The yellow tell-tale on Colonel White's console winked out as soon as Ochre signed off. They would maintain close tabs on the situation in the cabin - a situation that had deteriorated with a surprising rapidity and thoroughness.
The Mysterons hadn't missed a trick, this time. They seldom did.
"Doctor Fawn," he said. "Can I have your assessment of Captain Ochre's condition?"
Fawn's brow was creased with a puzzled kind of deep thought, his eyes distracted and staring off into some unseen middle-distance. Fawn's eyes came around at the request, but his frown remained.
"You said it yourself, Colonel. He's hardly optimal. He was lucky - he's sustained a few flesh wounds and he's got professional help to take care of them. Lucky too that it was his left arm. Ochre will be no good in a scrap if it comes to one. But if he's got a defensible position and a solid wall at his back he's worth something with his firearms. Short term."
"We'll get there first, Colonel." Magenta broke in. "We have to."
"That is the plan, Captain." Colonel White nodded gravely to himself. "As soon as you manage to open those files I want you to encrypt and transmit the contents directly to Doctor Fawn. If it's what I suspect it is, that material is going to be highly classified. Don't spend any time looking for information in it. I also suspect it's going to be obscure and full of technical detail. You simply have no time for that."
"S.I.G., sir." Magenta acknowledged, and that channel went silent again as the Captain focused down on that immediate requirement, eager to clear it out of his way so that he could move onto rescue planning instead. He doubted that Magenta even cared what was in the files; Magenta's total interest went no further than getting them dealt with and off of his slate.
Captain Scarlet was another matter.
"Which information gaps can you fill in for us, Colonel?" Scarlet asked. "There must be something you can tell us about Minerva."
"In bits and pieces, Captain, she's already told you what it is. But I think Doctor Fawn may be a little ahead of you on that."
The crease remained in Fawn's brow and his gaze had returned to mid-air. "Rabies," Fawn repeated, a sudden and decisive statement. "Reticular formations and neural nets and real intelligence." Fawn shook his head, closing his eyes. "A computer engineer, a neurobiologist and a veterinarian. It’s the right combination of talent and know-how."
"You're getting very warm, now, Doctor." Colonel White nodded. "One last clue for you: she can't use electrosleep."
Fawn's eyes snapped open. "No. Of course not. Captain Scarlet - does the thing inside your paperweight look rather like a very delicate, lop-sided piece of cauliflower?"
Blue and Grey were looking at Fawn in deepening confusion, trying to pick up the same pieces and put them together sensibly.
"Somewhat," Scarlet replied after a moment's pause. "More like dense lace around the edges."
"Yes - it would be. Thank you Captain." Doctor Fawn nodded one more time in satisfaction. "I believe I know what they've done, now."
"And that would be...what? Precisely?" Scarlet's tone went all clipped and frustrated again. "What's all this about electrosleep and rabies? What do either of those things have to do with the Minerva gizmo?"
"Quite a bit," Fawn replied. "They're our first real clues - clear windows into the process."
"Electrosleep's neural," Blue said next, thinking aloud. "It's in the Room of Sleep's User Manual."
"And rabies," Grey added. "That's neurological too."
"Yes. Exactly, Captains." Fawn's gaze flicked from one officer to the other. "It's a common denominator."
Colonel White interrupted. There wasn’t time to let them guess and ramble. "What Weller and his team have done, gentlemen," he said, "is unprecedented. I will say this clearly and repeat precisely the way Doctor McLaine defined it for me. The Minerva module is, and I quote, a very creative piece of bio-engineered cyber-science that directly and successfully links a living human mind to some of the most advanced computer technology available on the planet, unquote. In this case, that living human mind happens to belong to Tylan McLaine." He paused, giving that a moment to sink in. Then he went on, carefully and emphatically. "Minerva is the ultimate neural-net interface. When it's active, it gives Doctor McLaine conscious, real-time access to everything that the Minerva lab's computer system can connect through to. And it isn't only access, which could be devastating enough in itself. It's access and control."
"Minus a few important details" Scarlet noted irritably. "That's what Weller told us at the outset."
"Weller gave us as much truth as he felt he morally could. He was protecting Doctor McLaine and her secret to the best of his ability. He was also quite up front about their desire to keep the technology out of anyone's hands aside from their own. They recognized the danger - they knew that this technology could be weaponized."
"A neural interface?" Scarlet repeated the term skeptically and then fell silent. "Interface mind to computer? How? How the hell do you attach a brain to a computer and make it work? Except in science fiction?"
"Perhaps more easily than we've imagined, Captain." Doctor Fawn stood up and paced a few steps away from the control desk and then back again. "Electrosleep works by stimulating something in the brainstem known as the reticular activating system - that part of the brain that controls the sleep cycle. From the brainstem reticular neurons spread out widely and attach to the spinal cord, to motor neurons, to the cortex and more. They feedback information to themselves in looping pathways. So they both can and do have the capacity to influence the entire brain." Fawn paced as he talked, a rising excitement in his tone. "If you wanted to build a complex neural interface, the reticular formation gives you a ready scaffold for wiring that extends into virtually every other part of the brain. Moreover, reticular cells are anatomically different from other neurons. And that's where rabies comes into the picture."
Grey's expression was as skeptical as Scarlet's vocal inquiry had been. "Isn't rabies a bad thing?" he asked.
"In its natural state, yes, of course. The rabies virus attacks the nervous system in general. My best educated guess is that they were able to genetically tailor the virus to make it non-lethal and to give it a specific affinity for reticular tissue. If they managed that, then they could use it to vector in something else."
"Like what?" Blue's eyes followed the Doctor's wandering course.
Fawn shrugged. "I'm speculating it would be a silicon-based plaque of some sort – something that would substitute silicon for carbon in its molecular structure – that's how they build biochips. Possibly. Something that could construct a network of conductive filaments all along the reticular axons. A network that would then be as complex as the reticular blueprint. All you'd need to do after that is to export the output. Filter, sort and translate the cortical signals that network would tap. We already have ways to do that. Medicine has been implanting electrodes and reading EEG's since the mid-20th century. PET scans and MRI's have carried over into the 21st and taught us a lot about the finer points of neural processing in vivo. We also already have both biochips and AI - closely related and moderately successful technologies that are still evolving. Add all of that to Demeter's state-of-the-art biotech and genetic engineering expertise and then toss the Minerva team's combination of talent and know-how into the mix." Fawn ceased pacing, apparently having concluded that train of conjecture. He inhaled deeply. "That's a very potent and dynamic sort of intellectual cocktail. Am I wrong, Colonel?"
Fawn had hit all of the most salient points. Based on minimal information, Fawn had just delivered an inspired bit of on-the-spot deductive reasoning, eloquently expressed in terms that his colleagues could absorb. Fawn understood the relevant sciences and he knew it was more than possible. In an earlier pre-Spectrum career, Fawn himself had devised, developed and clinically proven a highly technical and successful mix of robotics and medicine - he'd written the rulebook for the entire field of contemporary automated medical care and was still considered a world authority in such matters.
Colonel White shook his head slowly. "I'd like to be able to say so. But you're not wrong, Doctor Fawn."
"It's brilliant," Fawn breathed, obviously impressed by the accomplishment. "And I'll say it out loud, too - this is a work of genius."
"Literally." White nodded.
"Science fiction," Scarlet murmured incredulously, still working to digest it. "Sir...tell me this is science fiction."
Colonel White sighed, wishing it was so. But the Mysterons didn't deal in science fiction.
"Not anymore, it isn't, Captain Scarlet," he said grimly. "Not anymore."
She held her breath as Ochre repeated her last statement slowly and without any true comprehension. It was exhaustion in his voice now. It was pain and it was information overload.
He was looking at her with a numb and bewildered look that finally went blank. It was an emotional shock on top of the physical one of the injury. Tylan hadn't once let go of his hand since her confession and she didn't let go now, not even when his shoulders slumped suddenly and he blinked, trying to make some sense of it.
"Never would have figured that," he admitted at last, shaking his head, "You're the...the what?"
"Long story," she said. "But if you sit still and shutup, I'll tell it. No questions until I'm done. I'm going to keep it short - we don't have a lot of time for this anymore." She squeezed his hand again, hard enough to ensure she had his attention, and waited.
He closed his eyes and didn't open them for a slow minute. "Got it," he said at last, a fatigued agreement. "Go back to the beginning - it's as good a place as any to start."
"That’s a deal. Now listen up - I'll stop the instant I see you're not taking it in." She leaned toward him and placed a second kiss on his forehead, trying to decide where the sensible beginning might have been, settling finally on the bit that Spectrum already had in hand, a very recent bit from Scarlet's report that might have stuck in Ochre's mind.
"Once upon a time," she began. "There were three scientists with a paper airplane..."
The story unfolded as she went back to the business of finishing up with his damaged arm, wrapping it in gauze and bandages before setting the whole limb into a sling, feeling horrible and guilty about the entire ugly thing.
It was her fault - all of it, her fault. She was still shaky inside, because she'd talked him into letting Merlin in. A Merlin that Ochre had suspected hadn't been, not then or anymore and whose lifeless not-Merlin body was still lying there on the floor behind her and enough to make her knees weak if she let even the smallest scrap of what had happened back into her head.
Ochre hadn't wanted to let the dog in - for very good reasons.
What could have happened was even worse to contemplate and her weak knees threatened to go right to water and crumple under her whenever those thoughts slipped through.
She wrenched her attention back and kept the story brief, saying only a few sketchy words about Arthur's contributions to the project, though they deserved much more than that. She'd gotten all the way up to the development stage and the module's rat and primate studies before lifting Ochre's chin again. The crescent-shaped tear high on his cheekbone needed three small stitches. She completed those quickly enough, and when they were done, he was still listening to her without interruption, still attentive because he had no choice but to believe every word of what she was saying.
"Installation was the worst part. I had to stay awake, so that we could monitor cortical activity. Andy and Arthur kept me up for three days, while an IV dripped live viral serum and silicon substrates into the net-building process. We used a short-lived radio-isotope of phosphorus to track Minerva’s growth - with a portable PET scanner we could watch the plaque consolidate and grow from those raw materials as long as the isotope was actively being taken up in the phosphate linkages of the viral RNA...."
She droned on, not entirely convinced he was taking it all in, carefully wiping at the cheek wound with a bit of antiseptic gel that made him wince. But the story wasn't very long after that part.
"Then we got to testing it - and found out how easy it was to go anywhere and do anything with the system live and connected. That was dangerous - that's what scared us. We took Minerva offline. Andy decided to move it here to the cabin - we still wanted to do some further testing - the science was too interesting, too promising. But we wanted it kept secret, even from Demeter staff, until we learned more about the real extent of what it could do."
She paused, waited and finally shrugged when he didn't say anything. "End of story," she concluded, in case he was waiting for more. "The snow came and it's been sitting up here on the shelf for months. All we've done is talk about where to go next with the research. The cabin's been on seasonal shutdown. Nothing new or different has happened with Minerva since we transferred it - at least, nothing until Spectrum turned up asking about it. You know the rest after that."
That’s a helluva story.” Ochre slumped back in his seat, touching gingerly at the arm in the sling. “The thing’s been sitting up here since last fall? All by itself?”
She shrugged again. “It snowed. The cabin was shut down. That’s why there wasn’t any heat at first. The thermics were on minimal and the lab had priority for power.”
“I thought it was shelved. What did it still need power for?”
“There’s a cryogenic component – it has to stay cold or the system crashes.”
“So, it’s – live? There’s no checklist, no power-up? It’s live and ready to use? You mean, right now?” Ochre’s tone told her that it meant he’d only then realized things were worse than he’d thought.
“Yeah, it is.” She swallowed nervously. “It snowed and we never got back to shut it right down. There was no reason. It wasn’t going to do anything. There was no harm in just letting it idle. Not until the Mysterons. It’s why I shouldn’t be here. It’s why Andy didn’t want me to come anywhere near Demeter. And when I talked Colonel White into letting me, I wasn’t planning to come to the cabin for the actual disposal.”
“Carey found a way to make you change your mind.” Ochre said, making it a statement.
Her gut fluttered again. It had not crossed her conscious mind on the airfield that Andy and Arthur were already dead, or that their otherwise inexplicable behavior confirmed it. But it must have been there somewhere as an immediate unconscious knowledge and it had instantly, effectively motivated her frantic flight from the scene as Minerva’s sole surviving protector.
Todd had figured it out - obviously.
She obviously had not – not until afterwards, not until it was too late. She had been terrified on the climb upwards - terrified of meeting Mysterons. Terrified of meeting anyone at all – anyone who might have been one, or who might have decided that she had become one too. Terrified that the cabin might not have been found undisturbed. Terrified of not knowing the consequences of what she’d done by running, and twice as terrified of those consequences because she had.
She drew a deep, guilty breath, peeling off the latex gloves. “Andy was right.”
Ochre shook his head wearily. “Zil – it’s not all your fault. It’s not.”
But some of it was. She turned and saw Merlin – a Mysteron that she’d talked Ochre into letting into the cabin – laying there all creepy-dead on the floor. Turning back, she saw Ochre hurt because of it.
Merlin – her Merlin, that was – had already been dead, the same as Andy and Arthur had already been dead.
These had become facts.
And as for the whole rest of the world…
Well, the rest of the world was in trouble too - unless she did something about it.
“You need to rest,” she said suddenly. “I have work to do. Com’on.”
He didn’t argue. She put one shoulder under Ochre’s good arm, helping him to his feet and back to the sofa in the living room. She let him stand there for an unsteady moment while she pushed it around, leaving it in a spot where she could see it from inside the study. She settled him there with pillow and blanket, refusing to allow herself a hug and a kiss. She would make time for that later.
“What’s contact schedule 4?” she asked.
He told her, and she left him to get comfortable, returning to the kitchen to get his radio cap and placing it at the study workstation in mute adoption of communications duties. Then she made one more trip, this time to retrieve the creepy-dead Mysteron. She dragged it from the kitchen and into the entry corridor, sealing the carcass on the far side of the inner door; she would not have been able to work otherwise.
She locked that door, and Ochre nodded approval, sinking back into his pillow once that distressing little task was accomplished.
“You…” she told him, in no uncertain terms, “…are going to go to sleep now. I’ll be sitting right over there, at the desk in the study, and I’ll be able to see you while I work on Plan C. I’ll wake you up as soon as it’s ready to install. Got it?”
He nodded again, drained and exhausted. “Yeah - I’ve got it.”
“Start counting sheep.” She stood and moved resolutely for the workstation, activating the system there and glancing back as it booted up, making sure that he was doing as he’d been told.
He watched only until the vid-screen lit active, and he closed his eyes.
Finally then, she turned her full attention to the monitor in front of her, and began to transcribe what was liable to prove the single most important piece of work she was ever likely to do.
The word came from Lieutenant Green only a moment after Scarlet had arrived at Demeter’s main hangar with Teal and Roan in tow.
“The Prince George authorities have made contact with the manager of the car rental agency. We have final confirmation that the two persons who engaged the vehicle were in fact Captain Black and Todd Carey. Positive identification.”
Scarlet nodded to himself, exchanging glances with the two lieutenants as he threw the hood of his Spectrum-issue parka back, shaking it clear of the snow that had plastered itself to the fabric during the short but irksome snowmobile ride from the Admin building.
He was immensely put out with the weather. The short ride across the airfield had served to convince him that a ground pursuit of the Mysteron agents – as much as he’d wanted and begged to conduct one - would have been futile. Futile and dangerous.
“S.I.G. Lieutenant Green. Message received and acknowledged.” Scarlet sighed heavily as the channel closed, striding toward the helijet and sizing up its location within the hangar. Magenta had managed to spot land the craft inside the main doors – a tricky maneuver under any circumstances, and a phenomenal bit of piloting skill under blizzard conditions. Nevertheless, the helijet was currently facing the wrong direction, and they would have to un-chock and physically turn it around if they hoped to make any sort of a rapid sortie out of there with it.
Still, that was better than having to de-ice and pre-flight outside in that weather…
“Why does anyone choose to live in this climate?” Roan asked rhetorically from behind him, not truly expecting an answer as he scattered snow from his own parka, emerging from under the hood to look the helijet over. “We’ll have to spin the nose a full one-eighty, sir.”
“The weather can’t turn soon enough for my liking, Lieutenant,” Scarlet replied, aware with a wry humor that any native son of the Australian outback could ask no other possible question about the present inclement conditions. “But right now – even if Todd Carey does know the way to the cabin – the weather must be slowing the Mysterons down somewhat. It will buy us a bit of time to sort this out.”
“Would you really have gone after them, sir?” Teal asked, drawing level with him as he stopped beside the aircraft.
“If we’d got there any sooner…” Scarlet’s voice trailed off as he contemplated it. “Yes, Lieutenant, I would have.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was thinking about it,” Roan admitted, obviously now having a few second thoughts of his own on the matter, his prior enthusiasm for such a foray cold and dampened by a dose of harsh reality. “How far do you think we might have gotten?”
“Not very far.” Teal shook his head. “This is worse than the Great Blizzard of ’53, the way I remember it.”
It had been a riveting global news story at the time, and as a teenager Scarlet had – along with the rest of the world - followed that dramatic media story with a kind of morbid fascination as it had unfolded. It had been the culmination of the Great Winter – a sustained period of brutal minus 40C temperatures across the majority of North America that had lasted a solid 48 days without respite before it had finally broken in something the meteorologists had identified as a hundred year storm. The Great Blizzard of ’53 had killed thousands across the central parts of Canada and the United States in one of the worst natural disasters of the 21st century.
“No one has forgotten the blizzard of 2053,” Scarlet recalled. “The way I remember it, that storm buried half of North America under more snow than this and it lasted far longer. This, as bad as it is, is only a localized disturbance.”
“It’s still more than enough to freeze your butt off, sir.” Teal said. “Without the proper gear and training, what we’ve got out there is severe frostbite and hypothermia in less than ten minutes.”
It was not an educated guess made by an officer trained in emergency first aid – as all Spectrum field agents were. Teal would have known with more certainty than that. Teal was a year or two older than the rest of Cloudbase’s new recruits – and he’d signed up with Spectrum after a prior and commended career as an elite paramedic in the city of Chicago’s Emergency Response department.
Scarlet merely shrugged. “It would have been a mistake. But I still would have gone, if there’d really been any chance of catching up. Never mind the frostbite.”
Roan shivered at the thought. “That’s inhuman, Captain.”
He nodded slowly. ”So are the Mysterons, Lieutenant.”
And I might be too, Scarlet thought inwardly, as unsettled at the thought in that moment as he was every time it happened to cross his mind. The notion of freezing to death in a snowbank didn’t appeal. Neither did he like the idea of his corpse being found curled and twisted in some grimacing pose of rigor mortis and having to be thawed for recovery, like some prehistoric curiosity for study.
He wondered grimly what Fawn’s threshold might have been for that particular fate.
Scarlet wrenched his thoughts back to the business at hand and surveyed the helijet one more time.
“Let’s get moving here - set her up and get the pre-flights done…”
An hour later, the helijet had been spun about to face the hangar doors, ready to launch. He’d had the lieutenants run through the flight checklists together, listening absently as they’d double-checked one another, and gotten it right. He conferred with the Security detail that had been managing the hangar and soon after sent Teal and Roan off with a pair of Security operatives to set Demeter’s snow- plowing equipment into motion and to clear some of the snow away from the vicinity of the hangar doors.
Magenta turned up shortly after that task had been put into action.
“Well?” Scarlet inquired of Magenta’s code-breaking assignment.
“Done and transmitted,” Magenta replied. “The Inquisition’s got a juicy bone to chew.”
“Anything of interest?”
“I’m sure it was all of interest.” Magenta shook his head slowly. “There was a lot of in-depth biology to it. Not much that I could interpret and I didn’t try. The idea’s intriguing enough though. I hope they’ll de-classify it enough for me to get it figured out.” Magenta began a walk-around of the helijet, starting his own pre-flight inspection of the craft. It was a recommended practice for any pilot, not to trust the state of your aircraft to the hearsay of another person’s un-verified report.
And certainly not for a flight as critical as the one they were in preparation for.
“Spectrum Intelligence will want a working knowledge before they’re done with it,” Scarlet commented dryly. “Though I expect SWC will fight it tooth and nail.”
“I’ll settle for just a theoretical overview. But that’s not likely to happen today.”
“We can always ask Godzilla once we get there,” Scarlet muttered sourly. “For all the good that might do us.”
“We won’t even have to,” Magenta offered, not even batting an eye. “Colonel White cleared Ochre for the whole story.” Magenta reiterated the fact with a tiny grin. “We’ll only have to ask him.”
It went entirely against the rules. Ochre having clearance strictly didn’t translate as the freedom for Ochre to pass the information along.
Ochre and Magenta, as a pair, however, were infamous for disregarding the rules.
It was a cheerful thought that lightened Scarlet’s dark mood considerably.
It seemed that Zil had no sooner sorted out his injures and settled him down to rest on the sofa, than she was back again, away from her keyboard and nudging at him to wake up.
Groggy and aching, it took a moment for Ochre to realize again where he was and why - then he snapped abruptly into consciousness and tried to sit up. She blocked that sudden move with an arm across his chest.
"Easy, take it slow. You'll make yourself dizzy, Och."
"Yeah," he mumbled, rubbing at his eyes with his good hand and already feeling that way. "Right."
"I'm done – the program’s done, that is. I let you sleep as long as I could."
He let his glance go past her shoulder, into her work-den. The computer system there was dark, the lights off. She had a data disc in one hand. That and her silver, double-black striped keycard.
"Lab tour and demonstration time?" Ochre asked, pushing himself up and off of the cushions slowly, wondering what time it actually was and how long he'd been out. "I thought we'd never get around to it."
He would have to report first, check for updates and news; he wasn't going anywhere until then. He’d been out cold – the depth of his own muzziness and the fact that he could recall nothing, not a shred of memory of any scheduled security calls having been received – confirmed that. He didn’t like it. Didn’t like the way he still hurt, and especially didn’t like the way he really wanted to lie back again and sleep for another few hours or longer.
"We're coming right down to the wire." Zil replied with a sigh, looking every bit as tired as he was feeling himself. "It’s now or never."
"Sink or swim?" he countered in unthinking word-association. "Do or...." He stopped that pointless cliché mid-sentence.
"Or die?” She finished it for him, with an earnest, searching sort of regard. "Maybe not. But only if we get moving." She helped him to his feet. "How's the arm feel?"
"Sore. Aching. Nothing unexpected." He flexed the hand cradled in the sling, finding no immediate desire to remove that support. He reached for his cap when she held it out, activating it, reporting a firm, business-like all quiet to Scarlet when his colleague answered, getting a terse acknowledgement back and a brief report on the helijet's ready-and-waiting status before Scarlet patched him through to Cloudbase again.
Colonel White was likewise brief. "I won't waste your time, Captain. I trust that Doctor McLaine is ready to implement Plan C?"
"She is, sir. We're about to head to the lab for installation."
"And your particular status, Captain Ochre?"
"I'm....functional enough, sir," he said, after the tiniest pause and a determined effort to rouse himself from the muzzy state. "I've been better, Colonel, but I've been worse too."
"Understood, Captain. I expect you'll be out of radio contact for a short time. Report back at first opportunity - I'm sure Doctor McLaine may be able to facilitate that before you're done. Good luck - to both of you."
"Thank you, sir. Ochre out." His cap mike flipped up, and he looked at her. "Let's go then," he said, glancing around and wondering which way. "Wherever it is that we're going."
She shrugged, pausing to pick up a hand-axe from beside the woodpile. “For destruct purposes,” she muttered, turning with it in hand and moving toward the staircase. "We’re going downstairs."
He blinked, following a close step behind. "There's a downstairs?"
"Oh, yes, very downstairs. We're going down to Andy's once-and-future - " she hesitated, and changed her mind about what she'd been about to say. “Well, down to Andy's once-and-never spa, now, I guess," she finished wanly.
The Andy-wound was still too fresh.
"Spa?" That was not what he'd thought to hear, and he blinked again. "A secret spa, I take it?"
She leaned one elbow on the banister at the staircase, the keycard in that hand. "Not really. The lab was the real secret. The whole spa-thing became a cover excuse for all the construction. Secrets – places or things or plans - were something Andy never quite grew out of – he loved the whole idea of intrigue. You can let me know what you think of this one when we get there."
She then slipped the keycard into a hitherto unsuspected slot beneath the decorative trim there.
A panel in the posh, textured wallboard slid quietly aside, opening a shoulder-width portal to reveal a concealed corridor whose very existence Ochre hadn't even guessed at – another bit of omitted information, another thing to be unhappy about. She sealed that door again as soon as they'd crossed the threshold. The corridor there was starkly empty and narrow, and it carried on back beneath the loft-stairs and under what would have been the upstairs hallway. Embedded in the rock wall at the far end were the doors of a small capacity elevator.
Her keycard opened that access too.
Ochre got into the lift with her, absorbing it all wordlessly until the doors had closed and it had begun to descend.
"How deep?" he asked.
"Not quite 200 feet. It's a natural shaft for the most part - same with the cavern. There's a hot spring at the bottom; beyond just using it to generate power for the cabin, Andy really did want to develop it, turn it into something recreational. That was his original intention. Storing Minerva down here was very much an afterthought."
"Is this the only way in and out?"
"Yes," she nodded. "That's why Andy considered it secure."
He didn't like that idea. Places with only one way in or out were too much like traps.
The lift slowed, and then let them out into a dimly lit space - a space that wasn't built over like the corridor upstairs - this was a raw tunnel of both natural and quarried rock and the air down here was warmer, with a moist and faintly sulfurous tang to it.
"Hot spring," Zil said again, glancing at him as he breathed deeply, taking it in. "Down that way a bit. It powers the thermic generator. It's small scale, but more than adequate."
"Independent?" Ochre asked, realizing it had to be so. And of course, in that case. The reports that Spectrum had seen had indicated no power lines run up to the cabin. That much was true.
The cabin didn't need them. The cabin had its own thermal plant, as did Demeter, albeit on a smaller scale. Therefore there was no point in asking Scarlet to cut off Minerva's power supply. It couldn't be disabled that way. Not from Scarlet's end of things.
Maybe from his end, if necessary. Depending on what other destruction he could wreak on the target project. After whatever demonstration was forthcoming.
"Yes," she confirmed that too. "The lab is completely independent."
There was simply no good news to be had, he thought, depressed by the information. "How's Minerva talk to the outside world, then?" There had to be a way to break that link. If he killed the transmitter, if Minerva was isolated and unable to communicate with World Telecom---
They’d take the axe to it, that was what they’d do…
And that would work, as long as the Mysterons didn't just hook it right back up again when they were done with vandalizing it.
He didn't doubt that anything he could do, they could very easily undo. Whether or not they could undo Zil's anti-Mysteron plan remained to be seen.
Ahead of them, along the other branch of the stone tunnel, there was an air-locked portal, the end terminus of a ribbed, umbilical extension link that ran further back and curved around a bend in the rocky access. The tunnel narrowed under a lowering overhead, until the stone ceiling came to within an inch or so of the translucent umbilical.
"There's a satellite uplink and a transmitter on top of the mountain. It's hardwired up through an ascending crevasse that exits a couple of thousand feet up and keeps going through a conduit the rest of the way to the top. That's buried under snow pack right now. SWC has a geo-stationary satellite that connects Demeter - and Minerva - to World Telecom."
She approached the portal with her keycard out, pushed it into the slot she found there and completed the scan for access. The door swung open and she stepped into the throat of the umbilical corridor. He followed and she closed the access behind them.
Inside, the air was drier and cleaner - the sulfurous taint had vanished.
"Air scrubber," she remarked. "The damp and the sulfur presented an environment too corrosive for some of the hardware. But Andy wanted the security down here. Cleaning the air was an easy fix."
The ribbed tunnel was perhaps 60 feet long - its interior length was spookily pristine, diffusely lit and silent save for the sounds of their own breathing and footsteps muted on the rubberized floor mat.
There was another sealed door at the far end of the pristine corridor. Her keycard opened that access too, revealing a domed bubble-chamber constructed of the same material as the umbilical. It was small, but seemingly well equipped.
Ochre stood at the entry threshold, taking in the details.
There were two computer consoles sitting in the middle of the chamber, facing the portal. To his immediate left there was a wide vid-screen stationed under the slope of the bubble/dome opposing the consoles. Sitting several feet behind those workstations there was some sort of apparatus that he couldn't identify. It hummed quietly, and consisted of a tangle of heavy cables and a skein of finer ones that nested around a central tank of some sort. The heavy lines vanished through a conduit in the back wall of the bubble, and the finer ones snaked across the floor to disappear under the consoles, connected to them, he assumed.
It was a sterile, austere environment, somehow not what he'd expected.
"It doesn't look like much," she said, echoing his thoughts, her words muted in the acoustically muffled space. "But this is it. Minerva. The whole thing, now that I'm here too."
Foreboding crept up his spine. "You make it sound so ominous."
She blinked, looked away and then glanced at him,. "Because it is," she said quietly. Her brow creased with concern. "You'd better come over here and sit down before you fall down - you're much too pale, Och."
"I'm fine," he muttered absently, but allowed her to draw him along and sit him down in the seat behind the first console. The workstation was constructed of smooth, molded plastic with a few connector portals and an inset vid-phone. In the center there was a shallow depression that housed what appeared to be a custom-designed laptop computer. The console right next was this one's identical twin.
"You are really in denial, Och." Zil shook her head. She leaned over his shoulder and pushed a button. The slim lid of the laptop popped open and lit active, though the screen remained blank. She then dropped into the seat next over, discarded her hatchet to the side and activated that system too, keying in some sort of code that brought up a sparsely populated menu screen on both units. She selected All Functions and waited as the chamber thrummed to life and brightened around them. The big screen glowed and the mystery tank behind them sang, emitting a harmonious series of noises before settling down to a quiet whirring.
Ochre turned to look at it. The sense of foreboding was back, redoubled and convincing him that things here were somehow not safe. "What is that thing? And what the hell does it do, Zil?"
She didn't look up as she continued to work the keyboard. "That's the equipment we're here to dispose of - Arthur's contribution to the project. We call it the Think Tank."
"The Think Tank?" He repeated the name. It sounded...well, silly.
"Yeah. I know. It's kinda stupid-cute." Zil shrugged. "But the name stuck after we said it out loud the first time. You'll see in a minute."
"But what's it do?" He repeated the question, suddenly convinced to the core that it was critical.
Zil looked at him, as if trying to find a way to shorten an impossibly long answer. "It works."
He stared at her.
"I know that's not helpful," she mumbled. "It's complicated, I skipped a lot of that. And we still don't have much time."
"Then dumb it down. I need to get a solid grip on all of this." He pressed for an answer.
She spun her seat to face him. "Do you know how a search engine works?"
"Um - vaguely. It taps enormous pools of data storage - RAM encoded magnetically or 3-D holographic - disks and tapes and lasers and the like." He knew the general gist of the way it worked, certainly not the nuts and bolts. IT was Magenta's field of expertise.
"Close enough," she nodded at him. "Next - do you know how human consciousness works?"
He was on firmer ground with that question. "That's a bit easier. It's all neurons and synapses and electrochemicals."
He gave her the short answer, because he did actually know something about that. In the years he’d spent working undercover drugs and vice for the World Police, he'd had to learn a fair bit about which drugs had what effects on brain function and subsequent user behavior. He was one of the few people on Cloudbase that could actually carry on a decent, running conversation with Fawn about that sort of thing and he was invariably called in if any sort of drug trafficking or substance abuse was suspected anywhere in the organization. He had the investigative background and experience.
He qualified his statement. "Are you asking me about mind or brain?"
Because there was a huge difference. The mind was the driver, the brain just its vehicle.
Zil nodded again, having established his level of knowledge to some satisfaction.
"Both,” she answered. “The neurons and electrochemicals are all-important. But I won’t make you guess. I just want you to believe me when I tell you that human memory is stored in the brain by a protein known as alpha-CaMKII, and the only thing you need to know about it right now is that it has properties that enable it to encode information in a manner very similar to electronic holographic memory." She indicated her temple with one finger, putting an obvious emphasis on what was inside the skull. "Our knowledge and memories - our data storage and recall and processing - our thinking - all happens through the interaction of the various EM fields created by electrochemical neuronal activity throughout the brain. That's what consciousness is."
"It sounds simple when you put it like that."
"It is, in principle. It just gets complicated when you toss in trillions of interconnected neurons. It's why neural net tech has never really caught on and AI stagnates. Bottom line - you simply can't manufacture a neural net complex enough."
She turned toward her console and popped open a drawer beneath, removing a slender cable with connectors on both ends - one standard, the other of a very fine and elongated construction. She plugged the standard end into a port on the side of the laptop.
"Fair enough." He wasn't about to argue it. "And?"
"It means – and this is the whole key to it – that human brains and holographic data storage work the same way. A mind can read and manipulate that kind of data. You only have to connect them properly."
He looked at the cable in her hand, and felt the lump in his belly contract. "Where's that end go?" He whispered the question with his heart pounding in another momentary, gut-level panic.
She had told him this, he was sure she had explained it. It had made some sort of sense at the time, and then it had faded away like any bad dream would. He realized now what she'd been trying to tell him - and which he had clearly missed or entirely misunderstood. The question became stupid, because there was only one possible answer.
I am the module.
She'd said it. That and more.
Her response was to wordlessly reach up to a spot behind her right ear and push her hair aside. She applied pressure; something popped softly and she removed what looked like a small plug of plastic scalp with a tuft of long brown hair attached. Ochre stared, waiting expectantly for the next lunatic move, watching for it now, transfixed and unnerved and utterly helpless to look away as she lifted the elongated connector and seated it home with an audible, sinister click.
Seated it directly into her skull.
And every screen in the chamber flickered in immediate response.
Her eyelids fluttered - they always did - and Tylan squeezed them shut, pulling in a single, shuddering breath before forcing them back open.
STATUS: SEARCHING the screens advised, in blinking block script. And then: ACQUISITION OF SIGNAL: CONFIRMED. LOCK POSITIVE.
All the while, Ochre's stare bounced from the screen to her face and back again, over and over.
STATUS: MINERVA ONLINE. LOCAL NETWORK ONLY.
"There's always a bit of rush and a buzz to that," she said, looking down, toying with the tufted plug in her hand. She wound the bit of long brown hair nervously around a finger, then peeled it off and dropped it in the drawer. "Keeps the shampoo out of the works," she offered sheepishly, by way of explanation. "The receptacle's made out of carbon fiber - I don't set off security detectors at the airport that way. And what's inside - is silicon-based and organic and so fine that even an x-ray can't pick it up. Here’s what it looks like…”
Colorful schematics popped onto the screens, two objects in rotating 3-D, one a transparent human skull, the other a layered cutaway of the Think Tank. Inside the skull was a complex tracery of fine lines that ran crooked and fanlike from the base of the brain to the frontal areas, in increasing density.
That image was superimposed inside the Tank.
“That’s the connection,” she said. “The receptacle is tied to a nano-processor that binds to the reticular net. And this is what happens when we log on.”
She could have reached for the keyboard and clicked the command, but she deliberately did not, preferring to demonstrate the Minerva-bestowed ability to think it instead.
SEARCHING: LINK TO: SWC-SAT1149/AUTHCODE*****//WORLDNET: AUTHENTICATION AFFIRMATIVE ACQUISITION OF SIGNAL: CONFIRMED LOCK POSITIVE. MINERVA ONLINE WORLDNET.
Within the onscreen Tank image, spherical layer after colored layer appeared and nested over one another, the graphics spinning and shimmering in translucent, onion-like layers that immersed the cortical image within them. Nothing was to scale; those layers were impossibly thin, staggeringly numerous and difficult to adequately depict.
“The tank contains a superconducting fluid and the layers you see there represent Worldnet RAM, in fluxing holographic download,” she explained. “The shells and the cortical net are maintained by different frequencies of magnetic field – and those EM fields interact.” She paused for breath. “It’s a direct mimicry of consciousness.”
His eyes didn’t leave the screen. “Your consciousness?”
She closed her eyes. There was always an out-of-body sense of cognitive free-fall and an eerie duality that came part and parcel with the live connection. The sensation was more acute without the anchor of her engaged vision; it was as if she truly existed in two places at once. It was difficult to fully describe, easier to explain with the schematics, as crude and as not-to-scale as they were. The fluxing RAM in which her mirrored, analog-consciousness was embedded was, in fact, every bit as good as the knowledge that was already inside her head and every bit as easy for her to access and to use.
Snapping her eyes open, she looked at Ochre again.
He leaned back in his seat, uncomfortably resigned to the idea. “So…what happens next?”
“Whatever I want to make happen.”
It was an arrogant statement – and a true one. Minerva online was as close as a mortal being could come to omniscience and omnipotence – another difficult thing to describe adequately. Andy and Arthur had seen Minerva in action and had claimed to understand, but she was the only one who actually knew it for fact.
She had – wisely, she hoped - always been rather afraid of that unexpected part of it.
He frowned at that. Deeply. He didn’t reply. And – thankfully - he didn’t reach for his gun either.
There was no way to set him at ease, not about what she was about to do.
“But I think right now,” she added, in a conciliatory tone, “that I should probably talk to Colonel White. How much would you care to bet I can break Spectrum’s security in less than a minute?”
“No-one,” he said slowly, implying that there were miscreant parties that tried to do such things on occasion, “has ever managed to do that.” His frown went skeptical. “But I guess they didn’t have one of those to help.” Ochre cast his glance toward the humming tank behind them.
“No - I guess they didn’t.” Tylan shrugged, folded her arms and leaned back in her own seat. “Let’s take it for a test drive, shall we?”
She narrowed her eyes again, focused them on the main screen, and thought about where she wanted to go and the best possible way to get there. Perhaps even to have a bit of fun on the ride.
The blinking WORLDNET status advisement there was instantly obliterated in a sudden storm of alpha-numeric symbols and code that flickered and scrolled across and down the screen faster than the eye could possibly follow.
She extended into the net, sought and passed gateway after gateway, reading the programs and anticipating the pathways. She knew the languages, could fluently read the algorithms and understand the most cryptic of syntaxes; she navigated the firewalls, security blocks and passwords as easily as if she’d written the code herself – the principles were universal and the Think Tank enabled her mind to surf immense data pools at the velocity of the very best search engines that Worldnet possessed---
Her destination was specific, her course narrow and direct – SWC satweb to World Telecom, out of the general commercial communications pools, up to high level encrypted Government security routers that in turn cyber-climbed an ascending hierarchy from local to regional to national and finally to global addresses. The World Government’s vast mainframes down-stepped, as the entire system then branched its services out in a proliferation of descending options. She ignored Administration and Civil, selected Military, and skipped the gateways for a myriad of services that included World Intelligence, World Army Air Force, World Navy, WASP and others – she zoned right to Spectrum, routed to London HQ, scanned through the security servers for a particular bit of data and moved on to Spectrum satweb; she bounced via uplink to the closest of Spectrum’s dedicated geostationary communications satellites and then downlinked direct to Cloudbase Central Control, skimmed through the communications mainboard and personally, illegally activated Colonel White’s emergency hotline…
Her narrowed eyes blinked – the blur of code ceased its rapid-scroll motion and the message now sitting there took only a few seconds for Ochre to read and to consequently gape at.
MESSAGE: ATTENTION: SPECTRUM OPS: COLONEL WHITE – EYES ONLY – SECMAX: RAINBOW ALERT –REPEAT RAINBOW ALERT. IMMEDIATE RESPONSE IMPERATIVE. AUTHORIZATION CODE: 8693-222-3968 ENDIT.
“That had better not be real…” he murmured, paler than he had been.
“Nah. It’s just a bit of attention getting.”
She had picked up the appropriate information from the security pools en route, wanting something specific and real that would make an unmistakable, undeniable point.
Because a maximum security Rainbow Alert served irrevocable notice that a World Government-sanctioned thermonuclear action was about to engage…
Beneath that dire onscreen message was another brief tidbit of information: ELAPSED TIME: 16.456 SECONDS
It was far less than a minute, and it had taken that long only because she had delayed to find and extract the alert data.
And to scan that very, very interesting classified file about Scarlet.
She waited, giving it another 10 seconds before she appended more to the communication.
NEVER MIND – IT’S REALLY NOT THE WORLD PREZ WITH A SURPRISE PARTY FOR YOU – JUST A LITTLE GODZILLA-STYLE DEMONSTRATION FOR CAPTAIN OCHRE - YOU DID SAY NOT TO HOLD ANYTHING BACK. SORRY I’M SUCH A DRAMA QUEEN! DO GIVE US A CALL ON VIDPHONE – USE DEMETER’S MAIN RECEPTION LINE, EXTENSION 666. (NO, THAT WASN’T MY DOING, ANDY PLAGIARIZED IT YEARS AGO.)
Ochre swore quietly. “Dammit, Zil. He’ll hemorrhage.”
“More to the point, he’ll call.”
“I don’t doubt it. But did you have to drag my name into it?” Ochre shook his head and complained, pale and annoyed.
The vidphone beeped for attention.
“Feel free…” she said dryly, nodding at the console device inset between the workstations.
Ochre reached to select the ACCEPT INCOMING button and pressed it. Then he settled back, not without some mild trepidation, knowing that they were both seated within the view-field of the outbound cam.
Colonel White’s features were visibly apoplectic when they flashed onscreen. “What in the name of Almighty God do you suppose you’re doing down there, Doctor?!” Spectrum’s Commander-in-Chief roared out the question, as enraged as Ochre had ever had the misfortune to see him. “I’ve never in all my born days seen the like of it and I‘ll not tolerate it for---”
The colonel’s voice changed abruptly in mid-sentence, as his eyes shifted from her side of the view-field to Ochre’s...
“Captain – Good Lord, man! Look at the state you’re in!”
She glanced over. She’d seen that startling and graphic mess, almost from the beginning of it – the large and dark splotches of dried blood against the desert-yellow of Ochre’s tunic were still obvious despite the sling that partially concealed them. And there was the small but stark and newly stitched wound on his cheekbone, a general battered, unshaven look and the shadowed circles under his eyes that spelled deep fatigue all too clearly.
She looked back to the screen and saw Colonel White’s eyes flash through a quick, calculating reassessment of things as they stood. One such explicit vid picture spoke a thousand words more loudly than any hearsay the colonel would have had from her earlier conversation with Doctor Fawn.
“I was multi-tasking,” she said levelly. “Facilitating communications and making a pointed demonstration of Minerva in action at the same time. It works pretty well, I’d say.”
Ochre cleared his throat. “Sorry, sir. But I’m afraid I have to report it took only 16.456 seconds to breach Spectrum’s security, start to finish. And I’d call that a bit of a problem, sir.”
The pale blue eyes underwent another unpleasant calculation. “You both have an extraordinary gift for understatement. I’ll forgive it on educational grounds, then,” Colonel White grumbled unhappily. “Thank you for the enlightenment. I believe you owe me a program, Doctor McLaine.”
She held up the data disk. “Done and ready to install. Minerva can download the bulk of it and drop it into every major system you own worldwide.”
He measured the statement, and did not miss the key word. “And what might be above and beyond that bulk?”
“Let’s call it a patch – for a worst case scenario.”
“Be clear, Doctor! Spell it out in detail.”
“The patch contains a self-destruct feedback command. If Minerva is used to breach the program’s firewall – no matter what the gateway - it will engage. I can install that too, but it’s better if you do it.”
“It requires a password – one that I won’t know. Yes, I can get around passwords before you feel you have to mention that bit of obvious. But I’ve specifically set this up so that it will make it difficult, even for me, to do so. If that program is violated, an in-built random password generator kicks on and throws out a reiterating series of new passwords to break. Minerva can overcome that too – but the patch will run fractionally ahead of any Minerva-sourced countermeasures - those will doppler behind the patch just far enough to buy the feedback command sufficient time to execute before I could manage to break it. I hope. It will buy some time for Spectrum, too.”
Colonel White’s brow furrowed. “Time for Spectrum to do precisely what, Doctor?”
“Time enough for Cloudbase to disconnect and isolate itself. Minerva can only sabotage what it can connect to.”
“That would leave this base virtually blind and deaf!”
“And alive, in case I need to point that out. Minerva can turn off your hover combines as simply as it can send you a Rainbow Alert. I could do it right now and you wouldn’t be able to stop me. If I was a Mysteron. Minerva is still online, Colonel White. Think about it. You’re vulnerable. Get Spectrum HQ to do it too. Each and every Spectrum facility needs to copy that patch and set a password. If Spectrum falls, the world follows. That patch is the best I can manage. Take it or leave it.”
She handed the data disk to Ochre, surrendering the entire option over to Spectrum’s authority. There was nothing else she could do – not for herself, not for Spectrum and not for the rest of the planet.
She exhaled a deep breath, feeling a little less of the burden. “It’s your call, Colonel White,” she prompted softly.
Ochre took the disk gingerly, and glanced toward the screen. “I think she’s right, sir. The Mysteron threat was specific – to destroy first Spectrum and then the world. Protecting Spectrum protects everyone else. They’re always literal.” He fell silent, waiting for further instruction as to what to do with the disk.
Colonel White’s furrowed brows knit together into an intensely worried frown. It wasn’t indecision, simply a weighing out of the various risks either way, and it didn’t last for even a full minute.
“If you were a Mysteron, Doctor McLaine, I somehow doubt we’d still be discussing it.” He sighed heavily. “Spectrum will take your program and the patch – with sincere gratitude. Thank you.”
“Freely given with my profound apologies, Colonel. I’ve made quite a mess of the situation.”
“Well. So.” Colonel White did not quite shrug it off. “I rather believe we’ve all contributed something to that end of things, Doctor, and I’ve not been keeping score. We’ll call it even.”
She put her hand out and accepted the disk back from Ochre. “We will be destroying the equipment as soon as this is installed for you. The patch may become moot as soon as that’s done. I can’t guarantee the program’s error-free. It was written under a certain amount of duress and it’s untested besides. That’s your other risk.”
“An acceptable one. We’re standing by for download – at your convenience.”
She popped the disk into the workstation reader and leaned back again, watching as the various vidscreens automatically split between the open line to Cloudbase and a second hail of code that began to rapid scroll down its portion of the display. It didn’t take very long – Spectrum had only five main gateways: Headquarters, Operations, Intelligence, Security, Recruitment.
“The patch in is a separate file – it requires a standard set-up and reboot. Instructions included,” she advised when it was done. “We’ll be signing off and shutting down for demolition. We’ll have no communications other than Spectrum’s as soon as we sever the uplink.”
“I’ll re-establish contact as soon as possible, sir.” Ochre added. “If you’ll be kind enough to pass that along.”
“Consider it done, Captain. Carry on and exercise all due caution. Be thorough, Captain Ochre. Once again, good luck to you both.”
“Thank you, sir.” Ochre nodded one last time at the vidcam, and she closed the connection. The screens went dark. She reached up absently and pulled the specialized connector that linked her to the Think Tank. The quiet whirring slowed with another series of harmonious notes, and settled back into the low hum of its idling mode.
Minerva was offline.
For good. That was it and that was all. She would catalog her regrets another time.
She shut the lab down. And then she sat there, morbidly glad that Andy and Arthur weren’t there to see the rest of what was coming. And not only regarding the immediate destruction about to unfold.
There would be a full blown security inquest, and visits from World Tech Central. SWC would be under siege. World Government hound-dogs and watch-dogs would prowl and dig. There would be all manner of bureaucratic nightmares to contend with – up to and including interrogations and incarcerations. She was liable to be the first one thrown in jail.
All so long as the world didn’t end first, that was.
Ochre was looking at her, concerned.
She retrieved her scalp plug from the drawer, snapping it back into place as she stood. She’d left her hatchet on the floor beside the workstation, and she retrieved that too, squaring her shoulders and swinging it once and lightly, testing the heft of it. She was ready to burn off a bit of that frustration and stress and worry.
“I’ll do the heavy stuff,” she said, contemplating the division of upcoming labor, trying to be cheerful. “And your job will be to shoot a few holes in the tank...”
His arm hurt.
Ochre was exhausted, drained. Vandalism was harder work than he'd imagined, even though he’d gotten off easy and had spent most their demolition time breaking fragile circuit boards into useless piles of silicon confetti. The more robust pieces had been electronically fried when she’d swapped out their low-voltage fuses and turned up the juice.
After that, she had used the hatchet to good effect, severing and chopping connector cables and disabled power feeds into small bits. The two custom laptops had been hammered to scrap. The delicate EM fields inside the tank had collapsed when she’d pulled the plug on their long-automatically maintained superconducting components.
Their very last task had been to breach the tank and spill its specialized, super-cooled and no doubt very expensive cryogenic fluid. Retreating to the ribbed corridor outside the dome’s portal, they had closed that door as far as possible and he’d then fired a couple of bullets directly into the tank – the pressurized, liquefied contents had come boiling out in an icy plume of rapidly expanding vapor. A cloud of non-toxic but nonetheless asphyxiating mix of exotic gases began immediately to displace the scrubbed air inside the dome. They’d slammed the portal closed before it reached them and had quickly cleared the umbilical corridor, moving smartly for the waiting elevator – the increased pressure inside the ransacked dome was hissing and leaking into the cavern through emergency release valves, further contaminating the already sulfur-tainted air of the rock tunnels.
Once they were safely inside the lift, Ochre breathed relief and leaned against the back wall with his arm throbbing, allowing his eyes to close for a moment. His mission, as far as it was possible, was accomplished – and Zil simply wasn't going to need that very disquieting and sinister skull connector anymore.
The Think-Tank was trash, the electronics a jumbled heap of snapped and overloaded and scorched silicon and plastic. Minerva was as dead as he and Zil could make it and beyond any sort of short-term human resurrection.
It was not necessarily beyond a non-human one, which was still the worrisome thing.
Ochre let his hand rest on the holster of his electron gun, estimating the charge it had left. He'd fired it once on the airfield, dispatching the Mysteronized Doctor Weller. He’d fired it twice more to take down the dog. The capacitors were usually good for 6 or 7 discharges. He glanced at his watch. It was a little bit after 6:00 am. He would have no voltage to waste if Black and Carey were for any reason ahead of schedule. If he was lucky – if he was fast and accurate enough - he had two shots apiece for them. Almost. Although it was also highly unlikely that they'd be standing still for it. Todd Carey would be the easier target – the Mysteron would have no more experience or skill with weapons than the original.
Conrad Turner, however, was another matter altogether and would by far be the more dangerous prospect of the two.
He'd much rather find Magenta and Scarlet waiting at the door – hopefully still human. Hopefully not able to detonate and prove otherwise. They would bring Teal and Roan and a detector with them and if they weren't all Mysterons, they'd hand it over cheerfully and without offense to let Zil make a security check while he held a gun on them for the duration. They would expect that, would insist on it, in fact. Hell, they'd report him for dereliction of duty if he didn't…
If they were all Mysterons, then he simply didn't have enough voltage left for the lot of them and for Black and Carey too; then he'd have a real problem.
But his colleagues weren't likely to arrive unannounced. They would wait for him to re-establish contact, and then stay in radio touch while they made the hop up the mountain. According to Colonel White, the helijet was intact, had been under guard and moreover inspected personally by his would-be rescuers. There had been no further incidents at Demeter. He had faith that his colleagues – at least as of this moment – were not Mysterons. Any communications interruption during in-flight transmission would be his first clue that something was amiss.
Carefully, Ochre eased his injured arm out of the makeshift sling. Zil started to protest, and then stopped, realizing as the lift approached ground level that they were at a critical, dangerous juncture, and that he might well need the arm, regardless of condition. She watched him nervously as he flexed it, slowly and with extreme caution; he winced at the pain and the stiffness and mentally re-calculated the odds if things went badly. The range and speed of motion in that arm did not lend him any confidence. He debated giving her the other gun, as another just-in-case last ditch defensive measure.
The doors opened, letting them back into the corridor under the stairs, and they moved to the exit that would let them back into the cabin again after that. He activated his cap mike, looking to put himself in immediate touch with his colleagues, and not to miss a single second more out of contact than necessary.
The air was cool when that door slid aside. Or it seemed that way, after the moist and somewhat warmer air at lab-level. The fire was out. The cabin was quiet. The door to the outer corridor was closed. Nothing seemed to be out of place. Cautiously, Ochre took a step into the deserted living room, keeping the electron gun high. He moved sidelong across the wall, glancing up, checking the stairs to the loft, hoping to catch glimpse of any would-be snipers on the upper level if there were any present. He listened, straining to catch any stray or out-of-place sounds - footsteps or breathing, anything….
But there was only Zil behind him, peering over the threshold, still nervous, still scared, though she was putting on a very brave face and waiting desperately for him to say that everything was okay---
He heard a shot and simultaneously felt an impact that slammed him violently back against the wall, shattering his senses with the radiating shock of a new and serious injury. Astonishment jangled through his nerves until a jolt of searing pain caught up with it, obliterating everything in a mottled haze of red and black as the already damaged arm hit the same wall---
Zil screeched out his name, sounding somehow distant and far away as he felt his knees wobble beneath him, felt it as gravity inexorably dragged him floorwards and he saw from the corner of his eye the broad, crimson smear he was leaving on the wall behind him as he collapsed.
I’m hit, I’m hit – the certain knowledge chanted and danced through his head, carried on an abrupt and surreal sense of dislocation.
And then, inane question and lucid answer strung themselves together.
How’d they get here so damn fast? It froze. The ice – it froze - the temperature dropped the lake froze solid enough they crossed it Black and Carey didn’t go around the long way they saved themselves all that time…
Through the haze he saw a figure coming into view from the direction of the kitchen.
It was Todd Carey, bearing a raised rifle of some sort.
Ochre’s head hit the floor with his cap ridiculously aslant, crackling with static and alive with Scarlet’s voice in his ear: “Ochre? What the hell was that? Ochre!”
They heard, they heard the shot, they’ll move now…they’ll move but…
“They’re here…Scarlet, they’re here…Carey and—“
A slur of noise seemed to come out of his mouth as his eyes cycled through another blink and the bizarrely tilted scene morphed to include another sinister figure, that one coming from the vicinity of the entry corridor.
“---and Black – he’s here---they’re both here---“
Someone – Zil – was clawing desperately at his hip, going after the gun he should already have given her dammit all…
“Get out.” He tried to make his lips and the words work, tried but wasn’t sure that he’d made any sound at all.
Get out, get past them, run and run and run ---
A deep, jittery panic spread though his limbs, riding on the crawling cold of physical shock.
Too late, too late, she’ll never get around Conrad---
He saw his own hand flung out on the plush carpet with the electron gun loosely gripped in his fingers, tried to make them close, tried to raise that gun and fire but his fingertips scarcely twitched. Feet came into view – heavily booted feet over there and Zil’s right here close to him, braced for fight or flight.
His eyelids eclipsed one more time, changing it all yet again, and this time…
This time Zil was caught fast in Carey’s grip and staring at Captain Black coming toward her with a small pistol in one hand as she watched, helpless and wide-eyed and disbelieving, like something hypnotized and blinded by oncoming headlights, something uncomprehending and paralyzed and, and…
She didn’t even start to scream until the barrel of the pistol touched her temple.
No! No, Conrad, no, don’t!
An escalating raw terror closed his eyes, outright rejecting that scene. Powerless, he struggled desperately to move, fought to prevent it, to will it to stop by sheer brute denial---
He never saw it happen.
He never heard the shot.
But the stark reality registered when the screaming stopped abruptly and something solid hit the floor nearby with a heart-rending, hideous finality.
It was the end of the world.
No, no, no, no, no---
After that, there was nothing.
Nothing at all but a cold and dark oblivion that drank him down.
TO BE CONCLUDED…..