The Long Night

A Linith & Faré story

By Tarot Barnes

 

 

It was a beautiful December evening. Through the frostbitten window a shooting star flashed briefly towards the horizon. In the blue velvet sky above, its sisters continued to shine brilliantly beside the one quarter moon rising over the back garden. Framed by conifers the silver crescent gave the evening a noir quality of silhouette black and quicksilver white.

 

…And something pale fluttered down onto the fire.

 

A working fireplace had been one of Linith’s prerequisites when we were looking for a house. It’d been almost as important as a secluded garden, stone flooring and a loft conversion - basements are fairly rare in England,

 

Without her around to carry the logs (did I mention that the hearth was five feet across?), I did a poor job of laying the fire myself, but I could light it and I had to admit she’d been right; the roaring flames were a gorgeous sight inside the black marble.

 

Reaching for the tongs and feeling a little like Frodo, I knocked the white square from between two crackling branches. Scraping it from the embers beneath and holding it before my face, I was only slightly surprised to feel that the ebony envelope radiated no heat, and was quite unharmed despite having been bathed in flames for several minutes.

Inside was a gilded card made from the same ivory-esque substance. In very rich, silver-embossed lettering it invited me to a ‘Very Special Event’ in the Phoenix Convention Center, Arizona on the 22nd December, 2002.

That was a pleasant surprise, if a little unexpected, especially when I considered what else might have dropped down the chimney, but what really made me scratch my head was the unusual method of delivery. I mean, clearly I had a friend in a high place… probably about 20 feet if I knew them, but it wasn’t like them not to drop in for a drink as well?

I was also used to getting more warning. How was I even supposed to find a flight so close to Christmas?

 

As I considered the odd invitation, my thumb ran over the gilded edge and I realised it had a Braille-like raised pattern. Because it is my curse to notice patterns and recognise relationships, I angled the card to the fire and let its flickering yellow light cast shadows.

The banner it revealed would have been dismissed as a mere stylistic flourish by anyone who couldn’t recognise the dashed glyphs as letters. It was a script that had never been spoken in this house, probably never in this county and I might well be the only human on the planet who could read it:

 

Climax Heavily for three <symbol denoting Skietra> days following day 1,100,475.

 

Or, translated correctly into English from Fjándmethra futhark:

 

Seasons Greetings for the Holy Days.

 

The thing was… there weren’t any Fjándmethra holy days coming up. I mean, they seemed to draw them out of a new hat every year but so far as I knew, the next one was in February. Could it be later in the Fjándmethra calendar than I thought? no, that wouldn’t have changed the date. Try as I might, I couldn’t force the card to make sense; it was like wishing someone a Merry March 2nd.

 

A rattle against the window distracted me from further musing, and as I went to see, I wondered if this might be my heavenly visitor. But although the living room cast a warm light out into the night, I could see no further than the frost glinting on the lawn.

 

And then, there was a second rattle at a different window… on the other side of the house. Puzzled, I walked across the ground floor to check, but again I saw nothing but blanketing darkness. A third rattle, at a third window and I was beginning to recognise the nature of the game so instead of being drawn to the study, I ran up the stairs to the window above it.

Running gasping to the pane, I was just in time to see a flash of movement and dash of metallic red snapping upwards, telling me my playmate had heard my mad rush. I grinned as I realised, I could still get in front of her; whomever she was, she’d been working the points of the compass. If she started in the West, then gone to the East and now the North, then the only downstairs window in the south was in the kitchen.

Yet even storming down the stairs and swinging off the heavy banister to conserve speed, I was too late. All I saw was a snatch of rich blonde hair vanish into the dark. Slightly giddy from the race, I threw open the door. Not bothering to put on my shoes despite the frost, I ran under the crystallised leaves on the pergola in socks, unaware of the cold, dropping to a slow walk as I came into full view of the centre lawn.

Linith floated there, suspended free of gravity like something not of this Earth. Eyes closed in rapture, chin raised to the sky, arms outstretched as if embracing the wind which tousled her long blonde and caught her long cape as her feet swung lightly, eighteen inches above the green grass.

She was in full uniform. Her sky blue top, dashed with yellow, was stretched to the delight of any male over her chest and hourglass figure, emphasising the sheer perfection of her body. It was flat over her belly and disappeared under her pleated crimson miniskirt. The red folds were short enough that they teased glimpses of her softly flexing muscles as she held herself aloft, but never revealed what they veiled. Her carmine cape clung to her shoulders and rippled in the breeze, as thin as a shadow.

Surrounded by a fairy ring, the white frost pushed back, revealing a circle of pure green grass, she might have been a six foot Embodiment of Spring. But even with her intricately carved golden Seal around her throat, Linith was a distant goddess and my joy faded when she held up a warning hand as I stepped forward.

Surprised, I finally took in the sound of water dripping around us and looked about to the sight of frost melting all over the garden.

“You’re hot,” I realised, relief flooding over me.

“Mmm, too hot for hugs I’m afraid.” Linith apologised finally opening eyes which glowed blue in the night. Being apart for a week had blinded me to all but the sight of her, but now I could feel her furnace like heat even seven feet away. Apparently oblivious, she started to drift leisurely around me, the frost practically vaporising beneath her feet, “New York to Surrey in twenty-two minutes.”

“Impressive,” I congratulated; her average was closer to twenty six. “You do spend most of that time out in the cold vacuum of space though.”

“But the last five miles are through thick, woolly atmosphere; I could melt rocks in my hands right now?” She revealed, upturning her palms and holding them out to me so that I felt like I was next to the roaring fire again. I resisted taking a step back and held my place, knowing she would never burn me.

Now I was the one in a ring. Yet where Linith had stood in a sea of green, exposing the life around her, her movements had left me trapped on a white island. Her polar opposite, as usual.

“Is that why you’re out here, and not inside?” I asked.

“Furniture’s too new to char so soon,” She licked her lips, eyeing her hands as she bobbing around me. I ached to touch her again, even just to press our finger tips together and read a similar desire in her body language… but we’d have to wait until she’d absorbed the heat from re-entry before we could act.

That made me think. Looking up at the stars, I imagined it was just possible to see the faintest evidence of a condensation trail drifting in the evening breeze and whistled in appreciation. “Did… you came down right here?”

“Give or take a couple hundred meters,” Linith preened, and rightly so; correctly calculating a ballistic trajectory over a fifth of the Earth to within two hundred metres was on par with throwing a playing card over a couple of miles and hitting it edge on with a second one.

There was a not so minor concern in that, since Linith would have literally been a shooting star directly over where we lived, but I couldn’t have cared less. She was here, she was smiling and that’s all that mattered to me. In any case, I would rationalise some time later, at mach 8 anyone who blinked would have missed her flashing across the sky.

…As had I, apparently. I thought of the ‘shooting star’ earlier; realising it must have been Linith dropping five miles in a fraction of a second and despite myself I flushed with excitement at the thought of my very super girlfriend. “Have I said how incredible you are lately?”

“Not since we talked on the phone four hours ago,” Linith grinned back, bobbing happily.

Stroking my jaw and considering the garden, I thought aloud, “If you’re going to be that accurate from now on, maybe we should build a pond?”

“…Wouldn’t work,” Linith shook her head after a second’s thought, “I’d flash anything under a lake to steam instantly. Besides, I only risked it this time because I didn’t want to delay getting you your surprise.”

I blinked, thoughts suddenly flying back to the card in the fire. “I take it you mean this?”

“You liked it?” she clapped her hands, eyes bright with excitement, “Guess where I got the inspiration.”

“The Lord of The Rings?” I guessed, “First thing that came to mind.”

“Ooh, aren’t you clever!” She chuckled deeply, turning an elegant double back flip in midair to land with a feather’s weight on the grass. By now there wasn’t a single ice crystal within the entire garden, though between the cool night wind and her incredible biology, she had absorbed almost all of the incredible heat she’d gained falling through the atmosphere.

“Now, would you care to explain what it means?” I quirked a grin. “…And why it’s printed on Imperial paper?”

“Pft I thought that’d be obvious,” Linith raised her eyes theatrically skyward, pace deliberately forward, yet without bending so much as a blade of grass beneath her boots, “Earth paper would have burned in the fire.”

“Ah, of course, how silly of me,” I chuckled, “but what’s this about a Holy Day; I didn’t think you had one until some time in Februrary?”

Linith looked as if she was about to say something smart, hesitated and finally allowed her shoulders to sag, “You worked that out too? Well… it’s a tiny bit embarrassing.” She looked at the light spilling from the kitchen door, “Can we talk about it indoors? You’re only going to get cold out here.” She looked at me with concern.

“You’re not hot anymore?”

Linith pounced on me, wrapping her arms and legs about mine and squeezed tight. She would have sent us both to the ground with her enthusiasm if her flight hadn’t kept us both upright.

“You tell me,” She whispered, an inch separating our faces. Then kissed me.

 

*

 

Five minutes later we were inside the kitchen and Linith was boiling water while I heaped coco powder and poured milk into her favourite mug.

“So… let me get this straight,” I said, passing the mug over the kitchen’s central island, “the last Messenger got his sums wrong when he updated Kira’s almanac; instead of two months, it’s happening in two days and since it’s a Feast Day, not just a regular Observance,” There was a difference there, which had something to do with the shape of the shadow a particular mountain on Velor cast but I didn’t truly understand it, “Kira’s tripping over herself trying to prepare.”

“Yes,” Linith nodded, adding the boiled water to her hot chocolate, “that is exactly what I just told you.”

I frowned, “…And how does that embarrass you?”

Linith shrugged, “I never said it embarrassed me. But it’s a holy day and you know what Kira’s like; she can’t just let this go by.”

“Oh I don’t deny that.” As an Atheist, I wouldn’t insult anyone by pretending to understand the spirituality behind religion, but then I didn’t need to; all I needed to know was that it was important to Kira.

“But why the excitement? It’s just a Feast Day.” I waved a hand, leaning against the counter. “That means she invites her friends around for a big meal and maybe hands out some gifts, doesn’t it?”

“Mmm, not this one,” Linith murmured over her steaming cup, “it’s a biggie; the ‘moon is rising’ apparently. She has to spread pleasure beyond her ordinary circle.”

A Christian might have said ‘good will’ but Nav’ere was the Fjándmethra state religion and it was typically… enthusiastic.

“More than just the Farm?” I asked with raised eyebrow. Kira, the senior Protector on Earth, had an odd sense of humour and chose eccentric nicknames for her human agents.

“Oh yes,” Linith tilted her head in wry amusement, “you could say that.”

“How many more?”

“I can’t say,” Linith shrugged, “because I’m not sure even Kira knows; all she said is that it’s just as well it happened to fall near Christmas because it gives her cover.”

“Cover maybe,” I scratched my chin, “but if it’s big enough that she’s had to rent out a convention centre how’s she going to arrange this in four days?”

“God only knows,” Linith shook her head so that her hair, straight instead of her usual pony tail, shimmered in the kitchen spot lights, “She was keeping close tabs on Christine though.”

That wasn’t too unusual; Kira delegated like rocks flew. Wait… Christine? “Not RaphaĎl or Ercole?” I looked up sharply.

“Christine’s got some kind of plan to get all the Agents together in three days,” she answered, “be a miracle if she pulls it off. RaphaĎl kept muttering how it was impossible to do in less than a week.” Groaning, she interlaced her fingers and stretched, her inhumanly supple limbs and spine twisting impossibly far before they clicked. “Over the course of three hours, she asked me to fly 20,000 miles – inside the atmosphere no less, nothing suborbital – and then had me lifting things into this huge lorry she’d got round back of the Factory for another two.”

I was still gaping at the sight of her holding the impossibly flexible position and barely had enough sense left to say, “Poor… baby” I had to look away before I lost myself in wonder of Fjándmethra biology, again.

“I said,” Linith answered with an impish grin, joining hands behind her head and shamelessly twisting to the side, “she had me running all over the US. It was annoying I had to do with the tail I’d grown but given the Martians have been complaining about me knocking my head on their probe ships again, I had to fly low inside the atmosphere and frankly, that’s so hard I barely noticed a small thing like an extra limb.” She leaned over the central island, the gentle undulation of her chest straining the nearly indestructible strands of her uniform to their limit.

In the comics, superheroines wear symbols on their chests. Planetary class Protectors like Linith don’t. They have nothing, very much nothing, an… absence in fact, of anything. Having an… exposure, particularly a circular one, in that region might have been considered suicidal in any species which wasn’t invulnerable to practically everything but Protectors were somewhat proud of the… assets which powered their tremendous abilities and there was never a stronger argument for the paralysing effects of soft sight jostling inside a tight, very tight blue top than my own reaction just then.

“Uh… really?” I kicked my brain into gear and rerunning the last few sentences, “Martians huh? And a tail?” Mentally I slapped myself for ogling my girlfriend as I had; even though the mischievous glint in her eye told me she enjoyed the effect I was having, it wasn’t right to stare.

Maybe there was some credence to the theory Skietra was just a pervert; surely she could have found somewhere else in the human body to store orgone?

Linith raised a curious eyebrow, apparently impressed I’d been able to remember anything of what she’d said. “Well I told them I wasn’t having any of it; I said it was Christmas and they could jolly well invade another day.”

“And that worked?”

“This is a space alien free time,” She said, resolutely putting her hands on her hips, “whatever disasters befall us are going to be entirely terrestrial.”

“Hmm, so that limits things to plague, civil unrest, terrorism attacks and nuclear war?” I listed, my eyes still traitorously drawn downwards.

“Yep,” Linith nodded, clearly pleased with her feminine glory, “the easy stuff.”

I just laughed, to which Linith straightened and slapped her chest.

“Hey; Planetary Class Protector. I’m officially qualified to be capable of taking on practically anything.” She grinned, “Unruly humans are barely worth getting out of bed for.”

“Oh, well I’m perfectly safe then.” I joked, crossing my arms and leaning against the marble counter.

“Of course I can make exceptions for special cases,” she answered playfully, “if you’re worthy of my time.”

Bowing with a flourish, I said, “This mere human can only try his humble best, oh mighty Protector.”

Linith snickered and returned to the conversation, “Anyway… indomitable energy reserves aside; with all that racing around I’m still pretty beat.”

“Oh!” I immediately straightened, “I’m so sorry… I didn’t even think of that.”

“It’s ok,” she smiled, holding up a placating hand, “I recovered a lot of energy coming back in through the atmosphere. With this chocolate and a good four hours rest, I’ll be fine.”

Protectors, like all Fjándmethra, didn’t need much sleep… which could lead to some unsatisfying mornings when her half of the bed was not only empty, but had never been slept in. The advantage was that, in her words, we didn’t waste the bed on mere sleep.

“Oh, you’ll need these.” Linith snapped her fingers, reaching behind her back and demonstrating perhaps the most unearthly Protector trick; the ability to pull full sized packages from their hair thin capes. Intellectually I knew it was down to alien technology and compressed dimensions, although the science was well above my head, but it still looked like magic.

I recognised the box immediately as a standard Enlightenment pressure container; Protectors used them to shield small items from the extreme heat and pressure of their movements. This one was about the size and shape of a tissue box and felt a little like the card I’d found in the fire. Inside were two plane tickets, first to New York, then to Phoenix.

“I didn’t want to risk it getting stuck in the chimney,” Linith explained, to which I nodded. “When I lost the last one I didn’t get a replacement until June.” She moaned.

“And even if it didn’t get stuck, the sound of it tumbling down the flue would probably have given the game away.”

Linith rolled her eyes playfully, “…Possibly.”

“One way only?” I frowned, checking the back of the tickets.

“Christine was in a rush.” Linith shrugged.

“Sounds it,” I hummed, still studying the reverse of the ticket. Then, slyly I added, “But one of the benefits of knowing you is I never need to worry about travel arrangement.”

Linith pretended to throw the mug at me, “Oh, that’s all you see me as? A beast of burden.”

“Definitely not,” I grinned, “I’d never allow anyone to call you a ‘beast’.”

“Well that’s ok then,” Linith’s grin dropped to a smile and she finished off her chocolate with a gulp. “Make sure you pick up some sun cream while you’re in Phoenix.”

“Sun cream?” I asked, puzzled.

“Creatures of burden are unreliable,” Linith responded darkly over the rim of her mug, “you never know when they’ll accidentally drop you on some south pacific island for a week.”

“Of course,” I repeated, “Maybe I should take preventative steps to avert such an ‘accident’ through purchase of gifts and sparkly things?”

“That would certainly please your pilot,” Linith’s smile revealed bright shining teeth, “anything in particular?”

“Oh if I told her she’d probably become so obsessed she’d never take me anywhere.”

“Ah, but if you don’t, the flight might be hijacked and then you never know where you might end up.” Linith giggled, dropping the cup into the sink and sliding around the kitchen, “Everest has some absolutely gorgeous views right at the moment. Of course you might find them a little… chilly now the weather’s turned.”

“Good point,” I nodded, happily ceding the point, “so I should probably hide these gifts here and give her a reason to come back.”

“You always were a smart boy,” She sidled up to me and pecked me on the cheek.

“Only because you’ve taught me to think on my feet.” I replied, running my fingers through her silk soft hair.

“Oh, I can’t take credit for it all,” Linith tilted her head, “Kira and Cat helped too.”

“Most of what I learned from Cat was how to avoid her.” I demurred.

“Which is no small accomplishment considering that she is also a Protector,” Linith swayed away, hands on her hips in the archetypal pose. “We’re not easy to dodge when we set our eyes on a target.

I shook my head dismissively. While it might be true that Cat was armed with not only great strength and speed but pheromones that could literally turn a man’s mind to whatever she wanted. She did lack one crucial element. “She’s not you.” I whispered, making Linith melt.

As we embraced, the tickets I’d forgotten I was holding drifted to the floor. They might even have been lost under the fridge if I hadn’t heart them fall on the tiles. As I disengaged Linith to pick them up, something new caught my eye.

“Wait; these tickets are for eight am?” I grimaced, “God, that means having to get up at four.” Of the many things I dislike doing (polishing, handling big spiders, marathons, fighting a second Prime), getting up early ranked among the highest… not higher than being within 5 miles of a Prime, but it was pretty close.

“Five fifteen,” Linith whispered, her tongue flicking my ear, “I can carry you; Gatwick’s only twenty miles.”

I shivered theatrically, remembering the math; fourteen minutes at 90mph. “I’ll remember to leave my thick socks out.”

 

*

 

I was lying next to a verdant goddess on a field of soft grass. Half covered in a thin white sheet, the goddess was gorgeous, her skin the colour of fresh lime, lips as plump as ripe cherries and hair like a roaring fire.

As I had been, she was asleep, but beneath her pale green lids I knew her eyes would be yellow and feline. Even as I watched, she yawned and stretched, dislodging the sheet to reveal a perfect green breast.

I literally could not move for her heart-stopping beauty. She captivated me utterly until she cracked one slitted eye and beckoned me in with a slight curl of her lips. The sudden urge to kiss her was be irresistible and I moved into her willing embrace, her arms closing around my back as our lips met.

The taste of her tongue against mine was surprisingly intense, and yet at the same time the whole encounter had a strange, almost vague quality… as if I were seeing something and yet not seeing the whole of it.

Our noses brushed and I could feel her excited breath against my cheek. Speaking in words I could not hear, the verdant goddess directed my attention downwards, towards her breast.

Again, the sensation of her nipple between my lips, the softness of her breast beneath my fingertips, her diamond-hard nub under my tongue was ultra-real. The goddess’s voluptuous figure rolled and with one arm she lazily dragged me on top of her. Clearly my caress was pleasing her, yet it seemed odd that I could not hear her appreciative murmur.

Laying half across the goddess’s body, stroking her magnificent curves, I could now feel her rising excitement as her breaths began to come faster, lifting me as if I weighed no more than a feather.

The sheet still covered the goddess’s verdant thighs, but I felt no urge to explore down between them… yet. The scene had an ethereal, timeless quality and I wanted nothing more than to please her divine body.

The goddess groaned and undulated with my hand as I ran it up her belly and between her breasts to cup her face, running my thumb along my jaw as I leaned in to kiss her again. Unable to stay her arousal, the goddess clutched me fiercely. Crossing her arms over my back and hooking her leg around my hip, she ground herself against my thigh, planting electric kisses on my face and neck. Again she spoke, and again I could hear… but not understand what it was.

Sparks seemed to arc between us as we kissed again, our tongues writhing, her hot breath on my face, her hands going lower and… oh, my…

The verdant goddess grinned with her red lips as her questing hands apparently found what they were looking for, releasing and stroking it to full hardness.

I kissed her again as her hands worked Up… and Down. Up… and Down. Again, that strange languorous energy seemed to infect me and while I felt pleasure at her touch, I didn’t feel an urge to complete. Her nails scratched softly at my skin and I gasped in spite of myself, the urge to kiss, to thank her, overpowering once again.

The verdant goddess had her own urges. Hands on my shoulders, she effortlessly pushed me onto my back and straddled me. As the sheet fell away, revealing her glorious body in full for the first time, the breath caught in my throat. The sun had come out. She seemed have brought light to the world, and yet I could not tear my eyes from her face.

I barely noticed her hands positioning me as she rose up onto her knees, too distracted by the beauty of her face and the slight bounce of her breasts until, with an expression of deep fulfilment she slid backwards, taking me fully in one slick, easy motion.

Her wet heat gripped me, pulsing in a way that was oh, so familiar as she began to rise and fall. Her thighs dictated a gentle rhythm as she covered my hand with one of her own, holding it to her full breast, her other hand resting on something above my head.

Gradually the Goddess’s pace increased with her excitement, until the she was riding me hard and fast, her groans rising to moans of pleasure as heat built in her core.

And suddenly it was all real. I was in bed, the sheets strewn around me and instead of a goddess, it was Linith bestride me, one hand on her mound, the other over mine on her breast, her breath caught as her back arched and she squeezed her eyes shut and shuddered violently. Her wet muscles suddenly clenching me meant that I had no more than a second to register what was happened as I was rocked by my own explosion of pleasure.

My surge inside her triggered a second climax in Linith. Sucking in air, there was a dry splintering noise above my head as her hips bucked. Inside, her muscles pulsed and squeezed with pleasure, hot ecstasy shot up her spine and flooded her brain.

Waves buffeted Linith until she went rigid and toppled forwards on top of me, her heavy breasts pushing nipples like hot diamonds into my chest as she her fingers tore through the mattress.

Finally, panting a little, her hips still occasionally grinding softly against my pelvis, Linith pushed herself up and grinned down at me. “How was that for a wakeup call?”

“Huh… what…?” still half dazed from being ripped from my dream and suffering the after effects of my own orgasm, I could only murmur incoherently.

“I must have been good,” Linith chuckled, flopping down on top of me, her breasts squashing deliciously against my chest, “I’ve never blown your mind before.”

Still trying to get to grip with the exact nature of reality, I draped my arms around her and laid my head back on the pillow, “But… it was…” I shook my head, “I thought it was a dream?”r5t

“A dream?” Linith arched a golden eyebrow, “you were pretty enthusiastic for someone who was unconscious.”

Coughing to cover my embracement, I answered, “I was… dreaming I was making love to someone.”

“Oh, ‘Someone?’ Not me then?” Linith kissed me on the lips, enjoying the post coital hug. “Should I be jealous?”

I thought back to the green goddess, like all dreams her memory was transient and already fading. “Nope.” I shook my head and hugged her harder. “Um… what were you doing though?”

That made Linith laugh out loud and roll off me, “Wasn’t it obvious?”

“Yes, but don’t we… oh gods,” I looked about frantically for my watch, “what’s the time? We’ve got to get ready!”

“Relax, relax,” Linith, still chuckling, laid a gentle hand on my chest, pulling me with irresistible strength, “we’ve got plenty of time; this was all part of my plan.”

“This was part of a plan?” My turn to raise an eyebrow.

“Oh yes; I was a little… antsy,” she smirked impishly, “and you had a morning glory.”

“And you thought you’d make use of it?” I laughed.

“No,” Linith chided, then softened, “…well, yes. But there was method to my madness.”

“Oh?”

“Well,” she said, delicately splaying her fingers on my chest, “I can hear your heart beating eighty four to the minute. Given that it was a nice sleepy fifty two when I slipped in, I managed to get you from total unconsciousness to full arousal in less than five minutes.”

I blushed at the double entendre. “I don’t think it’s ever taken you five minutes… but couldn’t you have woken me first?”

“I could have…” Linith nodded sagely, as if considering a philosophical point, “…but then I thought to see how far along I could get without you waking. Turned out to be pretty far.”

Again, I couldn’t disagree. “Halfway to heaven.”

“At least. We’ll have to try that again sometime.”

“Or I can try it on you,” I suggested playfully.

“You can try,” she giggled, pecking me once more on the lips and sitting up, reaching for the sock drawer. “Now, since you are up, you’d best get ready; it’s a fourteen hour flight to Phoenix.”

“It’s the three hour check in time that annoys me,” I shook my head, reluctantly reaching for the thick clothes I’d laid out the night before, “you’re not coming?”

“Pft, if I want to take the scenic route to Phoenix, I’ll go East instead of West and I’d still be there hours before you land,” she snorted, “but you enjoy your flight, honey, I’m sorry it’s not Concord but it’s the best Christine could do at short notice.”

“Sacrifices must be made,” I chuckled, pulling a second pair of socks over the first; flying was Linith was exhilarating and cold. In doing so I caught sight of the headboard Linith had grabbed at the height of her climax. She caught my expression and followed my gaze, grinning sheepishly at the large chunk broken away from the top of the 3 inch timber.

“Oops,” she covered her mouth to hide her smile, “not again.”

I just shook my head and nodded at the mattress, where ruined springs poked up through the long ragged tears in the bed sheet. “It’s a price I’m more than happy to pay; at least I know you’re enjoying yourself.”

“Pft,” Linith winked over her shoulder, pulling back the covers to inspect the damage fully, “for all you know I just do it to soothe your fragile male ego.”

The smile dropped from my face, “You’re not serious?” She wouldn’t… would she?

“Of course not,” Linith giggled and chided, “you really are too easy, Faré.”

“Oh, good,” I tried to return the smile, then sighed and scrawled a quick note on the notepad I always kept with me to order another headboard. Linith had made a habit of breaking beds so often during lovemaking that we’d had to order replacement parts in advance.

“One question before we leave though,” Linith, moving instantly from one side of the room to the other was suddenly behind me, whispering in my ear, “if you weren’t making love to me, who were you doing it with?”

“A… green goddess,” I answered, leaning back to kiss her, “and apart from the colour, I was right.”

 

***

 

Christine stood calmly, watching the master situation monitor while sipping Argentine coffee from her favourite sky blue mug. The ring master of her own private circus she listened as the building coursed with anxious energy.

She studied the large screen for a second longer, memorising it in every detail, then closed her eyes. In her imagination, the Earth shimmered with data points. One by one she mapped flight times, weather reports and traffic advisories, creating a mental map.

“Ok,” She intoned without opening her eyes, “shut it down.”

With barely a murmur, the enormous display faded to black. She opened her eyes and rotated her head to see, one by one, the various consoles and computers were switched off until nothing, not even a single standby light was left blinking.

A motion to her right and Christine asked, “Are we loaded, Jim?”

The brawny American glanced sheepishly around the quiet room, sparing only a small nod for Ajero as the Philippine technician hurriedly swept a half dozen CD’s into his bag and swung it over his shoulder.

“Ready,” he finally nodded. “I’m going to miss this place.”

“But it can’t be helped; at least with the truck we can start up again.” Christine glanced at her multifunction Swiss watch and disapprovingly flicked her upper teeth with her tongue, “We should have departed by now.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Jim dipped his head and fell into a quick pace beside her, never letting his hand drift more than a few centimetres from the bulk of his Berretta in its unclasped holster.

As they marched quickly through the Factory’s corridors, a third man, this one Swiss and also armed, joined them in lock step to cover Christine’s right.

“Svitz,” She nodded at him, retrieving a small notepad and pencil from the inner pocket of her purple blazer and flipping several pages over, “status?”

“All go.” The man answered in a sharp Germanic accent.

“Very good,” Christine used the pencil’s nib to flip to the checklist she’d compiled in the early hours of the morning, “Safeguard?”

“Armed, awaiting our departure.”

“Lights?”

“Timed.”

“Armoury?”

“Secured.”

“Motor pool?”

“Emptied.”

“Agents?”

“We’re the last.”

Christine allowed herself a small smile as she gave that box a vigorous tick, “Convoy?”

“Loaded and idling.”

“Radio?”

Svitz passed her a sleek black object which she automatically tested. “Channel three,” the Swiss guard informed her over the radio’s clean hiss, “extra batteries are taped to the bottom.”

“Perfect.” She flipped the device to check the batteries, still gleaming from the packet, were indeed there. Now she turned and spoke to Ajero, “Please go ahead and confirm the network is secured between our vehicles; I don’t want to lose connection mid-trip.”

“Yes, Christine.” The young man bobbed his head and darted nervously ahead of them.

As they passed her empty office, Christine dropped it on the book shelf just inside the door. “You know,” she remarked to her guards, “I hope we don’t end up having to do this every Christmas.”

 

When they’d been given the news, just after 3 that morning, both Raphael and Ercole had exploded. It just wasn’t possible, they’d screamed; even if they threw every rule of operational security out the window, it was beyond even a Planetary Protector’s ability to bring 30 people stationed across the globe to one spot in less than a week; they would need the rest of the day simply to plan the logistics.

Christine had had the entire operation up and running in twelve hours and – she checked her watch – thirteen minutes, including her coffee break.

It had been taxing of course; coordinating the movements of thirty people dispersed over the face of the planet with nothing more than a satphone, a map and a laptop could never be easy. But the fact that she had never had to raise her voice or rush a conversation was a source of quiet pride… that and the expressions on the older men’s faces as she effortlessly juggled planes and trains with ease, shuffling flight schedules and bumping seats until, seemingly out of thin air, another Agent appeared at the door bearing a sheaf of ticket stubs.

Christine knew that she was very much the least of the Factory’s human triumvirate. Raphael and Ercole wouldn’t dream of denying she had her place… but as far as they were concerned, their piccola direttrice had no business poking her nose further than the copy machine. Her function was to let them play soldiers with the minimum of fuss.

And for the most part, Christine preferred that. She had no interest in guns or tactics herself; instead, she took real pleasure in the minutiae of management, right down to ordering new paperclips. Her concerns might be dull, but they were what made Christine so invaluable; while her counterparts looked at the factory and saw men and women, soldiers and analysts, she saw a business made up of many cogs, some large and load-bearing, others tiny and delicate but no less important for their size. The Factory was in the business of saving the world, but, despite what the two men thought, it could only do so because Christine listened not just for the groans of the big cogs, but also took care to lubricate and maintain the small ones.

Nevertheless, it did grate when the two soldiers (Christine ignored the difference between the military and Ercole’s SWAT training) took that skill for granted. She administered a ten million dollar organisation with global operations in both active war zones and suburban offices. The Factory was, at the same time, a small research enterprise and a private commando unit with a versatile, multinational staff who handled everything from computer maintenance, to automobile repairs, to hostage rescue, or to alien languages. As she had never been given a secretary or clerk, Christine had been forced develop a familiarity with everything her people did. In the last five years, she had learned to build a computer and drain a truck radiator, had acquired a passable understanding of spoken Andskoti, could exchange pleasantries in Fjándmethra and could score 72% accuracy with a Heckler & Koch MP5 at 50 metres.

 

And that was just the material side. She also had to excel at human resources; dealing with a multitude of personal and cultural clashes, private crises and public arguments. To say nothing of being a part time therapist, friend and counsellor when the stress of spywork became too much for a colleagues… although that was less of a problem than it might have been as the Fjándmethra were instinctively drawn to suffering and more naturally gifted to soothing it than she could ever hope to.

 

All this was against the backdrop of constant, low level sexual tension with her employer. Her female alien, employer. Although again, in fairness, taking every side into account, being kind…Kira had stuck to her promise never to touch her again. With a frown, Christine rejected that line of thought and returned to reminiscing about Raphael and Ercole’s expressions when she said she could have everyone home in less than two days.

 

If either of them had deigned to ask, she would have willingly told them the secret of how she had done in. But since they rarely shared their confidences with her, she was just as pleased to leave them in awe.

 

The truth was, Christine had merely triggered one of the three disaster survival plans she’d prepared months earlier, with the small modification that they wouldn’t have to blow the Factory up as a penultimate act.

 

Her planning had been inspired by a book given to her as a graduation present by a Japanese friend. Much of it was antiquated or irrelevant, concerning a war she’d never heard of, but given the irreducible similarities between her profession and Helmuth von Moltke’s, she had nevertheless found herself in love with the Prussian general’s theories of provisioning and logistics. While she would never command any of the Factory’s spies and commandoes his theory of strategic planning had also caught her interest. Von Moltke’s advice had been to discard detailed plans – they required the world to proceed exactly as envisioned, when it was rarely so considerate – and instead prepare prolifically.

The example given was another war Christine had been forced to look up in a history book. According to Von Moltke, the French might have succeeded if they’d spent their time making preparations, (in the form of munitions stockpiles, food reserves and something called defence in depth), instead of maps. That would have given them flexibility when things went disastrously wrong within days of their attack.

Strategy, according to Moltke, should not be a single easily upset plan but rather a series of options. Preparing those options had exhausted Christine (not to mention cost a small fortune in unused plane tickets) but in a matter of weeks the discipline had become routine. So, while Raphael had been arguing with Kira about the impossibility of gathering all the agents in three days, Christine had merely been exploring her mental index and checking weather reports.

 

With a certain smugness, she took care to padlock the side entrance, tugged it once, dropped the key into her top right breast pocket and ticked off the final box on her Factory checklist.

 

In the yard behind her, a small motorcade led by one compact car, two SUV’s, a lorry and a final compact sat with their engines idling. She had no idea if that arrangement made much tactical sense – though no one had complained – but she appreciated the aesthetic distribution of mass. Through the open windows of the SUV’s, Christine could see agents chattering amongst themselves while they set up their equipment. The lead and chase cars had rolled up their windows, but Christine imagined the Gardeners behind the tinted glass doing something similar with their guns – an MP5 and a berretta each, if they’d followed her suggestions.

Pulling herself up into the lorry’s cab, she took one last look over the vehicles, the yard, and the Factory itself before sliding into her seat, where Jim passed over a warm thermos and her Panasonic Toughbook. Christine flipped the screen quickly to check its status, then closed it again and took out the radio Svitz had given her earlier.

“Is everyone ready?”

One by one, all eleven agents and four Gardeners sounded the affirmative.

“Very good,” Christine checked her watch again, “it’s twenty four hundred and six kilometres to Phoenix, we have a full tank of petrol, half a lorry of equipment, it’s dark and we’re thirty-three seconds behind schedule. Let’s drive out.”

Pause.

“Christine,” Jim hissed sideways, “I think you meant ‘Move out’?”

“Did I? But they know what I…?” Christine looked down uncomfortably at the radio in her hand, “Oh, if you insist; ‘Move it out.’”

Jim chuckled in disbelief and shifted into gear. Ahead and behind, the other agents followed his example and the convoy began to pull into Hudson Street.

Checking left and right for traffic through the cab windows, Jim remarked, “I didn’t know you liked the Blues Brothers?”

“I’ve never even been to Vegas.” Christine shook her head, gratefully unscrewing her thermos and taking a long sip of coffee.