC is one option that keeps popping up. Before I go that route, I want to know everything I can about them.

"I will say that I am envious of your operation. Specifically, I'm jealous of your staff of support personnel. Our current facilities aren't big enough to house a large staff, but I personally want to bring some more folks on board. Is it possible to get copies of your org charts and rough payroll estimates? I'm about to have a meeting with the group and would like to have the numbers to show them what we might be able to do."

"Now you're out of my depth. Let me put you in touch with one of the Squires, Dexter. He's the site manager here, would you like him now?"

"Sure. Thanks for your help, Dux. Please let us know if Max washes up there." Defender waited to be passed over to the site manager.

A few moments later, a balding gentleman appeared on-screen. Defender outlined his needs, and the man nodded. "Sure, I can get you an organizational chart. I don't know how useful the salary figures will be, though. These things vary alot between our two countries."

"I'm looking draw up a proposal for the team here. I'm looking for a working model to base our projections off of. Operating expenses, payroll, facility maintenance... I just need some numbers to run by the team accountant. Feel free to sterilize the data as much as you need to."

"Right, I'll see what I can come up with for you," said the man.

"I appreciate it. Just dial us up when you're ready." Defender said before signing off.

		*		*		*		*
A few days later, Defender had the data in hand and Team Defender had helped him cruch it. He called a meeting.

Defender waited until everyone was seated. For the purposes of the meeting, he had asked only the full time members of the team. He had set up the room, leaving one extra place at the conference table. As the team settled, Defender looked toward the seat.

"As you all know, our last mission was a disaster. I take full responsibility for that. I owe an apology to the team for failing. I owe Lorelei a bigger apology for nearly getting her killed. I owe the same to Ragnar, whom I will speak with later. I know I've not been around aside from checking on PC since we got back. I've been getting my head together. I've had some hard decisions to make and now I'm back with my head in the game."

"You'll notice that we have a seat empty. Max is still missing. I found Tatterknight yesterday. He has not seen Max at all. I talked to Dux Brittanicus a few days ago. Max has not washed up there either. I've asked that they keep their eyes open for him. We should also let IPAC know he is missing so that they can put some resources toward finding him as well. Anyone else have any suggestions?"

"We can enlist the Mystic to see if he can find any trace of him," offered the Wanderer volunteering to talk to the mysterious man.

Defender nodded enthusiastically. "I think that is an excellent idea. I'm leery of enlisting the normal authorities. Since Max lives outside of normal society, there is a chance involving the police could cause unnecessary troubles for those under his protection."

The Wanderer planned on seeing The Mystic soon and made a note to inquire about Max. He seized the opportunity to console Defender, "We'll find him you know," he reassured the leader, "you're doing OK, right?"

"About as well as can be expected," Defender replied flatly. "Thanks for asking. According to the paper on March Eighth, a body washed up on shore. It is a long shot, but someone should check to see if it was Max. Volunteers?"

Defender waited for a reply.

The Wanderer raised his hand, "Way ahead of you chief. The body was a sailor that washed ashore, not Max. Sources tell me that foul play was not suspected in his death. I'm still working on who he was working for, tying up loose ends, etc."

"Good that that was looked into," Defender replied. "Which brings me to my second issue for this meeting. We aren't making the best use of our resources. We've sort of done our own thing and occasionally shared the information. I'm as guilty of this as anyone else. I also understand that we have our own ways and assets that we might not want brought out before the rest of the team. However, we do need to share our information a little better. We also need to make sure that everything gets investigated."

"To that end, I think PC is the best person to oversee our information gathering and dissemination. When we investigate these issues or encounter things on patrol, we need to get the data back here. PC will watch the newspapers and news agencies to find things that need investigation. We all need to dedicate a little time to these endeavors if this is to work. I don't want to think how many times something has slipped by us. We can't be everywhere at once, but we can try to be where we are need most."

"This is a lot to ask, which is why I want to throw it out for approval by the members instead of being tyrannical about it. Does anyone have any suggestions or complaints?"

PC politely raised her hand until Defender nodded her way. "What I think," PC began, "is that we can't stop there. I think what we need to do is catalog...and encrypt, naturally...what our powers and abilities are, with specifics. If you have superstrength, how much can you lift. If you can fly or run, how fast. Things like that. To date, Wanderer, I know you can teleport and have enhanced strength, but I know there's more to you, but I don't know what. That knowledge can be critical in a combat situation.

"Furthermore," she continued, "we need to schedule regular training sessions as a team, to build on our teamwork and to enhance each others combat techniques. For example, using Sting at inch high as a "fastball" by either Wondy or you, bossman. Great idea in theory, but it needs practice to be done safely.

PC looked at everyone before continuing. "I think we've advanced past the point of a trial basis with us. We work together and call ourselves a team, and emotionally we are...hell, we're practically family...but in the field, we're lacking. Max is missing right now because he went off half-cocked rather than working with the team. I don't want to lose anyone else because of that. If we're going to be the Protectors, in fact and in name, we need to take this seriously."

The Wanderer sat quietly by. None of the others had helped liberate the then Eagles Nest, so they didn't view it as a battlefield. He wasn't completely convinced of the security measures they had implemented and the thought of what trouble such information could wreak on them and Port Alexander sent a chill down his spine. The Nest had been breached before, and it would again; his long life told him that nothing was failsafe. Encrypted or not, the threat posed was real. However it could unify them into a formidable force to combat the evil out there. Nevertheless, he was merely a visitor to the Earth and would submit to the locals' will.

Defender listed, occasionally checking off something on his notes. Once PC had finished, he smiled fatherly, slide the first page in front of her so that she could she he had plan those points as his next action items. "Since Lorelei has already brought this up, I'll leave it simply by saying we will now schedule weekly training sessions. And this brings me to my next point. Trust. Right now, what we are missing is trust. Yeah, some of us know the others' identities. That's not what I am talking about. I have no idea who the Wanderer is or who Max was before his waltz with insanity, but it doesn't affect my ability to trust them."

"I'm addressing another issue here," he said, taking a deep breath. "I feel there is a lack of trust when it comes to my leadership. I know that everyone has their own idea of how to handle things. You get wound up in the moment. Sure, I was the prime example of this. And maybe I'm not the best person for the job. This is something we will have to find out in our training sessions. If someone is a more able leader in the field, then that someone will get the job. There is no angst here. This is basic business. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you don't trust me to properly run a meeting..."

As if he were sitting at Centre Court for the Port Alexander Open, the Wanderer bounced his sight over to Sting for a rebuttal. Silently he supressed any urge to teleport away for popcorn.

"Hey, you asked if anyone had any suggestions or complaints." PC responded. "I said what was riding my heart, and you have no idea how relieved I am that someone else agrees with me. I'm sorry if I stepped on toes."

"There was no toe stepping, Lorelei. I no longer take this stuff personally. I merely brought up one of the issues that has been holding us back. Frankly, I'd like to believe there is a reason for the lack of trust. If there is a reason, it can be addressed and resolved to the betterment of the team. Whatever is going wrong can be fixed. And it is well within you right to bring up the subject. I know how much it has bugged both you and your father."

Defender put his notes aside. "We have been one issue left on my agenda and it is a hot one. So, do you want to get into the 'trust thing' anymore now, or tackle this last issue?"

Sting caught Alden's eyes and gave him a look, then smiled. Defender knew from experience that Sting better dealt with issues like this one on one.

"Last item on my agenda. We need help. If we are going to gel as a team, that is going to take time. If we are going to try and cover more ground, making sire things get investigated, and maintain this facility while living anything resembling our normal lives... we are going to need more bodies to throw at these things. We need a staff. We need new equipment. We can't afford either on the small amount we have garnered through the HeroFund."

With the click of a few keys, Defender had the first slide of his presentation on the screen. "Now, I spoke with the Round Table a few days ago. I've crunched the numbers from their set up. They are government funded, with a small amount of charitable contrabutions. In order to maintain the staff they do, they really have no choice. That is Britain. As you know, things are different here. To begin with, if we took Federal funds, we would quickly become an arm of the law. Or worse. Bringing the U.N. into this would cause even more headaches. You all know how much cooperation we would get from local and state authorities if we went around flashing U.N. badges. Even worse, we would then become as extention of their peacekeeping forces.

"Our third option is IPAC. Thus far, they have been above the board with us. It was an IPAC rescue team that fished us out of the Atlantic. They have cleaned up a lot of our messes. They also have the cash to back us. Their status as a secret agency will also go a long way to helping us avoid some of the troubles we might encounter from Federal or U.N. funding. The disadvantage is that several of us still question their motives.

"We have one final option. That is to completely incorporate and go commercial. Within the first six months, we could potentially make enough to fund our operation and replace our equipment. This means licensing our team and personal likenesses. It means more exposure. It means having to maintain a larger public image than some of us might feel comfortable with. It also means that we will likely lose the assistance of Max when and if he ever returns to Port Alexander.

"As you can see, none of these options are total win-win scenarios. I personally find IPAC the least worrisome of the options. We don't need the sizable operation that the Round Table has if we go with IPAC. And we at least have a recent history with them. What are your thoughts?" Defender looked at Lorelei and saw the mischief in her eye. "Yes, you can say what is on your mind without worrying about toe-stepping."

"My biggest question," Sting said, "regards exactly what IPAC would get in return for helping us. They're not just going to give us equipment, they're going to expect us more than likely to become operatives like Core. I'm not particularly comfortable with that. Yes, I've taken orders from the UN...but personally, I trust them. And I think I can possibly solve at least one of our major equipment problems through them with less strings attached than you might think. I guess my question is have you pitched this to IPAC yet, and if so, what did they say?"

"Any group we get to back us will expect us to become operatives. The Feds will want us working for the good ole U.S. of A. The U.N. will expect us to perform for them. And IPAC will want us to be their operatives. And while you trust the U.N., I don't trust them any more or less than the other organizations. Honestly, it has been IPAC that has pulled us out of the fire each time we have needed help. They are a secret organization with a secret agenda. That worries me as much as it does you. No one is just going to give us stuff and expect nothing in return."

"If you look at the files, the Eagles were a government backed team. Federal tax dollars paid for a majority of this facility which we are squatting in. If we go with U.N. backing, the Feds just might ask us to return their property. That could lead to some serious trouble. Now, if the U.N. were willing to build us a new facility..." Defender removed his mask and looked at his collegues. "I'm not saying that this is our best course of action. You might think we don't need backing. I for one would be just as happy staying with a strictly Port Alexander beat. It has been a very long time since I've patrolled. We can stay PA without backing. But that means no more missions outside of the city. No more jaunts to orbit. No more floating cities. No more trips to England to help the Round Table. And no more stinking trips to the past. Who am I kidding? We've not been a strictly PA group for months."

"Wanderer, you've been quiet. You have a stake in this and have had the most experience with IPAC. What are your opinions?"

The alien in black cleared his voice and began, "I'd have to agree with what everyone has said. As the Protectors we have a mission to confront the baddies wherever they may be; while there may be some freelance heroes operating around the world, there will always be a need for a well assembled unit to meet the greater evil. I think it is pretty obvious that I'm not the trusting sort, nor am I the suspicious sort....usually."

He teleported across the room to pick up a coffee creamer and drank it like a shot. "Ahhhh, where was I? Oh yeah. As an outsider, with all due respect to your species and Sting's past relationship with the UN, I don't think a mish-mash of competing humans is the best organization to affiliate ourselves with." The Wanderer continued to twist and contort his hands together illustrating the concept of mish-mash and seemed to get lost in the knot of fingers until he realized he could release them, which he did.

"On the other hand, IPAC is questionable for the very reasons, and strengths, Defender mentions. They are autonomous, secretive, and highly efficient, which is quite alien for this world," he chuckled at the irony. "They have proven to be good allies, and I'd encourage us to continue with our partnership, but as far as making it much closer, I'm not sure. We could discuss it with them, and make sure we maintain our independence."

"Going commercial intrigues me, but I believe that would open up some even greater problems."

"I only used the U.N. as a comparison point, not as a suggestion for an alliance. That having been said, I'm up for discussing the possibility of a loose partnership with IPAC...access to their resources and such for our occasional assistance...but I do *NOT* want to be at their beck and call. I don't think any of us want that, really. As far as their secrecy, so far they've been above board, and they have helped us out a lot. I think even Wilkins is loosening up a bit with us as he sees more and more of what we're about."

Sting paused for another second. "Defender, you stated we need stronger trust both with each other and in our leadership. This sounds like a good place to start. If it were your call...and as leader, it ultimately is...what would you do?"

"No, we all have a say in this," Defender said. "We've never been that sort of team and we aren't going to start now. I don't really like any of our choices. I don't trust the bureaucrats in the Federal Government and I've been less than pleased with Washington over the last eight or so years. I don't trust them to sit on a toilet right, much less handle a team of superpowered individuals. The U.N. is the least likely to use us for nefarious ends. At the same time, they are the most likely to misuse and misunderstand our talents. And working in the USA, having U.N. ties could prove difficult. And we know as much about IPAC's agenda today as we did when we started. "Actually, now would be as good a time to bring this up as any." Sting said. "While I was in San Antonio last week I was contacted by Jack Richards, the originial UN liason to the Peacekeepers. We're close friends, so he came to me requesting a favor, one that does involve the team and that I would need team OK on."

PC, having been consulted beforehand, handed Wanderer and Defender each a manila folder with some documents inside. After giving each man a minute or two to look through the folders, Sting continued. "That is technical and personal information on Merlynne, a new operative for the U.N. She has a power potential, and a potential for good, that's off the charts, but she's green as a spring meadow. He asked me to train her. I felt that the best way to do that is to have her become a part of our group. Obviously we couldn't put her in the field right away, but according to Jack, she's very close to it. Our numbers are down, and personally, I think it's a perfect opportunity for us to act as mentors and to give her a good core set of values to drive those powers.

"Jack and Merlynne will be coming in next week with my OK for us to take a look at her and see if we would be willing to do it. Now, performing a service like this is a pretty significant use of our resources...something that I think the U.N might and probably will be willing to reward to a certain extent. I think with this, not only do we have the opportunity to help someone else help the world, but I think this might also help some of our equipment issues...along with the willingness to help the UN on foreign soil on occasion, without actually becoming *PART* of the UN. I think if we could work something similar out with Wilkins, we might get what we need without having to be tied down to any one organization. Of course, all of this hinges on the team's willingness to give Merlynne a look see and go from there."

Sting turned to his comrades. "So what do you think. Are we up for this?"

The Wanderer leafed through the folder, "I assume the UN did a thorough security check? PC can you replicate their findings and dig a teensy bit deeper?" he said with a smile. "If she passes that, then why not? It's better than putting an ad in the paper like the Defenders did years ago."

"Fine by me. Just don't get us too much into bed with the U.N. just yet. Accepting jets as Christmas presents is the best way to do that."

		*		*		*		*
Sting met Jack and Gwen in the waiting area of the Fortress and escorted them in, leading them to the large area that had doubled as the training area. Meeting them there were PC and Defender, who had been in good spirits given the events of the day prior. Sting had explained the situation after he returned from San Antonio, and Defender was at least willing to take a look. Wanderer was unable to attend due to "previous engagements", but enough of the team was there that they could at least speak with both of them.

They sat and talked for awhile with Merlynne explaining her story...of how she encountered the 'Lady of the Lake' while visiting her boyfriend, how she absorbed the stone and entered a coma for a few years. She actually admitted that while her physical age is 20, she still feels like she's 16 sometimes. Gwen was VERY nervous sitting with the heroes, but she was unfailingly polite and somewhat charming, all things considered. She explained what she had discovered to date powerwise, but also said that there were "other aspects" of the stone that she could *FEEL* that she was as of yet unable to access.

Finally, Jack, PC and Defender went to an observation room while Gwen donned her Merlynne costume and awaited a 'test'. That test came in the form of a shrunken, one-inch Sting. However, as Sting attempted to grow into a right cross, Merlynne was able to roll with the shot, almost as if she had seen him coming. "Heat signature." Gwen said, pointing to her eyes. "I caught you moving in." Sting smiled, and fired several shots, one of which connected. Sting took care to pull his shots...this was only a test...but as he closed in, Merlynne disappeared.

Sting knew what she had done, but he was also unable to do much about it. He took care to listen for her one point, he heard a footstep, and swung towards it, missing by a mile, and putting him in perfect position as Merlynne emerged (not unlike the sight of a "de-cloaking" starcraft) and sent him flying with a right cross.

"That's gonna smart." PC said, smiling.

As Sting gathered himself, Merlynne's eyes glowed, and a sword generated from her hand. Sting gave her a look. "Um, why the pointy thing?"

"Relax," Merlynne said, "It looks sharp, but the damage is more neurological than physical. It doesn't draw blood in this form. You said you wanted to see what I gAAAHHHHHH."

Merlynne's words were interrupted by a blast from Sting that connected square on the money. As Merlynne rose, she spat. "That felt too much like that mook in San Antonio!"

"Oops." Sting said, smiling. "Defender, did you want to see anything else?"

"Not at the moment," he replied.

Sting and Merlynne went to the room everyone else was. "Jack, Gwen, can we have a few minutes to ourselves?"

"It's your party," said Jack. Merlynne just nodded.

Sting saw the two to the kitchen and made sure they were set to go for a bit. He returned to the observation room and closed the door. He looked at Defender. "Thoughts?"

Defender shrugged. "She's young and inexperienced. She's dangerous and I wouldn't want her mad at me. Beyond that, I don't know what you are looking for. She's U.N. What does that have to do with the Protectors?"

"Jack has asked me personally to train her." Sting replied. "Because so much of what I do now is tied in with the Protectors, I'm asking this team to help."

Before Defender could respond, Sting raised a hand. "Before you say anything, Alden, hear me out. When I joined the Peacekeepers, I had prior training, and I knew who I was and what I wanted to be. That kept me grounded, and kept me from getting too swept up on the military side of things. Gwen doesn't have that. You've read her dossier. She was in a coma for years, and when she came out, everything she knew about her world was turned upside down. That's when Jack and the UN stepped in. Now, I'd trust Jack with my life, but I just think if the UN trains her, she'll get everything she'll need to know about combat and nothing she'll need to know about life. About the human element and the human responsibilities of having power most of the human race does not.

"That's why I feel the Protectors would be perfect for her. I honestly think I could work well for her as someone who's been there, as can we all. But I can't relate to her as well as a peer...she's young enough to be my daughter. However, you can, Defender. Plus, you have morals and ideals about what you do as a hero that can leave good impressions with her. PC can relate to her peer to peer. And Wanderer...well, he's a constant reminder never to take what we're doing too seriously.

"Realistically, yes, she's green, but I get the sense she'll be a quick study. And her powers and abilities gives us a dimension to what we do that previously we just haven't had. But that's the bonus...what we're doing here is something the UN can't do...give her EVERY aspect about what being a hero is all about. And as far as the UN goes...well, I should probably ask now what you think."

Defender politely listened to everything his friend had to say. "Are you done? Good. Thanks for the compliments, but why do you always assume I'm going to say 'no' to you? What I started to say is since you have agreed to train her, I think she should participate in our regular training exercises before she goes out on the street with us. Honestly, you shouldn't assume so much."

Sting chuckled. "I'm too used to agents negotiating their draft picks. When I'mnot in complete control of something, 'no' is something I dread. And I completely agree. One final favor...follow my lead when we talk to Jack?"

Defender arched an eyebrow. Sting smiled and responded. "I know, you're the boss, but Jack's an old friend and I really think I know of a way where everyonecan be very happy with the situation...and how we can get something we need out of this. One last time, trust me." Defender saw the twinkle in Sting's eye, the same one he gets when he knows he's about to get the upper hand on the bad guy, and knew internally that this wasn't so much a power play as a opportunity to use influence that Defender didn't have with the U.N.

After a period of time, the Protectors on hand walked into the waiting room where Richards and Merlynne were waiting. PC proceeded to take Merlynne down to the recreation room to wait while Defender and Sting spoke with Mr. Richards.

Sting took the lead. "We've discussed it...and we do feel that Gwen has a lot of potential that we feel would benefit the world were it realized in a proper, controlled manner. Therefore, we are willing to train her and accept her into the Protectors at the request of the UN."

"Glad to hear it," said Richards, rising to his feet.

Sting put up a hand. "Hold on a second, Jack. Before you jump into this, you need to understand that we've also discussed conditions that must be met before we can call this a done deal."

Jack arched an eyebrow, but then settled back. He knew this was coming; any professional would. "I'm listening."

Sting contined. "First, her training is complete when *we* say its complete, and no one else. This is a very delicate process...we're not just training her in powers, but in how she thinks, moves and makes decisions. We don't want weeks and months...perhaps years...of hard work nullified just because the UN wants a warm body in Afghanistan. As part of the paperwork processing involved in all of this, we want the UN's word *in writing* that they will not interfere in any way with our training of Merlynne. I think this is fair...after all, if the UN really thought they could train this kid themselves, you wouldn't be here, right Jack?"

Jack shook his head, "You know that's impossible, After ... Sting." Now it was his turn to hold up a hand and forestall Sting's reply, "She's an agent. If the top brass says she goes, she goes. I don't think I can get it to you in writing and even if I could, you know that it wouldn't be worth the paper it was written on if push came to shove." He shook his head, "I just can't do it. Hold on! Hold on! But, here's what I can do.

"She's an agent, but she's my agent. Short of taking me completely out of the loop, they go through me to get to her. And I can promise you that I'll do my level best to make sure that she gets the time she needs and that you get a free hand. That's all I can do." He looked at Sting, "I'm looking out for her best interests, Sting, you know that. And you're going to have to trust me, when I say that I'll do my best."

Sting took in what Jack said.

"OK." Sting said as he took a deep breath. "Secondly, once the training is complete, we really feel that Gwen at that point should be able to re-evaluate her 'career path', so to speak. Meaning she should have the option of whether or not to continue with the UN. I'm not insinuating that she made a mistake by joining you...but in reading her history, I get the sense that she had very little other options i n her life. Being trained as a civilian will give her other options, give her time to grow as a person and as a hero, and she should have a choice as to where she can do the most good. We're not going to program her against the UN...but she won't be everything the UN wants her to be if she's being forced to do it. You've worked long enough with Baba Yaga to understand that much, Jack. And this, too, we would want in writing." Jack gave Sting a look. "Jack," Sting said. "I trust you. Believe me, I do. But you do have superiors and they can overrule you unless we we have these assurances in writing. Surely you understand that.

"She's not a slave," said Richards. "But you know as well as I do, this isn't a day job. She signed on for a tour. She's got to do the tour." His expression softened, "She's not being coerced, Sting. She's like any other kid who signed up for a hitch in the military. Once her tour is done, she's free to go. I hope she won't, of course. But that's the law, and that's how it works."

He sighed, "Sting, you're asking me for stuff that's not in the cards. She's a soldier, you don't get these kinds of negotiating points. I'll do what I can. I want her here, I want the best agent I can get - for her sake and mine."

"How long is her tour?" Sting said. "And I know exactly how a kid joining the military works, but just because you got her at a legal age doesn't mean you got her at a legal maturity. Still, again, I know where you're at...and I know you'll go to bat for me when push comes to long as you know that I'll be doing the same.

"And third, there *is* the matter of our compensation. I'm sure you understand that training of this magnitude can take a tremendous amount of resources. However, we're not asking for cash, but for something that the UN can provide...with no strings. Simply put, Jack...we need a ship. That run-in we just had cost us our only means of long-distance transportation, and even then it was 15 years obsolete. We need something capable of transatlantic flight, with onboard satellite capabilities and access to the net from the ship for PC. Needs to be able to seat 7-8 people comfortable, VTOL capability preferred. Wish list would include limited weaponry for defense and other defense mechanisms,, I'm not technically minded here, Defender, help me out?

"In any event, what you can provide, we need. No strings attached, meaning we're not indentured to serve the UN in any way other than the training, care and upkeep of your operative. Oh, and someone to be able to train our resident pilots in how to fly it...and to fly it for us in case of an immediate problem."

"So," Sting said, with the wide smile apparent even through his mask, "Is this doable?"

Richards looked thoughtful, "That should be doable. In fact, I wonder ... let me see what I can do. I can certainly get you a ship that meets your minimum specs and might be able to do even better."

Sting took it all in and looked at Defender for a cue. As leader, the final decision on this was his. Sting was about as comfortable with the situation as the UN's constraints would let him be.

"Wait... you are willing to give up an aircraft worth a couple of million to pay for training this agent?" Defender asked. "I've been doing business with the wrong people my entire life."

Richards chuckled, "It's not quite that simple. But, yes, that's the rough idea."

"And we won't be expected to fly off to Midolanowherstan to kick over some petty dictator for the wings?" Defender asked.

"No," said Richards. "But I might call you if the Midolanowherstani Liberation Front has sent some Para-Normal Terrorists to DC. Of course, I might do that anyway."

Sting smiled. "Then we understand each other." Sting said. "Furthermore, it sounds as if in theory we have a deal."

Defender smiled. "I think that constitutes an agreement."

	*		*		*		*
It was 2:14 AM according to the clock in her room, and Gwen was still busy unpacking. She might as well unpack, she thought, since she couldn't sleep. Bloody jet lag.

She came across the picture she was looking for, that of Arthur, the man she had fallen in love with. The man she lost while she was in a coma because of the thing that now inhabited her.

She wanted to make good out of bad; she signed with the UN at Jack's request to try and do good, to help people, save lives. As much as she wanted to justify it, though, her thoughts kept coming back to why she really wanted to do it. For Arthur. So that they could be together once way or another. She wouldn't commit the sin of suicide. Dying in the line of duty...that was something different.

"Someday, my love." she said quietly to herself. "Someday."

She put the picture on the headstand next to her bed and continued her unpacking into the night.

Last Updated 20 August 2003