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Chapter 9

            “Do you really think he is going rogue?” Michael asked setting a tray of food on the table and taking a seat across from Protector Christopher.

            Christopher swallowed a fork full of bland macaroni and cheese, “If Arbiter Veran says he is then I believe him. He has no reason to lie.”

            “It just doesn’t make sense.” Michael looked around the cafeteria of the Faultline base in Paragon City. The new base was still shuffling dignitaries from Arachnos around the facility. The place looked more like a conglomeration of a typical military chow hall and the best five-star restaurant. Of course, the higher ranked members ate in the fine dining section. Michael wanted to walk into the fine dining to eat, and probably would have if it were not already filled with VIPs. Fortunately or unfortunately, Christopher had already chosen a place in the main hall.

            “It makes plenty sense,” Christopher said. “Individuals cannot be trusted. I know better than most.”

            Michael tried a bite of the Salisbury steak, but threw his fork down with a clatter. “Ok, you had a bad experience with the Skulls, are they not an organization. Did not the Skulls fail you?”

            Christopher looked around the hall noting the stares from the other members of Arachnos eating lunch. When they saw him look around they returned to eating and hushed conversations, but he could tell they were still watching from the corners of their eyes. He, like Michael, loved the fear their new position with the Protectors projected. People were afraid and envious of their position. He could almost hear their thoughts. Why are they here? Are they after me? I wish I were them.

            Grabbing a deep calming breath, Christopher gently set his fork down returning his sight to Michael. “Yes. The Skulls failed. They are a loosely built organization that had the upper echelon making deals with others outside the organization and held that information secret. Was your experience any different?”

            Michael picked up his soda and took a sip, “It was a bit different.” This conversation was getting annoying. He would rather relish in the discomfort they were causing the other soldiers just by being here. Hell, there were two Protectors here, it would only be a matter of time before the commanding officer or one of his lackey’s would show up and ask what was wrong.

            “I handed the Skulls Perez Park,” Christopher said his voice rising in tone. “The thanks I got was this metal plate.” Christopher flicked the surface of the right side his mystic helmet above the metal plate implanted in his head. “It was a hard lessoned learned.”

            “Fine,” Michael retorted forgetting the stares around him. “But you trusted Norman with your life and he brought you to where you are today. I may know him better, but for the sake of the gods, where is the loyalty?”

            “Exactly! Our superiors above Norman have been very accommodating. They have given us much upon our completion of the loyalty tests. Do you realize what Arachnos has done for you! Now Norman’s actions threaten to take us down with him. I for one will not allow that. Norman has definitely been pushing the limits of his authority lately and I, for one, can see this. Why can’t you?”

            Michael bit his tongue feeling the fury rising within him, “Norman loves Arachnos and the Rogue Isles. He feels deeply for the weak needing his protection. You can’t tell me you haven’t noticed that during our patrols with him.”

            “You don’t get it,” Christopher said. He could tell Michael was holding back his temper and was correct for doing so. Such public display was unbecoming a Protector. It just further proved Norman was in the wrong. “Did you not hear Veran? Our entire recruitment has been called into question. Norman used us to further his own agenda-- flirting with that… woman! He risks much.”

            “Thauma,” Michael sneered. “She has a name.”

            “Yes,” Christopher replied, “She does. That’s the problem… maybe your not Protector material either.”
            Michael shot to his feet sending his chair into a group of Wolf Bane Spider Enforcers sending them scattering. Neither of the two bickering Protectors noticed people beginning to file out of the cafeteria.

            Christopher slowly stood up. He knew if he remained calm, the argument was his to lose. Norman was going rogue, and he was beginning to have serious doubts about Michael.

            “Listen,” Michael said pointing his finger, “You know Norman is dedicated to his life to the Rogue Isles—”

            “Maybe,” Christopher interrupted, “If he truly had faith he wouldn’t be worried about his memories or his stupid medical records. Arachnos favors the strong, and he was… once.”

            “No…” Michael shook his head, “he still is.”

            “Sounds like you’re still trying to convince yourself of that lie. Look at what Veran said about him hiding his involvement with Out Source Incorporated. He has revealed his identity to members of the Onami Strike Force, you being one of them.”

            Michael could only stand there taking Christopher’s verbal assault while frantically trying to search for an excuse that would refute the argument. He could not find the flaws.

            “He even brought Ockham’s Claw onto Arachnos property and hid from us. You yourself caught him, choosing to remain silent.”

            “But…,” Michael stuttered. Maybe Christopher was right?

            “Perhaps your loyalty is what’s in question! Not mine. I’ll find Norman and bring him to justice myself.”

            “How dare you question my loyalty? We both survived the test.”

            “Did we?” Christopher asked. “Aren’t you hearing what I am saying? It’s still being administered. Veran said there was doubt and inconsistencies. To hell with you.”

            Michael felt his fury rising inside. He let it build not liking being so insulted.

            “Fine,” Michael spat, “We’ll see who captures who?”
            “Very well.” Christopher stomped off slamming his food tray down rattling the silverware a spilling his drink.

            Michael struggled with the urge to rise up and unleash his powers and smote Christopher, but abandoned the idea altogether when he realized their conversation was not private. Both of them had not been exactly yelling at each other, but their disagreement was public. Such an open display of dissension was not good for the Protectors. Their fate would be sealed immediately, none caring who started what. Retrieving his chair, he sat down and stabbed at his food with a dull butter knife letting his fury subside. Once, not too long ago he would have struck out against Christopher and his remarks with out a second thought. The on-the-edge reckless persona he liked to put forth was changing into something else… someone more responsible.

            What has happened to me?

            “Protector Michael what is your location?” a voice cracked over his helmet’s communication system.

            “Uh, Claire?” Michael responded reaching up to his helmet and depressing the transmit button along the left side. “I am in Faultline.”

            “I finished cleaning up your mess on that cargo ship. I am taking charge of your mission. Meet me at the launch deck of the base in twenty minutes.”

            Michael cursed.

            He quickly gulped down what remained of his lunch and tapped into his mutant powers racing at super speeds to his flier. Arriving at the launch deck, he began prepping the aircraft for takeoff determined to be gone long before she showed up. He would dismantle the puzzle box Norman put him in and get to the bottom of things. If Norman were indeed going rogue we would kill him himself. It was the least Michael to do. Remembering Norman’s rise-of-the-phoenix trick he could not help but wonder whether death even mattered. He disabled his helmet’s radio knowing he could have plausible deniability of not informing Arbiter Veran of his actions.

            Let Chris look for Norman, I know where he is going to be eventually without needing to look up the address.

            He made record time in completing the pre-flight checks, but he did skipped steps and created new short cuts. Ignoring a couple warning indicators, he depressed a button in the cockpit to shut the main hatch remotely. Before it could close, someone opened it again from outside. Michael grumbled wondering if it was Chris or maybe Claire arriving earlier than she said.

            Michael left the cockpit, entered the deployment bay, and almost reflexively bowed down on one knee and lowered his head to show a sign of respect.

            “Leer-- Arbiter Leery.”

            “Protector Michael,” his Arbiter’s boss responded.

            Michael rose to his feet, “I did not know you were stateside.”

            The Arbiter was wearing his lavender and grey armor befitting his station in Arachnos. His caped flowed with authority as he took a seat in the first row of chairs. “I am here to inspect the progress of our base, and investigate a little incident between Arbiter Sands and Nocturne. Sands became very anxious when you two arrived. Protector Christopher I presume.”

            “Sir?” Michael said not knowing what the Arbiter was inferring. It probably was not good that his boss’s boss was here talking with him. Michael nonchalantly, but swiftly made his way to the hatch control lever so he could close it as soon as Leery left.

            “Protector Christopher. It was with him you had your disagreement with in the cafeteria.”

            “You saw that?” Michael said deflating his escape plans.

            “I was in the VIP section enjoying a fine lunch up to that point. When the base commander heard you had arrived he thought my presence was really bad news.”

            “Sorry sir, we were… are on a mission.”

            “Do not apologize. I am used to making people uncomfortable. If an issue comes to me, problems get resolved, and nobody gets what they want. When Protectors show up, they think the worst. People feel their loyalty being called into question. Sadly, sometimes it is. Get used to it.”

            Michael had been avoiding eye contact could not help, but notice the wide grin on Leery’s face. It put him at ease.

            “So,” Leery began, “what mission brings you to this… fine city?”

            “Protector Norman,” Michael said taking a seat next to the Arbiter. He knew he had only a few minutes before Claire’s arrival. However, with Arbiter Leery involved the point may now be moot.

            “Really? It’s very dangerous having Protectors running about in threes. People will think Lord Recluse is about to cleanse the base. What are you three up to?”

            “No,” Michael began, “Arbiter Veran says Norman has gone rogue and wants Christopher and I to bring him in.”

            Arbiter Leery shot to his feet, “What? How preposterous? Norman would never go rogue...

            Michael sensed the disquiet and that the Arbiter knew something about what was going on.

            “Why didn’t Veran tell me?” Leery questioned aloud.

            “I guess he figured the signs were evident.”

            “Tell me what has transpired.”

            Michael quickly spun his tale starting with his disassembling the Arachnos Flier and ending with the current situation.

            Leery, listening intently walked over to the open hatch and leaned out resting his arm on the opening’s frame.

            “So, you think he is not going rogue then?” the Arbiter finally asked turning to face Michael.

            “I don’t know what to think,” Michael said sighing deeply. Leery definitely knew more than he was telling. Michael decided to try to coax more details out of him. “Chris and Veran have points…”

            “But--”

            “But, Norman always seemed fanatically about Arachnos. I guess that’s the point though.”

            “The drake’s involvement worries me,” Leery said. “Veran and I knew Norman before his acceptance in the Protectors. It was just before the first Rikti War. I was his CO when he was in the Bane Spider division. Those of us still alive know his story well and choose to remain silent. Hmm… Maybe the blood of dragons is corrupting his thoughts.”

            “Still alive?” Michael asked probing deeper.

            “He killed the founder and first Arbiter of the Protectors, who also happened to be a close personal friend of his family’s too.”

            “What?” Michael responded mouth agape. He knew Norman could be thick skinned and cruel, but that sounded brutal and callous. Even for Norman. Maybe I don’t know him like I thought.

            “Arbiter Sinclair, he had it coming though. He was responsible for much of Norman’s debacle, although he probably saved his life. Sinclair seemed to be mismanaging the project from the start. Many mistakes were made, with the war and all. Hmm… perhaps his memory is returning. That could account for his behavior.”

            “You mean he really could be actually leaving Arachnos?” Michael gasped in disbelief. All the trouble Norman went through to bring him into the fold of Arachnos and now he leaves him. Betrayal began to creep into Michael’s thoughts.

            Leery stroked his chin deep in thought. “Norman has been very self serving lately. Sinclair’s mistakes continue to plague Arachnos. He may have been hasty in his rush to implement Crey’s bioresearch to start the Protector Program. The loyalty tests have helped determine fidelity and only two Protectors have ever betrayed their oath and comrades. Rare when you compare it to all of Arachnos. You yourself witnessed the arbitration of the rogue Protector Marcus in Warburg.”

            Michael had a hard time grasping Arbiter Leery’s comments, but it was informative. Obviously, the Arbiter was thinking aloud about Norman and there was a history between them, one even unknown to Michael. All he knew about his mentors past was that he was a former member of the Bane Spider Commandoes.

            “Occam’s Razar…” Leery continued, “I have been reading up on him. He does seem to have great influence when counseling others. He has a small legion of followers, some of those descendants of dragons themselves. If anyone could tempt Norman it would be him, or his clone for that matter.”

            “So, you really think he is defecting?” Michael asked still surprised at the Arbiter’s candidness.

            Leery looked to Michael and again out the hatch, “That or he is trying to claim the one thing I know that haunts him.”

            Arbiter Leery snapped the outer hatch lever closing it.

            “And that would be?” Michael questioned wanting an answer.

            “You were about to go locate him before I got here. No?”

            “Sure,” Michael said. He knew Christopher would not know immediately where to look and that would buy him time.

            “Good, I am coming with. Let’s liftoff, time is precious.”

            “You?” Michael asked furrowing his brow.

            “Yes, Protector Michael. Do you have a problem with that?”

            “Nope,” Michael thought of his current predicament. He and Chris had a slight falling out and he was ignoring the requests of another Protector. One specifically put in charge by his commanding officer. Now his boss’s supervisor was accompanying him.

            How can things go wrong now?

            He and Arbiter Leery strapped themselves into the cockpit and initiated vertical takeoff. Michael engaged the stealth circuits causing the Arachnos Flier to vanish both visually and electronically. They passed Protector Claire’s Flier as it came in for a landing.

            Boy, is she going to be pissed, he thought letting a smile slip. “If you don’t mind me asking sir, why are you getting involved?”

            Leery looked over at Michael, the Protector returning the glance. He felt Leery was wondering if the newest recruit could be trusted.

            “Since you know him fairly well, I’ll tell you. If Norman is trying to reclaim his memory, we need to stop him. If there is any reason for him to go rogue, it will come from his past. This had been resolved once already, if he re-examines those terrible events, that may change. Some things are better left forgotten.”

TO CHAPTER 10 >






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