It was finally official. Their cover was blown, the Covenant had sanctioned it, and they'd been made by some world scientific organization. No, correction: more than their cover was blown; her mind was blown. If the Covenant gave them up like this, the situation was beyond grim.
"D, you don't have to even say it," Carlos muttered as they stepped into an all-white room and stared at row upon row of technology laid out before them.
"Night-vision goggles, standard," Professor Huang said proudly. But his shoulders sagged as the Guardians all glanced at one another, appearing unimpressed.
"Might help in a tight spot," Rider said, folding his arms. "But, in a heavy firefight, they obstruct your peripheral vision, and the added weight on your head keeps you from sensing with whatever you've been gifted with." He glanced at Shabazz and Marlene, who nodded. "Maybe we'll take a couple of those for the newbies who ain't quite up to speed yet." His gaze locked on several large semiautomatic rifles and snub-nosed revolvers that looked like fat, retrofitted Glocks. His smile widened as he studied the hundred-round clips. "I like the peacekeepers, though, gentlemen. Impressive."
Rider tested the weight of the weapons as he continued to inspect them. "Light as a feather, feels good - balanced. Very nice."
Shabazz sauntered over to the table and carefully lifted a thick, short-range bazooka. "Mike, this looks like you, man."
"Be careful with that," Dr. Lee said, removing it from Shabazz's hands and returning it to the table. "Let me clarify the technology," he said, seeming somewhat offended. "The night-vision equipment is not so standard." He walked up to Rider, affixed the lightweight goggles to his face, and simultaneously pressed two buttons on either side of the titanium frames. Immediately the frame sent a blue-white beam around the circumference of Rider's skull, affixing the goggles to his face without a strap.
"Now, tell me what you see," the older professor said with a tone of triumph as he stepped behind Rider.
A wide smile lit Rider's face and then he laughed while the group of Guardians curiously watched him. "Hot damn! I can see behind me, guys. I've got vamp three-sixty, and the goggles feel light as a feather."
"Correct," Dr. Huang said, pointing to elements on the equipment like a male Vanna White. "They are held to your body by electromagnetic energy fields that the human body emits; and through microfilaments, images are quickly downloaded and sent to the front of the goggles in the bottom part of the lens through a laser pulse, to show you what's behind your head. We've blended special lightweight alloys on all the equipment for easy travel, quick-draw ability, and so that the shooter doesn't use unnecessary energy hoisting his or her weapon repeatedly during a battle."
The professor then handed Damali a silver stake. "Put these in the special hip holster we've created. They are silver stakes with a coating of sea-salt crystals and packed with the same element."
Damali held the silver stake up to the light, watching the crystalline surface shimmer. "Whoa... If I'd had these when that demon rushed my house, he would have been splatter. Very cool."
Dr. Lee lifted a gun from the table. "Each trigger can be smart-mapped to know its owner or the entire team's fingerprints, should you have to throw a weapon to a comrade - but if an aggressor should catch your gun in the air, it will not fire, but will instead backfire, sending the shell into the chest of the wrongful shooter."
"Oh, that is mad-crazy," Bobby said, laughing.
"Invaluable in total darkness, these goggles also pick up cold body images and high-pitched sonar transmissions." Dr. Huang flipped down two small stem wires from either side of the silverhued frames and adjusted them to rest behind Rider's ears. He crossed the room and whispered to Dr. Lee and then looked up. "Please tell me what I said to Dr. Lee, sir."
"You told him that you wanted a glass of water." Rider glanced over to Big Mike. "Brother, is that what it's like, your gift? You can just eavesdrop like that? Shit."
Mike laughed. "I mind my business, and don't speak on everything I hear, though."
"You should be able to hear anything approaching from behind before it materializes," Dr. Lee said. "It must move against the air, or the ground, and disturb natural matter to attack, even if invisible. To keep you from going deaf by a loud blast, the goggles filter out spike distortions. They are designed to shut down any sound above the frequency where normal human hearing can safely detect it. This way, if ammunition rounds go off near you or an entity screeches your eardrums will not explode."
Rider nodded and took off the goggles, thoroughly impressed, but now seeming a little wary of them.
"The best minds in the world have been working on this equipment," the general said, vindicated. "Nothing in here is standard." He smiled and lifted his chin. "The goggles were developed in China, in coordination with Russia. But I must defer to what Japan has brought to the table." He stood back and motioned to a large metal case at the end of the equipment row.
Dr. Huang went to the case and nipped it back, allowing his hands to gently caress the red-velvet interior. Both Damali and Carlos whispered a unified "Wow." The others gathered around the table, murmurs of approval ricocheting through the room, Shabazz tilted his head and allowed his hand to hover just above the intricate gold-inlaid carvings along the slightly bowed, gleaming ebony-hued scabbard.
"Samurai," Shabazz said quietly. "This is a real Sleeping Beauty."
"Indeed," the general replied, motioning for a demonstration.
"When we learned that the Isis long blade had gone missing," Dr. Lee said, "our counterparts in Japan were very concerned. Thus they retrofitted one of their most sacred ancient swords from the dynasties of old," he added, lifting the relic.
Dr. Lee carefully unsheathed the long polished steel blade as Dr. Huang dropped a sheet of paper. With a ringing whoosh, the paper sliced into two clean sections and floated to the floor.
"Damn..." Carlos murmured. He looked at Damali. "Baby, that is all you."
The professors smiled. Dr. Lee held the blade out to Damali upon flat palms, bowing slightly as he offered it to her.
"Thank you," she said, bowing and accepting it. She gripped the handle and took a fighter's stance. Warmth and familiarity coated her insides. Emotion caught in her throat as the team backed up and allowed her to test the blade with varying degrees of hard swings and short pivots. She closed her eyes and listened to the blade create music with the air. "Oh, God, it feels so good to have one of these on me again," she murmured as she swung with her eyes closed and then tossed the blade to her left hand, caught it, and held it with both palms, firmly gripping it over her head. "Oh, yeah, this is it."
Carlos watched her, immobilized by her raw beauty. The sight of Damali working out with her blade tugged at his libido. She had always been poetry in motion, but there was something about watching girlfriend work with her long blade.
"May I show you some of the special features of this weapon?" Dr. Huang asked with an undercurrent of excitement in his tone. He stepped forward once Damali became still and opened her eyes, and pointed to the ruby-jeweled eyes of two dueling dragons on the sword's handle. "Press here," he said, "and watch."
Instantly a blue-white light arced down the cutting edge of the sword and rimmed it in an eerie glow.
"UV laser," Dr. Lee said. "While you are an excellent swordsman, Ms. Richards, this Samurai relic is still not as lethal against dark entities as the legendary Isis. Therefore, the Japanese team enhanced it to cut on both the blade side and the dull side, using silver refracted ultraviolet light coaxed along the edge with electromagnetic points."
Damali touched the ruby dragon eyes, and the light disappeared. "Oh, this is too cool."
Dr. Huang walked around the table, displaying a series of jagged-edged Bowie knives, small daggers that could be retrofitted for boot or sleeve extraction, and demonstrated how each had the same light-rimming technology that Damali's new sword did. He motioned toward larger blades, showing the team everything from battle-axes to broadswords. "Old-fashioned, but if you are in hand-to-hand combat, a simple stab with a regular blade will not give you much time to react. However, with this improvement, no matter where you cut, the attacking entity should either burn or be wounded enough to give you time to escape."
Carlos nodded and picked up a jagged-edged Bowie. "This is sweet," he said, almost talking to himself. "A nick from one of these, without the enhancement, is just a love bite." He winked at Jose. "But with a little somethin' somethin' on it..."
"Right," Jose said with a smile, and caught the blade Carlos tossed.
"Here are small handheld, cold-body-tracking units," Dr. Huang said, picking up small monitors with tiny screens the size of flip-case cell phones. "These can fit on your waistbands, and can be set to quiet vibrate or sound alarm when an entity is present. These are also useful two-way communications devices to keep you linked to your team. Unfortunately, in extreme temperatures, the technology experiences glitches. We've tried to modify them slightly to be as resistant to the elements as possible, with small warming strips on the back that can be peeled away. However, after a while, this affects the unit and renders it unstable."
"For urban transport, we have modified Jeep and Humvee vehicles that you can inspect later, as well as motorcycles."
"Aw, man," Jose said slapping five with Rider. "Tell me you've got a crotch rocket for a brother!"
Dr. Huang nodded with a sly smile. "All motorcycles and vehicles have supercharged turbo engines and have been mounted with cold-body scanners, artillery, colloidal silver exhaust-expulsion systems - in case you are being chased - along with three-hundredand-sixty-degree front-window panel-imaging systems, satellite-mapping systems, chassis and hood sensors on the cars, and have been coated with a special silver alloy to make gripping the exterior difficult for an entity attacker. The driving, however, still requires expert human skill."
"Unfortunately," Monk Lin said, calmly, "some of the regions we will be traveling to will be passable only by yak and horseback."
"True," Rider said, unfazed. "But with some of the serious ammo these guys just unveiled, this will be like the wild, Wild West days, and I couldn't care if I was on the back of a damned donkey. One of those equalizers in the holster makes it not so necessary to have a fast getaway car. Feel me?"
Shabazz nodded and pounded Rider's fist. "My old girl, Sleeping Beauty, is gonna be jealous when I put one of these next to her on my hip."
The team laughed and fanned out around the table, going toward the weaponry that most fit their personal styles and skills.
"Can we get to the part about the shit that blows up?" Big Mike said with a wide grin, peering at the table as though it had forbidden sweet potato pies cooling on it.
"Ah... explosives," Dr. Lee said, gingerly lifting silverhued cylindrical objects and setting them down slowly. "Silver and hallowed-earth shrapnel delivery systems within the grenades. We call this one the double helix," he said with pride, lifting a small, pyramid-shaped silver unit that fit in the palm of his hand. "It can either screw onto the tip of a larger shell, like a warhead, and be launched from the handheld bazookas, or, when hand-tossed, the outer skin flips down to radiate the area with UV light to temporarily blind the attackers and to begin their burn process. While the enemy is disoriented for a few seconds and you take cover, it then detonates with the silver and earth shrapnel."
The professor then walked over to a section that had what appeared to be small, handheld spray units of mace. "This is a lethal projectile with sacred oil, garlic, Holy water, and battery acid - just in case you're dealing with human helpers or contagion victims. If it's an entity, the other elements will stop it, but if it's a human abducting you... Need I say more?"
"That's some wicked shit," Berkfield said, picking up a modified mace unit. "Make sure my wife and daughter definitely have one of these."
"And perhaps these also," Dr. Lee said, selecting what appeared to be a thick silver cuff bracelet with intricate Tibetan designs from the table and offering it to Marjorie.
"This is beautiful," she said in awe, turning the fine jewelry around on her wrist and gently fondling the raised snow lions with topaz stone eyes on it with one finger. She pushed at the little creature and let out a small squeal of delight when it shifted on the band and became warm, then held out her arm and let out another squeal as her body became bathed in blue light. "Ooooh! Look! This is wild!"
"The bracelet lights the aura energy field around your body, saturating it with ultraviolet light. If anything is at your throat, or attempting to hold you to deliver a bite anywhere else, it must come through that light path as though through body armor." Dr. Lee folded his arms and nodded toward the table. "We have versions of this that adequately pass for male jewelry as well."
"All the guns presented have been retrofitted with cold-body sensors, just like the goggles," Dr. Huang said, his tone becoming more excited as he circled the table. "Just point the blue light and fire, and the shell emitted will follow the trail of a fleeing entity, even around a bend or zigzag retreat, until it meets its target. We have used the same technology within a chip on each shell, borrowed from the technology of heat-seeking missiles. But, as with all things, there is a caution. It will go to the surface of anything reading colder than the entity it was aimed toward - so be careful using these in the mountains, where the temperatures of rock and ice formations could provide a shield to an attacker."
"Yes," Marlene said, folding her arms, "and where an avalanche could be kicked off from the blast from any of this heavy artillery."
"Wise observation," Monk Lin said coolly. "This is why the Naksong will teach you how to fight without some of these new toys." He lifted his chin. "In an urban environment, yes. Some of the equipment presented has usefulness. However, let me remind you that in the final hours, if you are stripped of weapons and must battle through night blindness, you must utilize the foundations of your unique skills."
"Sho' you right," Carlos said, his tone reverent. "But, along the way, let us show a spirit of compromise, Monk Lin." He smiled as Monk Lin cut him a glare. "It's cool, man. We hear you. But, in the art of war, it's always better to be overprepared."
This time there was no waiting and endlessly shuffling through slow, snaking lines. The team boarded the private charter, their biggest concern being that, if there was turbulence, with all the ammo packed in the cargo bay, they were what amounted to a flying bomb.
"You know," Damali whispered to Carlos, "since they've loaded us down like this, and have given us all this VIP treatment, don't ya think they seem a little... uh - "
"Over the top?"
Carlos smiled, but she could tell it was strained.
"We weren't strapped like this in Brazil or Australia, and I don't necessarily like being a gun for hire by multiple governments. It was better when we were doing this undercover and on the down-low."
Carlos nodded and kept his comments stated in quiet even tones as he watched the military retinue. "I hear you," he said. "These boys need to stay on the plane, or else any locals that have a problem with the Chinese government ain't gonna be feeling us either, when we touch down."
Damali nodded. "Time for detente," she said with a wink.
"We pull Neteru rank, and tell them we've got a vibe, and their energy will distract the target."
Carlos nodded. "I think we're back in sync, baby."
She nodded but sent her gaze out the window. If he remembered that they were out of sync, she wondered, what else was coming back to him as they neared their destination? "We'll let the angels work this one out," she whispered, watching the bright blue sky.
Carlos sat very still. The angels? He rubbed his hands over his face, trying to remember something that was in his skull. He could feel it trying to push its way out, but it kept getting stuck somewhere.
"It is a shame we are headed south," Monk Lin said with a sigh, glancing at Carlos and Damali. "If we had approached from Kathmandu or Nepal, the sight of the Himalayas is majestic."
Carlos held the monk's gaze. The word Himalayas was setting off all sorts of warning bells within him. "Can you ask the pilot to circle them?"
Monk Lin stared at Carlos. "Yes. But why?"
Carlos again wiped his palms down his face. Damali was staring, as was everyone else. "I don't know," he said, suddenly becoming frustrated. "I just want an aerial view of the region."
Monk Lin stood slowly, and walked forward, and then whispered to one of the seated officers. Damali watched him convey the request from a distant place in her mind.
"Baby, what is it?" She touched Carlos's arm, but his gaze was fixated to an unseen point beyond the window. She prayed he hadn't been able to go into her mind to capture the secret her mother told her not to divulge.
Carlos shook his head as the plane slowly turned and increased in altitude.
"I'm not trying to be funny," Rider said in a tense voice, "but you know I'm not up for any midair theatrics over mountain ranges. Been there."
"Yeah, man," Shabazz agreed. "Listen, people lost up on Everest in plane crashes, and shit, have had to eat dead passengers just to survive. Let's not go there on no cannibalism tip because this plane hits a bad current or some force smokes our asses in the air. Let's stick to the itinerary."
Marjorie squeezed Berkfield's hand tighter, and nervous energy permeated the plane's cabin as individuals linked up with the persons closest to them.
"Then, y'all need to pray, I guess," Marlene said calmly. "Because if one of our Neterus gets a vibe, we follow it."
While Marlene's comment had stilled any open mutiny, it didn't stop the jitters that everyone felt inside.
Damali tried to share her observation of Carlos's mood with the gorgeous scene unfolding beneath them, while also fighting the temptation to jump out of her skin. She didn't like the detour any more than the rest of the group did, but her gut also told her that this was something he needed to see. Maybe, from some innate place within, this was also part of his quest to find himself, she reasoned, and then tried to relax.
Yet as she peered down she was immediately convinced that this sight was also something she needed to see. It was as though the heavens were playing with watercolors from the sky. The angels had poured down liquid hue to splash the ground. Jewel-green patches loomed beneath them, and then the landscape became spotted with gorgeous smears of burnt yellow grasses and barren red-rock plains. The Brahmaputra River flowed with four other rivers into the mythical Ganges; then it edged the mountains and towns - indigo piping toward majestic places where earth had folded upon itself to issue formations of land that jutted up - until they turned brilliant blue, reflecting white layers of pinkish cotton-candy sky. Thick white mist buffeted the plane and opened to spectacular peaks before the plane turned again and began a descent toward Lhasa.
Oh, yes, this was the Roof of the World, and like many sights before, she was glad that Carlos's impromptu detour had led her to •witness it. She squeezed his hand and murmured a quiet thank-you. He didn't hear her, but squeezed her hand back, seeming spellbound.
The collective sigh of relief was released by the team in loud, ornery puffs of breath, as Guardians folded their arms, made signs of the cross over their chests, and generally balked at having their nerves rattled this close to touchdown. But Damali didn't say a word as she watched the hair stand up on Carlos's arms. She'd felt the divine, too. The team simply needed to chill.
As soon as he saw the mountains, a link chain on his memory had opened. Initially, it revealed only one sketchy portion of a message; the Himalayas. Slowly, bit by bit, snatches of knowing returned to take up residence in his soul. The angels knew that the Chairman would be here. It all made so much sense, especially with the weaponry that had been given to them. Armies around the world knew that something worse than they'd ever encountered was here - somewhere; humankind was gearing up for war.
The imperative was clear, bring them the head. Not a problem, on his list of things to do before he died, just like turning Lilith to pure ash was on his must-see itinerary. But there was something else... something important, something profound teasing the edges of his mind as he stared out the window and held fast to Damali's hand. When they were alone, he'd talk to her and maybe she could coax it out of his brain.
It took a bit of finesse, but they were finally able to convince the officers to call their general and then to stay on the plane. The team took only what they needed immediately. Goggles and bracelets that could be easily stashed in the long duffels went with them. Small firearms, grenades, tracking devices, silver stakes, the sword like Marlene's walking stick, anything that could fit into a suitcase or be carried openly without causing alarm also got dragged along. The only thing they did lean on heavily was their newly acquired VIP status, and they left the drama of having to check out on the ground and pass clearances and metal detectors to average civilians.
A large minivan was waiting to collect them, and the team gladly climbed into it, happy, once again, to be on solid ground. But the altitude weighed on their chests like anvils, and Monk Lin advised nonalcoholic drinks, plenty of water, and a moderate pace.
"Once we check into the apartments that have been made available to you near the Barkhor, we will have lunch at this plaza, and you can orient yourselves to the only place in Tibet not currently overrun by Chinese immigrants. The Barkhor is the intermediary circumambulation around the Jokhang - it is the heart of Lhasa. Here we will fetch trekking supplies and mountain-climbing gear, then drop our supplies off in the nearby apartments, and return to tour Jokhang." He smiled as he stood and faced the team. "Everything here is done with patience and your bodies must adjust to the new environment before we go deeper into the mountains."
There was no argument as they watched the collision of cultures pass them by through the smudged minivan windows while it bumped along the road from the airport to the center of Lhasa. She wasn't sure what she expected to see, but this rural land still had everything from what appeared to be smugglers to street vendors, brothels to monasteries. All were competing for existence in a city that had glittering chrome high-rise modernity on one corner, and, on the next, small, hand-built stone structures with inward leaning walls and pagoda-style rooves with dragons and prayer flags whipping in the wind.
Yak-drawn wagons begrudgingly moved aside for diesel-smoking vehicles. Small donkeys swatted their tails, annoyed at young boys and old men that whacked their behinds with sticks to make them continue walking. Women wore thick, multistriped shawls and colorful woolen skirts beneath long-haired sheep shearling jackets with yak-hair hats jauntily cocked on their heads. They also wore their long black braids covered in bright strands of wool string, adding carved bone, animal horn, amber, and coral ornaments into their intricate hair designs. The men had on wildly varying combinations of thick hide jackets and thick woolen pants, to U.S.-inspired jeans with yak caps turned around backward, reminiscent of the Kangols from 'round the way done Tibetan style. They even sported gold teeth and had felt derby hats. Some dressed to the nines in elaborate, brocade chupa robes and billowing tucked pantaloon silks, edged in tiger and snow-leopard hides.
Turquoise and silver were everywhere and glinted off reddened cheeks. The city was a veritable rabbit warren of streets in a maze that could make one dizzy, altitude notwithstanding. Whitewashed brick and gold-painted rooves glinted under the sun next to shell-destroyed buildings, and those simply fallen into disrepair. Streets that seemed to go straight up in the sky rivaled San Francisco's Lombard Street, and the steps up made one wonder as elderly people casually walked uphill without stopping to catch a breath.
"The people," Damali whispered, placing her hand on the window. "They look Navajo, or like..."
"Any U.S. tribe I've ever seen," Jose said, gaping from the window. "The cloths are so similar, like that lady's blanket," he murmured, trying not to point.
"I see Mexico City," Carlos said, his tone quiet and reverent. "Guatemala, Peru..."
"This is why we go to the Barkhor, first," Monk Lin said, pleasure threading through his voice. "You had to see and be reminded how the fabric of the world is one."
By the time they'd quickly unloaded and returned to the Barkhor, the entire team was moving slowly. Aches and pains from oxygen-deprived cells made them wince as though they had arthritis.
"The people here have more red blood cells than you and have evolved, physically, to cope with the elements," Monk Lin said as he led them into the teeming, open-air mall.
Carlos slowed to let the others pass them and placed his hand on Damali's shoulder. "That's why this is good feeding ground," he said quietly in her ear. "It's isolated. Communications are slim, despite the towers sending news and music into the streets. Cell phones are relatively new, and I bet in the winter, even satellite transmissions are shaky. This place is perfect if you needed to hide, eat well, and heal."
She reached up and touched his face with the tips of her fingers, feeling his warmth seep into them as she only nodded and kept walking. Something beyond the altitude was making her chest tight. The fragrances from the square slammed against her senses: incense and raw meat for sale, pungent spices. Sounds and colors clattered against each other: monks sitting on the ground saying mantras before alms bowls; crimson robes creating neon signs. Blue mountains turned brass by the sun, brushed in gold dust near the dragon-covered rooftops, where the wind whipped prayer flags into flickers of color.
Concealed but noticeable government eyes were everywhere. Controlled mayhem was in full effect. Pilgrims waited in long lines to get into the Jokhang Temple. Some worshipers simply laid flat on the ground, performing devotion prostration. Images of their apartments swirled in her mind - stairs, small, narrow halls within white-painted stone, old monastic quarters... Damali jerked her head up before she nearly passed out. Damn, Carlos smelled so good.
"This is why we stop and have momo, steamed dumplings filled with vegetables, then-thuk, noodles; dresi, sweet rice; soja, butter tea, and chu, cheesecake, before we press on," Monk Lin said, catching Damali's elbow.
It seemed as though, no matter how crowded the establishments, everywhere they went, all Monk Lin had to do was go into the back, speak quietly with the owners, and accommodations were quickly made. Today, that was a very good thing, because her entire team looked ill - well, everyone did except Carlos. His senses seemed to be on full alert, his gaze roving, and his color good, whereas everyone else was soaked with perspiration from the minor exertion, looked gray and washed out, and their senses were anything but keen.
Yet, as they listened to Monk Lin describe the balance of the day's itinerary, the warmth that Carlos's body exuded next to hers was distracting to the point of the ridiculous. Everyone was laboring to breathe; she was laboring not to. Every now and then a whiff of his chemistry made her stomach do flip-flops, which ignited a very untimely inner burn.
"As with all things, timing is everything," Monk Lin said.
Damali almost dropped her tea as she picked up on the last strands of his conversation.
"Buddha's Enlightenment Day is celebrated here, at this time of year, and we believe your timing in Tibet is auspicious for success."
Damali smiled weakly and set down her cup of tea. Close call. She had to return her focus to the mission. The high altitude was obviously causing her brain cells to freeze.
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