The Christmas Crisis
Author's Note: Special thanks to all the other authors. Especially Babs for lots of ideas and helping make Jade and Company come alive. And Hart for editing. It's a lot harder than you might think.
THE CHRISTMAS CRISIS
Story by Starwolf.
Opening Gambit; December 22nd,
6 AM MST Southern Colorado:
Air Force General Thomas Manning may have only had two stars on his lapel but, as the commander of the Home Defense Fast Reaction Force, he was used to people getting out of his way when something needed to be done. Having some stuffed shirt, myopic, pencil pushing, fat assed administrator telling him what he could or couldn’t do really irked him. But orders were orders and no one could ever accuse him of not carrying them out so he stood there stone faced as Mr. Frisk and Mr. Gallagher talked like he wasn’t even in the small office jammed into the equipment packed, armored semi trailer the admin types were using for a control center.
Mr. Frisk was the administrator in question, a fat, short, pale man with thick glasses and the demeanor of a hungry snake. He’d been put in charge and was totally aware of it. Of course, that meant only the man in charge should be sitting in any room he was in, possibly as compensation for the fact most other people tended to tower over his pudgy five four frame. The rolling chair had been lowered to a setting where at least his feet didn’t dangle but it made him look very small when compared to the General’s large, looming bulk.
Gallagher was his opposite, a very tall, thin, and weather worn man. Mr. Frisk may have been put in charge but it was obvious to the General that Gallagher was the man who got things done. Frisk would order and Gallagher would do. Manning watched as Frisk was instructing Gallagher on what he wanted done in the immediate future. Namely, the kidnapers were demanding they send some kid in as exchange for some agents who’d been taken hostage the other day. Why anyone would even consider sending a kid in to the kidnappers was beyond belief but these spooks had two kids giving them advice already so he couldn’t be sure. In fact, if he remembered correctly, the two boys were waiting outside to see what was going to be done. If his information was good, they were the kidnapped couple’s sons. Frisk’s rising whine of a voice brought the General’s attention back to the conversation in front of him.
“I don’t care what the demand is!” Frisk snarled. “We are not going to bring that girl within a hundred miles of the place and that’s final. She’s far too important to risk. If that means Weasel and Flashlight get killed, we’ll just have to live with it. They knew what the risks were when they decided to have children.”
Gallagher got a look like he was sucking on a lemon. It was obvious he didn’t like something about the situation but he also wasn’t going to go against his boss directly. He did state an opinion in a calm reasoning voice.
“These are two very valuable and trusted agents who have proved themselves and their loyalty time and again. Are you sure it’s worth risking them on a totally unproved and uncertain potential agent?”
“You’ve seen the reports, Gallagher. Her potential is staggering! We can’t risk someone else compromising her before we can make her our own.”
Gallagher hesitated for a moment and then continued, “What makes you think letting her parents die will bring her into our camp anyway, sir?”
Frisk shrugged. “She doesn’t need to know anything about that. In fact, it might work to our advantage.”
Frisk smile was practically a leer. He held up his hand open and palm up. Slowly, he closed his fingers into a fist.
“Yes. We can convince her that we are her best shot at getting revenge, then we have her in the bag. It’s just a matter of leading her on, step by step, until she’s in the groove and comfortable with it.”
Gallagher got a worried look. “What if she feels we are responsible?”
Frisk waved the thought away. “It’s all in the presentation. Don’t worry. She’s just a young, impressionable girl. What chance does she have against old pros like us? You watch and see. She’s so predictable, we’ll be leading her around in no time.”
With a nod, Gallagher switched arguments. “What if they don’t kill our agents?”
Frisk waved Gallagher’s comments away. “What’s the chance of that happening? Really! You’ve seen the reports on these guys. You know how they operate. Besides, what’s the chance of us getting in there and getting them out? It isn’t going to happen, even if these military stiffs think they can pull it off or even take these Knights of the Eternal Presence out.”
Frisks attention came back to the other man in the room. “No disrespect, General, but I think you can see it too.”
Now that he’d been invited into the conversation, the General leaned forward.
“I’m afraid I don’t agree, sir. I think my men and I can handle the situation. After all, how many of them are in there? Eighty to a hundred, tops? And we have the best equipment available with the best trained men. We’ll get them though I really don’t have much hope for your agents, I’m afraid. It’ll take a few weeks to get tunnelers set up so we can bypass the defenses and I can’t see these Bozos not offing them in the mean time.”
Gallagher shook his head. “We believe there may be one hundred and fifty to maybe two hundred well armed men in there. But I’d expect them to be long gone by the time your tunnelers are ready, General. They wouldn’t sit there and wait for you.”
The General straightened up and smiled.
“I don’t think we have to worry about that, gentlemen. There is no back door to this facility. Never has been, never will be. These places weren’t built for it. And we’ve already checked to see if they’ve done any serious modifications and I can assure you they haven’t. No, sir! They’re trapped in there. You can bet on it. It’s just a matter of time to dig them out.”
"What about special assets?" Gallagher wondered out loud in a quiet voice that didn’t irritate the General nearly as much as Frisk’s even as he showed some doubt of the General’s assertions. "Teleportation might give us an end-run. Is there a possibility of mystic intervention?"
The General tried very hard to keep the sneer from his face. "Much as I dislike the mumbo-jumbo crowd, you can't operate in today's world without considering those options. The facility is already protected against all known forms of extra-dimensional penetration. A shield layer powered from the inside guards against teleportation, phased matter penetration, warp penetration and a variety of similar mystical effects. In case you're wondering, there's also a psi-shield barrier, powered for the next hundred years, so mind-reading and psychic tricks are also out."
Mr. Frisk got a look on his face that made the General think of a cartoon weasel. Then he used that whiney and irritating voice again. It was enough to make the General want to slap him.
“So. There you have it, Gallagher. The expert has spoken. Does this mean you have no intention of getting our agents out of there, General?”
Controlling his irritation, the General responded with just a hint of reserve. “No, sir. But I don’t want to promise anything I can’t deliver and I think both of you can see how unlikely it will be for your agents to be released safely. We will do our best to rescue them but I won’t promise anything. While we work on getting the tunnelers here, we will, of course, be testing their defenses and you can be sure we’ll take advantage of any openings they give us.”
The three silently glared at each other for several seconds and then Frisk broke the ice. “Very well, General. We’ll let you get back to your work then. I expect a full report on any efforts made and intelligence gathered. Meet here again this evening and be prepared to give us a full rundown on what you are doing and have planned. Dismissed!”
The General stiffened but his anger at being treated like this only reached his eyes. He straightened up, saluted, spun on his heels and strode from the room. The other two men watched him leave and waited for the outside door to the trailer to close.
Then Frisk turned to Gallagher. “We need to keep the girl where she is. I was hoping to use this time with her parents to see about getting a commitment from her to come to us but we’ll make do with what we have. If we rescue our agents, we’ll be her heroes and, if the regrettable happens, we need to be ready to move in and convince her we’re the best shot at getting even. We may have to get her away from that school too. She’s way too open to outside influences there. But for now, we should see to it she stays there. Who knows? We might be able to get a few brownie points if we do this right. You know how they feel about family and friends being threatened.”
Gallagher nodded reluctantly, “Yes, sir. I’ll see to it right away.” Then he hesitated for a moment.
Frisk looked annoyed, “What now?”
“What about the boys? What do we tell them?”
Frisk shook his head in irritation, “Tell them we’re doing our best and send them home. What are they doing here, anyway? Last thing we need is to be tripping over kids at a time like this.”
Gallagher shrugged, “They’re agents in their own right. After alerting us to what was going on, they attached themselves to the case and came along. It is their parents who have been kidnapped after all. What did you expect?”
Frisk waved a dismissive hand, “Get them out of here. Last thing we need is a complication like that. Now get to it. We don’t have all day.”
Gallagher sighed and nodded, “Yes, sir. I’ll get on it right away.”
Turning, he left to carry out his orders. No one noticed the two young men huddled near the trailer or the briefcase they had open and were studying intensely. The older one took a wireless earphone out of his right ear and placed it into the case. Then he looked at the younger man next to him.
Shortly after 6 AM MST,
“Okay, Thad. What do we do now? And we better hide this quick. If they find we’ve used some of their top secret bugging equipment that Mom had, they’ll dump us in the deepest pit they can find.”
The younger man reluctantly pulled a similar phone from his ear and placed it in the case. He grumbled at the older boy while he carefully rearranged things in the case and closed it.
“Why are you asking me? You’re older than me. You’re the hot shot Full Agent. I’m just the Trainee.”
The older boy shook his head, “Everyone knows you’re the Brain around here. We’ve got to think of something quick or they’ll pack us off to a safe house and Mom and Dad are toast.”
Thad’s face showed a moment of fear and uncertainty and then set in a look of intense concentration. The older boy moved the case into a place of concealment while Thad was thinking. Then he waited for Thad to finish. Eventually, Thad looked up and took a deep breath.
“Okay, Larry. This is what we’ll do.”
The next several minutes were filled with a quiet argument but eventually a consensus was reached and the two boys grabbed the equipment from its hiding place and moved off to do what they had to do.
Whateley Academy a short time later:
December 22nd 9 AM EST:
“Billie! You’ve packed and re-packed three times already. I’m pretty certain we haven’t forgotten anything.”
Jade’s voice barely interrupted my thoughts as I tried to remember if I’d actually packed the gifts I’d gotten for everyone. I thought I’d put them in the chest I was taking with me but I’d put them in the bottom last time for security. But how was I supposed to find out if I’d missed anything without pulling it all out again?
“Billie. You packed them. Remember? I helped you. You didn’t miss anything. Just relax a bit. Soon the vans will be ready to go and we can get out of here.”
The last statement finally got through and I looked up at my roommate. The small oriental girl was sitting on her bed with her knees tucked under her chin. She wasn’t doing anything else, which was odd for her and I realized she must be as nervous as me, just not showing it as much. I went over and sat on the edge of the bed next to her, crossing my legs and holding my knee with my hands.
“You’re right, as usual. Are you sure you’re okay with this? It must be hard spending Christmas with total strangers.”
Jade ducked her head. “No, Oneesan. I met them on Parents Day. I’m happy to be able to spend Christmas with you and them.”
With a shudder, I remembered that day.
“Oh yeah. Did you HAVE to go into all that detail about what we’d been doing? I mean, it’s not like they really needed to know all the details about Boston and all.”
As I looked over at her, I caught a glimpse of something in her downcast eyes that I could only think of as mischievous but it was gone so fast I couldn’t be sure. There were times I wasn’t so sure I knew all that much about my roommate. Her answer was demure and quiet but I still had a feeling she was concealing a smile as she replied in a quietly shocked tone.
“You wouldn’t want me to lie to them, would you?”
I shook my head, “No. No. Never that. It’s just... Well, you didn’t have to be so graphic and detailed, did you? I mean, it’s not like I was in THAT much trouble. Or caused THAT much damage, you know. And I think if I wasn’t already here, they’d have grounded me for a year at least after you told them about my run in with Hip.”
She pressed her head to her knees and softly said, “I’m sorry.”
My heart dropped into my stomach and I leaned over to give her a big hug.
“Awwww... It wasn’t that bad. Don’t worry about it. You know how I exaggerate things. Really! I’m not upset about it. Just a bit nervous is all. And let’s face it. My parents would’ve found out about it all eventually from someone else. At least you were able to pass it off as no really big thing. Can you imagine how Chief Delarose or Hardass would have told it to them?”
She was quiet for a moment and I was worried I hadn’t gotten through to her then I felt her quiver a bit and she started to giggle. Soon we were both giggling and she unwound enough to hug me back. Then she leaned back with a grin I’d come to associate with the mischievousness that far exceeded her apparent age.
“Okay, Billie. I hereby promise to try and be the very first to tell your parents all the juiciest details of your adventures before anybody like Hardass gets a chance to.”
“Why, you little...”
She ducked away as I grabbed for a pillow. We were just about to release some of the nervous energy when there was a knock at the door.
Jade bounced towards the door as only she could. Leaving her pillow hanging in the air where she’d been standing a moment before. I had to be careful to keep an eye on her, the pillow and most of the other objects lying around so she was free to move and answer the door. Most of our friends wouldn’t just knock so Jade called out before opening it.
“Who is it?”
“It’s Ben.” Ben was one of the boys from Boy’s Town. We’d seen him around but didn’t know much more than that. “Tennyo has a phone call. Some guy named Larry. Mrs. Horton asked me to tell you.”
Jade glanced towards me and shrugged, “Okay, Ben. Thanks for the message. You can tell Mrs. Horton she’ll be right down.”
“Okay. I’ll do that. Better hurry though. It’s long distance.”
“Okay. She’ll be right down.”
I cautiously put my pillow back on my bed as her pillow gently returned to its place on her bed. A thread of unease began to form in my stomach. Jade gave me a questioning look.
I forced myself to shake off the feeling and grinned.
“Naw. I bet he just wants to see if I can pick up something special for Mom and Dad is all. I’ll be right back so don’t get too comfortable.”
Jade gave me a smug look. “I don’t have anything to worry about.”
I grinned back. “You may have me outnumbered but I can still take you.”
“Yeah, yeah. Go answer the phone already.”
“Uh huh.” I dropped my voice’s tone as low as I could and tried to impersonate Arnold. “I’ll.. be.. back!”
Jade took a pose of obviously false fear. “Ohhhh! I’m scared!” Then she straightened up and stuck her tongue out. “Not!”
I shook my head. “You just wait. I’ll show you who’s boss.”
“Uh huh. We’ll be waiting.”
“Yeah. I guess you will. Back soon!”
I ducked out so as to have the last word and hurried towards the phones.
The phones were located on the first floor in the common area. There were five of them. Four standard privacy enclosed phone-booths and another that could house someone who was larger or possibly not so humanly shaped. You could close one up and be relatively free from observation and someone listening in, at least if someone didn’t have extremely good methods for overcoming the security. They could also accept a call and then close up until the person the call was for came to answer.
Two of the small booths had flashing ready lights as I approached. The first booth I tried wouldn’t open for me so I tried the other one. The door popped open at my touch so I stepped in and closed the door. There was a small bench to sit on but that feeling of something going wrong started to come back so I couldn’t bring myself to sit. Instead I looked at the payphone for a moment before forcing myself to pick up the receiver.
It’s strange how you can go weeks or months just accepting things and then have some small thing bring all the surprise and confusion back again in a rush. I recognized Larry’s voice. It was just like before my change for a moment and I was talking to my older brother on the phone. No one had called me Bill in what seemed like ages and for a moment both the past and present collided in my brain.
I was a sixteen and a half year old boy but I was a girl and claiming to be fifteen and a half. I’d had what seemed like a normal life just a few months ago and now I was staying in a school far from home learning about the powers I now had and having real adventures where all I’d had before were dreams. The strangeness of it all made me speechless. Then the familiar voice spoke again, breaking my reverie.
“Bill. I mean Billie. It’s me. Larry.”
His voice startled me into speaking and for a moment I wondered at the strange changes in my voice. “I... I know. It’s just... It’s just been a while.”
Larry’s voice got very serious and my feelings of unease drowned out my confusion. “Look, Billie. I don’t have much time. They’ll be after me soon and I’ll have to move before they get here.”
“Who’s after you?”
“Just let me tell you. Don’t talk until I’m through. I don’t have time to answer many questions. What took you so long to answer, anyway?”
He was still my brother alright. “Duh! I live on another floor and no one said it was an emergency.”
“Oh. Right. Anyway, we don’t have much time.”
“You said that.”
“Quiet! Now listen carefully. I won’t be able to repeat a lot of this.”
“I’m listening already.”
“Okay. Now don’t panic but Mom and Dad have been kidnapped. They’re...”
I may be a little slow at times but that got my attention instantly. “WHAT!? Who? When...”
“Quiet! I’m gonna tell you but I have to get through it quick. Just let me finish. And don’t yell. We don’t want to draw too much attention.”
These booths were soundproofed so I didn’t have to worry about someone hearing my outburst but, if what he was saying was true, I didn’t want to waste time explaining. The training I’d been getting started to kick in and the feelings of shock and panic started to get pushed to the back and a more analytical part of my mind started to take over. Someone who knew me would certainly hear the tension in my voice as I answered but at least I was quieter.
“Alright. Tell me.”
Now that I was really listening, I could hear the tension in his voice.
“Okay. Mom and Dad have been kidnapped by some guys calling themselves The Knights of the Eternal Presence. Some whackos with too much money, an urge to take over the world and an unhealthy infatuation with all things medieval. They grabbed Mom and Dad yesterday and retreated to their base in NORAD C.”
I couldn’t stop myself from interrupting. “NORAD C? These guys are government?”
“No. But they bought it after the government started to phase the hardened bases out as unnecessary and too expensive. It’s located west of Raton Pass and south of Culebra Peak. Here are the map coordinates if you need them.”
He rattled off a series of numbers and letters. “Got that? Write them down so you don’t forget.”
The old me would’ve had to. The new me had this perfect memory I was still getting used to. I needed to know more and didn’t want any more delays.
“Go ahead. I have it.”
“You sure?” He didn’t have to sound so surprised. But his words did bring back old memories for a moment as I realized how much more I’d changed than I’d realized.
“Get on with it. You’re the one who told me how little time we have.”
“Right. Well, these guys are demanding we trade you for Mom and Dad.”
“Huh!?” I have to admit to being surprised and shocked by that. I couldn’t imagine any reason someone would want to go through so much trouble for me.
“Don’t ask me why but that’s the demand. They want to trade for you. I think they had bad intel and thought you were coming home yesterday. Mom and Dad went to the airport to pick up something and that’s when they were grabbed. Dad got off a quick warning to us before they got him. I think the Knights were expecting you to be there and then things went south. The Denver Gold happened to be nearby and I was able to give them a heads up. Using a tracer we had on Dad, we helped the Gold chase the Knights into their hole and the Army has them pinned down there.”
I’d heard of the Denver Gold. A new Hero Team starting to make a name for themselves. They supposedly operated out of a base somewhere near Pike’s Peak. I’d recently learned that Mom and Dad knew them and had worked with them some. I guess it wasn’t too surprising they’d have regular contact and would work together. But I was really wondering how the Army got involved so quickly. It normally took ages for them to get moving.
“So what are we doing now?” I knew how bad a hostage situation could be and thoughts of all the things that could go wrong started flashing through my brain. The more I listened to Larry, the more I realized how worried he must be too.
“Uh, you remember Uncle Ben?”
“Yeah. So?” Uncle Ben had attached himself to my family during Parent’s Day. He’d made a pest of himself trying to recruit me for the Agency Mom and Dad worked for. I’d learned he was actually called Mr. Frisk and he was my parent’s controller.
“He’s in charge here. And he’s decided that they won’t even let you come anywhere near here. He sent the Gold away and is just going to let these jerks torture and kill Mom and Dad.”
I’d rarely known Larry to get really emotional but anyone who knew him would know he was really straining now. I wasn’t too happy about it myself but I needed more information before doing anything. I decided to see if he would get to the point a bit quicker.
“So why are you telling me this?”
There was a pause and for a moment I thought he might have ended the call or had it ended. Then he cleared his throat.
“Uh. Well, Thad thought it through and…”
“Wait! Before you give up on his idea, you need to know something.”
“I know you and Thad have some issues…”
“Issues! You call nearly killing me and changing me into a girl issues!? And all this while trying to mind control me?”
“Billie, listen to me. When he puts his mind to it, he’s really good at figuring out things and, don’t tell anyone, but he’s a bit of a precog too. If he says the only way to save Mom and Dad is for you to get here in less than thirty hours, you can bet he’s right. I don’t know why but I don’t want to risk going against his advice in this. Mom and Dad’s lives are at stake.”
I hated to let a good rant go but Larry was right. The little brat was too good at this kind of thing and if he was also a precog, it would make some sense also. He’d almost always been a bit too good at getting out of tight situations.
“Billie? Are you listening?”
“I mean it. You need to get here quick. Before the time limit the thugs gave us is up or Mom and Dad will almost certainly die. We don’t know why but Thad is about as sure of it as he can be.”
“Yeah. Thad’s pretty sure if you don’t start soon, you’ll get pinned down and won’t be able to get here in time. I don’t know how you can possibly get here anyway, everyone will be trying to stop you after Frisk learns you’re coming, but if you don’t get going soon, you probably won’t make it out of the school. You can assume all public flights and the like will be covered so you’ll probably have to hitch a ride if you can. That’s the only way you’re likely to make it.”
I could think of a few more but I didn’t feel a need to tell him that.
“Can you tell me more about the guys who grabbed Mom and Dad?”
“When you get here. I’ll put together all the info I can but just worry about getting here first.”
“Oh yeah. Like I’m just going to put it out of my head. C’mon! Give me something to work with.”
“I don’t have time! I think someone’s coming! Get here!”
“Larry! Wai...” There was a click.
I stood there glaring at the phone in my hand until I heard a creaking coming from it. These phones were made to take a lot of punishment but, if I hadn’t noticed the creaking, I might have crushed it. As it was, there were definite dents. I didn’t even remember hanging it up.
My thoughts were a jumble. We’d been told about these kinds of things before all through the semester. People trying to use loved ones or other important people to get what they wanted from you. It just never seemed at all likely to me. I’d never lost any sleep over it, to be sure. Why would anyone consider me important? Most of the others were way more important than me. Like Ayla and her family money or Nikki and her father. I was a relative nobody. I shouldn’t even be on the radar. Why me?
My next truly conscious thought was to wonder why a pillow was attacking me. In moments, it was shredded into a floating, fluffy mist and Jade was staring at me from across our room. She’d even taken a defensive stance.
“Billie? Is something wrong?”
With a start, I realized I must be showing my emotions and it wasn’t pretty. Taking a moment, I forced myself to try some of the meditation techniques I’d been forced to learn by Sensei Ito. For a wonder, they seemed to work and by the time Jade asked another question, I felt I could answer in a more civil fashion. At least, better than a scream or snarl.
I tried to answer her but suddenly it was hard to breath deep enough to speak clearly.
“It’s... they... I...”
And now I found myself crying. I stood there, my fists clenched, tears starting to fall down my face and unable to gasp out more than a word or two together. A part of me was appalled and mortified that I couldn’t do better than that but the rest of me just didn’t care.
Jade, probably risking her life considering the state I was in, was with me in a moment, pulling me into a hug that I let myself accept as I fell to my knees and started to sob uncontrollably. She gently pulled my face up and looked into my eyes.
The look in her eyes was anything but gentle though. For a moment, I got a glimpse of the iron hard will that resided in the small body and it wasn’t a happy look. The same promise of mayhem I’d seen when she’d gone after Tansy was there. Along with all the other emotions, I now felt a growing unease for my roommate.
“Billie! Who did this?” A simple question but I could feel objects in the room start to stir a bit and the shock of seeing eminent mayhem in her eyes shocked me out of my daze. I felt had to get control before she did something we’d all regret. Taking her into a hard hug she hopefully wouldn’t pull out of, I made a supreme effort to get control of myself.
The hyperventilating wouldn’t just stop and for a moment I was surprised I could still hyperventilate. Then I realized it was more a conditioned reflex than an actual physical necessity. Struggling to take control, I pulled her close to prevent her from running off and tried to get my breathing, if not my tears, under control. She returned the hug, pulling my head to her chest and rocking me a bit.
“C’mon, girl. Get ahold of yourself. Tell me what’s wrong.”
Just then the door popped open and Toni bounced in, looking like she was ready for trouble.
“Hey, guys! Wassup? People out in the halls are sure Billie might kill someone and…”
The look she must have gotten from Jade and the fact that Jade’s compact snapped into the area between us in full battle mode must have gotten the message across. She held up her hands in a non aggressive stance.
“Whoa, girl! Sorry to interrupt. I’ll just step out and let you finish up. Let us know if we can help.”
In a moment, Toni was gone and the door closed softly behind her. I pulled myself up and hugged my roommate again. Making a supreme effort, I forced myself to tell her what I could.
“Jade! It... It’s O.. Okay. It’s not anyone’s fault! At least not here. It’s just that, that, su... Some... Someone’s kidnapped my Mom and Dad!”
I couldn’t control the sobs anymore and lost control again as there was what sounded like an exclamation outside our door. It burst open again and both Nikki and Toni, ignoring the threatening compact, burst into the room. Both of them looked ready for trouble. They didn’t hug us but, after closing the door, they both moved up and put a hand on my shoulder to let me know they were there for me. Toni looked to Jade.
“Did we hear right? Did someone kidnap Billie’s parents?”
I felt Jade shrug.
“You know as much as I do. And it’s nice to know how much privacy these rooms have.”
Toni shrugged. “We have good ears. Any idea at all what’s happening?”
Jade shook her head. “No. I’m waiting for Billie to recover. There’s nobody out there?”
Toni shook her head. “Naw. They saw her coming and cleared the hall. I wouldn’t be surprised if Security comes by and checks it out soon.”
Nikki nodded. “I’ll go and give the all clear. It should at least keep Security out of it.”
She gave me a quick hug. “Don’t worry Billie. We’re here for you. Don’t go running off half cocked.”
I was still trying to get my breathing under control. I’d given up on the tears for now and just let them flow. Having my friends around was helping though. I managed to nod and then Nikki was out of the room.
The next minutes were spent getting my emotions under control. I didn’t even try to tell my friends what I knew yet. Instead I waited until I was sure I could handle it. Nikki came back a few minutes later.
“Okay, that’s taken care of.”
Toni looked up. “How’d it go?”
Nikki smiled. “I just told them her brother had told her what he was getting her for Christmas and that no one here is in danger. I think they bought it.”
I almost choked as a sudden desire to laugh started to war with everything else.
Nikki shook her head. “C’mon, Billie. It wasn’t that funny.”
I nodded and finally managed to speak.
“I know. It’s just.. Just that I needed it.”
She stepped in and gave me a quick hug.
“That’s good. Are you ready to tell us what’s going on or am I going to have to torture it out of you?”
I straightened up. “You can torture all you want. I’ll never crack!”
Nikki crossed her arms. “Then I guess you’ll never get that triple layer chocolate cheese cake I have waiting for you in my room.”
I threw my hands up. “I’ll talk! I’ll talk! James did it! And Charles hid the body for him!”
Jade put her hands on her hips. “I thought you’d never crack under torture?”
I crossed my arms and put my nose in the air. “And I never will, but that’s a bribe. It’s so totally different!”
“Oh. Well, in that case, can you tell us more?”
The joking mood evaporated instantly but the unbearable emotions were now controllable and I was able to nod and suppress the tears and the knot in my stomach. I nodded.
“That was Larry. My brother. Seems some guys calling themselves the Knights of the Eternal Presence were hoping to grab me and ended up taking my parents hostage instead.”
For a moment I couldn’t continue and the others gathered close. Comforted by this, I continued.
“My dad managed to get a message to Larry and Larry managed to alert some of the local supers who chased these guys back to their lair in NORAD C.”
The three around me exchanged glances and Nikki asked a question.
“These guys government?”
I shook my head. “Apparently not. Seems when the Government was cutting back on bases, they sold one of the old hard ones to these guys. It’s located west of Raton Pass in Colorado, I guess. Larry gave me some GPS coordinates to it.”
Toni nodded. “You got them?”
I rattled them off and she ducked out of the room with a wave.
“I’ll check on that and be back in a flash!”
While we waited for her, Nikki held me and Jade had Jinn get her computer going. Soon Toni was back with some printouts.
“Got it. I was even able to get some old blueprints of the place. Seems it’s not considered a big secret any more. It’s amazing what you can get on the internet these days.”
She threw the papers down on the bed and we gathered around to look them over.
One of them was a printout of a map showing the location of NORAD C. It was actually more west of Trinidad rather than Raton Pass. Looking at the map, I was sure I could find the place.
The other papers showed a basic diagram of the base and some history and descriptions. There was a main entrance area leading into a cavern and inside the cavern a huge door and a smaller airlock like tunnel near that. These were the only two known entrances. From the entry caverns, the base split into three separate areas connected by a single small tunnel each and the larger tunnels that went to the entry area.
The first was at forty five degrees to the left from the entry area. This lead to the bunker area where nukes for follow on attacks would have been stored. Most of this area was for large, very heavily armored and reinforced bunkers.
Straight ahead was the living and maintenance areas. The branch off to the right was for the admin area, which was somewhat smaller and more removed from the others.
Toni hmmmed, “Looks like a good defensive layout. Able to take a nuke head on would be my guess. Breaking in won’t be easy.”
She looked over at Nikki. “Magic?”
Nikki shook her head. “Won’t work. They used to be really paranoid about it. I bet the old wards are still very active.”
“Yeah. I heard my dad talking about it once with some friends. Some really powerful magical wards were par for the course with these bases. I don’t think anything that wouldn’t just trash the joint would work.”
Toni nodded. That’s out then. Maybe there’s a way to sneak in?”
I cleared my throat. “I won’t have to.”
Toni did a double take. “Huh? Why not?”
“Their terms for releasing my parents is a trade for me. I won’t have any trouble getting in.”
Nikki joined in. “Why you?”
Shrugging I pulled one of the diagrams closer to me. “Don’t know. Larry couldn’t give me details over the phone. All he could tell me was that I have to get there in less than thirty hours, something about the limit these guys set and that the guy in charge will try to keep me away.”
Nikki nodded. “How powerful is this guy?”
I couldn’t restrain a growl. “You saw him during Parents Day. He’s the guy who tagged along as my ‘Uncle Ben’. Remember him?”
Her eyes widened. “A controller? That’s bad news. He’ll be able to prevent you from using any public transportation and keep any police along the way ready to arrest you if you try and hitch or take some other transport. If he knows you’re coming, he can make it really hard to get there without breaking a whole lot of laws. Do you think Charlie will be able to help?”
I shook my head dejectedly. “He’s off New York way. Chasing an Angel or something. I can’t reach him in time. Besides, he might try and stop me too. I’ll have to do this on my own. Sorry, Jade. I’m afraid the only way is to go on my own. I promise that I’ll try to get you out there as soon as my parents are okay. You can bring the other stuff with you when you come.”
The stricken look on her face hurt almost as much as the news my parents were kidnapped had. I went to her and hugged her hard. I really didn’t want to disappoint her but I couldn’t think of any way to take her with me. I thought she’d really been looking forward to this too. Toni coughed to get our attention.
“How are you going to get there?”
I let go of Jade and turned to the others.
“I need to pack a small pack. I can fly there on my own.”
Toni shook her head. “It’s almost 1,200 miles. You can fly that far?”
Shrugging, I started to look for things I’d need to take with me. I had a medium sized school pack I figured would do. I spoke over my shoulder as I looked around.
“I’ve been practicing. I figure I can make it in about ten hours.”
Toni seemed unconvinced. “You can fly that fast?”
“Faster but I’ll need to pace myself, so I figure around 120 miles per hour. Maybe with a stop or two. I think I’ll have plenty of time to find the place when I get there.”
She nodded. “That might work. If they don’t get the Air Force after you. Will it be legal?”
I shrugged again. “Kind of a grey area. I have a permit coming but I don’t have it yet. Technically, I’m smaller and lighter than what an aircraft needs to be to require a license to fly. It could be argued either way. I’ll take my chances.”
About then, I realized Jade wasn’t in the room with us. I felt a touch of guilt and worry.
“Did Jade say where she was going?”
The other two looked at me and shrugged.
“Maybe I should go after her?”
Nikki shook her head. “Let her be alone for a bit. We’ll keep an eye on her and make sure she’s okay.”
“Aren’t you guys heading out soon?”
“Yeah but we’ll make sure she’s okay before we go. We might be able to take her with us if we have to. You go and do what you have to. And you better hurry. I’m getting a bad feeling about this. We might want to have someone watch for Security in case they send someone here to take Billie into custody for safe keeping.”
That made me worry and remember what Larry had said about someone stopping me. I went back to looking for what I’d need to take. Toni stepped out to keep an eye out for Security.
In the end, I grabbed an extra set of clothing, a poncho in case I ran into rain or snow and a coat I’d wear. Not that I’d found I needed it. Weather just didn’t seem to bother me much. I also made sure I had a wallet with the three hundred dollars I’d put aside for the trip. It wasn’t a girlish way to do it but I put that in my back pocket to carry it. It also had my MID in case I needed it. I almost took it out again when I realized how uncomfortable having it there was but I didn’t have any other place to put it and didn’t feel comfortable putting it into the pack so for now I’d put up with it despite the obvious disapproval on Nikki’s face.
I was looking around again when Jade came back in. She looked really tired and was clutching the cabbit Bunny had made for her a little while back. It was supposedly nearly indestructible and weighed more than it should but I’d never bothered to ask Jade what it was for.
She came up to me and held it out to me with her best puppy dog eyes.
“Please, Billie. Take this with you. For luck.”
I thought of not doing it but I had room in my pack still and there wasn’t any way I could resist her request under the circumstances. I gave her a big hug.
“Okay. Just slip it into the pack. Thank you for thinking of it. I might’ve been lonely without a cabbit to keep me company. It just wouldn’t be right anyway. I have to keep up my image, you know.”
She gave me a big smile and then yawned. Then she got a serious look on her face.
“I think I better take a quick nap soon. All this excitement is getting to me.” She gave me a quick hug. “I’m going to crash. Give half a second for Jinn to say goodbye then you’d better go. I think I saw Security heading this way.”
I looked at Nikki and she shrugged. Just then Toni ducked back in.
Quick! Security’s on its way. How are you going to get out?”
I thought about it for a moment. Then nodded. “Roof! I’ll wait until they enter the building and then take off. That way, they won’t see me leaving.”
Toni raised an eyebrow at me. “You’re not supposed to use the roof.”
I shrugged. “Too bad. I don’t think I have much of a choice. Besides, Mega Girl gets away with it all the time. I should be okay.”
Jade was done rummaging through the dresser. The poor kid practically collapsed as she cast Jinn or maybe it was Jann? Then I realized that they’d raided my clothes and was about to yell at them when Jinn turned around.
It was like looking in a mirror except for her hair. I’d forgotten she could do that.
“I don’t mean to be picky,” Toni said, “but Billie has blue hair, not black.”
“And you’ve got normal human eyes,” Nikki noted. In an aside to me, she added, “No offense.”
“Everyone’s a critic!” Jinn or Jann groused. Even her voice sounded like mine. “Come on, we have to catch security before they reach the stairs.”
Then she paused to give me a hug. “You’d better get going. Don’t forget your pack.”
We headed for the stairs. At the landing, I hugged everyone again. We heard sounds of a crowd coming from the first floor and Jann gave me a gentle shove.
“Go! And… be careful, Oneesan.”
I nodded and turned away before she could see me get all teary-eyed. Lifting my feet from the floor, I silently flew up two flights of stairs. I couldn’t see it but I could certainly hear the commotion below…“Billie Wilson? We need you over in Security. Can you come with us?”
“What’s the problem, officers?”
“Just a safety issue. If you’ll come— Hey, don’t you usually have blue hair?”
“I’m about to travel back home. I thought black hair dye would make me less conspicuous.”
And before I could hear any more, I’d reached the roof and slipped quietly through the door. I stood for just a moment on the outside of that door. My friends were covering for me and I was just cutting out and leaving them. But I couldn’t see any other choice. Stifling any other feelings I had, I set my jaw, kicked off the ground and shot straight up into the sky.
No regrets, I promised myself. And no mercy.
As soon as I was several thousand feet up, I headed due west. This wasn’t too hard because I was familiar with the area. But I knew it would be harder later on. I hadn’t been planning on this so I didn’t have a few things that would’ve helped. In Flight Class, we’d had portable equipment packages and I’d thought of trying to get one, but they also had transponders and that I didn’t need. But if I’d thought ahead enough, I might have grabbed a compass.
I was going to have to navigate by terrain features instead for now and at this altitude it would be harder than you might think. Still, with the Great Lakes and Rockies to go by I shouldn’t have too much trouble at least getting near where I needed to go and I might stop somewhere and get a GPS unit or compass along the way too. Of course, I’d have to be careful. I wouldn’t put it past old Frisk to send out an APB on me if he thought it would work.
Everything went smoothly for the first few hours. In fact, I was able to spot the St. Lawrence Seaway pretty fast and using that I was able to find the Great Lakes too. All I had to really worry about was making sure I avoided any very unlikely air traffic that might happen to be in my immediate vicinity. All in all, it was very boring.
But after a few hours, I started to feel hungry and it got worse pretty quickly. I realized it must be getting close to lunchtime for me. Finding a place to eat wouldn’t be all that hard. Finding a place where I could eat the amounts I needed and still remain unnoticed was going to be nearly impossible. Still, I had to do something so, around Cleveland, I decided to head down and find someplace to eat.
Going to an airport might have been easiest but anyone noticing me flying might also ask for my license so I figured that would be out. I headed for what looked like a large strip mall instead.
I’d considered trying to disguise myself but figured a strange looking girl trying to conceal that fact would draw more attention than just a strange looking girl would. Besides, it was easier and faster to not do it.
Going into a Sears store, I asked a nice looking salesperson if they knew of any buffets in the area and where they were. The young man was very polite and, after a bit of chatting about where I was from, he told me about a place called Great Lakes Buffet not too far away. He said they had really good food and wouldn’t mind too much if I ate a lot. Thanking him, I hiked towards where he said it would be. I didn’t want to draw too much attention by flying. I did however take advantage of my abilities to walk on the top of the snow so my shoes stayed dry.
Soon I found the place. There was a short line and the girl at the register almost seemed to be expecting me. I pointed out that I could eat a lot more than their usual customers and we eventually had the manager come over and make an agreement that I could pay for five dinners and eat all I wanted to. I don’t think they believed me at first. Eventually, the manager asked if I’d agree to let them take pictures and I couldn’t think of a good reason not to so I ended up taking some time getting my picture taken with the staff and some of the customers. It was almost like a party and really a bit of fun I wasn’t expecting. I’d learned that the cashier was a friend of the salesperson I’d talked to at Sears and they were part of a group who liked to track Supers. Kind of like a fan club. I wasn’t a known one but they assured me I’d be a shoe-in for one of the top eaters if I ever tried. A few laughs and quick hugs and I was on my way.
A few thousand feet up and heading west again I almost had a heart attack when someone started talking to me.
“That wasn’t bad at all. They were really very nice.”
The voice was coming from my pack and I just about turned inside out trying to get it off before I realized from the squawks and laughter that it had to be Jinn talking to me. In moments, risking the loss of some of my personal items into Lake Erie, I was looking into the face of a cabbit that somehow managed to look smug.
“Jinn! You almost gave me a heart attack!”
For some odd reason, I’d sometimes found myself able to tell Jade’s projections apart recently. I knew this one was Jinn, not Jann or any of the others. Maybe it was because I was around them enough to tell the differences when no one else could. Now that I thought of it, I realized I’d known the one pretending to be me was Jann all along but, because Jade had mentioned Jinn, I’d been confused. Jade must have called her Jinn to throw me off while Jinn played stowaway.
Jinn giggled. “Then it’s a good thing you’ve got two of em, isn’t it?”
“I outta throw you in the lake!”
“Hey! I go through all this trouble to help you and this is the thanks I get?”
To tell the truth, I was actually pretty happy to see her. I hadn’t realized until then how lonely I was feeling. I also got a sinking feeling when I realized she must be coming up on the limit of her charge and would soon be gone again. But I couldn’t let on about my feelings. It wouldn’t do to show weakness like that now. It would only make Jade worry more and the fact that she’d done this showed how worried she must be about separating from me now. I should’ve realized what she’d done when I’d seen how tired she was. I didn’t understand why she’d gotten so clingy of late. I knew she had a better self image than that.
“Trouble? I don’t see you doing any of the flying.”
“Do you have any idea how hard it’s been on me just sitting in here doing nothing? You just think you have it hard.”
“Right. Come along for the ride and then complain about someone else doing the work. I know your kind. Tag along and then pop up at the last and take credit for it. Uh, How much longer am I gonna have to put up with you anyway? Don’t you have more important people to pester?”
Not the most subtle way to ask but another problem occurred to me at about the same time. If her charge ran out this far from Jade, would she actually get back or just fade away? I couldn’t remember if we’d ever tested what would happen if she was too far away when it occurred. I wasn’t about to risk the same thing as happened when Tansy stole her for a while. I didn’t think I could stand putting Jade through that again.
“Nah! I got nothin better to do than hang around and try to keep you out of trouble, Big Sister.”
Maybe I should just keep up the fun exchange but the thought of what might happen took the fun out of it. I quickly adjusted the pack so she could see out and started to fly back the way I came. I felt a tap on the back of my head. Jinn giggled.
“Oneesan? Shouldn’t we be heading the other way? West is back that a way.”
“No. WE need to be heading back to Whateley, or at least close to it before your charge runs out.”
There was silence for a moment.
“But, what about your parents? Don’t you have to get there fast?”
“I’ve got enough time. If I really hurry.”
Jinn started to sound worried.
“Don’t do that! You can’t take the chance. They could die if you don’t get there in time.”
“Jinn. I can’t take a chance of losing you either. I’ll get you back closer to Whateley before your charge runs out. I’d never be able to live with myself if you were lost. Jade would never forgive me.”
“You don’t have to do that. And we would too forgive you. This is our idea. You need to go save your parents.”
“Yes I do. You don’t know that you’ll be able to get back to Jade at this range and I’m not taking the chance. I’m not going to lose you!”
Jinn started to pull lightly on my hair.
“Oneesan! Billie! You don’t have to worry about it! I had time to run off and find …uh, this guy I know. When he’s charged me before, it’s always been good for at least a day. And I really don’t think you have to worry about the distance either. So I figure we have at least a day or two to work with.”
Knowing the kind of sacrifice, she would be willing to make for someone she cared about I wasn’t sure she wasn’t lying to me. But she was also truthful to a fault for the most part and she didn’t sound like she was trying to hide anything either. I slowed down and pulled the pack back around so I could see her face to face.
“You’re sure? You never said anything about it before.”
She nodded vigorously. “I’m sure! He doesn’t want people to know so I don’t want to say his name. But he can, uh, I don’t know how to describe it. Oh yes, super-charge my casting time. I’m sure it’ll be long enough.”
“But what happens if it runs out? You don’t know that you’ll be able to get back.”
“Well, the tests we’ve done so far don’t seem to be affected by distance. I don’t think you need to worry about that. I’m willing to take the chance anyway. You can’t go back now anyway. It’ll take too long and there’s too good a chance they’ll stop you. You have to go on.”
The cabbit reached out and gently took hold of my face, pulling her forehead up to mine.
“No buts. We need to save your parents. Hey! They’re my parents too, in a way. Seeing how we’re sisters and all. Please, Billie. We need to do this. I’m not in any danger. Let’s go. C’mon! We can do this.”
I couldn’t say anything. There was a big lump in my throat and I could feel tears in my eyes. I sighed and hugged her close for a moment. She patted my face.
“C’mon. We gotta get going. Can’t be wasting time being all maudlin, you know.”
Clearing my throat I managed to husk out a quick reply.
“Yeah. I guess so. Do you even know what maudlin means?”
“Do you? I bet you’re doing it right now though.”
I nodded and started to head west again.
“Maybe. But you better be right about this. If you go off and fade away, I’ll hunt you down and kill you.”
“Promises, promises. Get your lazy tail to work and get going. We’re on a clock here.”
Have I ever said how wonderful having friends is? I’d thought I had friends before this all started but you really don’t know what a friend is until things get rough. Even the occasional “Are we there yet?” couldn’t dampen the good feeling I got when I realized I wasn’t alone. It had weighed on me more than I thought.
We couldn’t talk much at the speeds I was moving but the occasional tap let me know she was there. Our next stop was a place south of Chicago called La Porte, Indiana. I was able to find another all you can eat buffet. People here didn’t seem all that interested in me although the manager made sure I didn’t get all I could eat.
I had to accept the limitations though. I only had so much money and I had to save some for later. I just hoped I had enough to get me to southern Colorado.
Next stop turned out to be Topeka, Kansas. I’d been aiming for someplace like Omaha, Nebraska but at the height I was traveling at it was hard to make out reasonably good landmarks. It might not have been such a problem except I’d made the mistake of telling Jinn where I was heading. I set down in a snow covered park after checking where I was at a gas station. Putting Jinn down next to me on the bench, I started to look over the road atlas I’d brought along for a map.
The job was made a little more difficult by the humming and giggling of my furry little partner.
“Hmmm... Omaha, Topeka. Ooomaha, Tooopeka. Just how far apart are they I wonder? Could I get a look at that map please, Billie?”
“Go away. I’m busy.”
“Awwww... I just want to help out.”
“Don’t need your help.”
“Let’s see. It’s got to be at least a hundred miles off. Maybe two? Sure you don’t need a little help there?”
“No. It must’a been the winds blew me off a bit. Now that I know about them it won’t be a problem.”
“C’mon, Billie. I can help. I’m real good with maps.”
“So’m I. I took Orienteering in Boy Scouts.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“Nothin looks the same as the map when we’re way up in the air. I gotta figure out a way to tell what landmarks are what from up in the air is all. I think I’m startin to get the hang of it now. At least out here in the plains it will be easy to see the highways and the like. We can follow I-70 to Denver and then I-25 south to Trinidad I think.”
Jinn climbed into my lap so I made room for her with a sigh.
She reached up and patted my face. “It’ll be okay Billie. We’ll get there. Even you can’t miss a target that big.”
Looking down into the yellow eyes I couldn’t help chuckling a bit. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
She waved a paw. “Think nothing of it. I’d do it for any of my friends. By the way, how are you doing? Tired?”
I shook my head and stretched. “Not really but I am pretty hungry.”
“You’re always hungry.”
Shaking my head, I looked around.
“Not this hungry. I think all this flying is more draining than I thought it would be. Let’s see if we can find that steakhouse the station attendant mentioned. I still have over two hundred dollars and if the meals are as big as the guy said I might be able to take the edge off before we head for Denver.”
Jinn snuggled into the pack. She managed a worried look in my direction.
“You gonna be okay?”
I shrugged. “Yeah. As long as I get something to eat soon. Otherwise I might be tempted to see if you’re edible.”
Jinn disappeared back into the pack with a small Eeeep! In moments, a burst of giggles let me know just how seriously she was taking the threat.
“I wouldn’t get too comfortable in there. You look pretty edible, you know.”
Her head popped out and she stuck her tongue in my direction while pulling her right eyelid down with a paw. I couldn’t help but laugh at that.
“You better be well behaved or I won’t share any of my steak with you.”
“Awwww... You’re such a meanie!”
“Yeah. I am. Now quiet down so I can go get something to eat.”
Her head ducked back into the pack and her reply was muffled but understandable.
“Go! Eat! Maybe you won’t be so grumpy after you get something in your stomach.”
I shook my head and picked up the pack. It didn’t take too long to find the place and find out the meals were really big but I couldn’t get it for free after I proved I could eat the whole thing. They had some kind of mutant rule but I was able to get my next meal at half price. Not that I was too disappointed. Two of them actually filled me up close to comfortable and I still had a hundred and fifty bucks for the rest of the trip.
Feeling a bit better about what I was doing, I set out for the west. Not too long after that, I realized I was going to have another problem. It was getting darker fast. I should’ve expected it, being winter and all. Not that following the highway and finding Denver would be hard but, after I got south towards Trinidad, it would get a lot harder to find where I needed to go.
Also, the weather was starting to go south. There was already snow on the ground and, as I got closer to the mountains, I ran into some flurries. They got worse as I got closer to Denver and I was pretty sure I was heading into a storm front.
By the time I got to Denver, it was definitely dark and the snow was getting worse. But it was still early enough to find another buffet. Forty bucks later, the manager was pushing for me to get out of there. He had enough of my attention I didn’t see a little girl who was probably ten or so approach and reach into my pack. The first I knew about it was when the manager looked behind me and got a curious look on his face. Then he started to huff a bit and pointed at something behind me.
“No pets allowed! Don’t you know I could have you arrested for bringing that in here?!”
I turned to find Jinn being mauled by the kid.
“Hey! Leave Jinn alone, brat!”
Far from being at all intimidated and tugging at Jinn’s ears, she whined at me. “This isn’t a kitty! I want it to move again. How do you make it move?”
Jinn had probably tried to get a look around and the girl had seen her. And she was pretty lifelike. It’s probably why the manager thought she was a pet. He was probably worried that Jinn would hurt the kid in his establishment too. Especially with how the kid was mauling Jinn.
I tried to get a hold on Jinn in order to get her away from the kid. “Give her back to me, kid. And stop mauling her. Does your Mom know you’ve gotten out of your cage?”
A tall thin couple was watching nearby and the almost gaunt lady gasped with indignation.
“How dare you speak to my child that way! Harold! Do something!”
The man, looking like a deer caught in a spotlight for a moment, sputtered and looked around desperately.
I heard the manager behind me saying something about it being time for me to get out of there before he called the police and the little brat kept turning away and pulling and poking at Jinn at the same time. She’d obviously had a lot of practice at being a brat. Keeping a death grip on Jinn, she stepped back and glared at me.
“Make it work! Mommy! Make her make it work!”
“Harold! Do something!”
“You’re out of here! I’m calling the police!”
“QUIET! All of you!”
I guess I’d gotten a little carried away as everyone in the place shut up, except for the kid who started to cry and everyone nearest to me went pale.
“Now! Let Jinn go! Lady! Get your kid before she gets into any more trouble!”
The best she could manage was an appalled gasp but her husband moved fast and somehow managed to pry Jinn away from the brat in moments. He had a curious look on his face as he handed Jinn back to me. Even while using his body to block the screaming child from grabbing Jinn again as he handed her back to me, he managed to ask some quick questions.
“This is a remarkably realistic toy. Where could I get one and why does it weigh so much?”
It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder why Jinn weighed as much as she did. I’d been impressed with how soft and cuddly she was and the little things like the tongue and other details were pretty impressive. But knowing Bunny, she’d had to have packed a few things into the cabbit on general principle. Still, he might be a potential customer and Bunny wouldn’t be hurt by getting the word out.
“It’s made of very durable material. I come from a rough neighborhood. Bunny lives there too and she makes them. Just drop a message off at Whateley Academy in New Hampshire, care of Poe Cottage. She can get back to you on price and custom designs.”
He nodded. “Whateley Academy. New Hampshire. I’ll look it up on the internet. Bunny?”
“That’s her name. She’s really good at custom work. Ask her about her security specials. You’ll be impressed. And you’re not stuck with just this design. Look up ‘cabbit’ on the internet. I expect there are lots of different designs out there. You might find one your daughter might like better. Just let Bunny know and I’m sure she can adapt for it.”
“I’ll do that. Come on, Megan. It’s not the end of the world. I’ll look into getting you one of your own. Okay?”
The tears stopped as if on cue. She started dragging the poor guy back to their table, bubbling with enthusiasm.
“I wanna bigger one, Daddy. And it’s gotta move.”
“Yes, Megan. We’ll see when we get home. Okay?”
I had to feel a bit sorry for the guy. His wife was managing to look like she was a morally outraged victim as she glared at me but I noticed she didn’t even try to touch her child, leaving her husband to take care of everything. It reminded me of my own parents and how different they were. That didn’t help my attitude in the least and I decided it wasn’t worth trying to get more food at the moment. Turning around to get my pack, I now had to face the manager. He was obviously upset and angry.
“You... You can’t treat our customers that way! Out! Out now! And if I ever see you here again, I’m calling the police!”
“Mister, if I ever come in here again, I’d need to have my head examined. Now get out of my way. I’m blowing this popsicle stand.”
Something in the way I looked at him must have gotten through because he nearly fell over a table getting out of my way. There was silence until I was out the door. I heard a swell of noise that I didn’t try to understand as I lifted into the snow that was starting to come down more seriously and quickly muffled the noises of the city beneath me. Fighting tears of frustration, I oriented myself and headed south.
Outside NORAD C:
General Manning was concerned. A storm was moving in and, along with his concerns for his men who were laying siege in the middle of winter, there was the disturbing news he’d just received about the girl the terrorists were trying to get them to hand over in exchange for two kidnapped agents. The Agency guys weren’t going to be happy and that meant another headache he didn’t need right now. Knocking the snow off and pulling off his coat, he prepared to go into the well warmed inner sanctum. The various techs in the outer room ignored him as they tried to keep up with whatever tasks they’d been given. Their reliance on the outer security bothered him but it wasn’t his job to straighten them up so he let it pass.
Suppressing the idea of pulling out his pistol and shooting a few holes in the ceiling, he moved to the inner door and knocked. In a moment, the red light over it changed to green and the door popped open. Moving in was almost like deja vu. Frisk and Gallagher were in the same positions, almost like they’d never moved since he was there last.
Frisk looked up at him, “Well, General?”
Manning cleared his throat and then reported, “You wanted a report on our progress and I just received some information I thought you should get immediately.”
“And that would be?” Frisk seemed irritated. Maybe it was the fact the General wouldn’t use ‘Sir’ while talking to him but neither was willing to bring hostilities out into the open by mentioning it.
“The girl the terrorists wanted.”
He had their full attention immediately. Frisk couldn’t help asking first, “What about her?”
“Seems she’s gone missing.”
Frisk was definitely surprised. “What!?! When?”
“Shortly before noon. They received your message to hold her and alerted the people in charge of security. The details were confusing but it says that she vanished right out of her clothes. A message was sent through channels and I just received it. I thought you should know.”
Frisk slammed his hands on the desk and jumped up.
“Why wasn’t I informed of this immediately?!”
The General shrugged. “We just found out ourselves. I came over immediately to let you know.”
Frisk reached out to a switch on his desk.
“Terrall! Get me someone in charge at Whateley. Right now!”
There was a muffled reply and the three men stood there waiting for a few minutes. Then the phone beeped and Frisk touched the speaker button and addressed whoever was on the line.
“This is Coordinator Allen Frisk. Who am I talking to?”
A voice conveying some irritation answered him.
“This is Chief Delarose. Whateley Academy Security. What can I do for you?”
Frisk wasted no time getting to the point. “I’d like to know how it is when I send a priority request to have a student detained, you not only don’t detain them but lose track of them too.”
Chief Delarose wasted no time either, “One. We’re not at your beck and call, Frisk. But to answer your first question, at some point, you might have heard that this is a school for mutants. The kids here regularly make a point of doing the impossible. Apparently, they pulled a switch on us. We don’t have proof but we’re pretty sure her roommate took her place. And before you start complaining, I’d like to see YOU do any better when you’re surrounded by shapeshifters, illusionists and people who can manipulate your god damned thoughts themselves!”
“What?” Frisk roared back. “Are you telling me you don’t even know how long she’s been gone?”
“It was two hours before we even knew she WAS gone! Our surveillance is good but she was way past it by the time we figured things out. We think she took off about the same time you were calling us. What I’d really like to know is, why were we supposed to detain her in the first place? I’ve sent several requests and received no reply. I let that little fiasco on Parent’s Day go, Frisk, but if you’re going to keep this up, I may have to start restricting your access to the campus in the future.”
“Don’t try and threaten me, Delarose. It’s a need to know situation and you aren’t cleared for it. What I need to know is how the student was warned, where she’s going and why I wasn’t informed of this earlier.”
“Not that we need to answer to you but, in the interests of the missing girl, I’ll tell you she was warned by a long distance call she received from someone just before she took off. If anyone here knows what was said, they aren’t saying and we can’t force them to tell us. And I have sent several messages to you asking for more details and letting you know what we know. Why this wasn’t passed on to you, I couldn’t say. Now, will you let me know what’s going on?”
“I’m not at liberty to say, Delarose. We’ll handle it from here. I’ll give you more details when we’re allowed to. Good night.”
Before Delarose could say any more, Frisk shut the phone off. Turning to the other two, he snarled, “Okay, gentlemen. We need to find a leak and also find out why these messages never got to me. General, how is it you got this before me?”
He shrugged. “We are on a different net than you. I suspect that, while we are farther down the chain of such communications, we eventually received some of the ones sent to you as a matter of course.”
“That means we have a problem here in our own communications. We’ll get on to that immediately. In the mean time, I’d appreciate it, General, if you’d have your communications specialists talk to mine and see if there are other communications we should have received that we didn’t. It might help us find our hole.”
It was amazing to the General how much nicer Frisk could be when he needed something. Still, this promised to cause a few problems. He’d have to keep an eye out to make sure his own lines of communication didn’t get compromised in the process.
“Yes, sir. I’ll have my people contact yours immediately. Do you still need my report?”
Frisk considered the idea for a moment and then shook his head. “Have a written one prepared by the morning. I’ll be too busy for a while to follow up for now. Please get your men working with mine ASAP. We’ve got to find the leak fast.”
The General nodded, turned on his heel and strode out, closing the door firmly behind himself. As much as he didn’t like Frisk, a leak was a serious thing. He’d conduct his own investigation too. Just to make sure.
A short ways away, two young men looked at each other. The larger one shrugged.
“The cat’s out of the bag. Do you think Bill... Billie will make it?”
The other nodded. “She has to. But we better dismantle this now. We can’t have them finding out we were blocking those calls.”
“They know I called. They’ll figure it out.”
“No, they won’t. All they know is someone claiming to be you called. And we’ve been in Trinidad following up clues there, remember? We have the witnesses and tapes to prove it don’t we?”
“They won’t figure it out?”
The young man managed to sound very smug. “Not when I’m done, they won’t.”
“You better be right. If they catch us, we’ll be lucky to see the light of day in one or two centuries.”
“Only if we’re caught. And we won’t be. I just hope we’ve given Billie enough time to get here. I wonder how she’s doing it?”
“Probably hitching. Like I suggested.”
“That will probably take some time. Let’s get back to Trinidad and watch for her. It’ll help our alibi too.”
In moments, the two had their equipment hidden away and left nothing to indicate they’d been there but disturbed snow and that wouldn’t be there long with the wind and new snow falling.
“Mike? Did you get a trace on that?”
“Yes, sir. Satellite, secured military, somewhere in south central Colorado. Give me a few minutes and I’ll have a more accurate position for you but my guess is somewhere near Trinidad.”
“Good work. Please do a search for unusual activity in that area. Maybe a check with some of the local supers too. If anything is going on, they may have some info on it.”
“You think it has something to do with the kid who took off?”
“She is from close to that area and I’m not one to believe in too many coincidences. My bet is she’s involved somehow. I wish her friends were a bit more communicative but they’re all getting into ‘the World is against us’ mentality.”
“You know, sir, it’s not the worst attitude they can have.”
“Yeah. But it’s frustrating all the same. I wish they’d trust us a bit more.”
“Six of one, half dozen of the other. It’s all the same. Trust too much and you get screwed. Trust too little and you get screwed. Hopefully, they can find the middle road before they get into a situation they can’t get out of.”
The Chief nodded. “That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it. Well, get the search on and I’ll see what I can do from my end. Holidays, why does it always have to be the holidays? Couldn’t we have just one where the world doesn’t come apart?”
“We’d all worry so much we’d get even worse ulcers than we already have.”
“When you’re right you’re right. Thanks, Mike.”
“Any time, Chief.”
Southern Colorado, near Trinidad:
The snow was much worse. I’d taken to flying about a hundred and fifty feet off the highway and, even then, I almost lost track of it a few times. I was definitely going to have to invest in an instrument package, assuming I didn’t lose my chance to get a permit and license with this stunt.
Every now and then, I’d drop down and check access ramps to make sure I was going the right direction and how far I was from where I was going. I figured I’d get to Trinidad and then worry about finding the place. It was already after midnight and getting something to eat and maybe a bit of rest was my priority now. If the weather broke and it stopped snowing, I’d probably be able to find the place from the air. Or I could use some of my rapidly disappearing funds and see if I could get a GPS and use that.
Eventually I found myself over a larger city and, dropping into a strip mall, I was able to determine that I was finally in Trinidad.
The biggest store there was a Food Mart, which was still open. I decided to see if I could stretch my budget a bit and maybe get some info.
Ten minutes later, I was out of the Food Mart carrying a large canvas sack bulging with provisions. There was a covered pavilion nearby that would keep the snow off as I ate.
"Okay, what next?" came a high-pitched voice from inside the bag.
"Hmmm, I'd better finish the roast chickens while they're still warm. Then the chips, and I'll start on the submarine sandwiches after that. Yeah, hand me a drumstick." I shoved my free hand into the sack.
An indignant growl came from the bag. "Darn it! I'm getting grease in my fur! I'd better be washable!"
"Yeah, yeah. And don't even THINK of eating any of my food," I joked. There was muffled movement and then I felt many sharp objects press against my wrist.
“Okay! Okay! You can have some. But only a little! Got that?”
My wrist was released and then munching sounds started to come from the bag. Followed by a loud belch.
“Thanks loads, Big Sister. Here’s your drumstick, by the way.”
“Thanks!” I began eating and thinking about my next move. No one at the Mart knew where NORAD C was but one of the cashiers thought someone at the truck stop north of the town might. While I was thinking of what I’d do next, Jinn coughed to get my attention.
“Billie. I’ve been thinking and it might not be a good idea to go around calling me Jinn.”
“It occurred to me when you yelled at that little girl to let me go. If you go around calling me Jinn then someone might connect that with Jinn, ‘the dead sister’. We really don’t want that, do we?”
“Uh, no. Now that you mention it, we shouldn’t. What do you recommend?”
“I thought you might want to call me by a different name or something.”
“Hmmmm. Well, it’s a good idea but I can’t think of anything right now, so how about I call you Cabbit? It’ll be simple and easy to remember.”
“You can’t come up with something better?”
I shook my head. “Sorry, Cabbit, but my brain’s kind of fried right now. Best to keep it simple.”
Jinn went quiet. I was pretty sure she wasn’t totally happy with my solution. But let’s face it, the cat, or cabbit, might already be out of the bag. If anyone followed up on the incident with the snotty girl, they’d probably figure it out pretty quick. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to do it. Even if Jinn didn’t like Cabbit. Maybe we could come up with something better later but for now I figured we had a workable solution.
After finishing off what I had in the sack, I headed towards the truck stop.
Soon I was there and, not wanting to miss a chance, I bought a meal at the restaurant and asked if anyone knew where NORAD C was. Most people just looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. A few jumped a bit and I was sure they might know more but I wasn’t in a position to follow up.
Two meals later and wondering if I’d be able to buy a GPS with only a hundred dollars or if I should just buy more food and see if I could find the place on my own, I finally got a break of sorts.
A young man dashed into the restaurant and looked around wildly. He looked familiar and, when he looked my way and stared at me, I realized it was Larry in a parka. He waved and came towards me.
“Bill... Billie! We’ve got to go!”
“Huh? Can’t I finish my meal?”
He was close enough to whisper now. “No time. The police and MP’s are coming. We have to get you out of here or they won’t let you get anywhere close to NORAD.”
“Oh. Okay. Let me pay for this and we’ll get going.”
I’d never seen him this nervous before. I almost delayed a bit to irritate him but decided I shouldn’t waste time. Twenty dollars later, he was pushing me out the door and towards what looked like a black SUV. I couldn’t help asking a question, “Black?”
Larry shrugged. “It’s Agency. It does the job. Get in back. We’ve got to get going.”
“Sure, sure. Anything new?”
“No. Get in and we’ll get you up to date.”
“Thad’s here. Just keeping his head down. Hurry up. I think I hear the police coming.”
I’d been hearing sirens for about a minute and they were getting closer. Hoping in the back I watched as Larry fired up the engine and quickly headed out of the parking area and towards the highway. We’d already pulled onto the highway as I saw a police cruiser and two dark vehicles with flashing blue lights pull into the truck stop behind us. Thad straightened up in the front passenger seat.
“What took so long? We’ll have to get off the highway ASAP. We can’t outrun their radios.”
Larry nodded and flicked a switch on the dashboard. There was a whine and then a small bump. I could feel we weren’t on wheels anymore and then we glided off the highway, over the top of a fence sticking out of the snow and then up and over some trees. I figured we couldn’t be seen from the highway in seconds. The Agency obviously got the best for itself but I hadn’t heard they had flying cars.
“They been watching too much Harry Potter?”
Larry chuckled. “They tried to have that removed from the books and films but they don’t have as much pull overseas as they’d like. Still, it comes in handy at times.”
“Right. Now can you tell me what’s going on?”
Larry looked to his right. “Thad?”
Thad turned in his seat so he could talk to us both.
“Larry told you that Mom and Dad were kidnapped by the Knights of the Eternal Presence and they retreated back to their base here when the Gold tried to stop them?”
“Yeah. You think they were after me?”
“Seems the only logical reason for what happened. Now if we just knew what they wanted you for, we would have the whole picture.”
“And you figure the only way to get Mom and Dad out is if I’m here?”
“Don’t ask me how I know but I’m sure the Agency and the military won’t be able to do it. These guys are just too well equipped. They held off the Gold long enough to get back here. If the Knights are stupid enough to go head on with the military, they’ll lose, but I just don’t see them doing that. I bet they have a trump card somewhere. I’m also pretty sure these guys aren’t just going to let our parents go. I checked up on them and it’s not their way of doing things. Even if they do get you, unless it’s a carefully monitored trade, they probably won’t release Mom and Dad anyway.”
“So you’re saying we’re screwed. And Mom and Dad too.”
“No. But we can’t do this the way everyone is planning on. Our best bet is to get someone in there without the bad guys being aware of it. Having you out front might draw them into a frontal assault or at least get them to open up. If we can get them to do that, it should be possible to slip someone in to get Mom and Dad out. They stupidly released some live video that shows Mom and Dad are okay. They have them in one of the old bomb bunkers in Wing C. Here’s a diagram of the place. I’ve marked where they’re being held.”
“Why show this to me? You think I can sneak in there?”
“No but you need to know in case they take you in and you can get away. I think the best bet is for Larry and me to be ready to use a distraction by you to get in and get them out. Here’s a flashlight. We can’t let anyone know we have this so go over it now and try to memorize as much as you can. Just in case.”
I reminded myself he couldn’t know about my new memory and, since he was being so smug, I decided not to enlighten him. Pulling my pack up onto my lap, I used the diagram to conceal the fact I was opening it so Jinn could peek out. I couldn’t be sure if she could see the diagram so I described what I was seeing and traced it with my finger as I described it. Toni had showed me a less detailed diagram so I already had a feel for the layout and so did Jinn. But it wouldn’t hurt to look at the more detailed one now.
“It looks like a large, cave like entry area with a big door and a small door to the side going deeper into the mountain. That big door looks nasty.”
Thad nodded. “It was made to withstand some of the bigger bombs of the time. No one’s going through that without taking half the mountain with it. The second door is actually a series of air locks only big enough for about two fully equipped people. Considering how difficult it is to open and close the big door, I think we can safely say that the small door is the best bet for getting in and out. The military’s pretty sure there’s only these two exits right now also.”
I traced out the area behind the doors.
“The doors go into a large central area. Looks kind of like a large loading dock.”
Turning back to look out at the snow we were flying through, Thad confirmed my idea.
“That’s what it is. You may notice the three tunnels radiating out from there. They’re twelve feet tall and twenty feet wide. They can each be sealed by blast doors near the docks and another near where they open out into their respective areas. The one to the left leads to the bomb storage areas. That’s Wing C. These bunkers are triple reinforced. At one time, they kept up to sixty warheads there.”
I looked closely at the diagram.
“Uh. Maybe I’m stupid, but I don’t see any way to launch missiles from here. What’s up with that?”
“You’re right. All they used it for was storage, mostly tactical nukes and the like. They didn’t think whoever was trying to take out nuclear targets would think to do more than try and disable the communications and they’d have some nukes as backup if they needed them. The nukes are long gone but the bomb housings make very secure places to hold even many supers. In fact, before they sold this base to the Knights holding company, the government was thinking of turning it into a secure holding point for tough prisoners. Seems the Knights remembered this and are holding Mom and Dad in the one I marked.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Like I said, they’ve been sending out videos to prove they’re alive. There are some markings on the walls that would only be in one place. And that’s the bunker I have marked. We even have the old combinations to open it. I wrote them on the diagram in the corner. If they haven’t gone to the extreme trouble of replacing the locks the old codes probably still work.”
I looked in the corner and read the codes off out loud.
“Trying to remember them?”
I nodded. Of course, I wasn’t the only one. I put my finger to my lips and Jinn nodded. I started to form a plan of my own. I had a hidden ace up my sleeve and I wasn’t about to let anyone else know until I didn’t have a choice.
“What are the two other tunnels for?”
“The middle one, Wing B, was for living quarters. It housed the staff. Commissary, living quarters, barber shop, all that.”
“And the other? Wing A?”
“Administrative. Communications, Control, Security and all that. It’s a little smaller than the other two.”
“How big are these connecting tunnels? Looks like there’s only one between each and they don’t look all that big. Long, but not very wide.”
“They aren’t very big. Only about eight feet wide and tall and sealable at either end also with airlocks. If you had to move anything big, you’d have to go to the loading docks and access the bigger tunnels.”
“Most likely but we have no way to be sure. I think they’re still using the old system in the bunkers. All the info I have on that matches with the films they sent out. If they have more of the old system going, they have at least some coverage of the whole base. Probably not up to newest standards but still adequate.”
“Thus the need for a distraction.”
He held up what looked like two small grey cigarette boxes. “You’ve got it. If you can keep their attention, we can get in and get Mom and Dad free and out of there. I’ve put together some auto lockpicks that should handle the doors for us.”
“Got a set for me?”
“You need lockpicks? I hear you just break them down.”
“If I don’t need to be quiet. But I might need to be quiet if I’m going to get Mom and Dad out.”
He shook his head. “Sorry, Billie. I don’t have any extras. Besides, your job is to distract them. Let us take care of the sneaking part. We’re trained for it.”
Suppressing my irritation, I just noted which pocket he put them in and nodded, “Right. Well, that’s the plan then. Will the military go along? And what about dear old Uncle Ben?”
“That’s going to be the trick. Frisk wants you out of here and as long as he’s in charge, the military will be supporting him. We might be able to use that in our favor though. If you show up unannounced, I bet it will stir everything up. And we can make sure the Knights know you’re here too.”
“How will you get in unobserved?”
“We have some equipment that will keep them from seeing us. The military is planning on opening up the small door in about five hours, a series of probing actions. If you can show up then and distract everyone, we should be able to get in and free Mom and Dad. After we have them out, everyone can play all the games they want. We’ll be clear of it all.”
“I hope your equipment is as good as you think it is. How will you get them out?”
“Same way. If you can’t keep them busy enough, we’ve arranged a few distractions of our own. But they’ll only work once. If you can get us in, we’ll be able to get out.”
“Sounds like you have it all planned.”
“I do. You just do your part and I’ll do mine.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be just fine. Can this vehicle get us there without anyone being the wiser?”
“We’ve been in and out several times. Don’t worry. We’ll get you in and all you have to do is pop up and draw everyone’s attention after they open the airlocks. Keep em going for about two minutes to get us in. Another fifteen and we’ll be ready to leave. That’s all we’ll need.”
“Cutting it close, aren’t you?”
“It will have to be fast. Once we’re in, we can scramble their electronics but I figure that won’t last any longer than twenty minutes. I’m giving us some leeway but it won’t be much. It’s the only way we can do it.”
“Okay. I’ll do my part. How will you scramble their electronics? Won’t they be hardened?”
“Leave that to me. I know what I’m doing.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll just rest a bit before the show starts then.”
“You do that. You must be tired from the trip here. By the way, how did you get here? I wasn’t expecting you until sometime tomorrow.”
“You were able to catch a flight?”
“Naw. I did it myself.”
“You can fly like that? What about the weather?”
“This ain’t nothin compared to the Ionosphere. Yeah. I can fly like that. Who’d have guessed?”
Thad was quiet after that and I tried to rest and plan for what I’d need to do soon. Thad’s plan had a few holes in it. I’d just have to see if I couldn’t come up with something better, one that wouldn’t put my brothers at risk.
Soon, we were putting down near a place where I could see a few lights. Obviously, whoever was here didn’t want to be seen from the air. I should’ve guessed we couldn’t get away with the same trick too many times though. As soon as we settled down, we were surrounded by armed men who were insisting we step out into the snow and come with them. In the confusion, I managed to snag the two electronic picks out of Thad’s pocket. He couldn’t say anything with several rifles in his face and I slipped them into my pack. I couldn’t help showing off a bit either. While everyone else plowed through the snow, I just walked on top of it. The soldiers escorting me seemed a bit nervous though so I didn’t push it by lighting up the area for them.
They’d done a quick search and taken my wallet and MID and put them in my pack. They found the two electronic keys and one of them reported that to someone on a radio while they put those back in the pack too. Not finding anything else, they handed the pack back and practically strip searched my brothers. I was even allowed to keep the pack as we were herded to a large semi hauled trailer with several antennae and dishes poking out of the top. A huge white tent like cover kept the worst of the snow off it.
Apparently, someone had been expecting us. We were soon pushed into a small office in the van. In it, seated behind a desk, was ‘Uncle Ben’. I knew his name was Mr. Frisk and that he was Mom and Dad’s controller. Two other men, a tall thin one dressed like Uncle Ben and another big guy, a two star general of the Air Force from the uniform he was wearing, were standing off to the left. Uncle Ben, as usual, tried to hog the attention. Pointing at my brothers, he started to lecture us, “You two are in deep trouble. What do you have to say for…”
I couldn’t let him get started, we’d never hear the end of it. Both Larry and Thad seemed stunned and worried about what was going to happen. I figured it was up me to head him off. I dropped the pack and leaped forward, only slightly impeded by the two large soldiers holding my arms, to face Frisk across the desk. Placing my hands on it and pushing enough to make the desk creak, I leaned right into his face.
“Uncle Ben! Am I glad to see you! I got a strange phone call from some guy trying to tell me he was Larry and that Mom and Dad were kidnapped and being held for ransom, or in exchange for me, or something like that. I didn’t want to believe it but I didn’t want to take a chance so I hopped over here as fast as I could. I was in a diner in Trinidad looking for directions here when Larry and Thad found me and agreed to drive me the rest of the way. And the car of theirs flew! You wouldn’t believe it! Anyway, what about it? Is it true? You gotta tell me!”
I stopped my rapid delivery, which had the effect of leaving him there with his mouth open but nothing coming out. Then he caught his breath.
“If your brother called you then he is in…”
“Larry? Hah! He’s smarter than that! I mean, you’d think I’d know my own brother. I just knew it was a trap but I couldn’t take any chances with Mom and Dad and it’s not like I wouldn’t find out anyway, what with the way news travels these days. I figured the best way was to just come out and try to draw them out. Now Larry and Thad tell me Mom and Dad are really kidnapped. What are you doing about it?”
Frisk seemed a bit upset. Maybe it was the way I kept interrupting him, or maybe our nearly face to face proximity, or maybe it was just the cursing and swearing from the two large guards who were trying with no success to pull me away from the desk. Whatever was bothering him wasn’t bothering Gallagher. He accepted the two keys from one of the other guards and held them up. Turning to my brothers, he held them out. Using the break in my speech, he started in on them.
“These look like Agency property. How did you get them?”
Shrugging the two by now red faced guards aside, I reached over to try and take them from him. He reacted by holding them up and away. I didn’t bother to try too hard to get them but I did point at them.
“Those are mine. And you better take good care of them. I’ll need to return them after I’m done.”
Gallagher was really good at the incredulous and sarcastic look.
“Yours? Where did you get them?”
I could be sarcastic myself. “Well, it’s not like everything about this place is totally secret, you know. When I realized I might need to get through some doors without blowing them to Kingdom Come, I picked those up. I’m not at liberty to reveal my sources so don’t bother trying to get me to tell you either.”
He raised his eyebrows in an interesting way. “These are yours?”
“Yep! And I’d appreciate it if you don’t lose them. The person I got them from would probably be upset if they got lost.”
“And how does your friend happen to have Agency equipment?”
I shrugged. “Beats me. I didn’t ask.”
Frisk took this opportunity to try and get back into the discussion.
“Now look here, young lady! Having these is a serious offense. We can arrest you and put you away for a large part of your life. You’d better behave and cooperate or things could get ugly.”
He seemed so smug about it. I couldn’t let it go unchallenged. Letting a bit of my anger and irritation show, I turned back to him. Something about that made him nearly fall over backwards and had the guards grabbing for their sidearms.
“Yeah. Real ugly. Don’t try threatening me, Uncle. You don’t have any idea what ugly really is. Now. I asked you about my parents. What are you doing for them?”
To give Gallagher and the General credit, they were the only two I could see who weren’t reacting nervously to me. The General, apparently sensing the need to cool things down, stepped forward.
“Don’t worry yourself, Miss...?”
It was an obvious ploy to get my attention. He had to know who I was. But I decided to go along with him. I really didn’t want to have to prove to them I couldn’t be held by anything here.
“You can call me Tennyo. And you are?”
He stood up straighter. “General Thomas Manning. I’m in charge of the military contingent here. I can assure you we are doing our best to get your parents out of there. You don’t have to worry about a thing. I’m handling this personally. There won’t be any slip ups.”
I smiled and gave him a head bow. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate what you are doing for us. Do you have anything to eat around here? I’m starved!”
He only hesitated for a moment and then nodded. “We have a mess area set up. I’m sure we can find something for you to eat.”
“Good! I just flew in from Whateley and boy, are my arms tired. I’m about ready to eat a horse and it might not have to be cooked either.”
Frisk slammed his hands down on the desk. “Now listen here! I’m in charge and no one’s going anywhere until I have my answers!”
I turned and slammed my hands down on my side of the desk. It buckled under the blow. Frisk tried to back through the wall behind him and the two guards gave up trying to pull me away and pulled their pistols. I took a deep breath to calm myself some.
“I think you’ve already got your answers and I’m too hungry to waste more time elaborating. Now, unless you have something to add that will help my parents, I think we should all go and get something to eat.”
Frisk seemed to be having a hard time getting more words out so I took his silence as assent. I turned to the General who seemed to be having a hard time swallowing something. I held my arm out to him.
“Please, sir. Would you be so kind to lead me to where I can get some food?”
He coughed and then smiled.
“Of course, young lady. It’s rude to make a beautiful girl such as yourself wait to eat.”
He turned to the guards. “Gentlemen. Put your weapons away and help me escort these young people to the mess.”
They only hesitated for a moment before putting their weapons in holsters and saluting.
“Please escort them there. I’ll join you in a moment.”
We all knew when we were dismissed and the grownups would be talking. I decided not to press my luck and glided out the door. Larry and Thad pressed close behind me while two guards hurried ahead and the other four kept pace with us a short distance away.
A short trek through the snow and soon I wasn’t paying any attention to anything around me but what was on the plate in front of me. Some of the food tasted a bit strange but it was military food so I didn’t bother to say anything about it.
Seige Base at NORAD C;
Frisk obviously knew he didn’t look his best at the moment but, now that the girl was gone, he decided to take control again.
“Okay, General. Mind explaining what you’re up to?”
“Not at all, sir. Just let me make this call first.”
Frisk suppressed his irritation, knowing something was going on.
The General had pulled out a small communicator from his pocket. He pressed three buttons and held it to his ear. He started listening for a moment and then nodded with a smile. The others watched in confusion as he proceeded to have a one sided conversation.
“Hey, Gerald. General Manning here. You have some customers coming your way. They’re hungry and having some trouble sleeping. That’s right. Yeah. I’d appreciate it if you’d help them. I’ll get back to you with more details soon. Hmmm. Yeah. Just keep adding it in till they’re all asleep. I don’t think you need to worry about side effects. Just do what you need to do. I’ll wait here for confirmation. Thanks!”
Snapping the phone closed the General nodded in satisfaction. “That’ll take care of it. Give them a few minutes and then do what you want to with them.”
Gallagher and Frisk caught on fast but Gallagher wanted confirmation. “Does that mean the three of them will soon be asleep?”
General Manning smiled. “I make a point of keeping all my staff well equipped. Gerald is worth his weight in gold in the right situations. He’s saved my bacon more than a few times.”
Frisk was still worried. “Is he aware of the nature of the ones he’s trying to drug? I don’t want any mistakes there.”
The General practically radiated a warm confidence that didn’t reach his eyes which remained cold and calculating as he studied the two men in front of him.
“Your concern for their well being is commendable. I didn’t think you cared so much but, to answer your question, my men know their job. You needn’t worry about your precious children. Will you keep them here or move them out?”
Still looking doubtful but not willing to challenge the General at this point, Frisk nodded, “As long as you’re sure they won’t be hurt I have no problem with results. I think we should move them out as soon as the weather settles down a bit. I don’t want to take them out by ground and it’s pure dumb luck they survived the trip by air into here. Secure them after they’re out and wait for a good chance to get them out of here and to a more secure area.”
“Yes, sir. We’ll do that. I certainly don’t want to risk any of my pilots in this weather. I’ll go check up on them and make sure nothing goes wrong.”
Frisk held up a hand before the General could do more than start to turn towards the door.
“By the way, General. What are your plans for today? I haven’t received a report yet.”
The general turned back keeping his face professionally non expressive. “We’ve determined it’s safe to move men right up to the doors. They’re probably watching to see what we’ll do next. I intend to send some teams through the small access in order to determine what kind of resistance we can expect. The teams will be equipped with a new radio that should allow us to remain in contact with them, even in the mountain. If all works well, we might actually get a chance to get a drop on them. At least that’s the plan. In all probability, we’ll only be conducting a scout of the loading area and see if they intend to fight us there or farther back in the mountain. If at all possible, we’ll see about opening the big door to make access faster and more effective.”
Frisk put his chin on his steepled fingers, “This sounds ambitious. You were going to tell us about this when?”
The Generals expression didn’t change, “It’s in the report you should be receiving any time now. But, if you have any questions, I can answer them for you now and save some time.”
Frisk smiled coldly, “That won’t be necessary. You’ve answered my question. Please keep us informed as things develop.”
“Yes Sir. Anything else? I really should be going if I’m going to get my men ready before six AM.”
Sitting up straight, Frisk waved the General out. “No, no. Please go to your men. We’ll be fine here. Waiting for the details.”
“If you insist. You’ll get my report on the action immediately afterward.”
The General turned and left. After the door shut Frisk turned to Gallagher.
“Do you think they’ll get anywhere?”
Gallagher shook his head. “No. It’s just a probe to see what’s waiting for them through the door. If they’re lucky, they won’t lose too many men getting that information. They’ll still have a force of men ready in case whoever is behind this is too stupid to figure it out. But the odds of that happening are vanishingly small.”
Frisk stood up. “Then we might as well get some rest. No point in wasting our time if he’s managed to put the kids to sleep. When do you think we’ll be able to get any information?”
Gallagher opened up the door for his leader. “Not until he’s had a chance to gloss over any glaring evidence of blame or incompetence. Feel free to sleep in.”
Stepping into the busy communications area, Frisk paused for a moment and looked back at Gallagher who was locking the door.
“You don’t think we should check on the children?”
“No. Right now, they’re the General’s problem. If we get too involved and something should go wrong...”
“Good point. Let’s go get some sleep then. At least we’ll be fresh when things start to happen. Do you think they’ll kill Flashlight and Weasel in retaliation?”
“For the probe? Unlikely, unless the military somehow comes close to getting them free. I wouldn’t worry about it. Our agents aren’t likely to be killed until the time that was set.”
The two men continued talking as they moved to the short tube that connected this trailer to another that was used to house the people operating the equipment. As soon as everyone left the office, there was furtive movement from where Billie’s pack had been left. Soon, a small figure moved to where Gallagher had left the two electronic lock picks. Those disappeared quickly and no one in the communications area noticed as the door quietly opened a few inches and then closed again.
Private mess area,
outside NORAD C:
They might not have had a lot of variety but I couldn’t fault the quantity. I was working on my fifth tray before I noticed both Larry and Thad were out cold. Sleeping away in their food was a bit unusual but they had been going for quite a while if what they’d told me was right. I was feeling it a bit myself.
Still, no one seemed to be ready to help them. Everyone was busy keeping an eye on me instead. I thought about it for a few minutes as I worked my way through another course. I was finally feeling a bit better and decided to see if what I was thinking might be right. I stretched and pushed the tray away. It wasn’t all that difficult to yawn.
“Oh boy! The trip must’ve been harder than I thought. Suddenly all I can think of is finding a bed to crash in. You guys wouldn’t have something like that around here, would you?”
The guy who seemed to be in charge of the mess, I think his name was Gerald Cartwright, smiled and came over, “Sleepy? We do have some rooms over in those vans over that way. Are you sure you’ll be able to get there on your own?”
Yawning even more, I nodded. “I think so. Just show me the way. What about my brothers?”
“Oh, don’t worry about them. I’ll have some of the men get them to their own rooms. We’ll wake you if anything happens.”
Nodding, I stood up, making a point to stagger a bit when I did so. Two guards were supporting me almost immediately. As I watched, another two pairs of guards moved over to Larry and Thad, obviously with the intent of carrying them out. Neither of them woke up although Larry stirred a bit. Under Gerald’s direction, we were soon whisked off to some semis that had heavily reinforced cells in their trailers. I recognized them as cells used to transport super types. If I remembered correctly, they had various ways built in to hold and subdue prisoners. Each trailer had two cells. My brothers were being carried into one of the cells and I was led into the other on the same trailer. My two guards released me into the room and then closed the heavy, airtight door.
At least someone had prepared them in advance and it was warm in the cell. It was a bit cramped, eight by ten by about seven feet tall. There was a bunk, a small fold out table and chair and a toilet like you’d find in a commercial airplane. Not the most comfortable room I’d ever been in but probably better than the majority of the soldiers located here were using. Since I had the time, I decided to take the time to rest a bit. I made a production of flopping onto the bunk after turning out the light. If they didn’t have a way to monitor me, I’d eat my hat. That is, if I’d had a hat to eat.
I’d intended to just lay there for a few minutes and then find a way out of the cell but I must’ve been a bit more tired than I thought because I was woken up by a small furry body whispering in my ear and shaking my head.
“Billie! Wake up! Oh come on! We don’t have much time! They didn’t drug you, did they?”
I still wasn’t totally awake yet but the worry and urgency in her voice stimulated me to higher awareness.
“SssOkay. I’m up. What took you so long?”
Looking around I could see that the door was propped open with what looked like a short stick or length of pipe. Jinn was sitting back and somehow managing to look both cute and irritated at the same time.
“Do you have any idea how many trailers there are here? It’s a small army! Anyway, after getting out of the office, I had to look around until I found some that were being guarded and then I had to listen in on the guards until one of them mentioned you were in here. Now I’m sure they’re monitoring these cells and my diversion’s only going to last so long so we need to get going!”
“Ssallright, Mom! I’m up. Let’s get out of here. Do you know where the entrances to the base are yet?”
“Yep! They’re going to try to get in there any minute now. I figured we should be there when they try.”
“You got that right. How’d you get the door open anyway?”
Looking smug, she floated up and removed one of the electronic picks from the key pad outside my door. In moments, it disappeared into her body. Trust Jade to think of something like that.
“Thought these might come in handy. All I needed to do after I found the room you were in was to get the guards to look elsewhere for a few minutes.”
“Good idea. But shouldn’t I go back and make it look like I’m still there?”
“Naw. The door alarm will warn them something’s up and there’s just no way to conceal the lack of your snores. We’ll just have to rely on the fact it’ll take a while for them to get back here and organized enough to get in our way.”
“I don’t snore!”
“Do too! Like a chain saw! Rrrrrgghhh! Rrrrggghhh!”
We continued with our quiet argument as we worked our way to where the entrances to the mountain were. There were several manned barricades facing the cleared area in front of the door. Off to our right was a concentration of people I assumed was the people in charge, at least the General was with them.
It might seem odd that we could approach so easily but, on the way there, we’d managed to pick up a big snowmobile suit with a hood that would cover the helmet I’d also found. Using that as a disguise, it was easy to approach where a group of soldiers was checking and rechecking their equipment. Apparently, no one was expecting any problems from outside. All their attention was inward. I’d also found a bag that looked like it might hold something like ammo. Jinn was riding in this. I just hung around the edges of the group. Everyone was paying more attention to some monitors.
By listening in, I was able to find out that six soldiers had gone through the lock. Nothing had happened until the last two were stepping into the area on the other side. Then contact had been broken off. Now everyone was trying to decide if they should send more people in or simply wait to see what would happen. General consensus from the soldiers was to go in but the leaders were holding back, trying to get some more information from some of the sensors the men had taken in with them.
Some of the men got more impatient than the others and headed over to the outside door to see if it was still possible to open it or if whoever was inside had somehow closed it down. I attached myself to that group of men as they headed for the door. We’d gotten there and, while several of them covered him, one man adjusted something that looked a lot like one of the electronic lock picks Jinn had concealed in her body.
Some lights blinked and then a green light started to flash. There was a hiss I associated with an air tight door opening and the lock door cracked open. Just then, there was some yelling from the direction of what I figured was the command center. Someone I assumed was an officer started to yell at all of us gathered around the door to close it and clear out. Looking back, I saw the door had opened enough for me to get in.
Seeing my chance, I stepped forward, stiff armed the man who’d opened the door and, before anyone caught on to what I was doing, I’d stepped in and punched the inside button that closed the door. The confusion outside kept them from doing anything effective until the door closed. There was a lock button I pushed and I heard bolts slide home. I had to assume they could get it open fairly quickly but, by the time that happened, I hoped to be out the other door.
Turning, I hurried past the crook in the tunnel that would help reduce blast effects. The door on this side was closed. I quickly pushed the button to open it and breathed a sigh of relief as the seals popped. From what I’d heard as I was waiting, it would take them longer to open the other door now. They weren’t supposed to open at the same time. Of course, they’d find a way around it but all I needed was a little time. After I was in, they couldn’t hope to stop me.
I didn’t know what to expect past the door. I was going to see if I could find something to jam the door open to slow them down more. One thing I wasn’t expecting was to nearly trip over the bloody body of one of the soldiers who’d gone in shortly before. In fact, I hadn’t thought of them at all. It would’ve served me right if they’d nabbed me as I so proudly skipped by the others. But all thoughts of that went out of my head when I saw the body.
If anyone had been thinking of attacking me then, I’d have been an easy target. You’d think, after the experiences I’d had on Halloween, I wouldn’t be as affected by this kind of thing but I was frozen in place for several seconds. Trying to figure out what I should do. I finally stepped forward and looked more closely at him. He wasn’t anyone I knew and it looked like he’d been shot several times with some heavy caliber weapon. Even his body armor hadn’t stopped whatever had been used on him. I did stop and check for a pulse, not that I expected to find one, but I felt like I had to try. Then I grabbed his rifle and used it to jam the lock door open.
As near as I could tell, he’d been shot in the back. Looking up I saw several holes in the wall near the door. There was blood spatter too. Starting to come out of my shock, I realized that I was smelling a compound of blood, burned gunpowder and other smells some memory told me were associated with death and combat. He’d probably been shot while trying to get to the door from the look of things.
It was stupid but I found myself just standing there looking around for enemies or other soldiers. I was in a very large cavern like area. Next to me on my right was the huge door that allowed access to this cavern when it was open. From this door the walls curved out to either side, almost forming a circle. Opposite me there was a large loading dock. Behind that was the area the three tunnels to the interior started.
Inside this area, making a huge maze of the floor, were stacked large piles of drums and wooden boxes. As I looked closer, I could see evidence of some fighting. Several of the stacks had bullet holes in them and one looked like some kind of explosive had been used on it. Smoke and dust was slowly clearing out and I could hear large fans somewhere straining to move the air. Off to my left was the only structure besides the permanent cranes and lifts built into the roof of the place. It might have been security, receiving, or both when this was a base. I noticed it had a lot of damage too but must have been reinforced as only the windows were broken out.
Wanting to be able to move more freely, I started to peel out of the coverall type suit I’d used as a disguise. Going over to one of the stacks near me, I tossed the clothing and my bag out of sight and then moved over towards the shot up building.
Looking through the broken windows, I saw two more soldiers. I almost turned away but heard a groan when my feet disturbed some of the glass on the ground.
“Is... Is anyone in there?”
It was a stupid thing to say and of course nobody answered but I wasn’t thinking too clearly at that point. If Jinn had been with me, she could’ve checked but our plan relied on her remaining unnoticed while I drew attention my way.
Floating through one of the windows, I decided to check the bodies I could see on the floor. One of them was obviously dead, seeing as how his head was blown off, but the other one was curled up. I knelt down next to him and suddenly found myself looking into the barrel of a pistol.
For several moments, neither of us moved. I did look a bit more closely at him and I could see he was injured in some way. Probably near the stomach. There was a fair amount of blood under him so he was probably in a bad way. Finally, he gasped out a pained question.
“Who are you?”
I tried to not make any threatening moves and nodded at him. For some reason, I didn’t feel comfortable giving him my name and part of the training we’d been getting at Whateley kicked in.
“I’m Tennyo. I’m here to try and get you out. How badly are you hurt?”
He stared at me for what seemed like minutes and then his pistol slowly dropped. He sighed in a way that alarmed me.
“Bad. Really bad. This whole place is a trap. Bunch of robots and booby traps. Got jumped back towards the tunnels. Jack, Brett and I were making a run for it. Did Brett make it out?”
“I... I don’t think so. Sorry.”
He tried to move and then groaned and collapsed. I tried to wake him but, although he was still breathing, I couldn’t get him awake again. Obviously, he was on his last legs and needed help badly. I knew it wasn’t a good idea to move him but the alternatives weren’t any better. Taking as good a grip on him as I could to keep him curled up, I then floated us out through the window and headed for the lock door.
I quickly put the soldier into the area past the door. There was an intercom and I decided to see if I could use it. I punched a button.
“Hey! Can anyone hear me?”
There was a small wait and then someone answered.
“Who is this?”
“Who are you?”
“I asked first.”
“Okay. I’m Tennyo and I just found two dead soldiers and another live one. The live one is badly injured and needs help. I’ve put him in the lock and I’m closing the door. You need to get some medical help in here soon. I’m going to look for the other three.”
I cut him off, pulled the rifle I was blocking the door with out and, after stepping back into the loading area, I pushed the door closed. I probably should’ve been more frightened but, oddly enough, I was just starting to feel angry. Carefully looking at the floor, I noticed several concentrations of spent brass. They seemed to lead off to the left so I walked that way. Soon I came to an area where there was a greater concentration and two more bodies. Carefully checking them, I quickly determined they were indeed dead. A short way further and I found the last body.
They’d obviously been ambushed. It looked like the guy in front had gone down immediately and the other two had apparently gone down covering the retreat of the other three. I wasn’t clear on what happened after that but guessed they’d been pinned down at the security/receiving station. It may have been a waste of time but I moved all the bodies back near the entrance where it’d be easy to recover them. That done, I tried to decide what I’d do next.
It’d been quiet so far but there would almost certainly be people coming after me soon. I knew my parents were being held in C Wing so I headed to the left rear of the loading area. If they didn’t try to stop me here, I’d just go there. But a part of me was starting to really hope they’d try and stop me first. This wasn’t going to be a problem as I soon learned.
I was becoming more nervous by the minute and, without realizing I was doing it, I found myself holding a ball of plasma in each hand. When I became aware of them, I realized I was funneling more and more power into them. Soon, I was going to have problems containing the energy. All this power and nothing to kill.
Well, as the instructors on the Whateley ranges were prone to say, one of the best ways to work off nervous energy is to shoot or blow something up. I hadn’t seen any robots or traps yet but anyone following me might not be so lucky. Might as well work off a bit of excess energy.
Moving back towards the entrance I noticed the stack that looked like something explosive had gone off near it. Pointing my left hand at that, I released one of the plasma balls into it. I hadn’t realized how much energy I’d put into it. The stack and a few near it were engulfed in the blast.
The stacks I’d blasted were gone or nothing but twisted scrap but the others nearby suddenly spewed out a number of armed robots of various kinds or dropped concealing barriers and revealed hardened weapons platforms. You’d think this would’ve worried or scared me but, ever since I’d learned my parents had been kidnapped, I’d been working up a lot of stress. With a yowl of anger that strangely bordered on joy, I finally had a chance to work some of the tension off.
I leaped into the air to give the targeting mechanisms more variables to work with and started to dodge through the air while releasing energy bolts at anything that looked like a good target and a few that didn’t but were still in the way.
Working my way up towards the ceiling, I started to methodically cut any anchors I could find holding the framework that held the lifts and cranes in place. Shortly after that, the whole framework started to sag. The cannons and energy projectors concealed in the cranes and lifts quickly became far less effective and not long after that the majority of the framework crashed to the floor, crushing even more of the defenses. None of the heavier firepower hit me and the few near explosions and smaller weapons that did hit me stung but couldn’t slow me down at all. In fact, after the attacks started to fall off, I realized I was actually laughing as I destroyed anything that tried to take a shot at me. I was even a bit disappointed when it all stopped.
The entryway was filled with smoke, fire and the sound of occasional explosions as some of the unexpended ammo cooked off. Between the fire, haze of smoke and twisted debris, there was very little of the area that could be seen at any one time. I decided it was time to move towards my major goal.
I halfway expected more traps to trigger but nothing happened until I got close to the large, thick, sliding doors that lead to C Wing. This area had been clear to begin with and, since no attempts to attack me had come from here, the area was moderately intact and open. These doors were closed and, considering their massive construction, would be difficult to break through. Being sliding type doors, there wouldn’t be a hinge to cut through either.
Standing there considering my options wasn’t making me any happier. Now that the excitement was over I was beginning to worry about my parents again. A noise from my right was almost a relief. Turning and taking a defensive stance, I watched as a small tracked robot or remote controlled device approached. It looked like a box about twenty inches on a side and about a foot deep mounted on two tracks which slowly brought it closer. When it was about fifty feet away, I spoke up.
“That’s far enough. Any closer and you’ll join the rest of this junk pile!”
The small platform stopped. Shortly after that, the boxy body folded out into a pillar about four feet tall with a flat screen on top and facing me. I almost blasted it when the screen flashed but controlled the reaction when I realized I was looking at what looked like someone wearing an odd medieval looking full helmet. The helmet was a purplish red and the eye slits glowed a bright crimson. If it hadn’t been mounted on a screen about four feet off the ground, it might have been intimidating. The voice that issued from it was well amplified and easy to understand. Almost pleasant even.
“Welcome, Miss Wilson! Your entrance was very impressive, I must say. Though I assure you, it wasn’t necessary to be so energetic. We’d have allowed you through without any problems.”
I didn’t drop my guard and tried to sneer a bit when I replied.
“Oh? And all those traps and robots shooting at me was a mistake?”
The small pedestal with screen really didn’t project emotion well but I thought I detected a bit of irritation in the voice when it replied.
“Our defenses are programmed to respond to attacks. I’m afraid it was your fault the defenses were activated.”
I couldn’t resist smiling a bit. I’m afraid my reply was a little insincere.
“Oh. Sorry. I thought you just wanted to give me a little workout before introducing yourself. I apologize for any damage. I’m afraid I get a better workout on the kiddie ranges at Whateley. If I’d thought this was serious, I wouldn’t have gone so easy on your equipment.”
The irritation was still there but well concealed. “No, no. We apologize for the inconvenience. Though I suspect you’d have had a better workout if we hadn’t had a malfunction or two in some of our automatic defenses. I’m afraid you didn’t get the full effect as a result.”
Now that he mentioned it, I did think it’d been a bit easier than I thought it might be. There had been several places where I’d expected to be attacked and nothing had happened or the traps had attacked at the wrong time or place. But I wasn’t going to give them any breaks for that.
“Awww. That’s just sour grapes! You expected to do better than you did. Admit it! And while you’re at it, I want you to release my parents safely.”
The image laughed in an evilly practiced way I remembered some of the students at Whateley trying to achieve at times and I became fairly certain I was talking to a man. When talking to images a on a screen, you can’t be certain about such things but I realized I was associating everything this person said with a man’s way of talking.
“Well now, young one. We get to the crux of the matter, don’t we?”
“Oh? What’s that?”
The screen changed to a view of my parents in some kind of cell like room. They didn’t seem aware of us watching them. I felt my anxiety start to climb but didn’t want to show how much this picture was bothering me. The voice didn’t change with the picture but did take on a gloating tone.
“We have your parents. With the push of a button, I can fill that room with a gas we developed a few years ago. I assure you the effects are anything but pleasant and they are extremely fatal.”
I really didn’t like the sound of that but I was playing for time as much as anything else. Hopefully, I could either convince them to release my parents or at least make them understand how dangerous it would be to push me too far. I’d fought before and I knew I was capable of extreme violence if provoked enough but I was starting to realize I was capable of at least considering even more unpleasant responses if they did something to my parents. Just considering some of these responses made me uncomfortable but also gave me an odd thrill. I couldn’t suppress a small shudder. Then I took a deep breath. I wasn’t to that point yet. There was still room to maneuver. And I had some more concerns for my parents to work through. I’d been considering several ever since I’d learned what was going on. It was about time I took care of a few of them.
“How do I know they’re still alive? For all I know you’re just showing me a recording. I warn you, all the fancy doors and traps won’t keep you safe if you’ve done anything to them.”
I know I was resolved when I said that. I think some of it got through to whoever was on the other end of the screen. There was a short hesitation and then the voice spoke again.
“Go ahead. Talk to them.”
Even as he said that I could think of several ways to still fake a response but it seemed like a lot of trouble for what they’d get. I still had a bit of a catch in my voice as I tried to talk to them.
The two people on the screen stood up so fast, they were a blur. They ended up back to back and looking around. Then Mom looked towards the screen and answered.
“Billie? Is that you, dear? Where are you?”
I’d intended to be all professional and collected but hearing Mom’s voice triggered a flood of emotions I wasn’t expecting.
“Mom! I’m right outside! I’m coming to get you out!”
She started to shake her head violently.
“No! Billie! Don’t...”
The screen switched back to the guy with the helmet and Mom’s voice was cut off. My emotions weren’t settled and I was in a near panic.
“Bring them back! Release them now!”
Sparks and arcs of electricity and power were starting to flash around me and it took an extreme effort to keep from blasting the screen to smithereens. Especially when the guy used that canned laugh again.
“You see? They’re alive. And very concerned for you. Now, if you want them to get out safely, you’ll need to cooperate with us. We aren’t making any hard requests. We just need your help with some projects we’re working on. We can be very reasonable. After we’re sure you’ll help us, your parents will be released. You have my word.”
I still wasn’t in the mood to cooperate yet and I really wanted to talk to my parents but it looked like these guys were calling the shots for now. I wasn’t happy but I might as well try and get some information while I was at it.
“I’m a bit upset right now. I don’t really feel like cooperating with anyone who threatens my family. Who are you, anyway?”
He seemed pleased with himself, which I didn’t find too pleasing myself, but right now keeping him talking was more important.
“Ahh. How rude of me! I am Sir Michael Aureleus. I am the leader of a group of high minded men who believe that the world has gone far astray. We intend to correct this. We call ourselves the Knights of the Eternal Presence and feel the modern world has forgotten their place. Common men have usurped power and misused it long enough. Look at the mess the world has become. They have forgotten their place and it’s time we corrected their mistakes. Join with us! There is a place in the new order for you. We don’t have to be so unpleasant about this whole business. We’ve been studying you. There’s a great deal about you most people don’t understand. They reject you because of your power. They don’t understand your gifts. We do! You will find acceptance with us.”
“You kidnapped my parents! You’re threatening them now. Why should I trust you?”
“You have my word! We are honorable men! This was all a terrible mistake! Just join with our cause and help free the world of the yoke it suffers under. We can make this all go away. Part of an unpleasant and easily brushed aside past.”
“Let my parents go. I might consider helping you then but acting under your threats really doesn’t appeal to me.”
There was a heavy sigh. Then his voice hardened.
“You leave me no choice. I shouldn’t expect anything else from a mere girl. Since you reject our kind offer, I’m left with no options. I’m sending out a device. It will insure our safety while we discuss this. You will cooperate and place yourself into this device or you will watch your parents die horribly. And since I understand your doubts, I promise to release your parents after you’re secured. After all, after we have you secured, we have no reason to keep them here.”
“I don’t like that suggestion.”
“It’s not a suggestion. You will do this or you sign your parent’s death warrant. It’s as simple as that. I’m sure even your simple female brain can understand it. You are in no position to argue. The men outside can’t hope to penetrate our defenses. There’s no one to help you. Your parent’s fate is in your hands. What shall we do?”
They seemed to know a bit about me but, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what they really wanted. I needed to find out more and it was probably the only way to get my parents out. I didn’t want to seem too eager but his attitude towards girls might help me also. He expected more meekness, he’d get more meekness. Or at least some approximation of it. Even if it made me want to gag saying it.
“I... I don’t know. You’ll let my parents go? You promise?”
It seemed to work though. He became a little less pompous and somewhat conciliatory.
“I give you my word. As soon as you’re secure with us, I will personally release your parents.”
Right. Well, this wasn’t getting us anywhere. I needed to find out more but I didn’t think I was going to get much more than threats until whoever was in charge here felt more secure.
“Okay. I’ll agree to your terms if you let my parents go.”
“What a wonderful child! I’m sending out the device right now. It should be very obvious what needs to be done. As soon as we have you secure, I’ll bring you to us. Then you can watch as I release your parents. How does that sound?”
I could only give way so much. My reply was a bit short.
“It’ll sound better after my parents are out of here. I’m waiting.”
There was a sound off towards the back center of the cavern. As I watched, the center door leading to B Wing opened up enough to allow a blocky object to pass through. It quickly approached and soon I could see it looked like a self propelled bed. It apparently rolled on small tires, had a blocky, box like body and a slightly padded platform with unusually large restraints for wrists and ankles.
Aureleus spoke again.
“Just lay down on the platform. It’s all automatic. As soon as you’re secure, we’ll bring you in.”
“You’ll let my Mom and Dad go?”
“I gave you my word. Please get on the platform.”
I could tell he was getting a bit impatient. He was probably worried that the Army would be coming after him soon and he wanted to get me into his hole before they tested his weakened defenses. Whatever his reasons, I figured I might as well play along. I wasn’t sure what he had planned to secure me. Probably some kind of super electric shock or similar plan to subdue me. Hopefully, it involved some kind of drugs or the like. They hadn’t found one yet at Whateley that could do more than give me a slight buzz. My immunity to them would give me an edge I might need. There was no point in putting it off any more though, so I hopped onto the platform. In moments the restraints had clamped down on my wrists and ankles. Two bands circled out of the platform and over my torso just under my breasts and over my hips. This left my head free so I could watch as the platform headed for the opening to B Wing. The portable screen had been folding up as the clamps settled into place. Looking behind me, I could see the small box following after.
Soon, the platform was through the doors and zipping down a long corridor. Eventually, I entered a large cavern with several large, boxlike buildings mounted on large springs. Corridor like tubes connected them. The platform continued towards the back of the cavern where I remembered the plans I’d seen showed a large amphitheater was located. If I remembered correctly, just off this amphitheater was where the connecting tunnels to the other two areas were located.
The platform rolled into the amphitheater. It was lit by huge burning torches. Located all around the walls were fanciful banners whose meaning escaped me for the moment. The benches I imagined had once been there had been replaced with what looked to be over a hundred throne like chairs of various materials and design. Before I could do more than glance around, the platform moved down a ramp to the stage area. The table parked itself in front and below a podium located at the front of the stage area.
There was what looked like at least a hundred people sitting in the thrones here. All dressed in varying types of medieval looking armor and carrying all sorts of oddly ancient looking weapons. The armor varied from some that looked like fur covered chain or studded armor to full plate suits. The variety would have been fascinating in other circumstances.
Clapping and cheering started up when I entered and continued until the platform stopped in front of the stage. Behind the podium was a much larger looking man in purplish red plate armor. Going by the look of his helmet, I assumed this was Aureleus even if he looked a lot larger than he did on screen.
He raised his huge arms and the noise quieted down. Then his amplified voice boomed out, making me flinch with its volume.
“My friends and compatriots! Our hour is nigh! Using the information we have collected at great expense and cost, we have finally achieved the goal we need to move forward to our place at the head of our world!”
He went on ranting away like that for a while. I wished someone would explain what was so important about me that would make them so powerful. It really didn’t make a lot of sense to me but these guys were obviously crazy anyway. I just hoped they’d be cooperative enough to let my parents go. After that I could work on getting free of them. I hadn’t bothered to more than casually test my bonds but I was pretty sure I could get out of them quickly enough if I had to. Then he said something that got my attention.
“With this girl’s antimatter blood, we can power our greatest weapons! The World will tremble before our power! We can finally take our rightful place in the forefront of leadership and remove the weak and degenerated fools who try and lord it over us now!”
There was a huge surge of cheering and applause. It gave me a chance to think about what was happening.
Antimatter blood? I didn’t have antimatter blood. I had antimatter in my cells and could form antimatter capsules that could be stored with the right equipment for energy even if it faded away fairly quickly and mysteriously. Maybe these guys had gotten some distorted information about my abilities and assumed they could just take what they wanted to power whatever they’d invented to terrorize the world into doing what they wanted. They were going to be badly disappointed soon. I’d better get Mom and Dad out soon before things hit the fan.
As soon as it got quiet enough, I yelled above the decreasing noise.
“Hey! Let my parents go!”
Turning towards me, he sneered.
“That’s enough from you, girl. When I need you to talk, I’ll tell you. We’ve got men’s work to do now.”
He looked away from me towards one of the more ornate seats. A Viking like figure was sitting in it. There was a mask which covered most of his face. In fact, all the ones I could see were men and the helmets all had some way of covering their faces, no matter what kind of armor they were wearing. This one looked more attentive when Aureleus spoke to him.
“Sir Hargath. Are the plans for our imminent exit in place?”
The Viking like guy nodded.
“Yes Sir Aureleus. All is prepared. But give the word and we can all be ready to leave within half an hour.”
Aureleus nodded. “Good! Let us finish here and then give the word. It would be nice...”
“HEY! You said my parents would be let free!”
I think just about everyone in the room jumped. I can be really loud when I want to be. With a snarl, he turned back to me.
“Insolent girl! How dare you interrupt your betters! Learn your place or face the consequences!”
I really didn’t like his tone. It was way too much like someone who felt no need to accept the opinion of someone else and couldn’t be bothered by anyone else’s problems in any event. A total snob. Something about that attitude really irritated me on so many levels, I couldn’t keep track of all my emotions other than the fact I was getting pissed off quickly. They needed my cooperation for now so of course I wasn’t about to stop either.
“You promised to let my parents go. Do it or our deal is off!”
I wasn’t feeling too friendly towards him at the moment and I think it showed. He even took a step back and the place went silent. Apparently realizing he was losing face to a girl strapped to a mobile bed, he began to huff a bit. Stepping forward and pulling something that looked like a cell phone from his belt, he pointed that at me and pushed a button.
I didn’t know what to expect and tensed. Then I felt a sensation similar to the time Del the Negator and I faced off at Whateley. That strange feeling of having a part of me separating while another swelled to take its place. I’d been expecting something more painful so it was a bit of a surprise when that happened and nothing else. I think Aureleus was expecting something else too. He just stood there with an anticipating look on his face for a moment and then I was sure I saw some disappointment. That was quickly gone however and a shifty look replaced it. He took another item from his belt. It looked like a pistol grip with a button on top. The button had a cover over it. He flipped that forward and put his thumb on the button.
“Listen here, little girl. I’m the only one who holds your parent’s life in his hand. Even the guards stationed to watch them can’t release the gas. But all I have to do is push this button and your parent’s lives end in a few very painful moments. Now behave yourself or you’ll cause them to die even sooner than they would otherwise.”
Okay, I’m not the wisest kid around and I’ll never know how wise it would’ve been to shut up and let him settle down. I started to struggle more seriously with my restraints. Up to now, I’d been using most of my energy trying to hold back the odd feelings and urges I was getting from whatever this contraption was doing. Still, I had enough energy left for the irritating Mr. Aureleus to keep up our argument. Even as I struggled to pull free, I spared a glare for him. And then words I hadn’t expected to say popped out in a far more threatening tone than I’d intended.
“Listen up, Lobster Head. If you so much as pull a hair out of my Mom’s and Dad’s heads, I’ll boil you in your own oil. People thousands of years from now will use you as an example of what a horrible death is. Release them now!”
It seemed to give him pause for a few moments. Then he snarled. I’d obviously managed to upset him even more than I thought. Unfortunately, I hadn’t managed to get free of my restraints either. They were a lot stronger than I’d thought at first or maybe they had a way to draw off power as well as suppress it. The feeling of separation grew worse too which I was finding more and more irritating. In any case, I suddenly realized I might have pushed him a bit too far and a strong burst of fear flooded me as I realized he might do something I’d regret before he got control of himself again.
“You little brat! I’ll release them alright. From this life! You just watch as I show you what happens to those who stand in my way!”
Not liking the sound of his comment, I started to seriously test my restraints. The more I pulled at them, the more feeling of separation grew. At the moment, I wasn’t sure what I was afraid of more: The risk to my parents or what was happening to me.
He stepped back to the podium and did something there out of my sight. In moments, a large screen appeared behind the podium. In it, a view of my parents in their cell could be seen. I hadn’t planned it this way. I’d figured on them at least trying to hold them to use as a lever to control me.
Turning back to me, he held out the trigger device again. I couldn’t see his face but by his voice and posture I was sure he was sneering.
“I was going to save this for later but it seems you’re in need of a lesson. Once you were restrained by our control device, we had no more need for other means of controlling you anyway. Can’t you feel it? All your powers are useless now. Your own struggles power the very bonds that hold you. There is no escaping your fate. We have you where we want you and, to prove just how helpless you are, I’ll let you watch while your parents suffer the fate of all who would oppose us!”
My control was slipping fast. We’d been trained constantly for the last few months not to panic. Up to now, things had been going pretty much the way I’d planned it but now it looked like all my plans were coming apart. I’d relied too much on my belief I would be able to control the situation one way or the other. But now I was being left with options that were quickly becoming less desirable. I needed time! I wasn’t faking the panic in my voice as I struggled with my restraints and the growing feeling that something really bad was about to happen.
“NO! Let them go! You promised! I’ll behave! Just let them go!”
I’d been getting a bad feeling about this ever since I’d gotten the measure of who I was dealing with. He was one of those who was so self centered that the only thing they respected was power. If he didn’t feel like you were powerful enough to deny what he wanted then all you were was a resource to be exploited. I also had the feeling the others here weren’t any better. At least, the wave of laughter that greeted my plea indicated no one was going to interfere with what was happening. With a sinking feeling, I watched as he raised his fist with the trigger in it. He couldn’t help gloating a bit either and a terrible rage of emotions started to rise in me, faster and faster.
“See? See? You’re helpless. And you will do everything we ask of you. Every time you don’t, I’ll simply prove it to you like...”
His rant and his attempt to wave the trigger in front of my face was cut off when a small, furry, long eared bundle appeared out of seemingly nowhere. With a deafening "Meerrrooow!" it leapt forward and attached itself to the end of his arm. I was now being treated to a show of just how nasty Bunny and Jade could be when they let their devious little minds free.
Jade was always fiddling with her gear, Jinn's body, paraphernalia, Jade's gizmos and, apparently, my stuffed cabbit. The toy was still soft and cushy to cuddle with but I had noticed some odd differences. For one thing, it had gotten a bit heavy for a stuffed animal. In mid-air, the cabbit changed subtly. The soft, fuzzy, open mouth suddenly sprouted needle-sharp teeth and each of the paws was suddenly adorned with shiny steel claws. The cabbit streaked toward the gauntlet holding that all-important control. I know Jinn's capabilities pretty well. She can exert 300 pounds of force. Bringing that to bear through those needle-like teeth would do terrible things to unprotected human flesh. But I worried for my parents safety. Aureleus' arm and hand were protected by a purplish-red plate that I assumed was a high-tech remake of medieval full plate. Jinn might possibly pry his hand open but hurting him would be like trying to poke a sewing needle through the steel door of a car.
I struggled even harder, knowing that Jinn's gesture was futile and that my parents were moments away from death. My anger and helplessness turned inward. Where before I had fought to suppress the strange power, now I drew on it as hard as I could. A part of me screamed that nothing good would come of releasing this dark power but I didn't care anymore. I welcomed the flow of strength that came as new energy rushed into me.
And then came a surprise.
Aureleus' fist spasmed open, dropping the controller. A moment later, he gave a horrific scream and began using his free hand to claw at the furry bundle that was savaging his arm, the hand on that arm flopped oddly at the end of the arm as he flailed around, blood seeping out of the joints.
My analysis regarding a small vicious animal attacking full plate had been correct. But Jinn wasn't an animal and full plate has vulnerabilities. It seems that her needle-teeth were detachable from their metal jaws (for maintenance, as my roommate later explained). Her tiny jaws would have been thwarted by the metal plate but the armor had gaps, such as those between the forearm guard and the gauntlets, where even the leather padding gives way. Against modern power armor, this tactic would probably still fail but Aureleus' suit was a remake of classic medieval plate. Jinn's detached needle-teeth had little resistance as then penetrated straight through to his vulnerable wrist, first piercing, then sawing like a hundred high-speed sewing machines working in concert. Aureleus' first hint of trouble came when his wrist tendons were severed and the controller dropped free. A moment later, the pain registered and he screamed like a little girl. The cabbit leapt free, snagging the controller in mid-air.
Now I had another problem, though. I was rapidly filling with power. I’d intended to use it to stop Aureleus or, if I couldn’t stop him in time, I was going to use for revenge. Now it looked like Jinn had managed to stop him but the power was still coming. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I didn’t stop it soon and there was still the problem of getting my parents out of here.
Our original plan had relied on no one knowing Jinn was here until she had my parents safe while I distracted the bad guys. But, like all plans, something always required some modification to make it work. Apparently, Jinn hadn’t been able to get to them and was now helping out in another way.
Fortunately for Aureleus, Jinn was concentrating on making sure the trigger wouldn’t get used. After she managed to get him to release it, she snagged it out of the air, sailed over in my direction and dropped it next to me on the platform. While she was doing this, several figures came running from the sides of the stage. Some of the figures on the podium gathered around Aureleus and others started gathering from around the auditorium. After dropping the remote, Jinn sailed back towards Aureleus.
One of the figures threw himself in front of her and tried to chop her with an axe. It might have been comical in other circumstances. A large armored figure trying to hit a small dodging bundle. But it quickly became less funny as several other figures moved up to help.
Jinn had been dodging around very successfully but, as the forces arrayed against her grew, other members of that armored crew turned toward me. As that happened, the cabbit noticed and moved from defense to offense. The lead man against her wore a Roman-style solid breastplate and was armed with an incongruously long modern sword. The cabbit leapt for his belly. The Roman swung but the cabbit impossibly jinked to the side in mid-air. It struck him hard in the chest armor. I saw the man sneering in derision until the animal attacking him did the impossible and went flat. It was as if it completely deflated. In this flattened state, it flowed like water, under his armor and down inside the waistband of his armored skirt.
The man danced around for a moment and then his eyes went wide as he shouted, "Lord, no! Not my stones!" Then he dropped his weapon, grabbed his crotch and gave one of the worst screams I've ever heard. "Nooooo!"
As he toppled to the ground – dead or unconscious, I wasn't sure which, there was a rustling under the armored skirt and the vicious little animal emerged, holding something that was both hairy and bloody in its mouth. I didn't look too closely. Let's just say that my roommate has issues to deal with.
Lasers, arrows and explosive musketballs concentrated on the temporarily still form, piercing it through a dozen times. The cabbit only spit out its grisly burden and growled even lower, as if signaling that now it was REALLY angry. It leapt for the exposed throat of one of the figures surrounding it.
"Shoot it! Cut it! DESTROY IT!"
Unfortunately for them, the cabbit was currently inside the armor of one of their comrades. The man was desperately trying to crawl out of that armor when he suddenly noticed his associates training their weapons on him. He didn't have time for more than a gasp of alarm before he was attacked from both inside and outside. He toppled and a blur of fur leapt from his falling body to another of the attackers.
An exceptionally large figure, at least eight feet tall, pushed his way forward. He yelled with some kind of amplifier backing him up.
“Fall back! Let me get a shot!”
As the others fell back quickly, still firing into the new target, the giant brought an incongruously large rocket launcher to his shoulder and lined it up with the still twitching body.
All during this, I’d been trying to deal with the staggering flow of energy into myself. So much was coming in so fast, I almost felt like I was on fire. Vague and disturbing memories of a similar experience plagued me even as I started to scream to warn Jinn what was going on.
Even as this power flowed and centered into me, I also watched as the figure of Aureleus, staggering and clutching his wrist, fell back and through a door at the back of the auditorium. As if from very far away, I could hear a panicked voice screaming, “Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!”
This was cut off as the door closed so I was pretty certain it was Aureleus screaming. Then my attention was drawn away from what was happening on the stage to a figure in what looked like Spanish conquistador armor off to my side pointing a crossbow at me. In the moment it took me to realize this one had apparently decided Aureleus was talking about me and not Jinn, he’d already fired.
The bolt glowed with energy and, strapped down like I was, I couldn’t dodge it. It struck me in my right side and the pain and shock I felt as it drove deep into my chest had me reacting in a totally instinctive way.
I knew I should be badly hurt and even as this knowledge worked through my shock, I felt myself reach out and grasp something around me. That something poured even more energy and healing into me. The bolt or whatever it was that hit me literally shot out of my side and exploded into flaming dust. But it didn’t stop there. More and more energy or whatever it was flowed into me and as it did, I felt something I knew to be almost unimaginably huge flinch like it was in pain. In my surprise, I didn’t try to hold onto whatever it was and as soon as it slipped out of my grasp, the flow of healing energy stopped. For a moment, it was like I was in a vacuum and then the universe snapped and crashed tightly around me again in a swirling twisted vortex.
Through all of this, I’d seen the armored figure rapidly loading another bolt into his crossbow and bringing it back to bear on me. But as reality crashed around me, I saw what looked like a ripple expand out from where I was and, as it hit the man with the crossbow, I saw him crumple, grasping his head like he had the worst headache imaginable.
Then he started to scream. And others were joining him. Even as odd energies snapped and crashed around me, I was able to look around and watch as the other armored figures started to do the same thing. I didn’t have time to enjoy it though. The energies coursing through and around me were anything but comfortable. It was like being electrocuted, burned, frozen and other sensations I didn’t know how to classify. And the platform was being affected also.
As I watched, one part of the platform turned into molten slag as the part next to it frosted over. Another part looked shiny and new while the adjacent piece rusted away to dust in about two seconds. Various odd but destructive things were going on all over it. The platform and the bonds holding me were reduced to chaotic junk in a matter of seconds as I floated in the air above it and the storm from Hell raged around me.
As I slowly rose to an upright position in the air, I was vaguely aware of a lot of light around me and any of the staggering figures that ended up facing me would scream even louder and flinch away from me, trying to cover their faces as they did so.
After the device in the platform had been stopped by the destruction around me, I’d stopped getting more of the odd energy I wasn’t familiar with but now a surge of my regular power was rushing in instead and there was so much of the other energy, it wasn’t just dissipating. So now I had large surges of both energies bouncing around inside me and, as they merged, I screamed again as the levels of energy climbed even higher.
Everything within a few feet of me was slagging down or bursting into flame. Through all of this I suddenly saw the archer who’d shot me trying to point his bow at me while keeping his face turned away. I didn’t even think about what I was doing as I sent a blast of energy at him.
I wasn’t even trying hard. I just wanted him to flinch until I could move away. But there was an incredibly strong shock and a brilliant flash. Looking up, I saw what I thought might be one of his feet in a boot left in front of the crater that had been gouged out of the amphitheater behind him. If there had been anyone behind him, there wasn’t anyone there now. Just a smoking crater.
Floating there, all I could do was stare and wonder what I’d just done. Somewhere in the back of my mind was a small voice screaming I’d just killed someone. Maybe several others too but, as we’d been counseled after Halloween, it was in self defense. I had a right to defend myself. And it wasn’t like I’d tried to do it either. But still…
Then I felt pain as something hit me from the side. Lashing out and, with that same shock again, I sent a blast of energy out at ground level. Again there was a stream of brilliant energy and a large part of the rest of the amphitheater disappeared in the arc. Anyone in the way simply disappeared.
As I starred at what I’d just done again, the training I’d received over the past few months finally kicked in and I got a chance to suppress my feelings and look around at the situation.
My blasts had taken out a few of the enemy as well as some of the amphitheater. The control device for the gas to my parents chamber was either destroyed or buried under the junk of the platform I’d been on. The other enemies I could see were acting strangely. Not only were they having a hard time looking at me, the majority of them didn’t seem to be acting logically at all. In fact, a large number of them seemed to be fighting with each other. Some were literally attacking other armored figures with nothing but their hands or even seeming to try and bite each other through their helmets, even when they had weapons on their belts or harness.
A few seemed stunned and inactive and the rest were trying to fight off their own people or even firing wildly at nothing in particular. I began to wonder if the last shot to hit me might have been a wild shot. After all, I hadn’t seen it coming so I couldn’t be sure.
My mind started to clear more as I got somewhat used to the energies slamming around inside of me. Suddenly, I remembered Jinn and started to look around frantically. I sailed onto the stage and what was left of the podium burst into flames.
Things were such a mess I couldn’t be sure where the last person I’d seen Jinn take down might be. At least there didn’t seem to be a crater in the general area and I couldn’t see the big guy with the launcher either. The thought of being alone in this hit me and I nearly panicked. I wanted my friend with me.
I hadn’t given much thought to what would happen when I called out at the top of my voice. With all the shooting and fighting, I probably wouldn’t have made a dent in the wall of noise in normal circumstances.
But these weren’t normal. My panic fueled the effort I put behind it and the force of my shout actually threw some of the men in front of me down and to the ground. This didn’t faze me in the least though. I wanted Jinn to be there with me. I didn’t want to be alone right now. I was looking for a small furry body and didn’t care about any of the others around me.
My hearts nearly skipped a beat when a small and bedraggled form shot out of one of the melees. In a moment, she was hovering in front of me. Strangely enough, while most everything else around me was steaming, burning, or melting, the small bloody bundle in front of me seemed unaffected.
“Jinn! You’re okay!”
I couldn’t describe the relief I was feeling as I leaped forward and hugged the small bloody bundle to my chest. Oddly enough, up to this point I hadn’t been the least aware that I was now completely naked. I didn’t have a stitch of clothes. As I watched in surprise, the streaks of blood that came from Jinn’s body literally burst into flame and vaporized right off my breasts and arms. Even while the blood on her didn’t seem to be affected until it came in contact with me and separate from her. For a moment, I felt like trying to cover up and then the impossibility of it hit me and I decided to try and ignore it for now.
The no longer quite so cute and bloody face looked up into mine. A small paw rested on my breast. Despite all the noise, I could hear her clearly.
“It’s okay, Mistress. I’m fine. You needn’t worry about me. Has the trigger been destroyed?”
Her question distracted me from her calling me Mistress although, when she did it, I got a chill up my spine. Instead, I looked over to the pile of debris. Some of the figures seemed to be moving towards it and reflexively I pointed my finger at the pile and channeled energy into the area. A large ball of plasma enveloped the pile and a large area around it. For about a second, it remained and then exploded, clearing the area around it and leaving a rounded pit in the concrete and rock underneath it. I almost laughed. For some reason, I was feeling a bit giddy.
My action had drawn some attention our way and the blinding effect was wearing off too as several started to fire towards me. Again I didn’t think about it but pulled something around us. I’d used something like this in the combat trials. Anything that actually came in our direction suddenly curved around, flying off into various directions. Some even causing problems for the people firing at us. I was starting to feel the drain though. Doing this with so many different types of attacks was taking a lot of energy. We needed to do something soon. I wondered if Jinn had any ideas so I asked her.
Jinn shrugged in my arms.
“Do you think Aureleus has a back up trigger somewhere?”
I hadn’t thought of that. The panicky feeling started coming back, pushing away the giddy feeling. I took a deep breath and thought about it for a moment.
“If we can get into the back corridors, can you go and get my parents out while I go after Aureleus? I think he’d head for the control area. He did say something about no one in the storage area being able to trigger the gas.”
“Sure. If we can get into the corridors. Once we do that, we can see which way he went and make other plans if necessary and we can get away from these guys. I’ve still got those keys and, as soon as we’re in the corridors, I can find my way there. Are you okay on your own?”
“Are the keys still functional?”
She nodded. “Anything in me should be okay for now, but I wouldn’t recommend bringing them out with you so close to me.”
I nodded in return. “Yeah. I seem to be having some difficulty with that. How about you?”
The smile she somehow managed warmed my heart even as it made me a bit nervous.
“You’ve cleverly kept your energies away from me, Mistress. Now we’d better get going.”
There was that Mistress thing again. But she was right, we had to get going. Hopefully we’d be able to leave these guys behind quickly if they tried to follow. I moved over to the door Aureleus had ducked through, ignoring the efforts of those trying to stop us. It was no big surprise to find it locked or blocked. A quick kick caved that door in but a short way beyond that was a much heavier door. I made a few attempts to open it and, when that didn’t work, to smash it but it was heavy enough to require some time to take down. Time I was quickly getting the feeling I might not have.
What with the few remaining enemy trying to shoot us in the back and the feeling, I was wasting precious time I think I can be forgiven for getting a bit frustrated. Ignoring the warnings I’d been given, I started to power up a punch. I wanted to get through quickly so I took some moments to concentrate a bit more energy into it.
I’d forgotten my powered up state again. When I finally punched the door, the results were not what I was expecting at all.
Again, I felt the twitch of some vast entity while everything around me seemed to shatter into a multitude of fragments. All this imploded around me, seeming to fall or fly into great empty spaces for a moment before reality crashed back together around me with a strange crash that seemed to echo into distances I was only aware of for a few brief moments.
When the surprise wore off, I realized several things had changed. While Jinn and I seemed unaffected, the area immediately around us out to about twenty feet had ceased to exist and the areas beyond that looked like they were badly put together puzzles out to a considerable distance. Out to maybe a hundred and fifty feet or so where I could see it before becoming more recognizable.
Looking back to where our tormentors had been I saw a scene that would stay with me forever but I’d always have a hard time describing. The few who were unfortunately alive were still screaming horribly. At least, those twisted forms that could. Some simply twitched in some quiet agony. There was no sanity in any that had eyes I could see. At least one had turned into what looked like a pillar of salt shaped like a man. Others were separated into several still living parts or somehow merged together.
For all the horror I knew I was seeing, I still felt strangely detached and surprised. What’s more, I was feeling better than I had for some time. I was filling with energy and, for the first time in a long time, I realized I was feeling sated and not at all hungry.
There was also a look of unreality to everything around me. As if things kept shifting back and forth. Almost like parts of the world kept trying to pull away and then snapped back like a rubber band. The center of this phenomenon centered on about where I’d hit the door. But it seemed to be slowly expanding.
As I calmly looked at the scene around me, I realized I was seeing an overlapping picture that matched the reality that existed before I’d done what I had. This was dim and slowly coming apart from where I’d hit the door also. As I watched and it faded more and the bouncing back and forth moved out further. At the same time I felt even more energy and well being flowing into me. A thought worked its way into my daze.
What was happening wasn’t going to stop here. It would keep going until everything around it, both near and far was swallowed up by it. And the longer it went on, the harder to stop it would be. With this realization came a disturbance of my basking in the energies being released. A part of me didn’t want to stop but my conscience started in and, reluctantly I reached out and instinctively stopped the process.
As soon as I did so, the structure I could see under everything else seemed to collapse in on the area where it had deteriorated. At the same time the more normal area around me seemed to twist and churn for a moment and then slowly stabilize. It still quivered a bit but wasn’t oscillating like before. Somehow, I knew this wouldn’t expand any more. But a part of me was wishing I could start it again as I looked back at where my enemies had been.
Something told me there wasn’t any point in looking for any live ones. The thought also crossed my mind that maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. Some of what I’d seen made me a bit uncomfortable when I let myself think of it.
I don’t know how long I’d have worried about it but Jinn tapped me on my breast to get my attention. It made me jump and brought me out of my funk.
“What do we do now, Mistress?”
There was that Mistress thing again. I was going to have to get to the bottom of that sometime, but not now. Looking around, I could see that while the area was twisted around us, the way to the connecting passages was now open.
“We... We do what we were planning to do. And stop calling me Mistress. It gives me the willies. It’s just me. Billie.”
“Yes, Billie. You want me to rescue your parents.”
We’d moved into the tunnels and a trail of blood led off down the right passage. I was pretty sure Aureleus was heading towards A Wing and the control center. I was going to have to hurry to catch him. The passage also headed to our left. This one would lead to C Wing. Where my parents would be. Jinn pulled on my arm.
“Billie. I want to stay with you.”
I kind of wanted her to stay with me too but someone had to go for my parents and I was pretty sure I’d better get after Aureleus before he had a chance to whip up some other kind of trouble. I shook my head and hugged Jinn. Then I carefully put her down and pointed left.
“Sorry, Jinn. You have to save my parents. Please hurry!”
She gave me a soulful look and then nodded.
“Yes, Billie! I’ll do it.”
Then she sailed away down the corridor before I could change my mind. She’d said it like a soldier saluting a commanding officer. Very official and stiff. For a moment, I was worried I’d insulted her or something but I had work of my own to do. Turning back to follow the blood trail, I forced myself to not call her back. Though I was still arguing with myself as I headed after Aureleus.
“You can’t come with me, Jinn. I’m sorry. Someone has to get my parents out of here. And I have to make sure you have the chance.”
Forcing myself to move carefully as I could down the corridor, I soon came to the first lock door. It was closed but not locked and I was through it in less than a minute. The corridor stretched out in front of me, empty. The blood trail was tapering off also. Soon, I wouldn’t have it to guide me to him.
I decided to go for speed and flew down the corridor until I got to the second lock. Again, it wasn’t locked but, as soon as I was through it, I could hear some kind of commotion coming from further in A Wing. It sounded a like a battle so I headed towards the commotion since it was in the direction I figured the Command building was located.
The battle or whatever was over by the time I got there. I came into a large and mostly unlit open area where I originally expected to find more of the buildings on springs. Instead, the only building left across the open area was the one I believed to be my goal. All the others around it had been somehow torn out, leaving a large open area separating it from the rest of the complex. Fortunately for me, I could see in the dark or I’d have had a hard time finding my way.
There was a strange sound off to the left, like large amounts of metal rubbing together. One of the few operating lights was in that direction and I could make out what looked like where the remains of the torn out buildings might have been piled. I also became aware of a nasty rotting meat smell with other smells wafting from that direction.
For a moment, I considered checking it out but I had to get after Aureleus and I was pretty certain he’d have headed to the Command Center so I headed for the building across the open area. I was about halfway across when the pile jumped out in front of me with a deafening series of crashes that seemed to make the cavern tremble.
What I’d thought was a pile of junk turned out to be a hugely distorted humanoid figure at least thirty feet tall. The figure was mostly covered by huge plates of rusting and discolored metals. The legs were short, thick and oddly bent. The right arm was much larger than the left and the body was twisted and bent forward. The head was unusually small in comparison to the rest of the body but its maw was truly impressive. The rotting meat stench was much stronger and warred with another smell like a super bad latrine stench mixed with a strange metallic tang. All in all, a truly disgusting combination. I had no desire to come close to it at all. It made a very loud growl like sound I suddenly realized was words. My scalp felt like crawling as I recognized it and remembered I was still naked.
“PREEETTY! LIIIIKE! WAAANNNT!”
Before I could recover from my initial shock, the huge distorted mitt of a right hand snapped out and clasped around me in a crushing and disgusting grasp. This close, I couldn’t help but realize the skin of this thing was composed of many plates of metal somehow attached to a strangely spongy flesh. The smell was much worse and I was having a hard time not gagging. Fortunately, I hadn’t eaten for a while.
It probably was only a few seconds later when I became more aware of what had been going on as I struggled futilely to pull free. The giant had moved back to the lighted area that was off to my left as I came in. It took a moment for me to realize what I was seeing.
The thing had made a nest of sorts. The smell, if anything, was worse here. But what made it really awful was the way it had decorated the place. Long pieces of metal had been jammed into the walls around the nest and on these had been impaled a great assortment of heads. Some were animal. Horses, cattle, and the like. But a lot were human or a close approximation. Some were only skulls now but several were in various stages of decomposition. Some were new and at least a few were still in helmets that made me think that this thing might have been used to keep these Knights in line at times. Two of the nearest heads were still dripping blood. Neither was Aureleus’ though.
“PREETTYY! HEEAAD! FOOOOD!”
The left mitt, which had smaller and more useful fingers, was reaching for my head and I realized it was going to try and pull my head off. Then, considering the lack of bodies and the like around here I figured it would probably eat the rest while posting my head as a trophy. The head was small in proportion to the rest but was still much larger than me and, as I looked more closely, I could see evidence of blood around the maw that now opened. I’d had enough!
With a scream of rage that matched his, I lashed out as the strength of my revulsion flowed through me. I literally exploded out of his grasp. His scream of pain matched my roar as he staggered back, his mangled mitt clutched to his body. I was hoping it’d had enough but, as I watched, the mitt reformed itself. Healing in moments. Pits that I now realized were eyes glowed with rage and it growled at me in a rumble that shook the air I was floating in.
There was a crazy kind of intelligence in those eyes and I realized I must be facing some kind of mutant suffering from a particularly nasty form of GSD but any sympathy I might have felt for it was smothered by the realization of what it had become.
It made another grab at me but now that I was expecting it, I managed to dodge and slash at the mitt as it sailed by me with the sword I’d formed while escaping the first time.
To my surprise, the sword actually bounced off. It had some kind of force field!
Several quick engagements followed. It was very quick for its size and its size mattered too. It was very hard to avoid its massive hands. I almost didn’t have time to analyze the feel of the force field when I struck it with my sword, but after several hits, I realized it felt a lot like Hank’s. Not long after that, I got the feel for it and the next grab at me cost it a chunk of the mitt.
With a scream that made my ears hurt, it jumped back for a moment. The chunk bounced once and then sailed back to the mitt and merged back into the body. Several more attempts to cut off parts or to blast away parts with blasts convinced me it was going to take a long time to wear it down, assuming that was possible.
To add to my worries, I could hear and feel some kind of hum coming from the Command Building. Aureleus must be up to something and I didn’t have time to waste trying to wear this thing down.
The distraction proved to be too much though and I suddenly found myself literally squashed into one of the cavern walls. As the stars faded from my vision I found myself looking into the crazed eyes of my opponent. His fist pulled back to smash me again and I could hear it chuckle as it sensed victory.
My response was instinctual. I formed the energy around my fist and struck back at the fist trying to smash me flat. There was something different about what happened this time though.
My vision shifted and I could see not only the monster in front of me but underneath that image was another. I could see that strange network I’d seen disintegrating before but in this situation, it was complete. Balanced in this structure was another structure analogous to the monster. As our fists connected, I saw the network of energy around my fist immediately snap out and merge with the structure of the monster. In moments, the underlying structure shattered and collapsed in on itself. As it did, I felt a rush of energy and healing flow into me.
While this was happening, I watched as the monster staggered back, screaming a scream I knew was its realization of its impending death. Before this, I’d held back from completing what I’d started but this time, I actually pulled at that flow of energy and watched as the underlying structure disintegrated. As this occurred, I saw the flesh of the monster turn to ash and then a vapor that quickly faded out of existence. The metal parts started to rust and take on that unhealthy look I’d seen from the remains of the doors I’d hit in Testing Range Three.
The energies I’d released started to settle on the underlying structures around me and I saw them start to weaken. Before this could go on, I somehow stopped and dispersed the energies I’d sent out and the flow of energies into me stopped again. The resulting flinch was mild compared to the other flinches I’d felt before but was enough to snap me out of my reverie and bring my attention back to my original goal. The humming was getting louder even as I sailed towards the building.
I was expecting some kind of trap but nothing happened as I flew up to the door and opened it. Floating down a short corridor, I soon entered a large command center with several computer stations and various large lighted maps of the world displayed on the huge screens. There were some still and twitching figures slumped before the computers but no one seemed to notice me as I entered. Across the room was a glassed in office. In that was Aureleus. He hadn’t seen me enter and was tinkering with some kind of large booth. But he definitely jumped when I opened the door into the office.
He had been mumbling something I couldn’t understand but, as soon as I opened the door, I caught a loud comment he made at his computer screen before he realized I was there.
“Damn you, Nimbus! What did you do to this, you bastard?” Something I did must have got his attention then. He snapped around in my direction.
“Who dares? I left explicit orders... You!”
Aureleus had pulled off his helmet and the end of his right arm was wrapped up in bloody bandages. He might have been handsome at one time but the crazed face he turned to me now was anything but pretty. His short dark hair was plastered with sweat and uncombed. His probably once stern and tanned profile was now gaunt and pale. And his eyes showed a dark, raging madness that almost made me back off for a moment.
I might have thought he was talking to himself except he was answered from the direction of his desk. On that was a large computer screen and showing on the screen was a distorted and shadowy profile. The voice coming from it was distorted but the profile and way the image talked made me think the person on the other end was male.
“I told you, Aureleus. I don’t appreciate failures and I certainly don’t want to entertain your guest for you. The gate will open as soon as I feel it’s safe for me to allow it and not a moment sooner. Maybe you should take care of your guest first? She looks particularly fetching without clothes, don’t you think?”
I felt myself blush as the fact I was naked was brought to my attention yet again. I really wanted to know who was on the other end of that computer connection too but Aureleus wasn’t giving me a chance to follow up on that. He charged at me with a roar, pulling a handle from his belt with his left hand. From the handle sprang a three foot energy blade which he used to try and chop my head off.
“Damn you to Hell, you bitch! You’ll not have me as a trophy!”
Maybe if he hadn’t been wounded and out of his mind, he might have been more skillful and dangerous but, in his current shape, even I with my relatively minimal training had little trouble holding off and quickly disarming him. In the end, he was leaning on his desk, sobbing. It was almost embarrassing.
This might have gone on for a while except the person on the computer prodded Aureleus a bit more.
“Obviously, I was mistaken to trust you with such a simple task, Aureleus. You and your Knights are pitifully inadequate. I’d have been better advised to put my trust, equipment and money on the Evangelical Harpies. A simple girl has humbled you and your pitiful excuses of men. I feel I will have to lodge a complaint with the Syndicate over this total waste of my resources. I seriously doubt it will ever happen again.”
I found his comments irritating after all I’d had to do so far and snarled at him in response.
“Shut up, you. I don’t see you doing more than wagging your jaws right now. Come over here and I’ll show you just how simple I am.”
Whatever comment this character might have made was swallowed up by Aureleus’ cackling laughter.
“So! You think this fight is over do you, devil? I’ll show you to respect the honor of the Knights of the Eternal Presence! See you in Hell!”
I hadn’t noticed him doing something with the top of his desk but, when he slapped his palm down on something on the top, a panel in the front popped open and I got a quick look at a device with a rapidly counting down LCD clock. I didn’t need to be an expert to figure out it was a bomb. Of course it might just be a fake and I’d make a fool of myself by running but somehow I didn’t think that was the case. I couldn’t be sure of how much time I might have but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out.
Leaving the hysterically laughing Aureleus behind, I actually made it out of the building and was in the area outside it when there was a blinding flash behind me. For one small moment, I felt like I received an incredibly hard push from behind. Incredible pressures smashed down on me, squeezing me so hard I thought I might be crushed. Then things went weird. The pressure turned into a strange twisting sensation and I found myself floating in a momentarily light filled world and then darkness closed in around me.
I couldn’t say what I was feeling but it was definitely strange. The pain I’d been feeling moments before rapidly faded away, leaving a strange feeling of lassitude and well being. My thoughts refused to accept any attempt to bring them under control and direction. I don’t know how long that went on but it was with reluctance I eventually allowed some awareness of what had been happening intrude and draw me out of the comfortable shell I was in.
As yet, I wasn’t sure what was happening but there was a steady pulling or pushing sensation. I could have resisted it, in fact I did for a few moments, but the longer I was aware of it, the more I remembered. Soon I was allowing it to pull and push me to wherever it wanted me to go.
In not too long a time, I found myself floating motionless. The sensation of pressure had faded to almost nothing. I felt myself relaxing suddenly. It wasn’t so much a physical sensation as it was a mental one but, as soon as I did, there was an odd twisting sensation again and suddenly I found myself floating in a dark room like area. It looked kind of like the tunnel I’d followed from the loading area into B Wing but was blocked at each end of its fifty foot length by rubble that looked like a cave in. It should have meant something to me but, at the same time, I was suddenly just too tired to care. The floor was strangely comfortable and in moments everything simply faded away into strange dreams. Places and people I should remember but couldn’t possibly remember them because they weren’t places and people on Earth.
This continued for an unknown time before a strange but familiar voice intruded on my dreams. I was floating over a strangely colored lake and hills. The colors had no names that came to mind immediately but whale like animals were floating over them. Their whistles were bouncing off the hills and water and I knew it was a conversation about the weather. But a strange small voice kept intruding.
“Billie! Billie! Wake up!”
Billie? Who was Billie? Oh yeah. I was Billie. But why was someone calling me? I wasn’t Billie here. I was no one and this was only a strange memory. A very old memory. For a moment, it made sense and I knew how old a memory it was, then that slipped away and confusion returned. Then I felt someone shaking me and the strange voice grew louder and more urgent.
“Billie! You have to wake up! We don’t have much time!”
I knew that voice. It was important to me and obviously in some distress. I reluctantly pulled myself away from the oddly restful memories and dragged myself towards consciousness and the voice.
Someone was shaking me now. I opened my eyes and realized it was Jinn. She looked a bit bedraggled but at least she didn’t look bloody anymore and she’d pulled in her claws and teeth so she looked like a worn out child’s toy. I tried to tell her I was awake but she seemed to have a hard time understanding me so I tried again with the first odd thought that came to mind.
“You aren’t a flying whale.”
“You aren’t a flying whale.”
She sat back with her paws on her hips, which actually looked pretty comical. “I should hope not! What’s this about flying whales?”
I shook my head. “You had to have been there. By the way, why are you waking me up? And how did you get here? And where is here while you’re at it.”
She jumped forward and grabbed my hand.
“C’mon, Billie. They’re going to nuke the place and we have to get out of here.”
I hadn’t been expecting that explanation so I didn’t resist while Jinn pulled me towards one end of the area we were in. Up towards the top of the pile of rubble blocking the way, I could see a small area where some rocks had been pushed out of the way. With a little work, I might clear enough to fit myself through. I also became aware of nervous talking coming from the other side. They seemed very agitated.
“Let’s get going, LT. Just set it and let’s get out of here.”
“We’re supposed to wait for the animal, Sergeant. I don’t like it any more than you but we have to give it a little longer or the General will have our hides posted to the most remote pesthole imaginable for the rest of our short, miserable lives.”
“It could be miles away by now, sir. It could be hours before it gets back. We can’t wait that long. Even if whatever’s out there doesn’t get us, do you really think they’ll wait that long before setting the others off? We have to get moving now!”
There was a murmur of other voices and then the one I assumed was the lieutenant spoke louder.
“Alright! That’s enough! Sergeant! Get control of yourself and the men. I’ll start setting the time and trigger. But we’re waiting another fifteen minutes before heading back. That’s our orders and we’re going to carry them out. Understood?”
There were more murmurs but they were very quiet. The Sergeant’s voice rang out.
“All of you! On your toes! I want a double perimeter. Now! Anthony! I want your squad to cover the front. The rest of you, cover the rear. All of you be ready to move as soon as we get the word. I’m not waiting for any of you to pee or tie your shoes. Got it?”
There were several ‘Yes, Sergeant’s and we were close enough to the hole to also hear some movements. I started to move rubble out of the way and things went quiet for a moment and then a voice I didn’t recognize rang out.
“Movement to the front! Sawyer, Beckett. Cover. Davis, Gorton, Mavis, Hearst. Be prepared to move up! Don’t shoot till ordered or fired on. Move it!”
Jinn, who was helping me move a larger rock, stopped and snorted.
“I better go calm them down or they’ll start shooting at shadows. I don’t know what their problem is. Everyone’s been really jumpy and on edge for some reason. Some of them nearly shot each other a while back. You should be able to get through soon but don’t until I tell you it’s okay. Alright?”
I nodded. “Sure. I’ve been shot enough today. I really don’t need any more.”
She giggled and moved forward. “Hold your fire! It’s just me. The cute little animal leading her Master out of the collapsed mine. Please keep in mind my Master is tired of being shot at and would get into a real bad mood if you were stupid enough to try.”
I couldn’t let that one go unanswered.
“Cabbit! Stop that!”
Another giggle was all I got in answer before the voice I didn’t recognize but thought might be the Anthony the Sergeant had mentioned before started to talk again.
“Whoever is there. Come out carefully or we’ll shoot. No sudden moves.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m coming out now. Don’t shoot poor little me. Like anything bigger could get through here. It’s a good thing I didn’t eat that chicken when I had the chance back then. There! See? It’s me. Now can we get some help up here? Tennyo is on the other side but it wouldn’t hurt to have a little help to get her out.”
There was quiet for a moment and then the sound of movement. This was cut off by the Sergeant’s voice.
“Anthony! What do you think you’re doing?”
Anthony’s voice, the one I hadn’t had an ID for, spoke from closer to where I was moving another rock. “The animal says the girl we were supposed to keep our eyes open for is digging her way out. I figured we could help, Sergeant.”
The Sergeant was getting closer and he didn’t seem to be in a good mood. “Check your radiation monitor.”
There was a brief pause and then Anthony replied. “Damn! The reading’s are climbing! Move back, everyone.”
I could hear sudden movement away from where I was. After that stopped Jinn spoke.
“Hey! If you’re not going to help, can I at least dig some? I understand we’re on a schedule here.”
The Sergeant called back. “You have about eight minutes. After that, we’re out of here. I hope you can get her out before then but we’re not waiting. Got that?”
Jinn was perky as usual. “No problem! We’ll move the mountain if necessary. You just be ready to go.”
Any answer he might have made was drowned out by the sound of digging. Jinn might be small but she could move when she wanted to. It wasn’t very long before we were faced with the last obstacle. Two large pieces of concrete had wedged at the top of the pile. It was likely they were also holding up a large part of the remaining ceiling. The opening they made was large enough for Jinn, but would be a problem for me. Even digging down hadn’t made the hole any wider. I could probably cut a hole through, but they might collapse if weakened in any way.
Jinn and I were considering options when we heard the Sergeant and Lieutenant coming our way. They were arguing. Both of them seemed a bit upset.
“Sir. I understand but we’ve GOT to go. We’re on a clock here. We can’t risk getting too close to that opening and the radiation levels are climbing. We’re going to have to hustle to get out in time when you start the countdown.”
“I know, Sergeant. But our orders are to bring the girl out too. You haven’t had a chance to check out the opening?”
“No, sir. And I can’t let you do it either. I know our orders but we just don’t have the protection for it. If what we have here is any indication, the girl’s probably going to die from radiation poisoning anyway.”
“Sir. If it wasn’t for our protective suits, we’d be dying. Last I heard, it’s unlikely the girl has any protection at all. It’s just a matter of time. At least this way it’ll be fast.”
“And we can’t get a message through to the General to delay the other bombs. Damn this interference!”
“We can’t delay any longer, sir. You know it. We’ve got to set the timer and go. That’s our priority.”
“Yeah. I know that. But leaving the girl sticks in my craw something awful.”
“Me too. But we’ve got to do it.”
There was a pause and then the Lieutenant called out to me. He managed to sound very calm considering how upset he’d seemed before he called to me.
At least they were using my alias name. “Yeah?”
“We’ve got a problem.”
“So I’ve heard. You got a plan?” Not that I expected him to but I thought it was worth a try.
“I’m sorry. There’s not much we can do and we can’t get a message out for help or a delay. I’m afraid you’re on your own here. As soon as I start the timer on the mark, I was given we’ll only have a half hour to get clear. Then they seal the doors and three hours after that the place goes boom. Can you and the animal get out of there?”
“The ‘animal’ as you call her has a name. Her name is Cabbit. And I’m afraid our options are limited. I don’t know if it’s even possible to dig a hole big enough for me to get through here, much less in time. I think I can blast through but it’ll be likely to bring the roof down too. I take it you can’t stick around and help out?”
“I’m sorry. Our orders won’t let us do that. I’ve got to get my men out and the placement and detonation of the bomb takes priority. I’m sorry.”
Well, I wasn’t too happy about it but it wasn’t like I wasn’t having to chance the roof falling in just digging out anyway. Still, I couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed. Here I was, the kid in distress and the grownups were leaving me to my own devices. And adding handicaps. Not that I didn’t feel capable of getting out but there was just something wrong about it.
“Jacobs. I’m Lieutenant Harold Jacobs.”
“Lieutenant Jacobs. I’m going to have to blast through here then. You and your men need to back away so you won’t risk getting hurt. Got that?”
There was a moment’s hesitation and then the Lieutenant had a question for me.
“Uh. How big a blast? We can’t risk having too much more of the roof coming down and damaging the bomb you know.”
I was a little irritated even though I understood his concern.
“I don’t think you need to worry about your dumb bomb. I’m pretty sure it’s far enough away, even if this part of the roof comes down. By blasting out, I don’t mean using explosives so you don’t have to worry about that. I would suggest that you and your men back off a bit though, just in case.”
“Okay. You heard her. Get the men back, Sergeant.”
“Alright, men! You heard the LT. Fall back. Anthony, you’re in charge of the rear. What about the bomb, sir?”
“I’ve got the timer ready to go. We’ll give her five minutes. No more. Then we’re out of here.”
“Pushing it kind of close, aren’t you, sir?”
“We have our orders but I’ll give her every chance I can.”
“But the radiation.”
“I’ll give her every chance. Some things I can’t control. Now let’s get back and ready to go. Miss Tennyo?”
“Can you please give us two minutes to get clear?”
“Okay, but be ready to move when I come through.”
“We’ll be ready. Let’s go, Sergeant.”
The Sergeant hesitated for a moment.
“You know, sir. I could stay back and help if necessary.”
“No, Sergeant. I’ve got a duty to get you all back if I can. Unharmed. Pretty much like you have a duty to get me back. Let’s let her do her thing.”
The Lieutenant paused from his retreat for a moment and then called back to me.
“Do you need a watch?”
“No. Just give a yell when you’re out of the way. I’ll make my move then. If I don’t join you immediately, just move out.”
“I’ll do that. Good Luck!”
“You too. Now get going so I can get out of here.”
“Will do. Let’s get out of here, men, and I don’t want a rout. In order and by the numbers. Move!”
There was some grumbling but they moved out quickly. Not too long after that, I heard a yell I assumed was the go ahead.
“Okay, Jinn. You better move back too. I’m gonna try and cut away enough to slip through. If the roof comes down, I don’t want you caught in it.”
Jinn moved up to the opening we’d made so far. “Do you think you can make it?”
“Sure. No problem. Just move back a bit.”
“One of the soldiers left me this rope. If you tie it on, I can help pull you through if I have to.”
“Or find me easier if I get buried?”
“Okay. Pass it through to me. I’ll tie it to my wrist. Give a pull when I yell. Okay?”
“Okay. Here it is.”
The end of a climbing rope was passed through and in moments I had it tied to my left wrist. Soon the rope was pulled tight and I assumed Jinn was at the other end, ready to pull. I formed a short plasma sword and carefully started to carve away at the rocks blocking the way.
It all went well until I was almost sure I could slip through. Then there was a groan from the rocks and ceiling around me and I could feel everything shifting. I screamed at Jinn to pull and launched myself forward as hard as I could. For a terrifying moment, I felt like everything was coming down on me.
Then there was that odd twisting again and it was like I was a cork that had popped from a bottle. I ended up bouncing down the corridor for a ways while the roof collapsed with a loud rumble behind me. Then I just lay there trying to get calmed down and get my breath back. Jinn was with me in moments holding my end of the rope with an empty loop in it. Obviously worried.
“Billie! Are you okay? The rope popped loose and I was afraid I’d lost you!”
I looked at my wrist and realized the rope must’ve slipped off during the confusion. Luckily, I must’ve already been out from under the fall by then. I was feeling kind of tired but other than that I seemed okay.
“I’m fine, Jinn. It’s okay. Grab that rope and let’s get out of here, okay?”
Jinn was still concerned but began rolling up the rope as she talked to me.
“You’re sure you’re okay? And why keep the rope?”
“I’m fine, really. And it’s only polite to return it to the guy who gave it to you. Besides, you never know when you’ll need a good rope.”
“Right. Sounds like you play too much D & D. You sure you’re okay? I was sure for a moment you’d gotten caught under the fall.”
“I’m fine. Really. Let’s get out of here. If I remember right, someone’s going to be setting off a big bomb around here soon.”
“Okay. I’ve got the rope. Let’s get out of here.”
“Okay, you better move ahead and make sure they know we’re coming. They seem a little nervous and I wouldn’t want to get shot by accident.”
Jinn sailed on ahead and I drifted after her. I was still tired, but other than that I was fine. The tunnel was much clearer after the fall behind me. Soon I came to some kind of motorized platform with what looked like a large box on it. My curiosity got the best of me and I drifted closer to get a better look.
There were no particularly distinguishing features except for a red LCD display counting down from what looked like a few seconds over three hours and thirty two minutes. This had to be the bomb everyone had been talking about. The boxy shape didn’t reveal much but I had the feeling this one was a lot bigger than the one Aureleus had set off in his office. I might have spent more time thinking about what happened then except Jinn called to me.
“C’mon, Tennyo! Everyone’s leaving! You’ve got to come now!”
Shaking my head to clear it of the odd ideas that pushed at me when I thought of what happened, I sailed towards where Jinn was yelling from. As soon as I got close, two men dressed in dark colored, complete hazmat gear focused powerful flashlight beams on me. The voice of the soldier I recognized as Anthony rang out while several other soldiers dressed in Hazmat gear moved to covering positions.
“Hold it right the...”
He seemed to choke a bit towards the end but I understood what he meant. They wanted to be sure I wasn’t a threat. And as nervous as they seemed, I didn’t think it was going to be easy. I halted in midair, facing them with my arms to my sides in an unthreatening stance. Everything went totally quiet and I started to get worried something was wrong. Then I realized Jinn was making some kind of choking noise. I wondered why for a moment and then the soldiers started to talk quietly and excitedly to each other. I was able to pick up most of what was said with my sensitive ears.
“God’s, Corporal! She’s totally nekkid!”
“I thought we were supposed to find a little girl.”
“She’s a girl, alright!”
“Yeah! You can say that again!”
“Uh huh! She’s a girl, alright. Think I can take her home with me?”
“Forget it, Neal. According to what they said about her age, it’d be Statutory.”
“She don’t look Statutory to me.”
“She sure doesn’t.”
It took a moment for what they were saying to register and then it all came back to me. I’d been naked ever since my clothes burned off a while back and I’d never had a chance to get more. I thought I was going to die from embarrassment for a moment and then other emotions and reflexes took over.
One. I wasn’t about to let just anyone see how embarrassed I was. Reflexes, honed to perfection from dealing with my brothers, came to the fore. Instead of screaming and trying to cover up, I simply put my hands on my hips and stood straighter. My audience seemed to appreciate it anyway.
And two. Another strange emotion welled up in me. I could only describe it as pride. Up till now, I’d been in hiding or in the shadow of some truly exceptional girls. Everyone else around me tended to be really sexy, cute, smart, talented, glamorous, etc. Not weird like me. When people described Team Kimba, they generally talked about the beautiful, etc. girls and the strange blue haired one. And when it came to relationships, well, let’s face facts. Even Jade had more going on than I did. I’d never really thought of myself as a good looking girl but, suddenly and literally put in the spotlight, I didn’t seem to be coming off all that bad. At least when I wasn’t competing with the rest of Team Kimba.
All in all, it was pretty cool. Except for some irritating noises coming from Jinn’s direction. I wasn’t sure how long this would’ve lasted but it was immediately broken up by the arrival of the Sergeant and Lieutenant. I’d seen them coming. Jinn probably had too but I don’t think any of the others guys did. At least they all jumped about a mile when the Sergeant made his presence known.
“What the Hell is going on back here!? Anthony! Report!”
I’ll give Anthony this much, he had a fast comeback.
“Ahhh. We’re just making sure no one’s gonna take us by surprise, Sergeant. It seems Miss Tennyo managed to get free. We’re just making sure it’s just her and the animal.”
Then the Lieutenant spoke. “Did anyone mess with or check the Bomb?”
I spoke up. “It looked fine when I went by, Lieutenant.”
His suited figure nodded and then moved forward. “I better check it anyway. Then we better get going.”
I smiled. “I’ll help.”
He stopped and looked at me for a moment and then shook his head. “Thank you for the offer but we can handle it. Anthony!”
“You and three men with me. Sergeant?”
“Get everyone ready to move out. Oh, and Sergeant?”
“See if you can find something for Miss Tennyo to wear. I have a feeling the General won’t be amused if we parade her out of here naked.”
“Yes, sir! At least not where we’d ever hear about it.”
Just about everyone there chuckled at that. It was the most relaxed I’d seen them yet.
He turned to me. “Miss Tennyo?”
“Is there any way for someone to approach the bomb from the other side?”
“No, Lieutenant. The roof’s collapsed completely now. No one’s coming from that direction without a lot of help and time.”
He made a short bow in my direction. “Thank you. We’ll be moving out shortly. Please be ready to go. Will you need any help?”
“No. I’m fine. I’m ready to go as soon as you are.”
“Good. Move out!”
Motioning to the men who were to accompany him, he headed towards the bomb. They moved out and the Sergeant took command.
“Tell Karns to take command of Squads One and Two. Move out, double column. Be alert! I don’t want any surprises.”
“Yes, Sergeant!” One of the men headed back the way the Lieutenant and Sergeant had approached from at a jog. In moments I heard him yelling.
“Karns! Time to move out! Double columns and Sergeant wants a quiet ride.”
There was an unintelligible answer and I could here movement and quiet talking to our front.
In the mean time, the Sergeant approached me and handed me a small, olive green rectangle from his belt. It was some kind of plastic coated fabric and folded out into a poncho. He sounded apologetic.
“I’m afraid this is all I have for now. We can’t very well get out of our suits or I’d offer you some real clothing.”
I nodded and smiled as I slipped it over my head.
“That’s okay. I understand. Just get me back out of here and I can get my spare set of clothes from my backpack in Frisk’s office.”
He snorted. “If he’s still around. Most civs have problems with being around the bombs. Especially when they start to go off.”
“Yeah. I imagine so. Still, I can hope the office is still there and they have the pack and wallet that they took from me. I guess I’m lucky I didn’t have them with me back that way. Otherwise I’m going to have a hard time finding something that fits me I think.”
“You look good in anything, girl.” I think it was Neal who said that but, with them all dressed like they were, it was hard to say. Especially with the number of murmured assents from the others. There was a strange thrill when they said it. I might even get to liking it. I hoped I managed to look at least a little abashed when I answered them.
“Shucks, guys. You’re making me blush. I bet you say that to all the girls.”
I was pretty sure it was Neal who answered. “Only the really good looking ones.”
I tried to look even more uncomfortable at the praise but I found myself not really wanting it to stop. Just then the Lieutenant and the others came hurrying back.
“Let’s move it, people! The clocks running!”
The Lieutenant moved through and the Sergeant joined him as they moved ahead to catch up with the other two squads. The Sergeant motioned me to join them.
“C’mon, girl. We’ve got to get you back where the decontamination crews are. If we hurry, they might be able to help you. Anthony!”
“Bring up the rear. But stay close. I want to be out of here yesterday.”
“Yes, Sergeant! All right! Two column formation. Move out!”
Their voices faded behind us but I picked up a bit of conversation as we moved ahead. I couldn’t make out who was talking but the mention of my name drew my attention.
“Damn! I forgot about the radiation. Do you think Miss Tennyo will be okay?”
“Don’t know. Decon has come a long way but she must’ve been exposed to a lot. Still, she doesn’t seem to be affected yet. It’s kind of strange.”
“You saw her, guys. She flies and stuff. I bet she has some kind of protection.”
“Yeah. Be a shame if she starts wearing a costume though. It’ll be a letdown after getting the full picture.”
The quiet laughter covered up any more intelligible conversation before we were out of earshot. But I couldn’t help smiling a bit and then wondering why I felt the way I did. Then Jinn prodded me in the side and quietly giggled.
“You’ve got some secret admirers.”
Of course, when she said it, I was suddenly very embarrassed. It’s one thing to think of strangers liking you. It’s totally another when someone close to you knows.
“Shush! I do not!”
More giggling. “Sure you do. And you liiike it.”
A quietly stated threat seemed appropriate. “Jinn! You better not be spreading rumors around or so help me...” I tried to put as much threat into the comment as possible but somehow the effort seemed to be wasted as she settled into another fit of giggles.
This went on for a while. We were passing through the tunnel at a slow walk now. There had been rock falls, but nothing that would’ve blocked the motorized cart. Apparently they’d come in as far as they could to set the bomb and then planned on getting out, leaving the cart which might have slowed them down. Or maybe they just didn’t have a way of getting the bomb off the cart.
Eventually I heard a commotion up ahead and a series of hand signals came from the front indicating we were supposed to stop. Soon the Lieutenant came back to join Jinn and me. Now that I looked closer at him and the others, I saw evidence that they seemed very nervous and jumpy. They’d also gotten very quiet. Nobody speaking unless they absolutely had to. And jumping a bit when anyone did.
The Lieutenant whispered and pointed the way he’d come. “Move forward. Sergeant Haskins will get you through the checkpoint. From there you will be taken to Decon. I... I hope you’ll be okay.”
I moved forward and gave him a hug. I think he nearly jumped out of his skin but he didn’t say anything.
“Thanks, Lieutenant Jacobs. Please let everyone else know how much I appreciate all their help. And don’t worry about me. It’ll take a lot more than just a little radiation to get me down!”
“I’m glad to hear that. Good luck.”
I started away and then turned back. “By the way. Who are you, guys? I can’t be telling all my friends who helped me if I don’t know who did it.”
He stood straight and saluted. “Third Platoon, Company D, Special Duties Battalion. We’re known as the ‘Ditch Diggers’. We get all the tough dirty jobs it seems.”
I saluted back. “Thank you all. I hope you all get back safely.”
“We will. Better get going now. Good luck!”
“Luck to you too. Bye!”
Jinn took up residence in the hood of my parka and we moved forward to find the huge blocking door to the corridor had broken but in such a way that a path had been cleared through big enough for the cart with the bomb. More soldiers in hazmat suits were carefully checking each soldier ahead of us before allowing them to pass through. The Sergeant was there. He motioned us forward. Then he turned to someone who had a Colonel’s insignia on his suit.
“Here’s the girl, sir. I understand they want to see her immediately. But she’s been exposed to a lot of radiation. You might want to get her to Decon first.”
The Colonel somehow radiated a great deal of impatience and somehow I was sure he didn’t like me. It wasn’t so much what he said but the way he said it and somehow managed to ignore me even while he and the Sergeant talked about me.
“That will be all, Sergeant. I appreciate your concern but my orders are to get her to the General ASAP. The other stuff will have to wait. Get your men out now. We’ll be blowing this hole soon. I don’t want anyone left behind.”
“Yes, sir! If you insist.” He turned back to me and Jinn. “Good luck to you both.”
I smiled and nodded “Thanks, Sergeant. Good luck to you too. And give everyone my thanks for coming to look for me.”
He looked a little embarrassed for a moment and I detected a smile in his voice for the first time since we’d met.
“It was orders. You don’t need to thank us.”
“Well, thank everyone anyway.”
We might have said more but the Colonel interrupted.
“Get a move on, Sergeant! We’re on a clock.”
The Sergeant came to attention and saluted. “Yes, sir!” He gave me a nod, turned and headed back into the tunnel.
I was kind of sorry to see him go. While I’d been with the men who found me, I felt like I was appreciated. But I felt nothing but some kind of dislike coming from the Colonel and the men around him seemed to be reflecting his attitude. He stopped ignoring me just long enough to growl.
“Come on! You’ve caused enough trouble already. Follow me and don’t even think of getting lost. This place isn’t going to be here much longer.”
He turned and marched off towards where the big door now stood open. A quick look around showed only a few men in hazmat suits working around the entrance to A Wing. Everything else looked deserted. Most of the men I did see where hurrying out the big door where more guards in hazmat suits were motioning them to hurry. By the time I finished my quick survey, the Colonel was already well ahead of me and not looking back. I hurried to catch up with him.
I wasn’t about to let him get me upset though. I didn’t know what his problem was but I had more important things to do. Like find my brothers and parents. Might as well start finding them now. Besides, all this talk of radiation had me worried for my parents.
“Say, Colonel. Do you happen to know how my parents are doing?”
He didn’t even look in my direction. Obviously he wasn’t going to be very cooperative but arguing with him wouldn’t help any either and he was supposedly taking me to see the General who would know what was going on. So I just stayed close and waited for a chance to learn more. I did draw a bit of attention from everyone who saw me but no one seemed inclined to stop what they were hurrying to do.
After we got out of the big door, I could see men who weren’t in hazmat suits but everyone was in the process of jumping into vehicles and moving out of the front cavern area. What had once been full of vehicles, barriers, and men was now almost completely clear. A stark contrast to the twisted and blasted piles in the inner loading area. The Colonel led me to a Humvee. Once we were in, the driver screeched out, honking for everyone to clear the way. Soon we were out of the cavern and I got a look at the area around it.
The snow had stopped and the sky had cleared a bit. In the daylight, I could see where the vans and trucks had been parked. Now these areas were empty and a line of trucks and other utility vehicles was headed out a road I could now see. I thought we might be headed that way but the Humvee turned off to the side and around a small ridge. Behind that was a helicopter waiting to take off. The Colonel jumped out and headed for it. I floated after him. As soon as I was out of the Humvee, its driver revved his engine and headed back towards the exodus.
In moments, I was in the helicopter and being whisked east. A few quick minutes and I saw a cleared area with the large control trailer where Frisk had talked to me and my brothers. Several other trailers were parked around it. Before long we landed, the Colonel turned me over to a pair of warmly dressed guards and took off again. Never once since he’d told me to follow him did he acknowledge my existence. At least the guards were a bit more polite.
As if anyone else by my description was around here. I smiled anyway. It was refreshing to be treated somewhat human again. “Yes?”
“Could you please follow us? We need to get you through Decon and then the General would like to see you.”
I was apparently going to Decon anyway. At least they asked nicely. “Of course. Lead on.”
“Right this way.” They motioned me past them and towards a trailer that, when we got closer, I could see had several of the symbols representing various hazards. As soon as I was in it, the techs manning it pushed me into a small chamber. A breathing mask was dropped from the top of that and I was instructed to put it on.
As soon as I did, the chamber was flooded with some kind of fluid. A voice from a microphone in the breathing apparatus directed me to remove my poncho and explained that the liquid was supposed to remove any radioactive particles and then they could check and see how much radiation I’d been exposed to. Realizing I really didn’t have much choice, I did and Jinn floated out while I was doing so. Soon, we were completely covered and a short time after that the chamber drained and some techs came in with various instruments to try and measure radiation.
Whatever they found confused them a bit. It took several minutes to convince them I wasn’t at all radioactive and not worried about long term effects. Jinn wasn’t so lucky. When they checked over her, the counters chattered like mad. Jinn grumbled and had to drop out a pile of metal parts. Then she took a swim through the fluid, making a sort of humming sound while she did it. After that, the rest of her body (which seemed to be mostly cotton and fabric) checked out okay on the counters.
They took my poncho away (holding it carefully with tongs), claiming that it was severely contaminated. I got another poncho and a hospital gown in exchange but they didn’t have any other clothes for me. So I got to go see the General dressed in a poncho. The guards quickly escorted me to the control trailer.
Everyone there seemed to be ignoring the fact I was only dressed in a poncho in below freezing weather. It wasn’t really bothering me either except I thought it was a bit rude. After all, most of them couldn’t know the weather didn’t bother me like most people. Still, this wasn’t the time to worry about it. Soon I was directed through a very busy trailer and into Frisk’s office. The only ones in it right now were Frisk, sitting of course, Gallagher and the General.
The door had opened quietly and the men in the room were concentrating so hard they didn’t notice me and my escort come in at first. General Manning was pointing to some screens that showed the outside of the mountain, the outer and inner caverns, and some very fuzzy pictures that looked like some of the places I’d seen in the mountain. Some of these kept switching to different viewpoints. General Manning was talking as I came in.
“As you can see, we’re almost completely out of there.” He was pointing to a screen showing the big door slowly closing and another next to it where some men were hurrying out the small door. As we watched, these men jumped into a Humvee and were driving away in moments. The General watched and then continued his talk.
“That’s the last of our men. Another five minutes and the sealing charges will blow, keeping the doors from opening again. Soon after that we can put an end to this.”
When he looked back at his audience, he saw me. I had a hard time interpreting the look he gave me but his voice was dead pan when he spoke.
“Well, the stray child joins us again. Welcome back. You’re not planning on causing any more trouble, are you?”
I did a short bow. “Thank you, General, and I don’t have any plans right now. Did you have a request?”
He actually chuckled. “No, not yet. But I do have two questions.”
“Sir? Only two?”
“For now. The first is whether or not you’re okay?”
“Yes, sir. I’m fine. Thank you. And the second?”
“Why in the world are you dressed in a poncho?”
“Well, you see, my clothes burned off when things got ugly and after that, I haven’t had a chance to find or buy any more. I’ve actually got a hospital gown underneath this which is more than I had before I went through Decon.”
He raised an eyebrow, gave me a more searching look and then nodded. “No problems at Decon?”
“No, General. No problems.”
Frisk spoke from where he was sitting. He seemed very smug. “I told you, General. She wouldn’t have to worry about the conditions in there. Our reports on her have been very complete, as I said.”
General Manning managed to keep most of his irritation out of his voice. “I’m glad that’s the case. But I still like getting confirmation.” He turned back to me. “Are you alright? Not cold?”
I nodded and smiled. “I’m fine. Say, isn’t that my bag over there?”
I pointed towards my backpack which was still over against the wall. It looked like someone might have rummaged through it but it was probably the closest chance for a change of clothes. Not that what I had was all that uncomfortable but I was suddenly a lot more aware of how strange it looked.
Everyone looked that way and then turned back to me. The General nodded. “Looks that way. Why?”
I tried to look innocent. “My change of clothes are in there. Do you think I might borrow a bathroom for a few minutes?”
Everyone seemed a little distrustful. Frisk put it into words.
“And have you pull another disappearing trick?”
I put my hands out and shrugged. “What can I say? I had to help my parents.” I got suddenly serious and gave everyone, especially Frisk the eye. All of the people in the room who could stepped back. “Speaking of my parents. How and where are they?”
There was silence for a few moments and then Frisk spoke up.
“They’re safe. We moved them out with your brothers. I suspect they’re in Trinidad right now.”
I bent a bit more attention towards him. “The radiation?”
Frisk shrugged. “They were protected from whatever went on there by the bunker. They’re the only ones in the complex besides yourself who seemed to have avoided the effects of whatever went on down there and the radiation hadn’t spread before they got out. Which brings me to a question of my own. That furry thing is one of your roommate’s creations, isn’t it? I understand she charges some sort of living or spiritual energy or something. So how’d the animal get here? Our info said the charges only lasted an hour or two.”
For a moment I nearly panicked. How much info did they have on Jade? Then what he said made me think of a way to possibly throw them off.
I snorted. “A girl’s got to have some secrets. Your information is out of date, otherwise you’d know that Jade has made some breakthroughs with batteries, AI’s and robotics. Now, before I answer more questions, can I please get dressed?”
There was a moment of silence and then Frisk nodded, trying to conceal a smile and waved towards a door off to the side. He probably thought I’d just given a secret away. I saw no problem with letting him think so. “Go right ahead. Make yourself comfortable by all means. There isn’t any way out anyway. Please promise me you won’t make an exit for yourself though. There isn’t another good bathroom for miles besides that one.”
Nodding my thanks to Frisk I shrugged out of the poncho. I suspect they got a bit of a show but I had other things to worry about. I quickly grabbed my pack and ducked into the small room on the other side of the door.
I can’t describe what a relief it was to finally be able to pull off the gown and put real clothes on. Even if I didn’t have any shoes. Being dressed made me feel a lot less vulnerable for some reason. I hadn’t even realized I was feeling that way until then. Now I needed to find out a few things and the men to tell me were sitting in the next room. I couldn’t hear anything they were saying while I was in the bathroom so I had to assume it was soundproofed but it looked like a lively conversation came to an immediate stop as soon as I started to open the door.
Frisk, as always, was ready with a sneer. “Feeling better? Perhaps you feel like filling us in a bit on what happened? We’ve managed to put a few facts together but there’s still a lot we are only guessing at.”
Nothing gets the goat of someone who likes to think they’re in charge than a smile. So I smiled cheerfully. “Much better, thanks! And I have a few questions of my own. So I think it would be nice if we could help each other find our answers.”
He scowled in obvious disagreement. “Young lady! Do you have any idea what kind of trouble you’re in? You’ve broken any number of laws! It’ll probably take weeks just to determine all the ones you should be charged with. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll cooperate and we might just be able to reduce the number to a workable level.”
Frisk seemed pleased with himself after that, obviously sure he had the upper hand. I noticed his desk had been replaced with a new one that didn’t exactly match the decor and wondered who was having to put up with the bent one for a moment. I leaned on the new desk, enough to make it start to creak and let some of my irritation show.
“To the best of my knowledge, I haven’t broken any laws. I came here to find and save my parents. No one told me I couldn’t come. When I got here, someone tried to lock me in a cell but I wasn’t told I couldn’t leave that either.” Frisk kept trying to break into my conversation but something about me seemed to make him nervous. Also, the wall behind him wouldn’t allow him to get farther away and get his breath so all he seemed able to do was stutter as I made my points.
“Now I’ll allow as you probably didn’t want me going in on my own but I had a good plan and in the end, it worked out. I understand my parents are free and safe, which was the whole idea to begin with, so I don’t see how that was breaking any laws either.” I swung away from Frisk and directed a question to the General.
“By the way. I was wondering about the guy I pulled out of there on the way in. Did he make it?”
Cool and calm and I think secretly enjoying seeing Frisk squirm, he nodded. “I wanted to thank you for that. We were able to get to him in time. I understand the doctors think he’ll recover quickly. Still, besides what Mr. Frisk has said, we do have a great many questions we need answers to. We were hoping you could help us with them.”
Smiling at the General, I gave a short bow. “Since you ask so nicely, I’d be glad to. Though I would like to know what you guys were talking about before I came out of the bathroom.”
All three managed to look a little uncomfortable, which of course made me a little more curious. Frisk, of course, wasn’t being cooperative and snapped at me.
“None of your business, young lady! Now..”
I wasn’t sure what he would have said, though I had a few ideas, but Jinn, who everyone seemed to have forgotten again, piped up from where I’d tossed the poncho. Apparently she’d taken note of my cover story because she spoke with the semi-buzzing voice and stilted tones she sometimes used for the Kitty Compact.
“Conversation digested to memory,” she stated flatly. Then she spoke, giving a very good imitation of both the General and Frisk. It sounded almost like a recording, though maybe heavily processed and modified.
“Subject Frisk: ‘God, she sure fills out a poncho. Shame you don’t have some troops like that, eh, General? Easy on the eyes.’”
“Subject Manning: ‘I can tell you that she’s definitely boosted morale among the troops. They were feeling pretty low but after she came through… Maybe I’ll have to see if she can help out more often.’”
“Subject Frisk: ‘That’s MY future employee, General. You think the army budget can afford what I’d charge for her?’”
“Subject Manning: ‘With what we’ve seen, I’d be willing to pay her like an O-4, at least. But if you’re holding the leash, I’d only go to E-3.’”
I nodded. “Future employee, huh? Anything else?”
“Negative. Analysis: Subject Manning may agree to a higher price, under hard negotiations. Subject Frisk enjoys being a snot. Subject Manning enjoys baiting Frisk… on general principles.” At this point, the cabbit began to emit pulsing buzzes and rock side to side. I realized that Jinn was laughing, especially when the cabbit added, “Humor subroutine! ‘General principles!’ Very funny! Very, very funny!”
I hid my face in my hand.
General Manning burst into laughter, Gallagher tried to look at least a bit dignified and Frisk turned beet red. For a moment, I wondered if Frisk might actually suffer some kind of heart attack, then he sprang up, pointing at me like he had a pistol in his hand and let out a squeaky roar.
“That’s enough! How much longer am I going to have to put up with eavesdroppers, wire taps and who knows what other kinds of information leaks?! I want you, your family, and and this... thing put under arrest. Now!”
General Manning stopped laughing suddenly and scowled. His presence filled the room like a huge balloon. Frisk actually backed up against the wall when the General leveled his gaze at him. He somehow spoke in a quiet roar, much more effective than Frisk’s whines. Waving his hand like a blade at his throat, he roared at Frisk.
“That’s enough from you! I’ve had it up to here putting up with your posturing. Sit down and let us adults handle this. It’s not like I’ll have any kind of career after we pop those babies anyway. So if you know what’s good for you, stay quiet unless asked to speak!”
Frisk sputtered. “But… But… I’m in charge here! I’ll have you arrested! I’ll..”
General Manning silenced him with a glare. “You’ll do nothing! As of the moment we received the okay to use the nukes, I become solely responsible for the operation. If you can’t accept that, I’ll have you tossed in the brig.” The General then softened his voice a bit. “Think about it, Frisk. Do you really want to be associated with what we’re doing now?”
It was obvious Frisk didn’t like what was going on but he was also thinking again. It didn’t take him long to figure it out and slowly take his seat again. He wasn’t saying anything though and I was pretty certain it was because he was afraid of what he might say if he did open up. I might not like him but he did have some survival instincts.
After Frisk settled back down, the General turned to me. “Well, it seems we have no secrets from you. That being the case, would you please tell us in your own words what happened? Please keep in mind all this is being recorded.”
I tried to look shy. The snort from where the poncho was didn’t help much though. But I tried a bit of misdirection to get some time to think anyway. “You mean the part about me parading around in the poncho?”
Manning blinked for a moment and then had the grace to blush a bit. “Uh hem. Well, unfortunately, that is recorded to, and I could have it played back for you if you’d like.”
My turn to actually blush. “Uh. No. I don’t think that’s necessary. Cabbit, stop laughing, you faulty gizmo!”
The buzzing chortles coming from her direction weren’t helping at all. I decided to get a bit of payback. “You might want to ask Cabbit for her account first, sir. She was there for most of it and a lot of stuff I missed. I’d kind of like to hear that first if I could?”
He looked her way. “Curious. You’re showing a remarkable amount of volition for an AI. Well, Cabbit? I take it that’s what they call you. Could you please tell us how you got to be here and what you saw?” The small cabbit hesitated for a moment then sat upright. Her eyes glowed.
“Understood. Engaging colloquial filters. Conversation mode: on.”
Jinn paused for a moment. When she started talking, she spoke in bursts, a sentence or two at a time then paused. I think she was trying to figure out how to talk like a computer. Her words sounded fairly natural but the pauses and rhythms made her sound much more artificial.
“This unit… I… was transported in Tennyo’s bag. They thought she might need backup.”
The General raised an eyebrow. “They?”
Jinn nodded. “Yes. Team Kimba. That’s our team at Whateley. But no one could come along so they grabbed me and stuffed me in the bag. They showed no concern for my delicate circuits or mechanisms, they just stuffed me in the bag of this flying maniac!”
It was my turn to snort. But I didn’t want to break into her explanation, so I didn’t say anything. Letting a glare do my talking for me. All she did was mechanically extend her tongue in my direction. The General got her back on track.
“So. You flew here? How’d you manage that? We have no record of anyone matching Miss Tennyo’s description flying into any of the airports around this area. Especially with a lot of flights being delayed and cancelled by the weather.”
Jinn looked my way. I sighed and nodded my okay, seeing no reason not to let them know. They’d figure it out on their own.
Jinn went back to her narration. “Evaluation: records are out-of-date. Subject Tennyo has good personal flight abilities, excellent endurance.”
The General nodded. “I see. But even in the weather we’ve been having? You had to have flown right into the middle of it all. You’d think you’d have had to worry about the wind, snow ,and the like. Hypothermia at least.”
Jinn emitted a buzz that almost sounded like a raspberry. “Cabbit unit hardened against temperature extremes. Subject Tennyo is … highly durable. Though she did require a surprising amount of food.” She paused briefly.
“And not a single morsel for me!” That was followed by a poor-little-me sniff.
I couldn’t let that pass. “I offered you some.”
“Yeah. After you’d touched it. Ewwwww!” It’s truly amazing how expressive she can make that small body.
“Why you little...”
I was ready to get into a good knock-down-drag-out pressure-release argument, the type usually followed by the militant use of pillows when the General got us back on track.
“Are you sure that’s a machine? And could it even eat food, if you offered?”
I thought fast. “My roommate has been working on a set of ‘annoying quirk’ subroutines. She’s got this wacky idea that she can simulate a believable personality by creating enough annoying quirks. So far she’s managed to accomplish ‘annoying’ but she’s still working on ‘believable.’”
It was Jinn’s turn to snort. The General thought for a moment and then nodded, “Hmmm. Well, returning to the topic, we understand you were able to fly all the way here in something like twelve to fifteen hours. Quite the accomplishment. But I don’t think we need any more details of the trip, at least until you reached Trinidad. You say Tennyo’s brothers found you there?”
Jinn nodded. “Yep! They picked us up in the truck stop before Miss Locust Plague here could empty their larder.”
“You’re just jealous cause I didn’t share my french fries with you.”
“Yeah, you meanie! And they looked good too!”
Jinn made a clicking sound. “Understood. Following rendez-vous with the Tennyo brothers, we left in a flying..” Jinn paused for a moment. “SUV? Following that, we met you, so that’s everything.”
The General nodded again, only wincing slightly at hearing Larry and Thad Wilson called the “Tennyo Brothers.” “The men who checked the bag reported a stuffed animal in it. I take it that was you?”
Jinn nodded. “Affirmative. Once everyone left the room, unit switched to search-and-rescue mode. Finding and freeing Tennyo was only a level 2 difficulty task. Adding a disguise and approaching the NORAD-C site were also easy. Tennyo hid me in a duffle type bag.”
It was the General’s turn to interrupt. “Then you heard our little discussion after Tennyo and her brothers left?”
The cabbit gave a wide smile, which was fairly creepy. “Affirmative. Drugs evaluated to be minimal danger. Whateley tests indicate a high resistance.” She suddenly cocked her head to the side. “You can feed the bottomless pit nearly anything but she’s got a cast-iron stomach!”
She gave a ‘totally innocent and clueless’ look and shrug. “What? They can pretty much ask anyone. And we shouldn’t let them blame the people who were supposed to knock you out..”
“Girls...” General Manning tried to sound stern but I was almost certain he was trying not to laugh at the same time.
Jinn went back to her narration like nothing had interrupted it. “Resuming summary. After passing through the airlocks, Tennyo moved the wounded man and bodies out of the way. I remained concealed; our plan was to get me in secretly. Tennyo ended up throwing her disguise and the bag I was in behind some crates. That allowed me to get out and start scouting on my own while she managed to cause a bit of a diversion and reduce the defenses a bit for you.”
The General raised an eyebrow. “You planned this?”
Jinn shrugged. “We didn’t have enough details to do more than make general plans, but yes, we did. I even pulled a few plugs here and there so they might think their system was failing or had a few glitches. Unfortunately, I couldn’t open the door to the area Tennyo’s parents were in without being seen. So I hitched a ride into the second area. B Wing? I was hoping to use one of the cross tunnels. But while I was there, things went south and I had to reveal myself to save Tennyo’s parents.”
I couldn’t be sure but I was getting the feeling the General might actually be a bit impressed with what we’d done now. He also seemed to be ignoring Jinn’s change of speech patterns to a less than robotic expression. But he still looked a bit uncomfortable when he answered Jinn’s statement. He became very serious and stern.
“I’m not sure the two of you are truly aware of how lucky you were. You talk a good story about plans and all but do you realize just how close you came to causing the deaths of Miss Tennyo’s parents and possibly others such as my men? So many things could’ve gone wrong. What if they’d had your parents with them? You saw what happened to those Knights in your immediate vicinity when you started to use your powers. Fortunately, your parents were protected by the protections on the bunkers but if they hadn’t had that... Well, I realize you aren’t aware of it but we couldn’t get any of our men to enter the tunnel into B Wing. Even thinking about it caused some of our men to nearly mutiny. I wouldn’t have stood for it but, when I went in to check out what the hold up was, I couldn’t force myself to even step across the sill. I was so sure that something horrible would happen if I did... I... I don’t know how to explain it. We have experts trying to figure it out now but the best they can tell me so far is that anyone caught in that kind of situation isn’t likely to come out of it sane. Even entering the other Wings was hard and the Knights who were in them when you did your thing weren’t in the best mental shape when we got to them. Some had turned on each other or committed suicide. Do you understand how lucky you were to not hurt or kill your parents you were?”
A feeling of near panic came over me for a moment as I thought of it. I remembered how I’d felt when I thought I wasn’t going to be able to stop Aureleus from pushing the trigger on the gas. Then I pushed the panic back. Yeah, I’d been lucky Jinn was there to cover my back, lucky my parents had been protected but I hadn’t known about some of the possibilities before they happened and it had all worked out. I couldn’t see the General and all his men doing any better so I looked him in the eye and nodded as the feeling settled out or was at least pushed back out of the way.
“Yes. I know how lucky we were. But I didn’t see you and your men doing any better and at least I didn’t have to fight my way in. We were able to get surprise and I really don’t see any other way we could’ve gotten that. Please don’t think the thought of what might have happened doesn’t scare me but I really don’t see how I could’ve sat around doing nothing when I knew I could get in there.”
The General and I had a short staring contest that I let him win. He coughed and continued. “I hate to say this, but you did manage to get in there and get them out. You’re right about the surprise. From what little we’ve seen, you probably couldn’t have done much else after you got into the situation.”
Jinn piped up. “You saw us?”
The General looked like he wasn’t going to say something for a moment and then he sighed in resignation while Frisk muttered something about letting secrets go wholesale. “Uh hum. Yes. We saw.”
Jinn and I both spoke at the same time. “You did?”
He wouldn’t meet my eyes as he explained.
“Yes. We were able to capture the video recordings from C-Wing’s security cameras. Lucky for us the base had a redundant recording system with storage facilities in each of the branches. The personnel... were unable to stop us or compromise the system before we were able to secure it.”
It was my turn to speak. “If you saw that then why do you need us to tell you?”
He still wouldn’t meet my eyes. In fact, none of the men in the room would. Clearing his throat, the General tried to explain.
“One, we always try to confirm by several different sources to make sure we have all the facts.”
I nodded. “Makes sense.”
“Two, the recordings can only tell us so much. Much of the recording is unusable. The recorders seem to have had some difficulty recording some of what happened and towards the end most of the cameras and pickups seem to have burned out. We still need you to fill us in on what happened. And what happened in A Wing. We have nothing on that.”
All I could do was nod again. Jinn continued.
“Okay. I don’t know what you got so I’ll go from when we got into B Wing.”
She looked around and everyone nodded. She took her lecture pose again. I noticed that she’d gotten a bit sloppier with the whole ‘talking like a computer’ bit. Her voice still had a mechanical tone but the words were a little more natural. I wondered again if the others had noticed.
“So after Tennyo finished up on the security, she went to the door for C Wing. But before she could try to open it, the bad guys contacted her and convinced her to get onto a restraining table they thought could hold her safely. Idiots. Anyway, I snuck along with them and we came to a big lecture hall where it seems most of them had gathered to gloat. The big honcho, Aureleus I think, put on a big show about how they were now going to rule the world with Tennyo’s blood.”
I felt it necessary to interrupt there. Something had been bothering me and this seemed like a good time to find out if I could.
“What I’d like to know is how these creeps knew something about the antimatter in my blood and who my family is? Well, Frisk? This seems like the kind of thing you might know about. Did someone hack your database or something?”
Frisk was an expert at looking indignant. “It wasn’t anything they could have gotten from us. We protect our information much too well to have been the leak. If you need someone to blame for that I suggest you look into how well the MCO protects the information they have.”
I wasn’t convinced about that. The MCO was probably the least secure place for information about me possible. But I was pretty sure I’d been careful not to give them any more information than I had to. And my family information was something I was also sure I hadn’t given them.
“Uh huh. Like they have that kind of info on me. Still, Aureleus was talking to some guy named Nimbus before he blew up his headquarters. Know anything
That got everyone’s attention. Galagher actually interrupted. “You said Nimbus?”
I hadn’t expected this kind of reaction but it seemed like a good chance to get more info. “Yeah. Aureleus seemed to think he could escape through some kind of device but this guy Nimbus was blocking him. Seems he didn’t want Aureleus to bring me along for some reason. What about him?”
The men exchanged meaningful glances but didn’t say anything. Jinn couldn’t let the silence drag on too much.
“Well? C’mon, guys. You can’t not tell us now. If you do, I’m not saying another thing and I bet Tennyo won’t either.”
I only nodded and didn’t say anything. Frisk finally shrugged. “I’m not in charge here.”
General Manning sighed. “Very well. IF... and I mean if, this guy is who we think he might be, then you’re dealing with the Syndicate. He’s one of the new up and comers. They probably have all your information and then some so trying to pin down a leak isn’t worth the effort right now. Obviously some of that info was incorrect?”
He said it more as a question. The ball was in my court now.
I nodded. “Yeah. They had a few things wrong.”
All of them stared at me for a few moments and I finally snorted.
“Hey! If they don’t know yet, I’m not about to let the cat out of the bag now. I’m pretty certain if I say something, it’ll be out about as fast as it’s recorded. If not faster. A girl’s got to have some secrets. Let’s just say they underestimated just how dangerous the combination can be. Especially if you interfere with my control. If you want more, you’ll have to get it through channels, I’m afraid. I’m sure if you ask Whateley nicely, they’ll cooperate with you.”
It was the General’s turn to snort. “If you say so. Can we please get on with what happened then?”
Jinn did a good snort of her own and started telling them more of what happened from her viewpoint.
“Anyway, Tennyo started to converse with them in her usual subtle manner…”
“Hey! I gave them every chance to keep their word. It’s not my fault they blew it!”
“As I was saying and, before you can say, ‘Let the crazy guy think he’s in control before someone gets hurt’, he’s all set to off her parents before she can get out of the restraints they had her in.”
The General interrupted, interest clear on his face. “The restraints were holding her?”
Jinn shook her head. “Naw. At least not for long but long enough she obviously couldn’t stop him from pushing a button so I felt compelled to come out of hiding and stop him myself. Which I did. By neatly taking his hand off the remote triggering device for the deadly gas he was threatening them with.”
I couldn’t resist. “You mean you took his hand off, don’t you?”
She shrugged. “Whatever works.”
Frisk couldn’t contain his curiosity. “We haven’t been able to clear up the videos yet. Just how did you manage that? You certainly don’t look capable of doing what we saw in what we’ve seen so far. Or why some of the groups we saw in later recordings ran away screaming?”
Jinn and I exchanged a look. Then I nodded. “Might as well, if they’ve got recordings, I’m sure they’ll figure it out sooner or later.” I turned back to Frisk. “What I’d really like to know about is those later recordings and what you got in them.”
Frisk shrugged and almost managed a sneer. “Whatever you did pretty much hashed the system but we did manage to get some of what happened afterwards. We still need you to tell us what happened. I’m afraid what little we got has only raised more questions for us. Please continue Miss...uh..”
“You can call me Cabbit.” She paused to glare at me. “Someone hasn’t given me a REAL name yet.”
“Yes. Of course, er, Cabbit. Please continue.”
“Certainly, sir. Anyway, my Mistress Jade has equipped me with some offensive equipment. Unfortunately, it picked up a bit of radiation. I had to dump most of the blades and stuff in decontamination.”
The General nodded and pulled out some eight-by-ten glossies from a machine next to him, apparently transmitted from Decon. He passed them around to Gallagher and Frisk. Eyebrows were raised all around.
Jinn continued with her lecture. “So using some gentle persuasion, I was able to pry the remote from Aureleus and moved it over near Tennyo. Then I went back to keep them busy until she could finish getting herself free. I was able to keep them busy for a while but there were too many of them and some started to threaten Tennyo. So I had to get serious and start killing some. I was busy but I think Tennyo must’ve gotten loose around then. Aureleus had already skipped out and then there was a big flash and boom, lots of them in the room seemed to go crazy then. Some kept attacking but others either stopped or even started to attack each other. Funny thing about that is that most of them I saw attacking each other didn’t even try to use their weapons as more than clubs.”
General Manning interrupted. “They went insane?”
Jinn looked like she was thinking about it for a moment and then nodded.
“Yeah. That’s a good description of it. Anyway, shortly after the first big flash, there were two more weaker ones I think were blasts Tennyo let off. Then she came up on the podium area looking for me. We joined forces and I saw her slag the area where the remote might have been. Just to make sure no one could use it.”
Jinn stopped for a moment as if thinking again and then started the story again. “After that, we decided to try to get to Tennyo’s parents. We found where Aureleus had escaped to and opened that door. We found a lot stronger one behind that. Also, the last of the Knights had finally started to focus on us, except for a few of them that seemed dazed and unable to do anything. I think Tennyo got a bit impatient then and really let loose on the door in front of us. Whatever she did the door and a lot around it just disintegrated and much of the area around us got twisted in unusual ways. That took care of most of the Knights too. You should’ve seen it! Some froze, others burst into flames or changed to stone or something. Took em out anyway. I don’t think she had to but Tennyo finished them off and then we moved to where the tunnels between the wings were. Tennyo ordered me to go for her parents then and I had to do that while she went after Aureleus to make sure he couldn’t get another remote or something to kill them with.”
Frisk leaned forward eagerly. “Yes! We need to know what happened then!”
The General raised a hand which stopped Frisk from saying more. “All in good time, Frisk. I want to hear what Cabbit did first.”
Frisk seemed upset. “But...”
The General shook his head. “Not now. Let Cabbit finish her story.”
Frisk didn’t like it but sat back with a frown. General Manning nodded at Jinn to continue. She bowed back and started her story again.
“There’s really not much to say about what I did after that. I followed the tunnels to C Wing and went to where Tennyo’s parents were being held.”
Gallagher spoke quietly. “Did you run into any resistance?” Jinn nodded. “A little, not much to worry about though. The two small groups I ran into weren’t a threat. The first group of three were very aggressive but not hard to kill and the second group who showed up right after that screamed something about a monster and ran away. Just after that there was some kind of big disturbance. The place actually shook a bit. I think that must’ve been the explosion everyone was worried about but I really don’t know much about it except it seems to have collapsed A Wing and wrecked a bit of B Wing too.”
The General nodded and glanced in my direction. “Yes, the timing is about right for that. We’re hopping Miss Tennyo can shed more light on that.”
I just looked back at Jinn and waited. She shrugged. “I’m sure she’ll tell us after I’m done with my story. Anyway, I managed to find the bunker Tennyo’s parents were in and, before you ask, Tennyo’s brother TB was right on in his estimate where they were. Things were a mess in this area. There was some kind of control center near it. There had been a bit of fighting around it. But the worst was when I got to the bunker Tennyo’s parents were in. About five of the Knights had killed some of the others with them and were trying to break into the vault. They were totally insane, I think. They’d actually eaten some parts of the one’s they’d killed and were talking about killing and eating Tennyo’s parents when they got through to them. They literally hacked each other apart trying to get me before they died.”
Frisk broke in at this point. “I’m sure it was traumatic, more so for the men killed. But I also have a hard time imagining at least some the doors you had to have gone through not being locked. How did you get through those? I noticed the electronic keys Tennyo had earlier are missing. You wouldn’t happen to know where they are now would you?”
Jinn shrugged. “I’m sure they did come in handy and I’m afraid I can’t tell you where they are now. Your people didn’t find them?”
Frisk and Jinn glared at each other for a few moments and then the General interrupted their contest of wills.
“None of my men found them, Frisk. And it’s not like the little animal could hide them on her person. Let it go for now. Since Tennyo’s parents were freed safely, I’m sure it was a good trade off.”
Frisk growled. “You have no idea how valuable those keys are General. There’s some very important tech in them we don’t want others to have. If I can find out where they were taken from, I’ll have the hides of anyone involved.”
General Manning nodded. “Fine, glad to see you’re keeping your perspective but I want to hear what happened next. Now if you’d please? Uh…”
“Cabbit,” I reminded him.
“Ah yes. Miss Cabbit, could you please?”
Jinn bowed to him. “Of course, sir. As I was saying, after I killed the guards who were trying to use some kind of torch to cut their way in, I was able to get one of the maintenance access doors open.” She held up a paw to stop any questions. “And I can only assume that Aureleus hadn’t given anyone else who was there the combinations, or maybe the ones who were still alive had killed the ones who did. I had to use a maintenance door because they’d wrecked the main entrance with the torch.”
She paused to make sure everyone had gotten the info and then continued.
“It took a bit of talking but I managed to convince Tennyo’s parents I was there to rescue them. I don’t think anyone going in there to hurt them would’ve had an easy time of it. Luckily, I’m a small target. Tennyo’s Mom nearly took my head off with some kind of laser beam before I convinced them to come out.”
I couldn’t hold back any more. “Are they okay?”
Jinn nodded vigorously. “Yep! They’re fine. They seemed a bit jumpy while we were in there but everyone else seemed a bit jumpy too. Anyway, to make a long, boring story short, Tennyo’s parents equipped themselves with some of the weapons the Knights had been using and we managed to work our way back towards the loading docks where some of the remaining Knights had tried to fight their way out, leaving the door to C Wing open and allowing us to turn ourselves over to the soldiers who were starting to advance into the area. They were real jumpy too and Tennyo’s parents seemed really happy to get out of there. I’m afraid we got separated soon after that. I trust you’ve taken good care of them and Tennyo’s brothers?”
General Manning nodded. “They were all sent to a holding point near Trinidad. They’re fine. We pretty much know what else happened to Miss Cabbit after that and eventually we asked her to help us find you, Miss Tennyo. She insisted you were okay and that she could find you if we let her. I arranged to have her accompany the soldiers setting up the A Wing bomb. She was sure you were in that area somehow and the soldiers and the probes we’d sent into other areas hadn’t found you yet.”
Frisk snorted. “You should never have released the animal, or robot, or whatever it is. It’s not safe.”
General Manning glared back. “It was a calculated risk and it paid off, so stop your whining.”
Frisk was getting back to his old sneering self. “You soldier types, always taking unnecessary risks.” He held up his hands in a conciliatory gesture when General Manning glared at him. “Not that it doesn’t pay off now and then, but I still think it wasn’t necessary.”
The General and Frisk locked eyes for a moment, until Frisk looked away. Then the General turned back to Jinn. “You never said how you could find Miss Tennyo here. Mind enlightening us?”
Jinn shrugged. “I’m not sure I can explain, General. I just knew where she was.” She smiled slyly. “Perhaps I was equipped with undocumented sensors. ‘Fraid I can’t tell you more than that.”
He nodded reluctantly. Then, with a sigh, he turned back to me. “Well, we’ve heard from your little friend. What happened after the two of you split up?”
He was right. They already had a good idea what happened until then. We could always go into more detail later but it wasn’t necessary for the main story. I nodded but had a question of my own first.
“Before I do, I’d like to ask about these bombs you keep mentioning. Everyone seems pretty upset about using them. Why? How many are there and where are they?”
The General was quiet for a moment and then sighed.
“You might as well know. Our scientists tell us whatever you’ve done produced more than just radiation. Something has disrupted our plane of existence. The disruption is so bad we can’t make ourselves get close to where it happened. It’s too… Alien. They also tell us a large enough blast should reset it back to normality. I had six nukes at my disposal. We think it will be enough but we needed to spread them out a bit also. Fortunately, it’s all underground. We are putting two in both B and C Wings, one in the entryway, and one as close to A Wing as possible. You’ve seen that one.”
I shook my head. Somehow I knew it was an unnecessary effort. “You don’t need to do that. The disruption is stopped. I suspect what you’ve experienced is only a side effect and will settle out soon.”
General Manning frowned. “I wish I could accept that, Miss Tennyo, but it’s too late to stop now. And I have to follow the advice of my experts in this. I appreciate your desire to stop it. Can you give some kind of evidence to support what you’ve just said?”
I thought about it and then shook my head. “All I have is my feelings. I’m pretty sure I’m right but I don’t have any proof that won’t take time waiting to see if I’m right.”
He nodded and sighed. “I see. My experts tell me we can’t wait. Do you think it will cause any problems if we don’t wait?”
“No. It’ll just waste the bombs and, if I’m not mistaken, get you in lots of trouble as well as possibly cause other problems in this area in the future.”
“That it will, but I’d rather not take the chance. Besides, now that the doors are sealed, I’m not certain we could get through to stop them in time. And the two we sent into B Wing were on remotes. They functioned well enough to get the bombs in place and take some interesting pictures but I’m certain their controls were deteriorating during that time and I don’t think we could get them out now. Unless our men could get in there to disarm them, it would be pointless to try. That being the case, could you please tell us what happened to you after you separated from Miss Cabbit here?”
I thought for a moment and then told them, “After we split up, I headed towards A Wing, following the blood trail. That soon disappeared but there was only the one hallway and no evidence Aureleus had changed his mind and come back in my direction. The doors I came to were all unlocked so I didn’t have any problems there. Eventually I came to a big open area where the buildings had been cleared away for the most part. The control building was across the open area. I headed across and the guard showed up.”
I noticed Frisk and Gallagher looking uncomfortable as General Manning interrupted me.
I shrugged. “I guess that’s what he was. I’m pretty sure he was someone suffering from GSD. Huge, and I mean really big, maybe thirty or forty feet tall? All covered with metal plates I think he grew on his skin. Stank something awful too. Not much of a conversationalist. Just single words strung together. He had a nasty habit of pulling peoples heads off and sticking them on the wall while he ate the bodies, I think.”
General Manning went pale for a moment and then got really angry. His anger was focused on Frisk and Gallagher though.
“Killbot!? Killbot was in there? You were just going to let my men go in there and not tell us Killbot was in there? Why I ought to...”
The General became speechless and was obviously very unhappy with them and the two men didn’t seem comfortable but Frisk used the silence to try and explain.
“We really didn’t know for sure he was in there, General. We didn’t want to get everyone all worked up over something that probably wasn’t there.”
The General stepped forward and Frisk cringed back, “You’d heard rumors though. Right? Do you have any idea how dangerous Killbot is? I could’ve lost my whole unit if we’d been in the loading area and they’d let him out without warning! Were you TRYING to get us all killed!?”
“I… I’m sure you’d have been able to handle him, General. I… If I’d thought for a moment we were in any danger, I’d have…”
The General slammed a hand down on the desk. I was impressed. It almost looked like it would buckle for a moment. “You would’ve run! Run and let the rest of us get killed!” He turned to me, snapping a question. “Where is he? Is he still in A Wing?”
Maybe I should’ve been more nervous but I wasn’t. I leaned back on the air like I was leaning against a wall and crossed my arms with what I hoped was a nonchalant air. “He’s not there anymore.”
In a moment the General was in my face and I realized he wasn’t in a mood for jokes. With an effort, I kept my cool as he yelled in my face, “Where is he! I need to know! If he hits us unprepared…”
I stood up straight and put a calming hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, General. He won’t be bothering you or your men.”
General Manning took a deep breath and calmed down a bit. “You mean he’s escaped? Or was he caught in that blast? It might have been enough to stop him.”
I shook my head. “Nah. He wasn’t around that long. I’m afraid he would’ve taken too long to beat down so, after we got into it, I had to kill him.”
The stunned silence was unexpected. Then Frisk got angry and stood up from behind his desk. “That’s enough from you! I’ve had enough of children who don’t know anything trying to lord it over me! I’ve had enough of your lies to...”
I must’ve moved pretty fast. At least no one else moved until I had Frisk by his collar in a double handed grip. With what I thought was remarkable self control, I didn’t shake him as I explained myself in short sharp sentences.
“I’m tired of you. I’m NOT lying. It’s no joke. I killed him. I really didn’t have a choice. He kept regenerating so fast, I ended up using my killing blow on him. He turned to dust and moldering metal right in front of my eyes. He’s dead, Frisk. Finis. Now, I’m going to finish telling you what happened. Got a problem with that? Or do you need a demonstration of just what my killing blow can do?”
A pale Frisk shook his head in what I decided was his way of telling me he wouldn’t give me any more grief so I tossed him back into his chair and turned to look at the others. They all seemed to be inclined to be quiet so I moved back to my former position and started telling what happened after that.
“Now, as I was saying before I was rudely interrupted. This, uh. Killbot you said?” The General nodded at me. “When I hit him all out with my death blow, he disintegrated into dust and decaying metal. I might have taken a bit more time to check it out but there was some kind of humming like a powerful dynamo warming up coming from the Command Building. I knew Aureleus was up to something so I rushed over to it and found a way in.”
“The door wasn’t locked and I entered a big command center. All the people in it were groaning and unconscious in their seats or on the floor. No one was paying any attention to me. The place was humming even louder with the dynamo sound. It seemed to be coming from somewhere in the back of the building, now that I think of it. Anyway. I could see Aureleus in some kind of enclosed room over looking the rest of the room. I went to the entrance to the side of it and went in. The door wasn’t locked either.”
Frisk snorted. “Pretty lax security.”
I agreed with him but I thought I knew why. “None of them seemed to be at their best just then. Aureleus was the only one standing and he was hardly any threat in the condition he was in.”
I had everyone’s attention again. Frisk was the first to get a question out. “Oh? What condition was he in?”
I continued. “Not good. He’d lost use of his right hand and lost a lot of blood. He was also unhappy about something. Apparently they had a gate out of there but the guy in charge at the other end wasn’t letting anyone through. Aureleus called him Nimbus. I couldn’t get a good look at him cause they were communicating over some kind of computer network and Nimbus was scrambling his voice and image.”
The General interrupted me at this point. “You mentioned him earlier. You’re sure it was Nimbus? And this Nimbus was a man?”
It was a good question so it didn’t irritate me and I answered him with a shrug. “That was what Aureleus called him and I can’t say for certain but my overall impression was of a guy.”
He nodded and motioned me to continue.
“Anyway, this Nimbus guy goaded Aureleus into attacking me after I got into the room.”
This time it was Frisk who interrupted but it was a logical question so I allowed it.
“Weren’t there other Knights there? Our information indicated there would be several scattered throughout the complex. Several were found in the C Wing.”
I shrugged. “The only ones I saw were dead or out of it. I don’t know what happened to them but Aureleus was the only one still up and about that I found.”
The men shared a few looks and then Frisk nodded. “There were several... shocks, unusual energy surges of uncertain origin and type recorded in that area before the blast. They might account for it. Aureleus had the best protection of them all in that regard if our informant was to be believed. That might explain it or his command office might have been better shielded. That might explain why we had no indication they had a teleportal available to them.”
General Manning growled. “Your informant didn’t tell you about that?”
Frisk shrugged. “Our informant was compromised before getting us all the information we needed. Obviously this was one of the things we didn’t get. Perfect information is so hard to find as I’m sure you know, General.”
“Yeah. Like monsters that can destroy your forces if they run into them.”
“I already explained, General. It was a need to know and unverified information. Besides, the girl may simply be exaggerating or incorrect in her report. No need to get upset about it.”
I interrupted them. I wanted to get this over as quickly as possible now. The sooner I managed that the sooner I could get together with my family again.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen. May I finish my story now?”
Frisk glared but the General gave a polite nod. “Sorry about that. Please do continue. You fought with Aureleus. Did you kill him?”
I shook my head. “Nah. He was too beat up to do more than threaten me a bit. I disarmed him and started to try and find out who this Nimbus guy was when Aureleus, who was leaning on his desk started to laugh.”
The General looked curious. “Laugh?”
I nodded. “Yeah. I think his mind was blown by then. He seemed very out of it. Fits of rage and despair. That kind of thing. Anyway, he laughed and did something with the top of his desk and the next thing I know is something I’m pretty sure was a bomb pops out of the desk.” I held up a hand to stop the questions. “And I really don’t know that much about things like that. I’m not even certain it was a bomb but that’s what it looked like. Anyway, I hightailed it out of there as fast as I could. Next thing I know, there’s a big flash, a lot of pressure, and I end up in a place that looks kind of like the big tunnel to B Wing with rubble at each end. I fall asleep cause I’m so tired. Jinn finds me, wakes me up, we dig out and your men guide me out. That’s all there is to it, I’m afraid.”
Frisk gave an irritated response. “There’s so much more detail we need. I think…”
General Manning silenced him with a hand motion and a glare. “Thank you, Miss Tennyo. You’ve helped us a great deal. We will of course want to go over everything in more detail later but I expect you’re tired right now. Maybe you’d like to see your family?”
I smiled. It was an obvious effort to get me out of there so they could talk but I didn’t mind going along for now. Especially if it got me to my parents. “Thank you, General. I am a little tired now that you mention it. Can you have me sent to where my parents are?”
He smiled. “Certainly. I’ll have my men take you there immediately. And Miss?”
I replied in the brightest way I could. “Yes, sir?”
“Will you please take your pack and little friend with you this time?”
“Of course!” Smiling, I motioned to Jinn who floated into the air, hooking the pack on the way towards me. She managed to put on an air of disappointment, muttering as she floated up to me. “That’s just taking all the fun out of it.”
Grinning, I answered quietly but so everyone could hear. “Naw. You know how it goes. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice... What do you mean you used another method to do it?” Giggling, the two of us exited the room.
Guards escorted us out to where we could wait for a helicopter to take us away. While we were waiting a van pulled up and two men got out and unloaded what looked like some electrical equipment. Much of what they said wasn’t clear but I did catch one sentence about sweeping the place again. Jinn and I shared a quiet giggle.
About that time, we could also hear a helicopter approaching. Soon, it landed and the guards piled in with us. In moments, we were flying away to the east. Bright daylight poured down on the snowy slopes of the mountains and for a while I just enjoyed the feeling of being close to my home. After a while, one of the pilots motioned to me and I put on a set of headphones he pointed to.
“Miss Tennyo. Can you hear me?”
“Yes, I can.”
“Good. We’ve just received notice that your parents and brothers have been transferred to Colorado Springs. I’ve been ordered to divert to where they currently are. Do you have a problem with that?”
“No. As long as that is where they are. Thank you for telling me. I’d have started to wonder what was going on when we headed north.”
“The General left instructions we were to check with you if anything like this happened. You familiar with this area?”
I nodded. “Yeah. I grew up a bit north of here, Colorado Springs to be exact.”
“Good. You’ll know where we’re going then. Ever been to the Air Force Academy?”
“Some field trips.”
“Okay. I’ve been informed to take you there. Your parents and brothers are in the Infirmary there.”
He nodded. “Yes but they want to check them over in a more secure place. Why they didn’t take them to Fort Carson, I don’t know, but that’s where they are now. Shouldn’t take us too long to get there. Anything we can get you?”
I shook my head. “No thanks. I’m fine.”
“Okay. Holler if you need something.”
With a click, the mike shut down and the helicopter swung north. Headed for home. The trip would’ve been totally uneventful except for the fact I realized about two thirds of the way to Colorado Springs that Jinn wasn’t with me anymore.
I wasn’t about to let anyone see the amount of anxiety this caused me if I could avoid it but, with the way the guards looked at me as I held the cabbit to me, I wondered just how successful I was.
Eventually, we set down inside the Air Force Academy near the Infirmary and I was rushed inside as quickly as possible. Several people, including some cadets, seemed interested in me but the guards made sure no one got too close as I was rushed into an elevator which descended quickly down several floors. The level we stopped at was a secured area with armed guards in security booths who had to see the papers my guards were carrying before they’d open the heavy doors. The guards on the other side of the door exchanged some paperwork and signatures and the guards I came with left the way we came.
The new guards escorted me down several corridors and through two more checkpoints before we came to a room that looked like a classical waiting room. Except for the security doors and guards. But that wasn’t what was important to me. The four people sitting in the room were.
My brothers can probably be excused for not trying to get between us. The emotional, crying, hugging thing is okay for girls and Dad was old enough to get away with it but with other guys looking on it’s kind of hard to let your guard down when you’re a teen guy. So they stood back while Mom, Dad and I made up for their lack of participation.
There had been a time I’d probably died of embarrassment. But it didn’t seem all that important anymore. I was just happy to be back with my parents. All the fear and uncertainty I’d been holding back was finally released. Eventually I became aware of just sitting and being cuddled between two of the most important and wonderful people imaginable. As long as they were here with me, nothing bad could happen and all was well with the world.
Totally unrealistic as the feelings were, I wasn’t about to let them fade any time soon. Eventually, however, we had to move apart. Then the explanations and stories kept us busy for a few hours. They told me about how they’d been kidnapped and held in the bunker until Jinn had gotten them free. Then how they’d armed themselves and gotten out of there. Eventually, they’d been brought together with Larry and Thad and moved here to the Academy because it was the closest secure facility with staff familiar with mutants. Many of the new cadets entering were mutants and the Academy had expanded its infirmary to be able to handle some of the basic problems faced by the less unusual types of mutant.
Looking around, I thought the Academy had gone to extremes when they vamped up the infirmary and its security but I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth right now. If it meant I could be with my parents, I didn’t care about how the tax dollars were being used.
Larry and Thad filled everyone in on what happened to them and then I gave as complete an account as I could of what I and Jinn did. I almost couldn’t tell them the part where it was touch and go but managed to say it anyway. Oddly enough, my parents seemed a lot more concerned with what happened after that. I could tell they were upset about something and the feeling of unease came back.
“Mom? Dad? Is something wrong?”
They exchanged a look and then Mom took my hand in hers, “You killed those men and Killbot then? Like you said?”
Suddenly, I was worried how they’d take what I’d done. I really hadn’t thought much about it until now but killing a lot of people in a horrible way like I had… Pictures of how Sara was being treated came to mind. Not that I really cared all that much about what some of the people thought of me but if my family and friends… In a near panic, I blurted out.
“Uh. Yes. But it was self defense! I’m… I’m not some kind of monster. I’d never do something like that unless, unless I didn’t have a choice.”
“Oh, Honey!” Mom took me into a strong embrace and Dad wasn’t far behind. My fears of a moment ago faded but there was still aware of a trace waiting for the right time and place to rear its head. My family loved me and I’d saved their lives but how would the others look at it?
Sara was barely accepted by us and even then, we tended to keep her at a distance. The anticipation of facing several more years in a school where people avoided, feared and abhorred me wasn’t the most pleasant feeling I’d ever had. Then my Mother’s whisper intruded on my thoughts.
“Dear. We don’t have much time and I want you to listen carefully. Power like yours will attract many people who will want to use it for their own ends. I’m sorry to say some of those people are in our own government. Some of them feel they have a handle on you through us. We’d already heard some of this from your pet. We’ve tried to make arrangements to keep you away from those who want to use you. I’m afraid that means you’ll have to leave here soon and go to a safe place. We think Whateley will be your best bet.”
She tightened her grip on me when I stiffened. Her whisper became even more urgent. “We love you, dear! We wouldn’t do this unless it was for the best. Develop on your own and don’t let anyone force you into a life you don’t want. We’ll be cheering for you and will try and get together whenever we can. But until then, you will be on your own. Make good friends. The ones we met during Parents Day seemed like a good group to be with. Especially that Jade and her wonderful pets.”
Tears started to flow again as I realized what she was saying. A part of me could see what she said was the truth. But another part only felt the loss of that security, however unreal, of the protection of my parents. For a while, all I could do was try to savor the closeness of my parents and try to print it indelibly in my memories. Somehow, I knew it might be a while before I’d be able to enjoy it again.
All too soon my parents pulled away and I could see they were crying also. Both Thad and Larry were moving around the room making all sorts of odd sounds and I realized they’d been covering our conversation in case anyone had been listening in. Mom wiped her face and then smiled at me in a forced way.
“So. Where is our little friend then? We’d like a chance to thank her again for all she did for you and us.”
I’d had to slip the cabbit into my bag while trekking all over the underground byways. Now another concern came back to me. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about.
“Oh. Uh. Well, Jinn’s charge wore off. I have the cabbit here, uh, but we’ll have to wait until Jade can recharge her again, I’m afraid.”
My silent ‘I hope’ may have come through though. Mom reached into my pack and carefully pulled the cabbit out, stroking the soft fur. She gave me a guarded look.
“Will she be okay?”
Nodding vehemently to cover my doubts, I smiled as best I could. “Sure! We do this all the time. Jinn will be fine as soon as she gets recharged!”
Thad had come over to take a closer look. He tried to take the cabbit from Mom but Mom wasn’t having any of it. Thad backed off a little and whined.
“What’s this about some stuffed animal?”
The glare Mom gave Thad as she hugged the tattered bundle silenced him completely. “This is one of the most wonderful and courageous little animals in the world. We wouldn’t be here without her help. Show some proper respect when talking about her and you may not touch her because I know all you want to do is take her apart to see how she works.”
“No buts. Back off. Here she is, dear. Please let us know everything is alright as soon as you can.”
I carefully put the cabbit back into the pack and nodded. “Sure, Mom. As soon as I can get back and Jade can recharge her I’ll give you a call and let you talk. Okay?”
Mom smiled and then glared at Thad. “Thank you, ear, and you… Keep your hands off her. If I catch you trying to take her apart while Billie is visiting us, you’ll wish you’d never been born.”
Thad backed off. “Sure, Mom. Sure. Anything you say.”
Just then, several more guards came into the room. I couldn’t help myself and took a defensive stance as I realized I was going to have to leave sooner than I’d anticipated. Mom’s admonition brought me back to my senses.
“Billie! Behave yourself! These men are here to make sure you get back to Whateley safely.” I could see in her eyes that she didn’t like it any more than I did but was also determined to see it through. So I forced myself to relax and listen to what they had to say.
The officer in charge had watched it all calmly and waited for me to relax before speaking to Mom and Dad.
“Mr. And Mrs. Wilson. I’ve been ordered by General Manning to escort your daughter back to Whateley as quickly and safely as possible. We’ve arranged air transport and will guard her there until the security forces there can take her into protection. I’m sorry if this is an inconvenient time but we have to go quickly. General Manning wants her at Whateley before midnight tonight.”
Mom and Dad exchanged another glance. Mom sighed and turned to me. Giving me a hard hug, she then allowed Dad to hug me too. I was having a hard time not crying but I was determined to keep up the act as long as I could, if only to make it a bit easier for Mom.
“Take care, dear. Let us know when you get back. Okay?”
“S… Sure, Mom. Just as soon as I’m back. Where do I call?”
We all glanced at the officer and he smiled. “I’ll get you the number to call here before we leave. You can call as soon as you’re back safely at Whateley.”
Mom held on to me and asked a question. “She’ll be safe?”
He smiled. “As safe as we can make her Ma’am. She saved a lot of us when she went in like she did. That was one mess of a trap in there and the way she busted it open made our job a lot easier and safer. The General wants to be sure we can show our appreciation and this seems the best we can. Rest assured we won’t fail to get her there safely.”
“Thank you, sir. You and your men make us feel a lot better about this. Go on, dear. We’ll get together as soon as possible.”
Mom and Dad gave me another hug and then Thad and Larry did too. Before I could get over my shock, I was hustled out and quickly led through the corridors and check points to the elevator. It was a tight fit but we didn’t leave anyone behind and soon we were out of the infirmary and I was being hustled towards one of the new supersonic VTOL troop transports. At least we were going in style. Only a few units had access to these new craft. The Fast Reaction Force was one of them. In minutes, we were flying away as I looked out the small windows at my home, wistfully wondering when I’d be able to see my parents again or come home to visit.
The officer, who I now knew was Captain Cerio, leaned forward. “You gonna be okay?”
Holding back tears I wasn’t about to let anyone see, I nodded. “I just wish…”
He leaned back into his thin seat. At least we had swivel seats. The rest of the men with us had benches. I was where the XO or Sergeant would normally be. “I’m sorry we had to rush you like that but the General will probably be relieved of his command by midnight tonight. After that, you’d be at the mercy of whoever they put in his place.”
I was a little confused and a nasty thought crossed my mind. Maybe my interference was the cause. “Why would he be relieved of command? It wasn’t anything I did, was it?”
The Captain shook his head. “Not really. It’s just that we had to use nukes to clear the area of whatever was happening in there. The Brains figured it was the only way to cleanse it of whatever was spooking everyone who went in. They were afraid it was some kind of dimensional rift or something and the theory is the nukes would seal it.”
I shook my head. “The rift or whatever you want to call it was already closed. All the nukes would do is keep everyone out of the area.”
He shrugged. “Whatever. Whenever nukes are involved, someone has to answer for it. Six nukes on sovereign soil. Well, they’ll give him a medal and some out of the way post to retire to. After all, it was only because the Powers That Be insisted on it. Still, he’ll be out of command soon enough. But we’ll have you to Whateley before then. Count on it.”
I nodded. “Thank you. And if you can thank General Manning for me. He’s going out of his way to help someone who got him into trouble in the first place.”
“Not your fault, little lady. It was those kidnappers, messing with things they shouldn’t. Don’t let it bother you. We all have our jobs to do and you saved a lot of our butts doing it. No hard feelings here and the General seemed happier than I’ve seen him for a while. Ever since his daughter died a few years back. I think helping you helped him too. Odd how these things work. Maybe someday I’ll understand it. Anyway. Get some rest. Even at these speeds, we’ll be a couple hours getting there.”
He obviously had things on his mind and I had things to think about also so we just stayed quiet for the rest of the trip, which was thankfully uneventful.
Eventually, we set down into the area in front of Kane Hall which had been cleared ahead of time. A squad of Security met us and after the necessary paperwork, the Captain saluted and soon the VTOL was on its way home and I was on my way to a secure room in Hawthorne again. Seems my sudden exit had gotten a few people in trouble and they wanted me to be aware of it.
By midnight the 23rd, I was safely locked away in my room. I was allowed to call the number the Captain gave to me and talk to Mom and Dad a few minutes. I was also informed that I wouldn’t be getting any visitors until the Whateley experts had cleared me as safe.
Of course, as soon as it quieted, I had several visitors who all wanted to know what had happened. I let them know in a general way what went on and they let me know Jade had gone home with Nikki. There was a rumor she’d collapsed earlier today too. I hoped it was a good sign. I’d have to wait until the morning to call her and find out. At least they were allowing me a few monitored phone calls. I had a feeling I wasn’t going to have much time to regret missing Christmas with my family either. It seemed the doctors were a bit excited about some of the things they’d heard about. Only Carson’s insistence that I be allowed to rest a bit kept them from starting right away.
Eventually, I curled up in the bed with my greatly deflated cabbit and finally got to sleep.
Sometime late December 24th
The call wasn’t unexpected. In fact, Security Chief Frank Delarose had been wondering when it would come. Events for Christmas so far hadn’t disappointed those who’d predicted an eventful one. Still, when an old friend was directly involved, it added to the worries one normally had to put up with. So when Mike let him know a General Thomas Manning was calling for him, he was ready to drop what he was doing and secure his office. Not that he really expected it to stop the better spying devices but one had to keep up discipline and that started at the top.
They’d been through a lot together. Ever since they’d met while taking evasion and escape training. He’d been the cocky Special Forces Lieutenant, Manning as the even more cocky and highly outnumbered Air Force Special Services representative.
Someone, knowing their natures, had deliberately paired them together and it should’ve been war at first sight. But they were both determined to get the top spot in the graduating class. As soon as they could, and before the training was to start, they’d found a quiet place away from base to see how they’d work together and who would be boss. But before they could try, some drunken bikers found them and decided to have some fun. They’d managed to put some of their supposedly not yet acquired training to good use and only came out of the event bruised, bloody and with a real respect for each other that only grew during the classes. By the end, it wasn’t any great surprise they’d finished the top two. Manning got the top spot by a coin toss.
They’d stayed in contact ever since, even after the event that got Delarose put into the hospital and then out of the service. Delarose’s record stood him in good stead though and soon after that he was working at Whateley. Chief Benning had soon decided who he was going to see replacing him and a few years later Delarose was in the hot seat.
Manning had managed to stay out of trouble enough to end up in a hot seat of his own. Becoming the man in charge of the Fast Reaction Forces had been a dangerous step on the way to even higher positions. It was a risk but most worthwhile goals had some. In this case, it hadn’t panned out. Now he was faced with the prospect of agreeing to fade into the background or cause a lot of stink and end up pushed out anyway. Delarose knew this and wanted to see which way his friend would go.
“Hey, Manny! How’re things your way?”
Delarose knew his friend must be hurting but there was no sign of it in his voice. In fact, Manning seemed even a bit cheerful.
“Not bad, Del. Could be a lot worse. Seems I’ve done such a good job they’re giving me another star and having me renovate the old NORAD radar stations up Alaska-Canada way.”
Yeah, like they needed it anymore. It was obviously a buy off. Do this to finish off your time and retire on a three star pension. Made sense and was about as good as you could expect. Good news actually. Delarose managed to put some enthusiasm into his reply.
“Glad to hear it! You always liked colder weather anyway. I remember how much you hated the jungles and desert.”
“True. Someone must like me. Anyway, I thought I’d call and let you know. How’s Donna? And the kids?”
“Just fine. I think she’d just as soon not have me underfoot while she runs that mail order business of hers. Seems to feel I’m a bit too critical at times and stingy, to boot. But what can you do? She’s still doing well and it makes her happy. Thomas took my advice and steered clear of the military. He’s working on an MBA out at Stanford. Expects to have it next few years. Sheri’s trying to decide if she wants to go into Law and where she’d go if she did. I’m letting her Mother help her with that one.”
“Yeah. Bet you wish you’d thought of that with Christine.”
There was a pained moment of silence and Delarose silently kicked himself for the slip.
“Hey. Manny. I’m sorry...”
There was a deep sigh on the other end of the phone. “No. Don’t worry, Del. I’m okay. It just caught me by surprise for a moment. And you’ve been right. I can’t change the past. I’ll have to accept it and move on.”
Feeling bad for his friend and somewhat for himself as old painful memories came back, Delarose answered.
“It wasn’t your… Our fault. We acted on the best info we had at the time. I only wish we’d known more about Whateley back then.”
Delarose could imagine the tears he couldn’t see but could hear in his friend’s voice.
“Yes. I understand. I just… It’s when I think of what it must have been like for her. All alone. She must have felt betrayed. I…”
Knowing where the conversation was headed, Delarose decided to head it off. Some release was cathartic but too much would be a waste of time and energy.
“She wasn’t all alone, Manny. I was there. You came when you could. She wasn’t safe out in the normal world. You know that. She understood it too. In the end, she made her own choices and I’m here today because of it. She could’ve saved herself and left me and the others there. Instead, she pulled me and my men’s asses out of the fire, literally, and then made sure Blazer would never bother anyone again. Remember her for the wonderful girl she was and the heroine she became. Don’t ever forget that.”
There was silence for several moments and Delarose thought his friend might have hung up. Then there was a sniff and the sound of someone blowing their nose. In a few moments, Manning was back to talking. There was still a trace of emotion in the words but Manning obviously had control of himself again.
“You’re right, Del. The trouble she got into before she got sent to Deep Six was only the result of people being unable to handle her and her abilities. Myself included. I know that and if I’d known about Whateley, then things would’ve been different. At least at DS she had you to talk to most of the time and she wasn’t hurting anyone.”
A note of anger crept into Manning’s voice. “I just wish I’d had a chance to let Kripp know what I thought about his methods and trying to hold someone like Blazer in a lower security holding cell before Blazer made sure I’d never get the chance.”
Delarose could only nod and grunt agreement. Colonel Kripp was a political hack and had been trying to make a name for himself in some circles. He’d actually pulled strings to get Blazer sent to his facility on the grounds that Blazer was young and would possibly benefit and reform in a situation where he wasn’t locked down totally. Blazer, who was a lot smarter and more cunning than he normally let on, had played the Colonel for a fool. Delarose had protested vehemently but had been over ruled and sent out to perimeter duty as punishment.
Only that punishment had probably saved Delarose’s life. He and the few men under his command were the only ones to come out of there moderately unscathed or, at least, able to be healed up. Delarose still had twinges from some of the scars. He still felt if they’d been allowed to have the heavier weapons, things would never have gotten so out of hand but all they’d had was light firearms. Barely enough to slow Blazer down after he got started.
Blazer would’ve succeeded in killing everyone, including the other inmates, and made his escape if Christine Manning hadn’t been there. She was the only other mutant anywhere near his power and ability.
Christine had become a brick when she was fourteen. A sufferer from GSD, she became seven feet tall, stocky, plated with steel and able to run over one hundred miles per hour for short periods. Her ‘friends’ had taught her martial arts and how to use them effectively. Her speed, toughness and skills made her a dangerous person, even at her young age.
Unfortunately, her friends who, were much less talented mutants than her, got her into trouble on a regular basis. By the time she was fifteen, they grew moderately bored with minor infractions of the law and began to become more hardened. When their leader came up with a plan to rob a bank, they needed Christine to open the vault. She did with ease. But the one tasked with taking out the security monitors wasn’t as successful and before they could escape with their loot, they found themselves surrounded by the police.
While breaking in, they’d captured the security man and three maintenance workers in the bank. They tried to use the guard as a hostage.
The leader of her friends, Hans Deeber who was a projector of electricity, had tried to use the security guard as a shield but then panicked while talking to the police negotiator. Han’s ended up killing the negotiator and his hostage. A sniper had ended his life moments later.
Christine had managed to keep the others from killing any more of the hostages and convinced them that surrendering was the best option. Because of this and her minor status, she was given the option to work off her time at the new concept for a military run detainment for super types called Detention Six rather than in juvenile jails.
For the next two years, she was pretty much on her own. Held mostly in solitary confinement because problems followed her everywhere. She’d tried to be a model prisoner but her appearance, strength and reputation led to one disaster after another. Her father had been ordered to not visit too often because whenever he was there, things got worse.
Then Delarose received orders to take command of the heavy security squad at DS. In the next year and while she approached her release date when she became eighteen, she and Delarose had become better friends. He’d even introduced her to some of his squad over Kripp’s protests about fraternization. Having some people she could relate to and learn from she went from the ‘Cooler Queen’ to a leader of the inmates who had plans to come back as a councilor after she got an appropriate degree.
Then had come the Blazer incident. No one alive knew how Blazer had gotten near enough to open flame to start building his power. The more flame and heat in an area, the stronger he became. His room was supposed to be insulated and kept at a low temperature but somehow he’d gotten access to open flame and no one who knew how to stop him was close enough to do so before he became totally uncontrollable. By the time he was on his way out of the burning buildings and Delarose and his men could get at him, the small arms fire couldn’t penetrate the fire shield Blazer had around himself. And the heavy weapons were locked away where no one could get at them. Laughing maniacally, Blazer had started in on the few men left who refused to run and were trying to stop him.
In a last ditch effort, Delarose and his men had rigged up some fire hoses to try and cool the shield enough for bullets to get through. Blazer had turned the streams of water to steam which had done more damage to the defenders than him. Delarose had braced himself to die fighting when Christine had blasted by at full speed, two large fire extinguishers held in front of her. The extinguishers exploded when they hit his shield. The sudden explosive release had been enough to disrupt the shield and allow for her bladed hand to drive deep through Blazer’s body and heart.
The resulting explosion had put out most of the nearby fires. It was still terribly hot when Delarose, wounded and barely able to walk himself, had finally reached the crumpled form of his friend’s daughter. He crumpled next to her, unable to touch her because she was still so hot.
“Christine. Christine. You young fool! What did you think you were doing?”
Her voice was a groaning whisper. Her steel form so twisted he wasn’t sure how she could speak at all. “Tha... That you, Uncle Del?”
He’d assumed she was dead. The surprise of her speaking had him speechless for a moment. Then the faint groan came again.
“I…” The thought of the pain she must be feeling almost kept him from speaking but it was obvious she couldn’t see and he didn’t want her to feel she was all by herself at a time like this. He’d seen enough death in his time and there was a dread certainty as he looked at her that this wasn’t going to end any differently. Still, he had to try to do something, even if it was only to make sure she wasn’t alone. Catching his breath, he started again.
“Christine. I’m here. Don’t try to move. Help is on its way.” Help was on the way but somehow he was sure it wouldn’t be in time for her or many of the others he suspected were yet to be found.
Her groan sounded strange for a moment before he realized she was chuckling. “Yeah. Sure. Anything you say. But…”
“Don’t try to talk, Chrissy. Save your strength.”
“Sorry, Uncle Del. D… Don’t have any left. But I… I wanted to tell Dad something and I’m afraid I won’t be able to.”
He knew where this was leading. He’d been there too many times not to. “Hush. You’ll be fine. You’re too stubborn and tough to let a little thing like this get you. Some rest and some time with a good auto body man I know and you’ll be good as new.”
Again the chuckle. “Thanks, Uncle. But don’t worry about me. Help the others. I’m sure they need it. Are… Are they okay?”
He knew the others she was talking about where his men. There was no love lost between her and most of the other staff here. “They’re going to be alright, mostly. Thanks to you. I thought we were goners.”
“Don’t mention it. Really. Not for a monster like me. I just want you and the others to be okay.”
“You’re not a monster, Christine. You never were.”
“Yeah. Tell that to the H Oners.”
He shook his head. “You know you should never have listened to all those freaks they sent in here. That’s all they are. The real monsters, telling you all that. And that stupid Kripp. Letting them in like they actually had a right to be here. As soon as I get my hands on him...”
“Don’t bother, Uncle. He’s toast. Literally. One of the first Ole Flame Butt here took out. After that, he cut his way out of his cell and said he’d be back to finish us all off as soon as he took care of the rest of the guards.” I broke out as soon as I could when he left. Took longer than I thought though. Sorry it took me so long.”
“It’s all right. You should’ve left and let us handle it. It’s our job.”
The form shifted somewhat before settling back. He’d tried to push her back and got another burn for his trouble. “No, Uncle Del. I couldn’t get the others out and I couldn’t let him kill you either.”
“So you’d just get yourself killed? You’re a kid! I helped raise you! Do you have any idea what Manny’s going to do to me if you die? What he’ll do to me just because you got hurt?”
“He’ll get over it, Uncle Del. He’s tough, he always has been. You will, too.”
He sighed. She was so adult sounding. But he could still remember when she’d been a toddler, crying because she’d bruised her knee.
“It’s.. It’s not that easy, Chrissy. You don’t know what he’s gone through when he’s lost men. Losing you…”
There was a strange urgency in her words so he stopped.
“I need you to tell Dad. I’m sorry how things turned out. I told Mom but I never told him. Please tell him. And that I love him and Mom.”
“Chrissy! Stop talking like that! It’s the pain talking. We’ll have help here soon. You can tell them both yourself. Just hang in there!”
“Sorry, Uncle Del. I…”
She’d never said another word. Over Delarose’s groaning protests, she’d slipped away long before any help could arrive. The pain of his wounds would never approach the pain he’d felt while giving her last words to her parents.
In the end, he hadn’t even tried to fight the court martial. After all, someone had to take the blame and Kripp had died bravely trying to save the day. At least, according to the ones who allowed him to try the stupid ploy in the first place.
Delarose and Manning had enough support to keep him out of jail but they couldn’t keep him in the Army. Soon, Delarose accepted a quiet discharge and shortly after that had ended up in Whateley. Manning had continued his climb through the ranks. Neither man could recall the events of years ago without having to deal with the pain they evoked. Healing had been slow.
Manning’s admission of his acceptance of what his daughter had accomplished was the most Del had heard since the tragedy. Maybe there was hope for them after all. Still, it wouldn’t do to push too far. Time to change the subject.
“Yeah. You know it but that wasn’t why you called was it?”
There was a short silence and the Manning cleared his throat. “Yeah. Though that kid kind of reminded me of Chrissy, too. Her attitude and all.”
“Me too, Manny. And she’s managed to get into all kinds of trouble without even trying around here. You know she went AWOL to get to you?”
“You’re not military there, Del. I don’t think she’d be in trouble for that.”
“She’s still dangerous. And we’re responsible for her. Do you have any idea the paperwork alone she’s generated in the last two days?”
Manning chuckled. “Probably not as much as I’ve got.”
“You have aides.”
“And you don’t? Get off it, Del. You’re just glad she’s back safe.”
Delarose sighed. “Yeah. But it’s still a pain. At least she didn’t do this on Christmas. That would’ve been totally unfair.”
Mannig laughed. “You know? I’ve been released! I’m off for Christmas!”
“Lucky dog. Well give everyone my best wishes when you see them.”
“I will. Merry Christmas and all that to you and yours too.”
“Thanks. Now about this call?”
“Oh yes. Did you get the info I sent you?”
“Yeah. Was it okay? Some of it is highly classified.”
“Like you couldn’t get it with half an hour on the phone if it was so top secret, no one could see it without being shot on the spot.”
“That’s me. And don’t think I’m not double and triple checking everything.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything else. Please let me know what your people come up with when you get a chance though. I’d like to compare it with what mine gave me.”
“If you think your clearance is high enough…”
“I’ve been tapped to head the investigation from our end anyway. I’ll have the clearance. It’s just that the only answers my people came up with all ended with, ‘We know what happened. It’s just impossible.’”
“That’s our Tennyo. The Impossible Girl. Bet it had something to do with, It makes perfect sense, if she has at least the mass of a neutron star. Otherwise it’s just impossible’.”
“Hmmm… Exactly what they told me. You’ve encountered this before?”
“Similar. Tell them not to go bonkers over it. Some of the best minds on the planet haven’t clue as to how she does it. Just assume there’s more out there than we currently know. And rumor has it her abilities are associated with some kind of space legend anyway. So there’s a lot of room for learning more.”
“Space creature, huh? Didn’t seem like it to me. Reminded me of a teen getting into more trouble than they were ready for.”
“Maybe some things are Universal?”
“Now, we’re getting into philosophy. You know I sucked in those classes.”
“Me too, but around here you need something, even if it’s just empty words to explain some of what goes on. At least this time the majority of fatalities was on the bad guy’s side. How are your men taking it?”
“They’re not my men anymore but, overall, I’d say they were happy how it came out. You heard the rumors about Killbot?”
“I talked to her. My two cents is she’s telling the truth for what it’s worth.”
“You know. Dangerous is hardly the description I’d use for this girl.”
“You said it. But most anything else might cause a panic. You know how that goes.”
“Yeah. Still, it’s a pity we can’t prove he’s gone. She deserves the reward money. Which reminds me, you know how we monitor our men in action?”
“Yeah. As much as possible is filmed and recorded for after action debriefing. We do pretty much the same here.”
“Great minds think alike. Anyway, we ended up with some pictures of the girl in, uh. Less than a fully clothed state.”
“You know she’s a minor.”
“Yeah, but trying to take these away from the boys is gonna be difficult.”
“Hmmm… I see your point. Well, give me the holidays to think it over. In the mean time you might let them know just how much trouble they could get into if any of those pictures get out to a public venue. And you might mention that some of the responses might be less than legal. There are a lot of interested parties out there and some have already offered assistance in such matters.”
“Not me! I’m a by the book man.”
Manning’s snort of derision almost echoed.
“Hey! I am! I have to be. Everyone is watching, constantly. It’s like living under a microscope. But that doesn’t mean some of them might not take unilateral action in the hopes of getting brownie points with her or anyone else watching. I’m serious, Manny. The girl’s untouchable, for everyone’s sake.”
“I get it. The word will go down, but I’d like to be able to offer something in return. You know how the troops get.”
“Yeah. Actually, I have some ideas, but I have to run them by Admin and some others. Don’t worry, we’ll help all we can on this end.”
“Thanks, Del. You’re the best.”
“You too, Manny. You know I’d never share the top with anyone but the best.”
“Hey! I beat you, if I remember.”
“By a coin toss and I’m still not certain it wasn’t rigged.”
“If it was, you’d never be able to prove it.”
“Yeah. Well, is that all?”
“Besides a Merry Christmas to you all? Yep. That’s about it. Don’t be a stranger.”
“Back at you. Merry Christmas to everyone. And thanks for taking care of our girl.”
“Our pleasure. See you later.”
The lines disconnected. Chief Delarose sat for several more minutes, contemplating what he knew about the recent events. Then he shook his head and got back to work. If too many more things didn’t go wrong, he’d be able to spend a few days with his family.
“Damn this paperwork to hell!” He muttered as he waded through all the stuff that couldn’t be delegated.