Tara’s stomach had made a home in her throat, giving her that dreaded feeling that she might throw up at any given moment. The Scoobies, as Willow called them, did seem like nice people, actually. Introductions had gone quickly. There was Xander, Willow’s best friend since kindergarten. His girlfriend Anya, who had been a demon until fairly recently (so please excuse anything she says that’s weird or out of line, she’s still adjusting). Giles, who was British and very kind, and obviously used to these large group meetings. Of course he would be, right? They’d been doing this since highschool. The whole team up against the forces of evil and help Buffy thing, that is. He’d called himself Buffy’s watcher, whatever that was. It sounded pretty important. Except now Buffy was the one who needed saving, and Tara was the only one who had any clue as to where she might be, which had her sitting center stage, all eyes on her, everybody waiting for her to speak. She found strength in Willow’s eyes. Borrowed her confidence. After a few deep breaths, she felt almost capable of explaining what she’d seen. “I d-don’t actually know w-where Buffy is. But she’s underg-ground, somewhere, a-and that guy- Spike- he’s c-close to her. H-he talked to her. I j-just couldn’t s-s-see her.” She took a few breaths, trying to steady her nerves. Her stutter only made it worse to talk in front of people. It made her more self conscious than she already was. Willow smiled at her, and it was enough to keep going. “There’s a brick building. A f-frat house, maybe? I remember g-greek letters, but n-not which ones. Oh, an-nd gray cable knit. Like a-a s-sweater or a-a blanket. That s-seemed im-mportant.” They all remained quiet, but looked at her expectantly. They were patient, at least, and that was helpful. It was nice, actually. That they were all so understanding. She could see why Willow would hold them near and dear. Good friends were hard to come by. Tara could only hope that, maybe, she’d be counted among them. “There’s like, a shaft, or something. I-it goes down a long t-time. Maybe an e-elevator, I think. It s-seems likely. Wherever she is, it’s l-like… it felt like a h-h-h-ospital. But w-with cells. I think there w-were other d-demons there, but I couldn’t s-see them clearly. Except S-Spike.” She let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding, glad that her part of talking was mostly over. That was just about everything she could remember from the vision. The minor details didn’t seem super important. She didn’t want to tell them that Buffy was probably locked up the same way Spike had been. They could figure that out for themselves. “This is incredibly unsettling. I had thought Spike might have been exaggerating about the commandos but… It would seem he was… not.” Giles sank into the armchair and carefully removed his glasses. “That is our most likely scenario, is it not?” It hadn’t taken him long to figure that out, and he didn’t mince words about it either. Tara was kind of glad for that. It probably wasn’t any easier for him to say it out loud than it would have been for Tara, but… It probably wasn’t his first time with it, she realized. Willow and Xander both nodded in response. “That makes this way more complicated. How are we supposed to bust her out of a military base? I mean, I could do a spell, Xander has the know how, but we don’t even know where it is.” The worry in Willow’s voice was evident, and made Tara’s chest constrict more than it already had. “Well, they’re below campus, right?” Anya piped in. “That’s what all your spells kept saying, and Tara pretty much confirmed that. We just don’t know how to get in. That’s the real issue.” Giles nodded, now polishing his glasses. “It is entirely possible that there are perhaps some people on campus that are involved in this operation. Undercover agents. It would have to be somebody with an incredible amount of pull here. Do we have any suspects at all?” The ‘gang’ seemed at a loss at the question. You never suspect anybody of anything, until suddenly everybody is suspicious. “It could be anybody…” Tara said quietly, speaking what everybody else had to have been thinking. She was trying to think of anybody that seemed particularly militaristic, and nobody came to mind. Whoever they were, they have the whole civilian look down to a tee. “Well, not anybody.” All eyes turned to Anya. “What? Frat house? It’s gotta be one of the ones on campus, right? You wouldn’t hide a secret entrance miles away. Not a main one, anyway. So we can start with that.” Xander looked incredibly proud of her, and he really should have. She was sharp as a tack, despite knowing very little about being a human. She did make a good point. That narrowed their list of suspicious people down pretty significantly. Yay, frat boys. Military frat boys. An excellent combination. “But how do we start with that? I mean, we can’t just start like, stalking frat houses and hoping we see something that clicks.” Willow paused a moment, considering her words. “Yes we can. Tara and I can! We’re students here. We have every reason to go to parties. Tara?” Tara paled. She’d barely managed the courage to go to that wicca meeting. Parties at frat houses? “O-oh, I don’t know, Willow. I’m n-not, I mean… I don’t really…” The idea of going to a loud, crowded party, looking for suspicious people, and trying not to look suspicious herself… It was daunting. She couldn’t mingle at parties on her best days. She wasn’t a party girl. She was a stay at home girl. “I know. I know! I just thought, you know, I don’t want to go alone.” She smiled weakly, and Tara couldn’t help herself. She didn’t want to push things, but she didn’t want to pull away either. She felt a connection to Willow. Something powerful. Willow made her feel… So many things. Braver. Stronger. More like her own person. Like she had finally found somebody who really saw her. It was special, and profound, and made it incredibly hard to say no to her. She wanted to help. She really did. Even if it made her go far outside her comfort zone. “I could try? I- I’m the one who saw what we’re looking for, right? So, I should b-be looking.” It made the most sense. She’d done the scrying, she knew the general size and shape of things. And she could always do it again, she reminded herself. Try to get a clearer bead on what kind of operation they were dealing with, maybe some faces, or an actual entrance. A weak point would be incredibly helpful, and probably too much to hope for. “Yes, that’s all well and good. We need to consider what we’re going to do if and when we manage to find a way in, and identify suspects as such. Are we intending to- to kidnap military personnel? And if so, how exactly are we doing that?” Giles was nursing a scotch on the rocks. The poor man. It was obvious by the way he looked that he was probably more worried than anybody else in the room. “Well, I can think of a few things we could do to them. Ex vengeance demon here. Not lacking with the ideas.” Anya said frankly. Tara kind of liked that. She owned what she was, and didn’t make apologies for it. “I mean, evisceration comes to mind.” Oh, ew. That part wasn’t so pleasant to imagine. “I think perhaps, for now, our focus would be better spent on discovering the identities of our enemies. We can’t just go throwing vengeance spells, or any spells for that matter, around in the dark. We can’t risk… hitting the wrong target, as it were.” He finished the sentence quietly, obviously disturbed. “Well, there’s a party at Lowell House later this week. Riley invited us to it, before she went missing. Tara and I can start there. And in the meantime, we can start researching spells that would be useful, in the getting back of Buffy. Between us and Anya, I’m sure we can come up with something helpful.” Tara still felt uneasy about the whole thing. Taking on an entire military operation was… Well, her comfort zone wasn’t all the big to begin with, but this was way out of her depth. Still, Buffy meant a lot to them, and she didn’t deserve to be there. Really, no creature deserved the things that were probably going on there, demon or not. Evil was a matter of perspective. And not all demons were that way… Tara knew that, personally. She was scared, for everybody. But the operation needed to be stopped, somehow, and she wanted to do what she could to make a difference. To get Buffy home safely to her mom. To get Spike out safely, too. He was harmless, from what she understood. He’d been in there before. And now, he was back in there… to help somebody he’d wanted to kill. And if that wasn’t proof enough of the nature of the beast, what was? He didn’t want them doing… whatever it was, to his most hated enemy. “Very good, Willow. I suppose… It will probably fall to me to notify Joyce, then?” Giles let out a sigh. “I’ll need more scotch for that. I propose we reconvene in two days, to see what progress we’ve made. I suppose I could inquire with the Council, as well. It’s possible they have some knowledge of this operation and what they’re doing here. Maybe they’ll prove useful for once in the entirety of history, but I find that very much in doubt.”
Maggie stared at her computer screen, watching the recorded footage in front of her from multiple angles. What she saw was nothing short of amazing. HST49, fresh out of surgery and sedation, was performing far beyond expectations. Far better than any human in peak physical condition. Far better than any of the Initiative soldiers. The Vahrall demon that Finn and his team had captured a few days prior stood very little chance of survival. A shame, but there would be more of its kind eventually. She- It, Walsh reminded herself- seemed to be an unstoppable force. When put in a life or death situation, it rose to the challenge. There was clearly muscle memory, honed from an unknowable number of battles similar to the one it found itself engaged in. Blocking came as second nature. Counter attacks staggered the opponent. When knocked to the ground, it would either do a leg sweep or a kick to the chest before flipping upright again to deliver what was sure to be a devastating blow. At first glance, the match seemed almost even, but there were little tells that HST49 was a predator, playing before a kill. The flurries of punches, the high kicks, the flips. It was all an elaborate show, and Walsh’s new favorite subject was a natural at it. It showed remarkable resilience. For every hit received, three were returned. What was more, the vital statistics barely registered a spike above normal. The implication that HST49 was holding back, or not using its full strength because it wasn’t necessary for survival… Well, Walsh had a few more subjects that could provide more of a challenge, when their study was completed. She was rather interested to see exactly what B- Hostile Forty-Nine was truly capable of. Still, recovery time would be a necessity, if its true power was to be known. Perhaps something more menial, in the meantime. Standard strength and stamina testing, perhaps. For the Vahrall, who now lay lifeless on the floor due to a broken neck, a full autopsy. “Professor Walsh.” Riley’s firm voice came from behind her, full of command. And obedience. The perfect tone for a high ranked soldier addressing a superior. “I have an update on Buf…” he sighed quietly. “…Hostile Forty-nine.” Walsh spun in her chair, looking up to meet his blue eyes. A hint of unease, but covered with the determination to do his duty. “Is that a fact? Well, by all means, do tell.” She crossed her arms and gave him her full attention. He always preened when she did that. “Confirmation that there is… or was, an established relationship with Hostile Seventeen. Spell or not, Seventeen confirmed that they were in fact engaged. It’s unclear if they still are at this point.” He paused, waiting for her go-ahead to continue. She nodded it to him, intently interested in everything he’d been able to discover while carrying out his task. “After some… careful negotiation for a new shirt, she did reveal her true nature.” He paused again, his brow furrowing in a way that made Walsh think he didn’t want to say what he was thinking. She gave him a few moments, knowing that he could never keep anything from her for very long. “She said that she was… Well, The Slayer.” “Is that a fact?” She asked crisply, suddenly very interested in pursuing the information further. “Not a myth then, is it?” If it was true, then the world’s greatest weapon was sitting in a containment cell, ready to be harnessed. A tool to be utilized to its fullest capabilities. Maggie could hardly contain her excitement. “That remains to be seen, Ma’am. It could be that she’s lying, or trying to buy herself some time. Up until this, we’ve had no real concrete evidence that a Slayer even exists. Like the boogey man for demons. A cautionary tale.” He shuffled on his feet, obviously uncomfortable with the discussion. “And if she’s not? Riley, this is everything we’ve been working toward. If we can get her on our side…” She could only hope that something like that was even possible. It wouldn’t be a pleasant process, for anybody involved. But it was for the greater good. Walsh’s mind was already racing with the possibilities of having her own personal Slayer in the ranks. Something like that… with the right training, and the right combination of performance enhancers. Forty-Nine could become an unmatched weapon, entirely under her control. Entirely self sufficient, able to infiltrate and blend in, and wreak as much havoc as Walsh ordered. She’d have to talk to Engelman about developing a new behavior modification chip, specifically for her new favorite subject. “I understand. I’ll do what I can to persuade her, but I think our chances are pretty damaged at this point. Maybe, in this case, kindness would be more pertinent?” Was that… hope in his voice? “You’ll be pivotal in bringing her to our side, Riley. I’m going to be running some tests on her later today, once she’s had some time to recuperate and regain some of her strength. I want you to participate in these tests as a standard. And if conversations happen that should… lead her to trust you more, that would be an added bonus.” He looked unsure of himself, but nodded. “I’ll go prepare.” He turned on his heel, not bothering with a salute. She knew he had a lot on his mind, but she couldn’t be troubled with that. She had research to do, and a lot of it before they got much further into their testing. Riley was a good soldier, but his emotional attachment to the subject could prove troublesome. She could tell his heart wasn’t in this one. And she needed it to be. Disconnecting a human attachment wasn’t something easily done. Not without a catalyst. He’d need to be shown, somehow, that the thing he knew as Buffy was no better than any other monster they’d encountered. No human would latch on to a soulless creature like that. Riley needed to understand. HSTs didn’t know love, or kindness, or sympathy. It wasn’t in their nature. They only knew violence and destruction. And that was exactly where Forty-nine would lead him, if Walsh didn’t nip his feelings in the bud. How to go about it, though? The relationship with the vampire could be a good starting point for that. Seventeen was certainly a lively specimen, as far as they went. With the behavior modification chip, and further testing and experimentation, he could prove to be very useful. Her soldiers were strong, but even with their extensive training and cocktail of performance boosters, they weren’t comparable. Vampires possessed night vision, advanced healing capabilities, super strength that far exceeded that of any human. They were agile, vicious killing machines. Their weapons came built in. And, with experience and age, they were more than capable of thinking on their feet. They needed blood to survive, and when that was the prize of a killing blow, it made for a highly effective motivator. Forty-Nine seemed to possess many of those same attributes. Built to kill. A power house in a small, unlikely package. A weapon waiting to be fired. It was clear in the fight against the Vahrall- Buffy had years of honed skill in fighting demons. Moreso, it showed amazing intelligence- far more than any other specimen in their archives. The problem with that level of awareness was that it significantly raised the volatility of experiments. Even if they did install a behavior modification chip, there was no guarantee that Forty-Nine wouldn’t test the limits of it systematically. Which meant they’d have to go about turning it in a different way. Luckily for Walsh, she did happen to have a degree in human psychology, and it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to figure something out that would work.
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November 18, 2020 19:44