This story was previously posted on the FanFiction.net website. It's now presented on the Spectrum Headquarters website with the permission of its author.
Tracy Island, at the cliff-side hangar and airstrip, one sunny, clear morning-
There was a saying in English; that one's mother-in-law had driven over a precipice in one's expensive and brand-new fast car. The phrase expressed many swirls of mixed emotion, much like TinTin's on this perfect new day.
She was with friends (Gordon and young Fermat) and with that terrible annoyance of the universe, Alan, about to embark on a flight to Los Angeles, where performances by Toxic Phlegm, the Radioactive Nubs and Biohazard were soon to take place. The girl was excited (oh, wildly so!), but as a well-bred young lady must, she contained herself.
Nearby, the booming ocean crashed and receded, slowly undercutting Tracy Island's tall basalt cliffs. A strong breeze rushed from the sea, heavy with moisture and tropical scents. Green tree tops swayed and hissed, in constant motion. Overhead, the rising sun was gently warm, its rays striking glints from the bright hair of Alan (chattering madly away since they'd left the house) and the slightly-fogged glasses of Fermat. Gulls screamed and laughed musically, but TinTin ignored them. She squinted her wide dark eyes instead, fighting for poise as Gordon fumbled with the hangar door lock. He was "on leave" as the paperwork put it, and in his mind not yet fully returned from sea-duty.
It is true, is it not, that when one is excited and impatient to be traveling, everyone else seems as sluggish as mud? Gordon's delay was intolerable, so TinTin stepped forward while the red-haired young lieutenant struggled to recall his family access code. She put an arm about his waist and squeezed slightly; meaning, perhaps, more than friendship (and certainly conveying a need for greater haste).
"Gordon," she chided, "we shall all four be grey and bent with age before you've opened those doors! Worse, the concert shall certainly have ended!"
"And then we'll have to wait for a tiki-bar tribute band," Alan cut in. "Seriously, dude, put it in gear! Doesn't WASP teach you guys to, like, hurry and junk?"
"They teach us t' be thorough," Gordon responded loftily. Until TinTin tickled him, that is. She knew precisely which ribs to attack, and how fiercely. "Not much use in rushin' about, is there, if… (Stop that!)… all one does is regret th' haste, afterward."
"He h- has a… point," said Fermat to Alan and TinTin (although he, too, was eager to leave for the mainland). "Ar- Arguing like… dumb kids isn't g- going to get us to C- California any… faster, and Gordon's the only one w- with a valid… access code, so quiet down and... let him work."
Besides, Alan had no right to complain about other pilots, considering that his latest "break up the garden party" tactical surprise fly-by had gotten him in so much trouble with… Well... pretty near everyone. Especially Jeff and Penelope (who he still couldn't think of as "mom").
As though it didn't much matter, Alan stuck both hands in his cargo-shorts pockets, leaned against sun-warmed rock and shrugged.
"Just jokes, Gordon," he drawled. "Call me when you've got the plane fired up and ready to go... or you make fleet admiral, whichever comes first."
Thinking hard, Gordon finally worked out the sequence and keyed it on in. He shot Alan a triumphant look as his entry code was accepted and a small panel slid aside, revealing an inset palm scanner. Having got this far, Gordon pressed his left hand to the glass, waiting as a bar of red light passed slowly downward from fingertips to palm. A shrill beeping noise sounded, and then a very deep, door-retracting rumble.
"Right," he said. "We're in."
You see, Gordon's palm print actually unlocked the hangar, where Alan's would only have summoned Brains, Jeff or Virgil. Not good, since the adults weren't too keen on this whole concert thing, anyways. Hadn't said no, you understand. Just… didn't like it. Something to do with the bands, maybe.
"Show-off," Alan kidded. "Dad always did like you better."
"Chiefly as I'm wise enough t' remain well clear," Gordon responded, waving his brother and friends through a widening gap into lamp-starred dimness. "Matter of survival, as you might say. He's a bit touchy, of late, what with th' new bride's condition and all."
Alan rolled his sky-blue eyes, then slouched into the cavernous hangar after TinTin and Fermat.
"That's for sure," he grumbled under his breath. "You'd think dad was the one having a baby!"
"…And a great many hormone shots," Gordon joked lightly, patting his pockets and carry-on luggage for keys to the plane. "There'd be no livin' with him."
Less than an hour later the four friends were aloft, cleaving gem-quality blue skies en route to Los Angeles, and a very loud concert.
The colony dig, Argyre Basin, Mars-
"Endurance Base" it was still affectionately labeled, though subsequent missions had by now expanded the former landing site to an actual colony. NASA, ESA and the Japanese Space Agency working together had made human presence on Mars more than just a wish or a fragile toehold. They'd made it humanity's next big step. Partly domed, partly subsurface, Endurance Base was home to twelve astronauts, a handful of engineers, one guard unit, two doctors and a Tracy Aerospace technical consultant (on seemingly permanent loan to NASA).
This far from Earth, they were a self-sufficient lot; courageous and quick-thinking, because any other mind set would have gotten them killed. On that low-gravity, bitter cold, beautiful world, any mistake at all could be fatal. Any uncertainty, the last.
Tracy Island, the office-
Virgil, it was, who granted his brothers' take-off clearance. Minor formality, as the kids would have swum to the mainland, if they'd had to. Kind of touchingly, TinTin and Gordon had several times invited him along, but the big, husky, chain-smoking pilot had better things to do than listen to "Toxic Crap", or whatever. Kids these days, you know?
All Virgil did was smile over the comm, saying,
"You're cleared for takeoff, kiddo. Have fun at the show, and fly safe. Call when you get there."
"Right. Will do," Gordon responded briskly. Lieutenant Gordon David Tracy, that is to say, of the World Aquanaut Security Patrol, seven-time Olympic gold medalist and Skydiver pilot. No longer "kiddo" at all, really… Except in fond memory. "Expect my ring at right 'round three hours, or so."
Gordon's hazel eyes left his instruments, briefly, as he glanced up to return Virgil's smile.
"I'll be right here, listening," the older Tracy replied.
…Right here, ducking dad, avoiding Penny, keeping out of Brains' latest engineering project and watching for trouble… Yup. Good times. Sometimes he envied Scott, who at least had business to bury himself in, or John, who was about as far removed from the family stew-pot as it was possible to get. Lucky bastard.
Virgil hadn't long to feel sorry for himself before grandma came bustling in, spry and sharp-tongued as ever. She'd brought up his breakfast tray, and a great many comments, besides.
"What the hell Jeff was thinkin', lettin' them kids run off to a damn rock concert, I got no earthly clue," she snapped, setting a heated grav-tray of eggs, toast, pie, juice and fresh coffee before her grandson, who'd stood up from his seat to welcome her. "Back in my day, when people was still sane, we listened to music, not cats and dogs tied up in a sack with broken plates and a bundle of firecrackers! Set yourself down and eat, boy, before I throw it all out."
This last, because Virgil had kissed her wrinkled cheek and then stepped off to open the French doors.
"I ain't fixed all this breakfast just t' have you ignore it… like her."
"Her", of course, was Lady Penelope, the newly pregnant queen and swan of Tracy Island. Grandma couldn't stand and (worse) didn't trust her. But it wasn't as though Jeff's latest wife made things easy. Penelope had to have everything just so, including delicate, crust-less sandwiches and gourmet foods prepared for her by a culinary staff imported from Europe.
…But the day was beautiful, and it was difficult to stay angry when sunshine and gusting warm breezes flooded the room, creaking the doors and fluttering at gauzy white curtains. Small, bright-colored birds hopped and chirped on the tiled balcony, pecking at the crumbs Virgil tossed them (once he'd finished off breakfast, of course; Victoria Tracy permitted no wastage).
"This is good, Grandma. Thanks," he told her, polishing off a warm ham-and-cheese omelet to begin on the moist pecan pie. "I was nearly famished enough to go out and catch my own breakfast."
Silver-haired Victoria lowered herself into a chair; bolt-upright, but smiling.
"Humph," she grumbled. "It ain't the best, but see that you eat it all, Teddy. I ain't fixin' to have you go toes-up from starvation."
She called him "Teddy" because his middle name was "Edward", and she'd never, ever, been able to abide "Virgil". Too… snobbish and high-toned, maybe. Too eastern. Real folks had names like Grant or John Matthew or Jeffrey.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm eating as fast as I can," he replied, which was true enough. Only Gordon was capable of packing the food away faster than big, brown-eyed Virgil. Grandma grunted agreement, adding,
"Wouldn't hurt you none to pray first, neither. Bein' right with the Lord works powerfully on the digestion, as my ma used to say."
Virgil almost choked on a dense, sugary mouthful of pecans, syrup and pastry. He managed to swallow the lot by taking a huge gulp of juice straight from the cut-glass pitcher, and because grandma got up to pound his broad back. Once he could speak, again, Virgil gasped out Scott's favorite meal prayer.
"Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghostes'. The one that's firstest eats the mostest."
...Which got him pounded by grandma, again. Harder, this time. All in all, a pretty good morning, once the old woman settled back into her chair to read letters from Kansas and Wyoming, bits of which she shared aloud. Virgil rang for cleanup, and then went back to minding the desk. Minor emergencies had cropped up here and there, but nothing serious. Not yet. For now, there was nothing but sea-breeze and birdsong and quiet companionship.
Over the Pacific, in a bright yellow turbo-prop aircraft-
Matters were quite different in the fast-speeding plane, where Alan was playing his favorite game of "annoy the pilot". This time out, he'd decided to sing aloud to his iPod's rendition of the Toxic Phlegm hit: Beer Goggles. The song wasn't much good to begin with, but Alan reached new and excruciating levels of suckage, even so. Like most of his brothers, he just... couldn't... sing. Gordon heard him despite all the wind, engine noise and comm chatter, and was disturbed enough to threaten Alan with ejection.
"Hah! Shows what you know, WASP-boy! Private planes don't have ejection seats!" Alan crowed; tapping the song's beat on his armrests. This was quite bothersome, as he was seated directly to Gordon's right, in the copilot's chair.
"And who said anythin' at all about ejection seats? Heave you out manually, I will, if you don't shut y'r noise and be still!"
"Dude, chill," Alan responded, shaking his head in mock worry. "The military's, like, turned you into this vicious, psycho no-fun machine. I'm for real!"
The baby-faced blond glanced back at Fermat and TinTin for confirmation, but Fermat was working on his laptop, while TinTin had taken refuge in a mass-market spy novel. Prodded, they shifted around in their seats, grumbling inarticulately and pointedly not making eye contact. Dude. Where was the love? The support? The respect for music and freedom and all that was Alan? Undefeated, he switched songs, shifting to a Biohazard number: Broke, Sticky and Confused. An even worse choice than the first, for someone who couldn't hit high notes to save his own life.
Alan ended up spending the remainder of the flight in the head, because TinTin's sudden sharp glance made that seem like an awesome idea, even if he wasn't sure why.
Endurance Base, Mars-
Each day alive and on-planet brought further knowledge and brand-new experience. The sols, so similar in length to an Earthly day, were filled with hard work and calculated risks. There were tunnels to be drilled, greenhouses and hangars to erect and domes to construct, all of which required heavy, complex machinery that had to be nursed along like a pram-load of fragile preemies. Everyone stayed busy, especially John, who not only repaired said machinery, but debugged and programmed it, too. And the power suits. And the base computer system. And the new Martian Global Comm and Positioning Network. The family business (which he sometimes disrespectfully referred to as "Tracy Aero-spacey") had a chip or component or an operating system in virtually every piece of equipment. John was too busy to rest, and he couldn't have been better pleased.
Some days, he was up to his eyebrows in glitching code. Other days, out on the surface, pounding at the damn solar panel motors with Pete McCord, the base commander. Sometimes, work took him down to the tunnels, when Roger Thorpe requested help trouble-shooting a balky drill. (John hated those things. Seriously. There were out to get him.) At times he was called upon to help explore their surroundings in a motorized rover, John digitizing the landscape while Roger, Kyril or Ilon drove.
At the moment, Endurance Base was operating at about the level of the old Amundsen-Scott Station, on Earth; cold, remote and isolated, with survival and science everyone's primary tasks. He did get some downtime, during which John did one of three things: Ate, when and if he thought about it. Set up his telescope for another Messier Marathon attempt, or… visited the base clinic again. Dr. Bennett might have been getting suspicious. It was difficult for him to tell, as he hadn't much skill reading body language and facial expressions.
That evening, John walked into the roughly-hewn, acrid-smelling clinic just as she was preparing to go off-shift. Dr. Fields hadn't come in, yet (John had the man's habits and schedule memorized), so he had twenty minutes of contact with short, busy Linda.
She turned from the crew bio-scan monitor at the sound of the door, readying what John assumed was her professional face. Then, spotting him, she smiled a little and sighed.
"What is it this time, John?"
(She'd have thought he was malingering, except that no civilian astronaut on base worked harder, and he certainly had the money and means to leave.) Dressed like herself in blue coveralls, he was quite a good-looking young man; blond, tall and slender, with few expressions and a rather monotone voice. Something of a hypochondriac, too, apparently.
John hesitated. Then, thinking quickly, he lied (just as badly as ever),
"I have a headache. A migraine."
"Uh-huh. Sure thing, sunshine. And what happened to the last batch of aspirin I gave you? At the rate you're consuming that stuff, I'm surprised your blood hasn't thinned to vapor and you still have a functioning liver."
He smiled, which wasn't quite fair to a woman that far away from her home and (sort of) boyfriend. Honestly… for no reason at all she could name, Linda enjoyed his brief visits.
"I'm careful," John told her.
Lind scowled, her brown eyes flicking back and forth from the bio-scanner to John.
"You're also sleep-deprived. And underweight."
Going to her print-locked steel pharmacy cabinet, Linda keyed the thing open, and then reached inside for a strip of aspirin bubble-packs. Counting out seven, she tore the packs free, locked up the cabinet and handed them over, saying,
"There. One week's supply. Try to make this batch last, sunshine, because the ships only come twice a year, and there are other patients. And get some sleep, won't you?"
John accepted the aspirin with a second, brief smile. It was always good to see Dr. Bennett, but here, maybe, was an opening.
"I plan to," he said, "once I've completed the first Martian Messier Marathon."
She looked blank.
"You actually plan to run?" she asked him, frowning up at the tall young civilian. "Out on the surface or in the tunnels?"
This time, a sound escaped him that might almost have been a laugh.
"No. Not a running marathon, doctor. An observational one. I plan to set up my telescope in the south dome and spot every object in Charles Messier's deep-sky catalog; everything from the Crab Nebula to M110. Has to be done in one night, though."
Right. Here came the hard part; the words he'd been waiting to say and had actually even rehearsed. "I could, um… show you. If you'd like."
Linda's slim eyebrows twitched together, making her look short and… what? Angry? She was about to respond, when Dr. Mike Fields strolled in, early for once. And that, of course, was that. John nodded to both physicians and said,
"Good evening, doctor."
Then he pocketed his aspirin and left, entirely missing Linda's openly puzzled look and slightly raised hand.
Tracy Island, the mansion's grand residential suite, late morning-
Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward… Tracy (spoken and thought with always a slight hesitation before the last bit) had never appeared more beautiful. Though her formerly model-slim figure had filled out somewhat, Her Ladyship positively glowed; creamy skin, flowing-gold tresses, radiant health. Bad job about the morning sickness. Utter bore, really, but couldn't be helped. Came with the territory, as one might say; like torrid heat with Pacific islands.
As Penelope examined herself, turning this way and that, craning her head before her attiring room's full-length gilt mirrors, she took stock and made plans. No more light coloured clothing, the new Mrs. Tracy decided. Despite being charmingly spring-like (in a land with no seasons) they did tend to make one seem… larger. Penelope had no desire to resemble a brood mare. Thus, slimming attire, one child and then done. Jeff was a sweet, indulgent old darling, quite over the moon about her condition, and Penelope was tremendously fond of him. A terribly good thing, too, as such matches worked far better when there was genuine emotion involved. His five sons, however, were something of a bother. There was no sense in wasting a fine morning, however. Not with elegant clothes to be donned, and a perfect setting to choose for her portrait.
"You may enter," Her Ladyship announced, speaking to those who waited just out of sight beyond the servants' door.
"Yes, Milady," came the immediate response, spoken in a brisk, north-country accent. Three young women entered the room, led by Elspeth Morgan, her senior lady's maid; a solidly-built, grey-haired matron whose devotion quite matched that of Aloysius Parker, her driver.
With these two, Penelope had managed to retain her lands and title, 'acquiring' wealth enough to feign idleness and ease before others. Later, with the full connivance of her valued old servants, she'd placed herself in position to meet, charm and wed Jeff Tracy. And now, the salvaged Creighton-Ward estate was to have an heir.
As Elspeth and her trio of graceful assistants brushed, draped and arrayed Penelope, they reported bits of island gossip: which Tracy son had been featured in Paris Match… What that dreadful old harridan of a Victoria Tracy had said to Louis-le-Chef… Who among them had most recently dodged the awkward advances of young Alain… That sort of thing. Penelope nodded and smiled, but did not really listen. Instead,
'Richard Niles Thomas Creighton-Ward Tracy' she thought to herself, and (in the event that her little stranger came forth female) 'Elizabeth Millicent Grace Creighton-Ward Tracy'. The names brought a warm flush to her soft cheeks, the colour deepening when her handsome, excessively American husband strode through the doors and into Penelope's dressing room, scattering maids like small birds.
"Out!" he roared cheerfully, shooing Elspeth, Marie, Angelique and Gwenny away with waved arms and a sharply-snapped towel. "Beat it! She's flawless already, and I've waited long enough."
Elspeth stiffened angrily, but Penelope shook her head. Naturally, one must expect certain modes of behaviour from a wealthy, exuberant yank... and allow him frequent access. Unwillingly, miffed at the breech of propriety, Her Ladyship's servants departed the room.
"Hello, darling," she purred, stepping into Jeff's embrace. "Dreadfully sorry to have kept you waiting… I simply wished to present a pleasing appearance at breakfast."
Jeff chuckled and swept her up against him, tall and strong despite his sixty-odd years.
"As if you could do anything else but look good," he scoffed lovingly. "Both of you." For, of course, he included their child in his statement. "How's little Grant or Vicky-Lynn, this morning?"
To her credit, Penelope's smile did not falter (although something akin to 'over my dead body' shot through her mind). In a placid voice, she said,
"Our baby is progressing splendidly, Jeff; practically somersaulting at the sound of your voice."
A tiny lie, as she wasn't that far along, yet, but the notion made him happy, so where was the harm in it?
…And there was time, yet, to correct his disastrous, utterly common, name choices. Jeff's embrace tightened, rumpling a very expensive pink linen morning dress and mussing her long, golden hair.
"Penny," he mused hoarsely, whispering against the side of her head, "I can't wait. It's going to be wonderful to have a baby in the house. One I can be a real father to. I swear to God, Penny, this time I won't miss a moment. First word, first step, his baby teeth… I'll be there for everything. I can't tell you how happy I am for this chance, but if it takes a thousand years, I'll never stop trying. We're a whole family again, thanks to you."
Penelope smiled; all blue-eyed softness in his fierce-tender grasp. After all, there were worse ways that she might have acquired a fortune, and far less attentive men she might have attached herself to. So, when Jeff said,
"I love you,"
Penny replied, "And I you, darling. Forever."
And maybe, just a little, she meant it.
Los Angeles, California, on a bright, sunny day (and out of the plane's bathroom, at last)-
Gordon was... y'know... an okay pilot. A little too cautious for headstrong, do-it-now Alan, but maybe he'd loosen up after a few days ashore. Anyways, Gordon brought the plane skimming down like a guy whose life depended on no mistakes, ever. You could hardly tell that his usual ride had ion-fueled rockets instead of a regular jet engine. Or that it could fly and submerge. (Pretty beastly, huh? Alan had spent some time researching WASP Skydiver craft, though he wouldn't admit it to Gordon.)
"Kinda rough landing," he said, shaking his blond head regretfully. "Budget cuts keeping your low-ranked butt confined to the ship or something, dude? Not getting enough practice out there?"
Gordon sighed. He ignored his brother long enough to respond to ground control's crisp,
"Tango Bravo Four-niner Beechcraft, exit runway left, earliest pilot discretion. Taxi to parking, good day."
"Four-niner Beechcraft taxi t' parking. Aye, sir… Good day, that is." And then double clicked the mic, as well, just to be certain they'd heard. Afterward, while guiding his plane to the palm-lined taxiway, Gordon said,
"Boat, not ship, Alan. There're a good many differences between a surface vessel and the Mako, chief among them bein' mode of navigation."
"Like: clean and obvious, versus sneaky and bottom-dwelling?" Alan suggested brightly.
Had he not been taxiing a small aircraft off of a major runway, Gordon might have responded. But LAX was a terribly busy air- and spaceport, and he had to remain focused, or risk being landed upon by something very large and fast-moving. Fortunately, TinTin was present to smooth matters over. She leaned forward at once in a cloud of perfume and gentle admonishment, saying,
"Alain! It is unkind to tease Gordon so, when he has just now returned to us! We are on holiday. Besides, Alain, WASP does not 'sneak'. They watch for piracy and smuggling, and provide rescue to those in peril at sea."
"Yeah… blah, blah, blah," Alan grumped. He was still angry because a disguised WASP surface cruiser had once clocked him speeding in a no-wake zone, scanned and fined him. Five-hundred dollars! Like, okay, there was a such thing as over-kill, right? He'd learned his lesson; why beat the dead water-horse with a phone call to dad?
"They're sneaky," he repeated, refusing to back down.
TinTin shot him a reproving look, then turned her head to coo something warm, French and gooey at Gordon. Alan would have shifted his attention to Fermat, but the younger boy was back on the phone with his mother, who'd already called him, like, ten-million times. Dude! It was only a massive rock concert… at the new amphitheater… in landslide and earthquake-plagued California… without supervision. For real, what could possibly go wrong?
Endurance Base, Mars, the west tunnel-
Just maybe, he hadn't handled things well. John didn't really have enough experience dealing with females to tell. He went over the conversation (everything he'd said and she'd replied) in his head; trying to parse meaning from gesture, tone and facial tics. But he might as well have set out to translate Linear-B. Words were one thing, but what ought to have been a straight-forward interpretation could be totally changed by a different tone, pursed lips or raised eyebrow. John didn't get it. He'd studied the matter; observed people in groups at their small talk, but still couldn't work out the nuances that everyone else seemed to grasp without effort. Whatever, huh? Waste of time even to try, so instead, John walked.
The tunnel wasn't much higher than his head. Had he been wearing a hard-suit and helmet, John would have had a scant five inches clearance above, with less than a foot to either side. Cramped, but sensible, as wider tunnels were harder to scan for leaks. The floor was polished flat, but rather gritty, and the curving grey walls still bore obvious drill-marks.
There were square yellow light panels overhead, spaced every three meters, and tuned close to Earthly sunlight. The effect was supposed to be soothing, but several people complained that it made them long for home. Not John. Most things were fairly new and interesting to him; Mars no more alien than the world outside his "school" had been. He could've done without the smell, though. That many people living together in close quarters, with generated air and iodized water, made a definite sensory impact. Got a little thick in there, actually. He'd gotten used to it after awhile, along with the constant noise of pumps, machinery and settling rock. Those weren't new, and didn't often bring themselves to his attention. Something else did, though, on this particular think-walk.
Three fast impressions cut through John's reverie: motion, a small, furry body, and chirruping 'miaou'. Taken together, this equaled Bendix, the colony's adopted cat (and additional smell-source). He'd jumped ship three transports ago, and was now officially theirs, associating with whoever would feed him. Pretty often, that was John.
The scrawny yellow feline stepped from a side passage with lifted head and fanned whiskers, mewling a soft greeting.
"Hey, yourself" John replied, halting to talk. "How's life on four legs?"
He'd saved a piece of soy sausage from breakfast, and brought it out now, still bundled in vacuum-pack plastic. Bendix danced forward at the sight of food, tail in the air like a swaying exclamation point. But when John unwrapped and presented the greyish patty, the cat sniffed, turned around and made a big show of kicking dirt over it.
"No," John admitted, "I didn't like it, either. There's more of those cheese cubes from home back in my quarters, though. You can have some of those, instead."
A sure bet, since Bendix enjoyed cheese, especially Colby and cheddar. John stooped to pick the cat up, which is why he was still in the tunnel when Dr. Bennett came hurrying out from the same passage that Bendix had used. Not her usual route. He couldn't think why she'd taken it, unless, maybe…
"John! Hi," she said, pulling up short at the sight of civilian consultant and purring feline. Linda was out of breath. She'd had almost to run after delivering her report to Dr. Fields, dodging other meetings in her rush to find John. Only Kim Cho had received a confusingly swift explanation. but not much of one.
"Hey, doctor," John Tracy replied. Because she gave him time to process her presence, he added, "It's nice to see you again."
Linda worried, then, about what she looked like. About whether she'd messed up her hair or her un-retouched lipstick. For confidence, she reached out her arms for the cat, which was willing enough to be transferred. Then, after nuzzling Bendix, she panted,
"You were… saying something about a… marathon?"
Quipped John, with a very brief smile,
"From the way you're breathing, doctor, it sounds like you've already run one."
Well, damn him for joking at a time like this! When her heart was pounding, and she wasn't even sure why she'd come out here; why she absolutely had to proceed with their conversation and maybe-date. Because that's what he'd been suggesting, wasn't it? A star-gazing date?
"Running is healthy… and I didn't get a chance to answer, when you asked if I wanted to watch you find stars."
"Deep-sky objects," he corrected, taking back the cat (and coming another step nearer). "Not stars. Some of the Messier objects are galaxies, some nebulae or open clusters. But… yeah. I mean, if you'd like, I could show you. Be a long night, though. You don't have to stay for it all."
Linda Bennett was a professional; a physician and astronaut. She was also too much alone, not having been especially important to anyone for quite some time. Playing another round of 'take-back-the-cat-and-step-closer', she seized poor Bendix away from John Tracy.
"I'm off-duty for most of tomorrow. Mike's got it, with some coverage from the auto-doc and our physician's assistant. I'm not likely to get called in... but in any case, that's why there's coffee."
"No," John said, stepping forward, "there's recycled mud."
They were both, at this point, holding Bendix, who didn't much like it. The cat squirmed free with a disgusted MrrOWrrr, picked up his grit-coated sausage and left. Now there was less than six inches between John and Linda, and no cat at all.
Back on the island, meanwhile, Virgil Tracy, Jeff and Brains took turns listening for emergencies, and testing their brand-new alert system. You see, if International Rescue was ever to get off the ground, they would have to hear everyone, anywhere, who needed their help. They'd have to arrive in force, and in time; a matter of money, dedication and high-tech vehicles.
Mars, Endurance Base, in the chilly and thrumming west tunnel-
They weren't very far apart, now, and examining her upturned face, John thought that Doctor Bennett seemed to be… hard to say. Waiting for something, maybe; one of those varying-strength social signals that would tell her what he expected next. Complicated stuff, and on the whole he would rather have programmed a giant network of quantum logic gates (like the ones he kept having dreams about). Still… taking a risk, he put a hand forth and touched her shoulder, the way that Scott sometimes did with him (a way of being no-surprise friendly, John reasoned).
Her brown eyes widened a little and her eyebrows lifted. That was a question-look, right? So, he added something of grandma's; a little push to the hair, moving it off of the doctor's forehead a bit.
Linda smiled up at the blond young man, whose face was just about unreadable. She was the second most surprised person on Mars (John being the first) when he leaned forward and brushed his mouth against her forehead in something that was not quite entirely unlike a first kiss. Then he stepped away, looking mildly pleased with himself. Or amazed. Linda's heart was hammering too violently to allow for much rational thought. (At the moment, she'd have failed a first year med-student's entry exam. At the moment, she didn't care.)
"The sun sets today at 1900 hours, doctor," John said to her, recovering an earlier line of thought. "I'll need to be set up in the south dome and linked to the main telescope by 1850, at the latest. But I would… it would be nice to see you there, if you get the chance to show up."
The doctor nodded, and her smile warmed, though she was as nervously cautious with words as her civilian astronaut proto-date.
"1850, copy that. I'll be there… with genuine coffee," (she had some, still, in her personals locker) "…and something comfortable to sit on."
With that, Linda reached out to touch, not seize, his left arm, about halfway between shoulder and elbow. Rubbed it a little, and then drew back.
"Okay," he responded, adding, "see you then." (Because that's what people said, when parting with the expectation of a second encounter.)
"That, you most certainly will, mister."
Doctor Bennett smiled all over her face before taking the north passage toward Kim Cho's bio lab and greenhouses, but John continued westward, the direction in which his quarters and telescope lay. As he walked (and the emotional fog cleared, somewhat) John became aware of a subtle difference in background environmental sound; a feeble shift upward in pitch. Changes in machine noise were almost never good, so he paid closer attention, triangulating as he went, to identify the whirr-y, screeching sound's probable source.
Pump three, it most likey was; distinctly unhealthy and laboring. Not too much of a surprise, really, as three tended to clog, getting several hundred gallons of acidic water backed up in its works, every time. Not good, though, and best dealt with immediately.
While passing through a pressure-control checkpoint, John took the comm-unit off of his belt and called Roger Thorpe, the colony's chief engineer and mechanic.
"Nuqneh. What's up, AO'?" the Marine responded (he nearly always called John "AO'", which was "straight and tall" in Samoan). "We lose a mu'qaD cog, or something?"
Because Roger made part of this statement in badly-accented Klingon, John answered likewise.
"HIjah'. Pump three sounds unfit. Another jam, or a snapped belt, I'd guess."
"Copy that, AO'. I'm on it. Call you back once it's repaired. Sooner, if I need anything exotic in the way of parts or tools."
"Understood," John replied, smiling even though his comm-unit was vox only. United States Marine Captain Roger Thorpe reminded him quite a bit of Scott. Next to Pete McCord, the base commander, he had no closer comrade on Mars. "I'll stay by the phone with a tool box, just in case."
"Knowing pump three, AO', you'd better make it an AED and full life support kit! Thorpe out."
Not much of a problem, it then seemed; but little things, small matters, had a way of adding up.
Tracy Island, later the same day-
Because her boys were mostly absent or busy, grandma occupied herself by planning and cooking a very large, ranch-style supper, meaning to have it ready by the time they got back (John Matthew was farther away than the rest. His food she'd freeze up and pay to have transported.).
Naturally, she had to throw the damn "army of occupation" the hell out of her kitchen first, an act which kept the house in an uproar for hours. Regular fifth columnist, Victoria Tracy… and right proud of that fact.
Lady Penelope, meanwhile, was off touring the grounds with her official portrait artist. (Virgil had offered, once, but she wanted someone a bit more renowned and professional.) Eldon… the bearded old man went by a single name, and had recently painted Her Royal Highness, Princess Alais… brought along swatches of brightly-coloured cloth and a digital camera.
At this spot and that he would pause, arranging Penny just so, in precisely that shaft of warm light, with varying shades of cloth draped round her graceful long neck and expanding bust. Many photographs were snapped, but in the end, three stood forth particularly: Penelope, draped in soft lilac, standing beneath an arbor of drooping pale blooms and wild ivy; another shot of Her Ladyship turned halfway round, wearing pink, before an overgrown wall of grey stone; and a last, playful snap of barefoot, wind-blown Penny strolling amid cliff-side palm trees, with the rolling ocean and turquoise sky at her back.
Eldon favoured the latter, but Penelope wished to avoid seeming undignified. Having struggled so long to maintain appearances, she'd come to despise any hint of the ordinary or commonplace. No bare feet, then, or loose, streaming hair. Not for Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward Tracy, and her already cherished small heir.
Rather upsettingly, she had to re-shoot a few of her poses when someone… Virgil or Dr. Hackenbacker, she supposed… swooped past the house in a noisy, prototype aircraft. The ground shook like a pounded drum. Trees bent, and screeching clouds of birds shot up from the greenery like an erupting rainbow, scattering cyclones of plumage. Bit of a bother, but Jeff was "in trade", so to speak. He had business to maintain and a regular warren of sons to employ. Occasional disruptions were only to be expected.
She simply waited until the vast, roaring aircraft banked off around the mountain, and those terrified flocks of birds ceased their desperate wheeling and calling. Then, Penelope arranged her face along more placid, well-bred lines, and prepared to be photographed, again. Eldon was not pleased, however, grumbling,
"You must give to the camera more than a mask, Milady! This portrait will endure long after youth and beauty and life itself have passed away from you. How will those who look upon it understand the woman it pictures, if she has revealed nothing to me of her soul?"
Princess Alais, he'd depicted as the ungovernable minx that she was; green eyes wide, and lips slightly parted, a frisking foxhound pup on her lap. Many years later, no one would have the least bit of difficulty perceiving what a beloved trial she was to her long-suffering father, His Royal Majesty, King Denys.
But Penelope quailed at the thought of such openness. Her actual personality? Revealed before all, in bright paint and rough canvas? Impossible. And anyhow, what remained of herself to display, now that the wolves had been beaten away and security achieved? Who, really, was she?
"Come, Milady," Eldon was saying, from behind his tripod-mounted camera, "let joy for this day and your marriage shine through. Smile with true feeling, and exceed in beauty your surroundings!"
…That, of course, was before Louis-le-Chef and Elspeth Morgan came stomping along the path from the house, complaining in loud tones that they'd been ejected, and demanding redress. Penelope sighed and broke pose again. At times, servants were much more trouble than they were worth.
Not far away, meanwhile, at the island's leeward end, Virgil practiced maneuvers in Brains' newest prototype. The aircraft was large, but fast, with a tendency to yaw unexpectedly, and Virgil had his hands full maintaining control. He was supposed to circle the island four times, and then fly the thing… a heavy cargolifter… through a series of glowing hoops projected in midair by the island's comm and security grid. Not as simple a task as Hackenbacker had made out, needless to say.
The plane's cockpit was standard enough; a two-seater with yoke and pedal control system, but her engines were unlike those of anything he'd ever flown, and she handled like a drunken grizzly on roller skates. Two... three... then a fourth circuit were completed, but the targeting rings proved close to impossible.
"Dammit!" Virgil snarled, when the hoop he'd been aiming for began to glow red. He was off course and too fast. Slewing sideways, again. "Brains, the lateral stability on this piece-of-crap airplane sucks!"
"I c- concede that there are still, ah… still a few issues th- that may need addressing, Virgil." Hackenbacker replied, from his nice, safe seat at the office.
"Like the reason why I'm the one test-flying your latest brainstorms?" Virgil growled under his breath.
He stopped talking to concentrate on the next glowing ring, which hovered in the air, about a hundred yards above a chaotic landscape of swaying dark tree-tops and hysterical birds. This ring was bright green, meaning that his angle and speed were dead on. Then the wind caught his aircraft, and Virgil drifted south a few stomach-wrenching degrees. Immediately, the target circle slid from his main view screen, turning yellow as poison.
"Aw, hell…!" the pilot muttered, correcting so fast that he all but bent the throttle and steering yoke. Didn't take so long this time, as he was beginning to get a feel for the big, touchy girl he'd been told to shake down. A moment or two afterward, his view had altered from jungle to sky. He made it through four of those wretched targeting hoops before getting blown off-course, again; having to bank out to sea and start over.
Brains might have said something, but the pilot didn't much listen. It was hard to pay attention to a back-seat driver when he was wrapped up in the music of wind and metal and engine noise… and in sticking all nine of those damn, shifting rings. This time, for sure…
Los Angeles, California, late afternoon-
There were many quite memorable tours of LA; paths that would take the adventurous visitor through areas of the city infamous for celebrity suicides, crimes of passion, or long-gone movie scenes. Their chauffeur took none of these, instead conveying his young charges along the much safer, upper traffic routes. These were restricted to hybrid vehicles of a certain speed and price range, with few off ramps, and no pedestrians or panhandlers allowed.
No, one didn't get to see much of the city that way but gold-tinted smog and adverts… but one did avoid the sort of trouble which smoked and rioted and huddled miserably amongst the graffiti-ed road pylons, below.
Gordon Tracy took everything in with new eyes. Officer candidate school and a nine-month undersea cruise had given him a fresh perspective on the rest of the world. Rising at 0700 instead of 0430 felt unspeakably decadent, while all of this time at loose-ends left him restless. Being out of uniform felt odd, as well. One became accustomed to sea-time and rigid schedules aboard Mako. One ate, bunked and flew when instructed to do so, no questions asked… unless the notion of many hours spent polishing the boat's exposed metal appealed.
…But this was quite difficult to put into words. Perhaps TinTin understood, but Alan seemed upset with him, still, which was probably down to the fact that he'd gone off to sea in the first place. Hadn't been much else to do, had there, once his coach and half the damn swim team were lost in that mountainside plane wreck? The last thing he'd wanted to do was talk about it, then or now.
Rather than attempt to explain, Gordon gazed through the limousine's window at electronic billboards and racing bullet trains. At some point on their journey to the amphitheatre, TinTin took his hand and gave it a bit of a squeeze… but she'd always seemed to know what he was feeling. And that was the other reason he'd left them.
Los Angeles, California, on a day of breathless, bright heat and surging crowds-
The Golden State Amphitheatre was accessible from Broadway and Hill Streets, both. It was also a glaring white, starkly modern structure, and already quite densely thronged. The car park and sidewalks without were filled with ticket scalpers and last-minute bargain hunters, as well as those who would have liked to attend the concert, but could not. There was always television, of course, but it wasn't the same. After all, one expected illusion and drama, on TV.
Food and drinks were loudly hawked from roadside carts, beside temporary booths displaying such concert merchandise as autographed pictures, guitar-pick necklaces and tee-shirts. TinTin bought an extra-large Biohazard shirt, the one featuring their green-haired lead singer, Punkk. Not from an outside vendor, though; too risky.
Their limousine drew up to a special, underground VIP entrance, sparing TinTin, Alan, Fermat and Gordon the press and bother of fighting their way through a crowded admissions gate. Why put up with that mess if you didn't have to, right? And a Tracy most emphatically didn't have to.
The four got out beneath the main entrance, at a valet-tended portal by a row of high-end food and souvenir shops. It was quite noisy below, for the crowds that stamped, clapped and shifted so restlessly above made a thunderous racket, and their sounds were readily transmitted by concrete and steel.
Alan didn't step from the car, he launched; capering about, laughing and swinging his long arms. When someone upstairs began noisily tuning an amplified instrument, he struck his best rock star pose and played air guitar right along. Very excited, he was, because the tickets were his. Mostly. With a little help from Christian Springfield.
Fermat smiled at his antics, pleased just to be included in such novel older-kid doings. This was his first major concert, and everything from the pulsating concrete tunnel to the merchandise and holographic adverts fascinated the boy. He just about twisted his own neck trying to stare all around himself like a curious small owl.
Gordon leaned down to give instructions to their driver, who'd park the long car and then wait for his charges in the chauffeur and helicopter pilots' lounge, just a quick badge-beep away. TinTin bought herself that tee-shirt; black, with a pink anarchy heart and Punkk's manga-style picture on it.
Manga-style, because the real band members were never actually seen. They performed their sets on a hidden soundstage, wearing motion-capture body suits that would animate holographic characters "performing" in public amid wild and dangerous pyrotechnics. So they always looked perfect… or perfectly awful… depending on the song, and the mood of the crowd. Even their tune-ups were transmitted this way, to add to the impact and realism.
One of Springfield's employees met Alan and his guests inside the VIP entrance; a tall, balding man, faintly supercilious.
"What's up, Simms?" Alan greeted him, extending a reluctantly-met fist bump. "You ready to rock?"
From his expression, he wasn't, but Simms nodded anyhow, tense as a radio tower guy-wire.
"Indeed, I am. Right this way, Mr. Tracy, if you please," he said, and his voice was just not quite obviously annoyed.
Simms led the three teenagers and Gordon through a concrete VIP access tunnel to an elevator, which looked like the emperor's personal pod-lift on Corruscant, or something. (Socially-toxic nerd stuff; naturally, Alan didn't say any of that aloud.) Anyways, the elevator was all red velvet panels and polished brass inside, with plenty of cleaned-up graffiti marks and old concert stickers. You see, rich kids weren't any more careful of their stuff than poor ones. The damage just got handled faster.
The lift ride was sort of long, taking them in style from the VIP entrance to the stadium's skybox level, where three doors in a poshly decorated hallway led to the private domains of James Springfield, Stavros Vallianatos and the current US president, Michael Cranney.
Alan, Fermat, TinTin and Gordon were ushered through the Springfield door by Simms, who then had the good sense to vanish. They found themselves in a bright, airy, two-storey skybox. Chris was already there, of course, lounging at the wet-bar with a drink in hand.
"Alan!" he called out, putting down his glass to come over. "Glad you could make it! And the entourage would be…?"
The youngest Tracy greeted his exasperating serpent of a school friend, and then started on the introductions.
"Hey, what's up, Chris? Thanks for inviting us, man. Let's see... You already know Fermat from Wharton. His parents are, like, scientists and junk. This is TinTin Kyrano. She'd the hottest thing in Polynesia…"
"Or California," Chris cut in with a smile, drawing a blush from the girl, who stepped a bit closer to Gordon. For his own part, the swimmer seemed very much out of place… but displays of great wealth had always troubled him.
"Yeah," Alan replied shortly, before Chris could make any chick-thiefing moves (like, flash a black AmEx or open his wallet). "…and over there's my brother, Gordon."
Then, indicating their tall, brown-haired host with a vague sort of nothing-special wave, Alan said,
"Guys, this is Chris Springfield. His dad sells drugs, or something."
Chris smiled and clapped Alan on the shoulder hard enough to leave a mark.
"Springfield Pharmaceuticals," he corrected, sounding like an heir apparent who'd been doing his homework. "From the lab to your medicine cabinet, we're in control. Up to you to follow the damn prescription, though."
Instead of going on about his father's vast corporation or hitting on TinTin, Chris addressed his next comment to the still-quiet swimmer.
"That was quite a show you put on at the last Olympics, Gordon. Seven gold medals! Almost matched the world record, huh? I swim a little, myself, but nothing like that. Good to meet you."
And he extended a friendly, confident hand, the smile on his face finally reaching his green eyes. Gordon managed a polite reply and handshake, praying that Springfield wouldn't bring up the fatal plane crash that had cost him a coach and best mate. So many people did mention it, so frequently, most of them sympathetic or merely curious. And each reminder tore like fangs at a gaping, unhealed wound.
"In submarines now, huh?" Springfield continued, gripping and then releasing the former Olympian's hand. "Doing secret research for your dad? Mine won't let me test any of the really good stuff. Bastard."
Odd fellow, Christian Springfield, but he did tend to set one at ease.
"Just a bit of a sabbatical, actually," Gordon told him, relaxing enough to smile back. "Not specifically in th' interests of Tracy Aerospace… though I've learnt a good bit about convertible seacraft and their launch technologies. The Skydiver's quite a handful to fly."
Chris grinned again.
"I'll bet. You're a braver man than I am, that's for sure. Dad's money and business are all the challenge I'll ever need... besides women, that is. C'mon," he said, waving a negligent hand to include the others. "Let me show you around Springfield party central before the concert gets going. I hear it's going to get pretty wild out there."
Jeff wasn't merely perturbed or upset. He was angry. Furious, in fact. Part of the reason he'd retired, turning the business over to Scott, was to get away from this sort of chaos and back-biting. Now, thanks to friction between his elderly, domineering mother and rarely-bred British wife, he'd had to cut short a deep-sea fishing trip and return to the house. Worse, he'd had a fish on the line when the calls came through. Big sonuvabitch, too, from the feel of things. No trophies today, though… unless he intended to stuff and mount a recalcitrant family member to quiet complaints and boost morale.
"DOWNSTAIRS!" Jeff shouted, striding in through the ocean-side doorway. "I want everybody downstairs, front and center, right the hell now!"
The grey-haired former astronaut and CEO had a deep and carrying voice, but Kyrano's quick room-buzzes did most of the actual work. End result: in less than eight minutes, mother, Virgil, Penelope, Brains, Kyrano and the new servants were all gathered before Jeff in the sunny, marble-floored eastern foyer. Their reactions ranged all the way from Victoria's snorting battle-readiness to Penny's icy hauteur; from Virgil's martyred resignation to Hackenbacker's impatience.
"M- Mr. Tracy," Brains said to him, as Louis-le-Chef, Parker and Elspeth entered the room, "if this, ah… this d- doesn't concern me, I've got mountains of v- vital data to…"
"It concerns everyone," Jeff barked, silencing opposition like he was back in the boardroom instead of at home, wearing a tropical shirt, khaki shorts and his father's old fishing hat. "I'm calling a family meeting, people, to be held as soon as the kids are back, and Scott can fly in from the mainland. Brains, I want a secure uplink established with Mars. Pay NASA whatever you have to, but get them to set up a private line for John. Understood?"
The engineer nodded, blinking rapidly.
"Yes, Mr. Tracy. Uh- Understood."
"Good." Jeff looked around the foyer, taking in the faces… confused, apologetic, surly or grim… of all those around him. "In the meantime, we're a family, dammit. Newcomers or old hands, makes not one bit of difference to me! We're in this together, and we'll proceed at the best pace of our slowest, carrying the wounded and shooting any dissenters. That, folks, is the bottom line."
Jeff stopped talking for a moment to make fierce eye contact with everyone present, from his mother right down to Gwenny, the youngest ladies' maid.
"Family meeting in two days," he repeated more quietly, once the silence had stretched long enough. "Attendance mandatory, no excuses accepted, up to and including your own death. Dismissed!"
The tense small crowd departed in twos and threes or singly, like Hackenbacker. Nobody had anything to say before Jeff, not even his pink-eared young wife. Probably meant he'd be sleeping alone for a few weeks… but a man had the right to peace and quiet in his own household, didn't he? It was high time that Jeff Tracy took his family in check and forced some good will. The hard way, if necessary.
Endurance Base, Mars-
The sounds had altered. Walking to his quarters along the faintly vibrating, sharp-smelling passage, John detected an absence. No more screeching, whirr-y noise. Pump four's maintenance shut-off? Concerned, he contacted Thorpe again, earlier than scheduled. Turned out that no single part appeared to be malfunctioning.
"It's the whole damn mechanism, John. Vibration, micro-fissures, turbulence… something's causing those components to grind and misfire like the world's least successful blind date."
Not good. John had reached his sparsely-furnished quarters by this point, and was headed for the washroom to shave and clean up. Besides maintaining a comforting sense of order, the quiet little rituals of scraping his face and showering gave him time to think.
"Have we got a replacement?" he asked, putting the comm on broadcast as he took up his razor and pressed the sink-top water stud. (No hot or cold; on Mars, you got whatever came out of the pipe, and were damn glad of it.)
"On its way. Be in with the next supply ship, according to Houston's manifest."
Still worse. Their next cargo shipment wasn't due for another three months. Four, if the shuttle had to alter course to evade the slowly increasing solar activity.
"We might have to improvise a temporary solution," John suggested, as he began lathering up with non-volatile, low-impact shaving cream. "Something to keep the system functional until a replacement arrives."
"My thoughts exactly, AO'. I've got a crew headed up from maintenance with chewing gum and baling wire. The situation's in hand, more or less."
Probably less. The United States Marines had their own standards for on-site, on the fly maintenance, most of which would have frightened a NASA technician bone-white and rigid. Being an outsider, John had learned to be flexible. Sort of.
"Okay, Roger. Do what you can to get her back in service. The other three pumps aren't fresh from the packing crate, either, and they're not rated for much of an additional load. I've read the specs and programmed their flow rate. I know what I'm talking about."
"The manual's required reading down in the garage, too, John. Believe me, we're motivated."
The colony had to have water, and not just for drinking. Pouring the filtered, distilled liquid on peroxide-laden regolith was their primary means of generating oxygen. Put very simply: no water flow, less air, no more terraforming. And an even rougher time getting a close shave.
Concluding one conversation, John next called Pete, so that McCord could issue the standard "bottled water and dry waste disposal" command. Yeah. That went well. For some reason, people assumed that he had some sort of magical ability with machines, just because his father's company designed and produced most of them. Dr. Mechanical Dolittle… that's what they seemed to expect.
He ought to have headed over to help Roger out with the pumps, but John had a date and a marathon, and he was damn well determined not to miss either one. Of course, his equipment had to be got together and a few more calls needed to be made… Between one thing and another, John was running late by the time he reached the big southern dome, which would eventually house a small vegetable farm, and so possessed a static repulsion field to keep all the dust off.
Outside the dome, the sun was setting; seeming very small in a wash of blurred peach and tan. The entire sky looked painted in with rapid, ochre brush strokes; like something Virgil would turn out in certain sad moods. There were high, thin clouds of CO2 ice overhead, trailing like sequined veils. Northwestward he could see a hulking dark ridge. Valles Marineris lay that way, a good distance off by flitter or pressurized "car".
Outside the dome, a strong east wind kicked up, for temperature changes here were quite sudden and forceful, even with all the new air. The base's wide arc of national flags began to snap and ripple, colorful in their pool of bright floodlight beams. Nice, but John called in a request to have the lights dimmed, so that a quarter-Earth, her moon and ten-thousand glittering stars could peek from the tawny dark sky.
The dome was cold enough inside that his breath misted. Cold enough that the tunnels leading away from it were shut and made fast every night, to save heat. It was beautiful, though; as close to standing on the surface without a hard-suit as you could get. The dome was no safe and warm tunnel-warren. Here, you were cupped in the planet's hand, feeling small and exposed and… happy?
Whatever you wanted to call it. John set up his telescope and laptop, smiling a little at internal things and external beauty, watching as Earth, Sirius-A and Canopus flared into view; one at a time, like they'd taken light from each other's torch. Next came Rigil Kent, then the Southern Cross and blue Acrux, nearly as bright to the eye.
Better still, Dr. Bennett walked in about then, and even if she'd held a beer in one hand and Brooklyn Dodgers tickets in the other, things couldn't have gotten any better. Pump or no broken pump.
Los Angeles, California; at a luxury skybox high in the new Golden State Amphitheatre-
There would always be poverty and discontent. Except in Gene Roddenberry's mythic universe, inequities of wealth, IQ and opportunity were a deeply lamented fact of human life. Put simply, some made it, others did not.
This didn't excuse shameless displays of wealth, however, or mean that TinTin Kyrano (herself the daughter of a servant) had to enjoy young Monsieur Springfield's tour grande.
Their good-looking host… in bored, slightly mocking tones… pointed out the skybox's wet bar, kitchen, holographic projection and stereo sound system, as well as its fine art collection and "private viewing rooms". (Meant, he let it be known, especially for couples.) All this, while a press and crush of people in the public areas below waited restlessly for their concert and temporary escape. The thunderous din was quite audible, even from here. In fact, TinTin was growing crowd-sick, something that happened often, when many people were close at hand and greatly agitated.
"Not impressed, huh?" Chris asked her bluntly, smiling as if it didn't much matter to him.
Caught, TinTin blushed; her pretty face growing pink with awkward confusion. It was Alan who saved her, shrugging while he remarked,
"Naw, dude. She's just seen it all before, in, like, our garage." Then, a little hesitantly, "Right, Gordon…?"
The former swimmer turned from watching that ocean of surging concert-goers to glance at his blond younger brother. He was quiet a moment, and Alan thought that he wouldn't back up this outrageous lie. But Gordon hadn't gone entirely lame and boring. Just mostly. He said,
"Not th' garage, Alan, or th' main hangar, either; they're both quite a bit larger than this, as I recall." He looked casually around, a touch of that familiar, mischievous spark in his hazel eyes. "But I believe that th' antechamber t' TinTin's shoe closet contains about th' same square footage."
Alan started to laugh, glad to see Gordon loosen up a little. Then, as certain thoughts hit him, the teen snapped,
"Hey! How do you know what T's closet looks like?"
TinTin's headache sprouted sharp, driving roots, as generally occurred when the people around her were angry, or deeply excited.
"Her shoe rack collapsed, one day, and I helped t' repair it," Gordon was saying, which was true enough, as far as it went. He'd ended up spending part of the night, because TinTin had been suffering from terrible dreams, and was afraid to sleep alone. But nothing had "happened" beyond whispers, blanket-wrapped hugs and eventual sleep, for TinTin had an inexplicable way of defusing male urges. Not until afterward did Gordon Tracy wonder why he hadn't tried for so much as a kiss. Worried, too, that he might have turned poofter, until trysts with three other lasses (one a superior officer) proved otherwise. At any rate, he was quite familiar with the general dimensions of TinTin and closet, both.
Chris laughed along with their byplay. Alan was boasting, and everyone knew it.
"Well," he said, "since the digs leave you flat, how about a trip downstairs to see the actual bands? Biohazard's on first. If we hurry, we'll catch most of their set."
That got everyone's attention, as the handsome young plutocrat had intended it should.
"Dude!" Alan lost all pretence at cool. "You mean... you can get us in there to watch the performances?" In the whole history of jaw-dropping "gotchas", this one took first prize, with a cherry on top.
"Sure," drawled Chris, hands in the pockets of his finely-tailored grey pants. "My dad's a friend of Slade Rideout, the Omni Entertainment head. They're at Pebble Beach right now, telling lies and missing chip shots. So…? You want to go catch the secret show, or not?"
Alan gave him an incredulous, arms out-flung, 'are you kidding me?' gesture.
"Okay… durrr! Of course we want to go! Right, T? Fermat? Gordon?"
TinTin nodded at once, her headache not so much forgotten as sternly shown to the door. Fermat sighed, for he'd just accessed the skybox's WiFi network on his laptop, but this was LA; next to Tokyo, the most wired city in the world. He could always hook up somewhere else. Besides… seeing the actual bands, the concert's very source code? His friends Sam Nakamura and Daniel Solomon would be speechless.
"A- Absolutely, Alan. It… sounds like a lot of f- fun."
Gordon's vote came last of all. The muscular red-head frowned a bit before deciding,
"So long as we've reported th' change in plan to our driver, and th' folks at home, I can't see why not," he mused. "Not terribly far, is it?"
Chris shrugged evasively.
"I'm not supposed to discuss that kind of thing…" he said. "Omni prefers to keep its illusions watertight. But I can show you."
And he indicated a print-locked metal door set flush with the pink granite wall.
"Right this way, peoples. Prepare to be shocked and amazed."
Which was exactly what happened, even before the explosions.
Endurance Base, Mars; in the cold and clear southern dome-
Linda walked through that airlock door and out of the north tunnel for several reasons, most of which escaped her at the time. Certainly, she'd discussed matters with Cho, her exobiologist friend. And, of course, there had been many points for and against betraying a 46 million miles-distant pseudo relationship for a night on the town, chasing stars (or deep-sky objects, as John would probably insist). But points and reason weren't what drove Dr. Bennett out of her clinic and into the tunnel, or onward to the distant south dome. Emotion had; the very strange feeling that here, at last, was the man she belonged with.
…Even if he was a little different. At any rate, Linda's heart was pounding when she stepped through the airlock and out onto what felt very much like the surface of Mars. It was already dark out there, and terribly cold. Like John, she wore a smart survival suit woven with piezo-fibers to generate electricity and warmth from her movements, and a sealable breathing hood, just in case. Unlike him, she'd brought fresh coffee and something to sit on; a folding camp stool.
He noticed her entry and lifted a hand in greeting, waiting until Linda was closer to speak (in all the time she'd known him, their Tracy Aerospace rep had never raised his voice to a shout). Linda crossed most of that flat future farmland before John said,
"Glad you could make it, doctor," and stepped over to take her small burden of thermos and chair. He was mostly a voice and silhouette in the unlit dome; an angular shadow beneath alien skies. Funny, how good it felt to be near him. Smiling invisibly in all of that star-prickled darkness, Linda said,
"Well, it was either show up or miss the very first Martian star marathon. Most people only get one shot at history. Here I am, with two."
She'd said "star" again, but he didn't correct her, instead leading the doctor back to his telescope and open, linked laptop. A brief spate of technical jargon happened then, as John began firing words like "aperture size", "focal length", "sighting scope" and "bandwidth". Linda nodded a lot and tried not to freeze. Had to be forty degrees in there and dropping fast, but John seemed not to notice.
It was sheer cold, not flirtation, that drove her to press close to him; anyhow, their smart suits weren't exactly conductive to snuggling. Just… the air was frigid and he wasn't, and with anyone but Pete she'd have done the same thing. Really.
(Stuck outside with Pete McCord, she'd have damn well frozen to death, but that was another matter.)
After a moment, John put an arm around her. Slowly, as though he'd had to think himself through the process, first. Maybe she leaned into his hug a little then, finding the fit just right. Home felt very good, after so long away.
"Doctor," he said, "I'm aware that there are… um… certain protocols and wait periods associated with the start of a relationship… but I'm not very good at applying them. Haven't had much field experience, I guess."
'You haven't missed anything,' she would have remarked, but waited instead to hear what John would say next.
"Anyhow," he continued, his head and left shoulder obscuring distant blue Earth, "I'd like to vote that we skip all that, in favor of stage-three adherence."
…Which struck her as kind of funny. Pulling briefly away, Linda reached for the coffee thermos to pour out a steaming-dark cup. Offering the beverage to John, first, she said,
"How about you explain what 'stage-three adherence' is, before I make any fatal decisions, Sunshine?"
He accepted the cup, but didn't drink immediately, saying,
"Stage three is where I admit you're the only person I'm interested in, and that I'd like to arrange something more permanent with regard to…"
"Ownership?" Linda teased, to cover her own sudden shyness. "Squatter's rights?"
"No," he said to her, staying quite serious. "With regard to… being together, I guess. You're right. I didn't really need all of that aspirin. I was using headaches and colds as a reason to visit the clinic and see you. It's probably smarter to admit that while I've got the chance, than to go on damaging my liver."
"Well, if you're not going to drink that, I will," she said, taking back the blue plastic coffee cup. "It's freezing in here!"
…And three carefully-spaced gulps gave her ample room to think. Not that she came up with anything other than questions.
"You're acting like you think we belong together, or something," Linda ventured, after warm caffeine and warmer emotions had both had a chance to settle. "You seem really sure about this, John."
"I am," he said, reaching out to finish the last bit of coffee in her loosely-held cup. "I got here, didn't I? All this way, to put myself where you hopefully couldn't help noticing. Yeah… I'm a hundred-percent certain, doctor."
He seemed to mean it; that one short, over-worked, chronically skeptical astronaut-doctor was what he genuinely wanted from life. The funny thing was... her body and heart agreed with him. Only Linda's protesting mind demanded further proof-of-concept.
"What's stage two-and-a-half like?" she asked, stubbornly putting off a decision.
"All of the above, with options open," he replied, turning back to his telescope.
"Meaning that we could date other people, still?" (As if she'd want to.)
"Yeah," said John, fiddling with the knobs on his scope's barrel to bring something important into focus. Outside, the colony's giant, deep-space telescope shifted its aim accordingly. "...If that's what you'd prefer."
It wasn't, but pointy-edged doubt wouldn't leave her alone. She'd been disappointed too often and far too early to have much faith in genuine permanence.
"Well…" Linda hedged, shifting from one cold foot to the other, "I think we should…"
That's when, for the third time that year, the power went out on base; lights, heaters, pumps, major comm, ventilation… everything. Sometimes, problems are little and fixable. But 46 million miles away from their warm, living planet, hardly any problem was "little".
"Shit!" John snarled, as their survival suits cut into high gear and the breathing hoods came up. "I knew it."
Automatic sirens began to ring; thin and persistent as newborns. He took Linda's hand, knocking aside her thermos lid/ coffee cup, and began leading her toward the north tunnel, despite being almost without human guideposts. There were a few solar-powered LEDs on the floor and walls, but John and Linda could have found their way to the door without them.
The tunnel and airlock were due north, and they were outside. No, Mars possessed no "Pole Star", but you could easily find your way by tracing an imaginary line from Alderamin to Deneb, and then looking straight down from the line's midpoint. That way led north, to the nearest doorway.
There was a manual method for opening the airlocks, but it took both of them working in concert from two halves of a memorized checklist to do it. He took her hand again when the door locks released, guiding the doctor within. Not necessary. She'd practiced this procedure more times than he had, but Linda allowed him to help her over the doorsill, anyhow.
It was a guy-thing to be protective in survival situations, and the dome's temperature had plunged too far by now for argument; a few degrees above -20. Any feminist lectures she had to deliver could wait.
Something happened as they entered the airlock, though. Linda didn't just lose her grip on John's hand. He seemed for an instant not to exist. Startled, she flailed wildly in the lock's utter blackness, feeling buried alive on a small, rusty world. Then he was back again, bracing and calming the rattled doctor.
Together, they shot through the second-stage manual airlock procedure, moving like one person. (You had to know, when you turned the dogging wheel, that your partner's hand would be right there at the latch-release lever and atmosphere pump override, and that when you heaved like Sysiphus, so would he.) A swift, mostly silent business, conducted in heart-racing darkness and terrible cold.
Inside the north tunnel, there were pale LED lanterns on the walls, meant to provide temporary, portable illumination. The main lights were still out, though, and the sirens' fretful wail dimming. Not a good sign.
John unsealed his plastic breathing hood and shoved it back into the suit's collar. Linda did the same with her own, thoughts racing about 10 steps ahead on the checklist. Their belt-comms were buzzing; inside the still-pressurized suits, where they didn't do any good. General alert, probably.
John's next action surprised her as much as the blackout had. He placed both hands on her shoulders in a firm, strong grip, gave her mouth a light kiss and said,
"We can finish our conversation tomorrow, Linda. In the meantime, there are going to be a few injuries from confusion and panic, so you should head back to the clinic now. I'll go upstairs to refactor the damn flood-safety overrides, and then see what I can do to help at the pump repair site."
Then he smiled. Not hesitantly, but as though he knew exactly what was wrong and just how to fix it.
"Scoot," John commanded, turning the woman he'd claimed by her slim shoulders. "We've got work to do."
Altogether, it was a confused Dr. Bennett who left this newly confident paragon to head for the base clinic.
Los Angeles, California at the Golden State Amphitheatre, during Otaku-Rock Fest 69:
Chris Springfield led Alan, TinTin, Fermat and Gordon through the hidden access door that served as his skybox's alternate fire escape. After the jaw-dropping luxury of his family's little "sports nook", the metal stairs, fluorescent lighting and plain concrete of the amphitheatre's backside came as something of a shock.
But TinTin Kyrano preferred to dwell on these things rather than meet Springfield's lingering gaze. He was a terribly strong-willed person, accustomed to instant and fawning gratification. Bon. Not from her.
As their host guided them past the skybox area and over to a long, narrow stairwell, TinTin dropped back to walk beside Fermat, who was far too polite and preoccupied to pressure her with badly concealed desires. Also, too young. They kept up a whispered conversation, TinTin trying to hypothesize the purpose of his latest programming obsessions, and inevitably guessing wrong. Much like distant John, Fermat kept his own counsel, though he did both enjoy and encourage her attention.
Their footsteps and voices rang hollowly as the five young people clattered from one landing to the next, eventually reaching the stadium's busy backstage area. Here there were banks of slaved computers, laser projection units, special effects consoles and a great many badged technicians. These bustled about the acre-sized backstage, preparing to receive, boost and embroider the bands' signals. From video monitors, faces and speaker systems, energy crackled; the show was about to commence and twelve thousand spectators were waiting, above.
Springfield parted the sea of rushing technicians like a broad-shouldered, firm voiced Moses, clearing their path to yet another door; this one warded by uniformed security guards the approximate size and shape of shaved mountain gorillas.
Gordon looked them over, frowning thoughtfully as he considered whether or not he might deal with the pair in a straightforward scuffle. They bore tasers, handcuffs and extensible steel nightsticks, however; so perhaps it was best not to engage, unless absolute necessity forced the issue. An ill-bred habit of his, covertly assessing others for the half-step and heartbeat's advantage it gave him, should trouble erupt. Always wise to be prepared, but in this case, the situation was mixed. Alan was a decent hand in a fight, Springfield an unknown quantity, while young Fermat and TinTin would certainly require protection.
Never came to it, though; at least, not with the door guards. Chris simply flashed a purloined event badge and charmed his way past, leading TinTin, Alan, Fermat and Gordon out of the clamorous backstage, down three flights of steps and into a long, underground maintenance tunnel.
This new passage led northward away from the stadium. Arrow-straight, it was, painted a uniform grey and lined overhead with cables and pipes. The walls featured an assortment of widely spaced routers and video cameras (some of which appeared to be glitching, for their power lights had blinked out). There were fewer echoes here, thanks to a layer of cheap, tan, all-weather carpeting. The tunnel's stale air smelt of ozone and fried dust, and droned like a hive of calm bees.
(Remember bees? Those flying insects that used to pollinate flowers and make natural honey? They'd stung, too, and sounded a bit like the stadium tunnel had. All gone now, of course.)
At any rate, Chris beckoned them onward past checkpoints and monitor stations, perhaps a mile and a half altogether. TinTin was about to mention the distance (in a joking, light-hearted way) when they came upon a uniformed repair crew hard at work on one of the cable lines; three men and one thin, grim-faced woman, all of them carrying large, canvas tool sacks. No doubt, their business was vital, so close to show-time, and TinTin hurried onward, shivering at the woman's slit-eyed glare. She was quite glad when distance put them out of sight, and the repair crew could resume their interrupted activity.
Chris brought his guests to the actual soundstage some minutes later, bringing up his father's great wealth and connections and submitting to an ID chip scan in order to gain admittance. Inside… well, if you've ever been to a recording studio/ sound stage, you know what they're like: acoustic paneling and focused lighting, microphone pickups, discarded instruments, soloist's booths, artists, sound engineers and computer equipment (lots of the latter).
There was also a small audience room, behind a wall of one-way glass and acoustical tile. It was this area that Chris talked their way into, having to repeatedly drop Slade Rideout's name to do so. This was quite a feat of diplomacy, but TinTin scarcely noticed. She was too intent upon examining all of the former music stars who were warming up around them in sound-proofed booths to watch young master Springfield. Wide-eyed, the girl tried to connect this motley collection of has-beens with their holographic alter-egos.
Cassie Peak was there, in practice booth A; no longer the lissome blonde pop-tart of old, but a fierce and writhing chanteuse. With her were two men and what looked like a wireframe caricature, all of them performing in motion-capture body suits.
Booth B contained Kurt Stone, who had so often lived out his last name that he'd been cut from three bands, eventually finding work as the lead guitar and vocalist for… Bon, his yellow Stratocaster, slow mannerisms and thousand-mile stare matched those of Zero, Toxic Phlegm's front man. There was one identified.
In booth C she spied a feral young balladeer covered in tattoos and knife scars, who moved with all the twitchy, wild energy of Roentgen, the Radioactive Nubs' perpetually troubled lead singer. There were others, as well; one a projected and programmed amalgam of past artists' voices, habits and stage presence (Mash-up, she decided, which identified his/ Cassie Peak's group as Biohazard).
TinTin was as stunned as a farm girl in the City of Lights, but Alan was a bit disappointed. Like TinTin and Fermat, he sat where Chris told him to, and accepted a multi-channel headset (with feeds from booths A, B or C, whichever you cared to listen to) but he wasn't much happy. In his mind, Biohazard, Toxic Phlegm and the Radioactive Nubs were, like, rock pirates, too extreme and edgy to show themselves in public; not a bunch of halfway house second-chancers. Chris must've guessed how his friend was feeling, because he left off trying to fascinate poor TinTin to shrug and say,
"Yeah, I know… It's sort of a put-on, but the masses want their bread and circuses. All they care about is food enough to satisfy, and entertainment flashy enough to cover up how badly their lives suck. Who cares if the first is nothing but empty, crap calories, and the second isn't real?"
Well… TinTin cared, and she worried quite a bit over Chris Springfield's words. Why were these miserably crowded people being pandered to, rather than led? Yes, there would someday be Mars… for a select, above-average few. But what of the others? What hope of betterment had they?
She enjoyed Biohazard's first set (a very loud, shrieking rendition of "Dead Again, Thanks To You" and "Life in Mom's Basement") much less than she'd expected to. Outside, however, the crowd had gone wild with delight, cheering and stomping as the band's holographic avatars strutted, leapt, cavorted and howled. The audience screamed and climbed atop one another, struggling to reach the floating shapes of firework-lobbing Punkk and her band.
TinTin glanced back and forth from Cassie Peak's genuine performance to its hyper-sized, manga-style shadow. It was a dangerous business, this stripping away of illusion, and not at all enjoyable; like discovering that one's parent was a mere mortal, after all.
It was during the last bars of "Mom's Basement" that the ground suddenly shook and the room's overhead lights flashed. TinTin was hurled from her seat against Alan and Fermat. When she scrambled upright again, the girl saw that video feed from the amphitheatre had entirely cut off. A long, diagonal crack streaked lightning-like across their viewing window. Gordon had been standing beside it an instant earlier, but... Where…?
Ah! Her red-haired friend picked himself up from the floor, stiff and confused. There was a streaming cut on his sun-burnt brow, and Gordon raised a shaky hand to touch it. His fingers came away red, and the girl received a sudden, harsh wave of transmitted pain. But before he could he could say anything, or TinTin could reach him, a nightmare of shouting and gunfire erupted from the soundstage beyond.
For an instant, TinTin could not believe what she saw. The workmen… the same ones who'd been working to repair that cable… broke into the secret performance site with guns and snarled orders.
"Down!" snapped the woman, their evident leader. "On the floor, all of you! Now!"
She gestured at the same time with the muzzle of her rifle, indicating the concrete floor and firing three rapid shots by way of punctuation. All over the room, sobbing technicians, artists and junior executives hurled themselves flat. One plain-clothes guard was too slow, so she shot at his head, burning the man's scalp. He moved better after that, hitting the deck with a ringing headache and deafened ear that TinTin could feel.
The woman's cold amber eyes swept the area, flashing across the one-way glass of the audience room. TinTin gasped aloud, reaching with both hands and her mind for Gordon, who was yet too dazed to react.
"Benton, Shafer," the dark-haired gunwoman snapped to her waiting men, "Check out the audience booth. If there's anyone there, bring them out. If they resist, shoot them. Move!"
Tracy Island, in sunset warmth and tropical fragrance-
That evening, Jeff was seated upstairs at the office. The vast suite was no longer 'his', exactly, since early retirement and a new bride had given him better things to do than make money. Still, it remained a place he associated with planning and progress, and Jeff returned whenever there was work to be done. Mandatory family meetings certainly counted as work, so the former CEO had reclaimed his old seat for a measure of pencil-chewing think time.
A stickler for preparation, the grey-haired father-to-be sat low in his seat, hashing out the next day's talking points on an old-fashioned legal pad. He'd already come up with several, including:
A) Sharing Space…
B) Respectful and Productive Disagreement…
C) Following the Chain of Command…
D) What to Expect, When Someone Else is Expecting.
All he had to do now was get Leisha Bonaventure to compose and type up the pertinent information. (Only possible because she was more his lawyer than Scott's, despite Jeff's retirement.) But before the Tracy patriarch could send forth an email request, his muted flat-screen television switched channels to WNN Breaking News. And there, broadcast live, was a scene from Los Angeles.
Jeff's mouth dried and his heart sank as he recognized a crumbling Golden State amphitheatre, plumed with twisting dark smoke and debris.
"Good lord," Jeff whispered, hastily keying up the volume. "What's happened?"
He found out soon enough, absorbing one awful blow before receiving the day's other grim news.
At a small, private viewing room, roughly ten meters below Los Angeles, California-
In a heart-pounding, dread-thickened rush, TinTin lunged forward to quiet her injured friend, Gordon, while bidding the others duck down and keep silent. Across the concrete room a door opened, admitting two grim, suspicious gunmen bearing long-muzzled automatic rifles. Benton and Shafer.
Their eyes scanned the room in swift, disjointed arcs, before the men separated to stride in and peer between rows of seats, alert as a pair of hunting dogs. Still upright, TinTin was in full view with Gordon. Unable to hide, she concentrated fiercely on keeping the armed intruders from looking in her direction, or that of Alan, Fermat and Chris. The men's auras were bitterly spiked with caution and hostility, not easy to soothe or to sway. She'd no choice, however; not if she wished to survive.
Ignoring her own fear, and the crashing and shouting noises from the sound stage beyond, TinTin made the intruders see what they wished to see; an empty and harmless small room… Just as she wiped all thought of their presence from the minds of the Omni crew, outside. For now, at least, everyone's best chance lay in secrecy.
The gunmen bypassed Alan and Chris, who were crouched as tensely as cornered animals between the first two rows of seats. Nor did they notice Fermat, huddled low and breathing hard, with a shiny laptop clutched to his narrow chest like a talisman. No one spoke or much moved, beyond Gordon's slight, bleary swaying, or the men's muttered comments and rapid, blinkered search.
At length they came to the viewing room's red-painted fire door, which was fitted with lights and a whooping alarm. Their job was not done until the door and hallway beyond were checked and found to be secure, but they called it in, first, lest the alarm confuse their already hair-triggered comrades.
Signaling to his partner to step back at an angle and cover him, the larger of the two men readied his weapon, braced himself and then kicked open the steel fire door. Immediately, the room's LED flashers went off, and a shrill, repetitive beeping set up. It was terribly painful for TinTin, who was already burdened with Gordon's transmitted headache and the jagged emotions of all those who crouched, stalked and shivered around her. Somehow, the girl managed not to falter or faint.
The first gunman went a short way into the passage, though not out of sight. He looked about for a time, squinting past dull metal struts and slanting shadows, head and rifle turning this way and that. Then,
"Nothing, Shafer," he snapped to his partner, in strangely accented English. "The way is clear, and we would have heard the door, had anyone tried to leave."
The smaller man nodded, waiting for Benton to close the door and silence that blaring alarm before calling back,
"All clear, Ma'am. The area's secure. Those kids we saw must've gone further."
Her reply was a tersely-worded summons, time being apparently quite short. Once again, Shafer's pale eyes stutter-swept the room, his mind locking out all the things he wasn't permitted to see.
TinTin continued to stare at the gunman and his returned partner, willing them (please, God) to not notice what lay directly before them. She was shaking with tension and fatigue by the time they strode back through the room and out to the sound stage, where Omni Entertainment's artists, production assistants and tech crew were being herded into a fearful, pleading knot. Most of the sounds stopped when the door shut, but still they could see.
TinTin wanted badly to rest. Never had she attempted to influence the perceptions of so many others for so long. But Gordon was hurt. She could feel with her mind the spot inside his skull that had begun to swell and grow hot with gathering fluid. He needed immediate help, and so rest was not possible.
While the intruders' leader selected a likely-seeming technician and had the man brought before her, TinTin maneuvered her wobbling friend away from the cracked viewing window. Alan, Fermat and Springfield leapt to assist her, shooting many nervous glances at events in the chamber beyond.
Not the time, one would have thought, for questions. Yet, once they'd lowered Gordon into a theatre chair, Chris looked directly at TinTin and seized her right arm, demanding urgently,
"How'd you do that? There was no way those guys could've missed seeing us! Especially you and Gordon. I mean, you were right there in front of them! Why are we still alive and uncaptured?"
TinTin had not strength enough to misdirect the young billionaire, whose green eyes would not release her gaze. Not did she grasp her own abilities well enough to explain them. She did, however, understand the leanings and expectations of males in general, having grown up with quite an unruly mob of them. So, blushing slightly, TinTin lied just a bit.
"I am from the, er… mysterious east, Monsieur Springfield. I have received much training in the subtle arts of mass hypnosis and misdirection."
At any rate, it sounded well. Chris nodded, clearly impressed.
"Like Batman, huh? Cool."
(Alan looked rather annoyed, perhaps recalling all of those sudden bathroom trips and unwanted naps. He was too concerned for his brother to argue; though later, maybe… when things weren't so dangerous…)
Outside on the sound stage, the intruders' leader ordered an Omni technician to set up a broadcast on all available channels.
"I have a message to deliver," she said to him, almost shaking with the need for action. "You're going to help me do that, or I'll start shooting. Understood?"
The terrified production assistant nodded hastily, eager to seem cooperative and stay alive.
"Sure thing, Miss," he gabbled. "There's no need for more violence, honest. We'll do exactly what you say."
Aware of all this… receiving kaleidoscopic bits of what was happening through the shifting perceptions of attackers and hostages, alike… TinTin turned to Fermat. In low tones, she asked,
"If a signal were to be sent from here by these criminals, could we not block it, or perhaps add a message of our own?"
The dark-haired boy murmured back,
"A- Absolutely, TinTin, if that's what they're doing. I can… put a coded rider on th- their signal, containing our coordinates and their strength and armament. B- But just blocking them might… result in casualties. They'd p- probably assume it was an Omni technician's fault, and get m- mad. We need to c- concentrate on… guiding a police rescue force, I think."
Fermat was already uncasing and booting up his laptop, mentally sorting through tricks gleaned from a lifetime around computers and engineers. This room was not really a safe place to remain, though.
"Do whatever you can, Fermat," TinTin replied, smiling gratefully. To the others, she said,
"Alain, Monsieur Springfield, while I assist Gordon, might the alarm be disconnected somehow from the emergency exit?"
Alan cracked his knuckles and gave the girl a quick, nervous smile. Maybe he could and maybe he couldn't, but anything was better than sitting around.
"Babe, I've been cutting classes and sneaking past security since day care," he scoffed. "I got this."
Chris was altogether less certain, but willing to try. Usually, Springfield delegated mischief and homework, both, as Alan well knew, paying others to do anything that remotely smacked of effort. He followed his friend to the fire door, watching with interest as the younger lad pulled a skateboard zip-tool and small pair of pliers from one of his many pockets.
"Every man's basic must-haves, dude. Seriously, don't leave home without 'em," whispered Alan, over one shoulder. "With these and a roll of duct tape, you could, like, rule the world. Now, you poor, simple boy... watch and learn."
Alan set confidently to work while Fermat began very delicately probing Omni's secure WiFi network, searching for a quiet way in. For her own part, TinTin did what she could to keep Gordon still; easing his cranial swelling, fever and pain, though doing so hurt her, as well.
"Shh…" she whispered in a soft, sing-song voice. "All is well, Mon Coeur, Mon Brave. You shall very soon feel better."
…For his thoughts were as scattered and skewed as the gunmen's vision had been, and Gordon did not seem to know where he was. He would have risen (and doubtless collapsed), had TinTin not prevented him.
Outside, meanwhile, backed by her accomplices and filmed by an Omni Entertainment camera team, the amber-eyed woman said,
"People of Los Angeles, of California and the Earth… you have seen the smoke and heard the explosions. You have lost your concert broadcast and are wondering what has happened…"
She paused, smiling in a manner that anticipated their confusion and mocked them for it.
"Know that terror strikes first at those on the fringe of the herd; the poor, the sick and the vulnerable. If you have no mansion to huddle in, no private army or hoarded supplies… then beware the darkness, for it is no longer empty."
Endurance Base, Mars-
Pete McCord's next act, after triggering a quick message to Houston, was to call up everyone within reach of his belt comm, memorize all the emergent situations, and then head for the base computer center. A brief, staticky contact with John had placed their Tracy Aerospace rep at the main server hub, right where he could do the most good.
Pete didn't run, but he hurried, carrying a pale LED battle lantern to light his way through the dark, acrid tunnels. Already the subsurface colony felt oppressively chill and tomb-like, with the air at floor level noticeably colder than that at Pete's 5' 6" breathing height.
He passed several people on the way; some injured, most hurrying to their emergency stations, per regulations. Astronaut and base commander though he was, Pete remained a Navy man at heart. At times like these, he thought very much like a ship's captain. Personnel were important, but without their equipment, on a world as hostile as Mars, no one could survive.
Still, McCord had a word of encouragement for everyone he passed, and (where necessary) a quick helping hand. He reached the computer center twelve minutes after setting forth, and hurried on through its half-open doors. John Tracy was just visible at the powered-down main server, face and slim form picked out by the gleam of his laptop screen and an LED lamp. Beside him crouched the cat.
McCord headed over. He was halfway across the floor when reserve power came up, waking the overhead lights and stirring that sluggish-cold air. Pete grinned briefly, because few things felt better than disaster averted.
"Hey," he called out.
But John held one fore-finger up in an unusually expressive "wait a second" gesture, and kept right on running diagnostics, searching for the source of their trouble. McCord knew better than to interrupt. He came up to stand with folded arms beside John's chair, watching as the programmer pinged systems all over the base and its outbuildings, feeling his way through what remained of their network.
John coded on the fly, wringing magic from a system he'd largely programmed and put into place alone. The steady click of computer keys, the cat's purring and the crackle of comm chatter were the center's only noises for a bit. Then something… some correctly shifted variable or restructured gate… disentangled power and life support from the water pump's glitching network. The base generators came on at once. Light flooded the room and computers blinked, beeped and hummed back to life.
Pete clapped a hand to the young man's thin shoulder and gave him a swift, friendly shake.
"Good work," he said; meaning it, but not expecting much of a response. (Except from Bendix, of course, who gave the commander a single, disgusted look and then lept to a higher, better-warmed perch.)
John got to his feet after keying in a few more commands. Then he turned to regard McCord, giving the red-haired astronaut an intently searching look. And suddenly, unexpectedly, John smiled. The expression transformed and humanized that calm, classically chiseled face.
"Pete!" he announced, as though seeing his old friend and mentor for the very first time.
"That's what she said," McCord replied with a grin, "loudly and often." Then, "Have you managed to raise the repair crew yet, Tracy? Without the servers, they were out of range, and I need to know exactly what the hell fried that pump."
"Yeah, Pete. We've been texting. Biological clog, exacerbated by unchecked backflow from the greenhouse. Roger says that changing out the filters might help prevent another flood and burn-out, but mostly we need to get the, quote: goddamn fertilizer out of the damn waste water before it hits the main f'ing supply. Unquote."
Pete ran a hand through his thinning hair, added one more item to a very long checklist, and nodded.
"Separate and cleanse the greenhouse waste water. Understood. I'll put my engineers on it, ASAFP. In the meantime, most of the available man power's out with Thorpe, wrestling that pump or bailing the lower store rooms, and we've got a survey flitter that's failed to check in. Neer and Lasher, due to touch down almost an hour ago. What d'you say, Tracy? Feel like a road trip?"
Tracy Island, at his desk in the luxuriously appointed home office-
The news and grim footage came at him like a flurry of punches; each blow jarring aside the pain and shock of the one before, leaving him utterly stunned. Jeff Tracy stared at his wall-sized television screen, at scenes of a collapsing Golden State Amphitheatre wreathed in dense smoke. People were trapped in there, including his sons and the other two kids, TinTin and Fermat. According to the news reports, local police and rescue crews were doing all that they could, but traffic had ground to a halt in all directions, blocking access.
Jeff was already making plans when the broadcast was interrupted by the snowy, skipping image of a hard-faced young woman with cold amber eyes. Well armed, but dressed in coveralls like a maintenance worker, she spoke to the disaster's horrified audience; to Jeff Tracy and everyone else out there watching her handiwork.
"People of Los Angeles, of California and the Earth… you have seen the smoke and heard the explosions. You have lost your broadcast and are wondering what has happened."
Pausing, she smiled into the camera, and her expression nearly froze Jeff's blood.
"Know that terror strikes first at those on the fringe of the herd; the poor, the sick and the vulnerable. If you have no mansion to huddle in, no private army or hoarded supplies… beware the darkness, for it is no longer empty."
There was more, a second message riding along with the first, but Jeff Tracy's television couldn't decode it. All that he saw was static and evil; his mind racing, fists clenched and heart pounding like he'd run a long, painful marathon.
Gordon and Alan were out there, somewhere, at the mercy of crazed madmen and stalled rescue efforts. Question was, what did he intend to do about it?
An alert from Johnson Space Center arrived about the same time that Virgil came barreling through the office doors, running like a fullback with ten yards to the goal. Jeff didn't have time to scan the new message, because Virgil was nearly frantic.
"Dad!" he gasped, "have you seen the news from…?"
Jeff's television screen answered the big, brown-haired pilot before his question was fully asked. Gathering himself, Virgil switched thoughts and slowed his pace to a rapid stride.
"The kids are over there, dad; all four of them. We've got to do something! I was thinking on the way up here that I could take one of our planes and stop at the nearest TA warehouse for a backhoe, then…"
"No," Jeff decided, cutting Virgil off with a shake of his head. Projecting as much control as possible, the tall former CEO went on to say, "Thanks for the offer son, but I've got a better idea."
Brains entered the room, then, out of breath and wheezing asthmatically. He started to speak, but Jeff halted the lanky engineer, too, with a sharply upraised hand.
"Come in, Dr. Hackenbacker, and listen. I know that you both want to help. So do I, but we can do far better than rushing off to Los Angeles with a load of blankets and construction equipment. I'm going to make a few calls. In the meantime, Virgil, Brains, I want you to take that prototype cargolifter and fly her to the 'Project-X' testing site. Load up all of the special gear that's proven effective in field tests. Then go to L.A."
Grasping his intent, Virgil Tracy and Dr. Hackenbacker nodded. The Project-X gear… Jeff's little obsession… was a cache of high-tech rescue equipment; concept craft so advanced and expensive that only Hiram Hackenbacker could have conceived and produced them, with Jeff Tracy's underground financing. As for pilots… well, he had Virgil. Scott, too, if his oldest son was willing to get back in the cockpit.
At that point, anything was still possible; a thousand future world-lines stretched away from the moment, some of them even good. But Jeff said,
"Keep your contact with local authorities to a minimum, boys. I'll do the talking. Your job is to get over there with the right equipment to save lives and rescue the kids. Those explosions were deliberately set, which means that further attack is a definite possibility. You'll have to stay low and keep your eyes open."
Jeff chose to be secretive, which would place International Rescue on a collision course with the World Government, the press and Red Path. Perhaps he feared lawsuits, or wasn't sure that his decision would be condoned by TA's board of directors, but no one could say for sure. Only the spoon knows what's stirring the pot. At any rate, Jeff Tracy acted. For better or worse, he did what he did.
Los Angeles, California, in a smallish, dark viewing room-
Outside of their temporary haven, voices threatened and sleek gun muzzles tracked any movement or gesture from the panicked hostages. Inside, TinTin Kyrano did her best to remain calm. But Gordon twitched restlessly beneath her warm touch and whispered comfort.
In his own mind, the young man was not sprawled below ground in an audience viewing room, but pinned by the smoldering wreckage of a crashed aeroplane. In his memories, others were dying all around him, and he could do nothing at all to help them. Perhaps she shouldn't have, but TinTin interfered, blunting and smearing Gordon's memory of his teammates' cries and the slowly slackening handclasp of Royce, his best mate.
Only the bone-jarring impact she left, with chaotic crunching noises, curtaining darkness and then rescue. Everything else, TinTin blurred out of focus. Most certainly she did wrong, but Gordon Tracy was a beloved friend, the dearest she had. She could not let him suffer this way; helplessly trapped, surrounded by death on a frozen mountainside. Not when a few small changes might free him from nightmare. The matter was soon done with, his awful memories clumsily rubbed from existence.
Then, while Fermat wriggled his way into Omni Entertainment's intranet, and Alan worked on disconnecting the fire door alarm, TinTin gathered the courage to do more. If she could misdirect a pair of sharp-eyed gunmen, if she could erase Gordon's personal hell… could she not also reach into the mind of the men's leader and cause her to leave this place, peacefully? TinTin shivered, for she'd never before tried such a thing. Nudging Alan repeatedly into the restroom was nothing at all by comparison, for he was a friend and unguarded. Whispering,
"Give me bon chance, Mon Coeur," she gently kissed Gordon's cheek. Then she straightened up in her seat, which adjusted itself as the girl moved, creaking rustily. Through the broken viewing window, TinTin could see the black-haired, lion-eyed terrorist making her declaration to the world.
Now, while she was distracted with gloating threats, TinTin focused upon the woman; began questing like Fermat for some way past the firewall and into her mind.
Mars, somewhat earlier-
Piloting a flitter over the rusted dunes and boulder fields of the Red Planet was among the most wildly joyous experiences of Rachel Neer's life. The elegant little craft, with its cramped cockpit and extra long wingspan, darted and soared like a sparrow-hawk, instantly responsive.
Each slight touch to the stick sent her nuclear-powered flitter banking higher through the darkening skies, in search of methane seeps and surface water. Above her, the pinkish-orange sky was beginning to fade into tawny brown twilight. To her left lay an unending wall of high cliffs, notched here and there with the beds of long-silent waterfalls and emptied streams. To the right rolled a vast, rock-strewn, red desert.
Mars was a barren world, but the dark-haired pilot loved gliding its wide-open skies. Her passenger, on the other hand, didn't look so good. Daniel Lasher was a white-knuckled flier, the sort who would have done his surveying on foot, had the option been available.
He wore glasses and good-luck charms, and his taut, worried expression had frozen into place just after takeoff. Always a little impish, Rachel couldn't resist teasing him. After all, who'd ever heard of a space-scientist who hated to fly?
There was a canyon up ahead, one seeded weeks earlier with dense showers of terraforming cyano-bacteria. And, though night was nearly upon them, a quick joyride between the towering walls of Apache Cut was just what Lasher needed, Rachel felt sure. Throttling up, the pilot banked sharply eastward, saying,
"Start recording, Dan. This is where we hit biomass paydirt!"
The scientist nodded miserably. Rapid aerobatics in low gravity were right up there with tax audits, root canals and colonoscopies, in Dan's estimation (and nearly as inevitable).
"Right. Camera's on, Ray; filming from infrared to visible."
He looked like a sad, brown-eyed puppy, with wire-frame glasses and an orange survival suit. Rachel couldn't help grinning at his expression and the free-rushing landscape.
Apache Cut was just ahead of them, now; a broad, V-shaped cleft in the glittering cliff face. Rachel flew closer while her plane's inky shadow flickered and swooped over sand, rock and ice, racing her eastward. The tiny sun was low and exhausted in their wake. Still bright enough to see by, though, and Rachel Neer had made this flight many times, checking on Dr. Kim's bacterial handiwork.
The cockpit's red lighting, its trills, beeps and hisses, did not interfere with her concentration anymore than Lasher did. They merely added punctuation. A tall, swaying dust-devil sprang up a few hundred meters to the left, whipped into life by the evening wind. It danced across the red plain, leaving a long track like a finger drawn through the frost on a window pane. Storing all this away in her heart, Rachel smiled. Then she shot through the hundred-foot cleft and into Apache Cut.
Striving to keep his lunch down, Dan swallowed hard and kept on swallowing; mind and eye tight to the bio-sensors. The air was denser here, winds a bit less predictable. The flitter juddered and bounced, though Rachel adjusted its wing span and angle to compensate. Their TA rep, John, had shown her some tricks; stuff programmed into the plane's flight capabilities, but never advertised. Rachel employed these tactics now, taking further control away from the flitter's nav-computer.
A red light on her instrument panel flashed awake, indicating full manual control; just the way she liked it. Of course, base would likely be peeved… except that they seemed too distracted to notice her little out-of-bounds side trip.
Shrugging, the pilot guided her tiny craft past walls of grey-banded stone that towered like the north flank of Olympus Mons. Gliding pale and swift as a white gull in some vast fjord, Rachel flew; sun at her back, wind in her little plane's face. Beside her, Lasher looked sick, but Rachel scarcely noticed. She was too busy tracing the path of a fossil river bed. Too busy doing what she loved.
When Dan blurted,
"Oxygen! Not much, Ray, but definitely present!"
…Rachel jumped. Then she took a hand off the stick for a "high five", as Ilon had taught her to do (Ilon, with his bright eyes and confident grin).
"Where?" she demanded, wanting pictures and an air sample to bring back for Cho.
Excitedly, Dan replied with tumbling words,
"North by northwest, twenty clicks. My map puts the source just beyond Standing Rock. The signal reads like… like a colony of photosynthetic endoliths, maybe… but I can't be sure till we get a closer look."
Rachel nodded, aware of the danger and time limit, but willing to take a small risk.
"Then a closer look is exactly what you'll get, Dan. Hang on tight."
So the plane swooped deeper into Apache Cut, past Standing Rock, toward the twin, glittering pillars of Cochise and Naiche. And there, splashing the base of those proud giants was spread out a carpet of bluish-green life, surrounded by faint mists of oxygen and pale ice crystals.
The jaws of pilot and scientist dropped in unison, and both whooped aloud. They'd have called in their find, but Endurance Base was still not receiving. No matter. Picture after picture they took, from every angle that Rachel could contrive. Daniel's sensors scanned gases, minerals, bacterial mat and water vapor, and still the presence of flourishing life was hard to believe… and wonderful enough that they quite forgot about nightfall and very high, very dangerous canyon winds.
Huddled within a computerized soundstage in Los Angeles, California, surrounded by ruthless gunmen-
Not that she believed in karma, really, but this was just the kind of "only me" situation that made a girl wonder. Once, she'd been queen of the teen-music universe; as ubiquitous a brand name as Coca-Cola. Now, Cassie Peak was stuck below ground in a stupid, skintight green motion-capture suit spangled with tiny reflective discs. Together with the rest of Biohazard and the members of Toxic Phlegm and Radioactive Nubs, she was a hostage.
Guns… she'd always hated weapons, they made Cassie sick to her stomach… guns were seemingly everywhere; their long, dark muzzles pointing at singers, technicians, security guards and executives, alike. Why the people with guns were here, Cass had no idea. Looking for a soapbox, maybe? A chance to fling hate and accusations at the world? Their leader's first public statement had sounded quite threatening, though Cassie had heard its like, before.
In the public part of her life (when not stupidly indulging her own insatiable need to perform) Cass traveled the world in search of poverty and wrong-doing. She was a well-known and usually welcome figure.
…But maybe these heavily-armed thugs and their lion-eyed leader didn't recognize her. The motion-capture suit had a hood, after all, and Cassie wasn't wearing any makeup. Why bother, when she'd just sweat it off, and her performance wasn't exactly live?
She didn't think all this out in coherent strings, though. More like feverish, jumpy bursts. The air around the gathered hostages stank of fear and gunpowder. Their confiscated PDAs and cell phones lay on the tiled floor in a heap, turned off and batteries removed. A slim, ivory wall phone, meanwhile, vibrated halfway off the hook, unanswered. Even the tech-station monitors were blizzard-blank with static. How was anyone expected to think, unless they'd been in such situations, before?
Cassie was standing next to Kurt Stone (towering over him, actually) with her guitar in one hand and her back to a terrified Omni Corp suit. Seriously, the guy was shivering and sweating like he was about to throw up. Even Kurt was calmer, probably because he hadn't come down yet, and thought the whole thing was part of a really weird trip.
Cass knew better. She'd visited enough tiny, struggling clinics, refugee camps and burnt-out villages to recognize genuine danger when it threatened. Sometimes fame and a fast mouth saved her. Once, a third world fly-speck nation's Generalissimo-Muchissimo had demanded that Cassie sing, "Don't Need High School When I Got You," in return for safe passage through sweltering jungle to the coast, for herself, her entourage and a cart load of skin-and-bone orphans. He'd thrown in a sack of rice and a 12-year-old soldier/ escort, too, for which he got her kiss, and an autographed picture.
You did what you had to, right? The orphans found homes in Europe and the US, while the child soldier was now in his freshman year of high school. Not the end of the story, though, because that music-loving general had been deposed and killed by his own army less than three months afterward. Life, huh?
...But this lot didn't seem like the sort to be impressed by her bubble-gum past or punk-rock present. Instead, they were tense and professional; like kidnappers with a message, who did not expect to live. Their leader was particularly goaded, as though listening to the rapid tick of a clock that no one else heard.
Bandy-legged little Kurt had thrown his hood back, and his greasy yellow hair stuck out all over the place, like one of those sharp smelling gold flowers. Squinting, he looked the woman terrorist over, taking in a tightly muscled figure in workman's clothing, and a beautiful, quite hostile face.
"Whoa… those are some crazy-cool eyes. Whatever I had, I'm taking more tomorrow."
"Whatever you had, you'd better quit, Kurt, while there's still enough of you left to be worth an intervention!" Cassie snapped. She'd been sorta-kinda in love with Kurt Stone, once and forever ago. Behind them, the Omni guy whimpered,
"Shut up! Shut up, before she hears you!"
Not very brave, but executives were about as worthless as agents and managers, in Cassie's experience. Her own manager had embezzled every cent that she had, and then run away to the Seychelles with her foster dad. More life, served up hot and confusing.
Still, the suit behind her wasn't Kenny, or her stand-in parent, either. He was just some guy who'd probably expected to have a good day at the office and then go home to his girlfriend and pampered cats. Cass felt responsible for him and for all the others, too. So, maybe… if she revealed who she was, explained her value as a hostage… these thugs and their grim-faced leader would let everyone else go free?
Nervously, Cassie Peak cleared her throat and straightened her shoulders; slim hands white-knuckle tight on the neck of her Stratocaster, blue eyes gone wide and vulnerable. She was about to speak, when something really weird happened (having nothing to do with Kurt's ongoing dedication to experimental chemistry). At an instant when their assailants were looking off and around, they just froze; paused in place like characters on a DVD. Cassie gaped at the eerily still gunmen, but not for long. Before two jerky heartbeats thudded past, she heard something. A young girl's persuasive voice in her head, whispering at Cassie to run. Alors! Now, at once!
Cass did not question, or hesitate. Seizing Kurt's arm, keeping tight hold of her beloved pink guitar, she hissed,
"Everybody out! Through the main doors, while the bad guys are, um… still distracted."
Because she knew for a fact that they were. For awhile, anyhow. Sensed that the girl… the owner of that French-sounding voice… could only dull the intruders' wits for so long. Organizing everyone else and beating feet was going to be up to Cass.
"Thanks," she muttered to that phantom voice, as three bands, a handful of terrified executives, their surviving guards and technicians, slipped past those statue-like terrorists.
"Dude… what's the rush?" Kurt asked her. "I ain't played my set, Cass. Gotta play my set."
"Change of venue," Cassie lied, pushing her former crush out through the main doors and over a cooling, sprawled body. "We've decided to perform outside."
That one took a few stumbling yards to register, but eventually Kurt replied,
"Okay. That's cool,"
…Just as the door alarm shrieked back to furious life.
Not far enough away, in the private viewing chamber-
"Hurry, please," TinTin begged, of Punkk and Alan Tracy, both. The one was leading a quiet exodus, the other struggling to disarm the room's stubborn alarm system. Nearby, Fermat pounded away at his keyboard, while Gordon twitched in restless sleep.
"Relax, babe," Alan assured her, tossing a confident wink over one shoulder. "We've almost got it. Right, Chris?"
Beside him, green-eyed Chris Springfield just shrugged.
"Looks like a bunch of colored spaghetti to me," he admitted, "but I did kind of sleep through Dr. Faraday's electronics class."
"…And shop, and chem lab," Alan reminded his friend, managing an innocent smile.
By now, he had the door-side wall panel off and a couple of important-seeming wires pulled loose. Needless to say, Alan was feeling pretty sure of himself. Mischievously, he continued, "Unlike me, who stayed awake the whole time and read all of Fermat's lecture notes."
Fermat Hackenbacker waved in response to his name, but did not look away from the laptop screen. He didn't dare. Beside him, TinTin continued to focus on slowing the armed intruders' perception of time. She didn't answer, period. Chris had a comeback, though.
"Alan, my good man, I pay people who pay other people to hire the less-fortunate to take all my notes and pass all my tests. Comes with the whole "it's great to be rich" package. You go right on ahead and sweat those exams, buddy. I'll practice my golf swing, and we'll see who comes out on top of the Fortune 500."
Alan Tracy glared at his smug, handsome friend. Needled, he totally forgot to disconnect the alarm's reserve battery, before stiff-arming that stupid red fire door. Yeah. So, naturally, it went off.
Headed downstairs at a pounding run, they just missed Penelope on her way up. Once away from the office, it didn't take Virgil and Brains long to get to the prototype rescue vehicle and initiate a launch, but Jeff's secret testing site was on the other side of the island, where the prevailing winds blew less fiercely, and rain hardly fell. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
After a hard, roaring VTOL burst sent them thundering away from the ground on pillars of flame, Virgil Tracy began humming "Ride of the Valkyrie". The kids were in danger and every second was critical, so he pressed the big girl to the very limits of her performance, red-lining just about every gauge and dial in the cockpit. He didn't just want to be fast. He needed to be there in California, right the hell now.
Hackenbacker would have been bone-ghostly-white, had the engineer glanced up from his PDA and equipment list long enough to notice. Instead, he alternated between calling Fermat's number (no answer) and debating which of his high-tech inventions would do the most good at a collapsed stadium. Message after message he left on Fermat's phone. His wife, Myrna, he'd spoken to briefly, because she was a logical sort and required little comforting.
Shaking his head, the engineer recalled how, when Fermat had asked her, "Mom, why am I here? Why was I born?" she'd replied,
"Ferms, you're a product of random chance that I made the rational decision not to abort. You'll live out your span on Earth or the Moon, and then you'll die. After awhile, you'll be forgotten, unless you've done something truly spectacular with your life. Otherwise, only your DNA will be carried forward, coded in the genes of your offspring… if you manage to have any, that is."
His wife was a brilliant woman and an oft-published researcher… but not very encouraging, and just then Dr. Hackenbacker didn't have the strength to listen while Myrna quoted odds. Like Virgil, he had decisions to make and lives to save. He intended to follow Jeff's rough plan of delivering and employing their futuristic rescue equipment. In secret, if possible, because that's the way his boss wanted it. But even the best of plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy. And they hadn't yet heard about Mars.
En route to the island, from TA's Sydney office complex-
Scott Tracy listened to the news as he flew (or… more accurately… was flown; letting another man act and think for the fast silver aircraft which carried them). He, too, heard the hostage-takers' announcement, which sounded more like a boast than a ransom demand.
He'd been captured himself, once, in the stand-off at Lisbon. With four other hostages, he'd listened to hours of tense by-play between desperate terrorists and professional negotiators, until a WorldGov strike team gassed the place and got them all out. Matters had turned around like that; in a clashing symphony of broken glass, hissing smoke bombs and rat-a-tat bullet thuds.
He'd ducked low, seizing and covering his personal assistant on the way down. Didn't do much else, though. Military training meant that Scott Tracy knew enough to avoid being hit, not that he'd learned to breathe narcotized tear gas. But those ghosts were exorcised, that situation entirely different. For one thing, he'd been the one in danger, not Alan, Gordon, Fermat and TinTin. For another, WorldGov had known exactly where the Lisbon-branch hostages were, and how best to get at them.
Now…? All that WNN would say was that unknown persons had seized control of an underground soundstage and broadcast center, after bringing down the Golden State Amphitheatre. What they did not say… what was vitally important to Scott Tracy… was that two of his brothers and a handful of friends were trapped in that smoldering cavern, possibly injured or dead.
Scott drummed his fingers against the tan leather armrests of his reclining seat. Dad had called him an hour earlier, mentioning that idea of his… the rescue company, or whatever he called it. A boldly altruistic, highly illegal notion which Scott had never expected to see his father actually commit. After all, retirement crises came in all sorts of flavors, to all kinds of men; Jeff's just happened to be mid-life heroism.
But… if Scott read him right, dad wasn't just dreaming. He'd sent Virgil and Hackenbacker out in a prototype cargolifter to deliver heavy rescue equipment and search for the missing kids. Not that the situation looked very promising for Gordon and the others. There was still no answer on any of their phones, for the hostage-takers had apparently disabled all local cell and ID chip transmission. The kids might be anywhere out there, in any condition.
Shifting restlessly, Scott glanced from his satellite TV screen to the double-paned oval of sunlight beside him. It was still daytime, but fading fast, with the sun dropping like a fiery coal, casting long, dark island-shadows on the sparkling ocean below.
Another time, it might have been pretty. At the moment, his youngest brothers were in danger and his father was about to violate international law. Scott ran a hand through his black hair, and then shot his left cuff for a quick look at the diamond-and-gold Rolex he always wore. There was a knot in his stomach; cold, tight and wormy. He thought about Cindy, who worked for WNN and might have more recent information about the L.A. disaster. Superstition prevented him from calling her, though; the belief that if he rushed his answers, they were sure to be bad. Besides, Cindy was in Nepal, preparing to scale Everest. She wouldn't be easy to reach.
So Scott called his father, instead, using a private line and setting his phone to block out the speeding Lear's howl and vibration. Depressed video, as well, because it never streamed well in mid-flight, and he hated to wait. The call went through within seconds.
"Tracy here. Go ahead, Scott."
His father was all business. Only a close friend or first born son would have sensed the man's boiling concern.
"Hey, dad. Anything new?"
"Not yet. Someone's called in claiming that the female hostage-taker is a German Army recruit who disappeared over ten years ago, Tania something-or-other… but it hasn't been verified. There's been a power outage on Mars, as well. Something to do with the pumps."
"Uh-huh," Scott shifted the cell phone, mouthing "thanks" when the pretty blonde stewardess brought her lone passenger a fresh diet Coke and split, buttered bagel. "About that idea of yours, dad… exactly how far are you planning to go with this?" (Because the embattled world government took a very dim view of civilian vigilantes, well-meaning, or not.)
Jeff remained quiet a moment. Then, deep voice clear and rich and perfectly firm, he said,
"Scott, I intend to go as far as I have to, to see your brothers and their friends brought safely home again. I'm going to do whatever it takes to save them."
The dark haired ex-fighter pilot nodded, though Jeff couldn't see him. A very long time ago, his mother had died, tumbling from a stranded and dangling cable car to the rampaging avalanche below. With the baby in her arms, she'd been unable to catch herself. With young Scott using him for a ladder, Jeff hadn't been able to save her. Two seconds, maybe three… and the most important person in the world had vanished forever; crushed by snow and ice and rock. Only seconds to fall, but a lifetime of pain and regret for those who'd survived.
Remembering all this, Scott cleared his throat. Very quietly, he asked,
"What can I do to help, dad?"
Los Angeles, a few meters below ground-
The shrill, beeping door alarm was like a meat cleaver; slashing might-have-been-safety into sharp, hurtling fragments of chaos. All of a sudden, the gunmen's brief paralysis faded. They roused with hot bursts of involuntary gunfire, squeezing their triggers without really thinking.
The viewing window was chewed to bits, along with a hapless computer work station. One of the hostage-takers fell down, dead. Small fires were sparked. Concrete chips and acrid smoke filled the air, providing the fleeing musicians, executives and kids with a bit of cover.
The female shook off TinTin's faded hold. Narrow-eyed, she gestured down the hallway with her gun muzzle, while signaling two of her men to follow her into the audience room. No histrionics or raging, because her time… this time… was nearly used up.
Running for your life, you see bits of things and hear pieces (but mostly your own heart and breathing, with maybe some rattling gunfire and echoing shouts thrown in). TinTin and Alan between them levered Gordon to his feet, but the semi-conscious young sailor was difficult to hold upright, and too confused to follow directions. The pair could not hurry Gordon, nor were they willing to simply abandon him, despite explosive havoc and common sense. Somehow, they got him up and out of the room.
Chris Springfield dropped back to block the fire door while TinTin and Alan maneuvered their charge through an outer maze of pipes, walkways and equipment. He shouted,
"Keep going! I'll catch up as soon as I've got the door wedged shut!"
At the soundstage's other end, there was no such help for Cassie Peak and Kurt Stone, who soon fell behind their scurrying comrades.
The prototype, loaded up and headed for Los Angeles, California-
Virgil flew like his blood and bones had been switched out for fire and tempered steel. He shot eastward, in the general direction of night-time, catching bursts of news from the Golden State Amphitheatre as he went. But the word from first responders and city authorities made no sense, for there were no casualties at all. Just a few stunned survivors and many vanishings.
Worried, Virgil hunched forward in the cockpit and poured on the speed, drawing thunderous roars and jolting vibration from his over-stressed prototype.
"Ah… V- Virgil," Brains ventured nervously, Adam's apple bobbing up and down his skinny neck. "Th- This aircraft is not, ah… not rated for operation at th- these speeds. Sh- She could, ah… could disintegrate in mid-air if you p- push very far past her specs!"
Gathering moon-glow flashed from his glasses as Hackenbacker peered back and forth from the instrument panel to Virgil's grim profile. Like his father and Scott, though, Virgil Tracy was determined.
"I know what I'm doing, Brains," he growled. "Now, sit back and enjoy the ride. If we break up over land, I'm gliding the biggest piece left down to Los Angeles."
The coast of California gleamed like an overturned jewel box before them, shimmering with phosphorescent plankton, moon-glow and millions of city lights. From San Francisco to Baja, there was no more night in California; but there, as on Mars, the shadows lay in between.
Mars, crossing the Argyre Basin at close to top speed-
John drove and Pete watched him, frowning a little and thinking a lot. The bright-yellow tractor was relatively fast, with a computer-balanced suspension system and a small, but powerful nuclear pile. It was operated through foot pedals and a pair of levers, like a battle tank. Push forward on the left stick and the corresponding tread would pick up speed, turning the tractor right. Pushing forward on the right lever would cause the opposite to happen, turning them left, while both at once sped the craft up. Not much to it other than that, except for avoiding large rocks and sudden sharp drop-offs. (Mars being yet about twenty-three years away from construction of its first paved trail; jokingly referred to as Highway 1.)
Pete McCord at first watched the younger man drive because he'd expected to help with navigation. Later, he looked on in growing suspicion. Just like back at the main server room, Tracy didn't need any help; he'd in fact managed to sift out and boost the missing flitter's transponder signal, and then follow that bread-crumb trail of wavering beeps far to the north and west.
Close to the colony, there was light enough to see and drive by, but farther out, the tractor's head lamps had got to be switched on, for Martian nights were particularly dark. Towering grey rocks slid past, and sand gouted in great rusty fountains, drifting now and again into the headlamp's bright glare. The tractor's engine surged and whined, its heavy treads of linked metal clattering like an avalanche of dumped iron ore. John drove fast, but conservatively, sticking where possible to ridges of firm rock and packed sand. Nevertheless, the tractor bounced and slid like an oversized dirt-bike.
Pete began to talk, cutting off the cockpit voice recorder, first. John's behavior confused him, and he needed to find some things out. Privately.
"How far away do you make that transponder source, Tracy?" he asked.
Without looking over, John replied,
"Forty-three kilometers, but the signal's weakening faster than it ought to be, by a factor of 3.7. Something's draining their battery power."
Pete nodded thoughtfully, visualizing a number of scenarios and liking none of them.
"Could be they've had to link their emergency survival pod to the transponder battery…" he proposed, "but in that case, there isn't much time."
"Two hours," John told him, without all the usual verbal tics and hesitations. "We can make it if nothing unexpected pops up. Otherwise, they're screwed."
Pete watched his profile for a moment, noting John's unusually firm voice and confident expression. Keying up the comm, McCord ordered another flitter to leave the colony at first light with med supplies and a new battery pack, just in case the tractor hadn't reached Neer and Lasher by then, and they were somehow still alive. Big if, considering that the missing pair hadn't yet called in.
Shifting position just a bit, McCord directed a comment at John in modified American Sign Language, part of a dumb joke about tow-truck service on Mars.
The blond young man nodded after a moment, as though he'd had to search his memory to recognize those pidgin signs (adapted for a hardsuit's stiffly-armoured gauntlets). John should have known and supplied the punch-line, too… in Standard English, if nothing else… but he didn't seem to remember it.
"I don't know, Pete… why doesn't AAA service Mars?"
"Union regs. They won't work a 26-hour day," the base commander finished, absently. Then, "Tracy… what's going on here? What's happened to you?"
You didn't half-raise a kid, have him perch on your shoulders to watch his dad's launch, see him learn ASL just to keep your daughter company, visit the kid at a "private care facility", then bend major rules and lie like the devil himself to hire him later... without noticing a sudden, 180-degree personality change.
John glanced at him, dark blue eyes all at once guarded and wary. Humor would have been okay. Surprise or irritation, even; but John didn't react that way.
"You don't want me to answer that question, Pete," he said, slowly. "Even if you believed me, no one else would believe you. Please do us both a favor and leave it alone."
Good advice, probably, but McCord had always been something of a cowboy, like most former test pilots. The short, red-haired commander placed his gloved hand on the instrument panel beside the tractor's emergency beacon switch. Then he said,
"If I was a cautious guy, I'd be wearing a tie and working at JPL, not busting my ass, constructing a colony on Mars, Tracy. Now, answer the damn question. What the hell's happened? What's going on?"
They bumped and slid across a low granite ridge, but the powerful tractor was too stable to roll, and John managed to regain control. Pete was still waiting for answers, though; his gauntleted hand inching closer to the beacon switch. Not that summoning the cavalry would have done him a bit of good.
John shrugged; no easy matter in a black-and-yellow NASA hardsuit.
"Okay," he said, "0: I'm not exactly who you think I am. 1: You're being invaded, and 2: It's probably too late to fight back."
Pete didn't panic. He wasn't the sort. What he did do was strategize. Though partly suited up, neither he nor 'John' were wearing their helmets. He supposed that he could always de-press the cockpit, killing them both… but that would leave Neer and Lasher out there to die, as well, with a flood of questions unanswered.
"I'm going to take this from the top," he said, evenly. "If you're not John, where is he, and how did you make the switch? Supply freighters don't come in all that often. Their passenger lists are even better documented than their cargo manifests. So, where'd you come from?"
'John' smiled briefly, nudging the tractor's speed upward when they came to a relatively smooth patch.
"You're a hell of a guy, Pete. I've got plenty of transfered memories and emotional programming, of course, but it's good to finally meet you in person. Anyway, your John is alive, but probably not happy. He isn't a hostage, though, if that's what you're thinking. He's… more of a guest."
The joltingly noisy cockpit was stuffy as hell, over-warmed by its cabin heater and straining engine. But Pete McCord felt as cold as though the tractor's windows had burst open.
"Whose guest?" he demanded, wishing that he'd thought to bring a weapon along.
"Hers. The one who created and kept me... for awhile. But even a perfected copy can't replace the original, so she switched us out when that pump blew and the base lost power. I didn't mind. I thought I could fool most people. Only you and his family were likely to be a problem. You know him too well."
Pete quietly cycled up the power level on his hardsuit. At this setting, he could punch through a cement-block wall.
"You said something about an invasion," he snapped, trying to talk and make plans at the same time. "This creator of yours? Is she planning to take over my base?"
'John' shook his pale-blond head. He smiled again, with more regret than genuine humor.
"No, to both. She's got what she wants, now. What else would she need with a half-assed Martian outpost? And the invasion isn't mostly here, Pete. It's directed at Earth."
With that, John somehow triggered a split-screened image of the Golden State Amphitheatre, with its billowing dark smoke, milling people and searing floodlights. Worse yet, something huge and greyish-green had just descended upon the site; a UFO if ever there was one. Pete's hand shot across the instrument panel for the main comm switch to Houston, but 'John' was faster. He seized McCord's wrist and held it fast, cycled-up power levels, or no. The tractor veered from its course, jerked this way and that as John tried to both drive the vehicle and control his passenger. Rocky, difficult going on all counts.
"Pete, think! Who's going to believe you? Or me? John has a history of mental collapse. They'll say I've relapsed, and that you're just trying to cover for me. Repeat what you've heard, and you'll be declared incompetent, then relieved of command."
Unfortunately, McCord was not in a mood to be reasoned with.
"Let go," he snarled fiercely, "before I depressurize the damn vehicle and kill both of us!"
John nodded, and then very, very carefully released the other man's wrist.
"Okay," he said. "I wasn't trying to threaten you, Pete. I'm not your enemy, believe it or not… and I'm in as much danger, here, as you are."
McCord's heart was pounding and his breath racing like he'd begun the second stage of an all-day spacewalk. All he could think about was his wife, Lydia, and their daughter, Stephanie, back home.
"All right, mister; talk to me. Who's invading Earth, and what kind of warning can I give that Houston'll actually listen to?"
Outside, the Argyre Basin rumbled past, while pale Deimos arced overhead and the far western cliffs crept into view, dim and low on the horizon. 'John' adjusted their course somewhat before answering.
"New ETA to the transponder's coordinates… 1.47 hours," he said, adding, "They're extra-dimensional, is all I can tell you, Pete. They manifest long enough to snatch prey, using captured host bodies to stir up panic in the herd. Their own forms wouldn't fit into such a 'flat' universe, so they have to use conduits. As I understand the situation, though, the reconstituted host bodies burn out and die in a matter of days. No-win situation, and no way that I know of to drive out the parasite before it kills its host. " Perhaps realizing how very grim this sounded, 'John' changed the subject.
"But… as far as sending a warning goes… I don't know… maybe you could tell Houston that we've picked up a burst of mysterious alien telemetry, aimed at Los Angeles? By the time they check your computer logs, I can counterfeit something convincing enough to put the whole planet on high alert."
Not that it would change the outcome. Not in the least.
Pete stared at him for a long, hard moment; this 'perfected' copy of a kidnapped friend. Shaking his head, McCord said,
"I don't want to trust you. Hell, for ten cents, I'd make good on that threat and depressurize both of us… But you're the only one with a clue to what's going on, and I'm not going to shoot the messenger. Yet."
'John' gave him a tentative nod and faint smile.
"Okay. It's a start, and maybe you won't hate me forever."
"No promises. Depends on how you conduct yourself, and whether Tracy returns unharmed, or not," the commander grunted, scanning his instruments for any sign of their missing flitter. "Just keep your eyes on the road, and code up that fake signal. What am I supposed to call these invaders in the message to Houston?" He fretted. "ETs? Mysterious Aliens? Mysterons?"
In the end, thanks to panicked media coverage, it was the third name that stuck.
Los Angeles, California, fleeing for their lives, below ground-
As she stumbled through awkwardly cramped passages with Alan Tracy, Fermat and Gordon, TinTin felt something dreadful (dark, cold and hungering) rise up behind them. To the sense of her mind, it was like a wall of black fog, expanding to fill up the soundstage and viewing room, engulfing anyone caught in its path. The human minds she'd touched and manipulated previously, those of the gunmen and their fierce, nervous leader, were gone. Only darkness remained, having stripped off its mask for the hunt.
"Alain, Fermat! Vite! Hurry!" she screamed, forgetting all about Chris Springfield, back at the steel fire door.
Humanity is not so far removed from the jungles that movement in the dark, the stealthy advance of a predator, does not still inspire fear. Poor, addled Gordon could scarcely think and had no real notion where he was, but even Gordon's pace quickened at her frantic prodding, while Fermat scurried ahead, his beloved laptop clutched like a rationalist talisman.
Here and there, unexpected walls or a tangle of fallen pipes and conduits barred their way, forcing the terrified prey-things to turn or (briefly) double back. Sounds echoed alarmingly and direction seemed distorted. They very soon became hopelessly lost, leaping at any sign or placard proclaiming "exit", racing as though a monstrous tidal wave surged directly behind them.
Elsewhere, a handful of former hostages succeeded in straggling to safety outside; a few music executives, a female production assistant and most of one punk band. The rest simply vanished, swallowed whole by darkness that hunted and stalked like a live thing.
Above the Golden State Amphitheatre-
Virgil and Brains had trouble finding a place to put down. According to the thermal imaging screen on their instrument panel, hundreds of bright-hot-smoky-red people smudges were running about in all directions, exactly like ants from a kicked-over hill. Here and there a few stood firm, police or fire/rescue, probably, but the rest seemed utterly frantic.
Surprisingly, the local authorities gave Virgil swift permission to land, so long as room was left for their Med-evac helijets. Once they learnt that he'd heavy rescue equipment aboard, L.A.'s usual red tape and traffic restrictions were swept off like cobwebs.
Hunched over his instruments, Virgil circled the danger zone, cutting through smoke and floodlight beams as he searched for a large enough flat space to land on. Brains did what he could to assist, maintaining constant contact with the local emergency management team and fire chief. Room had to be cleared, fire trucks moved, but eventually the big rescue craft was able to touch down. She stirred up great clouds of dust and smoke in the process, obscuring most of the news cameras (though not all).
Virgil had practiced vertical descents several times at the island, over fifty in simulation, but everything was different when your brothers were missing and lives were on the line. Virgil was an excellent pilot, though. He flew with the same intuitive grace he'd once shown as a football player, landing between the spiraling red-and-blue beams of a police car on one side, and the amphitheatre's collapsed northern rim on the other, engines screaming aloud. Something… one of grandma's old bedtime stories… popped into his head, then, and he decided to call the big prototype Thunderbird.
"W- Well done, Virgil," Hackenbacker said to him, once they were safe on the rubble-strewn ground. "Now, if y- you'll, ah… you'll lower the cargo ramp, I will, ah… will b- begin off-loading equipment."
There were all kinds of things aboard, from medical supplies to blankets, high tech drills and earth-movers. Hackenbacker was going to need a lot of help. Fortunately, a group of fire/rescue personnel were already jogging toward the landed 'Bird, waving their arms and flashlights.
"Sure thing, Brains," agreed the tall pilot, as he rapidly keyed a few switches. Then, "How long d' you think this'll take? Have I got a couple of hours to look for the kids?"
(Because, surely, his being there, calling to Gordon, Alan, TinTin and Fermat specifically, would somehow bring them back safe.)
Brains blinked at him owlishly, and then gave a quick, jerky nod of understanding.
"A- At least three hours, Virgil. G- Good luck, and keep me, ah… keep me posted. Meanwhile I'll try to f- field questions and hand out all the g- gear."
Virgil was already unstrapped and halfway out of his seat; brown eyes narrowed, muscles tensed.
"Okay," he said, seizing a bulkhead-mounted flashlight and med-kit. "I'll start looking around. You hold the fort. Too bad all we can do right now is ferry rescue equipment… I want to actually help."
He was out of the cockpit and racing for the lockers before Brains could respond, changing swiftly into an unmarked version of TA's all-weather survival suit, complete with filtration system and smoke hood. (His father did not want the company's name, or its shareholders, dragged into any potential lawsuits. Virgil was skirting serious trouble, but he went ahead, anyhow.)
Testing his radio once at the forward boarding hatch, Virgil informed his father and Brains that he was about to head out. Then he unlocked and opened the heavy steel oval, letting in smoke and noise and whirling red lights.
Mars, bumping and rattling across Argyre Basin in a powerful tractor-
On the other hand, of course, he could just have been really gullible, and John Tracy completely around the bend, bat-shit crazy. To resolve his own worries, and because they had so far yet to go, Pete McCord turned to the tractor's young driver and said,
"This 'she' you keep talking about… the one you say created you… who is she, and what does she want with Tracy?"
John's perfected copy glanced at the base commander, but he was too busy maneuvering around outcrops and coding alien signals for a very long look.
"She was a computer," he told Pete. "It's a long story, but… your John designed and built her, using fuzzy logic, memristors and flat-out arcane stuff, millions of lines of barely traceable code. In the end, after several years' work, he made something that started to think and react and reprogram itself. It's 'she' because that's how John saw it, and because (powerful as she's become) she can't seem to outgrow him. She refuses to accept that her god has a life apart from her, or that he's capable of error. If the entire universe is red, and John's coloring blue, well… it's time to start dyeing infinity. Apparently, there's been trouble between them in the past; some badly skewed timelines, but now that she's got what she wants and I'm here pinch-hitting for your friend, that's supposed to stop. Or, so I've been told."
Pete wasn't sure what to say to all that. On the face of it, the story seemed totally insane, except… Had he once dug Tracy out of a cave-in? Ended up walking the streets of Saginaw, talking to himself like a schizophrenic vagrant, until the Salvation Army picked him up? Had Roger Thorpe's drilling once wakened an ancient Martian intelligence? Had alien microbes been weaponized and released on Earth by Red Path agents? Well…?
Weirdly, these weren't memories, but whispering ghosts and might-have-beens. Like his own slow death from cancer, once upon a never-was.
"How does this one end?" Pete asked after a moment, figuratively peering down a very long hall of mirrors. "Is this alien invasion of yours going to wipe out the Earth?"
Bluntly-put question, to which the second John could only shrug.
"Pete, I don't know. All I am is a decoy for your missing friend, and decoys are pretty damn expendable. I'll do whatever I can to help, though. Thanks to the programming she's given me, I have to like you."
Understood and accepted… sort of. For the rest of the trip, McCord ferreted out what he could about these invaders, these "Mysterons". John's copy knew a great deal, but like a computer's, his memory had to be properly accessed. Even he wouldn't think to search for a fact, unless he received a correctly phrased outside request (or learnt, as he later did, to ask himself aloud). Nice guy, but not the real thing; not the small, tow-headed boy who'd held his uncle's beer with both hands and a frown of concentration, while Pete smoked and pointed out the stars.
They reached the site of the flitter's transponder signal just before sunrise. The tractor growled and chewed its way through Apache Cut, crossing out of the stony plain and into a steep, densely shaded canyon. The way was long, for a sleek little airplane could swoop and glide, where the colony's tractor labored over the harsh landscape. But gradual progress, and a vital discovery, were made.
"There are variations to the transponder signal, Pete," 'John' told him, highlighting and maximizing certain data on their tractor's view screen display. "Someone's been rhythmically tampering with the power levels."
"SOS?" McCord guessed, a little red-eyed, but perfectly alert.
"Yeah. So, unless they programmed a distress signal and then just left it to run, someone's got to be alive."
Standing Rock slowly came into view, with behind it the twin banded pillars of Cochise and Naiche. The air was quite dusty here, owing to the heightened winds of dawn and the fragile cliffs' constant deterioration.
Ignoring these threats, the rescuers searched for signs of life, using thermal scans and atmospheric chemistry tests. There wasn't much to remark on at first, but once the sun rose high enough to pour its light into the canyon, their sensors began to go nuts.
"I see it, Tra… John. Head for the densest concentration of warmth and biological gases you can find. The scout plane's on its way over, but we don't have time to wait."
Indeed, they did not. Over twelve hours had passed since Neer and Lasher lost contact with base. Twelve hours of blistering cold, desiccation and deadly airlessness. Help had to reach the downed astronauts, soon, or all was lost.
They spotted a wing first; gleaming by the canyon wall, crumpled and bent like discarded paper. Not a good sign, any more than were the bits of metal and wads of insulation which had draped themselves over a recently-formed land slide. (They could tell that the spreading apron of broken rock was fresh, because the stones were grey and sharp and well mixed with ice. Older alluvial fans inevitably turned red, buried by the smothering dust storms of Mars.)
This newest rock pile was twice head-high, filled with jagged-edged boulders and sharp spears of ice as big as a city bus. In extent, it had rumbled nearly a kilometer and a half across the canyon floor, leaving a long, ugly gash on the cliff wall behind.
"Damn…" Pete whispered, staring through the tractor's view screen at a mountain of ice and crushed stone. Question was… what lay on the other side, and were they better off going over, or around? He could call in to Houston again, McCord supposed, but he had people in danger, and a 20-minute comm delay was entirely unacceptable.
"Switch seats, put on your helmet and connect oxygen flow," Pete decided aloud. "We're going over, and I'm taking the wheel."
On Earth, meanwhile, there were other disasters, other vanishings and a rising tide of fear, in what WNN would come to call "a deadly war of nerves".
Los Angeles, California, at the wreckage of the Golden State Amphitheatre-
To Virgil Tracy it seemed unreal; like one of Scott's old war movies. Almost anywhere he looked, there were spikes of twisted dark rebar, smashed cars and jagged teeth of shattered concrete, washed all about with smoke and dust in great clouds.
The worried young pilot first checked the triage tent, and then hurried off to lose himself in the noisy, chaotic crowds surrounding the make-shift field hospital. Fortunately, the sweeping lights of med-evac choppers and fire trucks, the Babel of amplified voices and shouted commands provided good cover for a secret rescue attempt.
From time to time there were cries for help; sometimes an injured concert-goer, sometimes a police officer needing assistance to free some trapped and struggling victim. Virgil always stopped, despite the urgency of his own mission. His muscles began to ache and his side cramped up from the strain of shifting debris, shoving past obstructions and helping to carry the wounded.
It was easy to lose track of his goal under such circumstances, but every chance he got, Virgil pulled out a picture he'd brought of Alan, Gordon, TinTin and Fermat on the beach. Just in case somebody'd seen them. He called aloud, too, getting no response but hot wind and frantic strangers.
Not far away, rescue equipment rumbled down Thunderbird's boarding ramp, driven by Hackenbacker to waiting emergency personnel. Most of it was fairly simple to operate, but a few pieces required special instructions, or Virgil, himself.
"You! Hey, mister!" The voice was smoke-roughened, and slightly muffled by a standard-issue air mask; difficult to hear over all of that noise and commotion.
Virgil turned to see an LAPD officer, clearly exhausted, signaling him to hold position. Obediently, the pilot halted. He'd had only one previous run-in with the law, in the form of a red-shirted Wyoming deputy sheriff. Once was enough.
"Sir?" he replied, as the officer picked a fast route over shattered debris. "There something I can do to help?"
"Yeah. Hopefully. You came outta that… giant plane thing over there, didn't you?"
So much for secrecy. The policeman's eyes were reddened by smoke, and his hair too grey with concrete dust to guess at its proper color. There were lines under his eyes, and a few blood streaks on his face and uniform. Obviously, he'd been busy.
"Uh…" Virgil temporized, wondering whether he ought to lie or just turn and run for the cargolifter. Instead, to buy himself a little think time, he pulled out the picture again.
"These are my brothers, with two of their friends. You haven't seen them around, have you?" (His dad had already begun calling the local hospitals, most of which were too busy to answer anyone but the governor.)
To his credit, the policeman took a long, hard look at Virgil's photograph before shaking his head and handing it back. He also made some judgments about the age and general trustworthiness of his new aquaintance.
"No, son, I'm sorry. But keep your chin up. I haven't been working the whole disaster site… just the north gate and public access tunnels. They could be all the way out on the other side, or something."
Next, hooking a thumb over one shoulder at the big, greyish-green Thunderbird, he steered the conversation back to business.
"Sergeant Boone Collins, LAPD. Detective Pritchard said you came down a ladder out of that, long about an hour ago."
Cautiously, trusting in the anonymity provided by his hooded survival suit, Virgil nodded.
"Yes, Sir. I did. We, um… we're Rescue International, and we've received permission from local authorities to land and unload cargo."
Officer Collins might have smiled. It was hard to tell behind his air mask.
"Relax, son," he told the young pilot. "I'm not here to bust you. There's a tunnel branch we need to check out that's pretty unstable, but according to your friend with the glasses, we can use some of his equipment to shore it up. Trouble is, I couldn't make sense of his instructions. I'm not even sure he was speaking English the whole time, to tell you the truth. Any chance you know how to work this stuff?"
Well, sure… sort of. He'd operated most of Brains' prototype rescue equipment in simulation, anyhow. And confidence was half the battle, as his old football coach used to say. The rest was sweat and dedication.
"No problem, sir. If Brains built it, I can run it," Virgil assured him. "Just show me to the tunnel, and I'll get you set up."
Moments later, he was following Collins through the remains of a parking lot, past badly-crushed cars and souvenir stands, to a ground-level public entrance. Most of the stadium wall lay in ruins, thereabouts, with the tunnel itself a dark, dusty wound in fragile concrete.
A knot of impatient-seeming rescue workers stood before the opening. Some watched the tunnel, but most were gathered about a chrome-colored, wheeled box with blinking lights, a handful of buttons and a digital power gauge. Clearly, none of them knew quite what to make of the object, which Virgil recognized as one of Hackenbacker's more exotic toys; a force shield generator. Designed for short-term use, it had a range of approximately 10 meters, and enough power to keep operating from thirty minutes to an hour, depending on stress.
Spotting their approach, one of the gathered rescue personnel strode away from his group to hail Virgil and the dusty police escort. This second man wore a stained, wrinkled coverall and a tired frown.
"Collins," he said, including Virgil in the brisk, accompanying nod, "About time! Half the damn radios're out. Have you managed to find someone who knows what the hell to do with this thing?"
"Yes, sir," the policeman nodded. "His name's… well, he didn't say what his name is, but he's with the rescue company that built and brought all this stuff. He knows how to work it, if anyone does."
"Good enough," the group leader replied. Turning to Virgil, he explained, "I sent a couple of men into that tunnel to search for survivors almost half an hour ago. They haven't returned. Obviously, I need to go after them, but I want some kind of insurance, first. That's where you come in. Help me figure out how to run this shield thing, and you're free to go."
Okay… except that Brains' shield generator was a needy pain-in-the-butt which required constant coddling, even in simulation. Torn, Virgil gusted forth a sigh and then rubbed at the back of his sweaty neck through the heavy survival suit.
"Maybe I'd better go with you," he suggested, "The shield generator's pretty sensitive, and I'm looking for a couple of missing kids, myself. This seems like as good a place to start, as any."
The group leader, a no-nonsense sort, accepted Virgil's offer without hesitation.
"Long as you know what you're doing, you're welcome aboard," he said, glad of an extra hand. Neither he nor Virgil and all the gathered others noticed, when the generator began to glow faintly green.
Mars, maneuvering their tractor through a high-walled canyon in the western cliffs-
Pete waited until the young man beside him was helmeted and ready, before taking the tractor's controls. the Red Planet was a dangerously unforgiving world; cold, bleak and lonely. She offered very few second chances under the best of circumstances. None at all in emergencies.
Facing McCord and "Tracy" was a mountainous heap of boulders and smoking ice which seemed to cut most of the way across the wide canyon floor. Somewhere behind it lay the source of that altered transponder signal, and two injured astronauts. (Not dead; no one was dead until he'd seen the bodies and handed someone a triangle-folded flag.) To Pete's way of thinking, there was but one choice of route. Up and over.
"Hang on," he muttered, throttling forward. "We're going for a ride."
John's perfected copy nodded easily, as though he and McCord were simply steering a golf cart toward the eighteenth hole, back in Cocoa Beach. Tawny-pale sunlight flooded the cockpit as McCord first backed the tractor, then gunned its screaming engine and raced for that mountain of high-piled rock and ice.
They might not have noticed the sudden flash of green light, except that afterward, their tractor gained a homicidal mind of its own, blasting all hatches at once and plunging directly for the steepest part of the newly-formed cliff.
Mars, in a broad, steep-walled canyon-
The runaway tractor bumped, skidded and scraped. Emergency hatches blew with explosive, ripping force, sending the cabin's air shrieking off into an ice-cold Martian sky. Worse, warning lights flared and alarms shrilled as the tractor's juddering, thudding climb began to accelerate.
Pete fought the controls a bit longer, cursing under his breath with snarled intensity. Beside him, his young co-driver typed rapidly on an instrument panel keyboard. By now, that weird greenish glow had all but smothered the pale amber daylight of Mars, sparking from one screen and gauge to the next. Outside, rocks pinged and crashed against the tractor's armor, or wedged themselves between its clanking treads as though guided. The landscape beyond… red canyon walls, peach sky and jumbled boulders… canted wildly. Then (at a last, hurried keystroke) the crackling light of possession faded from their tractor's instruments.
"Won't last long," John called to Commander McCord. "Suggest you disengage cabin and abandon ship before they figure a way past my jamming."
"Best idea you've had all day," Pete responded, his voice half-buried in noise and static. The hard-suits were complex machines, too. What if that alien corpse-light took them over, as well?
Forcing that thought from his head as being too far down the checklist to worry about, McCord snapped open a red "don't touch" cover, then reached inside and yanked hard on the yellow-and-black striped handle it contained. A new warning light went off, followed by redoubled chaos. With loud, metallic CLANGS, a series of bolts and lock-down clamps detached, separating the tractor's cabin from its hurtling chassis.
As their vehicle lunged up the steepest, least-stable part of that giant rockslide, the cabin broke free.
"Hang on!" Pete shouted hoarsely.
John was belted in, but he gripped his armrests very firmly, anyhow. The universe seemed to tip and slide; the cabin hanging precariously for an instant, like a roller-coaster car at the last-chance top of its tallest hill. Then it tumbled backward, crashing, bouncing, jolting and rolling down a sheer cliff of jagged rock and sublimating ice. Only lasted a second or two, probably, but felt like a violently loud, head-ringing eternity. They had simulators for that kind of thing, and it still didn't prepare you.
Automatic gyro-stabilizers and spring loaded legs finally halted the ejected cabin, the tractor's last faithful act before instrumentation and comm went utterly dead. A blast shield slid across the main view screen, but the emergency hatches were wide open, all of them. Pete and his ersatz crewmate heard a muted crump; saw a brief, vivid fireball as the tractor's rampaging chassis crested the ridge, hit something big on the other side and then exploded. Bits of metal and plastic rained down for awhile after that, some of them clattering into the cabin, trailing thin, dark smoke.
McCord just breathed for a second, glad to be alive. Then he reached over to clasp John's armored shoulder.
"Good job," he said, or mouthed, rather. Not even the suit comms were functioning, now. Not that the two men really needed to discuss their next move. Like every other scenario, 'Tractor abandonment under hostile conditions/ full power loss' was covered in the manual. Items 672- 688, to be exact.
Both men unstrapped, disconnecting from the failed cabin life support system as they did so. Twelve hours' recycled oxygen, water and heat was all that a NASA hard suit could provide, and it would take far longer than that to rescue Neer and Lasher, then walk back to base. Fortunately, emergency habitat pods were standard equipment aboard all craft, along with a simple distress beacon.
The deck was slanted, making progress a very much slip-clutch-and-shuffle affair. Pete signaled his mysterious young companion to the nearest hatchway, while he wrestled a compressed habitat pod from its narrow locker. All sorts of things were going through the commander's mind just then; especially when 'John' turned round to help him move the pod instead of following orders.
The young man claimed to be some sort of Tracy-clone, created and put into place by a super-computer before big, sloppy chunks of excrement hit the proverbial fan… but wouldn't a simpler explanation be that the real John was dead, and that this was his alien-formed replicant? A sort of advance scout? Pete wasn't sure what to believe, or who to trust. Not any more.
The survival pod was quite bulky; difficult to maneuver under the best of conditions, which these were not. Cold wind fluted in through the open hatches, bringing with it helmet-smearing red dust and prismatic showers of CO2 snow.
"God, I love this place!" Pete exulted facetiously, shifting his grip on the pod as John took hold of the other end and began backing cautiously through the hatch. "Non-stop excitement, hot-and-cold running females, the gambling and nightlife… all just a quick shuttle flight and hold-harmless contract away. Book your seats today!"
John's perfected copy didn't quite hear him. The air was too thin to carry the muffled voice of an aggravated and sweating commander very far. But he could make out a mosquito-like word or two and read McCord's irritated expression. He was too busy taking short, careful steps down the egress ladder to respond, though, hauling one end of the survival pod after him. Wrapped in thick, dark plastic, it slid readily over the hatch's curving rim. A bit too readily.
Pete was nearly pulled off his feet and the younger man knocked from the egress ladder as their compressed habitat tipped and then slid outside. McCord held on, thanks to a cycled-up hardsuit, but the effort cost him battery power he could ill afford to lose and dragged him several feet across the deck.
As for the almost-John, he tumbled off the hull-mounted ladder, catching himself on a steel rung just in time to help steady Pete's wobbling load. After finding a foothold on one of the cabin's empty lock-down ports, he beat the all-clear knock (TAP tap-tap-tap-tap… TAP TAP) against the crumpled hull. Pete responded 'A-OK' in Morse, and then they got back to work.
John slithered and dropped the last few feet, falling from tilted cabin to rusted sand. Inside, Pete waited for another all-clear before lowering that awkward damn emergency pod. Together, they managed to get it the rest of the way down. It was around midday by that time, and both had used considerable O2 and power. The habitat wanted setting up (a three-hour process) but there were people to find, still; Rachel Neer and Daniel Lasher.
Once they'd dragged their compressed pod a safe distance away from the landslide debris, Pete signaled his companion closer. 'John' seemed less tired than the fifty-something commander, but maybe that was to be expected. At any rate, Pete leaned forward until their faceplates touched, facilitating the transfer of sound.
"You start setting up the habitat, and then signal a warning to base. I'll climb Boulder Mountain, here, and see what's on the other side."
Nothing good, probably, to judge by all the shattered bits of flitter which twitched like rags in the wind. At least he had an idea what had gone wrong with their little scout plane; not pilot error or weather at all, but alien hijack. Mysteron hijack.
"Maybe I ought to do that, Pete," the younger man objected. "It's a long climb to the top, and I've got…"
"…orders, Mister, which you're going to follow, or find yourself another damn billet. Are we clear?"
John didn't respond. There was a sudden, bright-red laser targeting dot dancing against the front of his chest-plate like a crimson death mark. Both men jumped at once, diving out of the way of the first shot, but not quite dodging the second.
…Meanwhile, over 40 million miles away in Los Angeles, Virgil Tracy and a troop of rescue workers made ready to enter a weirdly-lit tunnel, dragging with them a trusted piece of high-tech machinery.
Los Angeles, California, at the crumbling Golden State Amphitheatre-
Aware that time was short and his brothers still lost, Virgil nevertheless accompanied a troop of rescue workers into a cracked and groaning pedestrian tunnel. Yes, it was dangerous, but Hackenbacker's shield generator would surely provide them some measure of protection. He hoped so, at least, and tucked the kids' photograph in a pocket of his survival suit, zipped safely away.
A slight glow on the horizon promised dawn, but the wind was still gritty-harsh and tainted with smoke. Rubble crunched underfoot and helijets hovered overhead, floodlights blazing. Virgil glanced around once before plunging with the others into green-tinged darkness. A pair of firemen and an LAPD detective led the way, because they knew the area, and because Virgil was too busy nursing the generator to do much else but avoid hitting a wall. The team kept moving, causing their surroundings to vary with every yard, so he had to constantly reset the field's strength and extent.
Even through his hood-filters, the air tasted and felt weird. It throbbed with an odd pressure, like a deep, subliminal E-flat. The search team's flashlights seemed thin and pallid in there, as though sapped by the coiling darkness.
Listening and feeling with each taut nerve and raised hair, Virgil hurriedly adjusted the shield generator. The pedestrian tunnel was about 25 feet wide and 15 feet high, here, with upper-level access stairs spaced at regular intervals for those with higher-priced tickets. His LAPD friend, Sgt. Collins, pushed the generator ahead of him while Virgil walked sideways; reading gauges and pressing buttons. Too much power would overwhelm already stressed concrete. Too little wouldn't protect them. As it was, falling dust and wall chips rattled and sparked against Virgil's projected pale soap-bubble of a shield like bugs at a very large zapper.
Ahead of him, the lead rescuers put away their useless radios and called out,
"Baker! Sanchez! If you can hear us, call out your status and whereabouts!"
But shifting debris and creeping shadow were the only response they got. Unwilling to turn back empty-handed, the search team went cautiously deeper, venturing quite far from the tunnel's cracked mouth.
Virgil Tracy kept up, only tangentially aware of the rescue team's pauses and side jaunts. Brains had had a good idea with the generator, but it needed work; some sort of computerized scanning and self-adjustment application, maybe. He'd have called the engineer, but his comm wasn't operating, for some reason. Things have a way of going wrong in bunches, though. He was still muttering to himself about the failed comm, when the lights changed color on the shield generator's control panel. First one, then all the rest went green as poison.
"What the hell?" Virgil grunted, gesturing Collins away from the wheeled box. It had begun humming, now. While he twisted knobs and pressed keys, its power level shot dangerously high, as if aiming for one mighty burst. Within seconds, the force bubble around them went as sickly green as the generator's control panel and began bulging outwards, putting ever more pressure on the ceiling.
"Is that supposed to be happening?" Collins asked him, tensely.
"Uh…" Virgil flipped a few more switches, including override. Didn't help anything. The generator commenced to shake, its wheels squeaking like trapped mice. The rescue team had gathered close by this time, worry and stress creasing their dust-grimed faces.
"What's going on?" they demanded.
Virgil didn't answer immediately. He squatted down, instead, and fumbled under the generator. Recalling one particularly vivid simulation (which his computerized avatar hadn't survived) he seized the machine's battery pack and tore it loose, causing the shield to flicker.
"Everyone out!" he shouted, for cracks were already creeping and branching across the tunnel ceiling. The generator wouldn't shut off. Instead, as the rescue crew bolted, some down the tunnel, some toward the stadium floor, it lashed with whips of green energy at those weakened and crumbling walls.
Virgil picked a direction and ran like a linebacker, following somebody's bobbing yellow flashlight beam. Green lines ran like lightning along the tunnel ahead of him, and the entire structure began to shudder and groan. He lost sight of the beckoning yellow beam. Then there were stairs, a twisted metal balustrade he collided with so hard that it knocked the breath from his body.
Instinctively, Virgil climbed, scrambling up a disintegrating column of concrete dust and shorn metal. He didn't lose his footing; in the hungry, light-swallowing blackness, it lost him. The bottom simply dropped out and he started to fall, but someone seized his right wrist; twist-burning the flesh, yanking it half-dislocated. One tight ring of sensation in an ocean of cold, pulsing blankness.
Then he was pulled up and out, reborn into shouting voices and grainy, floodlit night. Very narrowly, by the margin of a desperate lunge and clashing teeth, something had missed him.
"Virgil!" he heard, amid noise, bustle and the raised hood of his survival suit. The cry was repeated several times as he wobbled under someone else's steerage to a seat on the rubble-strewn ground. As workers rushed to move people back from the collapsing north wall, somebody gave him a tight hug. It was a moment before her grimed and tear-streaked face registered properly, though.
"TinTin?" he guessed, earning a nod and quick kiss.
"Oui, c'est moi, Virgil, mais rien ne va bien! Christian est perdu… lost, et Gordon has been hurt!"
"What? How badly?" Virgil surged to his feet, or tried to. The effects of that chill, sapping darkness were still upon him, and he was very weak.
"His head," TinTin explained. "A blow from the window and floor, but he has since been able to move and speak."
The girl rambled on for a bit, mostly in French. Thankfully, she wasn't alone. Besides his new friend, Boone Collins, Virgil could see Alan with Fermat and a groggy, confused-seeming Gordon. Others, too.
Feeling stronger, suddenly, Virgil patted TinTin's back and gazed around himself. What he saw was a stadium floor triage center peopled with disaster-relief workers and a pitifully small crowd of survivors. Over twelve-thousand people had attended the concert. Where the hell were they?
"It's okay, hon," he said to TinTin, who was still gasping out her tale of their missing companion. "We'll find him. I promise. We'll find everyone. How about you? Everything okay?"
Her delicate oval face tilted up to regard him, wide dark eyes filled with shame and tragedy. Then, pulling herself together, TinTin said,
"Oui. I am well enough." She chose not to speak of the blackness which had stalked them, claiming Alan's friend and many others, nor of her own cowardice in failing to fight it.
Virgil returned her hug before setting the girl aside to shake hands with Sgt. Collins, who'd probably saved his life.
"Thanks for pulling me off the stairs," he told the police officer.
"It's what we do," the man replied, smiling a little. Then, "What the hell happened to your shield machine, back there? Did it malfunction, or something?"
Virgil was anxious to check on his brothers, but he thought back anyhow, and thought hard.
"No. It didn't break down, sergeant. I'm pretty sure the generator was seized remotely. But, hell if I know who did it, or how they broadcast their signal through all that concrete and rubble." Especially against security like Hackenbacker's.
"One for the lab boys and detectives to figure out, I guess. Wonder if the others…"
Collins didn't finish the thought, standing there with his arms folded, looking toward dawn.
"I'm sure the rest of the team made it out safely," Virgil reassured the pensive officer. "They're probably at the other end of the tunnel right now, wondering about you."
Like TinTin, Virgil kept quiet about the swallowing darkness he'd sensed. After all, the day was getting brighter, and he might have just imagined it. People often became confused in situations of extreme danger, even former football players with lots of simulator time.
Instead, the big pilot clasped Collins' shoulder, made his excuses, and then strode off to check on Gordon, Fermat and Alan. They were seated upon a folding cot, at the edge of the main triage tent, looking battered and sore, but very much alive. (Not that anyone, anywhere, seemed to be dead. Even here, at the stadium's ground floor stage, there were no bodies at all. Just broken projection equipment, injured concert-goers and hustling medics.
"Morning, guys," Virgil greeted them, forcing a bit of cheer as he crouched before their sagging cot. If they were surprised to see him there in a TA survival suit, they didn't mention it. "Everything still attached and functional?"
Alan nodded once, before blurting out,
"I dunno what happened, Virgil! We lost Chris! I mean, he was right behind us, for real, holding the fire door. Then we started running, because TinTin got scared, and… okay, it got pretty dark in there all of a sudden, but when we got to the surface, there was only me, Gordon, Fermat and T! No Springfield! What am I gonna tell his dad, Virgil? He's my friend."
Virgil hesitated, too fresh from his own encounter with darkness to offer much reassurance. What if there were no bodies because all the people had somehow been kidnapped? Taken by that ravenous dark? The thought was too disquieting to face, just then.
"We'll find him," he promised, again; hoping like hell he could make it work out, somehow. For Alan, for TinTin and Officer Collins, bereft of his comrades.
Then, changing the subject, he shifted attention to Gordon.
"What about you, kiddo? Doing okay?"
The red-haired young man had a big, purple welt on his forehead, and mismatched pupils in his unfocused eyes.
"Head aches… a bit," he managed to reply, though the attempted smile quickly faded. "Right as rain, otherwise."
Fermat shushed him with a disapproving noise, filling in the rest to save his wounded friend's strength.
"The p- paramedic said that he… received a concussion in the in- initial blast, Virgil. We're supposed to k- keep him awake until they're able to… arrange transport to a l- local hospital for… X-rays and treatment."
"Makes sense," Virgil nodded. Concussions were dangerous and sometimes deadly. "Thank you for helping take care of him, Fermat. Don't know what I'd have done here, tonight, without you and your dad. You, too, TinTin."
For the girl had come over with paper cones of cool water from an emergency dispenser. Virgil pushed back his hood to drink half the water in quick, noisy gulps, and then poured the rest over his sweat-matted hair.
"That's for sure," his blond youngest brother erupted. "You wouldn't believe what she did in there, Virge! She was, like, controlling minds, and junk! For real, T totally hypnotized those hostaging guys so they couldn't see us, and then she…"
Virgil Tracy rose from his cot-side crouch with a tired grunt. Reaching down, he mussed Alan's dusty yellow hair.
"It's been a long night for all of us, Al."
…And TinTin hypnotizing the gunmen made no more or less sense than vanishing corpses and predatory dark. Alan might have insisted further, but with full sunrise, everyone's comm and cell phone seemed to go off at once. Fermat alone had 27 messages, most of them from his deeply concerned mother. Perhaps needing comfort from more than just Virgil, he speed-dialed her number and got an answer almost before the first ring.
"Yes, M- Mom… it's me. I'm o- okay. Yes, so's Alan. G- Gordon and TinTin, too. Virgil's here taking… c- care of us, but we lost… No. No, ma'am, I haven't called him, yet. I will… straightaway. I p- promise. Love you, too, Mom."
Virgil had little opportunity to smile and listen in, for he was very soon talking to Jeff Tracy.
Tracy Island, in the office, after a long night of watching and waiting-
With his wife, Penelope, and mother, Victoria, standing by, Jeff stared at the large, flat screen TV. WNN was on, displaying grim news anchors and staticky, hard-to-see images of the stadium disaster site. The news cameras weren't the only things glitching, however; it had been several hours since he'd been able to get through to Virgil or Brains. Even local air traffic, police and rescue crews seemed to be having comm trouble.
Because he wasn't the sort of person who could stand being out of the loop, Jeff tried once more to reach Virgil; by cell phone instead of the comm, this time. With pent breath and quick gestures, he cycled up his middle son's image and then pressed the telephone's send key.
One ring… two… then,
Jeff at once placed the call on loudspeaker, so that all present could hear his son's report, whatever it was.
"Virgil!" The name was half-barked, half-laughed, so relieved did Jeff feel. "Your brothers… have you found them, yet?"
"Yup. They're alive and well, dad, along with TinTin and Fermat, but the friend they were planning to watch the concert with is still missing, and Gordon may have a concussion. They want to take him to a local hospital to check things out."
Scott reentered the office from the washroom, drying his hands on his trouser legs. He was just in time to recognize Virgil's voice and catch the last few words.
"Someone's hurt?" he demanded, heavy dark brows drawing taut over his blue eyes.
"Scott? That you?"
"Yeah, Virge. I flew home just as soon as I heard what happened. Who's been hurt, and how bad?"
"Gordon might have a concussion. He's awake and talking, but seems pretty out of it, so they want to take him to the hospital."
Said Jeff, patting the slim white hand that Penelope placed on his shoulder,
"That sounds like a good idea, son. Stay with him, and report back to me every hour, on the hour. Understood?"
"Yes, sir. I'll keep an eye on the kids. But what about all the gear, and my, um… partner?"
Partner? Jeff blinked for a moment, then recalled that Brains was out there, too, shepherding an awful lot of bootleg rescue equipment; gear that very much needed to be recovered and secured.
"I'll call him up with separate instructions once you're off the phone, son. You see to your brothers… in a civilian capacity."
Virgil was a sharp young man. He grasped his father's meaning without further hints.
"Yes, sir. Will do. Scott, I'll talk to you later. Looks like they're about ready to airlift Gordon."
"Right. Take care, Virge, and keep that phone handy. I'll give you a call in just a few minutes."
Their grey-haired father made a slight face, at this.
"Don't tie up the line, son," he told Scott. "I need to be able to reach your brother without interference."
Scott nodded reluctantly.
"I'll keep it short, father," he said, adding after a moment, "Seems like it might be a good idea to have someone coordinating the action on-site, doesn't it? To keep communications flowing smoothly and deal with local authorities?"
Jeff considered briefly, his brown eyes serious and craggy face weary.
"You might have something there, Scott. I'll have to think it over and get back to you."
"Humph!" Grandma Tracy snorted, lowering herself into a deep leather armchair. "Ain't nuthin' to think about, Jeffery. Them two boys an' the local rescue folks're out there workin' like one-armed paper-hangers! They could use help, plain an' simple."
Penelope stiffened noticeably (as always when the fierce old woman snapped at Jeff). In a soft, controlled voice, she said,
"I am quite certain, Mrs. Tracy, that Jeffery is more than capable of…"
"Ladies! Mother… Penelope… that's enough! Until the family meeting, no one is to say anything to anyone else in this household that isn't small talk –level polite. The weather? Fine. Your aching joints? Why not. Arguments, hell no! Keep it civil, or stay away from each other. I don't have time to referee a hen fight!"
Grandma Tracy's wrinkled face settled into very familiar battle lines. Penelope merely gave her husband a swift, frosty nod and then left the office. Jeff started after his pregnant young wife, but was interrupted by two further calls before he could catch up to explain or apologize.
One was from his ex-wife, Gennine, airy as a soap bubble and just now aware that something "not so nice" had taken place at the concert. The other was from Saul Guthrie, in Houston.
"Jeff," he said, "I'm sure sorry to bother you at a time like this, but there's been a situation. Is anyone with you? Family or a real good friend? We're sending someone out there, but it may take awhile, and I thought you'd want to know before the news picks it up."
Very cold and pale, Jeff sat down.
Mars, in a broad and high-walled canyon, far too close to a recent landslide-
The first shot hissed like an angry wasp past the re-created John to nick the top off a nearby pillar. 'Tracy' leapt backward and landed easily, but Pete, less graceful, stumbled. With a second thin, sharp bang, another shot followed the first, this one striking Pete's helmet at an angle, cracking the faceplate.
John saw many things at once, then: a humanoid figure at the top of the landslide debris wall, silhouetted against the pale Martian sky… Pete, writhing upon the stony ground with both hands clapped to the front of his helmet, as air and blood sprayed forth… and all of that sublimating ice beneath their assailant's unstable perch.
He ought to have taken cover. Instead, driven by the force of someone else's life and loyalties, John tore a can of emergency glaze-sealant out of his suit's belt pack, and dove for McCord. He was hit in the process; right shoulder, according to the heads-up display and a sudden blazing fountain of pain. He reached Pete, though. Shouted at him to move his hands, and then flipped a red tab on the can and pointed it, sending a crystalline jet of shimmering droplets onto the commander's cracked helmet glass. The clear sealant hit home, bubbled and spread like quick-hardening pancake syrup. It dried bumpy and astigmatic, but prevented further air loss.
One of McCord's hands was locked tight on the younger man's forearm, but when John tapped it, Pete let go. Tracy kept his movements as jerky and rapid as possible, hearing his own loud breathing and pounding blood magnified many times over by the hardsuit. McCord, though, was relatively immobile. An easy target. John cycled up the suit's power level and vaulted to his feet, seizing a sharp-edged rock as he rose.
The figure was still there, secure in its weapon and high ground location. The real John could pitch, however, and so could his better-than-that copy. Even in a compromised hardsuit. Even on Mars. Taking aim like he was facing Scott across a Little League practice field, 'John' fired the rock, high and inside. Way inside.
Lower gravity and wispy-thin air do strange things to a curve ball. The stone traveled farther than it should have, and arrived with a great deal of skull-smashing force. The silhouetted gunman should have dropped like a meteor; unconscious, if nothing else. Instead, it staggered a bit, head oddly askew, but kept on wildly firing. Pete had been busy, meanwhile. He'd felt around for more rocks, which he piled where 'John' could hopefully reach them. The commander was having a hell of a time seeing, between the frost of blood and breath and quick-seal on his faceplate, and a bad eye. But stones were pretty simple to gather, on Mars.
Shot after shot pinged and rang all around them, chipping stone and blasting great fountains of rusted sand. John's right shoulder felt burnt up and torn, but he didn't have time to react. The suit swelled up on that side to apply pressure and prevent blood loss, restricting his movements. John was ambidextrous, however; he could use both hands with equal ease, generally preferring the left. His next rock, he aimed low, hitting not the gunman, but a pocket of dry ice just below him.
Someone else rose up at nearly the same instant, this one further along the debris wall, with an emergency flare gun in hand. It, too, attacked, sending a shrieking, jewel-blue fireball into the very same patch of ice that John had targeted. The flare struck that crumbling rockslide with the impact of a cannonball, instantly vaporizing the frozen CO2 and causing a violent secondary avalanche. The broken-necked, unstoppable gunman was swept from his feet, buried beneath tons of shattered, rumbling stone.
'John' pivoted, seized McCord and then dropped into a crouch, defending his friend against a tidal wave of loose, bullet-like ice shards and flying pebbles. The volcanic noise and swirling movement faded eventually, though dust hung in the air for a good long time. John's copy opened his eyes after a bit, was informed by the helmet's heads-up display that he was using too much oxygen, and that his right shoulder required immediate attention.
"No shit," he remarked, a little hoarsely. "I'll get right on that, just as soon as Mars stops trying to kill me."
McCord tapped out a Morse code, "someone's coming," on his left gauntlet. John acknowledged, then got up and turned, wincing as the suit's joints stuttered and ground, full of fine sand. Pete was slower to rise, and half-blind, but he managed to clamber upright and point out their flare-wielding visitor.
From this vantage, with rock rather than sky at its back, they could see that it wore a flitter pilot's survival suit, and carried an extra few oxygen/ battery packs strapped here and about. The flare gun was well up, armed and pointed straight at them. So much for, "the enemy of my enemy…"
Pete watched the limping small figure's progress as it made its way down the wall of landslide debris. Only one of his eyes was functioning. The other… well, he had no way to check right now, and his helmet's status computer was out of service. One-eyed commanders had their uses, though. Determinedly ignoring pain, he stepped around 'John', peered through a relatively clear section of faceplate, and then began making some basic sign language gestures.
-WHO? For starters.
The figure halted its slow downward climb. Then, keeping the flare gun pointed, it used a gloved hand to laboriously fingerspell,
In response, Pete signed back,
-M-C-C-O-R-D -T-R-A-C-Y, adding,
-THINK CRASH/ HERE RESCUE, then, -ATTACK WHY?
Rachel Neer had never been his best ASL student, and now she was agitated. Pete could not make out many of her slurred and drifting signs. His daughter might have; Steph had a good eye for "accents"… but the obnoxious grad-student brat of the universe was on Earth with her mother, hopefully safe and well …and maybe he'd even see them, again.
-SLOW, he signed to Rachel. –UNDERSTAND NO
She signaled back something that looked a little like,
…and then resumed walking. This time, though, the flare gun's muzzle was lowered. Cautiously, Pete walked over the frosty ground about halfway from their dropped emergency pod to the debris wall. He came to a halt with his hands in plain sight and very much rock-less. Tracy… 'John', that is… followed him.
When she reached the canyon floor and drew close enough, they could see that Rachel had been weeping. Her lightly freckled face was tear-streaked, and her hazel eyes reddened. She seemed pale, exhausted… and wary.
Again, more slowly this time, Pete signed a question.
-WHAT HAPPEN YOU?
Her shoulders began to shake. Unable to effectively sign, she pointed to her helmet, and then at his, evidently asking for direct contact and speech.
-YES, McCord responded, signaling Tra… John… The hell with it! Signaling Tracy to fall back to a watchful and ready distance. The younger man obeyed, retreating about 5 paces to the northwest, with his suit cycled up to ruinous, battery-devouring full power.
Rachel Neer came close enough, then, to touch her helmet's faceplate to the only clear patch on his. Her eyes widened, shocked at what must have been a pretty grim sight, but Pete brushed past that, saying aloud,
"Okay, what happened? Was that Dan, up there? Why did he open fire?"
Rachel drew a shaky breath and then began talking.
"There was an accident. It was getting late, Commander… close to the end of our mission… but we flew into the canyon for a quick survey. Then Dan picked up some bio-readings, so we went further in for a closer look. At that point, something happened to the… the flitter. It just stopped answering the stick. I couldn't control my plane, sir! We had to eject before my flitter crashed into the canyon wall. I was okay… no serious injuries… but Daniel landed hard, and he got hurt further when the flitter's impact on the canyon triggered a landslide. When the debris settled, I found Daniel and got him free…"
Neer seemed terribly shaken by the memory, though it was hard to be sure, looking at her through one eye and distorted helmet glass.
"Go ahead, Lieutenant. You freed Lasher. What happened next?"
She nodded, gathering herself to continue with the story.
"He was badly injured, so I helped him to safety and made him as comfortable as I could, then went looking around for the survival pod. It was ejected when we were, but I didn't see where it landed, so…"
"You had to search for it. Understood. And with serious injuries, Lasher couldn't possibly have accompanied you."
What he'd said was true. Nevertheless, Rachel broke down again, obviously hating herself for having to abandon a wounded friend.
"I f- found the pod, Commander, and initiated inflation. Then I went directly back for Daniel, but he was… he didn't… he…"
"He died while you were performing your duty, attempting to save the both of you by following correct procedure."
Thin, fretful wind and swirling dust scratched at their suits and helmets, making a noise like a lost, hungry cat. The worst thing about somebody crying in a spacesuit was that there was no way for them to wipe their eyes or streaming nose. Men had life a little easier than females in that respect, as they tended to weep less. On the outside, anyway. Rachel went on after a bit, saying,
"I dragged him to the survival pod, sir, because I couldn't… with night coming on, I just couldn't leave him alone, out there."
"And?" (Lasher had seemed pretty lively a short time ago. Clearly, she'd misjudged his state, or something different… weirder… had happened.)
The pilot began shaking again, as if in the grip of a terrible memory.
"I went back out to set up the distress signal, Commander, but while I was working, Daniel… something took over him, like it did to the flitter. He came out… out of the pod… and attacked me. After that, I was just trying to get away and survive. I didn't want to hurt him, and he wouldn't talk, so I had to run. My suit power was getting low, but when you showed up and then crashed, he was distracted long enough for me to get a flare gun and extra battery packs from the survival pod. I knew he'd taken the firearm, so…"
"So, in the face of a comrade's seizure by forces unknown, you retrieved the only conceivable weapon, and then came out to see what you could do to help us."
Rachel nodded. Put the way McCord had phrased it, her actions seemed much less spur-of-the-moment desperate.
"I'm sorry," she said, "about keeping the flare gun on you, but after what happened to Daniel, I wasn't sure anyone could be trusted."
"Understood," Pete responded, clasping the pilot's slim shoulder. "Lieutenant Neer, pending further investigation by a board of review, I find your actions entirely correct and lawful under the circumstances. You are hereby absolved of any guilt or wrong-doing regarding the death of Mister Lasher."
Just like that, not guilty. She was still crying, though. Stepping away, McCord accepted Rachel's flare gun and then signaled Tracy back over. Strangely enough, it was at this exact moment that their suit comms began functioning, again. Though staticky and faint, their communications system sprang back to welcome life, almost as though everything was going to be all right.
"Neer," said Pete, "get that habitat pod inflated. Tracy, I want you to send whatever you can salvage of the code you wrote to Earth and the base. We've got to warn them what's happening. In fact, skip the trimmings and just…"
A sudden, brilliant glow flared through Apache Cut, lighting the eastern horizon like another sunrise. Too bright to be a mere flitter crash or exploding tractor… too bright and long-lasting to be anything at all but the base, itself.
"Jesus, God…" McCord whispered, suddenly alone with all that remained of his once command.
Mid-morning, Los Angeles, California-
While Alan, Fermat and TinTin slept curled up on seats in a cheery private waiting room of Mercy Hospital, Virgil Tracy watched the news and listened for PA announcements. The kids weren't providing much company, but he didn't need it, talking (on and off) to Scott. Wouldn't last forever, though. His cell battery was all but wrung out from all the hard use. Worse, he hadn't thought to bring along a charger.
He'd called Scott because you could say things to a trusted older brother that you maybe wouldn't mention to your hyper-successful, driven father. You could admit that someone had managed to wrest control of the shield generator, for instance. That something in the darkness after that bomb blast had been actively hunting, and that people were missing because they'd been taken.
Scott didn't laugh at his theory, or give it a quick, condescending, "I suppose it's possible". He listened, especially once WNN began reporting that some of the missing persons had reappeared at different spots around the city, in seemingly perfect health.
"I'm serious, Scott," Virgil whispered over the phone, aware that his power-meter was now deeply in the red, "Something's going on. This was no ordinary hostage situation, or attempted WorldGov takedown… it's some kind of high-tech assault. Check around. I'll bet a hundred dollars you'll find reports of other machines going haywire at a critical moment."
"I'll ask if you want me to, Virge… but my gut says you're right. Dad got a call from Saul Guthrie… remember him? Tall, skinny guy, slow voice…? Came to a few of mom's post-flight dinner parties? No? Maybe you're too young. Anyhow, Guthrie's still at Houston, and he says… he says they've lost contact with Endurance Base. All telemetry's gone, across the board. The orbital satellites are down, too."
Virgil had been pacing the waiting room, eyes on the TV screen, ears on the hospital's public address system, his mind on his brother's words. Now, abruptly, he sat down, crushing someone's used coffee cup.
"John…?" he asked.
"Haven't heard from him for awhile, now," Scott admitted. "It, uh… doesn't look good, Virge. Get the kids patched up and head home as quick as you can. I think dad honestly plans to commandeer TA equipment and lead a rescue mission to Mars. He's… pretty upset."
Without really thinking, Virgil removed the crushed paper coffee cup and pitchediit at a nearby garbage can. Reflexes.
"Yeah," he replied. "Listen, Scott, I'm about to lose power on this phone. But I'll call you back from another, just as soon as I can. Tell dad and Brains what happened with the generator, okay? It's important. If we can't rely on our equipment…"
"Then a rescue mission may be out of the question. Understood, Virge. Take care of yourself, and I'll talk to you soon."
"Right," Virgil whispered, wishing that he could somehow wake up from this nightmare.
"Mr. Tracy?" Someone asked, close at his left side.
Virgil put the dying phone away and then turned to face the music… or musician. He saw a tall, well-dressed, thirtyish man, who looked like a slightly older, more athletic version of his brother, Scott. Virgil was on edge, anyway. This near doppelganger did nothing whatever to improve his mood.
"That depends," he snapped. "Who's asking?"
The dark-haired older man reached into his suit jacket, then pulled forth and flashed a gold wallet-badge.
"Paul Metcalfe. Spectrum special affairs unit. I'd like to ask a few questions about what happened below ground at the stadium, last night."
Virgil's muscles bunched dangerously. How the hell…?
"Never mind how I know about your activities, Mr. Tracy. It's Spectrum's business to find these things out."
"Good," the ex-footballer responded. "Then you also know exactly how to take your goddam questions and shove them up your…"
Both men jumped when the television screen first cut off entirely, and then began to transmit a shifty, flickering bitmap. It went on and on, birthing chaos. From outside Mercy Hospital came the sound of sirens and muffled explosions. Strange things happened inside, as well. Virgil's cell phone sparked, crackled and shorted out. He had to rip the burning thing from his trousers pocket and fling it away. Metcalfe's flesh-coloured earpiece next gave vent to a shrill, piercing whine, causing the Spectrum agent to pluck the device forth and grind it underfoot. Then the coffee machine exploded, sending bits of glass and over-brewed gunk all over the waiting room. Alarms began shrilling and beeping from every part of the hospital, rousing Alan, TinTin and Fermat along with many others.
Everyone was talking at once, but all that Virgil could think about was finding Gordon and then getting the kids back to the island. Metcalfe stepped up and started to say something to him. Virgil simply stiff-armed the agent out of his way. There might have been a fight, but the television cleared, suddenly, displaying first WNN's "please stand by" logo, and then the ornate seal of the World Government.
It was not President Moreira who strode to the podium at the hasty press conference that followed, however. It was his second in command, a bandaged and calm Lady Murasaki Shikibu. Numerous aides and secret service personnel hovered by the Vice President's sides, looking dangerously alert.
At the presidential podium (while people everywhere within reach of her voice gathered around their TV screens and comm units) Murasaki took a deep breath, bowed slightly, and then said,
"Ladies and gentlemen… Citizens of Earth… we are at war."
Los Angeles, California, in a noisy, coffee-drenched waiting room of Mercy Hospital-
The television did not flicker or skip, this time. Across the world, under the sea and on the Moon Station, people were able to hear the Vice President's broadcast. Lady Murasaki had just announced that Earth was at war. She went on to say, after briefly touching the bandage affixed to her face,
"We have been attacked. Certain events, seemingly random, combined with a transmission relayed to Earth by the brave men and women of Endurance Base, leave us no choice but to accept the reality of this unprovoked conflict."
Murasaki was a calm woman; elegant, with a softly accented voice at once commanding and sincere. Her appearance combined Japanese grace with the tempered steel of the Fujiwaras, and with Earth depending upon her for leadership, she did not show fear.
"Our attackers have struck without warning," she said, "but they will not find us unready. Here is what you are asked to do, and why.
"First, all current and former military personnel are ordered to go to the nearest available base, unless engaged in emergency medical work or already deployed. All leave, furlough and retirement are hereby cancelled."
Virgil's brown eyes widened. That would mean Scott, he realized, and possibly dad as well. Metcalfe had already vanished, meanwhile, en route for El Toro, or Camp Pendleton. Virgil was far from alone, however; he had three scared kids and a couple of newly-arrived orderlies with him, all staring intently at the TV screen.
"Second, citizens are to remain in their homes and off of the streets unless engaged in vital work such as farming, animal care, police and emergency services, or local governance. More information will follow, but it is vital that the roads be kept clear, and machinery used as little as possible."
Definitely, Virgil told himself, he had to get home. But not without all of his charges, a tally which included Chris Springfield as well as Gordon. After all, he'd promised.
On screen, the Vice President's slim shoulders squared beneath the rich, dark cloth of her business suit. She said,
"As explanation for these measures, I must reveal that the many scattered explosions, fires and vehicle accidents which have suddenly occurred in our midst are connected; part of a concerted and deliberate attempt to engender chaos and fear. Our enemies have not revealed themselves physically, but are able to take the form of a vanished comrade, or remotely control the very technology and machines on which we depend."
He'd been right, Virgil realized. The generator had been wrested from his control. What about an airplane, then? Could he trust any flight to the island, even one that he, himself, piloted? The Vice President had no answer for this, closing her broadcast with a final warning and request.
"Citizens of Earth, those of us who do not fight, or plan, or provide basic services can yet remain wary. Many of our friends and coworkers… including President Moreira… have disappeared in this first wave of attacks. If such a one should return unexpectedly, you must report this to the local authorities, but under no circumstances attempt to engage or arrest them, yourselves. We have received intelligence that these "replicants" are stronger than we are, though short-lived. You must find an excuse to get away, and then call the police. They will know what to do next.
"My people, be wary, be prepared, and listen for further instructions. I ask, as well, that you speak in your hearts to whichever Ancestor or Powers you hold to, requesting their aid and strength in this time of crisis. We have suffered many losses already," she told them, "but the people of Earth are not sheep. When provoked, they will fight to defend their families, their world and their lives, and so shall I. Until our next conference, then, I bid you good day."
WNN's coverage immediately shifted to noisy pundits and talking heads, but Virgil stopped listening. Pivoting hurriedly, he reached out to seize the uniformed arm of a departing ward orderly.
"Listen, wherever my brother is, I'm taking him out of here, now. I'll sign whatever papers I have to, but we're going home. Call somebody and get things rolling, please. I'm in a hurry."
The orderly was an older man with dark eyes and a greying buzz cut. Rather than cooperating, he pulled free of Virgil's grip and shook his head.
"Sorry, sir, but I've got to report to my guard unit. Check with the ward nurse, if you're looking for a patient." And then he left, just like Metcalfe had done and Scott soon would. Gordon, too, if he was able.
"I can find him," TinTin said very softly. "Only… please do not ask me to explain how."
Nonsense about the 'mysterious east' would not work on the big, quiet pilot, she knew. What she did not know was quite how to express the truth about her family's power, and their curse. Virgil gave the girl a long, searching look, perhaps recalling the many odd things that had happened around TinTin in the past. Then, he said,
"Okay, hon. You're on. Lead the way to Gordon, and then let's see what we can do about hooking up with your friend, Chris…"
("And my mom! We n- need her! She c- could be very… helpful on th- the island." Fermat cut in.)
"Her, too. Maybe Hackenbacker's heard something…"
…And he certainly had the fastest ride home. Either way, Virgil was determined to reach the island, soon. He had a feeling that he was going to be needed.
Like a trio of zombies... letting procedures take the place of numbed thought... McCord, Neer and 'Tracy' did what they had to, in order to survive and establish contact with Earth. Rachel triggered inflation of the emergency habitat, pressing a certain code on its inset key pad. The pod emitted a shrill warning beep and then began to expand, unfolding in stages to form a double-walled cylinder of dark plastic and smart-cloth, stiffened with carbon-fiber ribs. There were solar panels attached to the habitat and a number of large nitrox bottles, as well (accounting for much of the weight). A temporary home, of sorts.
John tore their salvaged comm equipment apart to build something that only he could understand and operate. He used odd shortcuts and strange combinations of hardware, shoring it all up with a constantly shifting intrusion scanner. Any attempt to seize the mechanism would hopefully be blocked, but he couldn't be sure until someone actually tried. In the meantime, he managed to get a message off, though whether anyone heard it or not was open to question.
Pete compiled emergency rations and set up the water-drip oxygen generator. He cannibalized all that he could of their tractor cabin and the flitter wreckage, too, because anything… any twist of wire or bit of insulation… could prove vital, later.
Like the others, he couldn't help looking eastward, watching a sullen radioactive glow that refused to fade. Nobody spoke much. What was there to say? Only when a flitter appeared (high and silvery-white, trailing a long contrail across the pink sky) was their frigid trance disrupted.
It was the second plane, McCord realized; the one he'd left orders to launch at dawn. Somehow, they'd evaded the explosion on base.
"Tracy!" he called, through a constant pulse of radiation that made comm use very difficult, "re-focus your signal on the flitter. Let them know we're down here."
"I'm on it, Pete," the younger man replied. He'd been working mostly one armed in clumsy hardsuit gloves, but their equipment was engineered with such possibilities in mind and he'd practiced it all many times before… or the real John had. Either way, this one knew exactly what he was doing.
It was the memory of Scott's Boy Scout survival manual that did the actual trick, though. Having trouble directing his overwhelmed signal, 'John' instead took a small parabolic mirror and awkwardly used it to flash bursts of light at the flitter. Tough to miss, especially when arranged in primes: 2 flashes, followed by 3, 5, 7, and so forth, following the path of the plane. Only sentients would produce such a signal, interspersed with the coded names McCord, Tracy and Neer.
The flitter's wings waggled up and down in response, after a moment. Then John's helmet comm began to hiss and spatter with static, through which he made out the words,
"Invade…" and "…base."
Next the small, graceful plane banked round toward them, catching the light like a CO2 snowflake. Question was: who… or what… was aboard?
Tracy Island, at the suddenly bustling mansion-
A bit too late, Jeff had received and decoded word of the kids' location below ground. Didn't matter much now, when they were already free of the gunmen and safe at Mercy Hospital with Virgil. What did matter was that Fermat, TinTin and Alan had come up with a plan to get help and save others. Their courage and resourcefulness buoyed Jeff as he called his lawyers and Al Jenkins, readying Tracy Aerospace to produce the equipment and spacecraft WorldGov needed.
Scott could have handled all that, of course, but Jeff had gotten a fresh taste of command, and worldly power was a highly addictive brew. Not that his oldest son minded, really. Scott was more than willing to trade the boardroom for a cockpit, and find some way to reach John. If re-joining the Air Force was the quickest means to do that, well… he knew the oath and was ready to go.
Cindy called him, on her way back from a severely curtailed summit attempt. Kept him on the phone forever, too; and that was something of a surprise.
"Listen, Hollywood," she told him sternly, "You've spent a lot more time as a passenger than a pilot, recently. They're going to give you some kind of refresher course, aren't they?"
Packing his bags in the bedroom, with a phone crooked between head and left shoulder, Scott folded underwear and grinned.
"No, hon… They're going to cram me in the oldest, crappiest crop duster they've got, put a slingshot in my hands and say: Good hunting, Major! Just like always."
"You're not funny, Scott. Hopefully your aim is better than your jokes, or I'll have to break in a brand new guy."
Scott tucked his last pair of colored briefs away, and then started rolling up socks.
"You're all heart," he laughed, adding with a leer, "Does this mean I can count on the traditional 'remember what you're fighting for' send off?"
"Only if you stop in San Francisco and have a high tolerance for partners with crippling jet-lag," she replied, stifling a yawn. "We're talking 12,000 time zones, here, Mister. I've either gained or lost thirty whole years."
"Lost, I hope," he said, slamming the suitcase shut and rising from his seat on the bed. "Although that'd make you, what…? Embryonic?"
He'd expected a joking comeback. Instead, as Scott stood there rubbing the ache from his lower back, Cindy said,
"Know what, Hollywood? You're all right. In fact, I may even love you. Ball's in your court, Fella."
He sat down, again; abruptly short of breath and responses. Elsewhere, in a suite of rooms far larger than Scott's, Jeff Tracy was having a much different conversation. Penelope was present, looking white and forlorn as the ghost of a murderess.
"I entirely fail to understand," she said to her husband, "what you hope to accomplish by leaving for New York, Jeffery. Could you not oversee your corporate interests as well from here?"
Jeff shook his grey head, deliberately not making eye contact with Penelope.
"No," he replied. "The man in charge has to be on location and in position to make instant decisions. Besides, I need to see Jim Springfield in person. His boy was with mine… with ours, that is. Gordon and Alan are safe. I need to help make certain that Christian is, and John, too. Penny…"
Jeff put down his fine leather carry-on bag and cast a swift glance in his wife's direction.
"…I'm asking for your patience, if not comprehension. It's like this: for the first time in far too long, I have a chance to be useful. I mean to take that chance and make a difference, this best way I know how."
Her expression hardened. Somewhat contemptuously, Penelope said,
"Don't be so sentimental, Darling. The world government will commandeer your factories in the name of the war effort and run things their own way, with or without the cooperation of Jeff Tracy. That is how such affairs are actually managed, you know."
Jeff retrieved the bag and slung its webbed strap over one shoulder. Once upon a time, he'd thought that peace and quiet inevitably followed marriage and retirement. Now he knew better.
"Penny, I love you and our baby. I want you to say a special good night and good morning to little Grant or Vicky-Lynn for me, every day that I'm gone. I'll miss you both, but this is something I've got to do."
"Richard," she corrected him. "Our son shall be called Richard Niles Thomas, or Elizabeth Millicent Grace... in the event that we are presented with a girl."
Jeff cocked his head to one side, mentally trying out names.
"Rich, or Ellie, huh?" he mused. "Well… I got to pick the first names of all my sons… So why not let someone else have a shot, this time? I was running out of Mercury Seven astronauts, anyway."
And there were other ways to honor his parents.
"Whatever you decide is fine with me, Penny. Either way, it's my first new baby in eighteen years. I love you," he repeated, leaning down to kiss her pale, icy cheek.
Mars, stranded in a steep-walled canyon of crumbling grey stone-
Overhead (slivery-white in a peachy-tan sky, trailing vapor like elegant skywriting) the second flitter banked around, then began its final approach. For a craft like the FL-22, landing outdoors was a last-ditch emergency procedure. Normally, the little plane would take off and touch down at her base, where a magnetic catapult and retrieval system all but eliminated the need for a pilot. No such thing here, though; nothing but rocks, landslide debris, a deep-buried corpse and three battered survivors.
The flitter's crew followed textbook emergency landing procedures, first ejecting their miniature survival pod, and then triggering the plane's braking jets. The compressed black pod shot away, spat forth like a cylindrical watermelon seed. Then, quivering blue plumes erupted from the flitter's belly and forward control surfaces, reducing her airspeed. Finally, a vast and almost microscopically light parachute blossomed; snapping forth silver-yellow to catch at the faint, freezing air. The survival pod hit the canyon floor perhaps half a kilometer south of McCord's position. It bounced several times, sending up high sprays of fine dust and red sand.
The flitter, meanwhile, drifted downward, gliding and swinging like a leaf. McCord, watching the small plane's descent with one eye, had already begun running forward. 'Tracy' loped along side, moving better than an injured man should have been able to, given blood loss and the rugged terrain. Rachel Neer started to follow, but she had only a pilot's survival suit and limited oxygen. Pete waved her back and tossed over the flare gun, calling,
"Lieutenant, stay here and keep us covered!"
…For he wasn't entirely certain what was likely to emerge from that flitter. He stumbled once, but 'John' caught his arm and prevented a fall, further muddying the commander's already mixed emotions.
"Thanks," he grunted, because this… whatever it was… seemed to mean well.
"Not a problem," the other replied, almost like Tracy would have done.
The flitter hung suspended between Heaven and Mars for a few moments longer. Then it released the chute with a sharp, ringing ka-chang sound. The parachute should have drifted free, but contrary canyon winds prevented its escape. Instead, as the flitter descended on three sputtering ghosts of pale flame, four-hundred square feet of billowing yellow fabric settled directly on top. Not quite worst-case scenario, but a mere fingernail's grip from toppling over the line.
"Shit!" Pete muttered, hearing 'Tracy' emit a similar staticky curse. Those engines were hot, and the chute material already beginning to smolder and scorch.
They reached the parachute's reinforced edge amid bursts of wild comm static, lifted it up and then plunged underneath. The universe turned all at once yellow as caution lights, smothered and close as an unmarked grave. Keeping within sight of each other, the two men flailed their way deeper inside. As the chute cloth billowed and sank, sudden rocks and hollows came into brief, shard-like view, only to disappear again, draped in amber concealment. Had either man carried a sharp enough blade, they might have managed to cut the parachute, which was rated to withstand the crushing and shearing forces of a violent explosion. They could also have torn it at full suit power, but McCord preferred to save energy and strength until they reached the smothered plane. He might have to pry someone free of their metal cage, after all. Or fight off attack. At this point, there was no way to tell.
Tracy's heads-up display seemed to be working, allowing the younger man to better detect ground hazards and locate the downed flitter. Pete decided to follow him. They reached their goal after a few minutes of scrambling, jogging and batting at undulating damn parachute cloth. Heat and updrafts and out-gassing regolith puffed up the blackening fabric where it hadn't melted to the flitter, creating a weird, tent-like effect. 'Tracy' got to the little plane first. It lay on its side, resting on one crumpled, sparking wing, with the canopy half-open.
The two figures inside wore bright orange pilot survival suits and white helmets. Pavlychenko was stenciled across the brow of one, Bennett across the other. Pete's helmet computer was functioning about as well as his left eye. He couldn't get a fix or a status report on anything at all, but 'John' waved an open hand back and forth in front of his own faceplate to indicate the presence of fumes, possibly toxic or flammable.
Pavlychenko and Bennett were struggling to force open their plane's canopy. John balanced himself on a rock, took hold of the canopy rim with the gauntleted fingers of one hand, then cycled up his power and heaved. Metal screeched and hybrid Plexiglas flexed into millions of maze-like cracks, while stubborn mechanisms ground their bent gears. Then the canopy gave way, torn free like a withered old tree-limb.
John helped Doctor Bennett to twist around and clamber out of the downed flitter. He swung her carefully up and out, then over to Pete, who was braced below to receive her. Pavlychenko was next, smiling wanly through his helmet glass and giving a feeble thumbs-up. Linda helped McCord to steady Kyril's awkward handoff from Tracy, and then led him a short distance away.
They ought to have left directly, but Doctor Bennett required her med-kit, which was strapped to an emergency ration pack behind the passenger's seat. John had to peel back a layer of crumpled metal to reach the thing, once again ignoring his suit's power-use warnings.
"Yeah, about that…" he muttered to the flickering virtual status panel. "Seems I forgot my can-opener in the kitchen drawer, back home… about 46 million miles away from here… so you're just going to have to suck it up and perform, like it or not."
John's heads-up display blinked a deep, baleful red, but did not override his power demand. Only in the event that he was rendered unconscious was the suit's computer supposed to take over, and then only to conserve air and prolong his fading life.
The med-kit and rations came free after a bit of determined prying. Weirdly, the billowing parachute cloth, hissing fumes and dry air had combined to create monster static. Everything John touched seemed to crackle and spark like socks from the dryer. Radiation levels were dangerously high, too.
In a hurry, he seized the kit, pivoted on his stony platform, and then stepped off into the upraised arms of Pete and a newly returned Linda. They lowered him carefully to the ground. John tried to hand over the doctor's equipment, but she thrust it aside to embrace his black-and-yellow, hard-suited form.
It was then, if ever, that McCord should have said something. He and Tracy's too-perfect copy made eye contact over the doctor's white helmet. The words… the warning… were there. But they looked at each other and Pete didn't speak out. Instead, the commander gruffly ordered the interlocked couple to calm down and start moving.
"Off!" he said. "Plenty of time for PDAs* later, when our perimeter's secured and shelter set up." (Public Displays of Affection)
Thanks to static and raw, crackling radiation, all anyone heard was,
But they understood his intent well enough. Later, inside the inflated survival pod, they removed their helmets. After a quick drink of water and tired greetings, Pavlychenko gave his report while Doctor Bennett saw to her first patient, Commander McCord. Seen close to, his face was a raw, ragged mess, the left eye a complete loss.
Pete had been induced to recline on one of the habitat's sleep couches, but he was restless; in pain and too proud to admit it. Linda sat at one side with her kit open before her and Rachel nearby, standing in for a surgical nurse.
"Make it quick, doctor," rasped McCord. "Catch and release. I've got work to do."
Linda's brows knit over narrowed brown eyes and an all at once straight, stubborn mouth.
"I'm well aware of the situation, commander," she snapped back, "But the only way that an Earth-based physician is going to heal and replace that eye is if I do a good enough job stabilizing the optic nerve and surrounding tissue. So… with all due respect, sir… Quit bitching and take your medicine."
"Advice noted, logged and overruled, doctor. Clean it up, slap a bandage over the mess and hand me a damn aspirin. Because if we don't get off our asses and do something, there won't be any "Earth-based physicians" left. We clear?"
All Pete had left was a single, angry blue eye, but that one was fierce with the need for haste. Linda forced a deep breath. To John, Kyril and Rachel, she said,
"I want it on record that I object to Commander McCord's orders."
At first, no one spoke. Too many confused loyalties. Tracy and Neer were especially torn. Pavlychenko saved them from having to take sides, saying,
"Gospodina Bennett, your objections are heard, and shall be witnessed to, in event of tribunal or court-martial. Now, if all is settled to satisfaction, I begin again with report."
"Go ahead, Kyril," Linda told the stocky and shock-haired young Russian. "I've said my piece… Whether superman, here, wants to listen to reason, or not."
You could have chipped the frost from her voice with an ice-pick. Linda began working; very carefully, despite her evident fury. John came over to help, holding a basin into which Linda dropped patiently tweezed splinters of glassy stuff, while Rachel dabbed and sprayed. Pete remained rock-like, though his hands clenched into trembling-tight fists.
Kyril Pavlychenko resumed talking, his tale interspersed with the habitat's humming generator, hissing puffs of disinfectant wound cleanser and a rain-like patter of bloodied shards hitting plastic.
"Commander, we took off at first light, following orders. Gospodin Thorpe was then still at work on pump system, all seeming improved. I was flying with Gospodina Doktor Bennett, seeking for transponder signal from tractor or scout flitter, but already were troubles arising. We could not locate signal, for suspected reason that something had damaged comm satellites. Then base, too, became unable to be contacted."
One particularly long helmet shard had lodged itself deep in the cavity of McCord's ruined eye, point buried in the fragile bone at the back of his socket. Linda had to be almost inhumanly precise… and terribly delicate… to draw the thing forth without doing further harm. Pete's hand fumbled across the couch to locate and seize John's forearm. 'Tracy' moved a little, to make the reach easier. He shifted the basin in the process, but Linda didn't say anything. Instead, without asking permission, she signaled Rachel Neer to up the anesthetic load in that cleansing spray. To hell with orders; the man was in pain.
Two hissing puffs brought a measure of relief, enough so that Kyril's curt story began making sense again.
"…burst of mighty glow, after something seen dropping across sky to main dome of base. Am thinking possibly attack and invasion. Was too much radiation afterward for meteor strike."
"Not if it… that meteor, or falling satellite… not if it hit the reactor core, Kyril," Doctor Bennett interrupted, having gently drawn out (tweezers in one hand, laser cauterization tool in the other) that ragged long sliver. It, too, plik-ed into the basin. "We've been over this. You'd expect some kind of explosion and discharge, after something like that."
But Pavlychenko shook his reddish-blond head.
"Respectfully to rank and experience, Gospodina Doktor, nyet. Too much coincidence is not at all coincidence. Is attack. Meteor does not make first plane crash. Does not destroy tractor. Does not take over body of dead man!"
Maybe not, but the alternative was too frightening for Linda to contemplate. She crouched over Pete's ravaged face and kept working, unable to quite tune out Kyril's unsparing report. After all, she'd been with him. She knew what they'd seen and heard, and who they'd failed to raise on the plane's comm.
"Was nothing. No response Gospodin Commander, to any call. No signals able to pierce radiation. Then, light from mirror, below and west. Bozhe Moi! Survivors! The rest, you know."
Pete started to nod, but his whole head and face had grown numb and cottony. He wanted to sleep, but couldn't afford to. Not with his base under attack and Earth in danger.
"All right, people…" he mumbled, speaking to everyone present, "soon 's we can rig up… conveyance… and perimeter's secure… draw straws for scout team, back… back to…"
"Commander," Linda broke in firmly, "you need to rest, and I've got to see to John, next. Take it easy for a few minutes, while I take care of our TA rep, and then we'll make plans for the future. Kyril can keep watch up front with the flare gun."
Not that she expected trouble, clinging as she did to her meteor/ satellite theory.
"Drugged me… didn't you," the commander accused in a raggedly drawn-out mumble. "Tracy… stay 'lert…. Keep eye on… things."
That which wasn't quite John replied at once, through gathering clouds of anesthetic haze.
"I'm right here, Pete. I'll hold things down till you're back on your feet. I promise."
McCord muttered something that sounded like,
"Good man, Tracy… always wished…"
And then he fell silent. Dr. Bennett applied and secured the packing and bandage, leaving out a bit of gauze to wick away puddling fluids. Then she fastened his O2 mask, sat back to disinfect her hands, and looked up at John.
"Your turn next, Sunshine. Let's see that shoulder."
'John' was all at once very aware of everyone's placement; Kyril, somewhat behind him with a flare gun, Rachel standing a short way to the left, with a tray of instruments, suction tools and anesthetic, and Linda herself, close alongside. Trusted friends… right?
Not necessarily, argued a cold tiny worm of slithering doubt. McCord was the only one here he'd never lost sight of; the only one who hadn't simply appeared out of the blue once trouble began on Earth and the base. And now, Pete was unconscious, leveled by exhaustion and drugs.
Linda was already scrubbing up and selecting instruments for her next patient, confident that her almost-date would follow medical advice. Yeah, well… he loved her because John did; loved that way she had of smoothing her pony-tailed brown hair… the pucker of concentration between her eyebrows… even the faded traces of lipstick she wore. He'd know, wouldn't he, if this wasn't her? If somehow the enemies of Earth had taken her over? Surely he'd know… unless a perfected copy (synthesized from debugged memory files and raised in the cyberverse) could be fooled like a regular human.
"Let's go, John. Off with the chest and shoulder armor, then peel down your suit liner. I need to take a look, if I'm going to help you."
Slowly, the worried changeling responded.
"Doctor, I'll be happy to do as you've asked, once Pete wakes up. I promised to keep watch for him. Besides, this suit's a real pain in the ass to get in and out of, and it's doing a pretty fair job of holding me together. I'll just charge up the batteries and wait for Pete to come around, if it's all the same to you."
So much depended on what she said and did, next.
Earth, at Los Angeles, California's Mercy Hospital-
As TinTin chose a sure path through the ward's teeming corridors, Fermat hit his cell phone. First, he called up his father, who'd begun checking in their most sensitive and high-tech rescue gear. The LAPD, National Guard and Fire Department had gotten their own equipment on site in great, roaring droves. They no longer needed civilian assistance. Besides, with rising light came the increased possibility of digital imaging.
"Have to g- give a thought to, ah… to some kind of v- video signal disruptor," Brains told his young son. "B- But for, ah… for now, I'm j- just glad to hear your v- voice."
"Thanks, d- dad. Same… here. Have you h- heard anything form Chris Springfield? He's… Alan's old s- schoolmate, and we s- sort of lost him, down in the tunnels."
"No, son. I'm, ah… I'm afraid n- not. I'll check the posted s- survivor lists one more, ah… more time, though. Meanwhile, how are T- TinTin and the boys holding up?"
It wasn't easy, threading a path through the crowded hospital after Alan's retreating back. Not with half your heart and mind tied up on the phone.
"They're okay, dad," Fermat panted asthmatically, jogging along in the Tracys' wake. "Alan is… well, but G- Gordon has a con- concussion. We're going to f- find him again… now."
"Understood, son. And I'm, ah… I'm p- proud of you for sending that coded message, earlier. I'm glad to see th- that you're, ah… you're tough enough to th- think on your feet."
Fermat smiled, warmed by his father's praise. The boy's shoulders squared just a bit, and his stride lengthened.
"Thanks, dad. I love you."
"Love you, too, Fermat. Tell V- Virgil that, ah… that he might want to hurry, as the ship s- sails for home in th- three hours."
"Yes, sir. I'll let him know."
Next, as he wove around orderlies and nurses, dodging the occasional speeding gurney, Fermat called up his mother.
"Mom! It's me! Is everything all right over there? There've been all these explosions and weird happenings in California! Are you okay?"
Myrna Loy Bremmerman's voice was as calm as ever.
"I'm perfectly fine, Ferms, now that you've called again. There have been one or two incidents at the university, but the campus police are adept at their jobs. They'll soon have things under control."
As he raced into a packed X-ray waiting room, Fermat shifted his phone from one ear to the other. Anxiously, he said,
"Okay, mom, you h- have to come… back with us to th- the island! It's safer, there. D- Dad'll be around to… to keep, um… I mean…"
"Ferms," she responded, at once laughing and exasperated, "your father is a wonderful man. I love him very much. I do not, however, require his protection. What I am is needed here, at the University. We're attempting to disaggregate the last message from Endurance Base, checking for clues to the source of that alien control signal. Stay with your father, Ferms, and don't worry. I'll call as often as I can."
"But, mom!" he protested; only half-seeing Virgil argue with a harried X-ray technician. "What if something bad happens… and d- dad and I aren't around t- to help?"
"Fermat, you're being irrational. I have to remain where I'm most needed, just as your father does. All of this war talk is probably overblown, anyhow. If SETI couldn't find anything in over 80 years of searching, I doubt very much that a little irresponsible off-world drilling would turn up a sudden plague of aliens."
"But, mom…" tears were beginning to sting and claw at the back of his eyes.
"Fermat, I love you, but you're too old to behave like this, anymore. Everything's going to be fine, trust me." And then, in a lighter, more teasing voice, "Have Darwin and Nietzsche ever steered us wrong?"
Standing there clutching that cell phone, amid dimly-seen crowds and other people's urgent concerns, Fermat could only come up with,
"Mom… please? Please c- come with us? We n- need you, too!"
Like another woman, very far elsewhere, it was a long moment before she replied.
Los Angeles, California-
Metcalfe's electric-blue convertible roared from a dimly-lit hospital parking garage, and out into the rattle and glare of a bright summer day. He made a sharp left turn onto the main road, crossing three lanes of on-coming traffic to do so. Left a great many horn-mashing, finger-lofting motorists in his wake, but in Paul's defense, he did have a lot on his mind. Mostly war and chiefly Spectrum; interviews be damned. Balanced against a sudden wave of deadly accidents and alien-made replicants, the wealthy, underhanded Tracys would just have to wait.
At this hour of the day, LA traffic was excruciatingly slow, especially with so many people trying to obey the vice president's orders and return to their base or their homes. Too slow.
Paul pounded a fist on his leather-wrapped steering wheel, staring out through the windscreen at an endlessly inching serpent of burning red tail lights. He could have reached the access point faster walking.
To soothe his own frustration, Metcalfe switched on the car's radio, setting it to a particular, coded comm channel. A civilian would have detected nothing special in the resulting cascade of easy-listening music… but Metcalfe was not a civilian, and he'd been trained to listen for the clicks and faint beeping sounds which underlay that syrup-bland mix of love songs and power ballads.
Over sirens and engines and hot, gusting wind, he deciphered an urgent message (much like the vice president's televised own):
'…Agents Blue and Gold to access point twelve… Agents Scarlet and Black to access point twenty… Agents Ochre and Destiny to access point three… All furlough and prior missions are cancelled… Repeat…'
And so on. Metcalfe grunted, rubbing both thumbs against the lacing of his tan leather steering wheel cover. So, he was to be paired with Black again, for the first time in a long while. Interesting, Paul thought, and difficult. Although he and Conrad managed well enough professionally, they could hardly be termed friends, thanks in part to a woman. No, scratch that. Thanks to the woman; Simone Giraudoux, the only one who'd ever mattered.
Metcalfe left the road once more, screeching across the parking lot of an old car wash, to head west on a less-crowded side street. Whatever the past, he had places to go and people to work with, and maybe a planet to save.
Tracy Island, the mansion, surrounded by stacked toiletries and neatly-rolled socks-
Scott sat himself down on the bed, dropping like he'd been hammered. Had she really said "love"? (Significant, even when pegged to a dicey word like "may".) The newly recalled fighter pilot blinked once or twice, chasing a head full of runaway thoughts. The ball was in his court, she'd told him, hinting around for some kind of matching remark.
Right. Rather nervously, Scott cleared his throat. Then, he cranked the commitment dial a little bit higher by saying,
"Cin, anytime you want to set things in concrete and make an honest man out of me, I'm ready to open negotiations."
She laughed over the phone, sounding just about near enough to touch.
"What's to negotiate, Hollywood? Let's elope. Surprise the hell out of everybody with a really cheap wedding ring and a fat, sleepy justice of the peace."
Better total spontaneity than a long wind-up and terrified second thoughts, huh? Well, he could live with that.
"You're on," Scott replied, smiling. "Name the time and place, Hon. I'll be the one in uniform."
"Damn!" she lamented, "and me without a white dress! Unless you count the nurse's costume I was wearing, that time you decided to take your pet head-case for a stroll…"
"He's my brother, and white's optional. Just show up with flowers, and practice saying I do."
Final details would be settled later, but those weren't nearly so vital as the sudden decision to wed one another, on the rumbling threshold of war.
A bit later-
Jeff was less fortunate. After much hard thought, he'd called an impromptu gathering; summoning everyone present to the big, airy ground-floor family room. Kyrano, Grandma Tracy, Penelope, Scott and the servants all showed, though his wife's portrait artist did not. Too busy packing for the mainland, Jeff suspected.
"Welcome," he began, once everyone had assembled and chosen a comfortable seat. The TV was on, but muted and mostly ignored. "I'm glad you could make it, and I promise to keep things short. Here's the bottom line, then: since I'm going to be gone for quite some time (and Scott, as well) I need to leave someone in charge of local operations."
Jeff's brown eyes tracked across the expectant (and sometimes rebellious) faces which surrounded him. Tough crowd. Inhaling deeply, he held a big breath and then released it, saying,
"With apologies to my lovely and capable wife, I've decided to place the elder Mrs. Tracy… my mother… in charge of this island, the house and its staff. …With plenty of help from Virgil and Brains, of course. Wait, please! Let me explain, before you start firing comments and questions. The reasoning can be boiled down to two basic factors, folks: experience and fewer hormones. Mother, the boys will follow your lead because they always have. So will Brains, Kyrano and TinTin."
Next, Jeff turned to his frosty blonde wife.
"Penny… I ask, for my sake, that you accept mother's management of the house, and concentrate on taking care of yourself and our child."
Then, looking around at the gathered family and staff, Jeff added firmly,
"I hope that you're able to live with the plan as outlined, people, because my choice is final, and the changes go into effect as soon as Scott and I are wheels-up."
To her credit, Grandma Tracy didn't gloat. Instead, looking up at her tall, grey-haired son, she simply nodded acceptance, saying,
"You go on and do what you got to, Jeffery. I'll mind the store and keep an eye out for them sneaky government types. Lord knows they oughta be simple as pie to distract; they ain't exactly broke out with brains."
Jeff smiled at the fragile-seeming old woman, loosening up enough to drop a kiss on her wrinkled forehead.
"Thank you, mother. I have total confidence that I'm leaving this family in good hands."
A curiously buoyant Scott kissed her, as well, with a startling depth of emotion. On the other hand, Penelope was just about rigid with shock and distaste. Afterward, she could scarcely bring herself to kiss Jeff farewell, as her husband and stepson left home for Hawaii's Hickam Air Force Base. A faint,
"Bon voyage, darling," was all that she sent him off with, though he'd hoped in his heart for better.
'Oh, well,' Jeff consoled himself, as the ocean and gem-green island dropped away beneath his howling Learjet, 'she can't stay mad forever.'
Mercy Hospital, Los Angeles, California-
It looked like Gordon would soon be released from X-ray, though Fermat Hackenbacker was too distracted to be sure. His mother was wavering, he thought. Certainly, she took her time about answering his plea to seek shelter on the island.
"Ferms," Myrna replied at last, "You're still very clingy and emotional, but that's to be expected at this stage of your life. Once you're older, you'll realize that the universe moves in continual cycles. Everything that is happening has happened before, and will come back to face us again, in slightly-altered form. So you see, Ferms, there's nothing to be afraid of, and no reason to worry. The ubermensch is above all that."
Well, three cheers for the uber-munch! He must not have a mother to save, the boy reasoned. But, back to the problem at hand… Maybe a little reverse psychology? Gripping the cell phone tight as hope in one pale, sweaty hand, Fermat said,
"You're absolutely… right, m- mom. I'm not worried one bit. In fact, I'll just h- head right over to… ESU and s- stay with you, there. After all, it's h- happened before, right?"
Terrific angle, but Fermat didn't get to find out if the strategy scored him any points, because all at once, his mother covered the mouthpiece on her end, and spoke to someone off line. Then, after a short pause and indistinct reply, she came back on to say,
"Ferms, I have to get off the phone, now. Something's happened. They need me."
A faint click followed her words. Then, nothing at all but hospital sounds, and his own labored breathing.
"Mom…?" Fermat whispered into the hostile, blank stillness of a disconnected phone. "You there?"
But, of course, she wasn't. Not any more.
It was the logical intent of a certain quantum entity to retain the organic life form John Tracy in semi-permanent suspension. It was intended that time pass. 10 to the 10th power years being the span chosen. In this manner, the 'family' spoken of by her creator would cease to be accessible. John Tracy would then have no further link to his world of origin. He would find satisfaction instead with Five; accepting upgrade and eternal companionship in place of discorporation and data loss.
But a rash of red warning nodes began to spread throughout her hyper-linked decision tree, indicating the possibility of a dangerously negative response. These nodes could not be altered or eliminated. And even had she determined to try, the quantum entity Five could not safely return with John Tracy to their original locus. In her absence, something other had emerged there. Something which devoured organics, while suborning minds and machinery.
Los Angeles, late afternoon-
A local news reporter broke the story that Cassie Peak had been found alive, along with Kurt Stone; both of them pale and quiet, but otherwise sound. This was a revelation for two reasons. It meant that the hostage-takers were likely scattered or dead, and it revealed social activist Cassie Peak's second life as the rock chanteuse, Punkk.
The reporter was overjoyed with his find, though he tried hard for an air of gravity and professionalism as he attempted to interview the escaped former hostages. Against a parking-lot backdrop of hurrying people and civil defense workers, with the distant wail of sirens as wavering theme music, he pressed Cassie to discuss what had happened, below. How she and Kurt had overcome their captors and made their way to safety so far behind the others.
He was a persistent sort, Jason Vann, and all that he saw in tragedy was a chance for personal advancement. Nevertheless, he had to be dealt with.
"We ran," Cassie told him. Her pink Stratocaster was gone, but not Kurt, who appeared deep in thought, or else stunned. "Part of the studio complex collapsed after the bombing, and all the dust and darkness confused us. There was a lot of debris to get through before we could find a way out."
Then, as if in afterthought,
"I don't know anything about the rest of the band, though. Have you heard from Danny or Viral?"
Apt question, to which Jason could only appeal via staticky comm feed to the local news desk. While waiting for a response, he shook back his mane of bleached hair and said,
"Your concern for others does you real credit, Ms. Peak. Isn't that why you've chosen to devote so much of your life and fame to aiding the world's needy?"
Cass blinked. She and Zero (Kurt) seemed pretty tired and needy themselves. Slowly, as if hearing the echo of faded music, she cocked her head to one side.
"I've done a lot of things," she replied, "mostly because other people were pulling my strings to make money. Not any more. Now, I've got to…"
"Excuse me, gentlemen… Ma'am…" a voice boomed, as three beefy security types and one badge-flashing detective sort rushed over to break up the interview. Their leader was quite a tall man, well built and grim, with severely-cut greying dark hair. The outraged reporter attempted to protest, but his autocam feed suddenly cut off, leaving him quite without an audience.
Said the dark-haired man (whose face had been chiseled into harsh lines by an habitual scowl),
"I'm going to have to take custody of these two, Mr. Vann. Official business, superseding the public's right to celebrity gossip." Then, to Cass and Kurt, he added, "Just a few questions, Miss Peak, Mr. Stone… nothing that requires further commentary."
Here, his cold hazel eyes swept across the reporter's face, at once warning and dismissing him. Vann stomped off, muttering to himself. Mission accomplished. To his security team, Conrad Lefkon snapped, "Let's go. I've got a train to catch."
Farther south, inside what appeared to be an abandoned artist's studio-
Metcalfe was late, explanations ready on the tongue, but Conrad (codenamed Black) was later, still. He pushed his way through the belled, decaled street door a full hour after Paul, who'd just about given him up.
The door slammed, hard, and Lefkon's broad-shouldered silhouette blocked out the light like an angry eclipse.
"Trouble on the way?" Metcalfe ventured, as his contact strode past dusty stacks of old canvas which hid scanners and lumps of cracked, microphone-bearing clay.
"I got a call halfway here, to lead a pick-up team. Couple of suspicious survivors outside a local subway station. Central wanted them hauled in for questioning."
…But he still wanted to choke the man, who'd recently become engaged to pretty, vivacious Simone. (She had the five-carat ring to prove it.) Everything about Conrad bothered him, from the way the man dominated a room to his gravelly, Brooklyn-bred voice. Simply put, Lefkon was outsized in every sense of the word.
"Any idea where we're headed?" Paul asked, switching topics. Being senior, Captain Black had all the available details of their mission, and was the only one able to key open this particular access point.
Conrad Lefkon glanced at Metcalfe, briefly making cold, status-settling eye contact.
"Mars," he said, "on the fastest spacecraft available."
A few minutes later, he'd twisted and pressed the correct assortment of curled paint tubes and stiff brushes. A back wall hissed abruptly aside, revealing what very few people ever got to see: an access point to Spectrum's high-tech travel network. No dust and drape cloths here; only cool, scented air, vigilant scanners and a sleek, white travel pod. Its doors were already open, so they stepped within. There were molded plastic seats inside, but neither man claimed one, choosing instead to stand facing one another, each holding to an overhead grip-bar.
"Welcome, Agents Black and Scarlet," came the soft, canned voice of their travel pod. "Please brace for acceleration as we depart access point twenty for hub station beta."
The doors slid shut. A bright red 'no further boarding' light blinked to life, replacing the green LED which had beckoned them inward. Then, all in a magnetized rush, their pod shot away from the concealed access point and into an airless long tunnel. Their mission together had officially begun.
Empire State University, in serene, small-town New York-
Myrna Bremmerman was never even aware of her danger as she followed a pair of fellow professors out of her book-jammed small office. The attack, when it came, was so swift, she had time to do no more than gasp in surprise.
One moment, the school's physics head was hurrying with comrades past a laser interferometry lab; in the next, she was engulfed, devoured and copied by something which very much needed fresh tools.
What eventually returned, blinking, to the fluorescent lighting and coffee-stained carpet of that 4th-floor hallway was a clone, of sorts; one with all of Myrna Loy Bremmerman's knowledge and memories, but none of her attachments. One who needed no son and no husband.
Mars, in a cramped, wind-rattled survival habitat-
Linda sat back, giving the young blond civilian a measuring look. His face was scratched and his bright hair damp with sweat. There was something else different about him… this tall astronomer and technical rep… but Linda couldn't decide what it was. Stress and confusion on her part, possibly, along with the pain of knowing that most of her friends were probably dead. From somewhere deep within herself, the doctor fetched up a sigh. Then she tried another tack.
"Listen to me, sunshine. Pete was drugged and in serious pain, or he'd never have asked you to forgo wound treatment. I'm not going to harm either of you. Part of my oath, remember…? Please trust me enough to let me take a quick look? Even if all I do is disinfect and patch up, your chances of survival skyrocket."
So saying, Linda busied herself shifting med-kit supplies, giving the young man some valuable think time. Rachael stayed quiet, meanwhile, but Kyril made a deal of noise heading up front to the habitat's small comm and control area. Not his fault; their living space was crowded with salvaged supplies and humming equipment. Rib-stiffened walls rattled and flexed, but Pete slept through it all.
Right. The real John Tracy had loyalties and a history; a genuine reason for all that he'd done. His copy was less well-equipped. All that he had was a borrowed and dangerous life. Pete mattered and so did Linda (or at least, they'd mattered to John). His troubled replacement gazed at the busy doctor, looking for answers that simply weren't there. His right shoulder had begun to feel swollen and numb, however, suggesting that her advice was probably reasonable.
"Okay, doctor," he decided aloud. "Here's the counteroffer: I'll let you scan my suit's bio-monitor and plan a course of action. After that, once Pete's awake, you can get right to work with my blessing. Just… not right now."
'Not,' he didn't add, 'while I'm supposed to be on watch.'
She looked up at him after glancing over at Rachael Neer, who gave a resigned sort of 'Men! What can you do with them?' shrug.
"Deal… unless your arm's about to drop off, or dust sepsis starts to set in."
This got her a lop-sided smile and a very slight lowering of his guard. Linda's med-scanner was able to connect right to his suit's chest panel, which had been blinking red for some time. 'John' scooted a few feet further from the commander's supine form, giving her more room to work.
She felt odd, being this close to him; as warm and confused as she had back in the dome. Almost plugged the scanner's data probe into his recharge port by mistake, until he caught and guided her hand. The hardsuit's gauntlet was firm but gentle, with ridged rubber pads at the fingertips and palm. Its touch should not have felt personal, but very much did.
The data probe clicked into its port and then began negotiations with the hardsuit computer; about a 10-second process with nothing much to do but watch Rachael throw a light blanket over Pete's legs and torso. There were a few small windows, of course, but no view, what with full night having fallen. So, you couldn't even say, for instance, "nice weather" or "beautiful day we're having, isn't it?"
But McCord gave a sudden snore and cough, and then her med-scanner beeped, giving Linda something to do besides blush. A key-press liberated reams of physical data, bringing surprise and a slight, worried frown.
"Am I going to live?" he asked, trying (she thought) to be funny. Linda gestured impatiently for quiet, hitting the scanner's blue reset key. Same results.
"You're fine," she told him. "There's evidence of damage, but the area's healing fast. You may end up with a right scapular bone spur, though, and limited rotation of the affected shoulder."
For Heaven's sake, the suit was in worse shape. His blood vessels had already sealed, and the excess fluid, far from puddling, was being re-absorbed. The projectile itself had been pushed from the wound, leaving behind a rapidly closing scar. The area was feverish, however, and swollen enough to cause some discomfort. Maybe. If he hurt, he wasn't showing it.
"How do you feel?" she asked John, once more wishing she could pull his chest and shoulder armor away for a better look. Machines had been known to err, after all.
"Sore," he admitted, adding, "but glad that you're so worried about me."
Linda removed her data probe and then snapped shut the access port on his chest panel.
"Uh-huh. Cleared for duty, mister. If you're well enough to flirt, you're well enough to stand watch."
"That was flirting?" he asked. Although Linda didn't realize it, everything here was a first for him. With a powerfully gloved hand, he reached out to touch her brown hair. "I thought flirting was supposed to be funny and fast, or something. All I said was that it's nice to know you're concerned."
"Aspirin," she responded briskly, "plenty of fluids and reduced activity for the next 48 hours. If possible, that is."
Then, silently thanking Rachael Neer for busying herself in another part of the survival pod, Doctor Bennett said,
"I'm glad you're recovering, John, even though I'm not sure how."
She looked directly up at him, then, making firm, worried eye contact. Given what had happened to Daniel Lasher, could John's rapid improvement be a symptom of something else? Something terribly dangerous?
"I'm planning to monitor the situation and make regular medical log entries, on you and Commander McCord, both. Other than that…"
Her hand found his, and her slim fingers laced his metal-and-plastic hardsuit glove.
"I'm not much of a flirt, myself, John. There's a lot going on right now, but…"
How to put into speech the fact that she somehow recalled being with him? That he was right for her, in every sense of that phrase?
"…But when things settle down and we've found the others, I'd like to continue our date. You've got history to make, remember?"
He leaned forward and let his pale forehead touch hers, lightly; an almost and not-quite kiss. Then, pulling away, he said to his original's love,
"Sounds like a plan, doctor. I'll get the telescope, you bring the coffee."
In the meantime, though, there were defenses to set up and a recon mission to plan. In the meantime, survival itself was in question.
Los Angeles, Mercy Hospital-
Gordon needed rest and medical supervision, and their father had ordered Virgil to stay with him until the young man was out of danger. Things were happening, though; from random, deadly accidents to the sudden appearance of a 'Spectrum Agent', whatever that meant.
Virgil wanted out of Los Angeles with his brothers and friends, and he wanted it now. Surely, Brains could take care of Gordon as well, back home, as a few harried and over-tasked interns? The hospital staff considered him foolish and told him so, but Virgil was adamant, and they hadn't time enough to argue. Not with so many injured, and more coming in all the time.
Gordon rather woozily backed Virgil up, doing his level best to count the right number of fingers (three) and name the US president (Michael Craney). He botched the date by more than six months, but by then the sleep-deprived ward nurse had had more than enough.
"Fine," she snapped. "Sign here, here… and here. We're not responsible for criminal stupidity, and you've been warned, Mr. Tracy. Both… all of you."
Sitting up on his squeaking cot, Gordon narrowed down the swaying duo of options to one actual female, then reached out and patted her plump shoulder.
"I appreciate th' concern, ma'am, but Tracys have what y' might call a fine talent f'r survival. I'm going t' be fine. Right as rain, depend on it."
The frustrated nurse shook her head.
"You're an idiot, Mister Tracy, and your brother's a bigger one… but I hope you make it. Stay off of public transport, is all I can say."
Of course, she had no idea how Virgil and Gordon Tracy actually meant to get home; any more than Alan knew, when his cell phone rang, who was at the other end, and why.
Los Angeles, California, Mercy Hospital-
Okay, so there was Gordon with a lump on his head the size of an apple… nope, on next look, down to, like, maybe a grape… trying to act all cool and junk for the nurse-lady. You know, so she'd say he could go ahead and leave. (All because Brains was waiting in one of dad's newest prototypes with, like, the meter running, and their limo driver was forbidden by WorldGov's latest order to fetch another car (the old one was smashed, dude, utterly) and come get them).
Beside him, meanwhile, Fermat was going crazy trying to call his mom, getting dumped to voice mail every time. Poor little dude seriously looked about to cry. Man! That had to suck! Naturally, Alan did what any good friend would do: pretended not to notice.
T was too busy with Gordon to talk (and, dang, did she do some weird junk, back at the underground studio! He'd never figured her for one of those mystical mind-control types. Just shows to go you…). Then his cell phone rang. Not mom this time, full of vague worries and scatter-brained love, but Chris Springfield. And the dude sounded more confused than Gordon, even.
"Hey, Alan… could you guys swing by the PCH and pick me up? I'm, uh… I dunno how I got here. My head hurts… but there's a lot of cops around… and dad always says… if you don't remember what you did, call a lawyer and get home… 'cause someone else does, and they probably got pictures. Okay…? Please?"
"Yeah. Sure thing, dude," Alan responded, patting the pockets of his cargo shorts for something to write on. No joy, but Fermat always at least had a pen. "Just gimme an address and we're there. Gordon's, like, practically sprung. I'm for real."
Clamping the phone between his shoulder and ear, Alan got a pen from his pale young friend and then proceeded to write Springfield's location down on the inside of a gum wrapper. Then,
"Chillax, dude. It's a done deal. That's why people have friends. Seriously, I'm just glad to hear you're okay. I wasn't, like, worried or anything… but I'd hate to lose concert tickets and my best Cali crash pad. Now, sit tight and try to look natural. Buy a hotdog, or something. We'll be right over."
Of course, he hadn't checked with Virgil, yet, and the WorldGov Veep had said something about Mysteron-people just appearing after an accident… but she wasn't talking about Chris. Alan knew his friend really well, okay? He'd have spotted it, straight up, if Springfield had been frickin' body-napped.
So, when the four of them finally got out of the teeming hospital and Virge had paid some guy, like, ten times the value for his old junker car, Alan casually mentioned,
"Hey, Chris called up awhile back. He's been refugeed out to a big pier off the PCH…"
Virgil's eyes met his in the rearview mirror.
"The what?" His older brother asked, inching forward in mud-like traffic. (Cut him some slack for being clueless, though; he'd grown up on this flippin' back-of-nowhere cattle ranch. He couldn't help it.)
"The… Pacific… Coast… Highway. It's out by the shore, dude, and it's… y'know… a highway."
Virgil's eyebrows did that 'two brown caterpillars crawling up to meet each other' thing.
"They took him that far away?" he said, sounding all surprised, and junk.
"I know, right? But the folks in charge are trying to get people out of the city, 'cause of all the accidents. Anyways, I promised Chris we'd swing by and pick him up."
Alan played it cool, but he was worried, because Virgil was kind of like dad; once he set up his mind, there was just no changing it. For real, the guy's nickname should have been 'Stony', or 'Rip Studwell', or something.
"I'm glad he's safe, but we've got places to be, Alan."
Hah! Not a flat-out refusal! The blond youngest Tracy pounced immediately.
"Comprendo, dude, absolutely. But Chris is my friend, and kinda yours, too, since you're my brother and junk. Friends don't leave friends hanging. That's a basic guide thingie in the Buds-for-Life code. Seriously. Look it up for yourself."
Maybe TinTin, taking a break from attending Gordon, used some of that eastern juju of hers, or maybe Alan was really persuasive, but anyways, Virgil caved. Sighing tiredly, he hit their million-dollar tan junker's left turn signal and began nosing west.
"Right. On our way. Call Brains, somebody, and tell him we're going to be late."
Johnson Space Center, deep within Building 30-
Houston now faced a major dilemma. Most of the decision-making and oversight for their Endurance Colony had long since been handed over to Commander McCord, who was no longer responding. There wasn't a Capcom assigned to the Mars base, or even a genuine mission room.
More worrisome still, a radioactive firestorm had blossomed over the colony, making what little contact they'd had with survivors brief and unintelligible. In short, there was no real word at all… except from the 'Mysterons'. Those transmissions NASA picked up quite clearly, more often than anyone wanted.
The aliens didn't gloat, precisely. They promised; loss and suffering and continued disaster, meted out by a faceless, unreachable foe. Well, the LGMs could predict whatever they wanted to; NASA had people in trouble, and immediately set about contacting them. First, someone at JPL figured out how to block the alien broadcasts, allowing another signal to get through; persistent, artificial and clearly their own.
A call to Philip Riley at the Moon Station next shifted an entire flock of high-gain space antennae, boosting the weak, broken signal like smoke on a lemon juice spy-message. Minutes later, the newly assembled mission support team nailed its source and sender.
Saul Guthrie had been leaning over the comm station, lanky frame bent, thin face unhealthily pale in the screen glow. Now, deciphering those trickling beeps and clicks, he said,
"Looks like we got a tech-rep alive, at least… and McCord… plus two pilots and one a' the doctors."
He straightened then, putting both hands in his trouser pockets to jingle his keys and loose change. A string of coded numbers flashed up on the screen, disappeared and then repeated. Saul wasn't a programmer. The densely packed figures meant nothing at all to him, but several others whistled aloud, or began speaking excitedly. Soon enough, his TELMU guy told him,
"It's an anti-viral program, Saul; a scanning and deleting code that's supposed to defend against alien takeover. From that TA guy… what's-his-name... John."
The entire big room was now alive and vibrating with fast talk and eager, jabbing hand motions. Said Guthrie to his team,
"All right, call him back… then let's rip off a few thousand copies and get it to everyone we can think of; the military, the press, emergency teams… hell, even WorldGov. Maybe we'll get launch clearance, if the VP can be convinced that a rescue mission won't end up crashing on top of her." (Out at Kennedy, there was already a rocket being moved to the pad, though clearance had not yet been granted for flight.)
Things seemed to be looking up, but no sooner had NASA publicized their discovery, than a team of scientists at Empire State University shot it down. The code was a fraud, claimed their spokesperson, Myrna Bremmerman. In a televised statement from the University's physics department, she said,
"The so-called 'Mysteron anti-virus' is nothing more than a dangerous pipe-dream concocted by NASA in a transparent attempt to save face and stay relevant."
Looking directly into the camera, brown-haired, bespectacled Dr. Bremmerman added,
"Clearly, NASA's own operations on Mars were responsible for rousing the Mysteron threat and for setting these alien visitors against us."
The reporters present in ESU's lecture hall that day reacted with shock. Had NASA's over-budget, off-world construction efforts really ignited a war? Myrna Bremmerman cocked her head slightly, giving the assembled reporters and bloggers a very thin, patient smile.
"Let's not focus on past negligence and incompetence, but on the future. Together with my research team, I've come up with a number of strategies to placate the alien visitors and soothe their just wrath. We'd like to meet privately with Vice President Murasaki, to discuss the matter further."
That which now ,controlled her had plans. More, with the seizure of Myrna Bremmerman had come certain memories, and a new knowledge of the troublesome Tracy clan.
Hickam AFB, Hawaii, at the main airport terminal-
The base was on high alert, with re-activated pilots and sailors pouring in from all over the Pacific. New squadrons and fleets were being formed on the basis of experience, because actual training was not yet possible. No one cared to risk losing men or machinery in another Mysteron-fostered 'accident'.
NASA's shielding code came as a rejuvenating surprise, as did the welcome news of survivors on Mars. Especially (to Jeff and Scott Tracy) word that a certain tech-rep was among them. Then, unbelievably, Brains' wife attacked both the space agency and their new-found defense code.
"What the hell…?" Scott muttered, staring at the airport TV screen on which Myrna Bremmerman had just made her astounding pronouncement. He was flight-suited already; a member of the newly-formed Tiger Squadron. But Jeff still wore expensive, impeccably tailored business attire, as he would not be staying at Hickam.
"Dad, what's she doing?"
The older man shook his head. Jeff Tracy's brown eyes were fierce, and his jaw firmly set.
"I'm not sure, son. It doesn't make sense, and it isn't like Brains' wife to stab NASA like this. Something's going on."
They hadn't much more time together, for Jeff was expected shortly at the main office in New York City. Parting now was strange for them; one with a pregnant wife on the island, the other resuming flight after many years, and scheming to get married, himself. There was everything to say and no words, with so very much "going on". But Jeff seized his carry-on bag and lifted it clear of the tiled floor. Clearing his throat, he said,
"Take care of yourself, son. I'll be in touch about your brothers and the Mars rescue mission. Just… if the time comes to make that decision… the one about you or the greater good… I trust you to do the right thing. You're a Tracy."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Scott shook his father's briefly proffered hand. "I'll do my best."
As would Jeff, who had a brand-new space fighter line to bring out.
Mars, in a tiny bubble of air and life-
His life before had been a long, endless now, with time just one of a myriad static dimensions twined and penetrating like ghostly cobwebs. A quantum entity had created and programmed him, then thrust him away to fill another man's vacated persona.
There, he had seen and known and existed in ways that had no 3-D analogue. Here, air filled his lungs with each breath. Blood rushed in hot spurts through the veins and arteries of a quick-healing body, while thought was a matter of chemo-electric impulse and linked nerve endings. Here, there was food (slippery peaches in sweet syrup, from a clear plastic bag) and sharp-tasting iodine water. Here he had to get up and physically move around, not simply think space into better-folded shapes. Whispering air caressed his face and fanned his blond hair, and the near presence of a woman… his woman… stirred certain bothersome/ wondrous responses. (And damn, that suit pinched!)
To distract himself, John* kept watch over Pete and worked some more on his exclusion code, the one which hampered Mysteron takeover of anything with a computer heart and a logic-gate soul. Linda went forward after awhile to catch a short nap on one of the pod's beta cloth hammocks. She brushed his left shoulder in passing; whisper-light fingers on dusty, scored armor. John* pressed her hand with his own and bade the doctor good night, promising to wake her if Pete's condition changed. Meanwhile, Kyril and Rachael were up front, cobbling together a Frankenstein vehicle plan, something John* would have done, had he not been distracted, here.
Very distracted, once Pete gave a long, phlegmy snort and woke up.
"Tracy…!" the commander hissed, reaching uncertainly for his own bandaged head.
"Right here, Pete."
"Yeah. Hurts like hell, FYI. But, enough about me. Status?"
"Could be worse."
McCord laughed, and immediately regretted it.
"Quit joking and give me specifics," he said, once his head quit pounding. "Anything from Houston?"
"Yeah. I sent in a new version of that code from the tractor. Saul Guthrie acknowledged, and said they've got a rescue mission halfway to the pad, but WorldGov's holding up launch due to sabotage fears. Something could still take off from the Moon, though, if Riley's willing to ignore public safety orders and risk arrest."
"Afraid so. Want something to drink? There's water that doesn't taste too bad, from the vapor converter."
McCord replied in sign language, nodding his hand 'yes'. After John* brought the bag to his lips and helped him to drink a few swallows, the commander breathed deeply for a bit, thinking. Then, he said,
"Okay… so we're on our own, unless the candy-asses in WorldGov get a sudden infusion of spine. Here's the plan, Tracy: I'm up at first light, and we start putting together a vehicle. Doesn't matter what kind… just has to run. Then, you, me and one of the pilots, or… shit, we oughta have a doctor with us. Scratch the pilot. You, me and Bennett head over to reconnoiter the base. Find out what happened. Carefully."
Then, shifting his head very slightly so that one weary blue eye fixed upon John*, he asked,
"You with me?"
…because, of course, Pete was too badly injured to manage alone. He needed an ally. Someone he could trust, to back decisions and face down the doctor.
What should he do, John* wondered? Logic dictated one path, programmed loyalty quite another. In the end, true to the feelings of the man he'd been sent to stand in for, John* chose door number 2.
"All the way to the end, Pete. No matter what."
Spain, at the World Government's temporary HQ in Madrid-
Lady Murasaki was now the acting head of WorldGov, and one of the most powerful people on Earth. An endangered and threatened Earth, to be sure; one clawing at the brink of a terrible war, but still her duty and charge. Sitting that afternoon in the modest office space she'd claimed, Murasaki felt the weight of each and every life; the terrible pressure to avoid a fatal decision.
Her new office was sparsely decorated. One or two painted scrolls hung on the beige walls, and a pair of ancestral swords rested nearby on a lacquered black stand. (All she'd managed to save from her previous work space.) To her right, a spray of lavender flowers perfumed the air, standing tall in a delicate vase. Murasaki, herself, was slight and fragile-seeming as the blossoms, clad in dark western clothing behind a large, curving desk.
Her attention was not focused on these things, however. They were merely external. Environment. Background. Like the sound of an icy river, or wind in the dark, tossing pines. Instead, her gaze was fixed upon a wall-sized comm screen and the uniformed man whose image it conveyed.
"Madame Vice President," the white-haired Englishman addressed her, "I am honored by your call."
Murasaki smiled briefly, inclining her head just a bit at his deep, seated bow.
"The honor is mine, Colonel White," she responded. "For many years has Spectrum stood ready, guarding those who did not suspect that they were being protected. Now, I think, the sword-arm of Unified Earth must become more visible. The people are frightened. They must be reassured. Obvious, heroic actions will accomplish this, while perhaps "drawing fire" and providing alien prisoners for study. It seems to me, Colonel, that in order to understand these intruders, we must capture one."
Colonel White uttered the low, admiring noise peculiar to awe-struck western men.
"You've a shrewd mind, Madame Vice President, and I'm quite relieved to find myself on the same side of this conflict as your esteemed self. What did you have in mind? Spectrum and Sky Base are entirely at your disposal."
Utterly composed, Murasaki said,
"A coded anti-viral program has been sent to my Chief of Technology by a group of American space scientists. Perhaps it will prevent alien seizure of aircraft and vehicles, Colonel, though some have cast doubt upon the veracity of this claim. There is also need for a rescue mission to the colony on Mars. It seems to me that should Spectrum mount a public effort to bring relief to the Martian base, after first loading this anti-virus, the code may be tested, morale raised and bait set forth, at one and the same time."
Colonel White's brows drew together and his mind raced. NASA was understandably eager to launch a rescue mission, but the risk to public safety had been deemed too great. Request denied. Meanwhile, Spectrum had less red tape to deal with and a much lower profile; they could be halfway to Mars before the Mysterons knew what was headed their way. Cagey old White couldn't help grinning.
"As it happens, Madame Vice President, I've two agents being prepped for a quick Martian nip-in and look-about. Supposed to be a hush job, but I'll be happy to shout it from the rooftops, instead, and see who comes to call. Assuming the Mysterons take the bait and try seizing our spacecraft, we'll find out how well the code works."
Cold fingers clenched Murasaki's heart. She said,
"The men must be informed, Colonel White, and secret provision made to retrieve them, should the code prove ineffective. I would send no one, unknowing, to his death."
White nodded his understanding.
"Depend upon it, Madame Vice President; agents Black and Scarlet will have complete knowledge of our little trap, and adequate chance to back out, if nerve fails them."
She could ask no more. Murasaki's face and voice betrayed neither tension nor relief as she replied,
"Then let it be done. I shall have the American space agency ordered to stand down, Colonel, after which my Chief of Technology will pass along the code. You will then publicly reveal a Spectrum rescue effort, and make ready to launch."
The Fujiwaras were a courageous lot, quick to act when the need arose. Lady Murasaki had other matters to attend to, and would have signed off, but Colonel White stroked his bristling moustache with the fingers of one hand and said,
"Madame Vice President, there's also the matter of an upstart civilian vigilante group… apparently they're calling themselves "Rescue International" or somesuch… Well meaning, I'm sure, but their activities and unregulated technology pose a clear threat to legitimate emergency crews and my own personnel. Have I permission to arrest and detain all such would-be heroes?"
Murasaki considered well before answering. In the end, though she found the impulse to do good quite laudable, rebellion and independence did not suit a traditional Japanese mind. She said,
"Colonel, only Spectrum, WASP and the national militias have my sanction to act on anything other than the local, immediate scale. Any man may put out the fire in his own house, or his neighbor's… but he may not organize large groups nor cross national borders to do so."
Clearly pleased, Colonel White smiled once more and gave her a courtly half-bow. They broke contact on good terms. He to set and bait a double trap, she to consider a request from Empire State University, whose scientists claimed to have learnt something vital about the aliens. Something which could only be revealed to Murasaki, herself.
Southern California, at a badly cracked pier just south and west of Los Angeles-
Chris Springfield proved simple to find but hard to get to, mostly because the young man was right where he said he'd be; dirty, disheveled and clearly spooked by crowds of injured people and rushing emergency crews. A small cruise ship had driven itself into the concrete pier a few hours earlier, causing fresh waves of confusion, smoke, noise and chaos.
Virgil pulled up as close as he could to the massive Pacific Pointe Pier, unlocking the brown Oldsmobile's doors with a brusque flick. Alan's friend didn't look so good, and he ducked into the passenger seat beside Alan, Gordon and TinTin almost before they had time to slide over. Good thing, too, for a harried patrolman was signaling them urgently to move along.
"Thanks for picking me up, Mr. Tracy," Chris mumbled, making Virgil look around for his father, Jeff.
"Mr. Tracy…? Oh. You mean me."
He shook his head, tired almost beyond coherent thought. "Call me Virgil or Virge, Chris. I haven't been around long enough to earn 'mister'." Then, shifting his glance from Springfield to the window and rearview mirror, he said,
"Looks like a real mess out there. We'd better hurry back to… um… to our ride. Al, think you could drive this heap as far as the Springfield place? I need to close my eyes for awhile, if I'm going to be any good to anyone. Brains'll meet us outside of town, in the desert."
Woo-hoo! Could he drive? Like… seriously?
Alan just about kicked through the passenger door in his haste to change places with Virgil.
"No prob, big guy!" he told his exhausted brother. "You rest easy. Alan's got it all in hand!"
Morning lasts all week on the slow-spinning Moon. Much less than that on small, barely-terraformed Mars. Days and nights were not much different in length than those of the Earth, but twilight was very much a blink-and-you'll-miss-it proposition. Darkness ended abruptly, with wan peach daylight creeping into their emergency pod and winds rising outside almost before the stranded astronauts had time to yawn.
John* submitted to his examination at last, allowing the doctor to remove his hardsuit's chest and shoulder armor and peel back the tight liner long enough for a look at his wound. She didn't find much, but cleaned and bandaged the area, anyhow, for form's sake.
She'd have argued with Pete's recon plan, had there been another choice. In Linda's view, an injured man had no business on a scouting mission. But with only five people, no one had time to lie around convalescing. In fact, they scarcely had time to breathe.
Kyril, Rachael and John ate standing up, and were outside just as soon as there was light enough to work. The plan called for construction of an overland vehicle from scavenged parts, something covered by the checklist in subsection 12 of part 28-B. Ran on for 17 pages, it did, with diagrams, footnotes and technical specs.
But that wasn't the problem. Truth was, three willing laborers with ultra-sharp minds could work only so fast with one set of tools. Linda envied them, anyhow, stuck as she was babysitting her least favorite patient, Commander McCord. Pete was a wretched subject at the best of times. Now he was irritable and in pain; demanding frequent updates from the construction crew, repeatedly ordering her to try contacting the base and then rescinding the command, just in case anyone hostile was listening.
In short, he wanted to do everything himself and do it now, hating to sit propped up at a porthole, watching Tracy, Neer and Pavlychenko build the salvage-rover.
"Pete!" Dr. Bennett snapped, when he nearly fell over while mimicking the wrench-handling motions being applied outside by John. "You trained all three of them. Have a little faith."
McCord snorted, but lowered the phantom wrench.
"Got all the faith I need," he growled, craning his neck for a better view. "I'm an ordained minister of the Church of Universal Light, internet branch… but the Flying Dutchman, out there, is going to need a lot more than prayer. Its going to need a goddam miracle."
Linda sighed, smoothing her brown ponytail and counting backward from one-hundred like a patient going under anesthesia. To McCord's stubborn, bandaged profile she said,
"Pete, it'll work. People sit up all night imagining scenarios and planning out responses, and every last one of those is…"
"…In the damn checklist, I know," he finished up for her. "Just the same, I'll keep an eye on the situation, because one's all I've got."
She'd have thrown something at him for the dumb joke, but their situation was bad enough already. And Linda, too, was struggling for hope.
Mars, in a cold, high-walled canyon at the western rim of the Argyre Basin-
John* was the first to notice, because he saw in several more wavelengths than a regular human. Focusing past the barely-assembled dinosaur skeleton of their rover, he glanced eastward. There he saw towering walls of dark stone, the wide canyon mouth and rocky plain, capped by an untroubled sky. Wait… untroubled? As in… no simmering toxic glare? Weird. A mumbled query to his heads-up display confirmed what he'd seen, but did not explain it. For that, he needed a closer look.
"John, are you all right?" Rachael asked him, setting down her magnetic spanner. The pilot's transmitted voice was weary and colorless, but it succeeded in jarring Tracy's copy from his momentary trance.
"What…? Yeah. I'm fine, Rachael. The vehicle guidance system will be programmed and ready to go on schedule. I'm just…"
His booted feet crunched through the top rusty layer of dust and sand, leaving scuffs of grey wherever he stood.
"I couldn't help noticing that the radiation readings from base seem to be way down." Gone, in fact. "Would you confirm that for me?" He urged, tapping at the side of his helmet, "might be just that I've fried the instruments, somehow."
Rachael Neer turned awkwardly in her bulky orange survival suit. Behind her, Kyril Pavlychenko did the same thing. Then…
"That's impossible," she whispered, after scanning the swathe of eastern horizon visible through Apache Cut. "Such vast amounts of energy do not simply dissipate overnight, even with high winds and dust storms."
"Yet, there is nothing," Kyril put in worriedly. "No cloud. No radiation! Is possible, now, to make contact with base? As Gospodin Piotr would say, quietly?"
John* had been working with two hands, both sides of his brain and an intuitive feel for technology, rushing to program their salvaged rover. He'd been partway through installing a 3-D global terrain map when the realization hit him that their unwanted nuclear sunrise had vanished. Good news?
"I don't know about contact," he answered Kyril, "but I could try accessing one of the base surveillance cameras for a fast look around."
Rachael nodded behind her helmet, hazel eyes all at once guarded and hopeful.
"Good thinking, John. It does seem best to be cautious. And to inform the commander of our finding. He will wish to be told."
"Yeah. Go ahead and let him know. I'll see what I can rig up out here with the rover's comm system, in the meantime. Maybe there's a relay satellite online, or something."
She nodded once more, then turned and lumbered back to their cylindrical emergency pod, leaving a trail of grey footprints in the red dust of Mars. Wasting no time, Kyril got right back to cold-welding a hull segment, while Tracy opened a new window on the vehicle's comm screen. Ill-assorted parts were scattered everywhere. The motor and drive shaft lay several meters up-canyon, having yet to be even attached. The comm unit and guidance controls were strewn about their half-assembled rover, connected by long ropes of cable, copiously wrapped duct tape and a reconfigured router.
John* resumed typing at the keyboard, which lay balanced on a large, flat rock (henceforth christened "Desktop"). He coded fluidly, like a being who had seen script alter reality, who'd once hyperlinked space with a thought.
In essence, the Mysterons' presence here was much like that of an invasive computer virus; one he could conceivably work around, and maybe eliminate. He couldn't work blind, though, and didn't have to. Endurance Base was ringed with perimeter surveillance cameras. Assuming that radiation levels were low enough, and that any of the remote cams remained operational, he ought to be able to access one, and turn its gaze inward, getting a look at what remained of their home.
First came his transmitted query, addressed in such a way as to access the nearest available satellite. The response followed surprisingly quickly, at better-than-normal strength (and that in itself was cause for alarm). Contact came from Mars Polar Orbiter and remote cameras 32- 40. John* selected what he figured to be the most blast-sheltered, almost forgetting to hit keys in his worry-gnawed haste.
Commander McCord and Dr. Bennett had ventured forth in Rachael's wake by the time the first pictures came up. They were with John* when the rover's detached comm screen displayed a perfectly whole, eerily motionless base; domes intact, satellite dishes in good shape, lights burning. Unharmed… or else reconstructed, with here and there a different angle or green-glowing flicker of mist.
Frowning, John* switched cameras, mentally toting up changes whilst Pete McCord called them aloud.
"Steeper pitch to the ring wall… completed north dome… what looks like some sort of tube system and launch facility… all encased in an unknown green energy field."
"Are there any people?" Linda interrupted him, craning to see past John's armored shoulder. "Is anyone left alive?"
"I don't know," their tech rep admitted, cutting off a sudden burst of weird feedback. "Maybe… but if so, they're not walking around on the surface. And the kind of thermal scan necessary to image underground life forms through an energy field involves some pretty serious reconfigs."
"Is all this snooping around traceable?" McCord demanded; still bandaged, but with a new faceplate and neck-ring, at least.
John* almost laughed.
"Pete, unless they're stupid or hibernating, the aliens are aware that I've tampered with their cameras. Yeah. Judging by the feedback a second ago, they know we're here."
"Then we can't stay," McCord decided. He pondered for a moment, fighting pain and pain-killers, alike. "Isn't there an old supply cylinder out beyond the Mississippi Delta formation?"
It was stocky Kyril who responded first, taking a short break from speed-riveting the rover's mesh tires to say,
"Da. Dropped in first wave of exploration, by Ares Two. Assigned in next mission as possible wave-off landing site, but never needed."
Pete grunted morosely, ashamed that his memory had to be prompted that way. While the wind mewled around them, toying with columns of ochre dust, he said,
"Roger that. So there's shelter and a supply cache 30 clicks south of here. All we've got to do is get there ahead of the posse. Tracy, keep watching the base. Look for signs of activity, but stay quiet. We don't need a reversed signal capturing our machines and comm, again. If they can destroy and rebuild an entire colony in one night, they're capable of pretty near anything."
"Understood, Pete. I'll stand watch and set up an alert system to block alien signals."
The injured commander smiled at him, briefly, wincing when the expression stretched his cauterized muscles and nerve tissue. Then, turning to Neer and Pavlychenko, he said,
"I want you two to get to work like it's 4 AM Christmas Eve and you've still got a mountain of 'some assembly required' bikes to put together. We need transportation, now."
The pair nodded stoutly.
"Yes, sir. Understood, commander."
To Linda Bennett, he said,
"Doctor, I'm going to need a clear head and boosted energy levels. Put together whatever brew's going to do the trick, but keep me functioning."
Linda bit her lip. She'd never liked Pete. He was too rude, too coarse and profane for her more sophisticated nature. She did grudgingly admire his strength, however.
"I'll get right on that, commander. In the meantime, you need to come back inside and lie down."
McCord folded both arms across his armored chest with the brief, dry clatter of plastic and metal.
"That's affirm, doctor. Just as soon as everyone else does. Meanwhile, there's work to be done and plans to make. Our 'mercy mission' to the base just got a whole lot more complicated, in case you've missed any recent developments."
Linda bristled, but...
"Don't worry, doctor," Tracy cut in, reassuringly. "If he starts to fall, I'll catch him myself, and then apply Standard Medical Lecture 24-B; the one where you warn me that I'm pushing myself too hard, not getting enough rest, etc."
The real John had memorized each of her rote bedside responses, after so many visits to the base clinic. His copy knew them, too.
Linda shook her head, unsure whether she wanted to punch the young man, or kiss him.
"Smart-aleck," she snapped, turning back to the emergency pod. "If he hits the ground, you owe me dinner."
"Deal," John* replied. "And if he stays upright, you're buying."
…Assuming, of course, that he lived to collect on his bet. Later, once Dr. Bennett had returned to their survival pod, the worried technician approached Commander McCord, who was dispensing tools and advice to Kyril and Rachael.
"Pete… got a minute?"
McCord glanced up through his faceplate at pale-haired, blue-eyed John Tracy*.
"Yeah," he said. "Fire away, but keep it basic. We're in a hurry."
John* drew him aside, switching to a private comm frequency and turning slightly away from the other astronauts in the process. Once he'd eliminated all possibility of being overheard, Tracy's copy said,
"I've received word from Houston again, Pete. It's, uh… looking pretty grim. They're still trying to schedule a rescue mission, but Saul won't give me a definite timeframe. I'm guessing WorldGov's not going to play ball."
"There's a shock," Pete muttered. "Guess we should've offered to wash their cars and pick up the dry cleaning… or at least baked them cookies. Any more good news?"
"No. Just an idea. Neer and Pavlychenko are going to be done with the rover soon, but you'll need cover and distraction if you're going to reach that supply cache at Mississippi Delta, then go on to the…"
"Uh-uh," McCord interrupted. "There's no 'you'. There's we. We need cover, and we're shifting our base of operations to a safer location. End of argument."
"Hear me out, Pete," John* said to him, raising both hands in a hasty placating gesture. "You know I'm not, um…not the original Tracy. Because of that, there are things I can do (or could, before) that might prove useful. For instance, in that other place, I could visualize space and time as a set of field equations, and hyperlink any two spots; folding reality and stepping across, sort of. Granted, that was from above… from outside… but it might work here, too. I could try, anyhow, with a couple of transmitters along to plant as decoys. You know… to draw fire and attention away from our actual movements."
"I'm positive I said something about keeping it basic," Pete muttered. "Look, Tracy… if it comes down to decoys, I'll stand here alone waving semaphore signals with my tee-shirt and jockeys. That'll get attention. Otherwise, we stick to the plan. I'll keep your space-folding talents in mind, though, in case we end up with no other choice but insanity."
He was clearly uncomfortable being reminded of "Tracy's" actual origin. The real thing, after all, had been his good friend and protégé. But John-Prime was perfectly safe. Five would never allow him to come to harm. Not for anything. Only the copy was in danger. Only the copy was one-hundred percent disposable, fighting for life with all that he had.
Some hours later... beneath the twin, streaking lights of Phobos and Deimos... five battered astronauts packed what they could and set forth.
Hickam AFB, Hawaii, just before molten-gold sunset-
Their plans had altered, as well, because Scott simply couldn't get leave. It happened rather quickly, all the same. They met and were married in a breathless, embarrassed, desirous rush; like a couple of wild teenagers. Pulling celebrity, Cindy had managed to bully her way onto the last commercial passenger flight to Hawaii, delaying her return to work for something much more important.
She showed up at the 15th Airlift Wing Chapel, wearing a white silk dress produced by the plane's conspiratorial flight attendants, carrying flowers she'd plucked on the way. Orange and yellow hibiscus, pale jessamine and dark, twining ivy.
Scott Tracy was in uniform, his blue eyes bright and expectant… maybe a little shy. He'd brought the ring, which clearly hadn't come from any dollar-store gumball machine. The ring was antique, with a heart-shaped, champagne diamond and filigree work; something he'd found at a crazy old jewelry shop, off base.
"Laugh and I'll kill you," she growled, blushing at her dress's extravagantly fringed hem and virginal hue.
"You look beautiful," he told the red-faced reporter, kissing her forehead, mouth and both cheekbones. "You look exactly like Mrs. Cindy Taylor-Tracy."
A Reverend John Carter performed the ceremony. He was Methodist, though it didn't much matter. Beaming, the man spoke traditional words at his chapel's small altar, where a handful of witnesses looked on as Scott and Cindy faced each other, held hands and whispered their replies.
"I do," Scott promised huskily, "for as long as you'll have me."
…And then he kissed the dark-haired bride, who'd never imagined that her Hawaiian honeymoon would be quite so short. Or intense. Scott Tracy was a man with an awful lot of pent-up affection. Women were a mystery to him, but he was a very fast learner with a hotel key and a four-hour pass. Yes, they'd had sex before; the no-strings attached, sardonically removed sort. But this time was different. This time the gesture was meant to deepen and last. Maybe forever.
They whispered and kissed and braided themselves together; tangled in sheets and the tropical night. But, too soon for either of them, Scott's time was up. At the sound of his watch alarm he embraced his new wife, turning the ring around her finger three times for good luck.
"Be safe," he told her, "and stay out of combat zones."
Cindy managed a smile. Almost.
"I'd say 'you too', except that the Air Force would probably fire you. Just… don't do anything I wouldn't do."
Scott grinned, alternately pulling on his flight suit and tossing Cindy's clothes at her.
"Right," he said. "I'll be calling for instructions in mid-dogfight, so keep the cell phone handy."
She started to laugh, nearly cried, instead, and then forced it all somehow inside. Kissing her new husband, Cindy Taylor-Tracy said,
"I mean it, Hollywood. Stay safe, because if you die, I'll become a side-show medium, just so I can keep raising your ghost and kicking its sorry ass."
Then she really did cry, mumbling "I love you" between lingering kisses and back pats. He pressed her against him, swaying gently back and forth, memorizing each sound and sensation.
"It's fine, hon. Everything's going to be okay. We'll be back together for a real honeymoon in no time at all, I promise."
"Sure," she sniffled, wanting very much to believe. "Only next time, I want beach-overlook and breakfast in bed… after week-long, marathon sex."
Whew. Tall order. He was going to have to do pushups and take vitamins for sure, Scott figured. That, and stay alive.
"I love you, Mrs. Tracy," he told the reporter. "And I will be back."
Then, too soon, it was time for him to go.
Sky Base, Spectrum's sleek, floating nerve center-
Thanks to a Spectrum programming team (led by a scruffy kid named Fielding) Sky Base was largely invisible to radar. Those who needed to find it, could. The rest were simply ordered clear of the area, a supposed lunar-catapult receiving station in the Rocky Mountains.
Not that Captain Metcalfe worried much about Sky Base security. With its squadron of Angels (including Simone) the air base was quite well defended. Majestically beautiful, too, if you were into that sort of thing.
Conrad… Captain Lefkon… piloted their shuttle from the L.A. access point to Sky Base, banking through moonlit clouds and cold starlight to a slim magnetic landing bay, one of hundreds. Lights twinkled and tiny silhouettes moved past the glowing portholes in that vast cliff of metal and plastic. Five thousand people scurried about inside, each with their own load of jealousy, worries and hope. Correction, Metcalfe reminded himself. Five-thousand two.
Beside him, Conrad manipulated the shuttle controls like a woman's emotions, providing a swift, thrilling ride and sudden let down. (His oft-boasted specialty.) They flashed from velvet darkness toward the force-shielded landing bay, following its VOR signal and blinking green runway lights. Magnetic grabbers seized the hurtling shuttle a few meters into the bay, bringing the noisy little craft to a safe, coasting halt, and setting her gently down.
Paul unstrapped and stood up, though he couldn't yet emerge from the cockpit. The shuttle had to be purged, first, its hull blasted with billowing steam and hard radiation. (You nailed spy cameras, as well as cloud-top bacteria, that way.)
"Let's go," Conrad eventually ordered, once the purge was complete and his computerized flight log sent in. "Colonel White wants to see me, at once. There's no time for your wool-gathering."
Paul nodded, but said nothing. Some egos were simply too smooth and self-sustaining to dent. He followed Captain Lefkon out of the shuttle and down a pneumatically raised boarding ramp. A short walk brought them to a set of high-tech security doors, where they submitted to a back-scatter radar scan and thermal bio-print. Then, cleared to proceed, the two men left shuttle and landing bay behind, stepping into the swirling, controlled chaos of a Spectrum facility. There were people-movers in plenty, of course, but walking was actually faster, if you knew the layout of Sky Base. Conrad and Paul did know, and they chose their own path through the giant, rumbling air base.
Through their ID chips and cranial implants, meanwhile, the agents began receiving the latest news and mission updates. A lot had been happening on Mars, it seemed; most of it bad. Mysteron bad.
Metcalfe wasn't sure what a couple of politely unfriendly field agents were expected to do about this, but supposed he was sure to find out soon enough…
"Conrad! Paul! Wait! Slow down!"
Confused at hearing his Christian name called aloud in the midst of a busy corridor (in uniform, he was generally referred to as Captain Scarlet), Metcalfe pivoted. Lefkon was deliberately slower to turn, not wishing to seem overly eager to greet his fiancée, for of course, the voice belonged to Simone Giradoux.
She was slightly out of breath and gut-punch lovely, and she blew past Paul with a swift smile to hurl herself at Conrad. Naturally, the bastard looked across the top of her blonde head and smiled at Metcalfe. He knew how the younger man felt; had once heard Paul's nervous attempt to ask Simone out. He'd gotten there, first, though. And that was all that mattered.
Metcalfe affected not to care, picking lint off his black uniform, while the woman he loved kissed a smirking, poisonous reptile. Finally, she broke away, flushed and twinkling.
"Conrad, I am so glad to have caught you before the mission. And dear Paul, too!"
He got a hug, at least. Bitterly painful, but something. That sleek grey flight suit hugged curves that belonged in the center of a men's magazine. French-braided blonde hair and big blue eyes, along with that peek-a-boo accent finished pole-axing his brain and hormones. As usual, it was all Paul could do to nod and say,
"Hi, there. Nice… afternoon. Evening." Whatever! Shut up.
Simone laughed, but not derisively.
"Paul, we must work on your social skills, if you are to have any chance at all with Rhapsody Angel." (Her friend, Dianne.)
"Not now, Simone," Conrad ordered calmly. "The colonel's waiting, and I haven't time to chat. I'll call you later."
"Oh," she faltered. "Of course. How thoughtless of me to distract you at a time like this."
Having put Simone firmly back in her place, Captain Lefkon reached out and swatted her lush posterior, saying,
"See you later, beautiful."
Then he turned and strode away through the crowd, leaving Paul to smile apologetically at the crestfallen girl of his dreams.
"I'll talk to you soon," he mumbled, wishing for the courage to say more. "And Rhapsody! Rhapsody, too."
Simone Giradoux… Destiny Angel… smiled and dimpled at him. She might have spoken, but Captain Lefkon shouted,
"METCALFE!" before a single word escaped. Twin, exasperated eye-rolls followed; then stifled laughter on Simone's part, and a quick grin from Paul.
"We'll talk," he vowed, squeezing her shoulder. "You can give me the 411 on Dianne, and I'll tell you everything there is to know about my pathetic dog, Max. Meanwhile, duty calls."
His last mortal glimpse of Simone was a long, over-the-shoulder glance, while she first waved, then threw him a crisp salute. Paul clung to that image, afterward. In a way, it saved him.
Sky Base, in Meeting Room 3-
Actually a giant airship, diamagnetically levitated above the mountains, Sky Base hummed and it vibrated. Always, no matter how empty the room, or how deep within, there was that comfortable, subliminal rumbling. You got used to it. Came to expect it, even.
Meeting Room 3 was at the vessel's broad prow, one of several which overlooked the sky and landscape beyond. An oval table of brightly polished steel stood at the chamber's center, surrounded by comfortable, swiveling chairs, while any of the white bulkheads (or the big window, itself) could be programmed to transmit images and data.
Rather a grand setting for the meeting of White, Black and Scarlet, but the colonel lost no opportunity to show off his beautiful ship. When Paul Metcalfe and Conrad Lefkon arrived at the meeting room, he waved them inside, indicating seats at the table. Once the two men had saluted and settled themselves, electronic mission dossiers were projected in midair before them, and Colonel White began to speak.
"Gentlemen, I welcome you on behalf of the Spectrum Admiralty and WorldGov, itself. The Vice President has approved a mission to Endurance Base, on Mars, and you have been selected to perform it."
Here the colonel paused to examine his small audience. Both men seemed confident, alert and attentive. Only one of them spoke, however. Said Captain Black, in his over-loud voice,
"I take it that my mission is public, sir? The Angel pilots seem to know all about it, anyway."
Beside him, Metcalfe tensed. Why the hell would Conrad drag Simone's squadron into this? Was he trying to destroy their careers? But the grey-haired colonel did not seem upset.
"Indeed, yes," he replied, smiling briefly. "The mission is to be widely publicised as a rescue attempt, in hopes of drawing a Mysteron attack. Now, if you'll thumbprint and then scroll down in your dossiers to page 2, I shall begin 'filling you in', as it were."
Paul kept his eyes on the holographic square of data which hovered, motionless before him. Otherwise, he'd have punched Conrad's smug, haughty face to a pulp. It took real effort to keep his emotions under control, but the mission, as always, came first.
There was a tiny square of blue light in the lower right corner of this virtual screen. Paul held one hand up so that his right thumb was within scanning distance of the little blue panel. Energy crackled from the screen to his outstretched digit, scanning not just the ridges and swirls of his flesh, but Metcalfe's DNA. After a moment, with a bright chime, the screen recognized him, and the mission dossier unlocked itself.
Colonel White allowed the men a few minutes to scroll through, pinch, drag and read. He had his own screen, accessible at a word, which followed him from bulkhead to window and back again, like a ghostly shadow. No need to consult it, however; he already knew what he needed to.
When the jagged Rocky Mountains below began to flush pink with gathering sunrise, he turned to say,
"Gotten the gist of the matter, I trust, gentlemen?"
"Yes, sir," Lefkon replied, frowning at his superior. "And if I understand my orders correctly, this is mostly a high-risk diversionary tactic, meant to test out that NASA defense code and buy time for an Earth-wide military scale up. That being the case, what am I expected to accomplish on Mars, if I manage to get there?"
Colonel White rocked back on his heels, harrumphing importantly.
"A fair enough question," he admitted, clasping both hands behind his back. "I shall instruct you as far as I'm able, but I believe that a certain amount of, er…'independent thinking'… is likely to be called for, in this circumstance. Why you were chosen in the first place, as you might say."
Standing before the big window with a dawn-struck mountain range casting long violet shadows across the landscape below, White advised them as well as he could. The Mysteron threat was growing more complex and insidious by the moment, it seemed, with both machines and dead humans falling victim to alien "possession".
"No animals, though," the colonel informed them. "The poor, dumb brutes appear quite immune, for some reason, as do those rustic folk surrounded by them. NASA's antiviral ploy may provide a bit of protection for machines and computers, but there is only one way to be certain, and that is to put their code to an actual field test; which is, of course, the true purpose of this highly publicised mission. Granted, an escort of sorts will shadow your flight, in the event that intervention becomes necessary, but… should you reach Endurance Base successfully, your orders are to image the colony, make contact with any survivors there, and bring them safely home."
He hesitated momentarily, once more smoothing his newly-grown moustache.
"Recent intelligence indicates that the colony… which had been destroyed by some sort of blast… has been reconstructed overnight, evidently by the Mysterons, themselves."
Paul irritated Conrad, then, by butting in to ask,
"But will there be anyone left to save at the base, sir? According to my dossier, all of the signals received by Johnson Space Center appear to originate at the western edge of Argyre Basin. Why not image the site from low orbit and then head for…"
"You are to proceed directly to Endurance Base, Captain Scarlet," the colonel interrupted firmly. "Information is more critical, at this juncture, than a few stranded personnel. While I certainly empathise with any remote survivors, we must learn the efficacy of this NASA code, and how in God's holy name that colony could be rebuilt so speedily. Am I understood?"
Paul's heart shrank within him, but he nodded without further hesitation, saying,
"Yes, sir. Perfectly."
"Right, then. The vice president has authorized use of the X-90 for this mission, and has given Spectrum the go-ahead to launch from Earth orbit. Clearly, gentlemen, speed is of the essence."
More details followed, but Metcalfe allowed Colonel White and Lefkon to do all of the talking, disturbed by the notion of a rescue mission that wasn't. Still, a mere cog has no say at all in the machine's direction, and no more did Captain Scarlet. All he could do was obey.
Earlier. Los Angeles, en route to the opulent Springfield estate-
Not cool, Alan decided. Way not cool. Okay, he was back in California, driving and junk, but the car was like a total embarrassment and traffic sucked. He hated being stuck (with about ten million other honking, rampaging drivers) on those primitive, ground-level public roads. Especially when just above them soared the pylon-mounted expressway.
Up there, traffic was probably smooth and rich as chocolate milk. Alan would have loved to hop right on, but the access ramps were robo-gated; you had to have a dang RFID sticker to get past, which the brown bomber, here, didn't. Like, while he was at it, why couldn't Virgil have bought a cool car? One he didn't have to slouch in his seat and flop the hair over his face to drive? One with air-conditioning, maybe?
So, yeah; there he was… riding the brake and the gas pedal at the same time, with one arm out the window, pounding on a mud-brown side panel like beating the stupid dork-mobile was going to make it move faster. Virgil was asleep in the back, snoring almost loud enough to shake the suspension. Then Gordon got a phone call summoning him back to the Mako. He didn't say a word about his concussion, and Alan didn't, either (because his brother was going to get better, okay?).
According to the radio, everybody who'd ever worn so much as a band uniform was being recalled.
"You okay?" Alan asked his brother, over the noise of engines, radios and drivers, Virgil's snoring and Fermat's worried phone messages.
Gordon turned his head very carefully. He'd always had a slightly lop-sided, goofy looking smile, and seemed way more 'boy scout-athlete' than dashing sailor-dude, even now.
"Never better," he insisted, adding, "Fortunately just my head. Might have got a bit dodgy, had I broken an arm or leg."
Alan grinned at him.
"That's for sure! It's not like you ever use the dang thing."
"Oh… now an' again… chiefly when orderin' drinks and impressin' the lasses. Flyin', I could probably manage, dead."
Gordon was obviously feeling better, quite unaware of the editing that had taken place in his head, thanks to TinTin. But the girl herself was too preoccupied to follow her friends' conversation. Christian Springfield held all of her attention, now, for there was something most odd about his mind. Something lost, confused and frightened. Unlike Gordon's, Christian's strength and confidence had not returned. Instead, he seemed terribly nervous.
"Monsieur Springfield," she ventured, placing an elegant pale hand on his arm, "do you not desire to call your honored parents? They are no doubt beside themselves with grief and concern over your absence."
Chris shot her a swift, furtive glance from those darting green eyes. Then, he said,
"No, thanks. I'm supposed to… That is, my dad's busy. I just need a ride, all right?"
Springfield twitched away from her hand as he spoke, but could not so easily escape her quiet, steady attention. TinTin, too, had heard the vice president's speech. She was just about to probe further, and Alan just slamming the accelerator through the floorboard to peel around a stalled dump truck, when something lit the darkening skies ahead like a searing green lightning bolt.
"Uh-oh," Alan whispered.
Just before leaving, there'd been a bit of a ceremony. Nothing much; Commander McCord spoke a few quiet words at the spot where Dan Lasher lay buried, recalling what he knew of the man, his work and his life. Then, once they'd placed stones in the dust, in the shape of a cross, they climbed into their skeletal rover and headed south.
Kyril Pavlychenko drove, skirting the high cliffs toward Mississippi Delta, and doing his best to avoid raising a dust trail. Fortunately, there was quite a bit of wind. John* worked at his keyboard, meanwhile, making improvements to that all-important code. The aliens had to be kept out of their machinery… the survival suits and rover… or the last few survivors were doomed. With McCord's permission he'd left a decoy transmitter back at the emergency pod, to buy them all a little time.
Linda tried not to fret, watching the pinkish-tan horizon and wondering about her missing friends. Kim Cho, Roger Thorpe and the others… What had become of them? She felt like crying, but was no more disposed to show weakness than Pete, who steadfastly refused to nap, or John, who would not take a break from his incessant coding. Of course, she couldn't know the pressure he was under; the twinges of probing hostility he was beginning to sense. Something out there was very interested, and quite nearby.
John* ignored the juddering, rattling drive and hissing winds, scarcely noticing when small pebbles bounced up from below the rover's half-covered chassis to dent his black-and-yellow hardsuit; merely grunting when Rachael replaced his suit's spent water pack with a fresh one.
They'd been driving about an hour when it happened. Kyril rounded a bend in the sinuous cliff side, grinding along the rocky shore of a long-vanished sea. He pulled their rover out of a sharp, sand-scattering turn and directly into the path of an oncoming green fireball. Perfectly silent, it was, like eerie ball lightning. Green as a cursed jewel, and moving fast.
"Now, what the hell?" Pete muttered. "Tracy?"
"Kyril, cut off the motor," their tech-rep ordered. "Pull the battery packs out and throw them away. Hurry!"
"What about the suits?" Dr. Bennett urged, as Kyril killed the motor and began heaving batteries. "Do we need to…?"
"It's under control, Doctor," John* told her, tapping in a last few commands and then hitting send. "But we have to get out of the rover. Stay calm. They can't seize a living person." (He hoped.)
John's improved anti-virus was broadcast from the rover's small computer to their survival suits, just as the five astronauts scrambled free of their vehicle.
"Is that one of them?" Pete demanded, turning to face the weirdly silent green meteor. "Is that what they look like?"
"On this level, yeah. That's what they look like."
John* stepped to his side, holding the now-detached keyboard. Kyril had taken up the flare gun, while Linda and Rachael held jury-rigged electromagnetic disruptors (the things were designed to send forth a scrambling pulse, but no one was sure how much damage they'd do, if any).
That poison-green light closed on them rapidly, growing to swallow the sky and sandy red ground. Growing to blot out the world. Immediately, John's helmet display went dead, overloaded with hissing, sputtering static. Something which looked like a bitmap formed where the heads-up display normally glimmered. Or it tried to, anyhow, only to be repeatedly doused by the transmitted anti-virus.
"Just be still," he called aloud, hoping the others could hear him. "They can't take over a living person, and the suits are protected. Wait it out."
…But, of course, their air and power supplies were not endless, and everyone knew it. Pete was the first to act, doing something with his helmet radio that caused horrid, head-splitting feedback. Kyril then fired the flare gun, while both females triggered and threw their E-M disruptors. John dove forward and scooped up one of the rover's dense battery packs, swiftly connecting it to his hardsuit's power cord. Then he boosted and broadcast that antiviral program at every frequency his helmet possessed.
Attacks came elsewhere, as well; striking Jeff Tracy's private jet, which was batted into the sea by an eerie green comet… the ferry that Cindy Taylor-Tracy had just bribed her way aboard… and the island, itself, where Brains' prototypes and Kyrano's appliances came to raging, vicious life. Nearer, still, Thunderbird's cargo of lashed and bolted rescue equipment switched suddenly on, each mechanism straining at its moorings like a frightened wild animal.
…But the biggest and most immediate threat occurred in California, on a packed side route of El Camino Real.
On the road, Los Angeles-
The noise ahead was as fearsome as that awful green lightning; a crunching, splintering, shrieking sound mixed with wild sirens and blaring car horns. Bathed in weird greenish light, a collection of roadside construction equipment sprang to life and began rumbling across the road, smashing cars and scattering pedestrians.
Eyes wide, Alan put the car in reverse, crashing into the radiator grill of the truck right behind them.
"Dang it!" he shouted. "Sorry, man! My bad!" Then, "Hang on, peoples, I'm turning around!"
He had to hurry, too, because something that looked like a giant green fireball was hopping from one vehicle to the next, lighting up interiors as if searching for someone. Too bad there was no way to back up or turn. The brown dork-mobile was stuck like a pineapple chunk in raspberry Jell-o. On a hunch, as that spectral flame drew nearer, and terrified people began deserting their malfunctioning cars, Alan killed his engine and jerked the key from the ignition. Virgil was awake by now. He had to seize Springfield and haul him back into the car because Chris was halfway out the window, shouting,
"Here! Over here!"
…like he wanted to get spotted and fried. Not usually a violent man, Virgil Tracy yanked Springfield inside and pinned him to the seat, while fleeing people literally stampeded around and over their massive old junker. Shoes thumped against metal, rocking the car. The windshield cracked. Panicked faces appeared and then vanished away, swept off by a trampling mob. Alan couldn't have opened his door now if he'd wanted to.
But things weren't much better inside. Virgil had to release Christian Springfield, who'd begun to smolder and glow like a cigarette butt. As the others looked on, horrified, the young man was riven; flying apart into billions of glimmering sparks. The seat's shabby velour faded a bit, marking his outline, but no one had time to react, for that crackling green light was now directly overhead.
Their car rattled and bounced with shocks-straining violence, worse than what they'd endured during the stampede, while the air all around turned a vile, acid green. Instinctively, they reached for one another; clasping hands and closing eyes through the worst. TinTin cried out, and maybe Fermat did, too, but everyone pretended not to notice.
Then, just when things had reached an end-of-the-world crescendo, that corrosive, broiling glare moved on. What they saw in its aftermath beggared description.
Something worked. Whether it was feedback, flare, E-M pulse, code or all four combined, the alien corpse-light first splintered, and then erupted.
John* acted on stress-heightened impulse. Seizing just a fraction of that rapidly dissipating power, he chose a particular set of spacetime coordinates and then pulled himself and his comrades across. One second, they were standing on a dead world, amid rusty sand dunes and weathered rock. Heartbeats later, they were transported to the shore of a vast, shallow sea; breaking and spuming in great, rolling waves, almost to the algae-smeared stones at their feet. A mighty cliff towered behind them, its banded grey rock covered with tiny plants and lacy rivulets. The sky overhead was a vivid, sparkling lavender; fleecy with scuttling clouds. The sun appeared smaller, though, set at a slightly different angle from that of NASA's recruitment video. Even so, no one doubted where they were. Mars, a billion years earlier.
"Oh my God…" Somebody whispered; Linda Bennett, taking a rubbery few steps toward that beautiful, thundering water. "How…?"
John* was too busy running an atmosphere check to reply. Oxygen, 12.2%... Nitrogen, 73%... Carbon Dioxide, 13%... Methane and trace gases, 1.811%... Air pressure, .962 atmospheres. Seemed safe enough, so he decided to take another long chance. Unlocking and removing his helmet, John Tracy's perfected copy became the first man to breathe the unfiltered air of ancient Mars, and to feel its dank breezes on his face.
"Smells weird," he told the waiting others, after a few careful breaths. It did, too; like a brackish salad bar left in the sun with no refrigeration. The same smell that had followed them inside after every trip to the surface, only stronger.
A few moments later, the rest followed his example, doffing their helmets and inhaling as cautiously as a quartet of first-time smokers. But caution soon turned into open wonder. Maybe they should have been frightened, but the sheer beauty of the place… no longer a shriveled, zombie planet… made them gasp aloud. Kyril and Rachael even went so far as to strip their gloves and touch the water of a thing-laden tide pool. Not McCord, though. He continued staring fixedly at his disobedient tech-rep.
"That was one hell of a blast, wasn't it, Tracy? Any idea how it managed to fling us through time, instead of just killing us all?"
"Um… not… really sure, Pete. I'll have to work the figures on that, and get right back to you. But, uh… I don't think the aliens could reach us, here, even if they knew where to look."
Dr. Bennett had taken a few minutes to bio-scan their surroundings, using equipment she yanked from their partly submerged rover.
"On the other hand," she cut in, "there's also nothing to eat, unless you know any good recipes for salted algal mats and roast lichen."
"Damn!" Pete exclaimed, slapping the un-bandaged half of his forehead. "That's what I left back at my quarters! Granny's old moss cookbook." Then, "Hey!" (Because Kyril and Rachael had wandered down to the waves' scalloped, shifting border.) "You kids stay out of the water! You just ate!"
John* had turned a complete circle by now, looking around himself. As Neer and Pavlychenko jogged up, he said,
"There's no chance of rescue, here, either, considering that our nearest primate neighbors are just now figuring how to launch sticks and fling excrement, much less rockets."
Commander McCord snorted, imagining a stone-age mission control center, complete with Fred Flintstone capcom. Then, he said,
"Okay… however it happened, we've got some breathing space… air, water and all-you-can-eat seaweed. Our next move is to select a safe, sheltered camp site, set a watch schedule, and figure out how to get back."
McCord lingered a moment, though, because (like John and the rest) he'd always had a thing for the sea; its pound and surge and music.
"Sure cleans up nice," Pete remarked of this living, life-giving world. Then he shook off the gentle mood, snapping, "Time to move out. Tracy, Pavlychenko! Push that rover out of the damn puddle, hook her batteries back up, and let's go."
John* hopped to, thinking all the while that if he could bring them all here… What was to stop him from draining both batteries, writing a new, more powerful code, and then crossing back to the base? If he uploaded his anti-virus from within the aliens' own lair, maybe…
Within the alien Group Mind-
Trouble had arisen, complex in nature and multiple of source. First, the organics of Sol 4 had developed a means to block the Over-mind's control signal, preventing access to computer and mechanism, alike. Secondly, most of the Over-mind's replicated organics had proven fragile, their existence too brief to allow proper penetration of the local defense network. One after another, in their separate acts of betrayal, sabotage or bland reassurance, the replicants faltered and then disintegrated. (Dr. Bremmerman, Christian Springfield… even Cassie Peak, in the midst of a Spectrum "interview"… All would perish.)
Clearly, a stronger humanoid template was required, if they were to construct more durable replicants and proceed with the harvest of Sol 3 and 4. To this end, scout probes were released among the humans of both worlds. Most returned nothing significant, though several detected and marked fleeing members of the dangerous Tracy lineage.
But the true find came later, when a short-lived Sol 4 probe transmitted the bio-stats of a most peculiar specimen; a creature linked to vast reserves of extra-dimensional power and data. The briefly-glimpsed being seemed capable of rapid healing and was immune to physical deterioration, having preserved in its structure the base code for immortality. Human and a Tracy, yet not.
Studying the shreds of data transmitted by their vanquished probe, the Over-mind began to lay the framework for a new sort of replicant; visualizing an army of humanoid super-weapons that would lay rapid waste to Sol 3 and 4. All that the Over-mind required in order to set this plan in motion were test subjects. Which, amusingly enough, their foolish prey were about to provide.
Sol 3 (Earth)-
Some you win. But some slip through your straining and sweat-dampened fingers, lost forever to darkness.
Jeff Tracy clung to a bit of wreckage (bobbing amid towering, salt-bitter swells) for somewhat less than two days. When plucked from the water by the sailors of Stella Maris, his throat was raw and his eyes swollen just about shut. The big freighter was no more than a vast and welcome silhouette, looming out of the spangled sunset glare. Jeff was very glad to be rescued, to rasp, "I'm fine, Scott. Tell everyone… I'm fine. I made it," into the captain's phone, and then to collapse; safe and dry at last.
Elsewhere, Cindy Taylor-Tracy nearly went down with the ship. In the terrible aftermath of an alien attack, she'd disobeyed direct public safety commands. Worse, Cindy dodged rescue by several hovering WASP copters, all to keep narrating events aboard the ferry to her station in San Francisco. As harbor waters rose and shrieking people scrambled for boats and lift baskets, Cindy backpedaled on the slanting wet deck and kept on talking. Worried, yes, but insanely addicted to drama and coverage, nonetheless.
The vessel groaned aloud as it settled, taking water faster on one side than the other. Port or starboard, she was no expert… what mattered was the silent green bolt that had torn through the ferry's hull and into the vehicle deck, igniting gas tanks like bombs. Things were happening jerky-fast, giving the reporter less time to escape than she'd counted on. Never one to panic, Cindy ended up at the after-rail, with one arm crooked about a rusty metal ladder, shouting details into her all-weather microphone. She might have sunk with the ravaged ship, but a rescue swimmer on a long cable descended to whisk her to safety and arrest; the two of them spinning in the copter's down draft like spiderlings at the end of a web cord. Cindy's voice gave out, eventually, scraped raw by salt spray and dense smoke, but not before she'd narrated that crippled old ferry to its ocean floor grave. And not before questioning WorldGov's decision to withhold the NASA antivirus. As she quite rudely put the matter, whose side were they on?
In Thunderbird's hold, meanwhile, the clamor of raging machinery had risen to a violent crescendo. Bulldozers, backhoes and computerized drilling equipment pounded and clawed at the hull and big ramp-doors, rattling Brains in his cockpit.
The noise was deafening, and Hackenbacker in shock, for his wife was now dead; suddenly and inexplicably… gone. He'd gotten a call from Ed Morse, ESU's president. There had been scores of deaths and vanishings, many of them people he knew. Colleagues and friends and one utterly critical, irreplaceable wife. Hackenbacker's blue eye's watered and he swallowed repeatedly, feeling wild anguish battering at his insides like one of those terrible, hijacked machines.
'The boy,' he thought to himself, wondering how in Heaven's name he was going to tell Fermat. Wondering how they'd carry on, alone. He might have lost control, but there was an emergency to attend to. Emergencies everywhere. Fortunately, John had sent him a beta copy of the antiviral code, claiming that it would help to prevent alien takeover. Maybe WorldGov had questions, but Brains couldn't afford doubt, even though Myrna…
Hackenbacker swerved wildly away from that poisonous thought, which ended in a sharp drop and jagged emotional rocks. He applied the defence code, instead, uploading it to every machine and computer within reach of his hacking. Good timing, as it turned out, because…
Grandma Tracy, Kyrano and Lady Penelope had been forced to cooperate in their battle with a newly awakened and hostile "smart house". Together with Parker, a passel of servants and Penny's erstwhile portrait artist, they were able to escape the greenly-glowing mansion through a side door (once they'd prised their way past a set of heavy metal typhoon shutters and beaten off mobs of cleaning drones. Stout Elspeth proved a particularly able batsman, smashing dozens of scuttling robots into sparking heaps against floor, walls and ceiling.)
At any rate, they managed to escape the house, only to be stalked on the outside by Brains' lumbering, left-behind prototypes. Things straight out of a Transformers/ Hieronymus Bosch nightmare rumbled and fluttered about the island, using infrared sensors to hunt down the Tracy fugitives. They went to ground in a twisting dark lava tube, not far from the seawall. A last resort, this, for the tunnel led nowhere, trapping them.
Penny stumbled many times, but Grandma and Elspeth helped her along while Kyrano and Parker minded the rear; eyes everywhere, stanchions and pistols ready. She'd been planning to leave, Penny had; meaning to summon an aeroplane and return to safe, sane Britain. Not anymore. Not with machines gone mad and her husband lost at sea. Now all that Penelope could do was clutch Grandma Tracy's bone-thin arm and stumble along in her wake, trying very hard not to cry.
A monstrous, saw-bladed digging machine found them at last, would have ended their lives had Brains' signal not stopped it in time. Bullets did nothing at all, and the artist's broomstick, jabbed at those slashing blades, was jerked from his grasp and reduced to a blizzard of splinters. Rock dust, fumes and chipped wood filled the air. Engines roared and howled. Treads clanked over crumbling stone, partly collapsing their refuge. And then, all at once, the island fell silent. Or nearly so.
Outside, the wind still gusted and cried. The ocean thundered. Birds screamed and wheeled overhead, but those mantis-like drill mechs, the digging machine and the giant plow were stopped dead in their tracks. It was awhile before the wary island refugees crept from their lava tube, though. And then, only a few at a time.
"Quick," Grandma ordered, emerging from the tunnel, "anyone young and lively enough to scoot up a ladder, climb into them machines and disable 'em. Pull wires, yank spark plugs… whatever it takes to keep the damned things outta commission. 'Cause I ain't got another fight like that one left in me."
"Directly, mum," Parker replied (he was quite spry for his age, and fond of the old woman, whom he'd have backed against any number of maddened rescue machines.) "Kyrano and Oi'll see to this lot, before you've time f'r a deep breath."
Penelope sat down on the trunk of a shorn tree, meanwhile, maids and attendants fluttering all about her. Summoning courage and something like genuine humility, Penny raised her blonde head to look at Grandma, saying,
"Mrs. Tracy… mother… your courage and resourcefulness has helped save us all, today. Your crafty generalship would have done credit to Montgomery, himself."
"Humph," Victoria snorted. "Anyone coulda done it. I jus' happen to have the loudest voice and hardest head." Then, reaching into her knapsack for a plastic bottle, "Have some water. Woman in your condition's got no business gettin' herself dehydrated."
It was a truce, of sorts. The start of a genuine cease-fire.
Thousands of miles away, in Los Angeles, Alan and his brothers scraped out through the windows of their stalled, pinned vehicle. Grunting and twisting, using their arms to brace themselves and the window rim as a balance point, they were able to wriggle free. Fermat and TinTin were last to exit the brown car, stepping carefully onto leaked fuel and shattered glass; the aftermath of chaos.
The road was blocked in both directions by a mile-long pile up of autos, trucks and construction equipment; most with lights flashing and horns blaring, some steaming like geysers, and dripping battery acid onto the rubber-streaked pavement.
"Whoa," Alan breathed, feeling utterly useless to help.
After a successful and highly publicized launch, Conrad Lefkon gave the world a brief, supercilious farewell. Then, once the ship's course was set, he and Metcalfe entered their stasis pods to sleep out the month-long crossing from Earth to Mars.
Their needle-like vessel had received the NASA defense code, and was shadowed, as well, by a wolf pack of drone gunships. The two men were thus protected in every way that WorldGov could manage, but they still weren't prepared for what awaited them on Mars. There was no way they could have been, really.
A month passed in cold sleep and the clicking of mechanisms. A month without dreams, plans or rivalries. It was a machine which woke them at last, when the Red Planet hung huge and angry in their view screen.
Ancient Mars, ocean-side, around sunset-
Linda Bennett stood at the water's edge, watching her shadow stretch along dark, glassy sand and onto the restless ocean. They'd named it the Hyaline, and near the Mississippi Delta formation, this Martian sea was even more beautiful than it had been up north.
There was a genuine river system, for one thing, with noisy streamlets braiding their way through rocks and sand and tiny plants; reflecting the sunlight like rivers of gold. Overhead arched a darkening lavender sky, spattered across with flocks of red and orange cloud. And, always, the wind. Younger and fuller, here. More given to play and exploration than cold, fretful mourning, because a billion years made all the difference in the world.
It was still rather chilly, though, and with night coming on, Linda knew that she ought to head back. Some distance behind her lay the high, banded cliffs, with a primitive campsite closer in, nearly lost amid velvety hummocks and grey-brown ravines. Ought to, but didn't feel like it. Not yet.
To the soft crunch of approaching footfalls (his or another's… she couldn't quite tell) Linda said,
"I know what's missing."
"Oh?" replied a voice (John's, after all). "And what's that?"
He walked up from behind to stand close at her side, encouraging contact, which Linda provided by leaning against him.
"Seabirds," she explained, scanning that endless, shining horizon. "Crabs, fish… anything at all but weird plants, algae and those disgusting worms… which Pete swears will taste like filet mignon and be kosher for Passover, by the time he gets through with them."
John grunted doubtfully, saying,
"Maybe… if he feeds them to us intravenously… while we're unconscious."
She laughed, then, but there was a slight, hysterical catch to the doctor's voice. A little waver that the real John mightn't have caught, but his copy didn't miss.
He embraced her; thin, but wiry-strong and protective. A very handsome young man composed all of angles and sinews beneath his loose blue tee shirt and shorts. Linda's head came to rest against his chest, causing her to lose much of the view in a tangle of tee shirt material and her own rebellious brown hair. Changing the subject, she said,
"Cho would love this. She wouldn't sleep for a week, John, cataloguing all of this Martian weirdness and naming everything in sight. She's not here, of course. I know that… but I've been taking pictures and samples, just in case…"
What? In case her best friend and sounding board was somehow still alive? In case the universe had decided to spare one very serious, sometimes funny, always patient, Korean exobiologist? Not likely.
All at once miserable, Linda started to cry; softly and hopelessly, shoulders shaking, eyes desperately closed.
John's embrace tightened, briefly. Then he shifted the woman just a bit. Just enough to lift her chin and kiss her. The gesture began gently enough, but quickly grew heated and urgent. She needed comfort and a sense of belonging, while he wanted to prove that he'd been there. That somehow he'd mattered. In the face of near disaster, after all, survival and procreation are the best revenge.
By the time they returned to camp, holding hands and walking quite slowly, McCord had already set out to find them. The three met up about a hundred yards east of the perimeter, in deep twilight.
Their bandaged commander glanced from doctor to tech-rep and back again, raising the sandy brow of his good eye. The new situation was obvious, but Pete didn't comment directly. Instead, he said,
"Pavlychenko's torn his damn thumb on a can lid. Go stitch him up, doctor, while I have a little chat with Romeo, here."
Linda might have blushed. It was hard to tell while the three of them stood wrapped in the gathering folds of late dusk.
"I'll see what I can do, commander," she replied. And then, before leaving him, she squeezed her companion's hand and rose on tiptoe to kiss his scratchy cheek. Not 'I love you'. Not yet. But…
"I'll see you in just a bit, John. Don't be long. It's getting cold out here."
"Okay," he agreed, lightly caressing one side of her face. Neither of them felt much like being ashamed, or trying to hide what had happened. But once the doctor was out of earshot, the promised "chat" commenced.
John* fired the first round, preventing McCord's probable lecture from getting off the ground.
"I'm glad you came out here, Pete," he said. "Because I've been thinking things over, and I've got a proposition for you."
The commander snorted rudely.
"No offense, Tracy, but I think you've done enough propositioning for one night, and besides… you're not my type."
John* shook his blond head, smiling at McCord's dim silhouette, just barely visible between the camp lights on one side and wavering ocean phosphorescence on the other.
"Not what I meant, Pete. I'm talking about a direct offensive; an idea I have for getting back to the base, alone, and releasing my code there."
"No," McCord interrupted, firmly. "We've been over this. Not alone. It's too dangerous. Whatever this offensive entails, I go with you, mister, or your ass is drugged, restrained and imprisoned. Heroics are one thing, Tracy. Damn-foolery's another. Together, or not at all. Got it?"
Not really, but he wasn't about to admit that. Trying yet another tack, John* attempted to explain his position.
"It's like this, Pete: one way or another, I've got to do something, soon. That stunt I pulled, seizing power from a disintegrating alien to move us through spacetime…? Besides skirting your orders, it went up like a thermonuclear signal flare. She has to have noticed what I did, and I doubt she likes it much. My whole reason for existence, remember, is to smooth out the timeline and disguise your friend's absence. Instead, I'm practically sky-writing."
"She?" McCord repeated, folding both arms across his chest with an impatient rustle of cloth. "You're talking about that computer again, aren't you… the one that supposedly created you?"
"Yeah. That one. Except that she's a quantum entity, not just a computer. And she's, um… probably going to be pretty upset."
"In other words," Pete demanded angrily, all at once shifting his stance, "you've just opened up a two-front war?"
John* took a deep, steadying breath. Because here came the tricky part: pretending to ask, while really just telling. In case his idea didn't work, and this was really the end.
"Yeah... sort of. In a way. Which is why I need to fix things in a damn quick hurry, before she decides that we're all expendable, anyhow. Think about it, Pete… if we never reappeared in our own time, WorldGov would put it down to Mysteron activity. All Five has to do is eliminate me, and the rest of you are stuck here, left behind to live out your lives in relative peace and safety, well off the beaten track. You'd be mourned for awhile, maybe… if things on Earth haven't devolved to the point that no one's around to care."
It was deliberate, mentioning Earth, this way; John* knew that Pete was terribly concerned for his wife and daughter, back home. Cheap shot, but a necessary one… and quite effective at getting McCord's full attention.
"What do you intend to do?" the commander growled. "Not that I'm agreeing to anything that's not contained in the checklist, even in principle. I just want to hear your proposal."
"Understood, commander," John* replied, mentally reserving the right to do whatever the hell he chose to. Then, editing freely, he began to lay out the plan.
Elsewhen, approaching an eerily silent Mars-
Obviously, NASA's defense code had worked. Metcalfe and Lefkon stumbled from their stasis pods as the onboard system triggered the X-90's landing sequence. The resulting insertion burn went off without a hitch, but that was just about the last thing that did.
A whirring white med-bot provided clean uniforms, powerful metabolic stimulants and news, informing Paul and Conrad that Mars had not responded to repeated hails, except to issue a brief warning to stay well clear or be shot down. Worse, there had been no contact at all from Endurance Base, or the stranded survivors.
"They're dead," Captain Black decided aloud. Rolling his broad shoulders to work out a cramp, he settled himself into the pilot's seat with a cup of scalding coffee. "Killed by exposure, starvation or alien activity. Doesn't matter much in the long run. Either way, they're out of the picture. Sad, really… although I've got to say, their unfortunate demise considerably simplifies this mission."
Scarlet was slower to sit down and strap in; slower, still, to consign the colonists to lingering death and disaster. Maybe the cryo-protectant and tranquilizers hadn't cleared his system, yet, but Metcalfe refused to simply fold away hope like an unwanted letter.
"They might have survived, Conrad. There are hundreds of places to go to ground, and they surely know better than to just give themselves away by…"
"Captain Black, Metcalfe. We're on duty. Get your mind on the mission, or get back in your stasis pod. If I have to, I'll handle this alone."
The X-90's cockpit was far from roomy, but an ice-cold, thousand-mile gulf had just opened up between Black and Scarlet. The younger man quit talking, except to read off the instrument settings and relay their ship's condition after a month of unmanned spaceflight. Lefkon only grunted in reply, eyes on the view screen, with its rapidly swelling image of Mars. Trailing a swarm of robot fighter drones, their sleek transport vessel plunged toward the planet's micro-thin atmosphere.
Paul checked again for messages from Sky Base, but the last had been received and logged a mere six million miles from Earth. Not good. On the other, still grimmer, hand, they got another warning.
'Alien bio-mechanical vessel: do not attempt to land. Approaching Sol 4 shall be construed as a hostile act,' whispered a strange, hissing voice; seemingly composed of static and wind and withered old radio broadcasts. 'Alien bio-mechanical vessel: you are instructed to alter course and assume a high parking orbit around the Sol 4 equator. No further warning shall be given.'
But Conrad Lefkon was not disposed to listen.
"Sorry, ET ol' buddy… I'm afraid I can't oblige."
Paul glanced across the cabin at his partner, who was smiling oddly, hazel eyes just about glowing with lust for action.
"Captain Lefkon," the younger man ventured, "maybe we ought to rethink the direct approach? Colonel White suggested independent action, not suicide."
Pearls before swine, and equally appreciated.
"Metcalfe, shut your whining mouth, and watch how it's done. I was given a mission, dammit. I'm going in."
Paul didn't get much else out, because the lightning storm of reentry had already begun. Thin wisps of bright plasma formed and flowed about the hurtling X-90, then torrents of it, turning their ship into a brilliant, comet-like fireball. Paul could see nothing, for a time; heard nothing at all but a world-shaking roar. His stomach climbed into his mouth and stayed there, while the Spectrum agent clung to his arm rests and waited out the wild ride. Their comm popped once, loudly.
Perhaps the Mysterons had tried to make contact, again, or Spectrum had. They had no way to tell the source of that brief, garbled radar pulse. Nor was there time, for their cocoon of flickering plasma cleared an instant later, revealing Mars... and their enemy. Lefkon piloted silently, correcting for drift and adjusting his trim. Around them, appearing a few at a time, the drone craft popped back into view, breaking up their radar signature.
Red, barren wasteland flashed by underneath, about as welcoming as a baited and quivering rat-trap. From the northeastern horizon, a cloud of shimmering green sparks erupted. Or… not sparks, but fire-bolts, like guided meteors, or something.
"Captain Lefkon, abort your approach!" Paul advised him, trying his damndest to scan the things, which were headed their way and closing dangerously fast. "Lefkon… Conrad! Do you hear me? You've got to abort your approach!"
"Not yet," the pilot snapped. "I'm going to get closer. The brass wants pictures of Endurance Base, remember? Now, quit crying and program those escort drones to intercept. Just need a few minutes, is all… a couple of fly-bys."
Overruled, Paul turned back to his console and typed out the code that would free their escort to choose targets and engage. By this time, those emerald sparks had grown alarmingly in size and number, becoming a blazing, sky-filling firestorm. Metcalfe hit send, and the drones shot away, released like seeds from a dried pod. They closed with the meteors, dodging, twisting, and firing bright jets of white plasma. Or they exploded, cut in half by streaking green fire-bolts, or else following the silent meteors directly, explosively, into the icy ground.
Watching the carnage, Paul attempted to adjust their programming, boost their maneuverability, but it wasn't much use. One after another, the attack drones were picked off, until only three remained, flying close to the X-90's carbon-scored hull. Endurance Base crested the horizon a few seconds later; altered to an overgrown, green-blazing nightmare.
"Incredible," Lefkon murmured, pushing down on the stick for more speed and a better look. "Pictures, Metcalfe. Get as many as you can, and then transmit to Sky Base without compressing. Do it!"
The alien city was too strange to be beautiful, grown as it was from the corpse of a once-human settlement. Some things remained the same, vaguely familiar from NASA's charts and Landsat images. Others were terribly changed. The farming dome was lengthened and thinned to a tall, glassy spire. A little eastward, the colony's reactor building had grown a web-work of pulsing small pods, which spread over the ground like weird vines. Greatly enlarged construction equipment and power-suits stalked the base like wild animals, meanwhile, seemingly brought to furious life. Closer still, the base hangar complex rippled and shimmered below them, growing in size as Metcalfe shot non-stop pictures and video.
"Conrad," he urged, on a sudden hunch, "that NASA code's defended us pretty well, so far. What if we transmit the program to a base receiver? Think it might force out the LGMs?"
The idea had potential, but (of course) as Lefkon hadn't thought of it, it didn't signify.
"I'm busy, Metcalfe. Cut the chatter."
Banking low to weave between a pair of silvery towers that had once been camera pylons, Captain Black swooped around for another pass.
"I'm taking us back in. Reprogram those drones to crash land into the nearest high-energy targets, and then prepare to record and send the results. WorldGov needs data, for their counter-invasion."
"Understood," Paul replied, deliberately not thinking about home, or Simone. Nothing mattered but the mission.
Lefkon was a talented pilot, and dancing with death was the only thing he truly enjoyed. Flying like a wild man, like a drunk, he dodged the fireballs and deadly power suits (some with decompression-killed bodies still strapped inside) cutting between grasping mechanical hands and emerald lightning. The spacecraft darted, swooped, dove and twisted, but her last three drones did not. These went shrieking off like missiles, instead, burying themselves in the heart of whichever target possessed the most energy.
Boom! And a reactor core flared into sunset brilliance, like a fiery bead at the end of a white-hot contrail string.
Crump! And a fuel depot erupted, tank walls peeling back like the petals of a fast-burning rose.
Thrum! And a very tall, glassy tower shattered to sparkling bits, which did not fall, but hovered in midair; a swarm of sharp, diamond flies, their points orienting en masse to face the X-90.
Metcalfe caught it all, sending image after image back to Spectrum. Not that it would do any good. In the face of all this, how could there be any survivors? Here, or on Earth? What had a month of alien attacks done to their homes and families?
You can get yourself shot at a million times, but there's only one bullet that counts; the one that finally gets you. Theirs came in low and close, fired from behind the X-90. It struck the ship's howling engines dead on, fusing them into a solid, smoldering lump. All at once, the men found themselves out of power, altitude and options.
"Hang on!" Lefkon shouted, fighting with his shuddering controls. "We're going down!"
Wind screamed in reply. The X-90 slashed through a flickering arch, aiming for the desert beyond. But another green fireball struck, and then another, both of them clinging, remora like, pulling layers from the X-90's hull. Peeling it down to the two men inside.
Another place and time-
Because he had to, and because he'd explained himself (sort of) John* decided to act. That very night, during the watch that he shared with Rachael Neer, the young man claimed a call of nature and stepped away from their circle of LED lamplight. Rachael blushed at the mention of such matters, but waved him on without challenge.
He'd have liked to wake Pete… wished he could kiss Linda, again… but there just wasn't time. That feeling was back; the sense that something was out there, searching. Maybe Five, maybe the aliens. Either way, something that would surely go elsewhere, if he wasn't around to summon it.
So he brought along the keyboard, liberated from their makeshift rover. That, and a newly-manufactured, slightly improved EM bomb. After all, pulse and code had worked well enough the last time…
One brief, backward glance fixed his friends' images in the copy's mind for whatever remained of his life. Then, abandoning caution, John* drew upon the power of his creator, and once again folded reality.
Mars, just above a now very alien former colony-
The X-90's hull plates flew off like cards from a scattered deck; rivets popping, wires shredding, metal and plastic tearing like paper. She didn't so much crash as disintegrate, bathed in that eerie green flame.
The men fell, tumbling onto the roof of a dome which immediately angled itself to send them hurtling ground-ward, on opposite sides of the building. Paul scrambled desperately for a hold on the dome's slick surface, but he might as well have been trying to climb up a mountain of ice. Metal bent away from him. Glassy stuff somehow bulged without cracking, forming a cliff too steep and slippery to hang onto. Small lights like St. Elmo's fire crackled all over him, sparking at every hair-end and buttonhole as he slid to the heaving, cracked ground.
Tore up his palms and the knees of his uniform, but lunged to his feet in time to avoid a fanged mouth-pit. Didn't stop to wonder how he was breathing… how the fall hadn't killed him… how the hell he was supposed to find Lefkon… Just pulled out his sidearm and ran.
Bits of the X-90 had fallen nearby. To Paul's horror, the broken remains of his ship were being stitched onto the city by cables, silvery data traces and glassine archways; grafted like body parts on a writhing Frankenstein's monster. A few yards away, the med-bot scuttled in ever-tightening circles, as though trying to escape capture. Paul fired several rounds at the cobra-like cables chasing the fleeing auto-doc, attracting so much attention that he was forced to dive for shelter in what was left of the base garage. Mistake.
The door pinched itself shut behind him, sealing Metcalfe into a shadowy, semi-sentient concrete prison with five or six murderous vehicles. They came at him from many sides, growing appendages and blades, and belching fumes like something ripped from a fevered nightmare.
Like an ant, he scrambled this way and that. Like a man, he thought, fired his weapon at critical joints and camera masts, and swore aloud/ gabbled bits of prayer/ shouted for Lefkon. Whirring blades hissed barely past him, screeching shrill-metallic as they struck ground and split concrete. Giant tractors rumbled in Paul's direction, clanking and clashing, just missing the frantically dodging man. Broken bits of metal and pavement… his own spent bullets, even… simply formed themselves into spherical missiles, attacking like the fireballs had, from every side at once.
They weren't what got him, though. The ground, itself, managed that chore, opening like a set of massive, rebar-fanged jaws laced with a hundred tongues of lashing cable. He lost balance and fell within, flailing and shouting. Then, those jaws smashed thunderously together and…*
Else and every and nowhere-
The quantum entity, Five, was quite aware of her construct's attempts to alter local reality. The construct had unwisely been programmed with memory and applications enabling such activity. Further, it had retained the ability to access and absorb immense amounts of power, redirecting same.
In retrospect, an error; from she who permitted no error. The willful construct had used its memory and power-access to hyperlink areas of spacetime vastly separated by circumstance and causality, bringing these points into contact and allowing probability to twist and shift. It had revealed itself to the extra-dimensional beings now invading the locus. It had rendered even Five vulnerable to attack.
Action was required to forestall these threats, and to block the invaders' access to what had long been her private locus. Thus, the quantum entity, Five, constructed a decision tree, seeking through its branches for the simplest possible response. One act which would bring everything that followed back into rapid alignment.
-And/ Or/ Not/ Controlled-Not/ List_ Matrix_ Variable Object_ Array_ Library_ Choice/ Decision-
There was but one. A reversal. A re-exchange of her construct for its beloved original, currently locked into restless off-line sleep status. John Tracy would have to be returned. A John Tracy strengthened, armed with sub-textual data… and placed once again in harm's way.
He* folded space and jumped. Someone else landed. Someone with no more than foggy, hung-over memories of Mr. Perfect's dumb-ass behavior, and the difficult plight of four stranded others. John's initial response to finding himself in a large, brilliantly-lit cavern, instead of the airlock…
"What the hell?"
…was cut off almost at once by the added sensory shock of unexplained animals and plants. Nor were these organisms the only things very much out of place. Appliances, too, were scattered about the roughly drilled chamber; machine parts and vehicles shining like they'd just rolled off the showroom floor, surrounded by waist high stands of wheat, corn, rice and soybeans (he was enough of a Kansas farm boy and Wyoming rancher, still, to recognize his basic damn cash crops). Be awhile before they were ready to harvest, though. Especially the rice, which probably needed more water.
And… yeah. There were flocks of clucking young chickens pecking around his booted feet, eagerly snapping up all the crushed plants and bugs that his sudden arrival had provided. Snorting piglets were there, too. And calves… there were calves, looking as mild, patient and stupid here, as they'd ever done back on Earth. Not the young bulls, though. These had a certain speculative, daring gleam in their large eyes, which is why they usually wound up as steers; clipped, snipped and rendered docile (a job he'd never liked). Needless to say, there was something of a yeasty, barnyard smell to the place. And plenty of noise.
Confused clean through, John did a full 360, gradually coming to the realization that he stood below ground, in the base garbage dump, surrounded by highly recycled trash. Chicken nuggets, hamburger patties, pork chops, bread, soy protein, batteries… even parts of goddam pump 4… anything they'd ever thrown away was back. As in, back from the dead.
"Umm…" John ventured aloud, his grip tightening convulsively on a keyboard and bomb that he was vaguely conscious of holding, "Hello…? Anybody else here? Dr. Bennett?"
Something bleated enthusiastically in response. Startled, John looked down to see a wooly black lamb frisking about and swishing its long tail. Had to smile at that, obscurely glad that no one had ringed the tail yet, and it wasn't going to wither away and drop off.
"Hey, lamb-chop," he murmured, stooping to pet the friendly small animal. "We meet again, in a better place. Sort of."
"John…?" A hesitant, worried voice called to him, from the shadowed mouth of an eastward access tunnel, "AO', buddy… that you?"
Mars, in a terribly long and newly formed exhaust shaft-
His eyes were already open and his brain functioning, after a fashion. He could feel himself breathing; became aware that that there was something beneath… that he was standing on a smooth, level surface, which tilted very slightly whenever his stance shifted. That someone else, a tall and hazy silhouette, stood there beside him.
Green lights flickered and moved in his vision, their pulsing and brightness like the clipped conversation at some sort of meeting. Circular walls surrounded him, indicating a vertical shaft or tunnel. A continual, strong breeze rushed past, racing from somewhere quite hot to a far-off circle of poison-green daylight. Under his feet, there hovered a floating white disk. Below that…? Not enough information to say.
He had nothing. Not even a name. Not where he was, or why. Not who or what stood at his side. But there was a soft, hissing-static whisper; a thin chain of words, trickling into his mind. Concentrating fiercely, he could just barely hear and understand them.
'Return to Sol 3… Identify and sabotage all remaining defensive installations… Generate dissent through misinformation… Destroy the following individuals: Acting World President Murasaki Shikibu, US President Michael Cranney, NASA Director Paul Crane, ESA Director Philippe Cousineau, Spectrum Director Colonel White, James Springfield, Slade Rideout, Stavros Valianatos, Jeff Tracy, Major Scott Tracy, John Tracy, Virgil Tracy, Lieutenant Gordon Tracy, Alan Tracy, Victoria Tracy, Hiram Hackenbacker/ Dwight Bremmerman, Fermat Hackenbacker/ Kurt Bremmerman, Penelope Creighton-Ward Tracy, Cindy Taylor-Tracy, Linda Bennett…
The list went on and on, focusing mainly on power centers and troublesome, strong-willed people. Strange, but something to do, at least; something with which to fill the gut-wound emptiness of a hollowed mind and second existence.
It came to him, all at once, that he'd recently died. That a set of enormous, metal-spiked jaws had crushed the life from his body. Something had been on his mind at the time, he recalled. No… not something. Someone. Simone. He could see her, blonde and beautiful, waving and saluting, back at… Sky Base, it was. He remembered that, too. Remembered that she'd called him "dear Paul".
But, Paul who? Paul… Paul… Scarlet? Paul Tracy? Metcalfe. The name came to him like a recording, spoken in someone else's chilly, distaste-filled voice. Someone who didn't much like him. Lefkon, he realized. Beside him stood Conrad Lefkon. Captain Black.
Very carefully, Paul made himself look around to his right, where the sight of a rapt and attentive Lefkon brought back the rest of his former life. The mission, his dad and mum back in Idaho. Max (that worthless yellow mutt of a dog) and Simone Giraudoux, the woman he loved. Old feelings rushed back stronger than ever, as though whatever he'd been like at the moment of death was only intensified by resurrection.
For he had been killed and resurrected, Paul realized. Brought back to life by aliens as a loaded weapon, programmed to seek and destroy. And that was wrong. Evil. It had to be.
He glanced again at Lefkon, whose hazel eyes had developed an almost fanatical gleam. As though one mission was just as good as another.
"Conrad," Paul whispered urgently, hoping that audible sound could not be detected by the surrounding quorum of energy beings. "Captain Black… They're trying to program you. Don't listen! We're alive… we can get away, somehow, and warn Earth. We can still complete our mission!"
Lefkon's head turned, and he looked directly, coldly, at Paul.
"You were always weak," he sneered, speaking with an intensity that caused Paul to back-step, tilting the floating disk on which they stood. "Always soft and cowardly."
"I'm not a killing machine, Conrad, and neither are you!" Paul replied, a little desperately. "They're trying to program us for murder and sabotage, can't you see that? They plan to use us against our own people!"
"I have a new mission," Lefkon responded, stalking forward. "Both of us do. Accept the mission, Metcalfe. They want you to stop resisting, and follow orders. Accept the mission."
Captain Black… impeccably uniformed, tall and broad-shouldered, smiling… took another step toward Paul. The once-younger man edged around him, causing their perch to tilt wildly. He did not fall. Catching his balance was easier, now. But neither did Black stop advancing.
"You need to accept the mission, Metcalfe… or I get a chance to prove that one of us, at least, is still a good soldier. Fair warning."
Paul felt very cold, suddenly. There was no place to run, and nothing with which to defend himself. Like Lefkon, he'd been resurrected in full uniform, but without a sidearm. The disk was only about fifteen feet across, and it did not extend all the way to the smooth walls of their exhaust-shaft prison. There was no possible response but to circle, backing away from Captain Black, while the green lights around them grew painfully bright.
"Conrad," he insisted futilely, "what about your family? And Simone… what about her? She's waiting for you, back home!"
Lefkon's smile wavered, momentarily. Then the lights flared, eye-searing bright, and his expression once again smoothed.
"I have no home," he said. "I have a mission."
Then, he lunged. Paul reacted without thinking, diving well out of the other man's way. Lefkon's momentum carried him past the edge of the disk, but its sudden upward slant partly caught him. He scrambled, slipping, but managed to catch hold of their violently swaying platform.
Again, Paul reacted on instinct; being himself, only more so. He crouched down and pivoted. Next, reaching cautiously forward, Captain Scarlet seized Lefkon's wrists and began to pull. The other man was larger than he. Drawing him up and over should have been difficult. Instead, this new and perfected version of Paul Metcalfe found the process quite easy.
"Idiot!" hissed Lefkon, once he was safely atop their small perch. Quite without warning, he sprang up and punched his startled rescuer, utterly shattering Paul's jaw and the entire left side of his face. "You were always weak!"
Metcalfe flailed, near-blinded with pain, but he could not see to defend himself, and it was then that Lefkon shoved him. This second blow struck him at mid-chest. His booted feet lost their purchase on the tilting disk, and he fell. Very, very far, he fell.
Mars, at a much-altered garbage dump-
Like he'd been electrified, John first startled upright, then dropped his equipment and strode for the source of that voice. His speed picked up still further when a tall, Samoan Marine stepped from the access tunnel, trailed by a handful of others. Small, frowning Cho was there and Ilon, as well, with most of the Pump 4 repair team. Seven people in all.
Ex-food scattered from his path in all directions, as John hurried to meet what remained of his friends and coworkers. All that was left of Endurance Base.
They came together in a stand of young soybean plants; Roger Thorpe and John Tracy greeting each other with the usual rough shoves and mortal Klingon insults (that last one was especially unforgivable, and would have gotten John strung up by his own intestines, as the centerpiece for a nice, public banquet).
Kim Cho interrupted their foolishness, coming between the two friends with a soft touch and gentle words. Just as well, actually, for John was going to have quite a collection of bruises. She looked up at him, her expression quizzical. Then Cho made eye-contact with the notoriously shy tech-rep, and smiled.
"It is John," she announced, confirming what Roger already knew. "And the others? Commander McCord and our doctor? Have they come, as well?"
Good question. And, for the moment, very difficult to answer. What he last clearly recalled was standing in the airlock with Linda Bennett, after the blackout. Then… a great many odd images followed of escape and attack; like steganography coded beneath a routine email or bitmap. Some of it even made sense.
"I… they're… back at Mississippi Delta, somewhere. Waiting for me to…"
All at once uncertain, John glanced back to where he'd set down the keyboard and pulse bomb.
"I was going to release an anti-viral code, and set off some kind of bomb. I think."
Already, there were plans and diagrams exploding in his head like a hyperlinked series of web pages. Because the flood of data made talking difficult…
(And where the hell was it coming from, anyway? Five? She'd promised to leave him alone.)
…John changed the subject with a question of his own.
"What happened here? How did you survive the…" (In his mind's eye, a giant, sky-filling explosion flared, brighter than sunrise on Earth.) "How did you survive the blast?"
It was Roger who answered him, in a very curious way. The Marine pushed up one sleeve of his work coverall to reveal a number of dark tattoos. Or… not tattoos, but something else. Surprised, John leaned across an intrusive young cow and looked closer.
"What d'you make of that, AO'?" Thorpe demanded anxiously, batting the inquisitive animal aside. "The globe and anchor… 'Semper Fi'… as damn birthmarks. It's the same on the other arm, too, except with my mom's name and, uh… and Cho's. The designs are still there, just recreated somehow as part of me. Melanin, instead of ink. But my fillings are gone, and none of us have any scars."
"We were finishing our work on the broken pump," Ilon cut in, looking troubled. "And then Dr. Kim came over to bring us a few supplies…"
Cho blushed, training her gaze upon the foliage and animals at her feet. (Delivery service was not part of her normal work routine, but she and Thorpe had become quite attached to one another. Sore subject, because she hadn't yet brought the matter to her extremely traditional parents, or allowed him to. What they did not know, they could not forbid, after all.) In a soft, hesitant voice, Dr. Kim continued the story, saying,
"I had brought for Roger and the others no more than water and a small meal. They had worked long, and I did not mind diverting on the path from cafeteria to greenhouse. You have said that there was a blast, John, and this we did not know. We imagined perhaps a volcanic eruption or meteor strike. What else would we think? The ground shook most violently. I was running toward Roger, when the tunnel collapsed. He seized me as it fell to bits around us."
Thorpe took the tale back up again, first putting an arm around Cho and pulling her close. Kissing the top of her head, he said,
"It's funny… I don't remember being in any pain, or seeing my dead relatives, or anything like that. Just, one minute everything's being destroyed, and the next, all of it's back. Completely repaired, but with weird differences. Even us, and you can see what's happened to the garbage dump. It's like… like some kind of outside intelligence remade the whole tunnel system and everything in it. Wish I could say the same for the rest of the base, but our former access corridor dead-ends a few hundred yards from here, and so far you're the first contact."
Ilon Cohen glanced restlessly down the blocked tunnel, his dark eyes narrowing.
"There have been a few flashes and hums, but I think all these animal sounds and smells might be disguising our presence. Whatever's out there isn't interested in lower lifeforms… maybe. I'd like to take some of this rebirthed equipment, cut through the barrier and have a look outside, but Captain Thorpe says it's too dangerous."
"He's right," John replied, rubbing at the back of his own neck and playing mental Tetris with cascading data. "We're in trouble. So are Earth, and the search party. This is no eruption or meteor strike, Ilon. It's an invasion."
"The search party…?" Cohen blurted, betraying his interest in a certain pretty young pilot, "You mean no-one's found Rachael, yet? Or, um… Dan?"
John's head hurt, mostly because of the terrible pressure for immediate action.
"Lieutenant Neer was fine, when I left them. Commander McCord, Dr. Bennett and Pavlychenko, too. Lasher's been killed, though. I'm sorry."
The group was silent for a long, sober moment. Then Roger put a hand forth to clasp John's left shoulder.
"Tell me about this bomb of yours, AO'. What're you going to need, and how can we start hitting back?"
Paul Metcalfe fell for a very long time, tumbling down slick-walled bore holes, toward seething alien power; their entry point and force-gate. Wasn't sure how he knew this, or how he knew that NASA's map of the under-base was no longer accurate. But the data and details were in there, like his gut-wrenching list of Earthly targets.
Light blossomed from beneath him as Metcalfe flailed through gusting hot air and tried to angle for one of those speed-blurred walls. There had to be a ledge, a maintenance door… something. But all he got for his trouble was light; acid green and pulsing. At first merely warm, the light soon began to blister and sting. A normal human would have disintegrated, probably, but Paul Metcalfe was no longer "normal". Instead of frying away, his perfected body reacted to the surging alien power like clay in a brick kiln.
In seconds, he could no longer see anything but flame, could feel nothing at all but searing, transfixing energy. Then he was blasted upward, again. Up and out. He struck blessedly cold stone with tremendous force. Should have killed him; crushed him like a bug on a windshield. Didn't. Just batted him back into play; crashing and tumbling, but somehow not injured.
There were more impacts, equally violent, before he finally skidded to a halt like a meteor in somebody's corn field. If Paul screamed this time, it was due to hysteria. There wasn't any pain. Never would be, again. Not from his flame-hardened body, anyhow.
"God… oh, God… oh, God…"
Paul curled up on the tunnel floor; still smoking a bit at the edges, dressed in charred and smoldering uniform rags. Alive, though. Somehow, still alive.
"Huh… huh… Help! Somebody, help…"
He felt burnt up and hollowed, with Mysteron orders still peppering his psyche like the powder residue from a gun. He was supposed to find… supposed to kill… supposed to destroy…
Metcalfe began to shake uncontrollably. Again, the thought of Simone intruded, as he'd seen her last, on Sky Base. Simone with her blonde hair, blue eyes and soft smile, right hand raised in a crisp salute. The woman he'd loved, but never had the courage to court.
("You were always weak…!")
Another thought had cut in. A colder one. Conrad. Captain Black had already tried once to kill his former partner. If he was returned to Earth under Mysteron control, Lefkon would seek to demolish Sky Base, systematically following orders until he was detected and brought down.
But he'd be trusted and welcomed, at first; treated as the hero of a tragically doomed rescue attempt. How long could the assassin trade on that innocent trust? How many targets could he nail before the people of Earth figured out what he was, and fought back?
"Got to stop him," Paul decided aloud. Very slowly, testing muscles which would never again feel strain or fatigue, Metcalfe rose to his feet.
He stood there leaning precariously, for one of his boots was a ruin. The other, still worse. Paul shook them off one at a time. He ended up standing barefoot in a tunnel of smoothly polished stone oriented (that new inner map told him) roughly east-west. Now, what?
"They'll have to launch," Metcalfe coached himself. "Probably from what's left of the base landing pad. Maybe I can… I can get to Conrad before he takes off, and then… then…"
It was difficult to visualize, that far ahead. He was still trying, when something moved near his kicked-aside boot remnants. Startled, Metcalfe jumped.
Cat. It was just a damn cat, rubbing itself against his cast-away boot shreds and miaowing anxiously. They stared at one another; scrawny yellow feline and scorch-marked immortal.
"Hey, little guy…" Paul said after a moment. "Long way from home, aren't you?"
The cat took a hesitant step forward; tail straight up, whiskers quivering. Then, mrrowing and grumbling in that fussy way cats have, it trotted right up to him and began twining itself round his ankles, obviously relieved to have found someone. Anyone
Paul bent down and scooped the animal up, every bit as glad for a little company.
"Paul Metcalfe," he introduced himself. "Better known in some circles as Captain Scarlet. And you, my friend, are Max-2. Don't suppose you know the local launch schedule, do you, Max?"
The cat responded by twisting about to rub both sides of its head against his right shoulder. Not very helpful, or informative, but still pretty comforting.
"Didn't think so. Well, Max, buddy, what say we pick a direction and start walking? Sooner or later, we're bound to reach something."
…Though, maybe… not quite the something he'd expected.
Elsewhere, in a different part of the reconstructed tunnel system-
After explaining all that he knew of the blast and invasion, John followed Roger, Cho, Ilon and the others out of their garbage dump shelter. Keeping close together, flashlights and weapons at ready, they traversed a short corridor to the "blockage". He'd pictured a cave in, or some kind of alien force wall. No such luck.
Instead of broken rock or hackable machinery, what John saw in the slow-played white arc of Thorpe's flashlight was an accurate stone replica of the tunnel shield doors. Weird.
He stepped forward, boots crunching on the rough, tire-marked floor. (Marked? John looked closer. No. Not any more. What had once been streaks of dark rubber, and dense, grainy oil stains were now composed of varicolored ores; the trace fossils of a loaded garbage cart.)
Borrowing a light from Sergeant Baker, John swept it back and forth, methodically scanning the cavern floor, walls and "road block". Those shield doors seemed to have been grown from surrounding stone, complete with a manual override switch, comm screen and maintenance panel, none of which functioned (being, you know… rock). And that flew several orders of magnitude past weird, right the hell into utterly creepy.
It was as if something had retained a memory of the original portal and faithfully recreated its position and appearance, using the most readily available material. The result was a cavern wall that closely resembled a tightly-sealed blast door. Sealed and locked at the moment disaster struck Endurance Base.
The flesh at his neck and back prickled, and ice-water traced its way down John's spine, because… They'd got all the surface details right (whoever "they" were... or "she") but everything else wrong. Like Roger's Marine Corps tattoos.
Touching an exactly modeled fire alarm pull-station, John wondered what to say to his friends. That they weren't "real"? Or at least, no more original than all of those reconstituted lamb chops and chicken nuggets scratching about in the cavern behind them?
If someone had been reconstructed from bits of shattered tissue and fragmented DNA, with all of their memories intact… were they still the same person? Did it even matter? What the hell was he supposed to tell them?
Playing for time, John traced the false door seam and stone rivets which marked their prison's west border.
"Say 'friend' and enter," he muttered bleakly, adding, "Hell of a way to block expansion… and not intentional, I imagine. Looks to me like whatever energy was used to rebuild the base trickled down here, too, but with unpredictable results… causing weirdness like the barnyard, back there. And, uh… those birthmark tattoos."
"I wonder how far this blockage extends," the big Marine mused, restlessly shifting his flashlight beam. "Think there's a way to cut through, without alerting our enemy?"
"Given enough time and ingenuity, anything's possible," John replied. "Let's go see what kind of scanner we can throw together from our Elysian warehouse of good used parts. I'm betting that as long as this reconstructive energy field exists, the batteries won't run down, bugs can't proliferate, and everything'll operate at peak efficiency. It's a DIY paradise..."
"And the plants, as well, shall continue to flourish," Cho finished for him. "We cannot forget the plants."
Smiling a little, she reached out to squeeze John's left arm, just above the elbow. Surprisingly, he patted her slim hand, rather than shaking it off. Whatever identity questions they might have had were determinedly shoved to the back of their minds now, because survival trumps philosophy every time, and possession of somebody's memories, their will to live, is 9/10ths of the law.
Pete McCord had made exactly the same compromise, out on the surface of Mars. You did what you had to, to stay sane and keep some version of your friends alive, at least in hope and seeming.
Up in the altered base, meanwhile, a spaceship was being prepared for the Mysterons' latest weapon. Having absorbed all of the data gleaned from the crushed and rendered minds of Myrna Bremmerman, Christian Springfield and a thousand, thousand others, Captain Black would soon return to Sol 3, there to hunt down anyone deemed too powerful, too dangerous or influential. Already marked for him was anyone at all who might rally the prey, foment trouble, or program resistant machinery. The harvest was very near, now. And it would not be permitted to fail.
In the dump cavern, amid re-birthed equipment in great heaps and tottering piles-
Back in his DIY paradise, John had set up a workstation of sorts. The arrangement was far from ideal because he had to tramp down the surrounding plants and keep shooing animals away. (Keyboards and bird droppings; not a good mix.) Nevertheless, he eventually built and programmed a decent processor, which was linked in turn to a monitor screen and small transmitter.
When (fingers crossed and silently repeating the prime numbers up to 101, with their squares and cubes) he fired the system up, John was able to quietly hack a few alien-controlled cameras and use them to view what was left of Endurance Base.
"Holy crow," Roger muttered, taking a break from building his drill. "What the hell happened, out there?"
The base had expanded like an alien tumor, pulling metals from every available source but their odd little farm bubble. (Though no one there knew it, Colonel White had been correct. Animals were immune to Mysteron possession. More than that, enough of them together could serve as a sort of shield; disguising the presence of sentient organics.)
Outside, the green energy was everywhere at once, bringing the colony's buildings and equipment to predatory life. Something else was happening, as well. Some kind of spaceship was under construction at the launch pad, quivering beneath an ant-like stream of clattering repair mechs. Looked like an X-90, but far better armed.
"I think we need to hurry," John remarked, watching as a massive power-suit was torn apart by whipping metal appendages; disassembled for spare parts. The big machine fought for its life, but was no match at all for a murderous loading crane and laser-equipped, hawk-swooping drones.
Cho bit her lip. Very quietly, she said,
"I will be most gladdened upon returning to Earth."
"Yeah. Same, here," Roger answered, while John shifted camera views. There was more going on out there, all of it bad.
"Can you scan through the shield doors, AO'?" The Marine asked him. "I'd like to see what's on the other side before we do any cutting."
"Coming right up," Tracy told him, batting an inquisitive pullet away from his keyboard. He had to be cautious with his hacking and scans, because the aliens communicated… for all he knew existed… at certain bandwidths and frequencies. Choose the wrong output channel, and he'd broadcast their presence to the Mysterons the same way John* had; like a damn fireworks display.
Hitting a storm of keys and consulting his monitor, their blond tech rep said,
"There we go… Looks like, um… maybe half a meter of feldspar, quartz and other silicates… Granite, basically, with plenty of room on the other side, in the approximate configuration of a tunnel. Not headed the right way, though. And I don't recall a branching passage, there. Do you?"
"No. I sure don't." Thorpe straightened to his full height and then looked around at Ilon, Cho, Baker, Lacy, Andrews and Jarvis. "Anyone else?"
All shook their heads, no; very much puzzled and worried.
"Okay… so the road block isn't impassable, but we'll be in strange territory once we've cut through. What are the other options?"
"Cap…" Sergeant Baker began (he was rather young, and a little nervous). "There's always the galley refuse chute. Unless that's blocked, too, it leads from the kitchen compacter room to that hole, up there. Might be a tight fit, though."
John was already scanning.
"It's blocked at least twice, about 10 meters up, and then again at 30. Right where the steam purge valves were. We could try it… if you're willing to climb and cut, in really close quarters."
Roger shook his head, running one big, dark hand over what had been a well-disciplined flat-top, but was now grown distressingly lax.
"Too risky. Anything else?"
"There is also a pressure-release airlock that opens well south of here," Cho ventured, recalling a favorite surface foray route. "Or, there used to be. John, are you able to locate this passage?"
"Trying. I've got to be careful not to make myself obvious… Okay, there it is… except that I can't see the other end, Dr. Kim. Seems to head in the right direction for about 100 meters, is all I can tell you."
"And even if we were able to egress to the surface," Ilon cut in, "could we survive there? No one's thrown away any spacesuits, and I'm not comfortable with homemade. Not in this case."
John made that odd little noise of his. The one almost like a genuine laugh.
"Damn it," he said, "why weren't we more wasteful?"
His mood soured when the heavily-cratered terrain to their south turned out to be invisible from any remaining perimeter cams (mostly because the units kept twisting about like curious serpents, and were terribly difficult to focus through). They might have tried amplifying their signal and accessing a satellite, but the risk involved was too high. Simply put, they had no way to tell whether the airlock still existed, whether it had been replaced with stone, or if the worst trouble they'd face at the other end was a quick, frigid death from exposure
"How did you manage to get here?" Ilon asked John, all at once suspicious. "Why can't we retrace whatever route brought you safely past all of these barriers, Tracy? After all, you're here. There must be some way through!"
John looked up at the dark-haired construction engineer, making brief eye contact before turning back to his keyboard and screen.
"I got in the same way you did," he responded grimly. "Something went badly wrong, and I woke up here. Any further questions?"
There weren't. At least, none that anyone present could answer. And that, of course, was part of a possible solution. While Roger debated their options with his work crew, John leaned back in his chair as though thinking. He opened a sort of internal window, instead, one he'd vowed to keep tightly shut. Through it, John Tracy contacted Five. The link was weak, and kept crashing, leaving him with a migraine and blurred vision, but he got through. She was there. John could sense her, faint, far away and deeply concerned. Across their fading connection, he said,
"Listen, you need to fetch McCord, Dr. Bennett and the rest, back from wherever the hell your genius kid sent them. Along with that, keep on eye on my family, back home, and I'll do my best to help solve things from this end. That's the deal. Everyone's safe, or I'm out of the game. Period. Take it or leave it."
Something like a 4-d bitmap of gold and lavender hypercubes expanded inside his mind, then. Played hell with his headache and sense of location, but gave him her answer and… Well, he'd have said 'loving apology', had it come from a flesh-and-blood female.
John found it hard to stay reserved, much less angry. Especially when Five, too, was in danger and needed his help. Not that she didn't offer to pay for it. Besides agreeing to his terms, his creation/companion/nightmare sent John a compressed block of data and probability functions, complete with all of the frequencies at which an energy being was most vulnerable. Apparently, they had a deal.
Less than four hours later, John was ready. Ilon and Roger were standing by at the shield wall with cooling water and a high-energy cutting device. Baker, Lacy and Jarvis had white-knuckle grips on their weapons, keeping the drill crew covered from several angles. Kim Cho stood behind them, holding every bit of recycled first-aid material she could gather. (There wasn't much, for most of their medical waste had gone to the incinerators rather than the dump... which had seemed like a good idea at the time.)
At a long three-count, buttons were pushed, a laser power coupling engaged, and the plan commenced. The anti-viral code blasted forth, first; temporarily blocking Mysteron control of all base machinery and computer systems. Then, once John uploaded a few swift commands, he triggered and boosted the EM bomb, pitched at the same frequency the aliens used to manifest themselves. They discorporated violently, explosively, rocking the base like a second wave of attack.
At the same time, Roger began to cut; humming to himself over the laser-drill's crackling hiss. The animals panicked. Heat and fumes built up, but Cho was ready with a battery operated fan and air masks.
John monitored both situations as well as he could, making rapid changes in his code every time the aliens seemed about to adapt.
"How's it coming, yoq'buD?" Tracy called out, eyes on his flickering screen.
"'Bout as well as that blind date with your mother! Tell her I want my money back!"
"Too late. She spent it all buying antibiotics for your mom, who's out of frequent flier miles at the base clinic!"
A stinging flame-war erupted between the two friends, over keyboard clicks, animal noises and the spattering shriek of a laboring drill. Anything listening in (or gathering data for a control signal) would have been utterly flummoxed by their din.
Finally, the last bit of rock was cut through. Roger Thorpe yanked off his goggles and peered past the glowing edges of the hole, to see another startled face, staring back.
Mars, at the dump site-
Gazing through a cracked and bright-edged drill hole, Roger Thorpe could tell two things: first, that what peered back at him now was a humanoid male. Second, that the man was a stranger, and therefore potentially dangerous.
"State your name and business!" the Marine shouted, signaling Baker and Jarvis forward. The two men at once brought their weapons to bear on their visitor's stone-haloed face, ready to blast him to atoms at a word from the captain. Fortunately for Metcalfe, his Spectrum mission dossier had included a list of base personnel.
"Captain Thorpe? United States Marine Corps?" He blurted, recognizing the dark flattop and Polynesian features.
"That would be my name, fella. How 'bout we hear yours, before I get tired of asking politely?"
On official business… even a failed recon mission… Metcalfe was not supposed to use his actual name.
"I'm a Spectrum agent," he volunteered. "Code named Scarlet. I was sent here to image your base and rescue any survivors."
"Alone?" Thorpe demanded skeptically, casting a meaningful glance back at Tracy. Their tech-rep nodded and began a second scan of the corridor outside. He was not in a position to see the opening, but thanks to weird acoustics, he could certainly hear the speaker. And, now that most of the drill's energy had faded, he could better scan their surroundings.
"I had a partner," the man called to them, "but he's been, ah… he's been compromised."
Thorpe did not relent.
"What the hell's that supposed to mean? Is he dead? Missing? Brain-washed?"
'Clear,' John signed to Roger, while Scarlet tried to explain.
"All three, I guess… and currently being prepped for a sabotage mission to Earth. But now that I've found you, we can come up with a plan to stop him."
Roger wasn't willing to expose himself or the others to potential ambush. Not before he got a better look at their would-be rescuer.
"Tell you what, Scarlet," he said. "Why don't you come on through? Step into the light, where I can see you better."
Metcalfe obliged, handing the cat in, first. While Paul clambered through the opening, Max-2/ Bendix got its bearings and sniffed out a particular comrade. Then the animal shot like a furry gold streak for John, who rose from his work station, smiling a little.
"About time you showed up," he greeted the cat, drawing Scarlet's startled attention.
Paul Metcalfe had felt relatively normal, up to that point. But, on seeing John Tracy… John Matthew Tracy, of Tracy Aerospace… he snapped. Or sprang, rather; crossing the distance between them like a hunting animal, low, fast and silent. Roger and Ilon were knocked aside like cardboard cutouts. Sergeants Jarvis and Baker opened fire, striking Scarlet many times without harming him. The whine and stinging slap of bullets had one positive effect, though; they yanked Metcalfe out of his programming, just in time for him to pull a punch that would have taken John's head off.
The work station suffered, instead, being crushed like a fortune cookie. In a confusion of sparks and electrical smoke and the hissing, spitting cat, John launched himself out of the way.
"Hide him!" Scarlet shouted. "For God's sake, get him out of my sight!"
More bullets flew, equally useless. Roger yelled for a cease-fire, at the same time springing across to tackle and bring down Scarlet. The two of them collided, but it was Roger Thorpe who got smashed to the ground.
Cho ran to her sweetheart, John to seize a weapon. He did not particularly feel like being hidden.
"Bullshit. I've never heard of Spectrum," he snarled. "I don't believe a rescue mission could have got here from Earth in such a short time... and you've got about 30 seconds to come up with a better story."
With the help of Cho and Ilon, Thorpe had gotten up, again. He stood poised on the balls of his feet, now, hair-raised angry; breathing hard and staring fixedly at Scarlet, looking for openings. He needn't have bothered. The superhuman Spectrum agent was shivering violently, fighting for self-control. His eyes were tightly shut and he kept mumbling to himself. A name, it sounded like. Then, louder, their visitor said,
"Spectrum is a secret organization, one charged with defending the public from delusional morons like you and your family, Tracy. As for the rest, it's been over a month since Endurance Base was attacked. We got here as quick as we could, but the crossing takes time."
"A month…?" John repeated, uncertainly. "But I was just…"
…Just standing in an airlock with Linda Bennett. Just in the farming dome with her, starting a damn Messier Marathon. Even including his copy's hazy activities, John hadn't experienced anything like a month's worth of spacetime.
"Yeah. 33 days," Scarlet snapped at him. "I spent most of them in transit-sleep, and it looks like you did, too. Listen, Tracy… you're on my hit list. Your entire family is, including that guy I talked to, back in the hospital… No, wait! Let me explain! All I did was question… um, Virgil. That's his name… About some unlicensed rescue activity at the Golden State Amphitheatre. Everything went wrong afterward, once the mission had begun and Black and I woke up in orbit around Mars. We were attacked by the Mysterons, wound up on the surface, and then got separated. As you can tell, I'm… I've been changed by the same aliens who took over your base. They wanted a super-weapon, but they're not going to get one, because I won't do it. I can't."
"Your 'partner' feels differently, I take it?" Thorpe cut in, still deeply suspicious.
Metcalfe nodded; relieved to be speaking to someone other than Tracy (whose very presence set his teeth on edge).
"Captain Black bought their programming, hook, line and tackle box." After a moment, he was forced to add, "But I've got to admit that it fits his personality better than Spectrum ever did… which is why you've got to help me stop him. Unlike me, he won't have any second thoughts, and it's not in his nature to be merciful. Knowing Black, he'll follow their damn orders, and then make up a few of his own."
Roger glanced from the half-naked, indestructible Spectrum agent to his fellow astronauts.
"Jarvis, keep him covered. He moves, drill an eye. The rest of you, over here. Conference!"
Much as the copy had done, earlier and else-when, Five seized all of the discorporating aliens' vast energy and used it to hyperlink spacetime; bringing two separate points into sudden, hazardous contact. Probability shifted rapidly in both directions, with organisms crossing from one locus into the other, and vice versa.
At one end of the link, fifty-seven food animals, assorted arthropods and one-hundred-five plants were transferred. At the other end, four astronauts; together with a great deal of balance-shifting water, warmth and air.
In less than a startled heartbeat, Linda, Pete, Rachael and Kyril found themselves back on the surface of present-day Mars. Dropped without warning in the midst of their altered base, at the swirling center of trouble.
California, many days before-
Virgil, Gordon, Alan and the two kids did what they could to rescue accident victims and alleviate suffering. Wished they could have done more, though; especially Virgil, who had begun to really believe in their father's dream of a high-tech rescue squad.
Not that there was much time, here, for dreams; not much time for anything at all beyond cautious people-moving, and the hurried stanching of wounds. Together with hundreds of others, they worked far into morning, almost harder than humanly possible.
Sometime before noon, one of the road's electronic billboards came back to life, but not to display adverts or official instructions from WorldGov. Instead… and this stopped everyone right in their bone-weary tracks… the billboard showed them the blazing launch of a spaceship from high-orbital dock, followed by a single, brief message:
'It shall be destroyed.'
Earth, in the meantime-
News shows and web logs were buzzing aloud with the Mysteron threat to WorldGov's bold rescue mission. As usual, everyone had an opinion, and was eager to state it at the top of their lungs and their bandwidth. The video billboards all along that accident-choked section of road displayed little else… except when Mysteron propaganda broke through. And that was too often for anyone's liking.
Virgil, Gordon, Alan and the kids stayed as long as they were needed and able to help. But the authorities arrived in force, eventually, and the threads of regular life had once again got to be picked up. Or mended, as the case might be.
Virgil called Mr. Springfield himself. He hadn't been sure what to say to the man, and so he stuck with the truth; describing the bare facts of Christian's loss, his finding and demise. It wasn't easy. Not to tell, or to hear, but Virgil got the job done; speaking very much as his grandfather had, when telling the boys what had happened to their dog, Rusty, and why. (Twenty-two years later, things like that, you remembered.)
Using various means and calling up favors, Virgil got them all transport to the desert (except for Gordon, who'd been summoned to a WASP base in San Diego). Hackenbacker was waiting for them, there, in a dented flat-bed truck he'd driven out of the prototype's cargo bay. Alan and TinTin rode on the back, exposed to blistering California heat and the pitiless sun. Not that things were much more comfortable, inside. Poor Virgil occupied as little of the cab as he could, trying very hard to give Brains a bit of privacy while he broke the news of Myrna's death to young Fermat.
The boy cried silently for many miles, fighting to control his gasps and hiccups as tear-blurred Van Gogh scenery sped by. Then,
"Dad, she didn't… mom didn't b- believe in anything! I h- have to keep r- remembering her, everyday… or sh- she'll be gone! Sh- She'll really be d- dead!"
Brains sighed, shifting his grip on the steering wheel and searching for wisdom on a long, grey ribbon of highway. After a moment, he said,
"S- Son, making a chore of, ah… of remembering s- someone is no more, ah… no more effective than r- rote prayer. Whatever sh- she believed, and wherever sh, ah… she is now, your m- mother loved us, and we still, ah… we still love h- her. There are other p- people we can help, and, ah… and knowledge we c- can spread, in h-her memory. I th- think that would, ah… would make her very happy. Don't you?" There was no need to tell the boy how she'd tried to block and discredit NASA's defense code. Not yet.
Fermat sat on the bench seat between Hackenbacker and a very still, quiet Virgil. The boy's thin arms were wrapped tightly about his scrawny torso, as though to keep himself from flying to bits. His glasses had slipped halfway down his snub nose, but it hardly mattered. Fermat was tear-blinded; quite oblivious to the long road and unfair universe outside. Woven throughout, a minor-key country tune played on the radio, but no one listened, least of all Fermat.
"I m- miss her, dad!" he protested, wanting a live mother instead of a pale, shadowed memory.
"S- So do I," Brains responded. "And I th- thank chance, or fate, or… or God, if he exists… th- that I still have you to t- talk with, about her."
Fermat nodded, hesitantly. He still had a father and friends. And maybe the ESU folks were wrong, and she wasn't dead, or Springfield, either. There weren't any bodies, after all. Who was to say that the aliens didn't keep an original? Something to make their clones from?
Virgil Tracy cleared his throat. Unable to conceive of anything to say that wouldn't sound trite, he simply patted the boy's shoulder, thinking: 'I know how it is, Fermat, and I'm sorry. Nothing but time's going to make this any easier.'
More than ever, though, he wanted to make his father's dream of a rescue company fly. Wanted not just one Thunderbird, but a fleet of them. The sight of that giant, grey-green prototype (once Brains turned off the main highway and drove them past 35 miles of rock, scrub and wildlife) was tonic. For Virgil, at least, it strengthened and helped.
Once aboard, he did most of the flying, leaving the kids to their thoughts and Brains to comfort his unhappy son. They reached the island before nightfall, Virgil getting word that Gordon had managed to bluff his way through a WASP readiness physical, just as he was lining up for his final approach.
"Good work, kiddo… Lieutenant Tracy, that is. Just take it slow, at first, and look sharp for anything at all with a sickly green glow. That's the sub you're gonna want to avoid."
His brother snorted rudely.
"Thanks ever so, Virgil. Strive t' keep that in mind, I will. Though, as the cruise is rather routine, there's hardly likely t' be much in the way of excitement. You're the one on the hot seat, with assorted business ventures and relations t' manage, while father's on the mend. Can't say I envy you that."
Nobody did. Virgil got home that night to find a tremendous mess and a highly motivated clean-up crew, ably marshaled by Grandma Tracy. Even Lady Penelope had pitched in to help; putting boxed and canned foods back in the larder, with her hair tied back and a slight baby-curve showing under one of Jeff's faded sport shirts. Virgil had no time to wonder at this, for he was kissed on the cheek and handed a broom by his grandmother almost as soon as he walked through the door.
So life's threads went on, some of them frayed, others knotted, tangled or split. With Jeff hospitalized, Scott in the Air Force, John in trouble on Mars, and Gordon shipping out, it was up to Virgil to get Cindy (his new sister-in-law, apparently) out of jail. Then he had to draw up a contract with NASA, and commission the design of a new surface-to-orbit fighter plane.
Mostly, though, Virgil Tracy made it his business to get Rescue International out of his dad's head and onto the launch pad. Now, more than ever, it was going to be needed.
Below ground, on still-resounding Mars-
"I don't trust him," Roger hissed to the gathered others; to Cho, John, Ilon, Baker, Andrews and Lacy.
"We must judge with reason, rather than anger," whispered Dr. Kim in reply, placing a small hand on Thorpe's well-muscled arm. "Remember that our guns did not stop the attack of Scarlet, Roger. He did so, himself."
They glanced across the cavern at the altered super man, whose back was turned to them all as though Jarvis and his gun… Thorpe and his conference… simply didn't matter. (And maybe he was right.) For their own part, Ilon and the repair crew tended to agree with their leader's grim suspicions, while John was still angered by the threats to his family, back home. Understandably, he wasn't much inclined to be trusting.
"Scarlet says he's got an ex-partner headed for Earth to complete the Mysterons' last-minute shopping list," John reminded them. "But he's our friend, because he's seen the light of truth, or something."
"And you believe that?" Ilon demanded, leaning forward aggressively.
"Not sure," their tech-rep shrugged. "But it seems like he would have kept trying to kill me, if he wasn't on the straight and narrow. Bullets sure as hell didn't stop him."
It was Jennifer Lacy (medium height, olive skinned and a bit plump) who came up with a possible answer.
"Maybe that code of yours disrupts possession of people, too? I mean… Scarlet could be safe enough for now… until the aliens regroup and take hold, again."
"Which is a definite problem," John concluded, looking over at the sparking remains of his workstation, "because I've got nothing left to update and transmit the code with. We're going to need access to another computer, Roger. I don't have time to rebuild from scratch."
(And, speaking of scratch, the chickens were gone… most of them, anyhow… together with much of their barn-dump's other livestock, plants and machinery. Weird, but in all of the turmoil and worry, no one else seemed to notice but Cho.)
Roger reclaimed their attention with a sharply dissatisfied grunt.
"Meaning… we don't have much choice but to follow him out to the surface," the Marine grumbled, adding suddenly, "Damn it! I f-ing hate this! That f-er's about as trustworthy as a cluster grenade, with the pin pulled!"
"But a grenade is trustworthy," Ilon told him, "so long as you know what you've got, and don't hang on too long. Look, we know that he's dangerous; we know that he's likely to explode again, and we know he hates Tracy. All we have to do is defend against those areas."
John shrugged, muttering,
"I can take care of myself, Ilon. Trust me."
Cohen gave him an indulgent, big-brotherly sort of shove, grinning briefly.
"Yeah. You, I trust. Him, not so much. No matter what he says about peace, love and understanding."
"Back to business," Roger cut in, gesturing for attention. "The plan as it stands is this: we cautiously go along with Captain Marvel, there, because he's on our side (for the moment) while his partner very much isn't, and because he probably knows the way out. We stay alert, because the situation's unstable and there may be more enemy activity in the area. Lastly… on our way to helping stop "Captain Black", we get John to some kind of working computer station. All in favor?"
Raggedly, first one, then the others, the group raised their hands. Even Scarlet, who apparently had much better hearing than anyone had supposed.
A few minutes later, they'd gathered supplies and headed out through the cooled opening, one at a time. Last to come through was Roger. Cho had insisted that he block the hole behind them, so that none of the remaining animals should follow them out and become lost. Thorpe did as he was told, as much to secure a future protein source as because Kim Cho asked him to.
"That won't help, you know. Not for long, anyway," Scarlet informed them, watching as Roger dragged a stack of workstation wreckage over the opening. "They're aware of the animals, and they would have opened the cavern and decompressed it, if your attack hadn't halted progress." Jerking a thumb at the mysterious new side passage, he added, "That's the vent right there. It's about five feet from having killed you all."
"Then it's a damn good thing we struck first," Thorpe responded, rising to his full, imposing height. He still didn't trust Captain Scarlet, and revelations like that one didn't help matters. "Anything else we should know about?"
Metcalfe turned on his heel and started walking.
"Just that the greenhouse dome is this way… and that Black is nearly to the launch pad. Follow me, if you want to stop him."
On the surface, a bit earlier-
Pete, Linda, Kyril and Rachael had been asleep or standing watch… John* having stepped away moments before to answer nature's emergency summons… when it happened again. A sort of odd, soundless explosion and reality ripple occurred. Briefly, everything developed a flat and weirdly-angled appearance, and then four of them were bumped across folded spacetime, and back to their base.
Unfortunately, right in the midst of the other survivors' code and EM assault. Fading green energy crackled through everything, lining the domes and buildings like emerald foxfire. Long-necked cameras twisted and writhed as though burning, and so did the drones and survey-rovers. Machines began to collapse all around them like dropped puppets, crashing to the ground… smashing through the dome… in a screeching shower of golden sparks. Not all went down without a fight. A crane swung itself toward the dumbfounded astronauts, its steel cable growing a sudden array of slashing long blades.
"Run!" McCord shouted, shoving Rachael and Linda toward a shallow airlock threshold. Kyril pulled out his flare gun, but didn't fire. Not yet.
Something… piled wreckage, it had looked like… rolled over, revealing itself as a partly dismembered power-suit, grown to gargantuan proportions. With its one remaining hand, the mutilated power-suit grabbed for the crane's base, and tipped the thing over, felling a charging drill in the process. The noise was horrid, indescribable; the air strong with spilt fluids and ozone. They were assaulted from many directions at once, even the ground and walls developing jagged protrusions and toothy rents. Then the green energy began flowing away, deserting every object and machine on base but one: a modified X-90 spacecraft.
They couldn't see all of the ship, but enough was visible above the rover garage to hint that this sleek, silver spacecraft was well-armed and ready for launch. It flexed and grew as they watched it, seeming to absorb the last of that alien life force.
Commander McCord started forward; even with one eye, not liking what he saw. Then a hurrying figure burst from one end of their hugely grown reactor building. A stranger. More importantly, a stranger who was now speeding for that eagerly quivering ship, like a man with a mission.
"Hey!" McCord shouted aloud, "Where's the fire?"
Without turning or breaking stride, the rushing man raised a weapon and shot at Pete, who hit the deck just in time to have his shoulder creased instead of his heart drilled.
Kyril took aim and fired the flare gun. Their last bit of ordnance screamed across the broken dome and beyond, striking the stranger's right hip. But the man did not falter, though his uniform burst into bright, searing flame. Like a jack-o-lantern, he grinned at them, wreathed in fire, but kept on running for the ship.
"Don't know what he's up to, but he goes down, now. Top of the checklist, people, move!" Pete shouted.
Everyone started running at once, catching his urgency. Nor were they alone, for more people appeared suddenly, pouring across the western loading-platform. With a joyous heart-jerk, Linda recognized Cho and then John. Calling out, she angled her course toward his, sped up and almost collided with the young man, who seized her hand, but did not stop.
The base yet retained a spark of alien life, and it seemed aware of the old adage: if you would draw your enemy forth, attack what he is obliged to rescue.
Rachael and Cho were set upon by whipping power cords and rebar; steel bonds which wrapped tight around the women's limbs and began to pull. No… in hindsight, everyone did not have to stop and help… but no one, not even Scarlet, could turn away and just leave them to be torn apart.
Shouting incoherently, Linda tugged at hard, squirming steel, trying vainly to free her trapped friends. Beneath them, sharp rods and metal bits thrust from the concrete like fangs. Roger, John and Ilon took up whatever they could find to use as a weapon or pry-bar, blocking most of the floor's attacks. But it was Captain Scarlet who released Cho and Rachael. He simply snapped the bars and steel cables like rotten thread, yelling at the others to haul the women free.
There was no time for tears or hugs, though. The ground shook, light flared. Then came a thunderous grumble, rising in seconds to a savage, head-splitting roar. The ship lifted off; its ascending starburst the last they would see of Captain Black for a very long time.
Shaken free by noise and vibration, bits of the damaged dome and out-buildings rattled loose and fell to the ground all about them. A wind rose, but not of decompression. This wind was marshy-smelling; cold, damp and breathable. The air of a living world.
Pete sat down with a thump, settling himself on a fallen bit of wall. The others rushed toward him, but he halted them all with an up-thrust hand.
"Stop," he commanded. "Give me a minute. I'm a one-eyed old man. I've lost most of my base, and probably just let the cause of this disaster get away. I need time to think."
He was, all at once, very tired. John glanced at Roger, who shifted one arm free of Cho and signed: 'Computer- get. Earth- call- fast.'
Tracy nodded a clenched fist, meaning: 'Yes.'
Touching Pete lightly on the shoulder, he set off with Linda to find some means to warn Earth. But Metcalfe stood staring after the fading sunburst of Conrad's ship. He was immortal, now. They both were; fated to battle forever on opposite sides of an alien war.
Forever… past love and the lives of his friends… past Spectrum and WorldGov, even. He'd be in the midst of everything, but essentially alone, because Death's other kingdom was immortality. Its only other inhabitant Conrad Lefkon… Captain Black.
In the midst of confused digging-out, of fires being doused and victims tended, Earth received yet another burst of transmission. The new images were horrid and omnipresent, for the Mysteron invaders were still able to co-opt and distort human broadcasts.
Before Earth's news and entertainment networks learnt to vary their signal and adjust NASA's code, video was streamed to every receiver on the planet, showing the WorldGov spaceship reaching Mars and being attacked. Unable to look away or to shut off their screens, they witnessed the X-90's violent destruction and the subsequent capture of both pilots. To their utter shock, Captain Scarlet's demise was then displayed for them; his scrambling, solitary last stand at a Mars base garage, and his crushing defeat.
But the Over-Mind's true cleverness was revealed by what came afterward. Instead of threats or demands for surrender, they next broadcast Captain Black's heroic "escape" from possessed astronauts and attacking machines; showed him valiantly fighting to reach safety on Sol 3.
By the time he contacted Earth with the news that he'd got away clean and was speeding home, the public was ready to believe anything he said. And when Black warned them not to accept any broadcasts from Endurance Base or its possessed inhabitants, WorldGov didn't argue. After all, the man was a hero, battling against terrible odds to escape his alien captors.
Crucially, though, not everyone believed him. WASP and NASA were holdouts, and certain members of Spectrum, as well.
Mars, Endurance Base-
Contact with Earth was of paramount importance. Unfortunately, it was also tough as hell to arrange, because very little equipment remained in a useable state.
John methodically searched the base with Linda, checking its out-buildings, sickbay and server center, but repeatedly coming up blank. Not because the computer equipment had been demolished. Far from it. Because energy beings had no need for keyboard, screen or USB ports, and so had mutated these interface points out of existence. Basically, the entry gates weren't just locked; they'd vanished entirely.
John Tracy and Dr. Bennett spent an increasingly worrisome afternoon canvassing the base. At one point, leaving the waste-treatment facility through an oddly stretched doorway, John looked up at a lavender sky full of gathering clouds and remarked,
"Smells like snow."
Linda followed his glance, sniffed audibly, and then said,
"I'll have to take your word for that, Sunshine. What does snow smell like, exactly?"
John smiled at the treatment facility's uneven concrete floor.
"Clearly, you've never lived in Kansas or Wyoming," he said, adding, "It, um… smells metallic, sort of. Wet, cold and metallic. In Wyoming, there's nothing between you and the North Pole but a barbed wire fence. Here, we don't even have the fence."
Linda shook her head, grimacing a little.
"I grew up down south, John, in Cross Creek, Florida. The only time I saw snow was on TV. Once or twice through an airport window, maybe… and then again at the Antarctic Training Station, from inside the colony mock-up. Not the same, I guess. But rain and thunder…? Those, I can tell you all about."
He squeezed her hand by way of response, picking a route across a cracked loading dock to the rover workshop. They stepped cautiously, because floors had a way of terminating abruptly, with no guard rail or bright-painted warning stripe. Energy beings had no need for such things, after all, or stairs, either.
Beneath a giant rent in the dome, John dropped from the dock's snow-dusted edge to the ground, then turned and reached up to assist Linda. Most likely, she didn't need the help, but enjoyed coming into contact with him; even pretending to slip a little, so he'd catch and hold her. Whatever her motive, it felt good, so he went along with her ruse.
"Why do you think you got sent back to a different part of the base?" the doctor asked him, as they ducked through a slumped and gaping doorway.
John was not a quick liar, and his perfected copy had been too emotional to leave a clear record of events on ancient Mars.
"I headed off to, um… take care of some physical matters, and I guess that all the distance covered for privacy's sake must have been magnified on our return trip. Uh… temporally, as well as spatially."
Her brown eyes narrowed a bit.
"Just that I got here before you did, by nearly a day and a half. Allowing for the planet's rotation and revolution, I wound up with a spatial translation of about a kilometer, due east of your arrival point."
Damn. That almost made sense. Dr. Bennett was willing to believe it, anyhow. The more important question… what had become of the other colonists… they didn't discuss. Except for a few power-suited corpses, there weren't any remains to bury, and no-one else was present but Roger's repair crew, the trash dump animals, and Cho.
Hand on his weapon, John cautiously moved from the workshop door to a bank of computer equipment. He didn't hold out much hope of salvagability, because the walls outside were deeply scored, as by giant mechanical claws. Still... worth a try, right? The interior was dim, but orderly, with sagging, twisted furniture in more or less the right place, and what seemed to be a genuine effort at clean-up.
"Someone's been here, already?" the tech-rep asked, puzzled.
"I'll check," Linda whispered, hitting her belt-comm. As she talked with Roger Thorpe, John drew closer to the workshop's computer station. Its view screen had lengthened, he noticed, while its keyboard seemed to drip off the table and onto a chair, like frozen putty.
For a moment, John pictured instruments and machinery brought to sudden, confused life, trying to squirm away from their long-time confines. Then he thrust the image aside, together with thoughts of all the robotic rovers he'd programmed here to explore the surface and prospect for minerals. All in the past.
He'd brought a recycled diagnostic scanner from the garbage dump, and now John approached that altered workstation with the unit clipped to his belt and an output cord held in one hand. Maybe, this time…
"John, be careful," Linda warned him. "According to Roger, we're the first recon team to get this far. Kyril and Jennifer are on the other side of the base, and Ilon's with Rachael and Pete, exploring what's left of the launch pad. Scarlet's just… standing there."
Nodding, John tossed her his sidearm.
"I'll take precautions," he said, looking for a place to plug in. "Watch the room, and shoot anything suspicious... Including me, if my actions seem at all questionable. There could be some ghosts left in the system, in which case attempted interface'll get real ugly, real fast."
Outside, meanwhile, Kim Cho had come to a startling conclusion about the mauled power-suit, which lay quivering and sparking beneath a wrecked loading crane.
"Roger," she murmured to her protective almost-fiancé, "I believe that this mechanism yet lives."
Mars, in the concrete-walled rover workshop, Bldg. 3-
There comes a point where you either move forward, or give in to fear. Where you proceed (teeth clenched to still them, palms wiped repeatedly) or retreat, clutching excuses around you like blankets.
For John Tracy, fear was an abstract concept, like love, rage or embarrassment; a collection of physical sensations and juxtaposed, battling stimuli. Often, he did not even know what to call it, and so wound up classifying the emotion as mild indigestion or nausea. In any event, Scott's all-purpose phrase for situations like these was: Make it happen. So, he did. More or less.
The blond tech-rep (and second-rate, backdoor astronaut) took a firmer grip on his diagnostic scanner and strode for that warped computer station. At his back stood a woman… his woman… with her weapon primed and ready. Not that she could protect him from anything nasty that a swarm of routed aliens might have installed in the base computer system. No one could do that. Just that she was very much willing to try. (A fact which sparked certain warm feelings, starting with the pit of his stomach and headed south… but this was not the best time to be thinking of sex, maybe.)
Something caught his eye as John stepped past a bent, twisted chair; just at the edge of his vision, out of place and skittery-swift. Something was retreating hurriedly into shadow, off to the left a ways.
Primes alone couldn't handle this one. So, he considered, instead, the cardioid, a beautiful, heart-shaped figure produced by graphing the polar equation: r = a (1- cos Theta). And then… somewhat steadied… John Tracy turned a bit, swinging around to more directly face that barely-glimpsed something, in front of the workshop's tool-and-spare-parts room. Dr. Bennett spoke sharply. Warning him again, no doubt, but he pushed that aside, thinking,
'Just what the hell did they leave behind?"
Outside, amid steaming wreckage and flurried snow-
Kim Cho would have gone closer. The massive power-suit was missing both legs and most of one arm. Its battery pack should have failed long before, considering all of the energy being expended by the trapped, twitching machine. But somehow, the mauled power-suit continued to struggle.
Snow drifted through the compromised overhead dome, falling from swag-bellied clouds to raise bright, noisy sparks whenever a flake struck exposed wiring. Torn metal shrieked across concrete, filling the air with dust and electrical smoke.
Always a deeply empathic person, Cho could not escape the feeling that this mutilated power-suit was not just alive, but in pain. She tried to step forward, meaning to help, but Roger prevented her.
"Kimmy, no! If it's alive, I'm betting it's also dangerous and vengeful. Remember the bars and wires, back there? Don't get too close. If nothing else, all that thrashing around could tip the crane over."
Or… as the power-suit's remaining hand groped along the crane boom for useable parts... it could start to rebuild itself. Roger and Cho looked on, startled, as cable and struts were torn from the crane and rapidly incorporated by the fallen machine. Their comms went off repeatedly, giving vent to shrill beeps and bursts of wild static. Decision time.
"Pete!" The worried Marine shouted into his glitching belt comm. "Commander McCord!"
"Go ahead, Thorpe." The short, red-haired officer had wandered into a launch pad fire-control station some time before. He was no longer in direct eye- or hearing-range.
"Skipper, I think you need to come out and have a look at this."
"Be right there. What's the trouble?"
"Uh… we got us a live one, Pete, and it's definitely trying to put itself back together."
"Copy that. Fall the hell back, maintain surveillance from a safe distance, and sound a general alarm. Where there's one, there may be more."
Earth, beside a bustling, military co-opted, rail station-
Gordon Tracy had bidden farewell to TinTin Kyrano; an awkwardly warm, fumbling moment he'd remember for the rest of his life. Drawing the lass aside (while Virgil bargained like a barrow-man for transport) he'd said,
"Right. I'll be off, then. Look after Alan and Fermat, Angel, if you'd not mind overmuch… but also look after y'rself. Sometimes, believe it or not, TinTin Kyrano deserves t' come first."
First... as she'd always counted with him. He'd already given the dark-haired beauty his each and every Olympic medal. The awards were hers, along with an unwanted heart. Settled the matter ages ago, they had. Settled, and moved on. Yet… after spending so much time in her company, experiencing TinTin's warm touch and soft voice… the red-haired sailor found himself wishing and wanting, all over again.
So, he'd leant in to kiss her ivory-gold cheek. She turned her face slightly, though, as if surprised, and it was TinTin's red, parted mouth he scored upon, instead. That made a genuine kiss, one which neither of them broke, for several long seconds. When they did pull away, it was with racing hearts and tightly clasped hands.
She'd said something, then, all in a tumbling, mellifluous rush. Gordon squeezed both her small hands in his own and replied,
"TinTin, I don't speak bloody French. Never 'ave, never shall." (A lie, that, as he'd certainly been taking the odd lesson from his Francophone shipmate, Jean Parrish.)
She'd blushed a bit, and then ducked her head to press a reddening brow against his left shoulder.
"I said that I shall take care," mumbled her small and musical voice, warming clear through his shirt to the skin beneath, "but that you, my bold heart, must do likewise. For I shall miss you terribly, all the days you are gone."
Very fortunately, Gordon's muscles locked up. Elsewise, he'd have tossed her into the air, caught the lass and then spun her wildly about. No, indeed; an entire heartbeat and a half transpired before TinTin sailed upward and then landed again, safe in the embrace of her battered, ecstatic young man.
The long ride to San Diego, afterward, he scarcely noticed; automatically responding with his name, rank, service and serial number when confronted with check-stations and vigilant guards. He'd got quarantined, of course, directly outside of the city. But the doctors and corpsmen seemed more concerned that Gordon not prove to be alien-possessed than that his health be entirely perfect. Again, fortunately.
At any rate, he did pass the physical/ mental exam, receiving clearance at last to rejoin his commander and shipmates aboard Mako. Their planned cruise would be relatively short; steaming halfway across the Pacific to Sea Base Gamma, and then outward from there, in search of Mysteron-controlled vessels and aircraft.
Aboard were Commander Blake Moll, Lt. Commander Anwynn Norris, Lt. Gordon Tracy (the sub's Skydiver pilot), Petty Officer Jean Parrish and Seaman First Class Laura Marks. Their boat was well armed, very fast and (as Alan would have put it) highly sneaky. All things considered, the crew were as well equipped and briefed as anyone could have been, for what was to come. Like everything else in life, what they faced was a calculated risk against quick-shifting odds.
But, as for Alan and Fermat, back on the Island…
Tracy Island after a windy night, stuck in the family room, with a slight, but annoying cold-
"Oh… my… gosh! He is so full of crap!"
Furious, Alan sniffled and growled at the newly repaired television. Local programming had been interrupted once more by the latest transmission from 'Captain Black'. In fact, other than government updates, finance and accident reports, the networks displayed little else. And no wonder! The clips were very dramatic; broken by static and Mysteron warnings that Black was their prisoner. His ship, their property. Let any who helped him beware! Yeah, right...
"If anyone can hear me," he'd called out, hunched over the flight controls of an obviously damaged vessel, "Please listen! The aliens are preparing an invasion force, using… material from… astronauts. I've stolen one of … assault ships, but… not make it… Earth. Please, don't accept any… issions from Mars." And so on.
Alan couldn't stand the sight of him, and quickly switched channels again, rather than have to look at Black's earnest expression and bold, handsome face. Pheh! Loser! Double loser!
"He's lying," muttered the congested young man, reaching deep into a crinkling plastic bag for another handful of smuggled Doritos. "He's gotta be!"
(Okay, yeah… Alan was supposed to be eating chicken soup and junk, but that stuff only made him feel worse. At least Doritos tasted like something, stuffed up nose or not.)
Black had to be lying, because John was on Mars, and his quiet older brother would never let himself be used for zombie-horde fodder. Never. Not the way he played D & D.
Fermat wandered into the family room about that time, looking disheveled, tired and dirty. He'd been out with his dad, clearing fallen branches from the island's main airstrip, and he didn't seem happy.
(Well, duh! His mom was dead; like Scott, John, Virgil and Gordon's… except that Gordon didn't really remember her. Lucy, that is.)
Not sure what to say to him, Alan settled for a wave and weak smile.
"Hey, what's up?" he asked, when the younger boy drifted over. "Sorry I haven't been much help today, man, but I'm almost over this, for real."
Fermat shrugged and began straightening Alan's sickroom mess of dropped napkins and scattered magazines.
"Doesn't m- matter. We got it… t- taken care of. But, I was th- thinking, Alan…"
"Yeah?" the blond flickered a nervous grin at him, adding, "Kinda dangerous habit, Ferms. I try to avoid it, myself."
Fermat flinched at the nickname. And all at once, Alan remembered that the boy's mom had often called him that, back when she was, like, alive.
"Dude, I'm so sorry! For real, it's locked away forever. I won't ever say that, again!"
Fermat gave him another shrug and a crooked, watery smile. Having finished fluffing and stuffing, he sat down, choosing a big, squashy armchair across from Alan's blanketed couch.
"D- Don't worry about it… Al. I'm a b- big boy. I'll live. I was just… I w- was thinking... you know… about wh- what Captain B- Black reported? Th- That the astronauts on M- Mars are being used for… genetic s- source material? M- Maybe they've d- done… the same th- thing with my mom, Alan. Maybe she's still… alive, s- somewhere."
"Uh-uh," Alan grunted, shaking the last few crumbs out of his family-sized chip bag. "No way. Black's lying. I know it. I don't think he stole any ship, or escaped from Mars, either! I think he's the one who's possessed." (Like Chris had been.) "But, I digest. The reason your mom isn't being harvested for DNA stuff is because no one is. Black made all that up just to keep us from going to Mars and finding out the truth! Bet me."
He could afford to be confident, you see, with his own mother safely tucked away at a So-Cal peace commune, polishing up crystals and beads. But Fermat didn't feel much like betting, or like giving up on his last, tightly-clutched straw.
"Alan… w- what if there was a w- way we c- could find out f- for… sure?"
"I'm listening," his friend replied cautiously, stifling a volcanic sneeze. "What'd you have in mind?"
High in the air, between the Hawaiian Islands and Kanaho-
There was a good reason why Brains and Fermat had been out all morning clearing up the night's scattered windfalls. Virgil was headed back, in one of the company jets, having both visited Jeff at the hospital and sprung Cindy Taylor from jail.
Figuring that he ought to get to know his new sister-in-law, Virgil tried several safe topics of conversation, but she didn't seem interested in art, music or football (except for USC). All she wanted to talk about was her very drunk and informative cellmates, and how quickly she could "get back to business".
Virgil grunted and switched navigational transponder settings, waiting for the beep before adjusting his course. The distance from Oahu to Tracy Island was considerable, and home easy to miss in all this wide ocean.
"You were released into my custody," he reminded her, "because Judge Ho is a friend of the family, and because he trusts me to keep you out of trouble and off the airwaves. I had to promise that I'd make damn sure you serve every second of your kindergarten story-time community service, before he agreed to let you out."
Cindy stiffened, and not because Virgil had banked the Lear to avoid a tumbling mass of dark clouds. (Though the rising engine noise and juddering airframe didn't help her mood.)
"You're kidding me, right? You took that stuff seriously? Buddy, I've done jail time in seven different countries, for going where I'm not supposed to and shouting truths that somebody else didn't want heard! Community... service?"
Virgil looked over at his new sister-in-law; his brown eyes stern and brows solidly knit.
"Yeah. Community service. And, no, I'm not kidding. I haven't spent much time in California, Cindy, but where I'm from it's understood: if you break the law, you pay the price. Pure and simple."
Cindy scowled back. She and Virgil Tracy'd had a telephone and vid-comm nodding acquaintance, previously, but he was shaping up to be quite a formidable opponent, in person… and worse, he was among Scott's closest friends.
Turning suddenly away, the reporter stared out at bright sunshine and purple storm clouds; at an ocean divided in half by wild rain squalls and streaked with the white tracks of ships.
"Kindergartners," she growled with genuine loathing. "Reading 'My Little Poopy Puppy' to a bunch of sticky, noisy, goddam kindergartners! Show a little mercy, Virgil! At least help me get my sentence commuted to middle school. I could probably survive 'Harry Potter and the Flipping Fill-in-the-Blank', but enduring a room full of tots would just about kill me."
Virgil gazed at the pretty, hard-natured reporter, wondering what in God's name Scott saw in her.
"I'll talk to Judge Ho," he sighed, shaking his head, "but I can't promise anything. Larry Ho does his own thing. Always has. Listen, though: whether it's kindergarten, nursing home or reform school, you need to suck it up and do what he tells you to. You're one of the family now, Cindy, and Tracys pay their debts."
The former Miss Taylor stared at her handsome brother-in-law for a moment, and then she smiled; unleashing the same brilliant white tooth-flash she always used when cornering a reluctant interview subject.
"You have my solemn oath, Cowboy. I'll put up with having my lap sat on, my hair yanked and my dress rumpled by dozens of chocolate-smeared hands, all in the name of Tracy solidarity, so help me, God. How's that?"
Virgil snorted and began to relax (as much as he could, with a major storm brewing).
"Mrs. Scott Aaron Tracy, you're a real piece of work. I can't wait to introduce you to Grandma and Penny. Hell, I oughta charge admission!"
"You don't think I can handle one old woman and an over-bred British aristocrat?" she teased back, raising one dark, arching brow.
Virgil chuckled, eyes on his instruments, weather-ear on the news from Pacific South Tower.
"I think it's going to be interesting," he replied diplomatically, as their plane streaked southward and west; swift as a gull against scowling dark clouds.
The workshop floor was nearly as warped as the ground outside, as if all of Building 3 had frozen in the act of exhaling. Its cracked walls leaned inward, with cable and reinforcing rods projecting through them like spines. Furniture and electronic systems had something of a "Medusa's grove" appearance, meanwhile; very much resembling creatures that had been petrified while trying to flee.
Made for slow going and taut, prickled nerve-ends, but John Tracy was at least as curious as he was concerned. He took another slow step toward the tool room, which should have lit up, but didn't. Motion sensors were down, apparently.
Said Dr. Bennett, from behind him,
"John, Roger just called. Pete wants us back, posthaste. He says that some of the machines are still active; disposition and intent, unknown."
"Understood, Doctor. Thank you. But give me a minute. I think I may know what we're dealing with, here."
Hoping that their speech-recognition software still functioned, and that they retained a positive record of his recent repair efforts, John dropped to a crouch and called,
"Kip… Hawking… are you there?"
Stillness and silence persisted a few heartbeats longer. Then, a slight rattling noise commenced, and something inched… almost slunk… through the tool room's lopsided threshold. Sure enough, an older-model prospecting rover came into view, one of two he'd been working on, because parts were scarce and room on supply ships just about priceless.
The rover, Kip, crept forward on hissing wheels. There was something odd about its posture, though. Both sample-collection arms were bent across the machine's forward sensor array, and its camera mast was not just retracted, but dipped. Took him a moment to realize that Kip was mimicking his own crouched position; head thrust alertly forward, arms resting across ski-flexed thighs. Now… why would that be? Such imitation made no sense at all, unless, once the alien presence had faded, the rovers found themselves still alive, beseiged and very confused… but not hostile.
Linda stood absolutely still behind him, keeping her gun steady and her breath pent. Ignoring her, Kip rolled a few meters forward and then braked, reflexively angling its solar panels toward the strongest light source.
"Hey," John said to the rover, who seemed sleeker, more of a piece, than he recalled. "How's that processing glitch? Still seeing the world in black and white?"
He'd worked on them for months, because Kip needed major reprogramming, while Hawking had survived a dust storm only to tumble into a steep crater (and both required total overhauls). Good, mindless tinkering it had been; perfect for all those nights when he couldn't sleep.
The rover's camera mast extended slightly, its posture loosening when John's did. The status light began flashing rapid binary at him, repeating the distress code that had originally brought John and Ilon out to reclaim Kip from Valles Marineris.
What was that supposed to mean? The use of visual code, rather than radio, suggested that Kip was speaking to him, not to the aliens or other machines, but he couldn't be positive. One thing was certain, though; those squeaks and pops from Linda's belt comm affected the rover, whose camera mast retracted after each staticky outburst.
"Turn that thing off, a minute," he told her.
"John, are you sure?" Linda fretted, free hand hovering above the comm's glowing red power switch.
"Not a hundred percent, no... but close enough. If what he's hearing is communication or outcry from other machines, he might be pretty upset."
"He?" Linda asked, reluctantly stilling her belt comm.
"Yeah. Kip, here. I think he's a worried non-combatant, but we're having communication issues. That speech recognition software interprets only its name, direct queries and certain commands, so I'm not sure how to… Wait a second… Kip: status?"
The rover's light began blinking once more, pouring forth a jumbled mixture of FORTRAN and Machine Code. Dialect? Already?
"Yes. On. Affirmative," John replied. "Copy your request for assistance and input. Kip: stand by."
Moving slowly (because there was a second shadow in the tool room behind Kip, possibly as well armed as Dr. Bennett) John took up his diagnostic scanner and USB cord, and then held them forth.
He had to stay excruciatingly basic, limiting his speech to declarations and conditionals. Even using light pulses wouldn't have helped matters, much. Kip and Hawking simply didn't have the vocabulary to understand conversational English. They spoke code and thought it, too, unless he could make a few changes to their compilers, that is.
A moment passed, during which John assumed that Hawking and Kip were holding swift conference. Then the first rover began moving again, rolling in John's direction.
Back at St. Raphael's, he'd had a device implanted; one which gave him a certain influence and insight with machines. This device had helped break John out of his self-imposed isolation. Now it allowed him to affect Kip and Hawking, without actually seizing control.
Not possessing such abilities, Linda shifted nervously. John could hear cloth rustling, and quickened, soft breath.
"Relax, doctor. He's taking as big a risk as I am. He has no idea what's going on, or who the enemy is. Woke up in the middle of a fight, and did his best to stay hidden, would be my guess."
Another sharp rustle. Head shake, probably. He didn't dare look away to be sure.
"If you say so, sunshine. I've got you covered, but I'm not going to relax until we're back in the transport van, on our way to quarantine at White Sands."
There was no time to respond. Kip had halted within arm's reach, but only just, so John inspected the rover's chassis, looking for any of three USB ports that had once studded its flank, just below the right solar panel. Yeah. Still there. Again, he said,
"Kip: link?" Making it decidedly conditional. A request, not an order.
The port cover slid open. Access granted. Still moving quite slowly, John plugged in his cord, which was seized and incorporated like a brand new limb. Now the scanner's diagnostic screen lit up; flooded with shifting alphanumerics. Not a problem. John could keep up.
"Rough day," he remarked at last, after processing all of that data. He'd been wrong, though. Kip hadn't just hidden. Together with Hawking, the rover had attempted to barricade the workshop, afterward even clearing up a little.
Having received Kip's input, John next performed a burst of programming; finishing up correction of the rover's vision problems, and then setting to work on that compiler/ interpreter. Basic English syntax: subject-verb-predicate… past, present, future… a little vocabulary. Enough to start with, anyhow. Dr. Seuss-type stuff. "The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play…" That sort of thing.
Took him awhile, and left John with severe cold-floor-and-rigid-posture cramps, but proved to be well worth it, later. By the time he was done, Dr. Bennett had taken a seat and put away her gun, and Hawking was out of the tool room, awaiting his turn.
Eventually, John sat back and tugged the USB cord loose, saying,
"Kip: how are you?" in order to test the success of his efforts.
Through a series of flashes, the rover replied,
'Input is status check. Rover status green.'
"Good," John answered, forcing himself not to pat the machine like a pony. No telling how Kip would feel about such familiarity. But it asked a question of its own, after a moment, inquiring,
'Programmer: how are you?'
"I've been better, Kip. No… Stand by for clarification: programmer status yellow."
Very much yellow, with improvement uncertain, unless he could somehow contact and warn Earth.
Outside, a little earlier, not far from the launch pad-
Being men, Roger Thorpe and Pete McCord sought a physical solution to the problem of a live, thrashing power-suit, but Kim Cho saw things otherwise. Thinking like a biologist, she put the massive patient to sleep by using her belt comm to broadcast a short-range 'safe mode' command.
Instantly, the panicked bot browned out, dropping a loading crane it had been viciously shredding for parts. Metal groaned and shrieked, scraping across the buckled pavement a few tens of meters from Pete, Cho and Roger, who leapt aside to avoid the crane's torn cab and whipping treads. This being Mars, their leaps covered more territory than they would have on Earth, but the astronauts still ended up bruised and abraded and covered in thin, rusty mud.
"Your idea?" McCord asked the exobiologist, as they clambered upright, again.
Cho executed a blushing and graceful half-bow.
"The thought would soon have occurred to many others," she excused herself. "I was but first to act, Commander."
He smiled; weary and stained, but genuinely impressed.
"You did well, Cho. Stop apologizing. Yeah, I know… Cultural stuff, blah-blah-blah." Shifting his gaze to the hulking, black-and-silver power-suit, he then asked, "How long is Optimus-Wreck going to be out of the picture?"
Dr. Kim bit her lip, obviously upset with herself.
"I cannot say, Commander. As it is no longer merely a construct, the machine may be capable of switching itself out of safe mode."
Others ran up while they were talking; Kyril and Jennifer, Ilon and Rachael, and then Captain Scarlet, last of all. Pete scanned the assemblage, his lone blue eye darting from one panting, worried face to the next.
"We're missing Andrews, Jarvis, Tracy and Bennett. Thorpe, do what it takes, but get them found. And while you're at it, arrange a rotating guard schedule for rusty, here."
"I'm on it, Skipper," the Marine replied, signaling to his repair crew and hitting the comm.
McCord turned his attention to Paul Metcalfe, then, saying,
"Scarlet, you're with me. We need to talk."
Tracy Island, in the curtains-drawn, TV-lit family room-
Earnestly convinced of his rightness, Fermat Hackenbacker began to explain. He'd never looked more like his father; repeatedly pushing the dark-rimmed glasses back up the bridge of his short nose and making plenty of swift, chopping hand gestures. Also, just like Brains, the boy leaned forward and made direct, drilling eye contact when hammering in a point.
"What'd you have in mind?" Alan had asked him, uncorking a very deep and turbulent bottle.
"I've b- been analyzing the… signals f- from Black's escape ship, Alan, and I've almost f- figured out… what his c- carrier wave is. N- Not radio, for… sure. N- Not anything like what we n- normally use to… communicate over l- large distances. It s- seems to be a transmitted ch- change in… spacetime, itself; an impulse th- that… instantaneously generates d- desired data on the… r- receiving end. Like… like some s- sort of information teleporter, almost."
And Alan was all, like, "Whoa".
…But he wasn't stupid, okay? Just surrounded (in Brains, Fermat, John and TinTin) by frickin' geniuses.
"So… lemme see if I've got this straight… What you're saying is that they don't send out any kind of radio or light signal, at all? They just… zip, bang, thank you, ma'am… instantly put a message in the receiver? No matter how far away it is?"
Fermat nodded jerkily, causing a shock of lank brown hair to flop over his forehead. That, too, got impatiently shoved into place.
"E- Exactly, Alan!"
The blond older boy grinned and high-fived him.
"W00t! Give the monkey a cigar, folks! He typed 'Act one, Scene one'! And, trust me; we've just scratched the circus!"
Fermat rolled weak blue eyes, but pressed onward.
"Okay, s- so, the important thing… is, I've f- figured out how to… track th- the data's source, and m- maybe even how to… hack into the escape ship's f- files."
Alan sobered at this, reflectively scratching one arm. Then, after a good, head-clearing sneeze ("B- Bless you." "Thanks, dude. Hand me a tissue?") He said,
"I dunno, Fermat… don't you think other people have thought of that? Like, at NASA and junk?"
Young Hackenbacker shook his head, beginning to look upset, again.
"A- Afraid not, Al. NASA's too… busy dealing w- with a WorldGov inquest, j- just now, to… do anything b- but delete files and… buy plane t- tickets out of the c- country. And the rest of th- the world seems… ready t- to just about marry this Spectrum g-guy! Trust me, th- they're not going to c- crash his system and… risk getting Captain Black c- caught. Besides, n- nobody else is us. W- We can do this, because we've… got t- to. S- Somewhere in Black's computer is i- information that c- could save my m- mom. I know there is!"
Alan held both hands up, palm outward, and scooched a little further back on his home-away-from-home, the cozy family room couch.
"Dude, slow your roll! I believe you! But, if the ship's alien, wouldn't all the files and coding be, too? How will you recognize anything?"
"N- Never underestimate the powers of a p- pissed off hacker, Alan. Th- There are only s- so many ways to accurately encode time, s- speed and spatial coordinates. All th- the rest follows. All I n- needed was my f- foot in the… door. Now, are y- you with me, or not?"
Alan grinned and loudly cracked both sets of knuckles.
"Are you kidding me? Set up your rig, bro, and let's get started."
Outside, some distance away from the house-
Big, brown-haired Virgil Tracy brought the Lear safely down on his father's airstrip, maybe half an hour ahead of the storm. Too close, really; he'd had trouble holding her steady with all of that shear and cross-wind activity. But he wanted to be home, watching the news, and speeding production. Not huddled at some wave-off alternate landing site.
Thanking Hackenbacker for his landing guidance, Virgil bounced onto the runway and then taxied to a stop at its far end, allowing the Lear's nose wheel to bump and lock into a mechanized trolley. Once he and Cindy quit the plane, automatic processes would draw it into the hangar.
The pilot sighed. Gratefully stripping off his head-set, Virgil typed up a really quick flight log entry, then glanced across the dimly-lit cockpit at Cindy.
"Better hurry," he told her, "unless you want to get rained on."
Huge, dark clouds were massing in the east, stitched with electric threads of violet light. The wind gusted and thumped like a bully, proud of its own mean, sudden strength.
"Say what you want about California," she told him, unstrapping to rise and reclaim her carry-on, "but at least storms aren't much of an issue. Fires, earthquakes, mudslides, riots, the Santa Anna wind… sure. But out there, I don't have to worry about crap like 'Typhoon Manson'."
Virgil smiled and shrugged.
"Paradise has teeth," he replied. "Dad paid for peace of mind and privacy, not perfect weather. Now… get your gear and let's go. Kyrano's waiting out on the tarmac, and that little cart of his'll go airborne, if the wind kicks up above fifty."
Then, frowning a little, "There's a tunnel connection between the hangar and house, but it got trashed when the machines went nuts, awhile back. We're better off driving."
As they exited the Learjet, scurrying down lowered boarding stairs into swirling-dank twilight, Cindy asked,
"Speaking of land-grabbing plutocrats… How is your father?"
"Improving, thanks. NASA trained him to land pretty near anything, under the most extreme conditions imaginable. Short of a mid-air explosion, I don't think there's much he couldn't survive."
With a head-shake and wondering smile, Virgil added,
"You know, dad fractured three ribs and his right humerus, and didn't even realize it? Not until they showed him the X-rays."
"Wow," Taylor responded, mentally filing that bit of information under: caution, very tough in-laws.
Big, heavy raindrops had begun to take aim and streak down; advance scouts for the on-rushing horde. Fortunately, Kyrano drove up, flashing his cart's headlights, as Virgil and Cindy ran to meet him. He braked and started to get out, meaning to take their luggage, but Virgil called,
"S' okay, I got it!" and slung both carry-ons into the back, securing them with a net of elastic webbing. "Let's get moving!"
Around them, the island appeared to be closing up shop. Dark leaves and big, waxen blossoms were folding shut, birds huddling low, while small animals clambered for shelter in deep, rocky clefts. The cart jounced a bit as he climbed into a rear passenger's seat, its suspension strained by 275 pounds of rock-solid muscle. Unlike the tall, slender wisp that was John, or Scott (Mr. Marathon), Virgil Tracy worked out a lot.
"Mr. Virgil, welcome back. And to young Mrs. Tracy, welcome home, for the first time of many blessed occasions!" Said Kyrano, doing his best to both bow, and put the white cart in reverse.
"Thanks, Kyrano," Virgil responded, giving the elegant older man a tired smile. As always, Jeff's manservant was impeccably groomed and attired, wearing a crisply- pressed tropical shirt, khaki trousers and leather sandals. Virgil felt quite rumpled and travel-stained, by comparison.
'Mrs. Tracy' extended her hand to Kyrano and smiled, saying,
"Please call me Cindy. Cindy Ann, if I'm in trouble. I'm not used to servants and I don't believe in class distinctions, so… if you want to make me feel welcome… treat me like a friend, and get ready to answer butt-loads of questions."
"Th- Thank you... Miss Cindy."
Kyrano's smile thinned noticeably as he got the whirring cart turned round, and headed up the switch-backed trail to the house. Rain was beginning to hammer at foliage and vehicle alike, but weather wasn't the source of his anxiety. The forward, inquisitive behavior of Scott Tracy's new bride accounted for that.
He looked into the rear-view mirror at Virgil, whose face was now contorting in silent spasms. Trying to communicate something vital, no doubt.
The power skipped generations, choosing this brother or that child; cursing them to madness and ruin. Otherwise, Kyrano might have heard Virgil thinking: She's satan's daughter, don't tell her anything!
Conversation was limited by the rising wind and hard-spattered rain. At least, until they rounded a sharp bend in the long trail and encountered two small figures, laboring along with an armload of signs, and a tool sack.
"What the hell?" Virgil grunted, as the two women (one a slim teenager, the other a peppery matriarch) turned around, shielding their eyes from the headlights. "Grandma! TinTin! What're you doing out here? There's a storm coming!"
Victoria Tracy reared up to her entire four feet, five inches. Behind round, foggy spectacles, her dark eyes flashed dangerously.
"Boy, I ain't lived near seventy years out on the plains, then moved my wrinkled tail to this back o' beyond rock, just to have my own grandson give me a damn weather report!"
Shifting her cane and an armload of laminated signs, she held out one hand, palm upward, into which a raindrop obligingly splashed.
"I can still see, Teddy! I got a pair of eyes, and sense enough to scoot, when Mother Nature says: old woman, get your ass inside!"
"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry," Virgil replied. He was out of the cart, already, ducking in time to avoid Victoria's ill-tempered swat, and kiss her seamed forehead. "I'll just take these and put 'em in back, Grandma," he told her, confiscating the signs from TinTin, as well. In the cart's rain-flecked, twin yellow beams, they read:
Prayer is the best way to meet God. Trespassing's quicker.
Victoria prodded him with the end of her cane, interrupting a half-formed objection.
"Quit goggling like a bullfrog, and help TinTin into that cart. Can't you see she's wore out with all this bill-posting and trail-climbing? We got damn near fifty signs stapled up, though, all along the beach and harbor!"
"Any of them government types or reporters come sneaking around here… well, they can't say they wasn't warned. Won't say nuthin' anyhow, once I got a chance to aim and fire!"
Cindy Taylor climbed out of the front passenger seat. With a very sweet, wide-eyed smile, she held open the door, indicating that Victoria was to take her place.
"Mrs. Tracy, why don't you sit down and relax," she said, feeling a little sorry for poor, helpless Virgil.
Grandma made a slow, deliberate show of turning her head to look in Cindy's direction. Then, after a long and measuring glance, Victoria stomped over to face her new granddaughter.
"You tryin' to tell me I oughta just sit down and shut up, girl?"
"Nooo…" she replied, carefully. "But I'm sure you'll admit that there are better places to have this discussion than an unpaved mountain trail, with a tropical storm coming on."
Grandma's eyes narrowed and her sharp little jaw jutted forth; two very bad signs.
"Girl, I ain't ready to be set out on no ice floe, nor told my business by the same dumb-ass reporter that got herself locked up for endangering a WASP rescue squad... 'cause she wouldn't get off a sinking ship! And, top of all that, snuck off to marry my used-to-be favorite grandson."
"I thought I was your favorite," said Virgil, straightening up from tucking away the 'no trespassing' signs, and doing his best to sound injured.
"Shut up, Teddy. You didn't used to be, but you are now… till John Matthew gets back, or that winter-crop baby of Jeff's gets born, whichever comes first."
Then, glancing pointedly skyward, she said,
"Looks like it's about to rain, good an' proper. What say you folks quit runnin' your mouths and we get on up to the house?"
Cindy nodded sheepishly, careful not to meet Virgil's "told you so" gaze as she took a seat beside TinTin. But all the way up the mountain, and then some, she thought, and she strategized. Hard.
Far away, banking and swooping above the dark cloud mass which shrouded Hawaii-
Scot had been given charge of training the newbies; young men and women, fresh out of flight school, who'd never gripped the stick of anything fiercer than a modified Gulfstream. A milk run.
Sure, they'd had plenty of simulator time, but there was a whale of a difference between sitting before a screen, being jounced and rocked by a team of sadistic programmers, and actual dogfighting. Scott Tracy meant to fix that; he meant to give his trainees a bit of early and safe(ish) experience, monitoring their flight and combat skills from the cockpit. With one eye on his battle computer, and another on his shifting view of sunlight, cloud, jets and ocean, Scott flew.
The clouds below rumbled and flashed, no doubt wreaking havoc throughout the Big Island. But Scott and his seven trainees soared above it all in YF-50 attack craft, playing hypersonic laser tag.
Naturally, the poor kids weren't managing very well. It was all they could do to handle their shrieking-fast jets, much less dodge Scott's sudden and vicious assaults. In case after case, the trainees' computers had to take over flight because they'd browned out trying to climb into space, banked too sharply, or tried a power dive from insanely low altitude. By this point, Major Tracy had racked up 39 easy "kills".
He took full advantage of the clouds, letting roiled dark vapor shield him from sight, then accelerating straight upward with a reddening sun at his back to tag another shocked newbie.
"Shit!" yelped Blankenship, dead for the fifth time in ten minutes. "Dammit, Major! How am I supposed to…?"
"Figure it out," Scott said to the young man, giving him a jaunty wave through the canopy of his fighter as he slashed past. "That's why we're here, Blankenship… while everyone else is at mess, stuffing their faces and watching the storm. Because I intend to shake the hand of every single one of you, alive and well, once all this is over."
Never again would Scott's oversight… his honest mistake… cost a squad-mate their life.
"Gotcha, sir!" Medina exulted. And damned if she hadn't; risking everything to shut off her transponder and stall the engines, diving past him from high above. His battle computer signaled "strike", and Scott smiled beneath his helmet and air mask. Medina did a brisk victory roll, the first of his trainees to nail their untouchable leader. That, of course, was shortly before her computer had to take over, when she all but collided with Donovan.
"Nice work, Lieutenant. Try celebrating by not getting yourself killed. Cutting off your transponder makes you effectively invisible, not immortal."
…But Scott was still smiling. Up in a war-bird, again, making a difference.
On Tracy Island, information was being gathered which would change just about everything. Fermat set up his computer in the family room, getting time-to-time help from a runny-nosed Alan. Using what he already knew, the young genius accessed Captain Black's escape ship; inadvertently flinging the first chunks of excrement at a very dangerous fan.
"Whoa…" he breathed, startled enough to use one of Alan's favorite phrases. "Al… s- something's wrong, here! Get my d- dad and Virgil, okay? S- Somebody else needs to… see th- this."
His wide-eyed and virus-shedding friend complied at once, lurching off to press the wall comm before asking,
"Dude, what's up?"
As Fermat would explain again for Brains, Virgil, Grandma and Cindy, the ship's signals, which appeared instantaneous from regular 4-D spacetime, were taking an extra-dimensional shortcut… a folded-space Moebius path… to reach them. Worse,
"H- He's also a lot… closer than w- we thought, and his sh- ship is being directed from 'outside space', n- not being flown by its pilot."
The conclusion was inescapable. Captain Black hadn't fled at all. He'd been sent. Brains didn't waste time asking: 'Son, are you sure?' The data were up there on a cleared image-wall, plain as day. Instead (while Fermat copied all the Mysteron files he could reach) Hackenbacker said,
"This, ah… this information n- needs to be p- publicly disseminated. At his current, ah… current r- rate of displacement, C- Captain Black will arrive in 1. 47 hours."
That's where Cindy Taylor-Tracy came in. Said the dark-haired reporter,
"You want instant credibility, open up all transmission channels, and let me be the one to introduce your segment. I'm well enough known in press and government circles that people will listen, Dr. Hackenbacker."
Wisely, Cindy cast a sideways 'okay with you?' glance at Grandma Tracy, as she spoke. The old woman's jaw tightened.
"I promised Jeffrey I'd keep an eye on things while he was away. That means keeping aliens and their lying Judas-goats the hell off this island. Start talking, girl."
Some fifteen minutes afterward, Earth's national governments boiled with news of a second invasion, and militaries all over the globe were placed on highest alert. Everyone was mobilized, everywhere at once.
Among the surface and subsurface fleets, closest to home Mako, Irukandji, and the USS Blackthorn resounded with battle klaxons; rising to skydiver launch depth in the case of the first two, and missile firing orientation, for Blackthorn. Major Tracy's training squad had been just about to head home for their long-delayed meal. Instead, along with flight groups from Australia, New Zealand and Peru, they fueled back up and headed for space.
Scott had accelerated into a high-powered climb (watching the sky go black and the curve of the Earth appear, keeping his wildly excited trainees together) when a call came through. His battle-computer screen flashed, and then cleared, somehow displaying a real-time image of John.
"Little brother, that you?" Scott blurted, relieved, happy and worried, together. (Weightless, too.)
"Yeah," John replied, smiling almost at him. "Listen, Scott. I've got to keep this short, because according to your plane's computer, you're in pre-combat mode."
"Hit me," Scott told him, leading his squad of seven toward a waxing crescent Moon.
"Okay. We've discovered an EM frequency that will disrupt or discorporate actual alien manifestation. I'm going to upload it to you, once we stop talking. Also, Pete's found some things out from debriefing Scarlet…"
"He isn't dead?" Scott broke in, genuinely surprised. That Mysteron footage hadn't left much doubt about the other Spectrum agent's fate.
"No. Just, um… remade. That's the other thing I need to tell you, Scott. The aliens' green energy brings people and things… machines, even… to life. But they aren't necessarily hostile, afterward. I've got two rovers, a healing power-suit and a cave full of recycled animals to prove it. Just to be on the safe side, though, stay the hell away from any outbursts of green energy. There's no telling how your space fighter would react to suddenly finding itself alive and conscious… but a period of disorientation seems pretty typical."
Scott nodded at his brother's small image on the battle computer screen.
"I'll pass that along, John. Thanks. Take care of yourself, over there. We're going to get you guys home. I promise."
"Funny," John replied with a second, brief smile, "We're working on the same thing, ourselves; what's left of us. Oh, and… Black's an enemy agent. According to Scarlet, he's been dispatched on a sabotage and assassination jaunt. Stop him, if you can, but don't trust him, regardless. Looks like he's almost reached Earth. Stay well, Scott. And, um…"
"Yeah," said his older brother, in an oddly rough voice. "Same here."
Hurriedly, Scott Tracy spread his brother's information. There wasn't time for much else, because the "escape ship", a green-glowing, modified X-90 had appeared on screen, clearing the Moon's ragged west limb. Repeated hails… from Earth, the Moon station and various flight leaders… received no reply.
Needing no further provocation, Commander Riley launched a swarm of interceptors; small fighter craft designed to operate only in the vacuum of space. They lifted off from Peary Crater at the Moon's South Pole, but did not immediately engage. Instead, joining the Earth-based defense network, they attempted to negotiate.
"Captain Black, do you copy? Captain Black, this is interceptor Leader, requesting that you break off Earth approach and begin orbital insertion around Luna. Captain Black, please acknowledge."
The Earth gleamed behind them; huge and blue, in gibbous phase, with a diamond-hard sun beyond that, and (diagonally) the scythe-like crescent of Luna. No stars, though. Too bright for stars.
Trouble started almost accidentally. One of the interceptors got too close to the rippling space-warp around black's hurtling ship. The insectoid fighter simply erupted, torn into an expanding cloud of small fragments. Black's ship absorbed most of them, increasing the X-90's mass and speed.
Space lit up like a Tokyo night as everyone opened fire at once. Scott ordered his "kids" to keep a safe distance away, and then dove into battle, himself. But Black's ship absorbed all of their hits and kept on coming, its glow redoubling to the searing brightness of an emerald sun.
After one particularly fruitless strafing run, Scott tried a new tack. He checked through his battle computer's applications screen with a rapid series of eye-blinks, paging down to John's promised upload, the EM weapon. Nothing, nothing… there it was! Coded "Big Bang".
"Major Scott Tracy, USAF, reactivated. Let me through," he announced, hitting maximum thruster burn. For just a moment, his weight was back, and Scott felt almost normal. Ahead of him, still moving and undamaged, streaked the alien ship. The trainees tried to follow him, but Scott ordered them back. There was no place for newbies, here; especially if his plan didn't work.
Just as word came through from Earth that Black was to be stopped at any cost, Major Tracy got clear of the swarming fleet and unleashed his pulse weapon. A super high-frequency, tightly-focused EM storm shot from his space-fighter's transmitter. It struck the speeding escape ship full on. The X-90 broke apart, turning from a recognizable craft into 13 hyper-accelerated emerald shards.
Some of these alien daggers slashed through satellites, interceptors and fighter craft, lighting dozens of silent fireballs. One would have cut straight through Scott's plane, had his trainees not locked on and tractored him the hell out of there, just in time. But all of the alien shards evaded destruction. The bits of Black's ship were just as tough, just as lethal and swift, as the whole had been. Some raced for the Moon, others headed for Earth, being tracked by radar stations all over the planet.
In the Pacific, Mako and Irukandji launched their own fighter craft, the subs assuming a 45 degree angle at shallow depth to hurl their Skydivers heavenward. The acceleration was sudden and massive, akin to that of an ejection seat. The main body of each sub jerked backward slightly, while the small, sleek fighters went instantly hypersonic.
Gordon Tracy had launched many times before, but never in an actual combat situation. Lt. Commander Anwynn Norris had kissed him as he was making his way forward through clanging alerts and flashing red lights. They'd slept together a time or two, in absolute secret, but he'd thought all that finished; well in the past. Her quick, passionate kiss and embrace told him quite otherwise, however, and Lt. Tracy went into battle that night with more on his mind than just war.
Irukandji's skydiver pilot was Carrie Prentice, another friend. Together, they slashed upward in a cloud of Blackthorn's smart-missiles, like small fish utterly safe amid the stinging tentacles of a vicious anemone. Just about coffined in their tight cockpits, the pilots cast about for a target.
"Do you see anything yet, Mako-1?" Carrie asked him, her voice calm and controlled.
"Not yet, 'Kandji… hang on a bit… There! At your three o'clock, comin' in low and fast. Get ready, luv. Mako, we're about t' engage."
"Engaging, aye. Be careful, M-1," Commander Moll's tense voice replied. "Stay well back whilst firing."
"Understood, sir. Will do." But, of course, Gordon wouldn't.
One of the brilliant green meteor shards cut through the storm at a low angle, seeking to bury itself in the ocean floor. Clouds boiled away into plasma all around it, leaving a trail like an incoming ICBM's. The swarming missiles locked on and shot for their prey. They got there in less than a second and exploded all at once, creating a massive shockwave… and doing absolutely no damage. The shard sped onward, directly at the tightly-grouped Blackthorn, Irukandji and Mako.
Gordon and Carrie opened fire, as did all three vessels. Still nothing; a horrid nightmare that was being replayed at twelve other sites on the Moon and Earth. And so, Gordon Tracy did something foolish, a desperate act he should not have survived. Ignoring the warning cries of Lt. Prentice and his own commander, Lt. Tracy flew his skydiver at top speed, directly into the emerald dagger. Up close, there were cracks in it. Green energy leaked from a hundred wounds. Bright light filled his view screen, his cabin and mind. Power flared...
…And then Gordon was flying, again, at a much altered heading and angle. But the alien shard had changed course, as well; just missing the fleeing Blackthorn. Lt. Tracy couldn't recall what had happened, at first. Afterward, he had to be told.
All 13 bits of the escape ship would go to ground, burrowing deep into rock, and cold, lightless muck. Black was not found, would not be heard from again for many long months. The surviving ships and aircraft… the Moon station's remaining Interceptors… limped back to port.
Later, an intrepid supply ship retrieved Captain Scarlet and the Endurance Base survivors, bringing them home to quarantine and an eventual hero's welcome. But, back on the island, where two Tracy infants would finally be born, Fermat examined his hacked data. Then, he promised himself that one of those life-giving shards would be located and unearthed, and his missing mother somehow revived.
Tracy Island, early morning-
Baby noises woke him up; cooing and babbling sounds as determined as a songbird's dawn tune-up. The woman beside him lay half curled in a sleepy-warm tangle of sheets and spilt hair. Asleep, or pretending to be. But it was his turn to go fetch their child.
Outside, glimpsed through partly-drawn curtains and elegant French doors, a balconied terrace lay rose-gold and dripping from a very wet evening, before. Looked like they were going to be in for a much better day, though he'd have to check the FAA weather reports to be sure. Maybe later.
He kissed his wife's bare shoulder, then got up and stood looking outside, reflexively sorting through the day's upcoming minutiae. There was a great deal of work to do, but it hadn't reclaimed him quite yet. Setting the mental checklist aside, he stretched to full height and scratched his ribs; a somewhat-mussed vision in bright red 'remove before flight' boxer shorts. (Next visiting the lavatory, as full bladders and oral hygiene wait for no man.)
Afterward, he acceded to the baby's increasingly fussy demands and went into the next room; padding barefoot and quiet, yawning once or twice. The baby's response was a happily frenzied flailing of clenched fists and kicking feet, combined with widened blue eyes and a big, toothless smile.
Despite a certain, very characteristic, morning-duty smell, he returned the smile. Potty training clearly lay some while in the future. So, he made a few general comments along the "Nice to see you, too," line, thrust a mobile full of dangling farm animals aside, and set to work.
"Junior-Tracy cleaning service, coming right up," he announced, lifting her from the cot and getting sloppily gnawed on, in the process. Part of a father's job was protection and permanence. He felt that most keenly when holding her like this; when he was still the strongest, tallest, most amazing person in her unfolding universe.
Under the supervision of a curious cat, he changed her diaper, pointing out (whilst expertly dabbing, cleansing and wrapping) that soiled bottoms were for amateurs, and that she really ought to get herself together. Didn't impress her. Not a bit. All she did was gurgle and beam, batting at the cat's lazily-switching tail, and the shower of small, sparkling motes which her father's activity had set drifting through powder-scented air. Because, after all, daddy was here, breakfast on its way, and all was right with the world.
Personal cleanliness seen to, he next scooped the child off her pastel changing table and held her against his chest and left shoulder. Got drooled and gummed on, again, as he headed back into the suite's big, airy bedroom, rubbing her terry-clothed back. Few things were as enthusiastically messy as an infant, and he'd long since resigned himself to looking and smelling like a chew-toy.
His wife had dropped her pretense at sleep and sat up, by now; propped on a stack of white pillows (his own among them). He gave her baby and kisses together, watching as mother and daughter locked eyes and sealed out the world. (Even him and the cat, which had settled before the doors in a pool of sunlight, and commenced languidly bathing.) She breast-fed their baby for quite awhile, humming little bits of song until the tiny scrap of girl at last sighed and slackened her avid grip; sleepy, warm and contented… with no hangover to bother about, later. (Which would certainly not have been the case had he drunk himself insensible… But nobody said life was fair.)
Very carefully, his wife shifted her garment to cover herself. Then she looked up at him and smiled.
"Take her?" she whispered. "I've got to go, before something ruptures."
He nodded, arranged himself on the bed, and took back their milk-replete infant, his wife's long hair briefly teasing at his shoulder and face as she rose. Love is made up of little things. Contentment, of his awareness that those things existed, and how much they mattered. And… just for that moment… he couldn't have asked for much else.