Part 10

Buffy returned two hours later and went straight to Iain’s room. After the demon attack at the cabin, she’d decided it was safer for him to be at the motel, closer to where she and the Dark Angels could offer some protection. She found him running a complex simulation on his laptop computer, apparently trying to model the Abstract’s power in the material plane.

“Don’t bother,” she said.

He looked up at her. “You heard the news, then.”

“What news?”

“The Cabal. They’re dead. All of them. Gabriel found them a couple of hours ago.”

“I … didn’t know. That explains a lot.”

“It’s too late. We’re too late.”

“Oh, cut the self-pity crap, Iain. It ain’t over till it’s over. Where are Giles and Willow? I’d rather not discuss this around them. It’ll get awkward.”

“Giles left. We had an argument.”

“Big surprise there. And Willow?”

“I think she lost patience with two grown men acting like children. She probably went back to your room to check up on you. After we learned about the Cabal, she was worried about you, and not without cause.”

“I was out thinking about some things.”

“It’s as good a way to spend your last days as any. Maybe it makes a lot more sense than solving equations that always give the same grim answer.”

“What, do I have to quote Yogi Berra again? You want to give up, go ahead. Take the easy way out like always. I’m not going to join you on that road.”

“The easy way out? That’s what you think betraying my Slayer was? The easy way?”

“Kinder than calling it the coward’s way.”

“I regret how it turned out for her. It was never my intention for her to suffer, nor was it the Board’s. But she was a weak Slayer, and there were storm clouds on the horizon. We saw the Master coming, and other things even worse as the millennium approached. I could have kept her alive for a few years, maybe, but the end would have been the same, and the Watchers needed that time to bring a much stronger Slayer into the fight.”

“Me,” said Buffy.

“Your predecessor, actually. Then you. Then Kendra if you also failed. You three were by far the most promising heirs to the legacy any of us had ever seen. Beyond our most optimistic hopes. It would have been criminal to put forward anyone less against opponents such as the Master. Were it not for my sin, Miss Summers, this world might today be ruled by the Master or the Judge or perhaps by something even worse. I’m not proud of what I did, and my soul will probably burn for it. But in the end there was never any other choice. None at all. Ask the Dark Hunter. It’ll tell you the same thing.”

“If you’re looking for absolution, you’ve come to the wrong place,” said Buffy.

“No, I gave up on searching for that a long time ago.”

“My heart bleeds. Frankly, at the moment the fate of your soul really doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. What matters to me is that you’re the best person to tell me if what I have in mind has a chance in hell of working.”

“I’m listening.”

Buffy looked evenly at him. “Tell me about the Saber Sequence. What it is. How it works.”

Iain looked surprised at her mention of the Sequence, but kept any trace of it from his voice. “It’s a Gehenna Key program I designed to end the Eternal War once and for all, but it has some drawbacks that I haven’t been able to quite work out. How it works is very interesting. You see, any demons that are in our universe have quantum waveforms that are slightly out of phase with this plane. That’s because they are not native to it. That makes their presence here slightly unstable. These quantum instabilities don’t manifest themselves at the classical-mechanical level of things, any more that quantum probabilities affect us at the macro level. So under normal circumstances, this is mainly just a point of intellectual curiosity.”

He paused, apparently expecting her to be lost, but the Dark Hunter was having no trouble.

“Go on,” said Buffy.

“But the Gehenna Key allows us to do something very interesting. We could, theoretically, very briefly introduce a precise probability wave — a ripple, if you will — into the universe at the quantum level. I’ve calculated the wave, and broken it down with a Fourier transform into something we could plug into a Key sequence. Now, according to the models, this wave would have a very interesting effect. It would cause a measurable bias in the distribution of quantum effects for just an instant, which would knock every demon in this universe out of its metastable quantum relationship with it. In other words, they would all spontaneously phase back to their native planes. It would also do something else even more significant. It would destabilize and collapse every nexus that exists between this universe and every other plane of existence. Those nexi are what allow for Gates and Summonings and demonic possessions. Without them, no demon, no Elder Power, no fragment of the Elemental Abstract would ever be able to cross into this world again.”

“The end of the Eternal War,” Buffy said softly.

Iain nodded. “Yes.”

“So what’s the downside?”

“That’s the part I haven’t been able to resolve. Powering a Gehenna Key requires fairly high levels of psychokinetic energy. Specifically, the sort of psychokinetic energy that is released when a soul passes between the boundary layer between this plane and another. Souls operate rather differently from anything else. They seem, for a lack of any better explanation, to ‘quantum tunnel’ from one plane of existence to the next without using a nexus. In so doing, they release large quantities of PKE energy.”

“In other words, the thing needs human sacrifices to work,’ said Buffy.

“Yes. For a localized Gehenna Matrix, sacrificing the Cabal would have been enough to reach the break-even point and twist our little corner of spacetime out of existence. But the Saber Sequence is of an entirely different order of magnitude. Nothing short of genocide could bring a Saber to its self-sustaining reaction point,” said Iain.

“Genocide, or perhaps the Avatar. Or the combined life-energy of a Millennial Slayer and the Dark Hunter entity.”

Iain thought about that, and a strange glint came into his eyes. He reached for a handy scientific calculator and began punching in data at a feverish pace.

He began nodding to himself. “Yes. Yes. Hmm. I should have seen that sooner.”

Finally, he looked up. “Yes. I think so. Either scenario. Both you and Kurtz are linked at the quantum level with another plane of existence by virtue of your, um, metaphysical co-inhabitants. If either one of you were killed, for a brief period of time there would be a free cascade of energy from that other plane of existence. It would be like removing the nozzle from a hose without shutting down the tap. That momentary energy spike, channeled through your discorporated soul, would be exactly the type of PKE energy the Key would respond to. And the power levels would be more than sufficient to drive a Saber. Yes. It would work.”

Buffy sighed and nodded to herself. So that was it, the answer to Lillith Prophet’s latest riddle. She didn’t know if she wanted to strangle the Elder Power or thank her.

“Good,” she said. “You can reconfigure the Key to do this?”

“Of course.”

“Fine. I want you to brief Willow and Giles on the procedure. But don’t tell them about what it may require to power it. That would only complicate matters.”

Iain gave her a questioning look. “You’re actually serious about this, aren’t you?”

“Oh, yes. Deadly serious,” said Buffy.

*                              *                              *

Buffy knew something was terribly wrong when she found the door to her room ajar. She hadn’t left it open, and no one else besides the motel staff had a key.

Maybe the cleaning staff had forgotten to close the door, but she didn’t think so. There was a supernatural chill to the whole area, a sort of void in the fabric of reality, as if everything normal and good had simply been erased in the general vicinity. She’d felt it twice before: outside the cabin and then at the Garden Spot. Kurtz.

With mounting dread, she pushed open the door the rest of the way and went in.

In the center of the bed were a dozen roses and a card.

For long seconds, she stood frozen by the door of her room, her universe reduced to the flowers and the piece of cardstock propped on the coverlet, the distance from where she stood to the bed as vast as the gulf between the planes of light and darkness.

Finally, she overcame the phantoms that held her in their grip, and she walked over to snatch up the note. Taking a deep breath, she flipped it open and began to read.

“Requesting the honor of your attendance at a live performance of the End of the World, with special guest soloist Willow Rosenberg. The performance will be held at nine o’clock a.m. tomorrow morning at the scenic Gehenna Key pavilion in beautiful Pine Crest, Oregon. Since this is a private performance, please refrain from bringing guests, as they will be turned away at the door. Yours, A.K.”

Buffy sat down heavily on the edge of the bed, her mind for a long while disordered with dread and fear for her friend. Then, from beneath the confusion, something else showed through, a sudden sense of the symmetry of the situation. Of course. Kurtz was laying the same trap for her that she was laying for him. The only difference was, he would be trying to run the Gehenna Matrix and she would be attempting to initiate a Saber Sequence. As long as he didn’t realize that, though, she had an unexpected opportunity.

But how to save Willow? She held no illusions about Kurtz. He’d kill Willow just to cause Buffy pain, regardless of whether she played by his rules or not. So, given that, there was nothing to be lost by breaking those rules.

Collecting herself and banishing the gnawing fear to a corner of her mind, she picked up her room phone and dialed a number.

“Hi, Mick. It’s me. I need some recon and a couple of sniper teams. How soon can you get an op together?”

*                              *                              *

The knock came at the door shortly after the Slayer had left his room.

“Mr. Leighton, sir.”

Iain set his equations aside in a neat pile, moved to the door, and looked though the peephole at the speaker. It was one of Summers’ Dark Angels.


“Miss Summers asked me to stop by. She has a few questions she’d like me to ask you.”

Irritably, he undid the latch and admitted the imposing commando. The man closed the door behind him, but Iain paid it no mind. He still had to get his notes organized if Giles had any hope of understanding the Saber and how to initiate it. He was endlessly amazed that people thought of Giles as intelligent. Compared to the Neanderthal intelligence of the average person, perhaps, but he certainly wasn’t in Iain’s category. None of the Watchers were, including the infernal, arrogant Board.

“You wanted to ask me something?”

“Miss Summers would like to know if you’ve ever heard of something called Protocol 17,” said the Dark Angel.

Iain stopped what he was doing. “The Board has issued the Protocol 17 directive?”

“So you’ve heard of it.”

“Idiots! They’ll ruin everything. We have a much more promising solution in hand. We’ll have to get in touch with them as soon as possible, before they do something everyone will regret,” said Iain. Protocol 17. The Board was obviously desperate. Yes, the Protocol might destroy both Kurtz and the Gehenna Key, but it could only delay the inevitable, while the Saber could win the war once and for all.

“I’m sorry, I can’t let you do that, sir,” said the Dark Angel.

For a second, Iain didn’t understand. But as he watched the black weight of the silenced handgun draw level with his head, he knew. This man wasn’t here in the name of Buffy Summers. He was here in the name of the Board.

Iain Leighton never heard the whisper of the sound-suppressed projectile, never had time for regrets or fear or recriminations. And for a brief, fractional instant before consciousness left forever, he knew it was a far better end than he deserved.

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