Watchman had been both anticipating and dreading the order ever since the unfortunate incident at Millennium City First National Bank. He knew that such cases warranted an immediate response from agencies like UNTIL given the fact that there had been superhuman involvement. Nevertheless, there had been no doubt in his mind that it would be UNTIL rather than PRIMUS that would be burdened with dealing with the fallout.
He received the order to meet Field Marshall David Ben-Israel at UNTIL Headquarters at 0538 hours.
At 0610 hours, Watchman arrived at headquarters as the first delicate rays of dawn touched the skyscrapers of Millennium City. He paused to breathe in the crisp mid-November air before entering. After undergoing the standard security check, Watchman was met by two young UNTIL officers who had been ordered to escort him to the Administration level. When the elevator doors opened onto the nearly deserted Administration level, two of the Field Marshal’s very own security detail were waiting to escort him to his office. With the smooth coordination that comes from constant training, the escort on his right took his position outside Ben-Israel’s office door while the other on his left opened the door for Watchman and closed it after him.
“Have a seat,” the lean, middle-aged man behind the modest hardwood desk said as Watchman entered the surprisingly spartan office of the Director of UNTIL Field Operations.
Watchman saluted Ben-Israel crisply.
“At ease, old friend,” Ben-Israel said, returning the salute. “Sit. We have much to discuss.”
Taking a seat, Watchman looked intently at his commanding officer, his built-in sensor array comparing biometric data to established baselines and measuring the greying Field Marshall’s vital signs. The elder man’s elevated heart rate and blood pressure were telltale indicators of stress.
“I’ll get right to the point,” began Ben-Israel brusquely. “The recent incident at the bank in Millennium City has ruffled a lot of feathers. PRIMUS is on high alert in case this…” he paused, consulting a neatly-typed page from the thick dossier in front of him, “Red Marvel resurfaces. However, that’s not why I’ve called you into my office today.”
Right to the point as always, Watchman mused.
“Because Jennifer Jones is a Canadian citizen operating as a registered metahuman in the United States as the Shroud and because, as your own reports state, she has founded and is apparently leading the group this Marvel woman belongs to, both governments have asked us to detain her for questioning in the bank incident.”
Ben-Israel paused to ascertain what the man across from him was feeling. As others have in the past, he found Watchman impossible to read. He leaned forward slightly, his folded hands resting on the dossier.
“Given your history with the Jones family, I thought I would give you an opportunity to discuss the mission parameters and, if necessary, excuse yourself from leading the mission.”
“Sir, I assure you,” began Watchman, the voder unit in his face plate producing an inflectionless baritone. “My history with her, her father or her grandfather will not factor into the performance of my duty.”
“I’ve known you since the Six-Day War, my friend,” began Ben-Israel. “Before you became… what you have become. I know that duty has always been your foremost priority.” He shifted slightly in his chair, his eyes narrowing. “But, do you expect me to believe that hunting down the daughter of your own godson does not elicit some feelings one way or the other?”
“Whatever I feel about Jones will not affect the performance of my duty,” answered Watchman, his cool aloofness masking the conflict within him.
He had met Al Jones, Jennifer’s grandfather, under the least pleasurable circumstances: they had both been captured by the Qularr when the alien race first invaded Earth in 1965 and both men had been among those unfortunate handful who had been selected for their agonizing experiments. In such cases, it would have been natural for them to have wanted nothing more than to put the nightmare and everything associated with it behind them and move on with their lives. Yet, when Jones had stepped in front of an energy blast from a Qularr pulse rifle meant for him, a bond stronger than brotherhood was forged between the two.
It had been an honor when Jones had asked him to be his best man and an even greater one when Jones had asked him to be his son’s godfather. After being accepted for the Watchman Initiative in 1981, he had to leave his personal life behind for the greater good, a decision which was easy for him seeing as how all he had in his life was his duty. Despite the fact that his duty took him around the world, he kept tabs on his friends no matter where he was.
He had watched from a distance with pride as his godson, Nathaniel, grew into an exemplary young man. He had rejoiced when Nathaniel took a wife of his own and when they had Jennifer, their only child. He had mourned when his friend Al and his wife died in a senseless motor-vehicle accident outside Ottawa. He had been heartbroken when Nathaniel, who had risen in the ranks of the RCMP to the position of Commander of Force Station Steelhead, was brutally murdered by the VIPER agent code-named Ripper.
He had sat surreptitious vigil over Nathaniel’s daughter Jennifer in a Toronto hospital as she lay in an inexplicable coma from which she miraculously awoke a month and a day later. When the UNTIL Metahuman Oversight Committee had asked for volunteers to serve as the official liaison to the Squadron Supreme, Watchman had approached his friend Ben-Israel to place his name at the top of the list – the first time in his over fifty years of distinguished military service that he had called in a favor.
Now, his old friend would order him to drag the closest thing he had to family before a bunch of bureaucrats.
“Very well,” began Ben-Israel, sitting back in his chair apparently satisfied with his answer. “You will head a small contingent of operatives…”
“Sir, if I may,” interrupted Watchman. “If I were to make contact with Jones alone, I may be able to avoid a physical confrontation.”
Ben-Israel regarded Watchman silently, his eyes still searching futilely for any trace of personal investment. After a moment’s silent deliberation, he agreed to Watchman’s request under two conditions: if initial contact was not established within forty-eight hours or if the Shroud refused to turn herself in to the authorities, UNITY would be tasked to bring her to ground using any degree of force necessary. Watchman had, of course, expected Ben-Israel to acquiesce to his request because, despite having called in a marker years before, Watchman knew that the debt Ben-Israel owed him could not readily be repaid.
He feared that the Shroud would have used her scientific know-how to secrete herself in some pocket dimension as she had done with Squadron Headquarters, thus making the job of locating her impossible. However, this was surprisingly not the case. Although finding her proved to be an obstacle, it was not an insurmountable one to someone with high level contacts in almost every intelligence agency around the world. He was perplexed by the choice of location. He asked himself why the Shroud would have chosen to hole up in an abandoned gold mine outside Force Station Steelhead in the Canadian Northwest Territories.
While overseeing the preparation of his Harrier F-35B for immediate take-off, he mulled over this poor choice of refuge. Ascribing her tactical error to sentimentality, he boarded the Harrier and ran over the pre-flight checklist. By 0728 hours, he had cleared Millennium City airspace.
As the sleek Harrier soared over the frigid tundra, his thoughts turned to tactical scenarios. Unknown to the Squadron Supreme, his duties as UNTIL liaison also included ascertaining the strengths and weakness of every member and preparing contingencies for neutralizing them. He was well aware of what the Shroud’s could do – if she forced his hand, he was confident that he would be able to take her down.
Setting the Harrier down in a small clearing overlooking Steelhead, Watchman was making his way towards the mine entrance when he was suddenly seized by an invisible force and catapulted forward. He landed hard on the permafrost at the Shroud’s feet.
In a blur of motion, Watchman sprang to his feet, drew his twin Glock G41 Gen4 revolvers from their shoulder holsters and leveled them at the Shroud.
“I’m just here to talk, Jennifer,” Watchman said in as soothing a cadence as his voder would allow. “We don’t have to do this.”
“No, we don’t but I want to!”
Raising her right hand with lightning speed, the Shroud channeled a pulverizing bolt of telekinetic energy at Watchman, sending him crashing into the jet behind him with bone-shattering force.
Scrambling to his feet, Watchman emptied both clips at the indifferent Shroud. The bullets hung in the air like flies frozen in amber mere centimeters from her chest for a while before falling to the ground with a clatter of impotent clinks.
The Shroud was upon the dismayed Watchman before he could mount a defence. She was a blur of lethal, unrelenting motion – each blow inflicting injuries that would have killed a lesser man. Another psychokinetic bolt sent the nearly unconscious Watchman crashing through the rotting wooden boards that had been used to seal the entrance to the mine.
He lifted his face from the snow, his opponent stood mute and motionless approximately twenty meters across from him like an ebony pillar.
His HUD displayed a dour damage report: his communications array was offline, making sending a distress signal impossible and power to his offensive systems was at 13% and dropping rapidly, which made employing the electro-shock generator on his right gauntlet out of the question. His body was fairing no better than his gear. After less than two minutes of combat, the rotator cuff of his left arm had been completely obliterated, rendering his entire arm useless from the shoulder down; he had suffered three broken ribs, one of which had punctured his left lung; a fractured right clavicle, left femur and tibia, a bruised kidney and an assortment of lacerations and contusions.
The blood on her escrima sticks already crystallizing in the sub-arctic cold of the Canadian north, the Shroud regarded her foe with almost clinical detachment.
“You should never have come here,” she said, lithely closing the gap between them like a cobra approaching its prey.
As Watchman tried and failed to get to his feet, he knew for a fact that his life would come to an end in a matter of moments. He’d be damned, though, if were sent to meet his Maker lying down on the job. On his third attempt, he got unsteadily to his feet, the jagged breaks in his ribs sending daggers of searing pain into him with each labored gasp of breath.
The Shroud looked intently into Watchman’s eyes as she slowly raised her right hand, an escrima stick poised to shatter his skull like an eggshell.
“See you soon, Al.”
“Squadron, Strike,” he heard Arcana exclaim just behind him as a blast of eldritch energy shot over his left shoulder and slammed into the startled Shroud.
The Shroud reeled from Arcana’s ferocious attack as the synthezoid Mite and the android AIDA leaped out of extra-dimensional portals the sorceress had opened on either side of her. While her compatriots engaged the Shroud, Arcana cast a protective ward around the battered Watchman as he sank to his knees, the last of his strength abandoning him.
A bloodcurdling hiss escaped the Shroud. Like a throbbing heart, she began to pulsate with a deep, blood-red light beneath the deepening shadows of the coming night. Then, she was simply no longer there.
“She may have got away for now,” Watchman began, his voder crackling and spluttering like an ancient gramophone. “But I swear I’ll bring Jones in!”
As Mite and AIDA scanned the area for an energy signature that could be traced, Arcana turned to Watchman, her brow furrowed in disappointment.
“That, my friend, was not Jennifer Jones.”
Darkness claimed Watchman, his last thought was of the sun rising over Millennium City.