These mini-stories first appeared in the Undocumented Features Mini-Stories area on the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum, with the exception of "Untempered", which is presented in this Omnibus Edition for the first time anywhere.
May 20, 2013
Table of Contents
Friday, January 17, 2336
Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll North Secondary School
Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, New Snowdonia
Mairwen Porter stood with her lunch tray in hand and surveyed the cafeteria for a moment, then said, "We ought to sit with the new girl today."
Her best friend and cohort since childhood, Rhian Lewis, nodded. "OK," she said. Rhian tended to be agreeable to most of Mairwen's suggestions, partly because it was easier and partly because she was just generally agreeable under most circumstances. Besides, in this case she did think they should sit with the new girl.
Said new girl had arrived in the fourth form at LP North two Mondays previous, upon the return from the Christmas holidays, and since then she seemed almost to have gone out of her way to make no impression whatsoever. Apart from answering when called on in class - in a quiet, contained voice that went well with the rest of her, and always with the right answer phrased in the most economical way possible - Rhian didn't think she'd spoken to anyone in those two weeks. She had made no friends, not because the other students were shunning her, but because she had made absolutely zero effort to become acquainted with anyone. Clearly, someone else was going to have to make the first move.
It was fitting that that someone should be Mairwen, because until two years before she had been the most shy, retiring girl at Llanfair North, and now she was something of the fourth form's social ambassador. Tall for her age and possessed of a heavy fall of flaming red curls, she stood out in a way that made it impossible for her to blend into the background of any scene she was in. When she'd looked in the mirror one morning not long after her twelfth birthday and realized that this state of affairs had arisen, it had come as a considerable shock after 12 years of small, mousy anonymity. She'd had to decide quickly whether she was going to become known as the angry girl or the friendly one - because she certainly was no longer going to get away with being the shy one.
Luckily for those around her, she'd chosen to become the friendly one, and now she slid her tray onto the mostly vacant table in the caf's back corner, sat down behind it, and said, "Hi! I'm Mairwen. We have maths together, fourth period. This is Rhian."
"Hello. I am Laura."
"Do you mind if we eat with you?" Mairwen asked.
Laura considered the question for a second, then replied, "No. I do not mind."
And then, the question apparently disposed of to her satisfaction, she went back to eating.
Rhian and Mairwen blinked at her, then at each other, for a moment. What the new girl was doing ought to be breathtakingly rude, but somehow, the way she was doing it, it just wasn't. She was just eating her lunch, with the same neat, economical precision with which she answered questions in class or did geometry on the blackboard when called upon to do so. She'd said she didn't mind if the other two girls stayed and plainly she meant exactly that.
"So!" said Rhian. "I hear you're from out on the Rim."
Laura shook her head. "I am not from the Outer Rim Territories," she said. Then, in answer to Rhian's questioning head-tilt, she elaborated, "I come from the Terminus sector."
"The Terminus!" Mairwen said appreciatively. "That sound exciting."
Laura paused. "I do not know," she said, then added after a moment's reflection, "It was dangerous. Many people consider that exciting."
"How did you end up on New Snowdonia, then?" Mairwen asked.
Dissembling, as a general rule, was not native to Laura Kinney's makeup, but she knew that if she told these two the real story behind her relocation to this planet, it would a) take more than the time available before the next class began and b) probably not be believed; so instead she told them that she had come to live with her uncle after the deaths of her parents - which was, after a fashion, true enough.
"I'm sorry about your parents," Rhian said, with such evident sincerity that Laura actually looked faintly surprised.
"... Thank you," she said after a moment's baffled search for words.
"Who's your uncle?" Mairwen wondered.
"Sir Victor Creed."
Rhian's eyebrows went up. "So you live in that big creepy house out in the middle of the moor?"
"Creedmoor is not creepy," Laura said.
Mairwen grinned. "No, I suppose you wouldn't think so," she said cheerfully.
They talked about other things through most of lunch - Mairwen and Rhian did most of the talking, but Laura played along as best she could, becoming very slowly more comfortable. She knew this was part of the reason why Sir Victor had agreed to send her to school in the first place, and so she put in the effort, and by the meal's end she had been rewarded with a faint, faltering sense that things might work out all right.
Afternoon came, and at this time of year the sky was already red in the west and blue-black in the east when the final bell rang and Llanfair North's students emerged to head home.
"Where's your ride?" Mairwen asked Laura, scanning the ranks of vehicles waiting, with parents or (in the posher students' cases) the employees of parents at the controls, to pick up the students who didn't have their own means of transport.
Laura looked puzzled. "Ride?"
"Well, you don't have a bicycle," Mairwen reasoned, "or you'd have gone to the bike sheds instead of coming straight out here. Don't tell me you're going to walk."
"Why not? It is how I got here this morning."
"Creedmoor's miles from here!" Rhian said. "Do you walk every day?" Laura nodded. "It must take you hours."
"Two point one four, on average," Laura said.
"So by the time you get to the edge of the moor it'll be dark, and you'll still have at least a mile to go."
"I do not mind walking in the dark."
"But... aren't you afraid of the Black Shuck?"
"No. What is that?"
With many dramatic hand gestures, Rhian told the story of the legendary gwyllgi - spectral black hellhound - of the Creedmoor, a creature of such baleful repute as a beast of ill omen that cows went dry and fruit trees withered in its wake. Woe to anyone - but young women especially - who ventured onto the moor at night, it was said, for if the Black Shuck found you in its roamings, you would never be seen again any more.
Rather than scoffing about the quaint local superstitions as any foreigner could reasonably have been expected to do, Laura took the story on board nonjudgmentally, considered it on its merits, and then said that no, her answer would have to stand: she was not afraid of the Black Shuck.
"Well, on your own head be it, then," Rhian said. "See you tomorrow... maybe," she added darkly.
Unconcerned, Laura walked out of town in the dusk. By the time full darkness had fallen she was out of sight of Llanfairpwllgwyngyll's lights, but the moons (one at first quarter, the other a bit past) provided more than enough light for her to find her way along the lonely country lanes that led to the moor and, ultimately, the house. She saw little traffic, only a handful of delivery vehicles, a postal van, and a Gwynedd County Constabulary panda car, before leaving the paved lanes and setting off on the footpath across the moor.
Presently she became aware that she was no longer alone. The soft tread of padded feet and the low rumble of a large animal's breathing had joined her, pacing her parallel to the track. Without pausing, she looked to her right and saw, visible in the moonlight mainly as a patch of darker night, the shape of an enormous dog walking along the tussocky ground just off the path she followed. As she regarded it, so it regarded her, turning baleful eyes of a slightly luminous green upon her.
"Hello," she said quietly.
The dog did not reply; merely gazed at her with its faintly glowing, strangely intelligent eyes. Laura met its gaze for a few seconds, then faced front and continued on her way. The Black Shuck paced her in silence for a few minutes.
"I think I may have made friends today," Laura said at length. "It is... strange. My instinctive reaction was to discourage them for their own safety. In... " She paused, searching for the right way to say what she was thinking. "When I was X-23," she settled on, "anyone who even tried to befriend me would die. Dr. Rice's custom was to make me kill them myself. I would not want that to happen to Mairwen and Rhian." She looked to her right again, making eye contact with the dog. "I do not worry about these things with Victor. Even if Dr. Rice's influence somehow extended beyond his death, I could not kill Victor. I would fail, as I failed to kill Benjamin. But Mairwen and Rhian are... normal people." She hesitated again. "I have never known normal people."
The Black Shuck didn't answer. Laura didn't expect him to. He might be a supernatural beast out of legend (or he might just be a quite large dog with curious habits, though the fact that his eyes glowed argued against that), but she harbored no expectations that he would be a great conversationalist. They walked along in a pleasant silence for ten minutes or so. Then, as one, girl and dog both stopped walking and sniffed thoughtfully at the air, eyes narrowing. They made momentary eye contact again, each aware immediately that the other had noticed the same thing.
Laura abruptly lunged to her left, her claws springing from their sheaths. Her left fist struck something that did not appear, at first, to be there, but which gave a very human cry of pain. With the sputtering, flickering discharge of damaged thermoptic camouflage, the form of a man in commando gear appeared at the end of Laura's left arm, neatly skewered through the right shoulder. Keeping him pinned there, she reached with her right hand and tore off his night-vision goggles, revealing a pair of brown eyes wide with pain and fright.
"Jesus!" he blurted.
"Wrong," Laura replied, withdrawing her left hand and kicking him high in the chest. The blow sent him over backward, crashing into another invisible man whose camo strobed wildly with the impact.
Laura took a half-step backward, feeling the massive shoulder of the Black Shuck against her lower back - he really was, some part of her noted, a colossal dog. He emitted a low, rolling, continual growl as, all around them, the shapes of men and women flickered and emerged from the night. All told, there were twenty-four of them, counting the one she'd already stabbed.
"Weapon X-23," one of them declared, fixing her in the beam of a powerful shoulder lamp. "You are the property of GENOM Corporation. You will come with us at once."
"I will not," she said flatly.
"Oh, you will," the strike team leader replied. "The only question is whether you do so willingly."
To punctuate the implied threat, he energized the neural shock probes built into the backs of both his tactical gauntlets - as did the other members of the team.
Laura considered the situation. These men and women must work for whatever part of the company the heads of the Facility had ultimately answered to. How had they found her so fast? It should have taken at least this long just for word of the Facility's destruction to reach their masters.
That, she realized instantly, wasn't important right now. What was important was that they presumably knew her specifications. That was why they hadn't bothered with anesthetic darts or poison gas. They knew such measures wouldn't have stopped her. Which very strongly implied that they knew what would.
"So what's it going to be, X?" the team leader asked, advancing. "Are we going to do this easy... or hard?"
Laura might have replied - not with a witty comeback, because she didn't have any in her, but possibly with a straight answer followed by a demonstration of what she considered the hard way to entail - but she didn't get the chance. Before she could speak or move, the Black Shuck had let out a terrible, night-rending roar, knocked the man to the ground in a single mighty leap, and torn his throat out. Spurred by this startling turn of events, the rest of them charged.
Something rather like the Black Shuck lived deep within Laura Kinney. She had become aware of it at an early age, though it had taken her much longer to recognize it for what it was. Beneath the calm and quiet affect her years of rigorous martial training had left her with, beneath the muted, often confusing feelings she owed to all the emotional battery she had endured, there was another Laura - a creature of instinct rather than intellect, of fury rather than restraint, her carefully constructed being stripped down to its rawest, most primal essentials.
Thinking-Laura feared this creature, as much as she could be said to fear anything. Partly this was because, in her experience, when it appeared that was a sign that things were going very poorly for her. She caught glimpses of it every time she came out the loser in another confrontation with Kimura, for instance. Rice had possessed some means of summoning it, which had cost (among others) Tanaka-sensei his life. So when it wasn't using her hands to murder people who had been kind to her, its rage was generally directed in an ineffective and pointless fashion against someone it couldn't defeat, neither of which was a trait calculated to endear it to Laura.
Mostly, though, she feared it because she could never feel entirely certain, when it came, that it would go again... and there was the unnerving possibility that it was the real being, and Thinking-Laura just a veneer, a self-aware illusion born of all that hypnopædic training and book-learning.
However, it did have one feature that was supremely redeeming under certain very specific conditions. There was one task at which it had never failed, one for which - underneath all the advanced genetic tinkering that had given rise to Laura in the first place - it had been perfectly fitted by two billion years of evolution.
The creature that lived at the core of Laura's heart was one whose only intention, only goal, only purpose was to survive.
Half a mile away, the leader of Squad Two crouched on a ridge and observed the mayhem through a pair of thermal electrobinoculars. He marveled briefly at the resolution. Here he was 2500 feet out and he could clearly see the arterial spray patterns as they leaped through the air and slowly cooled on the ground. It was really amazing what they were doing with tactical technology these days.
"What is that thing, Sarge?" asked the trooper next to him.
"That's what we're here to retrieve," he said.
"No, not her." The trooper pointed. "The other thing."
"What other - " The sergeant trained his optics where she was pointing, blinked, looked again. "What the crap?" He watched the monstrous creature at work for a few moments, then collapsed the binocs. "The hell with this," he muttered; then he turned to the rest of the squad and said quietly, "Fall back to the safe house. We have to re-think our approach."
The squad gathered their equipment and turned to leave -
- to find themselves confronted by a tall, broad-shouldered man in what looked for all the world like a country squire's working clothes, his thick mane of golden hair flying free in the evening breeze.
"Gentlemen," said Sir Victor Creed.
"Wha - " said one of the troopers.
"Ordinarily," said Sir Victor, "I would give you a chance to walk away from this, but under the circumstances, you'll forgive me if I deem it necessary to ensure that none of you reports back to your masters. I console myself with the knowledge that you knew the risks when you chose to become corporate assassins in the first place. Besides... " He half-smiled, baring one sharply pointed canine tooth, and went on in a tone of dark satisfaction, "... you're trespassing."
Laura came back to herself, heart hammering, panting for breath, to find the landscape all around her scattered with bodies and parts of bodies. Most were Type 33C boomers, the kind used for executive security, not that that had saved them.
Still light-headed, she pulled herself together and surveyed the area with a more rational eye. No threats remained. Slowly, she turned and set out for home. She heard nothing now but the wind, smelled nothing but blood, boomer nutrient fluid, and heather. The Black Shuck, too, had gone, leaving only the evidence of his work behind him.
A quarter-mile on, he appeared again, falling silently into step beside her. They carried on in silence into the night. Just before the turnoff that would take her to the house, the huge dog halted, regarding her solemnly with his glowing eyes but going no further.
"Good night," Laura told him. "Thank you."
The Black Shuck inclined his great head, turned, and disappeared into the night.
At lunch on Monday, her new friends were bursting with the news.
"Did you hear?" Rhian said as soon as she and Mairwen had seated themselves at Laura's corner table. "A bunch of people got killed on the moor last weekend." She pulled up the Evening Standard article on her wrist PDA. "'PC Perkins said she could not comment on the specifics, but others who were at the scene aver that the victims had been mauled by some huge and savage animal,'" she read, then turned wide blue eyes to Laura. "It must have been the Black Shuck!"
Laura nodded. "I would not doubt it," she replied, smiling faintly.
"Laura Kinney and the Black Shuck" - an Exile Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2012 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
[Inspired by a news item I saw about a pair of Girl Scouts who valiantly but unsuccessfully attempted to prevent just this sort of opportunistic theft, one of whom actually did punch the thief in his face through the car window during the getaway. --G.]
Saturday, April 24, 2337
Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, New Snowdonia
Crown Colonies, Rigel sector
Tesco, Crown Hill Shopping Plaza
1824 hours Gwynedd Summer Time
One of the things that many people in Llanfairpwllgwyngyll looked forward to in the spring was the annual appearance of the Girl Guides. They were always around, of course - they didn't vanish from the planet entirely for the rest of the year - but in mid-spring they were more visible than usual. That was the time of year when they emerged from hibernation and set up their tables outside various local businesses, gathering in groups of two and three to sell baked goods.
The trio at the Crown Hill Tesco had done well all day, employing a wryly self-conscious three-part charm offensive to sway passers-by to their cause. Their table was adorned with a neatly inked banner bearing the Girl Guides of New Snowdonia logo and the unequivocal slogan RESISTANCE IS FUTILE. The tall, slightly brash redhead did the saleswomanship; the perky little blonde managed the inventory and sent every customer away with a smile; and the dark quiet one handled the money with an air of calm competence.
It was this member of the team, late in the afternoon as the sky was beginning to go orange, who retired briefly to the store's restroom while her colleagues packed up the stand and got ready to head out. As such, she wasn't present when the thieves struck. Instead, she emerged from the store a few moments later to find her two comrades in considerable disarray - the cash box gone, the table overturned, the blonde sitting half-sprawled on the ground next to it, the redhead leaning into the open passenger window of a hastily departing automobile, both girls shouting angrily. A moment later the redhead had been cast off and was stumbling to a halt in the wake of the speeding car, shaking her fist furiously.
Having witnessed all this, an ordinary Girl Guide - even one of the famously adventurous Llanfair Regiment - would probably have pulled out a mobilecomm and called the police at this point.
Laura Kinney, on the other hand, gave chase.
Head down, hands open, arms pumping, she lit out after the car at a dead sprint, going over rather than around any obstacle that happened to present itself. Without hesitation or deviation from her instantly but carefully chosen course, she sprang onto and then off of the roofs of intervening parked cars, vaulted the low decorative wall at the edge of the parking lot, and skidded down the embankment outside, running not directly after the car but instead toward where she could see it would be in a few seconds' time. Traffic on Crown Hill Road was moderate but moving right along as Laura shot across with expert timing, hurdling the flowerbed on the central reservation and drawing a few startled horn honks from motorists.
Ahead, the car she was aiming to intercept - a red Vauxhall Vigilant station wagon, its rear passenger-side quarter panel dented - was slowing to make a left turn at the light onto Henderson Street. Next to it in the middle lane was a builder's van, festooned with ladders and segments of pipe. Laura cut the corner at full speed, then used the hood of a minicab as a springboard to the side of the van, seizing hold of the racked pipes. In perhaps a second she was onto the roof, and in another she was airborne, having leaped at full speed from the far side. For an instant she hung spread-eagled in the air above the red Vigilant, sudden flashes of metal sparkling in the late-afternoon sun at hands and feet, before she came down hard on the Vigilant's roof and drove all six claws into the sheet metal.
She had a momentary glimpse of the passenger, a young, sandy-haired man with the beginnings of a black eye, as he turned and goggled in shock at her through the sunshine roof. They had an instant's eye contact before the car surged forward, shouldering aside the boxy shape of a CityRunner in its haste to clear the intersection. Laura's claws slipped, cutting jagged slots in the Vigilant's roof as inertia dragged her backward against the acceleration. Snarling, she dug in, hoping the ridge above the rear window would hold against the toes of her shoes until she could consolidate her position enough to start making the transverse cuts required to open up the roof and get inside.
Instead, the driver floored the accelerator and hurled the car down a side street, bringing angular momentum into the picture, and with a screech of protesting steel she slipped sideways and came away altogether, flung outward across the corner. She hit a RIGHT LANE MUST YIELD ON GREEN sign, bending its metal post almost to a right angle, then had just enough time to pull in her claws and go limp before hitting the ground, rolling a half-dozen times, and coming to rest against the alley wall of a butcher's shop.
By the time she regained consciousness, she'd drawn a small crowd of startled and concerned onlookers. Ignoring them, she dragged herself upright, leaning against the wall, and limped, her lower right leg feeling broken, to the corner of the shop. The red Vigilant was long gone, of course, the usual patterns of traffic having filled in behind it. In the distance she could hear the whistles of approaching constables.
A moment later her two colleagues emerged from the crowd, pushing their way through with excuse-mes and one-side-pleases to her side. They were not, it has to be said, particularly surprised that she had done what she did. Laura had been a member of their cohort for more than a year now, and not for nothing was her photograph in the 2336 Llanfair Regiment Yearbook labeled DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME. The two with her today were veterans of the previous December's Snowdon Adventure Retreat. They'd seen her fight the monster and deal with the avalanche. To them, this was just another day at the office.
Not that this stopped the redhead from saying with an affectionate kind of exasperation, "You mad fool, what if they'd had a gun?"
"One of them did," Laura replied. "He was too surprised to use it." Frowning, she felt experimentally at her right elbow, then twisted something within it back into its proper alignment with a crunch that made the blonde wince. As though she hadn't done anything particularly unusual, Laura went on, "We need to get out of here."
Nodding agreement, the others flanked her and helped her hobble back into the alley. Not knowing quite what to make of the way the three Guides had the situation so obviously in hand, the crowd slowly dispersed in confusion, allowing Laura and her colleagues to fade into the backstreets and be gone before the police arrived.
"Did they get everything?" Laura asked as they made their way down Severn Avenue South, her gait becoming steadily surer.
"All the money," said the redhead glumly. "Rhian tried to hold onto it, but the bloke who grabbed it was too big."
Laura nodded. "The passenger. I saw." She regarded her blonde comrade for a moment, then smiled slightly and said, "I am surprised you did not bite him."
"I thought about it, but who knows where he's been?" Rhian replied pragmatically. "Anyway, Mairwen hung a good one on him through the window before they shook her off." Scowling, she added, "I hope she split his lip. And I hope it gets infected."
Mairwen sighed. "No such luck. I think I got him in the eye, though. But what're we going to do now?" she went on. "We must have sold almost a thousand quid's worth of stuff today. We're on the hook for all of that to the Central Council. And we can't just ask Sir Victor to cover it," she said warningly, before Laura could speak. "He already had to pay for what you and that thing did to the Mountain Retreat Lodge."
"It was not a 'thing', it was a wendigo," Laura said patiently. "At any rate, I was not about to suggest it. I know what we must do."
"What?" Rhian wondered.
Laura paused, leaning against the wall of the building they were passing, and regarded her two fellow Guides seriously. In the fading daylight, her green eyes almost seemed to glow as they looked from one to the other. As she spoke, the last of the road rash disappeared from her face and arms.
"The honor of the Regiment is at stake," she said. "This requires direct action. We must recover the money ourselves - and teach the thieves that the Guides of Llanfairpwllgwyngyll are not to be trifled with."
Mairwen grinned. "I love it when you get like this," she said.
"But how are we going to find them?" Rhian asked.
Laura smiled a cool, predatory little smile. "Leave that to me," she said. "For now, return to Tesco and placate the police. When they release you, go to your homes and collect your gear. I will meet you at 2030 hours on the corner where they shook me off."
Creedmanse, townhouse of Sir Victor Creed (1st Baronet)
1912 hrs GST
Sir Victor Creed looked up from his perusal of the Evening Standard at the sound of the front door. "Ah, there you are, my dear," he said. "I trust your day's enterprise was a suc - ah." Seeing Laura entering with her Class A Guide uniform torn and bloodied, and a look of dudgeon on her face to match, he left the rest of the remark unsaid.
"Who steals from Girl Guides?" she asked rhetorically, then headed for the stairs. Halfway there she threw the answer to her own question back over her shoulder: "Fools."
"Do call if you're going to be out past midnight," said Sir Victor mildly, returning to his newspaper with a satisfied little smile. "Enjoy your hunt."
Sir Victor hadn't been entirely sure about Laura joining the local Guide Regiment, even given their well-known reputation for intrepidity; but on the other hand, giving her opportunities to socialize and make friends with girls of her own age was even more important in her case than it was for normal teenagers, so he'd given his consent. Despite the expense involved in clearing up after the Mountain Retreat incident - which had quite demonstrably not been her fault, after all - he had never had a moment's cause to regret the decision.
Corner of Henderson and Larch Streets
2030 hrs GST
The traffic on Henderson Street was much lighter at eight-thirty that night. The neighborhood wasn't a lively one in the evenings; most of what nightlife Llanfairpwllgwyngyll had took place to the west, in the central district, or down south of the river where the Anglesey Warriors football club had its stadium. This area was mainly shops that shut by six and bars that did a only a desultory business until after ten. Pedestrians were few and the streets quiet at this hour, and nobody in particular noticed a couple of Girl Guides meeting up on a corner.
When Mairwen and Rhian met under the bent RIGHT LANE MUST YIELD sign, they were no longer dressed in their Class A uniforms - the lightweight khaki dresses, dark green Eisenhower jackets and berets, and low town shoes so readily identified with the image of the Girl Guides of New Snowdonia in the public mind. They had both known immediately what Laura meant by "collect your gear": They were going hunting, and for that they wore what was officially known as Field Dress (Regular).
The FD(R) was essentially battle dress, very similar to that worn by the New Snowdonia Defence Forces, but without the body armor and ammunition supplies. It consisted of a utilitarian tunic and trouser set of woodland-camo ripstop synsilk, light in weight but comfortable across a wide temperature range and proof against most sharp things to be found in the forest; an equipment belt fitted out with everything the enterprising camper might require to manage a week's stay in a reasonably temperate wilderness environment; and sturdy, comfortable boots. Only the beret and bright yellow neckerchief, reversible for camouflage purposes, carried over from the Class A.
Decked out in their full field kit and seen at moderate range, older New Snowdonian Guides were often mistaken for commandos or Special Branch police officers, and in truth there was something of both in their makeup, particularly those senior Guides holding the exalted rank of Ranger. Rangers wore a slouch hat instead of the beret and were authorized to carry the hallowed Woodman's Pal, further heightening their resemblance to commandos. None of the three who met that night were old enough to be Rangers yet, though it was confidently expected among the girls of the Llanfair Regiment that Laura Kinney would earn her dragon (the Ranger's badge of office, derived from the mascot on the New Snowdonian flag) within hours of her impending seventeenth birthday.
For now, though, she sported the same uniform as the others when she arrived, apart from the optional cargo kilt she preferred to the standard trousers. She appeared from the uptown end of Larch Street, looking darkly satisfied, and greeted her colleagues by saying,
"Follow me. I have their trail."
"What's the plan?" Mairwen asked as she and Rhian fell in behind Laura.
"We will track them to their lair and determine their numbers. Then we will strike quickly and without mercy. As the defenders, they will have a natural advantage. We will negate it with shock and awe."
Rhian looked skeptical. "We're Girl Guides," she pointed out.
Laura smiled slightly. "That will provide the shock," she said.
Rhian and Mairwen had seen their strange colleague track before, and so they knew she was very good at it, but that was tracking animals in the woods. It had never occurred to them that she'd be able to perform the same feat with an automobile in a city, but over the next hour and a half or so they learned. Steadily, patiently, her expression never varying, Laura methodically followed the faint traces left behind by the thieves' red Vigilant. Exhaust fumes, long since dissipated for any but the most discerning of noses; streaks of rubber left on the road by a rattled driver's too-sharp turns and accelerations; tiny flecks of red paint shed, like blood from a wound, by the places where the car's outer skin was torn - nothing escaped her, even when they left the well-lighted commercial district, and then the city proper, behind altogether.
"Well, I'll be damned," Mairwen murmured as the three of them crouched just short of the crest of a ridge in the suburban village of Llantysilio. Twenty yards beyond stood a small house - bungalow, really - with a partly enclosed carport, and protruding from that carport was the rear eighth or so of a red Vauxhall Vigilant with a dented left rear quarter panel.
"Now we wait," Laura said.
"For what?" Rhian asked. Before Laura could answer, the one light showing in the house, through the front window, went out.
"For that," Laura said.
Wayne Colton was having a hard time getting to sleep. The weirdness of the afternoon's score kept coming back to him. It had been a spur-of-the-moment thing, grabbing those Girl Guides' cash box. Jerry had noticed what a brisk trade they were doing, and while they were considering whether to make a move, the one nearest the box had gone into the store. At that point, Jerry joked, it would be criminal not to take it, so they had... and then things had gotten strange.
Getting the car fixed was probably going to cost more than whatever was in the box. Neither Wayne nor Jerry had a clue what the crazy girl who'd jumped on the roof had used to make those ragged gashes in the steel, but whatever the hell it was, it'd made an almighty mess of things. Part of the anxiety keeping Wayne awake now was born of the realization that the cops would have no trouble at all establishing that yes, this was the red Vigilant used in the great Tesco Girl Guide cookie robbery.
Jerry, with her usual inability to take anything too seriously, had laughed off his fears - no cop would ever believe that such a thing had even happened, mad Girl Guide with an axe or whatthehellever jumping onto the roof of a getaway car. Hell, she wasn't sure she believed it had happened, and she was there. Then, with an instruction to get hold of Joey the Fisherman in the morning to get that cash box opened and then call someone about the car, she'd sloped off to bed to sleep the sleep of the unconcerned.
Wayne envied his sister that ability, at the same time he was convinced it was going to buy them both a lot of trouble some day. He sat in the living room in the dark, nursing a beer and not really watching a Dalek 207 movie on the next door neighbor's cable, wondering if he'd be able to drink the image of the crazy girl's face out of his mind. Because when he closed his eyes he could still see it. Well, not her face, really. He was sure he'd seen it all through the sunroof, but the only feature that stood out in his memory now was her eyes, this incredible shade of green, fixed on his with such consummate but contained fury it had damn near paralyzed him.
He opened his eyes and they were still there. So was their owner, crouching like a gargoyle on the coffee table, maybe a foot away. She had the neckerchief of her Guide uniform tied around her face like a bandit's mask, but the eyes - the eyes were the same.
"Aaaaahh - !" he yelled, lurching backward so hard he nearly overturned his recliner. Reflexively, he reached for the gun on the end table next to the chair. Her left hand shot out faster; a metallic sound, a glint of bright metal, and the gun lay in three pieces, deep grooves carved in the tabletop between them. Wayne stared at it for a moment, then looked at her hand, transfixed by the sight of the gleaming blades protruding between her knuckles. He'd heard of gear like that before, but to see it in person - on a Girl Guide - was so profoundly shocking he wasn't completely sure he wasn't imagining it.
"Wayne, what the haaargh!" Jerry's voice came from the bedroom doorway behind him, followed by a resounding thud as of someone tripping heavily over an unyielding object. Wayne didn't turn around to investigate. He was far too busy trying not to wet himself.
Seeing that she still had his undivided attention, Laura slowly retracted her claws, turning the simple act into a statement. Wayne stared at her hand in terrified astonishment as the narrow wounds the blades left behind healed almost instantly.
"You have something that does not belong to you, Wayne," she said, her voice quiet but full of menace.
"Y-yes," Wayne whispered, his eyes returning almost unwillingly to hers. In the background, he heard but did not register the sounds of a furious scuffle. If he had looked, he'd have seen two more masked Guides expertly lashing Jerry to one of the kitchen chairs with the clothesline from the back yard, but he could no more have done that than he could have gone in for a spot of astral projection.
"In the course of taking it, you could have injured my comrades seriously," she pointed out.
"I'm sorry," he said, and he had never meant anything more in his life.
"Good. Where is the box?"
"Th... there." He pointed hesitantly. "By th-the door."
Another masked, uniformed Guide - almost certainly the little blonde out of whose hands Wayne had wrenched the cash box that afternoon - appeared from behind his chair and collected the box from the stand by the door. "I have it," she said, her voice muffled slightly by her mask.
"See if our money is there," the green-eyed Guide told her. She opened the box and took a quick inventory with the help of a penlight held in her teeth.
"Looks good," the blonde reported, then departed from his field of view the way she came, taking the box with her.
"Please don't kill me," Wayne begged.
The girl with green eyes leaned forward slightly, making Wayne squeak with fear and press himself back into the cushions of his chair.
"In the morning you will turn yourselves in for the other crimes you have committed," she told him. "You will plead guilty. You will serve your time. And then you will learn a useful trade and repay this community for the burden you have been upon it."
"Like hell we will!" Jerry's voice cried from somewhere off behind Wayne, then trailed off into muffled cursing as someone, from the sound of things, put a pillowcase over her head.
"You will," the Guide said. "Because if you do not, you will see me again. No matter where you go. No matter what you do. I will find you."
"Eeee," said Wayne.
"Do you want that, Wayne?" she asked.
"No," he squeaked.
A little, he thought.
The girl stepped lithely down from the coffee table. Just before she passed the chair where Wayne still cowered, she turned and told him, "If you report this incident, you will not be believed."
Wayne nodded, not sure precisely what he was agreeing to, and she was gone.
He remained in the chair, not daring to move, until dawn.
Sir Victor Creed was still in his chair in the drawing room, now perusing volume four of History of the Middling Ages, when Laura returned home looking vaguely pleased with herself. He closed the book on his finger and looked up as she entered, but did not rise.
"Good evening, Laura," he rumbled. "I trust your hunt went well."
"Mission accomplished," Laura replied. Then, yawning, she proceeded to the stairs, saying as she went, "Good night, Sir Victor."
"Sleep well, my dear," said Sir Victor, returning to his book with a satisfied little smile.
"Direct Action" - an Exile mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2012 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Personal log: Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Hutchins
United Federation of Planets Starfleet
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-A)
The sun is always a little hotter, the air a little thinner, the gravity a little heavier, on Vulcan than I'm expecting it to be. I've been here before, I imagine I'll be here again, and yet it always takes me slightly by surprise how uncomfortable it is when I arrive.
It doesn't help that I didn't have any time to prepare this time. I wasn't expecting to be here today. I wasn't expecting to be anywhere near here today. But here I am.
This is a part of Vulcan I've never visited before. It's apparently territory that belongs to Spock's family - some kind of ceremonial site way to hell and gone out in the Wastelands. Even if I hadn't been warned somewhat about the purpose of this unscheduled visit, I'd know it's important because the guard who met us when we beamed down is clearly not very pleased about having not one, but two Earthmen along. Dr. McCoy can get by a lot of that because he's a doctor, but I'm an engineer, so what am I doing here?
Simple enough. I'm here because a friend asked me to come, and that's the kind of guy I am. I'm not sure how she came to decide I have anything to contribute to the proceedings, but now that I'm here I intend to give it my best shot. Because it's what I do. I try to help.
Life seemed so much simpler yesterday...
Stardate 8821 was a Wednesday to the rest of the galaxy. The second dogwatch found me in the larger of the ship's two gymnasia, dressed in gi and hakama, sparring against one of my shipmates. I do this regularly, not always with the same shipmate, but quite often. Not to seem like I'm bragging, but there isn't another swordsman of my caliber aboard the Enterprise now that Hikaru has moved on, but I can always practice the empty-handed parts of Katsujinkenryuu with somebody and do my sword kata solo later on, so whenever I can find a dance partner, that's usually what I do.
My sparring partner yesterday afternoon was the Enterprise's deputy science officer, Lieutenant Commander Saavik, and when sparring with her I sometimes start with a bokuto. I feel confident doing this for three reasons: first, Saavik and I have known each other for many years; second, her Vulcan strength and resilience are superior enough to my own that the advantage conveyed by the weapon is largely negated; and third, I can generally trust her not to do anything foolish that might get her head cracked open.
So it came as quite a surprise to me when she did just that, fumbling a simple overhand flat-of-the-blade parry to such an amateurish extent that I had to abandon the bokuto to prevent it from coming down right smack on the top of her skull. For a second, as it thudded to the padded floor, I wondered whether that might have been a strategic move, intended to force me to give up the sword - but that wouldn't have worked in an actual fight, and she never did things like that in sparring. It's cheating.
Regardless, I'd lost it now, so I shifted gears, moving into one of the empty-handed forms. I blocked her follow-up attack, noting as I did that it was also not very well-executed; then I got inside her guard, crossed her up, got my arm across the front of her shoulders, hooked my leg behind her knee, and threw her to the floor. She didn't fall properly either, hitting the floor harder than I'd intended and expelling her breath with a painful-sounding WHOOMPH.
At that point I abandoned the entire proceeding, startled by her repeated basic errors and the idea that I might've hurt her. Dropping to one knee by her side, I asked whether I had. Saavik coughed, drew fresh breath, and gave me a puzzled look.
"I... do not think so," she said, sitting slowly up.
"That throw never works on you," I said, baffled. "Are you all right?" I rose and offered her my hand. After looking at it for a couple of seconds as if she'd never seen it before, Saavik took it and let me lever her to her feet.
"I'm not sure," she admitted thoughtfully. "I feel... strange."
I took a closer look. "You do look peaky. Maybe you should go to sickbay."
Saavik shook her head. "Unnecessary. I have slept poorly the last few nights; I merely need rest." She turned to leave the gym.
I snagged my bokuto from the floor in mid-stride, remaining in step with her as we emerged into the corridor, and persisted, "That's not normal either. Maybe you should get that checked."
Saavik paused and rounded on me with faint indignation in her eyes. "You are not my husband," she snapped, then blinked in surprise and said, "Where did that come from?"
"I'm... sure I don't know," I replied, just as surprised as she was. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"I simply need rest," she said again. "I must not have meditated sufficiently before bed the last few days. I will have to correct that oversight tonight."
I wasn't convinced, but there's no arguing with Saavik when she's got that tone in her voice, so I fell silent as I walked alongside her up the corridor to the turbolift, then around the sector corridor to one of the officers' staterooms.
At the door, Saavik paused again, then turned to me and said calmly, "I'm retiring for the evening. Unless you intend to come with me, this is goodnight."
"Well," I replied, "then you're gonna have to let go of my hand."
Saavik looked down and saw that she'd never released me after letting me pull her to her feet. "Oh. Er. Yes." She let go. "There you are." Then, as if nothing at all weird had just happened, she nodded cordially and wished me good night, then disappeared into her room.
I stood outside her door for a few moments, hopelessly puzzled; then, shaking my head and muttering, "This never happened to George Lazenby," I walked off toward my own quarters.
As was my usual routine, I swung by Saavik's on my way to breakfast the next morning. It's our custom to join several of the other mid-level officers for the morning meal, then report together to our watch stations on the bridge. An earlier and readier riser than I am, she's often waiting for me in the corridor; if not, she invariably answers the door at the first hail. Today, though, there was no response at all, not even her voice on the speaker telling me to wait.
I hailed three times, waiting a decent interval between each, and my anxiety mounted. She'd looked slightly ill the night before, and she'd definitely been acting odd. Suppose she'd come down with some strange malady in the night and now couldn't answer? Odd, but not unheard-of, not out here in the black where weird occurrences are practically the norm. I grappled with conflicting imperatives for a few moments, then made a small sound of frustration and keyed an override into the lock.
The sight that greeted me when I stepped through into her stateroom - the mirror image of my own, since it's on the opposite side of the saucer - startled me more than her behavior the previous night. The place looked like a wrecking crew had come through, scattering furniture and the relatively few Vulcan decorations she'd personalized her quarters with.
"Whoa!" I said in a voice intended to carry around the divider to her bunk. "What happened? Did you host a fight club in here last night or something?" I crouched down and examined the underside of an overturned armchair, marveling at the sheared-off bolts. "I didn't even know these chairs could be turned over." Straightening, I rounded the end of the divider - to find her bunk disarrayed, as if someone had spent a very restless night in it, but empty.
Calling her name, I checked the relatively few places in such a small set of quarters where she could be. I found her in the sonic shower cubicle, huddled in a robe, shivering, even though it wasn't cold in there.
"My God!" I blurted, hurrying to her. "What's wrong?"
Saavik blinked at me, her eyes slightly unfocused, and seemed to take a few seconds to recognize me. "Benjamin," she said, relief audible in her voice. "I... I need... " She trailed off then, as if she couldn't quite remember what she needed.
"What? What do you need?"
"I need... " She hesitated again.
"I need... "
She seemed to be having trouble getting it out. I decided to try deliberate obtuseness to see what she would make of it; under normal circumstances she would see through it, but it would at least get her to focus a little. "Paracetamol? Piso mojado? Nice bowl of plomeek soup? What?"
She suddenly grabbed the sides of my head, staring fixedly into my eyes, and snapped, "I need you to SHUT UP."
I shut up. We stared at each other for a few seconds. She let go of my head.
"I think something is wrong with me," Saavik admitted in a small voice. After what I'd just seen in the sitting room, I might've found that funny if the situation hadn't been alarming me so much.
"You didn't even get sick when Johnny brought back the mudfleas from his practicum on Melvara," I said, more for something to say than because it was any kind of objection. I placed the inside of my wrist against her forehead, then removed it and said, "I think you're running a fever, though it's hard to tell since you're always running a fever by my standards anyway." I decided to try levity. Her reaction might give me a better handle on just how badly damaged her self-control was. "Let me see your nose - your nose is dry, that's not - no, wait, that's Porthos - say 'aah.'" She complied and I recoiled in shock. "Good God, your tongue is green."
Saavik gave a little snort at that, looking away.
"You laughed," I accused her.
"I did not," she tried to protest.
"You did, you laughed at that. All right, I'm convinced." I caught hold of her hands and, standing, used them to pull her upright. "Come on, on your feet. Time for sickbay."
"I remember!" she declared as I helped her through the wreckage of her sitting room. "Wait, wait, I remember." She pulled herself free of my guiding arm, took my face between her hands, and leaned close, almost touching my nose with hers.
"I need to go to Vulcan," she said, and then she lost consciousness.
I had no trouble getting her to sickbay - she's not heavy - and then Dr. McCoy threw me out. This was frustrating, but not entirely unexpected, and I had work to do anyway, so I reported to the bridge and tried not to look like I was fretting.
Half an hour later, Captains Kirk and Spock were summoned to sickbay. Ten minutes after that, Captain Kirk was on the intercom ordering best speed to Vulcan. Now, in addition to being a certified starpilot and navigator - occupations that require a great deal of expertise in certain abstruse fields of mathematics - I'm a warp propulsion engineer, which requires a great deal more. I can add two and two in a wide range of bases.
I was still barred from sickbay when I clocked off for the evening. Lacking anything else to do with myself, I went to bed. That may seem callous, but it's a lesson I've learned from long and painful experience in the field: If it's the only constructive thing you can do, get some rest so you'll be prepared when the time comes for you to do more.
Even after all these years in Starfleet, there are still times when I wake up, sit up, and briefly wonder where the hell I am. I had one of those times about six hours later, when I was awakened from a chaotic dream by the trilling of my doorbell.
"Wuh," I said cleverly, and then, in a slightly more coherent voice, "Come in."
Ten minutes later I was up, dressed, and on my way to the transporter room, still revolving what I'd just been told in my mind. I had part of a picture forming, and though I couldn't tell entirely what it was yet, my instincts told me it wasn't something I was going to like when I could. Almost without thinking about it, I deviated to the ship's security office.
"I need your help," I told Chief of Security Chekov as I entered his domain. He clearly knew where I was heading; he gave me a concerned look and didn't interrupt as I went on, "Things may get weird on me down there. If they do I'm going to need an edge."
"That's against policy," Chekov reminded me.
"I know, Pavel," I told him, "but I'm pretty sure the game's rigged."
He looked at me for a moment, catching my meaning; the phrase was a reference to something that had happened to us long ago, on shore leave from the old Enterprise, when he was a raw ensign and I was officially nobody at all.
Then he nodded and said, "Wait here," before disappearing into the armory.
It helps, in situations like this, to go way back with the ship's weapons officer.
And so to the surface of Vulcan, disorientingly in broad daylight when, according to the Enterprise's clock and thus my own internal one, it's about two in the morning. The three of us are trudging across a stone bridge leading from one small mesa, where we beamed down, to a larger, taller one next to it. As we approach, I can see that the taller one is capped by some kind of ceremonial site - a big, sandy, open area with a very large cylindrical bell, reminiscent of the ones outside East Asian temples, on a dais in the center.
There's a guard, grim-looking even for a Vulcan, standing under the arch leading into what I can only think of as the arena, carrying a weapon reminiscent of a pike and wearing very old-looking ceremonial armor. He's a virtual twin for the one who met us on the smaller mesa and led us to this place. Also awaiting us under the arch is a tiny, slightly stooped, very elderly Vulcan woman in elaborate robes. The two guards flank her as we arrive, dusty and hot, before her.
Saavik can barely stand up at this point; she stands unsteadily next to me, trying without much success to fix the old woman with a suspicious glare and mostly just managing to look uncannily like she's drunk.
The old woman, clearly assuming neither Dr. McCoy nor I can understand the local language, welcomes Saavik blandly back to Vulcan and asks with exaggerated cordiality after her health.
<You know perfectly that I am unwell,> Saavik replies with unaccustomed venom. <What have you done to me, T'Vrin?>
<I?> T'Vrin replies. <I have done nothing to you, Saavikam. What has happened to you is perfectly natural. Your Vulcan blood has called you home to do your duty to your people.>
Saavik clenches her fists, visibly fighting for self-control. <I was never betrothed. I never agreed to be bonded. How did you do this?>
T'Vrin shakes her head and replies imperturbably, <Of course you did, or you would not be here now. Come and meet your husband.> She gestures, and another man appears from behind the bell-thing - a tall, thin man, about Saavik's age, simply dressed. I take a good, close look at him, trying to gauge how willing a participant he is in all this, but there's nothing in his face I can get a decent hold on. He's glazed and blank, looking at my shipmate with a covetous, almost hungry look - most un-Vulcan, and more than a little disturbing on a Vulcan's face.
I decide I do not like him.
Saavik blinks in shock at the sight of him. <Spann?!>
<Ah. You do remember him,> says T'Vrin.
<I have met him twice,> Saavik says, the surprise apparently having cleared her mind enough for her to make use of her excellent memory. <The second was a plainly accidental crossing of paths in secondary education. The first... > Her dark eyes go wide; she gives T'Vrin a sharp, incredulous look and calls her a startlingly filthy name.
The old woman doesn't seem fazed by the obscenity; she merely nods and says, <Was on the day you agreed in the name of Surak to follow the path of a Vulcan citizen. What did you think that entailed?>
<I was ten!> Saavik shoots back. <I had never had any Vulcan cultural training at all before that day! How could anyone consider that informed consent to - to this?>
<It's hardly my fault that Spock neglected your education before bringing you to me,> T'Vrin replies with a repulsively infinite complacency.
I glance at Dr. McCoy; he gives me his patented how-are-we-going-to-play-this face and says nothing. He's been in a situation like this before, and knows more or less what the song is, even if he can't understand the lyrics. My left wrist itches. I almost make my play then and there, but my instincts tell me to wait; there's still the possibility of extracting us from the situation without resorting to outright defiance.
The window is rapidly closing, though, and I fancy I hear it shut altogether when T'Vrin goes on, <Now stop your childish temporizing and honor your vow. This is the Vulcan heart. This is our way.>
Saavik glances at me, her expression a hard-to-read mix of barely contained emotions - fury, desperation, maybe even a paradoxical urge to just give in and have it over with. Without seeming to be entirely in charge of body or spirit, she shuffles across the sand to the bell and stands waiting, rocking gently on her feet, her hands working in and out of fists. Spann crosses to her, giving her that same up-and-over look like I would give a nice bit of sirloin fresh from the grill, and takes hold of the chained hammer that hangs on the frame next to the bell. He raises this as if to strike a note, and I start running through my tactical options very fast in my mind, wishing I'd had time to brief Dr. McCoy on what we might have to do -
- when Saavik raises her hand and blocks the face of the hammer with her palm, uttering three explosive syllables as if it's taken all of her strength to force them out of her body, and changes the game entirely.
I suppress an urge to smile. That's exactly what I was hoping she'd do. It doesn't make my day any easier, but it does open up the playing field.
T'Vrin scowls faintly and raises a mocking eyebrow. <You invoke the challenge? There is another you would prefer?>
Saavik turns slowly, almost unwillingly, and gives me a simultaneously apologetic and pleading look as she points straight at me. T'Vrin turns to me, composing herself; she clearly expects me to have no idea what the hell is going on.
"Human," she says in English, "your shipmate - "
<Has chosen the kal-if-fee and named me as her preference,> I reply, deeply enjoying the ill-concealed microsecond pulse of shock on her face as she realizes that I speak Vulcan quite well, thank you, and I've understood what they've been saying all along. <I accept this challenge.>
She recovers quickly, arching an eyebrow patronizingly at me. <And what use have you for a Vulcan wife?> she asks.
<That's not the sort of question a gentleman answers,> I reply with a faint smirk I simply cannot suppress. It seems to annoy her, which I find very gratifying. At any rate, she stops trying to dissuade me and just explains the rules: combat to the death, and if either party tries to escape, the guards will step in without mercy or hesitation to preserve the honor of the ritual. She probably assumes, since I'm a weak, inferior Earthman, that I'll be so disadvantaged by the thin air, the heat, and the gravity that Spann will make short work of me. Good. I like being underestimated. Len asks me if I'm out of my goddamn mind, and it's a fair question, but I just wave him back. I haven't got time.
Spann seems confused by what's going on now; from the look of him, his brain is juuuuuust barely ticking over, he's so deep in the plak tow. One of the guards has to more or less herd him to his place and put a lirpa, the fan-bladed Vulcan glaive, in his hand. It's a nasty-looking weapon, but, I'm surprised to discover when they hand me mine, it has lousy balance. The actual weapons they're based on must have gone out of fashion a long, long time ago even by Vulcan standards for them to have mutated this much in a ceremonial context.
<Begin the challenge!> T'Vrin snaps, and Spann starts running toward me with all his speed. I haven't got a lot of time to make this happen. I take a half-step back, make sure of my firing arcs, drop the lirpa, and flex my left wrist in a very particular way. The Phaser-I Chekov strapped to my arm under my sleeve drops neatly into my hand. One second; one guard down. Two seconds; two guards down. Just like I knew what I was doin', as my grandfather would say.
By that time, of course, Spann is on top of me, but that's OK. I don't want to shoot him anyway; with his neurochemistry so screwed up by the plak tow, a normal stun setting probably won't affect him appreciably, and if I crank it up high enough that it can, it might just kill him. Instead I have just enough time to shove the phaser in my pants pocket before I have to apply all my ingenuity to ducking a wild swing of his lirpa that would have taken my head clean off if it had connected.
He's completely out of his mind now - there's actual foam gathering at the corners of his mouth - and it makes him easy pickings for someone with my training, particularly since I still have all my marbles. If I actually fought him straight up, instead of cheating, it would be a couple of seconds' work to cover the sand with his blood and walk away with my prize, as it were... but I don't want to do either one of those things. From the sound of it, this poor jerk is just as much a victim as Saavik of this crazy priestess's machinations. It wouldn't be sporting to cack him for that. After all, it isn't like he can help being crazy right now.
So instead of fighting him, I let him wear himself out trying and failing to hack me to bits, and then, when he's slowing down and getting sloppy, I get inside his reach, take the lirpa away from him with my right hand, and abandon fancy martial arts techniques in favor of giving him my very best George Foreman hello with my left. And down goes Frazier.
"Sleep it off, Stanley," I tell him.
I get out my phaser again, just in case anybody's gotten any ideas, and turn to face T'Vrin as Len kneels next to Spann and Saavik crosses unsteadily to stand next to me.
"Wha-hey, look at that," I say jauntily. "Turns out cheaters do win."
The old priestess is furious, so much so that she's not even bothering to try and hide it.
<You do not understand the seriousness of the crime you are committing, Earthman,> she spits at me. <You will never be welcome on Vulcan again.>
I blink. "Oh no. Whatever will I do." I turn to Len. "Is he OK?"
"He'll be fine," the doctor replies, straightening up. He doesn't know whether to look admiring or censorious. After all, I am treating a hallowed Vulcan ritual with blatant disrespect, but on the other hand, he knows me well enough by now to have a pretty good idea that they must've been asking for it.
"Good." I haul out my communicator. "Pavel, get us the hell out of here."
Saavik collapses again once we're back aboard Enterprise, but I expected that. Having lost the kal-if-fee, even if I did cheat, Spann's plak tow should be broken. Hers, on the other hand, is still galloping right along, and there's only one documented way to fix that. I have to admit I wouldn't really mind that, but it would almost certainly have unforeseen consequences and under the circumstances I'd always feel at least a bit weird about it.
Which is why I'm about to cheat like a bastard for the second time running.
Jim Kirk is waiting for us when we arrive; he stands watching with a bemused look as Len and Pavel hustle Saavik back to sickbay, then turns to me when we're alone and says conversationally,
"That was diplomatic."
"I didn't have a lot of options," I tell him. "Basically it was either do what I did; shank the crazy dude; or nuke the site from orbit." I shrug. "At least I didn't punch the old lady. I have to admit I seriously wanted to." I suddenly realize I'm still holding Spann's lirpa. Not knowing quite what else to do with it, I hand it to Jim; he doesn't know what to do with it either, but that's not my problem right now.
"Where are you going now?" Jim asks as I pass him and head into the corridor.
"To take care of our other problem!" I reply over my shoulder. " ... Not in that way!"
Leonard McCoy and I have known each other for a lot of years, even more than I've known Saavik. He doesn't give just anybody the run of his sickbay, but the need is such right now that he offers no objection as I barge into the place at full steam and commandeer Ensign Ruskine and the full biochem lab. He's seen me in this mode before.
"Just stay calm, follow instructions, and don't ask silly questions," I tell Ruskine, who is understandably bemused to find himself and the lab in the hands of a man he knows as a warp drive engineer. "We're going to do what they say can't be done. And do you know why?"
"Because, Ensign, there is nothing that is beyond the grasp of science!" Still riding the adrenaline rush of the adventure below, I can't help letting out a maniacal villain laugh: "MUAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Now get me 150 milligrams of zaphrexadine."
I'll give Ruskine credit. He clearly has no idea what I'm trying to do, and he just as clearly thinks I've gone crazy; but after receiving only one nod to one questioning look at Len, he follows my instructions to the letter for the next three hours. Even when I start combining things that totally shouldn't go together; even when I start drawing molecular diagrams on a scratch pad and repeating rhyming mnemonics in Minbari (a language that does not exist in his universe) to remind myself of the more esoteric parts of this formula, which I've only seen made once before and that a long time ago.
Finally, I've got it down to the last two tinctures - the way this compound goes together, when synthesized in a 23rd-century biochem lab from medications readily available aboard a starship, really is like movie mad science - and I'm just about ready to combine them. This is the moment of truth. Either this works, or... well, or it doesn't, and I'm back where I started without, most likely, enough time to try it again, at which point we're deep into bat country.
To calm myself down before the big moment, so I don't spill anything or otherwise louse up the final combination, I take a deep breath, hold it for a moment, and find the center.
Then I say casually to Ruskine, "I once worked in a biotech lab. You know what our motto was?"
"You Should Because You Can. And I... " I pour the contents of the smaller test tube I hold into the larger, watching with satisfaction as the combination turns bright red and starts gently steaming. "... can." I take a moment to smirk with satisfaction at my curved reflection in the tube, then snap, "Hypo! Stat!" When nothing happens after a moment, I turn to see Ruskine staring with astonishment at the red liquid. I'm pleased he finds it so riveting, but we're pressed for time, so I let him look for a moment longer and then bark, "I don't know where you went to medical school, son, but where I come from 'stat' means RIGHT GODDAMN NOW!"
Out in the isolation ward, Saavik is strapped down, mumbling and sweating, the readouts above her biobed showing completely deranged vital signs. I have a moment's pause at the sight of her. Is it really fair to her to take this risk? I mean, I'm 99.99 percent sure I've got this nameless drug right, but I'm 100 percent sure the other method would work. Is my own peace of mind worth even that little risk?
Well, think about it logically, son. It's not just your peace of mind; it's hers. This is science. There's risk in it. She's a scientist. This is the path she'd want.
I'm pretty sure I've convinced myself when I hand the hypo to Dr. McCoy and he shoots its contents into her arm.
For a second nothing happens; then she goes quietly to sleep and her vital signs stabilize like magic, one of those "sonofagun!" moments that are so rare but satisfying in the medical sciences, and Len turns to me with his big ol' country-doctor grin.
"Congratulations, Doctor," he says, offering his hand.
"Thank you, Doctor," I reply, shaking it. "Hot diggity. I've invented a pharmaceutical for which there is no recreational market whatsoever. It's a red-letter day for biochemistry."
For the second time in a day, I'm awakened from a deep sleep by my doorbell and deeply disoriented for a moment. Rather than just saying "Come in," I go and answer the door in person. The exercise will do me good.
It's Saavik, and she looks about as tired as I feel, but I'm damn glad to see her.
"Hey," I say, stepping back to let her in. "Good to see you up and about - oh 'ello!"
The last is occasioned as, once the door has shut behind her, she takes one brisk stride and hugs me, something she's done perhaps twice before in our entire long friendship.
"Thank you," she says softly in my ear. "I knew you would not fail me. I apologize for involving you without any explanation, but by the time I knew an explanation would be necessary, I was in no condition to provide it."
"It's OK," I reply, hugging her back - I'm no fool - and turning her loose when it's clear she wants it to be over. "Spock gave me the heads-up when he came to tell me you wanted me to go to the surface with you, as much as he could without being too indiscreet. I had a general idea what was going on. The rest... I improvised."
She smiles very faintly; I'm one of the few people I can think of who would have spotted it. "As I hoped," she says. "When I realized the trap I was in, it was almost too late to do anything about it. I did not know precisely how it had happened, how T'Vrin had arranged it, but it did not matter. I knew I needed to change the game if I were to emerge with my... my self-possession intact."
"Well," I say wryly, "I do have a track record for changing games."
"I chose you because I knew you were the only one who could find a way out. A Starfleet officer would fail, trapped in the doctrine of cultural deference at all costs. But before you became a Starfleet officer, you were the man who wrested me by fire and sword from the ruins of Hellguard. You were Gryphon of the Wedge Defense Force. And he would find a way out."
I can't help but give her a rueful chuckle. "You still took a hell of a chance. You do realize that if I hadn't cheated, Spann would be dead and you'd be - hell, I don't even know, my wife or something."
She nods. "I was confident that you'd find a third path. Besides, there are worse fates."
I blink at her in the gloom of my night-lit cabin. "I'm... not sure how to take that."
"I apologize for the ambiguity," she says with exaggerated contrition. "It was intended as a compliment."
I eye her skeptically. "You're just messing with me now, aren't you."
"Your own strategy: When in doubt, resort to levity."
"We're probably both going to get officially yelled at," I remind her. "I'm cool with that, but... "
She shrugs. "I am indifferent to the opinion of the Vulcan authorities; especially now. Besides, I doubt T'Vrin will press the issue. If she does, her actions will be exposed to scrutiny as well... and though there are those among the priesthood who probably agree with her, privately, that I am a dangerous and unstable half-breed who needs to be taught her place," she adds with uncommon bitterness, "they would not all condone the disregard for the law she showed in arranging today's events."
"Mm," I reply, unable to think of anything more cogent than that to say.
She lets it pass, clearly not expecting great thoughts from me at this hour, and goes on in a semblance of her usual brisk, efficient manner, "At any rate, we are both exhausted; so goodnight and thank you. Without your help this matter could not have been resolved satisfactorily. But it has been, and we may go on with our lives."
"And never speak of it again, I assume," I say with a wry, relieved smile, but Saavik merely says,
"Oh, I expect we will speak of it again... if we are still serving together in seven years." Then, while I'm absorbing that remark, she kisses me on the cheek and adds, "Such is the Vulcan heart. Goodnight, Benjamin."
And then she's gone.
I stand there pondering the matter for a few moments, then sigh and mutter, "Man, today didn't happen, it only thought it happened," and go back to bed.
"The Vulcan Heart" - a Split Infinitive Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2011 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
6423 Boulevard of Champions
Fort Organa, Alderaan
Friday, August 31, 2379
"Rrrrgh. Nom. Nom nom rrrrr. NOM NOM! RRRGH!"
"Huh. Didn't know they *ate* lettuce, never mind by the head. Ain't Kilrathi obligate carnivores?"
"Scott? Honey? Can you go get the book and look up lettuce?"
* * *
Saturday, September 1, 2379
"Kelly, have you seen the video camera?"
* * *
"Well, we *were* having salad with dinner, but the lettuce seems to have disappeared."
* * *
Sunday, September 2, 2379
"SCOTT! WHY IS YOUR BROTHER ON YOUTUBE?!"
"He's famous! He got five stars and everything, Mom! Well, except from that guy who can't spell down the bottom there. What's 'pure fucking reetarted bullshark testicles' mean?"
"Lettuce" - a Future Imperfect mini-story by Janice Collier
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"Nom Nom Nom Nom Nom" by Parry Gripp, http://parrygripp.com/
"fucking reetarted" and "pure bullshark testicles" remixed from the YouTube side of http://comments.thatsaspicymeatball.com/
Tuesday, January 18, 2383
Sahrabarik system, Terminus sector
All day, Zaeed Massani had had the sneaking suspicion that someone was following him.
He had employed every trick of tradecraft he knew - which was most of them - but he'd been unable even to determine whether he really had pursuers, much less shake them off if he had. The old merc knew there were two things that could mean: that whoever was following him was really, really good; or that there was nobody there at all, and he was just being paranoid.
The prospect that he was just being paranoid didn't upset Zaeed too much. He'd survived a long career as a gun for hire because he had long cultivated a healthy dose of it. When the man in charge of the Blue Suns was one of your favored enemies it paid to keep looking over your shoulder, even if you preferred to be the hunter. On the other hand, the possibility that he was being shadowed by someone so good at it that he (or she, or it) could avoid positive detection was troubling. Vido didn't have anyone that good. Not any more.
Or maybe you're just getting old, Zaeed grumbled to himself, but he didn't really believe it. It was true that he was coming up on his 75th birthday, but 75 wasn't that old for a human these days, and his dangerous profession paradoxically meant that he'd received top-notch medical care for most of those years. He still had at least that long again in him, with luck and care, and his career could easily stretch through another four decades at least, though there were days when he felt every minute of every hard-traveled hour in his bones.
He arrived back at the Block 17 apartment he was using as a safehouse for this operation, keyed himself in, and relaxed, as much as he ever did, once he had the door locked behind him. He had two hours to kill before meeting his contact down in the Yellow Zone. If all went according to plan, he'd get the information he needed and move on to complete this contract, then head home. Omega no longer held the interest for him that it had when he'd been a younger man.
He went to the minibar and fixed himself a drink - just one, to take the edge off his slightly jangled nerves. He'd be completely clean by the time his rendezvous came. That was important. He'd never yet turned up sauced for part of a job. It would be unprofessional, and that was one thing Zaeed Massani never was.
Sipping his Scotch and water, Zaeed went to the viewport and looked out at the tumbling rocks of Omega's debris field. Part of him took notice of the room's reflection behind his own in the duracrys. Something seemed to move. He had the sudden, fleeting impression of a shadow passing over the glass coffee table.
Zaeed whirled, his free hand going to the butt of his sidearm, but there was no one there -
- until the hazy, indistinct outline of a man flickered briefly in the corner of his eye and a fist like a sledgehammer plowed into the side of his face.
As he toppled to the floor and everything went black, Zaeed thought he heard a cheerful voice cry in triumph, "Revenge!"
Zaeed came to with a sore jaw and a mild throbbing in his head, but since he hadn't expected to wake up at all, he decided he'd take the win. Opening his eyes, he looked around and found, to his mild surprise, that he was lying on the floor of his apartment, right where he'd been standing when the phantom stranger had decked him. Even his drink was right where it had fallen, right-side up near his outstretched hand, the glass unbroken thanks to the low-pile carpet.
Picking it up, Zaeed clambered to his feet, rubbed his face, and downed the rest of the drink. Nothing seemed amiss in the room - no ticking bomb or left-behind gas canister was in evidence, the door remained firmly secured. The clock on the wall informed him that he'd been out for three hours and missed his rendezvous.
"Dammit," he growled, putting the empty glass down on the coffee table. The blinking message light of the comm panel by the door caught his eye. He crossed the room and pressed the playback button, expecting to see a NO VIDEO SIGNAL screen and hear his contact complaining that he was late.
Instead, what he got was a holo of a commando-sweatered Benjamin Hutchins, looking rather pleased with himself and standing before this very panel with Zaeed sprawled on the carpet in the background.
"Hello, Zaeed," said Gryphon. "The contact you were supposed to meet in the Yellow Zone was actually a Blue Suns hit squad. Twelve guys including a heavy gunner and two phaser riflemen. This whole job was a setup from Day 1. You're getting sloppy in your old age." He smiled. "But fortunately for you, Aria got wind of it and dropped me a line. She's oddly fond of you for some reason, and I owed you a favor." The holographic Wedge Defender rubbed the knuckles of his left hand, his smile becoming slightly nasty. "And a punch in the head. And now I've given you both and we are, I hope you'll agree, completely even.
"Take care of yourself, old man. Vision would be very upset if you let yourself get killed. And if you ever want to try a steady job, we've got lots of interesting things happening in Zeta Cygni these days. Gryphon out."
The screen went blank. Zaeed stood and looked at it for a few moments.
Then, with a faint smile and a muttered, "Fuck it," he went to get himself some ice and another drink.
"Payback" - a Crossroads Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2010 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Thursday, July 4, 2396
2227 Westinghouse St.
New Avalon, Zeta Cygni
Atomic Robo looked up from his book to see his creator, Nikola Tesla, entering the workshop/townhouse they shared in a bit of a dudgeon, and with a bit of a limp.
The former Robo had been expecting. Tesla was an altogether more sociable creature than he once had been, if the accounts of his first life in the 19th and 20th centuries Robo had read were accurate, but he still disliked crowds, noise, and general jostling. So why, therefore, he had chosen to take an early evening walk on Foundation Day, when pretty much the entire population of the city of New Avalon would be out on the street celebrating and watching the fireworks, was not something Robo felt qualified to speculate about.
The limp, on the other hand, was surprising, and if Robo had had eyebrows he'd have arched one as he said, "What happened to you?"
Tesla put his hat on the stand next to the door and gave his mechanical son a half-hearted glare before limping across the workshop and taking the first-aid kit off the wall next to his workbench. Then he sat down on a settee near the bench, hiked his pants leg up, and regarded a small trickle of blood on his right calf with annoyance.
"The one year I decide to take the air and attempt to get into the spirit of Foundation Day," he grumbled, "and some clod manages to stab me with an umbrella. On a perfectly cloudless evening, no less."
Robo sat up straight in his armchair, putting down his book. "An umbrella? Are you sure?"
"Yes, Robo, I believe I can recognize an umbrella when I see one," said Tesla dryly.
Robo stood up. "Did you get a look at the guy who did it?"
"Not much of one," Tesla replied, not looking up from the first-aid kit. "I - ach, who organized this? Or rather disorganized it - was somewhat distracted, and the flow of the crowd separated us almost immediately. A foreigner of some kind."
"This city has no indigenous life forms of any kind," Robo pointed out. "Everyone's a foreigner here."
Tesla looked up, shrugged acquiescence, and went back to delving. "Fair enough. I sometimes forget this is not New York. In any event, he wasn't human. A saurian of some kind, I think. He had a tail, which I can only hope he's more adept at keeping to himself than his umbrella."
Robo's optic shutters blinked. "A saurian?"
"Yes, Robo, a saurian," Tesla repeated patiently. "A reptiloid. To use a phrase more likely to have appeared in those appalling comic books you read, a 'lizard man'."
Robo dashed to the front door, yanked it open, and plunged down the stoop to the sidewalk, looking this way and that. The effort was completely futile, of course, and he was nearly carried away from the premises by the flow of pedestrian traffic before he could lunge back into the townhouse. Having accomplished that, he strode to the settee, stood over his creator, and said urgently, "You need to get to the medical scanner. Now."
Tesla ignored him, rummaging in the first-aid kit. "It's a very small wound," he said. Holding up the items as he named them, he went on, "What I need is some antiseptic ointment and a bandage, not a bioscan." Then, with a wry glance upward, he added, "Perhaps I should've pressured you to pursue a medical degree."
But Robo would not be denied, and finally - primarily just to placate him - Tesla permitted himself to be half-led, half-dragged to the Medicom 1500 diagnostic unit in the corner of the shop and subjected to a full-body scan. This, as he had expected, reported only that he had a minor puncture wound in his right calf, and recommended that he apply some antiseptic ointment and a bandage.
"Hmm, well, what a surprise," said Tesla mildly as he finished applying same. "I trust you don't require a recalibration," he added. "I never thought your automatic intelligence could develop paranoia..."
Robo stood looking out one of the windows at the passing foot traffic and didn't reply for a few moments. Then he said distractedly, "No... sorry. Must just have been something I read."
"Mm." Tesla finished bandaging himself, brushed down his pants leg, and set about rearranging the contents of the first-aid kit.
Tuesday, May 6, 2397
"The Shippodrome" Warehouse
Puckett's Landing, New Avalon
"You know," said Atomic Robo conversationally, "I can't decide what's more embarrassing. That you actually captured me again, or that I honestly have no idea what you even came back to town for."
"Bah!" the saurian figure at the controls of the giant electromagnet replied dismissively. "There is no shame in being defeated by my superior reptilian intellect! I defeated you with genius! And a magnet."
"Yeah, see, that's what I'm talking about, right there," said Robo wearily. "I have got to see about developing some kind of diamagnetic frammistat so this stops happening."
Doctor Dinosaur hissed. "You insist I cannot really be a dinosaur and yet you still persist in your pathetic robo-mammal superstition about diamagnetism!"
Robo closed his optics, stayed entirely still for four seconds, then opened them again and said, "Can we just move on to the part where you tell me what this is about, please?"
"Certainly," Dr. Dinosaur replied with exaggerated cordiality. "I called you here - "
"You were caught on a security camera robbing a Babies 'R' Us," Robo interrupted. "Speaking of which, why?"
"I called you here," Dr. Dinosaur overrode him, "to witness my final triumph and know the shape of your impending doom!"
"That doesn't even make sense."
Ignoring him, Dr. Dinosaur whipped away the cloth cover of the object standing next to the magnet controls, about which, though he would never have admitted it out loud, Robo had been powerfully curious since regaining consciousness.
Gesturing over the item thus revealed with one clawed hand, the reptilian scientist declared grandly, "Behold! - the ultimate weapon of Doctor Dinosaur!"
Six seconds of utter silence ensued.
Then Atomic Robo said, in a completely baffled tone of voice, "... That's a baby. How can a baby be a weapon? Oh God you know what don't even answer that."
Dr. Dinosaur smiled a jagged, gleaming smile and said, "This is no ordinary mammalian spawnworm. This is the key to the fall of all you hold dear! Using my reptilian genius, I easily unpicked your maker's simplistic monkey DNA from a sample of his blood, which I obtained through bold and daring action!"
Dr. Dinosaur struck without warning - without mercy - without restraint, jabbing the point of his umbrella into the unsuspecting inventor's leg, then sprinted away into the crowd. Unnoticed by the witless herds of primates, he reached the underground train station in moments and, safely headed uptown in the hindmost car of a Gold Line train, carefully transferred the precious blood sample to a sealed vial.
Only then did he permit himself a triumphant laugh, which welled up from within him and rang to the far corners of the subway car - indeed, in his triumph-soaked mind, to the far corners of the city, of the pseudocontinent itself.
"Hey, buddy," said the transit cop at the front of the car. "Keep it down, willya? This ain't your secret lab in here, Dr. Frankenstein."
"Ahem. Of course. My apologies, Officer. Behold, a quiet, law-abiding citizen."
Robo blinked. "You cloned Mr. Tesla?! What the hell for?"
"I did far better than simply clone him," Dr. Dinosaur replied stuffily. "I improved on the original! My version is one of your mammal females - "
"Technically I'm not a mammal, I'm a robot."
" - which my research indicates are more suggestible than the males - "
"Pff. Where do you do your 'research'? It doesn't even say that on Galactipedia any more."
" - and I will raise her as my disciple," Dr. Dinosaur went doggedly on, ignoring all of Robo's interruptions. "She will grow to adulthood believing wholeheartedly in my superior genius! And then, once her brain is fully grown, I will - with her willing cooperation - wrest from it every secret of your maker's inventions, past, present, and future! I will then have countermeasures for everything he will ever think of - including whatever replacement he may devise for you! MUUUAAAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"
Atomic Robo stared at him for several more silent seconds.
"That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard," he said flatly.
Dr. Dinosaur recoiled, his fanged jaws opening wide in scorn and disbelief. "Whaaat? It's brilliant! You are misinterpreting the sensation of being dumbstruck with awe."
Robo appeared to consider this in all good faith for a moment, then shook his head. "Nnnno, I don't think so. Pretty sure it's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
"Bah! Your primitive metal brain is merely incapable of perceiving the grandeur of my plan!"
"I gotta admit, you do think big," Robo said. "But only you could simultaneously be smart enough to make a Heinleinian she-clone of Mr. Tesla and stupid enough to think that genetics or neuroscience work that way. That's - I don't even - that's not even Lysenko-Lamarckism, it's... " Robo searched for the word, then gave up and said, "It's dumb is what it is."
Dr. Dinosaur folded his arms. "Hmph," he said. "Well. If you can't appreciate the magnificence of my victory, then I suppose I have no further use for you." He reached toward a large red button on the magnet control panel. "Except as scrap metal to be incorporated into my disciple's toys," he added.
Before he could reach the button, the reptile was distracted by the sudden, incandescent disintegration of the warehouse's main rolling steel door - and in strode Nikola Tesla, the cooling vanes on his Mark XI Tri-Polar Oscillator Pistol glowing a lambent orange.
"Dr. Dinosaur, I presume," he said calmly.
Dr. Dinosaur hissed and looked as if he might be prepared to make a fight of it, until the company of TacDiv bluesuiters and grey-coveralled Action Science League personnel flooded into the place behind Tesla; then, cursing, the reptilian scientist reached to snatch up the baby basket and make his escape.
"I really wouldn't," said one of the bluesuiters, shouldering his blaster carbine.
"Be careful, he's - " Robo called, but before he could finish the sentence, Dr. Dinosaur had lashed out with his tail and knocked the man down, then run him bodily over and sprinted out of the warehouse with the rest of that squad on his heels.
" - cunning," Robo finished to no one in particular.
A few moments later, Tesla switched off the magnet, letting Robo fall from the wall, then holstered his Tri-Polar Oscillator and stepped over to look down with some bemusement into the basket. Robo picked himself up off the floor and hobbled stiffly over to stand next to him. Together they regarded the baby in silence for a few moments.
Then, slightly to Robo's shock, Tesla smiled. "Hello, little one," he said. "You've had an exciting day, eh? But you don't seem to be letting it bother you."
The baby blinked large brown eyes back at him and, unsurprisingly, said nothing, but Robo noted that - in spite of the chaos and noise that had lately filled her world - she didn't appear particularly put out by it. She was looking around with what seemed like an air of distinct interest in spite of her infant status.
From outside there came the noise of a vehicle; then one of the Action Scientists rounded the disintegrated door and limped toward Tesla.
"He escaped?" said Tesla, not appearing particularly upset.
"Yessir," Dr. Carruthers replied, nodding sheepishly. "With one of the AV-12s."
Tesla smiled slightly. "Ah, well, he won't get far. They don't work beyond the city limits. Best inform Headquarters, and then get started securing and dismantling this facility."
"Right away, sir," said Carruthers; she didn't salute, because it wasn't the done thing in the Action Science League, but there was something of that in her bearing as she turned and limped back toward the door.
"And get that leg looked at," Tesla called after her.
"Yessir," Carruthers replied.
Tesla watched her go, then looked down at the infant again. "Well, Robo... what is the story here?"
Robo told him.
"Hmm," said Tesla.
"What... what are we going to do with her?" Robo wondered.
Tesla turned to regard him for a moment, then reached and picked up the baby's basket by its overarching handle.
"I suppose we'll have to take her home and raise her," he said, the same way a normal person might have said, "I suppose we'll have to buy groceries."
Robo blinked. "Uh... "
Tesla looked at him. "Yes?"
"Um... well... I mean... no offense, Mr. Tesla, but... you? Raise a child?"
"She won't be my first," Tesla pointed out mildly.
"I came online with a mental age of about twenty," Robo pointed out. "And I don't... you know... poop."
"Pssh," said Tesla, starting briskly toward the door. "You worry too much, Robo. How hard can it be?"
"Dr. Dinosaur's Ultimate Weapon" - a Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
based on Atomic Robo by Clevinger and Wegener
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
©2011 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Monday, January 11, 2410
High-Energy Phenomena Laboratory
Sublevel G, International Police Headquarters
New Avalon, Zeta Cygni
Caitlin Fairchild normally liked going to work. She enjoyed her job, and she knew she was making a difference as one of the IPO's key researchers into high-energy phenomena. The principles they explored in the HEP Lab helped the IPO's engineers devise defenses and countermeasures for a wide range of weapons and other dangerous things the many and varied adversaries of the organization's galactic peacekeeping mission came up with, keeping both IPO personnel and regular people safe from all manner of harm. The work was interesting and meaningful, rarely a day went by when there wasn't something new, and her co-workers were a first-rate group. The laboratory's director was the galaxy's acknowledged authority on Getter rays, which she had made her own personal field of specialization, so she couldn't really envision working anywhere else.
There were days, though, when it all seemed like more trouble than it was worth. Lately, there had been a lot more of them than usual.
She arrived on the express elevator to Sublevel G this particular Monday morning to find Barney Calhoun, the HEP Lab's security chief, sitting at the reception desk looking like a dog someone had kicked. Her heart sank within her. She knew that look. It meant this was going to be one of the bad days.
"Morning, Barney," she said.
Calhoun looked up and half-heartedly smiled. He liked Fairchild; she was a first-rate scientist, like all of them down here, but she didn't put on airs or act like she was better than the security people just because she was (on some level) smarter. The boss was like that, too.. on his good days... but mousy little Caitlin Fairchild was even milder-mannered than the boss at his best, and the boss hadn't been at his best in... some time.
"Hey, Dr. Fairchild," he said. "I had a bunch of messages for you, but we had a system crash about 20 minutes ago and I'm still tryin' to find my files. Just one of those days, I guess." He hesitated, as if reluctant to say what he had to say next, then went on in an apologetic tone, "The Director wanted to see you when you got in."
Fairchild sighed. "Is that bad," she asked, collecting her mail from its pigeonhole on the lobby's back wall, "or really bad?"
"He's been worse," said Calhoun doggedly, then muttered almost inaudibly, "At least a little worse."
"I guess I'd better get it over with, then," said Fairchild. She badged her way through the inner door and went down the hall toward the laboratory director's office at the end. Before she was halfway there she could hear the yelling through the closed door; when she was twenty feet or so away, it opened and Mark Irving, the lab's administrative assistant, emerged, clutching a disorganized sheaf of files and, Fairchild was shocked to see, weeping bitterly.
"What happened?" she asked, stopping to help Mark organize his files a little better and keep him from dropping them again.
"I don't know how you people can put up with it," Mark replied, "but I'm not going to, not any more. They couldn't pay me enough to keep working for that horrible man." Then he broke away and rushed off down the hall, trailing muffled sobs and scattered sheets of paper in his wake.
Fairchild watched him go, then turned back toward the director's office with a sinking feeling. She was grappling with the idea that it might be better to just follow him out and find another job. She'd heard the Alternate Technologies Division at Roxxon Energy was hiring...
Before she could make up her mind, the door opened again and the laboratory's director put his head out into the hall. Disheveled, unshaven, his lab coat crumpled, he looked like he'd just woken up under a bridge on the afternoon after a kinghell bender, and his red-rimmed eyes did nothing to dispel the image. Fairchild was taken aback once more, this time by his appearance. He hadn't looked his best lately, but she had never seen him even half so poorly off as this. Pasty and sallow, his stubbly cheeks gaunt, he looked ill, not just tired or angry.
"Irving!" R. Bruce Banner roared in a voice that seemed as if it could hardly have come from such a narrow chest. "Get back here with those - " He trailed off, recognizing that his quarry wasn't within sight, then rounded on Fairchild. "What are you staring at?" he demanded.
"Dr. Banner, are you - " Fairchild paused, realizing that she wasn't sure if she'd been about to ask him, " - all right?" or " - drunk?"
"Yes!" the haggard figure in the director's doorway replied with acid sarcasm. "Dr. Banner am I! I congratulate you on your perspicacity, Dr. Fairchild! Is there something I can do for you, or were you just standing in the hallway for lack of any better ideas?"
Fairchild firmly suppressed a sharp reply of her own, pressed her lips into a flat line, and replied coldly, "You told Agent Calhoun you wanted to see me when I got in."
"Oh! Did I?" Banner replied. Glancing theatrically at his wristwatch, he went on, "It was so long ago that I had quite forgotten! Perhaps in future you can come to the laboratory when your shift is actually scheduled to begin, and we can avoid all these unpleasant brushes with the linear human perception of spacetime. Did you see where Irving went? In the process of scattering files all over my office, he managed to make off with one I actually needed."
Without bothering to mention that she hadn't been late for work, Fairchild replied flatly, "He's gone up to HR. To tender his resignation."
Banner blinked at her, appearing genuinely puzzled. "What the hell for?" he asked.
Before she could stop herself, Fairchild replied, "I would imagine to get away from you."
For a moment Banner seemed to expand slightly, as if inflating in a precursor to another burst of wrath; but then, instead of erupting again, he sagged, his shoulders rounding off, and he looked - if possible - even sicklier than before.
"Oh, God," he muttered, rubbing both hands down his face. "I've done it again, haven't I?"
When she registered the look of utter horror and exhaustion on her colleague's drawn face, Fairchild felt her annoyance almost instantly replaced with concern. Taking a half-step toward him, she asked, "What's the matter, Dr. Banner?"
"I... " Banner looked for a moment like he might try to tell her; but then his face shut down and he looked away, covering his eyes with his hand. "... oh God, my head," he mumbled, then turned and plunged back into his office with a sort of desperate energy.
"Dr. Banner - " Fairchild tried again, but Banner only shouted through the closing door,
"Leave me alone!"
Fairchild stood looking at his closed door for a moment, then turned and hurried to her own, rather smaller, office a few doors down. Slipping behind her desk, she picked up the phone, pressed the green button in the lower right corner, and said, "This is Caitlin Fairchild in HEP," pronouncing the letters individually. "I need to speak to Agent Durgo. Urgently."
Bruce Banner was sitting at his desk, staring disconsolately into the lambent green glow of his Lens, when his office door beeped an override and his boss slipped inside. He looked up at her, red-eyed and miserable, and said nothing.
Skuld Ravenhair regarded him for a few seconds, then said, "So. I hear you're not feeling so well lately."
Banner laughed hollowly. "That's a polite way of putting it." He slumped in his chair, his hands slack on his desk blotter, and said hopelessly, "I think I'm losing my mind."
"Hmm. Well, we can't have that," said Skuld. "Also, I'm told that if something isn't done soon, your whole science team is going to quit en masse and go work for Roxxon. That'd be bad on a number of levels." She rounded his desk and said, "Let me see your Lens."
Banner held up his left hand and sat passively while Skuld examined the gem strapped to his wrist, making occasional "hmm" noises. Then she said, "OK. I'm going to level with you. I think I may have screwed up."
He raised an eyebrow. "You? Screw up?"
"Yep. That's your cosmic lesson for the day: Even the gods screw up. In fact," Skuld added wryly, "if you've read any Norse mythology, it shows we screw up on a pretty regular basis. However!" she went briskly on. "I'm pretty sure I know what I did and how to fix it. It'll probably be hard work, harder now than it would've if I'd caught my mistake when I made it, but... " She shrugged. "Still fixable. The question is, do you want me to try again? It's totally up to you. It's your dharma we're talking about, after all."
Banner regarded her for a few long moments, his face unmoving; then he said, "My answer's the same as it was the first time. If you think you can help, then do it." With a wan half-smile, he added, "I'm not really in a position to hold anyone's initial miscalculations against them... "
Skuld chuckled. "That's the spirit," she said. Without relinquishing his left wrist, she reached to his desk phone, punched the blue button, and said, "Barney, Dr. Banner's leaving the office for a while. Just log him on special assignment, s'il vous plait."
"Roger that, ma'am," Barney replied.
"OK, lock your terminal, Dr. Banner," said Skuld as she switched off the intercom. "You're going to Valhalla!" Then, realizing how her remark might be interpreted, she went a little red and added, "Not in that way. Hang on!"
"OK, here's the deal," Skuld said, raising her voice slightly to be heard over the icy wind that was howling across the snow-swept, night-bathed plateau on which they now stood. "Your problem? Is this."
So saying, she did something with the hand that still held Banner's wrist, and with a metallic click, he felt her hold release. His hand fell slack to his side. Next to him, Skuld held up his Lens, now dark, twisting gently in the wind on its unlatched band.
Already beginning to shiver, Banner blinked at her in horrified astonishment. "But - I need that to - "
"No, see, that's the problem. You don't need it to. In fact, making you think you needed it to was just about the worst thing we could have done at the time."
Banner began shivering in the cold. With his right hand, he drew his lab coat tighter around his shoulders, while his left reached vaguely for the Lens. "But - "
"But nothing, Bruce." She regarded the dark Lens for a moment, then glanced at Banner, who was beginning to go slightly blue. He was staring at the gem the way an addict looks at a fix that's being held just out of his reach, and she knew that if she held it there in his sight any longer, he'd forget himself entirely and try to take it from her soon.
So, and since neither of them was going to need it any longer, she dismissed it, letting it dissolve in a spray of bright green sparks that scattered in the wind and were gone.
"No - !" Banner cried, lunging toward where the sparks had vanished. Then he turned back to Skuld and said, "Do you have any idea what you just did?!"
"Of course I do. I told you, it's going to take hard work to fix this mess. This is how it starts. You probably ought to just take your lab coat off," she added. "If you don't, it's just going to get ruined."
"You - you want me to change?!" Banner blurted.
"I need you to change," Skuld replied imperturbably.
Already going numb with the cold, feeling the rising panic about to overwhelm him, Banner had just enough time to choke out, "Well, you're about to get your wish," and then his eyes went bright green and the transformation began.
Skuld stood and watched, as fascinated as she'd been the first time she had seen it happen, while Bruce Banner's frail body grew and changed. It was almost like a time-lapse image of a plant growing, the physicist's form bursting upward and outward into a massively muscled, green-skinned creature that still bore the shape of a person, but one distorted to almost comical extremes of breadth and power - more like an ogre, to Skuld's Asgardian sensibilities, or a particularly brawny troll, than a man. No ogre had ever had that emerald skin tone, though, nor so human a face - for even distorted by its enormous growth and twisted with fury, the face of this creature was still plainly human.
Freed from his confinement in the depths of Banner's mind for the first time since the Zeltos Incident the previous spring and only the second time in several years, the Incredible Hulk threw back his huge head and roared into the icy, star-spangled sky for near-on a minute. Then he spotted Skuld and got really angry.
"You!" he bellowed, his voice deep and hoarse. "Hulk know you! You help Banner. Help him trap Hulk! Say you tame Hulk!" He clenched his enormous fists, looming over her. "Put Hulk in dark!"
Skuld stood her ground, looking him straight in the eye. "I did. I'm sorry. I didn't know any better at the time. I brought you here to put things right."
"You help Banner send Hulk away once before. Now you try to trick Hulk! Hulk not listen to you!"
And so saying, the Hulk turned and leaped away into the night, despite his complete lack of any idea where he was or where he was going.
General, we have him, came the mental voice of her adjutant, Colonel Brynhildr Silverspear, through her Lens. The tracking instruments you provided work perfectly. Should we intercept?
Negative, Skuld replied. Just make sure he stays within the proving ground and let him do his thing. I'm pretty sure he'll stay; there's plenty to smash. Hulk likes smashing things. It helps him think.
I can tell when you're being sarcastic, Brynhildr reminded her.
Just let him vent, Skuld said. I have to prepare Phase 2.
She stood alone in the snowy waste for a moment, listening to the distant roars and crashes as the Hulk managed his anger; then she turned and walked away.
Dawn, and the Hulk sat amid the ruins of what had been a simulated Jotun village - part of the Valkyrie training ground in the highlands north of the Golden City. Having spent the evening destroying same, the Hulk was as content as the Hulk ever got.
At least until the tall, red-skinned woman in the black uniform showed up.
"Hey there, big guy," she said, leaning jauntily against a still-upright fragment of a shattered wall. "Taking a break?"
The Hulk glanced up at her, frowning. "Leave Hulk alone," he said.
"OK," the woman replied affably. "Before I go, though, I just want to say I'm impressed. You are seriously good at smashing stuff." She gestured to the remains of the training compound. "If this was an actual Jotun village, they'd be flattered by the job you've done. They'd rename it in your honor when they put it back up. It'd be worth bragging points to live in Hulkheim. I mean it, dude, you are an artist." She grinned and socked a fist into the opposite palm. "An artist of SMASH."
The Hulk grunted. "Hulk not hear that much."
The red woman sat down on a chunk of rubble a few yards away. "I know, right?" she said companionably. "Usually it's 'look at the mess you've made' or 'what kind of monster are you' or 'my God, it's heading this way.' A lot of the time they don't even engage with you, and when they do it's just to yell at you or talk down to you." She blew out a sigh, puffing her cheeks. "I been there, man. About a million times, growing up. It ain't fun."
The Hulk regarded her for a moment, saying nothing.
"Sorry, I said I'd leave you alone, didn't I?" The woman started to get up, but the Hulk gave another noncommittal grunt.
"Red lady can stay," he said. "Hulk not care."
She sat back down again; for a minute or two they just sat there looking at each other in silence.
Then the Hulk said, "Hulk bored."
The black-clad woman looked around. "Yeah, you've kinda run out of stuff to smash here, huh." She got up. "Tell you what! I know where there's a whole bunch of stuff you can smash, and nobody'll yell at you about it. You'll be doing people a favor." She grinned again. "Whaddaya say? Let's give it a try."
The Hulk clambered to his feet, looking intrigued. "No one yell at Hulk?"
"Nope. And if you do a good job, there's mead after!"
"Hulk not know what that is."
"You'll like it. Trust me."
Bruce Banner was accustomed to waking up without any idea where he was, with a worn and aching body, with a looming sense of dread over what may have happened during the recent blank space in his memory, and without any pants on. As such, what happened to him the next morning was not, in general terms, really all that weird.
Waking up in a bed with such preconditions, on the other hand, that was new. It usually happened in a cave somewhere, or out in the desert, or deep in the woods, not in a well-turned-out bedroom in some kind of heavy-timbered, high-ceilinged ski lodge type of place. There was even a window on the far wall with a spectacular view of some snowy peaks off in the distance, assuming it wasn't a holo or something.
As such, it was an even more deeply disoriented Bruce Banner than usual who sat up and looked around the room, trying in vain to piece together what in the world had happened to him in the previous 24 to 48 hours. He was, in fact, so disoriented that it did not immediately occur to him to be surprised that there was a woman in bed with him.
When it did occur to him, he recoiled in surprise, nearly falling off the side of the bed. In response, she blinked awake, yawned, and gave him a lazy smile.
"Good morning, Dr. Banner," she said. "I trust you slept well."
Banner sat with the covers bunched around his waist and stared at her, dumbfounded, as she got out of bed, picked a black uniform off the back of a nearby chair, and climbed into it. There was, he noticed now that she was standing, an awful lot of her. She had to be seven feet tall and proportioned accordingly, like a somewhat oversized statue of some ancient, athletic divinity or other.
Oh, and she was red. Bright red, with slightly glowing yellow eyes.
"What the hell," Banner muttered.
The red woman finished buckling on a pair of biker-ish boots, straightened, made sure all her long black hair was clear of her collar, and smiled at him again. "You don't remember me at all, do you? Hmm. That's interesting. Well, all will be revealed soon enough... so to speak," she added with a grinning wink. Banner felt his face go hot and said nothing. "In the meantime, I've got to go to work, but you make yourself at home, sweetie. The shower's through there, there are pants in the wardrobe, coffee's downstairs, and Dr. J will be here to see you in half an hour." She went briskly to the door, then paused and blew him a kiss. "See you around, hon."
Banner sat alone in the comfortable, homey room for a few moments, utterly at a loss.
Then he said, "'Hon'?!" and went to have a shower.
Outside the chalet, the red woman met Skuld with a grin and a salute.
"Phase 2 complete, General!" she reported cheerfully.
Skuld tried and mostly failed to give her a stern look. "I think you may have exceeded your instructions, Betty."
Betty snorted. "Yeah, well, you're not gonna hear him complaining," she said, angling a thumb back toward the chalet.
Back inside, Banner finished showering, got dressed in the unfamiliar but well-fitting clothes he found in the wardrobe, went downstairs, and had some coffee in the startlingly modern, Bauhaus-esque kitchen, wondering whether what was happening to him was still part of Skuld's plan.
It would have helped him in that analysis if he had known what Skuld's plan even was. He knew it was supposed to help him out with his Hulk problem, though how destroying his Lens and stranding him in Valhalla was supposed to help (if that's where he even was), he wasn't sure about. He felt pretty relaxed right now, even considering his absurd situation, but all it would take was another panic attack, or a flash of temper, or a spike of particularly intense frustration, to trigger another transformation... and another rampage.
He sighed. He knew Skuld well enough by now to know that even if she were here for him to ask, she wouldn't give him a straight answer. She didn't work that way. Maybe couldn't work that way when dealing in the high metaphysics involved in the making and maintenance of Lensmen. Banner didn't really know - magic was a long way from his field - but it seemed not entirely unreasonable that that might be the case. And in any event, the notion was comforting, because it would mean that she wasn't just messing with him.
As he had that thought, he heard the chalet's front door open and close, then the sound of footsteps in the hallway. There was a brief pause - sound of the coat closet by the entrance being opened and shut - and then a man walked into the kitchen from the foyer and smiled at Banner. He was of average height and slim, and would have been unremarkable in appearance if not for the way he was dressed. In his high-collared shirt, neatly knotted cravat, waistcoat and black frock coat, he looked like pictures Banner had seen of Victorian physicians making their rounds.
This impression was not in any way dispelled by his voice when he spoke: "Aha. Dr. Banner, I presume! No, don't get up, dear fellow." He sat down on the chrome stool opposite Banner's at the kitchen island. "I imagine you must have many questions."
"Only three of any real importance," Banner replied. "Where am I? How did I get here? And who are you?"
"You are in the home of Bèthildr Forgeheart, one of Lady Skuld's Valkyrie. You came here under your own power and of your own free will, or rather your alter ego did. And I," he continued, rising and making his way to the Keurig, "am a doctor." While he set up the machine to make him his own cup of coffee, he went on, "One whose area of expertise happens uniquely to suit him for undertaking the task of helping you with your problem." Turning to face Banner, he smiled again and gave a short but courteous bow. "My name is Jekyll, my dear sir. Henry Jekyll, MD, at your service."
Banner blinked at him.
"I thought you were a myth," he said. "And dead."
Jekyll laughed gaily. "You're drinking coffee in the mountain retreat of a Valkyrie fire giantess, Doctor. Is either consideration really an obstacle to my presence under those conditions?"
Banner had to concede that he had a point.
"In any event, you've heard of me, so that simplifies matters," Jekyll went on, collecting his coffee. "Come, let's adjourn to Miss Forgeheart's excellent sitting room and get started. We have a lot of work to do, you and I."
Feeling a strange mixture of hope and extreme skepticism, Banner carried his coffee through a soaring polished-pine arch and into a living room that was, as Jekyll had said, excellent - a great open space with a high timbered ceiling, oversized and overstuffed furniture, and an enormous sweep of full-length windows which revealed that the whole room was cantilevered out into a majestic canyon dividing the mountains he'd glimpsed from upstairs before. It was gorgeous and ever-so-slightly vertigo-inducing, so Banner was glad of the presence of the vast and fluffy sofa as he sank into one end of it, holding his coffee cup carefully upright.
Jekyll took a seat in a matching armchair opposite, crossing his legs elegantly at the knee, sipped his coffee, and then asked without preamble, "Dr. Banner, what do you think the Hulk is?"
Banner blinked at him. "What do I think he is?" he said.
"I... he's... " Banner stared into his coffee for a moment, then looked up at his improbable interlocutor and said firmly, "He's a monster. He's.. the dark parts of me, set loose to plague the world. Destruction and hatred. Mindless rage."
Jekyll nodded. "You hate him."
"Of course I hate him!" Banner snapped. "He's everything I've spent my life trying not to be. When he's set free, he leaves my life in ruins. He's me, reduced to a mindless animal, but given almost limitless power."
"That's the second time you've used that word," Jekyll observed. "Mindless. Do you really think the Hulk has no mind?"
"Of course he doesn't. I am the Hulk, and yet my time as him is just a white-hot blankness in my memory. Everything that makes me human blotted out by rage."
"And so he makes you angry. Bit of a vicious circle, that."
"I've learned to control it. It's not likely these days that I can make myself angry enough to change. Some outside stimulus is required for that. Although... " Banner hesitated. "Since I got my Lens, keeping him at bay without it is... harder. I guess because I've gotten so used to relying on it that I'm out of practice."
"Your original Lens enabled you to be the Hulk, but keep your own mind. That must have been extraordinary."
"I thought it would be, but it was actually disappointing," Banner admitted. "I always felt self-conscious as the Hulk. As if someone was watching me and... " He shrugged. "Finding my performance wanting, maybe? I'm not sure how to describe it. There was always a sense of frustration, like I could never really reach my potential that way."
"What would you say if I told you there was someone watching?" Jekyll asked. "Someone for whom your Lens was a constant torment, whose every day while you wore it was filled with pain, and cold, and darkness?"
Banner raised an eyebrow. "What the hell are you talking about?" he asked.
"I'm talking, Dr. Banner, about the Hulk."
Banner stared at him. It took him a few moments to find his voice again. When he did, what he said was, "That's ridiculous."
"Is it? Your Lens enabled you to hijack the Hulk's body and use it as if it were your own. Hence your constant sense of dissociation while in his stolen form."
"You're talking like the Hulk is a separate person," Banner objected.
"He is," Jekyll replied calmly. "That's what Skuld failed to understand when she made your first Lens. Do you remember her telling you that she thought she had blundered? That's what she was talking about. She assumed, as you did, that the Hulk's mind was simply your own with most of your... let's call them your more cerebral qualities... blotted out by anger. It's not. It is a separate consciousness all its own. One built from elements of your personality, surely, but not your personality."
"That's absurd," Banner said. "You're telling me that on top of all my other problems, I have a split personality?"
Jekyll shook his head. "You aren't listening, Doctor. The Hulk is not an alternate personality. If that were the case, he would still be you... but the problem is, he isn't. He shares your body, but not your mind." He held up his hands, palms up and outward. "Two souls... " He closed his hands into a double fist. "... one body. Two people; one physical being."
"I don't believe in that kind of mysticism," Banner protested.
"You're sitting in a Valkyrie's living room and still you bleat about mysticism!" Jekyll said. "You're a scientist, Dr. Banner. Use your scientific mind. You know the Spengler phenomenon is real; you may not be a paraphysicist, but you must have covered the subject at least lightly in undergraduate general physics." He sighed faintly. "In a way, this would actually be simpler if you were dead."
Banner gave him a skeptical look. "I beg your pardon?"
"By that I mean the explanation would take care of itself," Jekyll said. "If you had come to Valhalla the usual way, as I did, it'd be as plain as day. I'd be talking to you both at once. When I perished, many years ago, my 'other' and I arrived here separately. It was the first time we'd ever seen each other face to face." He chuckled. "Quite a revelation, I assure you."
When Banner didn't reply, Jekyll went on, "At any rate, Dr. Banner, what you were doing didn't work. You've tried suppressing the Hulk; it didn't work. All it did was torture him and make you deeply unpleasant to be around. And threaten your life, by the way. If you had kept on trying to ignore the discomfort you were feeling and focus through it, in all likelihood you would eventually have suffered a fatal stroke."
Banner frowned. "So my options are to suppress the Hulk, which will kill me, or let him keep destroying my life?"
"Not at all. What you and your 'other' must do is learn to live with each other. You need to see each other not as enemies to be loathed, feared, and avoided, but as what you are. You're brothers, Dr. Banner. Complementary beings. At the risk of sounding a bit new-age about it, you must learn to accept the Hulk... and teach him to accept you, which may be the harder of the two tasks now that you've spent several years subjecting him to the torture of wearing another man's Lens."
Banner blinked. "Another - "
"Exactly. Your Lens was made for you, not him. All the time you wore it, it tore at him. Tried to snuff him out. It only failed because his soul is apparently as invincible as the rest of him... but it can't have been any fun."
Banner took a few silent moments to take all that on board. He wasn't sure he believed Jekyll's thesis that the Hulk was an independent being with his own soul and feelings - beyond believing it, he wasn't sure whether he could accept it - but if it was true...
"Where would I even start?" he asked.
"You already have," Jekyll replied mildly, sipping his coffee. "Our next step, though, needs to be creating a channel of communication between the two of you. Unless you can communicate, you're never going to reach any kind of balance."
"How are we going to do that?"
"Well... I suppose we ought to start with the simplest method first," Jekyll said. He reached into his inside pocket and removed a small device, then leaned forward and placed it on the coffee table between them. "Do you have anything you'd like to say to the Hulk, Dr. Banner?"
For the first week they worked on some simple talk therapy, getting Banner used to the idea of thinking of the Hulk as a person. He made recordings of his thoughts, first cathartic, then more rational, until the exercise came to seem more like making an audio journal for a friend or distant relative's later perusal than an act of psychoanalytic outreach (or inreach, he supposed). In between, there were methods of meditation to study, calming techniques Jekyll had picked up in the mysterious East during his first life. Banner didn't see the woman whose house he inhabited again during all that time.
In the second week, Jekyll pronounced him ready to leave the mountains and venture into the Golden City. They went to the great hall of Valhalla and spent what seemed like a few days prowling its nigh-infinite corridors, speaking to ancient masters and sages. Banner had studied these matters a little bit during his time as a fugitive, hoping they could help him keep the raging beast within him in check, but it had never availed him much. Now, though, he didn't have that ultimate (and, if Jekyll was to be believed, ultimately misguided) goal in mind, and it seemed to come more easily, or make more sense, or both.
In the third week, they went back to the rubble-strewn proving ground where the Hulk had first come to Valhalla, and Jekyll said, "So far we've just been concentrating on you. Now it's time to bring the other party into the picture."
Banner blinked at him. "I beg your pardon?"
"Your transformations to date have been involuntary," Jekyll said. "Obviously, that won't do going forward." So saying, he closed his eyes and, with a quiet smile on his face, took a deep breath -
- and changed, with a minimum of fuss, from a slim, calmly handsome, sandy-haired gentleman into a huge, enormously broad-shouldered, beetle-browed man with bristling black hair and side whiskers. His clothes changed with him, in a manner that defied Banner's direct observation, from the slightly dandified gentleman's finery Jekyll favored into a coarser, more workmanlike, but still distinctly anachronistic ensemble whose key features were a bottle-green vest and a pair of big, chunky black boots that looks very suitable for kicking in doors (and possibly heads).
"So 'Enry an' me," said Mr. Edward Hyde in an accent that owed more to Seven Dials than St. George's, "'ave a few tricks to teach."
"That went well," Henry Jekyll remarked from a fragment of reflective metal that jutted from the ground near where Hyde had come to rest.
Hyde, unperturbed, picked himself up and dusted fragments of brick from his sleeves.
"Give 'im time, 'Enry," he replied equably. "Early days yet."
So saying, he set off to follow the Hulk and make sure he didn't leave the proving ground.
Days went by, then weeks, as Banner and the Hulk worked separately along their parallel tracks. Each "woke" to find messages left by the other, at first rebarbative, later more civil, eventually even conciliatory. Banner found himself waking next to the mountain house's owner again on a more or less regular basis, and after the first few times he wasn't even taken aback by it any more, particularly after one morning's voice mail message from his other:
"Uh... right. This Hulk. Listen. Um... Hulk really like Betty. Hulk think him and Betty might have a... uh... thing." (Long pause.) "Puny Banner not screw this up for Hulk, OK?"
At first he felt more than a little odd at the realization that the Hulk was apparently developing a social life during his time at large, but he supposed it beat waking up to find that he'd wrecked a town and had half the army hunting for him. Just so long as he didn't wake one morning to find that his alter ego and the towering red warrior woman had had some kind of falling out while he was "away".
Truth to tell, Banner found that he rather liked Betty himself. Not in that way - his sense of self-preservation, if nothing else, intervened there - but she was fun-loving and unpretentious, easy to talk to, and not at all self-conscious about the fact that she was in the habit of waking up next to a man who, for most of her apparent boyfriend's "life", had been his most hated enemy. She didn't go into any details about what her relationship with the Hulk might entail, for which Banner was grateful, but she was otherwise an excellent source of information about what the other side of Banner's being was like - as was Hyde, with whom the Hulk had apparently become drinking buddies after their initial fight.
This was almost as eye-opening as the voice mails. He would never have thought, for instance, that the Hulk had anything approaching a sense of humor, nor a sense of childlike wonder, but according to Betty and Hyde, he had both. In fact, "childlike" was the adjective that most often emerged when they talked about the Hulk.
One day, over their morning coffee, Betty remarked, "The Hulk has decided that he ought to have a proper name."
Banner nearly choked on his coffee, recovered himself, and said, "I'm sorry?"
"For when you go home again," she clarified. "He's going to need his own identity documents and whatnot, as an agent of the IPO, and he doesn't think 'The Hulk' works as an official name. I mean, it's his Name," she said, somehow contriving to pronounce the capital letter, "but... " She shrugged. "He's funny about that kind of thing. It's like he figures having a Real Grown-Up Name is an important part of his... you know, becoming an actual person, as opposed to some kind of monster people run away from."
Banner stared at her. "That's pretty deep for him," he remarked.
Betty chuckled. "After all you've learned in the last few months, you still underestimate him," she said, shaking her head. "He's not stupid. He's just... " She paused, thinking. "Well, in Midgard it's usually used to mean stupid, but in Jotunheim we would call him a simple soul. You'd probably use a bigger word. 'Uncomplicated', maybe."
Banner nodded. "I understand. It does surprise me - it surprises me every time I'm reminded that he's more than I used to think he was. It takes a lot of getting used to, the idea that he's... not just a monster."
"Well, when you do finally grasp that, on an instinctive as opposed to intellectual level... I think that's how you'll know you're ready."
"You'll miss him when we go, won't you?" Banner asked.
"Of course I'll miss him," Betty replied without hesitation. "I love him."
Banner blinked. "Uh. OK. I didn't realize you were that serious."
Betty smirked. "After all you've learned in the last few months, you still underestimate him," she said again.
While Banner mulled that over, there was a knock at the front door; a moment later keys jingled, and then Mr. Hyde rounded the corner from the foyer, dressed for an outing, complete with a giant top hat perched on his huge, bewhiskered head.
"Mornin', sport," he said. "Big day today!"
"Is it?" Banner asked. "Why?"
"'Er Ladyship," said Hyde, by which Banner now knew he always meant Skuld, "'as decided in 'er infinite wisdom that you should 'ave a day out."
"A day out? Where?"
"Well," said Betty with a smile, "you've seen where I live... I thought I might show you where I came from."
Awakening slowly, Bruce Banner felt at the back of his head to make sure it wasn't spongy and remarked to himself that he'd had pleasanter days.
It had started off promisingly enough; Skitha, a middling-sized walled port city on a broad river near Vanaheim's eastern border with Jotunheim, was a lovely, friendly place with a lot of history and character, like something out of a storybook (or possibly a particularly well-illustrated Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook). The little cafe on the plaza overlooking the river docks had really good sausages. Betty had been in the process of telling him how, back in the bad old days, the city had been the first stop on any Jotun army's road to Asgard's Southwall...
... when one had, improbably enough, shown up.
Now Banner came to with a throbbing head to find himself stretched out on the cobbled ground next to what remained of their table. After verifying that his skull was intact, he gingerly raised his head and looked around. While he was out, the attacking force - mostly large but not giant, dull-grey-green, warty creatures in black nylon tactical gear - had secured the square with a military precision that struck Banner as strangely comical in what he guessed, based on war stories he'd heard from Betty, were ogres or trolls. And thinking of Betty -
"Easy, Bruce," she murmured, kneeling alongside him. "Just stay down. It's not you they're after."
Then, rising, she stepped around what the wreckage of the table and demanded in a ringing voice, "Well? What are you waiting for? Let's get this over with!"
The rank of ogres sealing off the side of the square facing the river docks parted in well-drilled order, and up from the rear came a towering figure in what, to Banner's unpracticed eye, looked like an officer's uniform - gold-chased leather armor with an iron-strapped wooden buckler strapped to his left forearm. He must have stood 15 feet tall at least, more than half again as tall as his ogre subordinates. At his side he wore a massive pistol, and opposite it a sabre longer than Betty was tall. He had a bushy black beard drawn into a heavy plait with an iron weight the size of a man's head hanging at the end, and his skin was a dull brick red. His eyes, like Betty's, were yellow and glowed faintly.
"People of Skitha," the giant boomed. "Give my men no reason to make war upon you and they will not. We have no interest in the affairs of Vanaheim this day." Then, pointing at Betty, he added, "But by order of King Elding Grimmuryfirvaraskegg of Eldgard, the outcast must return with us!"
Betty snorted. "Excuse me?" she demanded indignantly. "You guys abandoned me to die as a baby and now I'm supposed to go back with you? I don't THINK - "
She was interrupted by one of the larger ogres, who stepped forward with a speed and fluidity not suggested by his ungainly frame and clobbered her in the back of the head with the butt of his rifle, dropping her to her knees. "Do not speak to Colonel Hargrim, outcast."
Seeing his friend thus abused, and the grins and laughs of the other ogres at the sight of it, sparked a familiar feeling in Banner - that sense of tightened skin and surging blood, of energies too vast for his frail body to contain. His fists knotting, he pushed himself up to hands and knees, then rose to his feet.
"You shouldn't have done that," he said through his teeth. "You've made a friend of mine very angry."
Hargrim made a great show of squinting to see who was addressing him, then laughed. "Hah! What business is it of yours, mortal?" Gesturing to the stunned Valkyrie, he added with a sneer, "Even a runt like Princess Bèthildr is clearly far too much woman for the likes of you."
His whole body quivering with the effort of controlling himself, Banner said in a deceptively calm tone of voice, "As an officer of the International Police Organization, I'm obliged to warn you once. You're making a big mistake."
Hargrim snorted. "Sergeant, dispose of this insect. Its buzzing annoys me."
"Sir," said the ogre who'd hit Betty. He took a step forward, slinging his rifle to free his hands for a more personal touch. Right on schedule came the lightness in Banner's head, as what he now recognized as the Hulk's consciousness lunged forward into his own, furious, undeniable, raging for release.
For the first time in his life, Robert Bruce Banner embraced that sensation with all his heart.
They're all yours, big guy, he thought.
Thank you, Banner, the Hulk's voice replied. Hulk going to enjoy this.
Banner had only a moment to consider how odd it was not to be "puny Banner" to the Hulk before everything went blank for him.
Sergeant Garkk was never entirely sure what happened next. As Garkk approached him, the scrawny human suddenly threw his head back and roared like a wounded animal, and by the time he'd finished roaring, he was... someone else. Someone a lot bigger. Someone whose first punch knocked Sergeant Garkk - no joke, later confirmed by the regimental surveyors - twelve and one-quarter miles back toward Jotunheim.
The other ogres recoiled in horror - what had just happened had a flavor of shape-shifters about it, and while not as hung up about that kind of thing as trolls, they couldn't be said to like it - before their military discipline took over and they rushed in. Whatever the human had become, he was still smaller - or at least shorter - than an ogre. With their numbers and their armor, Garkk's startling fate notwithstanding, they figured he couldn't possibly stand against them all.
They were wrong about that, but at least they didn't get quite as much air as their sergeant.
While Hargrim bellowed for reinforcements, the Hulk burst free of the melee with a roar, scattering ogres in all directions, and sprang to Betty's side. She got to her feet, shaking her head.
"I'm OK," she said; then, with a wry little grin, she added, "I've got a pretty hard head."
"Who your friend?" the Hulk asked as she unslung her shield from her back and then went more or less back-to-back with him.
"He's no friend of mine," Betty told him. "His name's Hargrim." She unclipped her Valkyrie power hammer from her belt and thumbed it on; its gravity concentrator filled the square with a low, ominous hum. "He's my father's right-hand man."
The Hulk grunted, unimpressed. "Not for long," he said.
Betty glanced back over her shoulder at him, met his eye, and grinned; then she went one way, he went the other, and the fight was on.
Some of Hargrim's troops, seeing the fearsome power of the Hulk, mistakenly believed that they were better off taking their chances with Betty. It soon became apparent to those still conscious, though, that the only way to really come out ahead in this battle was just to stay the hell out of it. The Hulk's strength and savage fury were terrifying to behold as he reduced the left flank of Hargrim's army to rubble - but the alternative was a fully trained, no longer surprised Valkyrie. Bèthildr Forgeheart might have been a runt by Eldjotun standards, but she was skilled far beyond the ogreish rabble of Hargrim's mercenaries, and there was more than enough power in her seven-foot scarlet frame to make any of them regret putting himself in her way - particularly with a power hammer in her hand.
Seeing his army crumbling before the twin onslaught, Hargrim knew the time had come to cut his losses. Without hesitation or qualm, he ordered his reserve into the breach, knowing that they could not possibly win. Against just the outcast, they could have prevailed with relative ease. The... green creature... changed things.
Fortunately, Hargrim and his liege lord were the sort who planned for this kind of contingency. He had a backup plan of his own in play. Now, as his reserve bought him time, he set it in motion.
The Hulk saw the giant touch his belt and then vanish in a flash of silvery light; out of the corner of his eye, he saw a similar flash up at the top of the hill that dominated the center of town, within the walls of Skitha Castle. He didn't know why Hargrim had teleported himself to the castle, but he was certain it couldn't possibly be anything good. With a furious roar, he threw off the latest platoon of ogres who had tried to bring him down, turned toward the castle, and gathered himself to leap in pursuit of his main foe.
"Now! Bring the monster down!" an ogre NCO shouted. From the edge of the plaza, one of the reserve squads unlimbered some sort of shoulder-fired anti-armor weapon, drew a bead, and launched a rocket designed to destroy the tanks of Asgard at the Hulk.
In response, the Hulk turned to face the oncoming missile head-on and brought his huge hands flat together in front of him. The shockwave slammed out at the speed of sound, flattening everything in a radius of a half-dozen yards or so around him and detonating the rocket's warhead before it had a chance to come anywhere near him. The fireball washed back over the weapon and its crew, sending them scattering in dismay.
The Hulk paid them no mind; taking advantage of the momentary clear space the maneuver had bought him, he turned back toward the castle. It stood perhaps a mile and a half away, not including the vertical distance from the riverbank to the hilltop. The Hulk cleared it easily in a single furious bound, shattering the paving stones of the castle courtyard with the impact of his arrival.
Not that this would really lower the property values of the courtyard significantly; it was already littered with broken equipment, unconscious or dead Skitha city guardsmen, and a roughly equal number of the ogre heavy infantry who had taken the outer castle in spite of their furious resistance. The remains of the attacking force, now massed near the huge and still-sealed great doors, turned in surprise at the crash of the Hulk's landing.
"You're too late, whatever you are," Hargrim boomed from behind his troops. He gestured to a strange, carapaced object about the size of a car, which stood on six black iron legs in front of the castle door. "The Inferno Conduit is set and counting down. In five minutes this whole valley will be a smoking crater."
"Hulk not let you do this!" the Hulk replied.
Hargrim laughed. "It's done, my stupid friend," he replied mockingly. "If you've even the smallest spark in that skull of yours, you'll make your escape while you have the chance and leave Skitha to its fate. As for me, I have no time to waste bandying words with you. I have work to do."
So saying, he touched his belt again and vanished once more in a flash of light.
The Hulk stood gazing at the four dozen or so ogre soldiers standing between him and the Inferno Device. They stared back at him, fingering their weapons. Bigger and tougher than the ones in the square, these were Hargrim's elite shock troops, the ones he entrusted with the really heavy lifting in these operations. They weren't intimidated by one nearly-ogre-sized green human in what appeared to be tight-fitting black cargo shorts, even if he had just arrived in the courtyard from above like a bomb.
Two minutes and forty-four seconds later, the nine remaining ogre elites fled the courtyard, screaming in terror that the monster could not be killed. The Hulk pulled one of their spears from his shoulder with a grunt and cast it aside, then stalked through the scattered forms of their colleagues toward the Inferno Device. The wound had gone by the time he reached the machine.
Contrary to popular assumption back in the days following his first appearances, the Hulk could read; but he couldn't read the digits on what he assumed to be the countdown timer, having no familiarity whatever with Jotun numerals. Nor did the complicated inner workings of the device, once he had torn off its outer carapace, mean even the slighest thing to him.
Once, his response to this frustrating turn of events would have been to smash. Now, after weeks of battle, boozing, and war stories among the Einherjar of Valhalla, it occurred to him that this would probably just set the thing off, which would be catastrophic, if not for him, certainly for Skitha.
"This above Hulk's pay grade," he muttered, using a phrase he'd picked up from one of Betty's colleagues...
... and then he did something he had never, ever done before, and willingly relinquished control. This your department, science man, he remarked as his consciousness and Banner's "passed" each other.
Bruce Banner blinked in surprise. He wasn't conscious, properly speaking, when the Hulk was, but that moment of transition had provided enough of a situational update that he wasn't completely confused, as had always been the case upon waking after one of the Hulk's rampages in the past - and, he noted with satisfaction, the new pants worked too. It was a refreshing change not to have to hold up the tattered remains of his dignity with one hand while taking stock of whatever mess the Hulk had left him with...
... and, boy howdy, this was one for the books. If not for Henry Jekyll's training, the situation he now found himself in would have turned Banner right back into the Hulk. He could read a bit of Jotun, having picked up some rudiments from a few books in Betty's house, and he'd learned more than a little about the weapons technology of the Upper Realms from Skuld in his time. Enough to know that he was standing in front of a pickup-sized weapon of giantish mass destruction called an Inferno Conduit wearing nothing but a pair of magic cargo pants, and that in about two minutes it was going to open a temporary gateway to Muspelheim's Canyon of Eternal Fire.
Knowing that, Banner's agile mind sussed out the rest of Hargrim's plan in a few moments. This would not pour forth a demonic army, because there wasn't one to be found down there, but it would be similar to opening a door on the other side of which was the surface of the Sun. The whole Skitha Valley and everyone in it would be incinerated in an instant - everyone, presumably, but Hargrim and Betty, who as fire giants were largely indifferent to heat and flame.
Talk about your sore losers, Banner thought, and set about preventing it from doing that.
Then, Memo to self: see about getting a magic shirt to go with the magic pants. Maybe even some shoes.
Betty finished with the last of the ogres, then stood in the middle of the courtyard for a moment, catching her breath. She was bleeding from a dozen wounds, none of them really serious, but enough in the aggregate to slow her down considerably. Worse, her left arm had been broken by the same blow that shivered her shield, her power hammer's energy cells were flat, and she thought one of the beasts might have actually bitten her right calf, which now hurt to put weight on. Turning painfully toward the sound of sarcastic applause, she saw Hargrim standing where he'd been at the start of all this, by the river gate.
"Your skill is impressive, runt," he said. "I may have to admit to your august father when I bring you home that he was right and I was wrong. I told him you would be of no use to his kingdom if he called you home now, but he insisted that Lady Skuld and the others would have taught you well, in spite of your heritage." He grinned, yellowish teeth flashing at the junction of his moustache and beard. "They really will teach anyone their secrets in the Golden City, won't they?"
Betty discarded her spent power hammer, reached behind her with her good hand, and drew her backup weapon, an alloy cylinder that sprang out at the touch of a stud to form first a haft, then a double-bitted axe. "Why don't you come over here," she replied with an assurance she did not altogether feel, "and I'll show you what I've learned."
"It'll be a pleasure to teach you some manners," said Hargrim, drawing his sabre.
Though more than twice her height, Hargrim moved with horrifying speed - particularly a problem now that Betty was wounded and near-exhausted - and his strength was shocking. She knew immediately that she could never hope to take him head-on in her present condition, and possibly not even at the peak of her form. Few even among her Valkyrie comrades could have hoped to stand against Colonel Hargrim in a head-on fight. Gudrun Truemace, maybe. She was only half-Jotun, but her giantish parent had been one of the frost giants of the Tindalos, the hardiest and mightiest of all the Jotun, and her strength was enormous, rumored to rival that of Thor Ironhammer himself. Or Kijana Whitestaff, but only in her natural form as one of the dragons of Alfheim.
Under normal circumstances, then, Betty would have concentrated on outmaneuvering Hargrim and chipping away at him, working him into a position where she could launch a single surgical strike that would remove him from the battle. She'd have fought tactically, using every advantage she could find to its fullest advantage, and in the end she was confident she'd have triumphed.
Today, she didn't have much leverage - and even so, she still managed to score one solid blow, shattering Hargrim's buckler and nearly toppling him over before he managed to recover and smash her to the ground with the remains of his shield. By the time she'd recovered her wits from that blow, he had one enormous foot on her chest (practically covering her entire torso) and the point of his sabre at her throat.
"Your father wants you alive," he said, "but he understands that accidents sometimes happen... "
Betty spat in his eye and sank her axe haft-deep in the side of his left boot. Hargrim recoiled, roaring; she tried to get up, but her left arm would do nothing and her right leg wasn't any too cooperative either. She reached to her right boot for her survival knife, reflecting ruefully on Gin Shepard's maxim that any day you lived to go to Plan C was still a good day, and watched with defiant eyes as Hargrim steadied himself, yanked her axe out of his leg, and tossed it contemptuously away.
Before he could make some snide remark and renew the offensive, though, a roaring green something plummeted out of the sky like a meteor and smashed him to the ground.
"Surprised to see Hulk?" the Hulk asked as he lifted the stunned giant and threw him against the courtyard wall.
"Fool!" Hargrim snarled. "Any moment now you'll burn with the rest of this miserable town."
"Hulk not think so," the Hulk replied. He held up the device Banner's careful hands had teased from the inner workings of the Inferno Conduit, made sure Hargrim had recognized it, and then crushed it between his fingers and discarded it.
"Impossible," Hargrim murmured. "Impossible!" He pulled himself upright, his huge fists closing. "I don't know what you are, mortal, but I am still Colonel Fjalar Hargrim of the First Eldgard Legion, and I will crush you with my bare hands!"
The Hulk grunted contemptuously. "Bring it."
Be fair to Hargrim: He brought it. In minutes the whole area, already in extreme disrepair from the small war fought there, was a disaster area - buildings wrecked, walls toppled, dockside cranes destroyed. In the end, Hargrim's armor hung in gold-trimmed tatters, his face bruised, his knuckles torn and bloody - but at last he had the upper hand. He had the Hulk backed against one of the few remaining walls on what had been the esplanade, one massive hand around his neck, crushing the life from him.
"I give you your due, mortal," he said. "You have fought like a Jotun this day. Hargrim will see that you are remembered in song." Tightening his grip still further, he bore down and went on, "Now die."
The Hulk, teeth gritted, said nothing; but the right jab the giant received to his midsection at that instant, delivered with no more room to travel than the length of the Hulk's forearm, would have caved in the glacis plate of a tank, which was a statement all its own. Hargrim grunted, blood gathering at the corner of his mouth, and the Hulk headbutted him full in the forehead, breaking his grip and sending him stumbling back.
"Hargrim think because he is bigger than Hulk, he is stronger than Hulk," the Hulk snarled. He took a step forward, smacking aside an attempt at a counterblow. "Hargrim is wrong!" he roared, delivering a right cross that would have derailed a train. Then, bringing both fists up from below, he bellowed at the top of his voice,
"NO ONE IS STRONGER THAN HULK!"
The blow slammed Hargrim's jaw shut with enough force to splinter several of the giant's teeth, sending him up and over backward to crash down in a slumping heap amid the rubble of what had been a grain mill.
Standing on the fallen giant's chest, the Hulk waited for Hargrim to regain a measure of consciousness, then leaned close to his battered face and said, "Hulk let Hargrim live so he take message to Betty's father for Hulk. Tell him if he ever bother Betty again... Hulk do worse to him."
Fueled by one last surge of fury, Hargrim shoved the Hulk off his chest and rose from the rubble, brandishing a gleaming dagger drawn from a holster on his back. The Hulk ignored it, sprang forward, seized the the weight plaited into the giant's beard, and used it to fling him bodily across the river, where he completed the demolition of a dock damaged earlier in the day.
The Hulk considered leaping after him, but it was clear as Hargrim slowly, painfully dragged himself upright again that the giant had had enough. Blood streamed down his chest, droplets of it sending up curls of steam as they fell into the river. The Hulk looked down and saw that he was still holding the iron weight - and, indeed, most of Hargrim's beard.
"Hulk keep this," he declared, then added: "Tell your king! He stay away from Betty - or Hulk smash!"
Hargrim stood unsteadily for a few moments, knee-deep in the river, his face a mask of blood, broken teeth, and slightly unfocused, hate-filled eyes.
Then he touched his belt again and was gone.
The Hulk looked back up to the hill, but there was no answering flash. Hargrim had quit the field entirely. Grunting with satisfaction, he turned and went to see if he could help Betty.
"I'll be OK," she told him, using his shoulder as a brace to get gingerly to her feet. "I know people." Looking around at the ruins of the riverfront district as city guard reinforcements began to arrive, she raked her tangled black hair back from her face with her good hand and sighed. "Man. You guys did a number on this place."
"People still alive. Town can be fixed," the Hulk replied philosophically.
Betty chuckled. "Yeah, true that," she said. It took her a few moments to realize what the odd trophy in the Hulk's hand was; then she said incredulously, "Is that Hargrim's beard?"
The Hulk nodded. "Uh-huh."
She burst out laughing, leaning against his shoulder to keep from falling as the laughter wracked her battered form. There were tears, not entirely of pain, in her eyes when she finally wound down with a gasped, "Oh, oh man. Wow. That's all... facial hair is a thing in Jotun culture. You didn't just beat the ever-loving crap out of him, you ritually emasculated him."
"Hulk not know what that means," the Hulk said, "but it sound mean."
Betty wiped at her eyes. "Oh yeah. Aw, man. I said it before and I'll say it again, dude: You are an artist." Then she leaned and kissed him. "My big green sultan of smash."
The Hulk didn't quite seem to know what to say to that, so he said nothing; just smiled a little.
"Seriously, you saved my perky red ass today," she said. "And my hometown, though it got a little beat up."
The Hulk regarded her with that same little smile for a second, then said something she wouldn't have expected from him at the beginning of their friendship:
"Hulk not do it alone."
Monday, April 26, 2410
High-Energy Phenomena Laboratory
Sublevel G, International Police Headquarters
New Avalon, Zeta Cygni
Caitlin Fairchild was in the HEP Lab lobby, chatting with Calhoun as she emptied her mailbox, when the elevator arrived and Dr. Banner breezed in, looking... well... like he'd had a hell of a good vacation, wherever he'd been.
"Good morning, Agent Calhoun," he said cheerfully. "Great weather we're having, isn't it? Did you have a good weekend?"
"Uh... " Barney blinked for a second at the lab's director, who was dressed casually under his lab coat and seemed to have picked up a tan somewhere. He didn't just look happier than either Barney or Fairchild had ever seen him before, he looked healthier. Like he'd been eating right and getting enough sleep. He wasn't even wearing his glasses.
Then the guard caught himself and said, "Y... yeah, it sure is. Great weather, I mean. My weekend was OK, did a little fishin' up on the Oxbow... "
"I should try that sometime," Banner said. "I hear it's relaxing. Oh, hey, Barney, when you get a minute, can you chase down an address for Mark Irving for me? I have to apologize and beg him to come back to work. Good morning, Dr. Fairchild," he went seamlessly on. "You look different. Did you change your hair?"
Then, without waiting for a response, he went off down the hall, cheerfully humming an old pop song. Fairchild and Barney stared at each other for a couple of seconds, both wondering whether Banner had been being facetious - pretty much unheard-of - or genuinely hadn't registered that his mousy colleague was 18 inches taller and about a hundred pounds more athletic than she'd been when he had last seen her.
Barney said it first:
"What side of whose bed did he wake up on this morning?"
"I don't know," Fairchild said; then, after a moment's thought, she added judiciously, "but we should give her a medal."
"The Balance" - a Future Imperfect mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Geoff Depew & Chad Collier
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2011 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Saturday, May 8, 2410
"Stately Griffin Manor"
Nekomikoka, Tomodachi, Rigel sector
Don Griffin was working on his car and fencing with an old adversary when it all began.
"I'm telling you, Emma, you'd be disappointed," he said from underneath the antique Cord cabriolet. Ratcheting sounds accompanied his voice.
Emma Frost made a pout, though he couldn't see it from under the car, and kicked playfully at one of his protruding feet.
"Bosh," she said. "How can you have so little faith in yourself? You're a clever boy. You'd think of something."
Don slid his mechanic's creeper from under the car, put aside his oil filter wrench, and got to his feet.
"I'd let you watch, I would invite you, but the queens we use would not excite you," he told Emma dryly, then went to his workbench for a gallon jug of oil.
"... What?" Emma replied, looking deeply bemused.
Griffin shook his head sadly. "You never studied," he said, then started pouring fresh oil into the car's engine. Emma opened her mouth to protest, but before she could, another woman walked through the garage door - without opening it first - and said,
"Hey, Mr. Wizard, if you're done flirting with the riffraff, you've got a visitor from out of town." Then, turning a smile of mock sympathy to Emma, Kitty Griffin added sweetly, "I guess you'll hammer later."
Emma stared at her for a second, then made an annoyed growling noise and swept haughtily out.
Griffin screwed the oil filler cap back on the Cord's engine, shut the hood, and gave his wife a half-hearted pointing-at. "Be nice, you," he said. "It's not Emma's fault she's prone to unhealthy fixations."
"Yeah, well, why can't she fixate someplace else?" Kitty wanted to know.
Don chuckled and wiped his hands on a rag. "So... do we actually have a visitor, or did you just say that to get rid of Emma?"
"No, that's for real," said Kitty, her manner more subdued now that Emma had left.
"What is it? You look worried." Don went to the parts sink in the corner of the garage and started washing his hands. "Something up with the kids? Lensman stuff? What?"
Kitty shook her head. "It's the Doctor. He's in the library. But... I don't know. Something's wrong."
Don gave her a puzzled look as he shut off the taps and dried his hands. "Hm. Guess I better go see what's up."
The library of Stately Griffin Manor was one of Don's favorite rooms in the place; it had been the library when the building was a down-at-heel posh private school, too, and it looked more like the smoking room of a gentlemen's club, less the ash trays. Don liked it because there was a certain pleasant carelessness about the way it was decorated; the comfy chairs didn't match and the whole place was slightly threadbare and lived-in. The London police box standing in the corner added a certain je ne sais quoi, too, but it wasn't usually there.
The visitor was slumped in Don's favorite chair, a battered but blissfully comfortable old wingback upholstered in leather that was an odd sort of kelly green. He didn't look up when Don entered, walked across to the green chair, dragged over the matching ottoman the seated figure wasn't using, and sat down on it, elbows on knees, to take a good long thoughtful look at his visitor.
He was the same version who'd visited a mere three weeks ago - youngish, with a jagged head of dark hair and slightly sharp features - but to Don's eyes the Doctor seemed to have aged a hundred years since then. His face was haggard and pale, with heavy dark circles around red-rimmed eyes, his cheeks gaunt and in need of a shave. His brown pinstripe suit was crumpled as if he'd slept in it, but it was the only thing about his appearance to give any impression that he'd slept at all in the last month or so. He slumped in the chair, shoulders hunched, chin sunk on his chest, and stared into the middle distance, seeing nothing.
"You present the appearance of a man with a problem," said Don.
The Doctor chuckled mirthlessly, saying nothing.
"How can I help?" Don added.
The Doctor raised his head to look Don in the face and said nothing for a moment. Then he shook his head.
"That's not how it works," he said. "I'm the Doctor. People don't help me, I help them." He seemed to come back from some mental distance, his eyes focusing. "You always regenerate into yourself," he said, apparently apropos of nothing. "You come back as the same man you were when you left."
Don nodded. "That's the way it seems to've worked so far."
"Doesn't that get boring?" The Doctor shook his head, raking a hand through his thick brown hair. "I think I'd give almost anything to be someone else right now."
Don blinked, deeply startled by the statement and the bleak way it was delivered. Over the course of their long association, he'd come to see the Doctor as indomitable. It was one of the things that had brought them together, one of the bits of common ground that had eventually led the ancient Time Lord to adopt the young Earthman into his clan, as it were, and sponsor him for admission to the Prydonian Chapter Academy on Gallifrey. They shared many of what Don liked to think of as the basic precepts of the Xavier Institute. Never use a door when you can make one; don't get mad when you can get even; never let the bastards grind you down. He'd always seemed psychologically, if not physically, invincible. Unbreakable.
Well, if he's not broken now, he's damned close to it, Don thought. Hiking the ottoman forward a little, he reached out and put his hand on the Doctor's shoulder.
"What the hell happened to you?" he asked.
The Doctor looked for a moment as though he belatedly regretted coming. He might have brushed the query aside and retreated into his private funk, except that just as he was about to, Griffin realized what was missing and added,
The Doctor glanced at him sharply, as if shocked by the question; then his face relaxed into a look of pained understanding.
"Oh, that's right, you don't know," he said. "I haven't been here in a while."
"Three weeks, subjective," said Don. "But you seem to have put on a lot more mileage than that implies."
The Doctor looked slightly surprised. "Three weeks!" he murmured. "Are you sure?"
"Precisely three weeks," Don confirmed. "Today's May 8, 2410. You were last here on April 17. The Professor Enigma premiere. Big party. You and Rose, Romana and Cap'n Jack, the whole gang."
The Doctor rubbed a hand down his face. "Yeah. I remember." He smiled wanly. "That was a good day." He sat back in the chair, feet splayed out on the rug, and sighed hugely. "Three weeks, blimey, I was going for three years. That's about how long it's been for me." He shook his head. "Well, that's about how well things have been working for me lately."
After collecting his thoughts for a few seconds while Don sat waiting patiently, the Doctor raised his eyes and said, "I lost her."
Griffin watched him for a few seconds, his face thoughtful. Then he said, "Define 'lost'."
"She's trapped in a parallel dimension," the Doctor said. "Not one of the normal ones, that'd be trivial. A pocket universe. I burned a whole supernova just to transmit a holo and say goodbye... and then I didn't even get that right." He shook his head. "It's been all downhill from there, really. Did you ever have a day like that? Realize too late that you've left important things unsaid, move the heavens to give yourself another chance to say them, and then mess it up again?"
"Sort of," said Don. "Did you say pocket universe? As in a timestream that's become completely isolated from the cosmic mainline? A full disjunct?"
Don gave his cousin another thoughtful look, the very faintest ghost of a smile playing at his lips. "You may recall that I'm from one of those."
"Right. And now you can't get back in."
"Well... sort of." Don got up. "Come on, I want to show you something."
As he led the way through the house to the kitchen, Don explained, "See, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the problem of pocket universe access over the last few years. The usual thing would be to open up a CVE and jump across, but pockets are notoriously shaky things. Opening up a metastable two-way conduit is all but impossible. More likely you'd end up blowing a hole so big you collapse the whole timeline."
"I know. And you're not exactly helping by repeating the lecture," said the Doctor testily.
"Hear me out, I think you're going to like where I'm heading," Don replied. They entered the kitchen; Don went to the cabinets and removed a large roasting pan from one and a drinking glass from another, then went to the sink and started filling the roasting pan with water.
"Okay." He put the roasting pan on the butcher-block island in the middle of the kitchen. "The water in this pan represents a pocket universe. The surface tension stands in for the chronospatial stability. Now, if I turned a stream of compressed air on this water, what would happen?"
The Doctor eyed him dubiously, then seemed to resign himself to playing along. "You'd blow water all over the kitchen."
"Exactly. You can't connect a pocket to the mainline directly, because the 'pressure differential' is unmanageable, and the resulting cascade doesn't end well for the pocket. But!" Don turned to the counter, yanked open the drawer under the wall phone, and started rummaging inside it. "Where is it, where is it... aha, here we go." He turned around and held up a small plastic figure. "Say this army man is you."
"Doesn't seem that likely, he's got a gun," the Doctor objected.
Don gave him a look. "Try to focus, Doctor," he said. He plunked the army man into the drinking glass, then opened another drawer and rattled through things for a moment, emerging with a dough blade. Inverting the glass, he set it on the blade and said, "Creating a direct link is a recipe for disaster. But imagine if you did it this way."
So saying, he lowered the assembly into the water, then withdrew the dough blade and set it aside, holding the rim of the glass against the bottom of the pan with his finger on the glass's base. Then, when he was sure the Doctor was paying full attention, he withdrew the glass. The water rushed into the void, rippled, and then settled, the surface becoming glassy smooth again. Having come to rest on his back, the little army man looked up serenely from the bottom.
The Doctor looked initially unimpressed; then he blinked, stepped closer, pulled a pair of eyeglasses from an inside pocket, popped them on, and looked more closely.
Then he grinned, instantly looking years younger. "That's brilliant," he said.
Don smiled. "Thank you," he said.
The kitchen door opened and Rachel entered, dusty and rumpled from having spent the morning doing Don-wasn't-really-sure-he-wanted-to-know-what about the greater Nekomikoka area with her posse. Now, seeing the Doctor, she lit up with a broad grin and hugged him before he could've stopped her, even if he'd wanted to.
"Hey! Long time no see," she said. "Come for Professor Enigma? It's the one with you in it this week." She looked around. "Where's Rose?"
"We're just working on that, actually," said Don.
"Oh. Anything I can help with?"
"Probably not, but we'll holler if we need you," Don told her.
"'Kay." Rachel opened the fridge, had a look around, and came out with a bottle of Dr. Pepper. "I'm going over to the Prydes' for lunch," she reported, "and then Kitty 'n I have to hit the library. Book reports. You know how it goes. Can she come over for dinner?"
"Sure," Don said.
"Great. Back around five! Bye Doctor! See you later!" she declared as she breezed out again.
"She's settled in nicely," the Doctor remarked with a wry smile.
"Like she owns the place," Don replied cheerfully. "I'm kind of amazed at how... you know... not-awkward we are. But then why would she be awkward? She hasn't forgotten the life we used to have, she never lived it in the first place." He sighed. "Hard to get used to sometimes... but I'm just happy she's alive."
"You're going to have to deal with Tobernel one of these days," the Doctor cautioned him. "He's dangerous. You know that. He won't let this lie forever just because you won't play along."
Don nodded. "I know. But I think we'll be ready for him. In a way it helps that she hasn't manifested any of her old powers. It's not like he can play the 'dangerous Phoenix avatar is dangerous' card again. And the Time Scoop's involvement is mutual assured destruction. He rats her out to the CIA, he rats himself out too. It's not perfect and it's sure not resolved, but it'll do for right now." He clapped his hands briskly together. "Anyway. We're not here to talk about Tobernel; I believe you were telling me I'm brilliant."
"Actually, I was saying that your theory was brilliant," the Doctor qualified. Then, with something like his twinkly old smile, he added, "You'll be brilliant if the next thing you tell me is that you know how to make it work."
Don grinned. "I do."
The Doctor beamed. "Oh, brilliant."
"I originally developed it with the idea that one or more of the people who were displaced with me would want to go home," Don explained as he whipped a dusty tarp off a thing in his basement workshop that the Doctor could, with justice, only think of as a contraption. "But I didn't have any takers, and there didn't seem to be any other practical use for it, so it's just been gathering dust ever since."
"What do you call it?"
Don shrugged. "Never gave it a proper name. It'd just be some kind of technical jabber anyway, unless I decided to be all Time Lord about it and called it The Settee of Trokhaimartolgriffin."
The Doctor blinked. "It is a settee," he declared. Turning to Griffin, he asked, "Why is it a settee?"
"More comfortable than a park bench? The part you sit on isn't really important, it's all this crap that actually does stuff," Don went on, pointing at the ominous-looking electrodes and high-energy fittings that surrounded the brown leather couch.
"If nobody ever used it, how do you know it works?" the Doctor asked.
"Well, that's one of three small problems," Griffin admitted. "Technically speaking, I, uh, don't. All the math works out and the simulations went just fine, but if you want to be really technical about it, I have to admit that I don't have any way of knowing that for sure. Hell, I wouldn't even if I'd used it at some point. It's not like it's got an intercom. It's just a one-way trapdoor shunt."
"All right, that's one problem. What are the other two?"
"The second one is power. This thing needs a lot of it. So much that I was never entirely confident that I could get it to work - but what the hell, you've already burned one supernova on this problem, I'm sure we can find another." Don flicked a couple of switches, powering up diagnostic systems, and the room filled with a low hum. "Or maybe a quasar. If we could set up a metaprism around a quasar we could pull down beaucoup photons before it disintegrated. Dunno that anybody's ever tried that, but I'm up for it."
"And the third?"
"Like I said, it's a one-way trip. I mean, this is a very brute-force rig. You might even call it a... a dimensional cannon. All it does is poke a hole in the Veil, shove something through, and close the hole after it. It's no more subtle or elegant than a CVE; it just lasts for a much shorter time and isn't anywhere near as 'wide'. There's no retrieving anything with it."
"Which means that even if I knew Rose's precise location, you couldn't get her back." The Doctor slumped a little. "And I'm right back where I started."
"Sort of. We can't get her back with this... but if you've got the planar coordinates, I can send you through." Don looked up from the console. "You'd be in the right universe, anyway. Finding her from there would be up to you."
The Doctor looked skeptical. "What, on foot? Even a pocket universe is still a pretty big place, you know."
Don smiled. "When my home dimension split off from the mainline and cut my TARDIS off from the Eye of Harmony, she still had plenty of power in the reserve bus for space hops and basic functions. It's traveling in time that really eats energy. That's not the problem. The problem is... like I said. It's a one-way trip. You could build another of these machines, but I'm not sure how you'd power it. So if I sent you across with this, well... chances are you'd be stuck there."
The Doctor considered this gravely for a few minutes, walking slowly around the machine and examining it from various angles.
"But I'd be stuck there with her," he said at length, from the far side of the machine.
Don nodded. "That's true."
The Doctor walked the rest of the way around the machine and stood in front of Don, silent, sunk deep in thought. Then he shook his head, shoulders sagging.
"I can't," he said. "I've got responsibilities here. Too many things I have to take care of. People are depending on me that I don't even know about yet."
To the Doctor's surprise, Don made a dismissive snort at that. "Oh, get over yourself," he said. "We're not all bumbling amateurs around here, you know. The universe can get along without you if it absolutely has to. It's not like there's nobody else around to pick up the slack."
The Doctor eyed him. "You think it's that simple? I just have to 'get over myself'."
"Pretty much, yeah," Don replied. "Loosen your grip a little. We'll be fine. We'll miss you, but you're not the only name in the savior-of-the-universe business. Besides, I'm sure there are wrongs to right wherever we're talking about. Even a pocket universe is still a pretty big place, you know," he added with a grin.
The Doctor regarded him for a few more moments, then grinned back.
"Worth a try," he said.
"Now that's what I'm talking about," said Don, switching off the diagnostic systems. "Let's get this beast broken down. Can't go running a quasar trap into my basement."
Rachel and Kitty Pryde arrived at 5:15 to find cables and random-looking technological equipment scattered all over the front lawn, the Doctor's TARDIS at one side and Don's at the other, doors standing open to let a couple of the biggest cables pass. The Doctor and Don were rushing hither and thither, connecting stuff together, checking readings, tripping over cables, and generally appearing to have a terrific time. Kitty Griffin stood off to one side, leaning against a tree and watching with an expression of fond bemusement.
"What's going on?" Rachel asked.
"Oh, the Time Lords are doing Time Lordy stuff," said Kitty the Elder. "You know what they're like when they get into this kind of mood, I can't get a word out of either one. For all I know they're getting ready to make a prank phone call to the Dalek Emperor," she added with a wry grin.
"What's all the junk?" asked Kitty the Younger.
"It was a machine Don built in case anybody in our little group wanted to go home," Kitty G told her. "Not sure what they're doing with it now. I mean, I'm guessing the Doctor doesn't plan to take a one-way trip to Earth-616."
At one console, Don checked a couple of further readings, then cursed as a cable sparked and came unhooked.
"This'd be easier if I hadn't lost my laser screwdriver," he grumbled.
The Doctor rummaged in an inside pocket and proffered a roughly cylindrical brass-and-chrome device. "Did it look like this?"
Don snatched it from his hand. "Where did you get that? I've been looking everywhere for this thing." He flipped it into position, thumbed the activator, then scowled at it as nothing happened. "Who's been screwing with my isomorphic controls?"
"The Master," the Doctor replied casually.
Don looked up from his work. "Seriously? Well, that's typical. Stole my laser screwdriver and didn't even bother to say hello. Jerk." He held out his hand. "Sonic."
The Doctor handed over his screwdriver without comment, waited while Don used it to recalibrate his own, then accepted it back and said offhandedly, "You know that can be used as a weapon?"
"Don't you start," Don replied, bending to laser up the failed cable connection. "Any tool is a weapon if you hold it right."
"I said don't start." Don finished his work, retried the setting that had caused the connection to fail, and nodded with satisfaction. "Well, the containment field seems stable enough. How are you coming on the quasar trap?"
"One second," the Doctor replied, dashing to another console; then, "Primed and ready. It'll only last about a nanosecond once triggered, but that should be enough to give us a charge. I'm linking it to the master controls now." He checked a couple of settings, tightened a cable fitting, then turned to Don. "I think we're ready."
"Let's get your TARDIS into position, then. Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?"
"Two hours ago you were talking me into it," the Doctor protested.
"Yeah, and I still think you should go," Don replied. "I'm just making sure you're good with it."
The Doctor grinned. "Been a while since I flung myself headfirst into a genuine unknown," he said. "I'm looking forward to it."
"That's the spirit," said Don. Angling his eyes toward their audience, he said, "Better go say your goodbyes. You might not be coming back. Kitty would never forgive you if you just left."
His cousin's bald declaration sobered the Doctor, but only slightly, such was his delight at the thought of what he was about to attempt. He nodded, and the two crossed the lawn to the little gathering under the tree.
"Now are you going to tell me what you guys are up to?" Kitty G asked.
"Oh, you know, the usual," the Doctor said offhandedly. "Trapping the entire energy output of a quasi-stellar object for a tiny fragment of time, using it to blast me through the interdimensional barrier like a cannonball... one-way trip to a disjuncted pocket universe. That kind of thing."
Kitty blinked. "Not our pocket universe," she said, glancing at Don. "What could possibly be worth something like that over there?"
"No. No, not yours. More like this one. It used to be closer on the divergence tree, before it got disjuncted. Nothing really all that remarkable about it, actually, only... Rose is there."
"I'd ask how that happened, but I imagine it's the kind of long story I used to end up with a lot back in the old days," said Kitty wryly. "So I guess I'll just say... " She hugged him. "Good luck."
"Thank you," the Doctor said quietly.
"Wait, wait, wait, hold on. You're leaving? Like, forever?" Rachel demanded.
"Probably," the Doctor told her over Kitty's shoulder.
"Oh. Well, that bites. Can't we just go get Rose?"
"I wish it was that simple," said the Doctor sadly. "But it doesn't work that way, I'm afraid. I've tried every option I could think of. None of them has worked. Don's machine," he added, gesturing back over his shoulder, "is my last hope."
- the sky turned a vibrant green and the air was filled with a deafening freight-train roar -
- and as suddenly as they had happened, both phenomena ceased, the sky reverting to its pristine springtime fluffy-clouds blue, the suburban stillness reasserting itself like the slamming of a door. Birdsong resumed hesitantly. Both TARDISes' Cloister Bells bonged once, then fell silent, as if the machines were a bit confused by what had just happened.
In the middle of the front lawn, a dozen yards or so from the machinehenge of Don's apparatus, steam rose gently from a huddled shape in the center of a circular patch of scorched grass. As Don, the Doctor, the Kittys and Rachel stared in astonishment, this figure stirred, then raised itself up, resolving into the shape of a human female in a long grey coat. She got unsteadily to her feet, raking her hands back through dark, disordered hair, before looking around to get her bearings. Her eyes lit on the little group standing under the tree, then went wide with amazement as she recognized them.
"... Or we could just wait until she builds one herself," said Don blandly.
The Doctor stared in blank astonishment at the new arrival; then his face broke into the biggest smile anyone there had ever seen on it.
"Ohhhh, that's my girl," he said in a low voice full of pride and wonder, and then broke into a dead run across the lawn toward her. She met him halfway, crashing into him at full speed and nearly bowling him over.
"Wow," said Kitty the Younger. "I knew they were close, but you'd think they hadn't seen each other in years."
"They haven't," Don told her.
"They were just here three weeks ago."
Don grinned. "Wibbly wobbly... " he said.
"Timey wimey!" Rachel and Kitty the Elder finished.
Don gave his wife a high-five, then trotted over to the embracing couple at a more sedate pace, stopping at a discreet distance and waiting for them to notice him. This took a couple of minutes, but under the circumstances, he couldn't say he minded being ignored.
When he no longer was, he demanded delightedly, "Rose Tyler. Did you just build a dimension cannon and shoot yourself into my front yard with it?"
Rose beamed and grabbed him up in a hug of his own. "I sure did," she said. "Sorry about the grass."
"Pssh," Don replied. "It'll grow back. How'd you power it? I mean, I'm guessing you didn't have a TARDIS handy to set up a quasar trap with."
"Getter rays," Rose replied.
Don blinked. "Getter rays?" Then he blinked again, with dawning amazement, and declared, "Getter rays! That's brilliant!" He hugged her again. "That is absolutely brilliant!"
The Doctor looked puzzled. "What rays? I've never heard of that." He squinted skeptically at Don. "Are you making that up?"
Don turned Rose loose and shook his head mock-sadly at his cousin. "You never studied," he said. "Getter rays! Rarest form of energy in the universe. They react to sapient emotions. The more you want it, the more power you get."
"Oh, 'ello, you sound like me now," the Doctor mock-protested.
"I know a guy who powers giant robots with them," Don said. He turned back to Rose. "I bet you were plenty motivated," he added, grinning.
"You could say that, ten years of my bloody life it took to learn the engineering to build the bloody thing," Rose replied with a wry smile.
"Ten years!" the Doctor blurted. And yes, now that he looked more closely, now that he wasn't caught up in the moment, he could see that she did look a little older. Only a little - ten years from their last meeting meant she was still only about thirty, which was barely out of high school in this day and age - but still. Like him, she'd picked up some mileage. Not that it mattered to him in the slightest; his regard for her had never been based on her appearance.
"Why, did I overshoot?" she asked.
"Hell, no," Don said. "You know when you were last here at this house? Three weeks ago exactly."
Rose's eyebrows shot up. "You're kidding."
"Nope." Don looked at his watch. "In about 20 minutes we can all watch your fourth episode of Professor Enigma."
Rose laughed. "That is completely surreal. And it sounds perfect." Together with the two Time Lords, she set off toward the house, then hesitated, scowling at her right leg. "Ow. Note to self: In future, don't traverse cosmic rifts standing up, because you'll fall down and hurt your knee."
"Mine has a settee!" Don said, pointing.
"Why didn't I think of that?" Rose wondered. Then, pausing and catching his arm, she asked, "Hang on, why were you just building a dimension cannon on your lawn?"
"The Doctor got tired of waiting around for you to learn interdimensional ultracalculus and master hyperspatial engineering so you could build your own," said Don casually. "You know how impatient he gets."
"Well, be fair, I didn't know she'd had ten years on her end," the Doctor added.
As Rachel, Kitty, and Kitty crossed to welcome her back and they all headed into the house, Rose couldn't stop smiling. Not just because she'd pulled it off; not just because she had achieved something she had once, in the depths of her despair, thought would be impossible; not just because a decade of incredibly hard work was done and done well. Not even just because she'd found the Doctor again.
That was all part of it, of course, but above it all arched a single golden thread, a unifying sentiment to which she only gave voice a few minutes later - after Don had phoned up the Peking Palace for a vast quantity of Chinese food, after all of Rachel's friends (and most of Don and Kitty's) had converged on the big living room at Stately Griffin Manor. She sat nestled in the corner chesterfield with her foot up on an ottoman, an ice pack on her knee, and the Doctor by her side, as the opening titles of Professor Enigma flowed by on the holoscreen. There was her name in giant white letters; there was her ten-years-ago self in a film she'd shot six months ago.
Rose hugged the Doctor a little tighter.
"It's good to be home," she said softly.
The Doctor's wide, slightly goofy grin got a little wider and a little goofier.
"Yeah," he said.
"The Way to Go Home" - A Project Phoenix Aside by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2010 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Friday, May 7, 2410
Terminal Island, Albionshire
United Kingdom of Zeta Cygni and the Rimward Territories
Universe GCC #102/G
The original settlement plan for the Albionshire pseudocontinent had called for Terminal Island, a desolate rock a hundred miles from the City of New Albion in the storm-tossed Morgan Sea, to house a prison, and in fact the construction crews had started building one before plans changed and the island was abandoned but for an automated lighthouse serving to warn the ships inbound from the Isle of Stars off the rocks. Twenty-odd years later, at the turn of the century, the half-completed fortress-like structure had suited the Galactic Police Organisation just fine for the site of a special projects laboratory. They needed a place that was relatively isolated but afforded quick transport to the city; that was easily defended; and that was sturdy enough to withstand potentially disastrous research mishaps.
Most of the time the research mishaps that happened at Research Station Terminal Light were not disastrous, but better safe than sorry.
In the main lab, the station's director jotted a few notes on a datapad, stuck it in an inside pocket, and then settled her tinted brass goggles over her eyes.
"Right," she said, surveying the control board before her. It was handmade and looked it, but every piece had been crafted with the utmost care and precision, with nothing wasted or out of place.
Beyond the board, past the sheet of duracrys that shielded the control area from the rest of the lab, the machine it controlled was similarly built, a combination of inspired improvisation and solid engineering. It consisted of a circular metal stage about ten feet in diameter, surrounded by a small forest of electrodes, power converters, and what seemed to be cannibalized full-length dressing room mirrors. From the ceiling above it depended an antenna that looked a bit like a giant version of the claw in a Grab-a-Prize machine.
"Computer, begin recording," said the woman at the controls. A bit less than average height, slim, thirtyish, and dark-haired, she was dressed not in the lab coat and slacks one might instinctively expect of so prominent a researcher, but rather blue jeans, Dr Martens boots, and a slightly ratty green jumper under a battered black leather jacket that was a little too big for her.
Behind her, a younger and much taller redheaded woman in the uniform of a New Albion Metropolitan Police constable leaned against the wall, her arms folded.
"Bet ye a fiver it won't work," she said in a distinct Scotian burr.
The woman in the goggles glanced back over her shoulder with a faint smirk, then turned back to the control board and declared for the recording, "Constable Pond's wager is duly noted. Universal Translocator Array test 1632, monopolar transducers with the sarium krellide power cell acquired last month from Detrebelius IV. Energizing in three. Two. One."
She pressed the large green button in the center of the console. For a moment nothing happened; then, with an ascending whine of power, the power converters in the ring around the stage began to glow, dully at first, then brighter. Arcs leaped from one electrode to the next, linking them together, until they formed a complete ring -
- and, with a dull mechanical THUD, the machine went dead and all the lights went out.
There were two seconds of complete silence, then the sound of folding money being unpocketed, handed over, and repocketed, and the test director's voice remarked, deadpan, in the darkness:
"UTA test 1632... unsuccessful."
A moment later the lights came back on and the telephone on the wall next to the control board started ringing. The brunette sighed, pushing her goggles up onto her forehead, and punched a button on it. "Yes."
"Professor, Albion Light and Power is on line three," came the voice of the laboratory AI. "You've blacked out Hobart again."
"Oops. Thought I'd blocked that circuit. Sorry!"
"Also, the Brigadier is here. He's asking to speak with you."
"He says it's urgent."
"All right, all right, send him down." She rubbed her temples, growling. "I'll be in the TCMF."
Brigadier Sir Daniel James Griffin-Hudson, head of the Galactic Police, found his star science agent in the Tea and Coffee Making Facility, also known as the laboratory lounge, and a grumpy mood, in that order.
"Brigadier, I can't be constantly disturbed like this," she told him as soon as he entered the room. After pausing to sip her coffee, she went on, "I'm on the verge of a major breakthrough here and I need to stay focused."
The Brigadier, a surprisingly young-looking man with thick black hair and a neatly trimmed vandyke beard, paused in the doorway and looked not so much annoyed as startled for a moment before recovering his composure.
"Fine," he said. "I'll ask Edison's team to deal with the mysterious alien energy signature we've detected under the city, then, shall I?" Turning to go, he added, "Sorry to disturb you, Professor."
"Wait," said the Professor, putting up a hand. The Brigadier, still with his back to her, smirked slightly and winked at Constable Pond, who struggled manfully to hold in a laugh.
"Did you say energy signature?" the Professor continued; then she tossed her coffee in the sink, put down the mug on the counter, and said, "Right, where is it?"
The Brigadier turned, looking innocently surprised. "I thought you said you couldn't be disturbed."
"You're sending that hack Edison to investigate an alien energy source?" the Professor asked, taking her jacket from the hook on the back of the TCMF door and shrugging into it. "I'm already disturbed. Calls himself an action scientist, doesn't know the first thing about action or science. Pond! We're going."
"You are a very bad man," Pond whispered to the Brigadier, amused, as she followed the Professor out.
1300 block of Newcomen Ave.
Coalbrookdale district, City of New Albion
"Oh, good, another sewer," Pond declared as she and the Professor arrived at the mission address to find a squad of Tactical Branch greysuits guarding a cordoned-off street bulkhead. Sighing, she unfolded her long, lean frame from the driver's seat of their official aerocar (she always drove; the Professor, for all her many qualifications, had never bothered to get a driver's license) and said ruefully, "Sometimes I wish I'd become a kissogram instead of going to the police academy."
The Professor finished consulting a portable sensor unit, blinked, and looked across the car roof at her. "A what?"
"Kissogram," Pond repeated.
The Professor pocketed her scanner and started walking toward the cordon. "What in the world is that?"
"You go to parties and... kiss people. With outfits." Pond shrugged. "I'm told it's a laugh."
"Is that a real job? You're not winding me up."
"It is in Leadworth."
The Professor badged her way past the guards, one of whom held the bulkhead door up for the two women to descend. As they climbed down, she shook her head. "Blimey, more going on in that town than I would have thought. When I was your age I worked in a department store." They reached the bottom of the access ramp to find another tac op, this one with sergeant's stripes, guarding the lower door. He came to attention upon recognizing them.
"Who'd you cross to get this detail, Stacker?" the Professor asked him, grinning.
"The usual," Sgt. Pete Stacker replied with a slight smile. Then, sobering, he added, "Mr. Edison's already here."
"Well, that's my day complete, then," the Professor replied. Then, giving Stacker a smile, she asked rhetorically, "It's a good job, isn't it?" Clapping him on the shoulder on the way by, she added, "Shoot someone, will you? We're paying for this stuff."
The Professor and Pond went through the inner door into a vaulted antechamber, all antique-looking brickwork and superfluous decorative touches. New Albion was only about thirty years old, but it had been built to seem Victorian, right down to the infrastructure parts no one would ever see. In there, a small team of men and women in the brick-red coveralls of the Technical Branch were milling about setting up equipment, under the evident supervision of a dark-haired, long-faced young man in an old-fashioned checked suit and ascot. Seeing the two women approach, he frowned, making his face even longer, and gripped the lapels of his jacket as he declared pompously,
"Well, well, well. If it isn't Professor Rose Tyler. What are you doing in the field? Ran out of other ways to convince the Brig your outlandish salary is justified, I suppose."
Rose smiled sweetly and brushed imaginary lint from one of Edison's shoulders. "That's cute, Thomas." Then, leaning closer, she added in a dangerously pleasant murmur, "I was saving the universe before you were a thin scum on the top of an Ijin cloning vat." So saying, she fixed his lapels and then, turning away, said briskly, "Pond, if he speaks to me again you can shoot him."
"'Kay," said Pond agreeably. As she followed the Professor past Edison, she put a hand on the flap of her sidearm holster and eyed him warily, but he was too busy looking utterly flummoxed to make any further comment - though when he did speak again, the constable was amused to note that he was careful to direct his remarks to her, not Professor Tyler.
"She never answered my question, what is she doing here?" As a possibility dawned on him, he looked first surprised, then annoyed, and started following the constable, demanding, "She's here for the source of that energy wave, isn't she? Still looking for some way of powering that insane machine of hers! Well, I'm still first officer on this scene, I'll have you know. Any patent rights derived from technologies found in there belong to me - "
Edison stopped with a squeak as Pond rounded on him, hands on hips. At six feet tall she loomed over him; her height, flaming red hair, temper, and general aesthetic value had earned her the nickname "The Towering Inferno" among her GPO colleagues, though it was never used to her face. Annoyance flashing in her hazel-green eyes, she pointed at herself and said,
"Mr. Edison, do you see the chequered tie I'm wearing? The bowler hat? This bit here where it says POLICE? I am a constable, Mr. Edison. Not an action scientist, not a patent lawyer, and certainly not anybody who needs to be concerned with what you think your economic rights may be. My job - my only job - is to keep that woman alive. Which, since she is an action scientist, and as such is in the habit of flinging herself headlong into unimaginable dangers, is challenging enough without you yapping in my ear about things I don't give one-tenth of one damn about!" Leaning down into his face, she fixed his gaze with hers and hissed, "Are. We. Clear?"
"... Crystal," Edison replied meekly.
Pond nodded firmly. "Good." She turned on her heel and stalked off after the Professor without another word.
"Nicely done," Rose remarked as the constable caught up with her.
Pond grinned. "It's too much fun picking on Tommy. What do you think we've got?"
"Not sure," Rose replied, consulting her pocket scanner again. "Definitely a strange energy reading through here. Probably in a lower chamber." They went through a brick arch into a side passageway, then came to a heavy, unmarked metal door. This proved to be locked, but that was no real problem, since Constable Pond carried a key that would supposedly open any official lock in the city.
Beyond the door was a dank and gloomy concrete staircase leading down. The Professor produced a flashlight from somewhere in her jacket, switched it on, and led the way down.
They found themselves in a huge room that Rose suspected had originally been a pumping station, two stories deep with a catwalk bolted to the wall about halfway up, onto which the door they'd entered by opened. In the center, where the pump had presumably been installed on a concrete pad about twenty yards across, stood a piece of machinery whose purpose she didn't immediately recognize. Though it was connected to the ceiling and the walls around it by a small forest of pipes, it was definitely not any sort of pump. It had too many... glowing parts... for that. And it was making the wrong sort of noise, too, filling the room not with a wheezing clunk but rather a low, ominous hum.
The energy circulating within it, visible through the complicated mass of clear tubing and piping that covered the outside, all converged on a central drum-shaped object that shone like the open mouth of a blast furnace, if blast furnace fire had been green. Both women felt vaguely unsettled just looking at it. Pond slowly, almost surreptitiously, drew her service blaster, holding it straight down at her side, as she felt the fine hairs on the nape of her neck stand up.
"That looks dangerous," said the Professor matter-of-factly.
"Yup," Pond agreed.
Pond studied the converging pipes and tubes and had to concede that there was something weirdly, inherently sinister about the design. "Very," she agreed.
Rose reached up and lowered her goggles over her eyes, then grinned, the lenses and her teeth catching the green light. "Let's get a closer look."
They climbed down a ladder to the lower level and carefully approached the machine. Up close, Rose could see that there was a control board just below the central drum; she wasn't sure what most of it did, but the large gauge in the middle was obvious enough. It was divided into quarters, white, yellow, orange, and red, and the needle was most of the way through the orange quadrant. Assuming the red meant what it usually did on such gauges, the thing was nearly... what? Overloaded?
"Is this thing producing or collecting energy?" she mused thoughtfully.
"Professor," said Pond.
"Just a second," Rose said, still poring over the controls. "Induction level... okay, so it's collecting. But collecting what?"
"Shh. Thinking. What is this? Not artron energy. Not huon particles... "
Pond edged a little closer, nudging the Professor with an elbow, and said, "Maybe you should just ask them."
Rose looked up at her, puzzled, and then turned around.
The machine - and the two women - were surrounded by a dozen or so men and women in the distinctive red, pointy-hooded coveralls of Big Fire operatives. In their lead was a man in a business suit, his head covered with a similarly cut hood in black - this particular crew's Q-boss.
"Oh," she said, putting her goggles back up on her forehead. "Hullo, Earl, long time. This is yours, I take it?"
"Ah," said the Q-boss. "Doctor Tyler. I might've known they'd send you."
"Professor," said Rose.
"Professor Tyler. I keep telling you, I'm not licensed to practice medicine." Ignoring the man's drawn pistol and his troops' submachine guns, Rose turned back to the control board. "Do you know what this thing is supposed to do?" She peered into the glow of the core without her goggles' tint to change its color, then snapped her fingers and turned around. "It's Getter rays. Isn't it? It's siphoning in and concentrating ambient Getter rays. You must have planted subcollectors all over the city. That's where all these pipes lead." She grinned. "That's a huge operation. You must've been running it for months, right under our noses. I'm impressed, I honestly am."
Turning back to the controls, she added offhandedly, "Of course, it's not going to work, unless what you're trying to do is blow up the whole city. And though I certainly wouldn't put that past Big Fire, if that was the case, why would you and your crew still be here guarding it? Unless... " She turned and walked toward the Q-boss, still paying no mind to his weapon. "They didn't tell you it would do that, did they?"
"That's crazy," Earl shot back. "It's a power source for - " He caught himself. "You don't need to know what it's for. Point is, it's not gonna blow up. We're just here to guard it until Lord Komei comes to collect the core. Because we knew when it got near a full charge you guys would notice it and send someone to investigate." He smirked. "And here you are. You know, the Ten have been wanting to talk to you for a long time."
Rose gave him a skeptical look. "Earl. C'mon." Putting an arm over his shoulders, she turned and gestured to the machine with her free hand. "Look at this thing. Do you honestly believe this machine is intended to do anything other than explode?" She shook her head. "Getter rays are dangerously unstable in mass quantities, and whoever built this machine has to know that. You guys are being sacrificed."
One of the Red Hoods at the back spoke up. "Uh... I think she might be right, boss. I mean, there were those extra insurance papers we had to sign before we left the office... "
Earl turned to give him a look, saw that the others were all nodding agreement, and turned back to Rose, who smiled wryly.
"No honor among thieves, Earl," she said, giving his shoulders a sympathetic shake before letting him go and returning to the control board.
Earl faced his men, spreading his hands in bafflement. Slowly, they put up their weapons, nodding. He put his pistol away and turned back to Rose, who - blithely ignoring the Big Fire ops - had crouched in front of the board, pulled off the panel below it, and was fiddling around with the wires underneath. Next to her, Constable Pond kept doing her best to cover all the enemy agents at once, occasionally casting sharp glances down at the Professor.
"What can we do?" asked Earl, an edge of something like panic creeping into his voice.
Rose straightened up, holding a silver canister in one hand. A cable led from one end of it and trailed back into the guts of the machine. She took hold of one of Earl's hands and folded it around the canister, positioning his thumb on an angled bit of metal on the top.
"Hold this," she said very seriously, looking him in the eye. "Whatever you do, don't let go of it."
"The rest of you, just... chill. Notice how the hum has gotten louder? That's because Getter rays respond to emotions. The machine's picking up on your fear. So just try to stay calm. Oh, and - I'm going to need Constable Pond's help with this next bit. It's very delicate work. So if any of you gets the bright idea to jump us while we've got our hands full, you'll get us all killed. Therefore, don't. All right?"
The wide-eyed agents nodded almost as one. "Yes m'am," said the one who'd spoken earlier.
Rose smiled and nodded. "Good boys." Turning to her very-skeptical-looking police partner, the Professor dropped her goggles over her eyes again and said cheerfully, "Come along, Pond. Let's do some science."
/* Elvis Costello
"Pump It Up"
This Year's Model (1978) */
Earl and his troops stood and watched, fascinated and terrified, as the two women started dismantling the front panel of the machine. Before long, both were fully engrossed - indeed, nearly embedded - in the internal componentry as they worked out what systems did what and which ones to disconnect in what order. It was part on-the-fly electrical engineering, part bomb disposal, and Rose caught herself humming the theme from Danger UXB during a particularly dodgy bit of wire sorting.
The tensest moment came right at the end, when, having freed it from all the equipment around it and shut off the flow of energy from all the collector pipes, Rose delicately slid the central core - a cylindrical crystalline device about six inches by two feet, glowing bright green - out of its housing and disconnected one last fat cable from the metal ferrule on what had been its back end. Then, holding the glasslike canister in both hands, she puffed her cheeks and blew out a long breath. She met Pond's eyes and both women began to giggle with a mixture of triumph and relief.
"Are we clear?" Earl asked.
"Almost. We need to get this thing out of here and dispose of it safely," Rose told him. "It's still unstable. Potentially very dangerous. Nobody move until we're out of the room." She carried it gingerly down from the platform and across the room to the ladder, handed it to Pond, and climbed up to the catwalk; the constable handed it up to her, then climbed up after.
"Hey!" Earl called. "How much longer do I have to hold this?"
"What?" Rose asked. Then, smiling, she said, "Oh! That? You can put that down anytime you like. It doesn't actually do anything."
Earl blinked, then gritted his teeth. "You - you tricked me?!"
"Not really. You really were in a lot of danger." She waved. "But we've got it under control now. Nice working with you!"
"Why, you - Guys! Get them!" Realizing that he was still holding the device, the Q-boss threw it furiously to the floor.
At which point, since his thumb on the safety cap was the only thing that kept it from igniting, the smoke grenade went off, filling the room with thick grey fog.
"Right," said Rose, "now I've tricked you. Come on, Pond!"
"Were you kidding when you said that was still dangerously unstable?" Pond asked as she and Rose pelted up the passageway toward the anteroom as fast as they could run.
"Probably," Rose replied, though Pond noticed that she was trying to hold it as level as she could, even while running. They burst out of the passage into the anteroom, much to the surprise of Edison and his team.
"Pete! Backup code two!" Pond shouted. "There's a Big Fire Red Squad somewhere behind us and they're nae gonna be happy!"
Sgt. Stacker leaned around the door, saw the constable and Rose running toward him, then nodded and got on the radio to get more greysuiters downstairs.
"Where do you think you're going with that?" Edison demanded as Rose pelted past him, the Getter aggregator tucked under her arm. "I've got priority - !"
Research Station Terminal Light
Constable Pond put her head into the Professor's office to find her exactly where she'd been since their return from the city: sitting at her desk, feet up, gazing thoughtfully into the shifting green depths of the Getter-ray aggregator.
"Do you need anything else, Professor?" she asked.
Rose seemed to come back from a long way away. "Hm? Oh. No, thanks. I'm fine."
Pond nodded. "I'm heading home, then. See you in the morning."
Rose sat in contemplation of the aggregator for a while longer, then got up and carried it into the UTA lab.
Saturday, May 8, 2410
Constable Pond arrived the next morning to find Professor Tyler stretched out on the couch in her office, fully clothed but for her boots, which stood nearby, and her jacket, which she'd rolled up and used as a pillow.
"Have you been here all night?" she asked.
"Huh," said Rose, popping awake. "Oh. Good, you're here." She shifted to a sitting position, rubbing her face, then pulled on her boots and laced them up. "Yes, I have."
"Doing what, may I ask?"
"Working." Rose got up, smiling. "Come on, I'll show you."
The lab looked much the same as it had the day before, except that it was bathed in the same green light as they'd seen in the sewer chamber, and the failed Detrebelian power cell had been removed from the nest of cables at the back and replaced by the Getter-ray aggregator.
"Took me most of the night to build the right connectors," Rose explained. "We don't want anything coming undone once the power starts really flowing."
"Hold on, I thought you said Getter rays were dangerously unstable."
"They are. But it only has to work for a few seconds, and then they'll all be used up."
Pond frowned. "You think it's really going to work this time?"
"It has to. Getter rays are potentially the most powerful form of energy in the universe. If this doesn't work... well. If I could capture the full output of a quasar for a few milliseconds, that would do, but I don't have the technology available to do that." She put a hand on the aggregator. "This might be my last chance... and I'll only get one shot."
"We won't be able to test it first?"
Rose shook her head. "Not enough energy. We'll need everything this module has if it's going to work at all." She stood looking at it for a few more moments, then pulled her eyes away from it and said, "Let's go into town. I've got a lot of people to see... "
With Constable Pond, as always, at the controls, Rose went into the city, showered and changed her clothes (for almost identical ones) at her tiny Shoreside apartment, and then spent most of the day saying goodbye - to her faculty colleagues and a few special students at the New Albion Institute of Science, where she'd first studied and then taught for most of the last decade; to various people at GPO headquarters downtown; to a few friends and familiar haunts around the city. They flew most of the way back to Terminal Island in a contemplative silence, but just before arriving, Pond said,
"I suppose this means I'll go back to the Force. Maybe they'll give me a nice, quiet job. Traffic duty. Crossing guard."
Rose snorted. "After three years with me, you're probably the most qualified officer they have. They should make you, oh, a DCI at least."
Pond smiled, but didn't reply; they were entering the Terminal Island control zone, and she had to pay attention to her comms or run the risk of being shot down by their own lab's defenses.
Saying her goodbyes to the laboratory staff was the hardest part, Rose thought, and it was with a heavy heart that she saw most of them off at the close of the day, knowing that she was never likely to see them again. If what she was trying to do worked, she'd be leaving New Albion, almost certainly forever. And if it didn't, she'd be just as almost certainly killed. Either way, this was probably the last goodbye, and they all knew it.
On the other hand, knowing what she was heading for buoyed her spirits again, and it was with very mixed feelings that she took one last look around her office and then went down to the lab. She carried nothing with her except what she could carry in the (surprisingly voluminous) pockets of her black leather jacket. No bag, no suitcase, nothing material to show for ten years of life fully lived in this strange but strangely familiar universe. Everything that mattered was either in one of her pockets or in her head.
Rose entered the lab and was surprised to find, in addition to the ever-faithful Pond, that the Brigadier and young Thomas Edison were on hand. She hadn't seen them arrive; they must have come while she was up on the admin level saying her farewells to the staff.
"Thomas," she said, nodding cordially. "Couldn't even wait until I was gone to come and claim my lab? Well, don't worry. I haven't destroyed any of my notes or equipment. That'd be petty. You're welcome to absolutely everything I leave behind."
Edison looked uncomfortable. "Thank you. But that's not why I'm here. I just came... " He hesitated awkwardly. "... To wish you luck."
Rose raised one dark eyebrow. "Really?"
"Really. I know we've had our differences over the years, but... we're colleagues, and I respect your... your intellect. And your achievements. I hope you succeed. And I want to be here to see it."
Rose studied his long face keenly, looking for any sign of sarcasm, but found none. Softening, she smiled and clapped his shoulder. "Thank you, Thomas," she said.
Edison returned the smile a little shyly. "Tom. You can... if you were staying, you could call me Tom."
Her smile widening a little, Rose tilted her head toward the control booth. "Better get behind the rad shield, Tom. I doubt you want to risk coming with me."
He nodded and went around the end of the transparent barrier. Rose turned to the Brigadier.
"So this is it," he said. "You're leaving us."
"I lived up to my part of our deal," she pointed out. "You asked for four years; I've given you more than six."
Griffin-Hudson nodded. "Don't get me wrong, I've no cause for complaint." He grinned wryly. "But we'll miss your smiling face."
Rose sobered again, looking a little downcast. "I know. But we all knew this day would come."
The Brigadier nodded and replied in a brisk, stiff-upper-lip fashion, "And now that it has, take with you all the best from all of us. It's been a privilege to have you in the GPO. You've made the Science Patrol what it is today, and we'll do our best to maintain the standards you've set." Coming to attention, he gave her a crisp salute and added, "Good luck, Professor."
Somewhat to his surprise, Rose grabbed him by his tie. "I've told you a hundred times, Brigadier," she said. "Don't salute me."
Then, somewhat more to his surprise, she used her grip on his tie to pull his face down for a kiss before turning him loose and propelling him toward the rad shield. To his startled expression she said with a laugh, "Couldn't leave without doing that at least once, could I, not after all those newspaper stories we've laughed about." Then, having installed him next to Edison, she squared up and returned his salute, still grinning. "And thank you, Brigadier, for everything. I couldn't have got this far without you."
Leaving him to trade befuddled looks with Edison, Rose turned and walked back out to the platform, where the last of her closest associates waited. Constable Pond had left her hat somewhere, her flame-red hair falling in luxurious waves around her shoulders, and Rose plucked at a lock of it with a slight smirk.
"If there was a way to steal this," she said, then left the rest of the remark unaired and said instead, "You take care of yourself, Amy. Remember what I told you: DCI at the very least. Don't let them stick you in some dead-end no-hope posting. You're better than that."
"Maybe working with you," said Amy uncertainly. "But when you're gone?"
"You've learned enough. You're ready to go it without me." Rose grinned. "This is when you fly."
Amy eyed her for a moment, then broke into a beaming smile.
"Yeah," she said. "Yeah! Why not! It's... it's been amazing, Professor Tyler. Really amazing. Thank you."
"Constable Pond," Rose replied, "it's been my honor." She stood on tiptoes to embrace the policewoman. "Cor, you're tall."
When the hug was finished, Amy (surreptitiously dabbing at her eyes) went to the controls, while Rose went up onto the platform in the middle of the UTA and pulled on a long grey coat over her jacket. The coat, festooned with wires, a power cell, and a couple of isolinear circuit wafers, was the array's navigational interface, designed to link up with the control system so that the wearer's precise position in spacetime - a critical piece of information - was constantly updated right up to the instant of crossover.
"Power up the positioning sensors, please," she said, and Pond operated the appropriate controls. The lighting in the room changed, overhead lamps dimming, as the power converters in the ring began to glow with a greenish Getter light. Little sparkles of the same energy ran up and down the wires attached to Rose's coat. She reached into an inside pocket of her leather jacket underneath and produced a small metal object.
"Reference tracking sample... engaged," she said, clipping the item - which looked for all the world like a simple Yale key - into a hollow on the circuit board affixed to her coat's right lapel. It began to glow with a low chiming noise.
"Tracking," Amy reported, her eyes jumping from one indicator to another; then, excitedly, "Locked on! Target is... stationary." She looked up, meeting Rose's eyes through the window. "We're good to go."
"Right." Rose put one hand on each of the rails flanking her position at the center of the UTA stage. "Energize the primary array."
Amy threw switches. "Primary array coming online."
The room filled with a hum very like that of the machine in the sewer, the green glow brightening. Rose's hair began to ruffle as if she were standing in a light breeze. Motes of bright energy rose from the plates beneath her feet as the electrodes began to form their ring of arcs, until only one gap remained... and there it stayed.
"Energy levels holding at 94 percent!" Amy shouted over the crackling roar of the arcs. A siren started to moan. "Primary coil temperatures exceeding critical limits! Powering down!"
"No!" Rose yelled, the urgency in her voice stopping the constable's hand before it could pull back the emergency-stop lever. "This is the only chance we're going to get!"
"Professor, it's not working!" Amy shouted back. "There's not enough energy! Coil temps are 1500 degrees above redline and rising - we've got to shut it down or it'll blow!"
Rose wavered, on the edge of agreeing, until she remembered something she herself had said to Q-boss Earl.
"Getter rays respond to emotions. The machine is picking up on your fear."
She reached deep inside herself and summoned up all the passion in her heart, all the determination and refusal to quit that had seen her through the last ten years of hard work and danger, all the love and desperation that had driven her forward toward one single goal - this moment, this crossing, and what, if her calculations were correct, lay beyond it.
It can't all have been for nothing, she thought. Because I'm never going to give up. I didn't give up after Satellite 5. I didn't give up on Krop Tor. I didn't give up after Canary Wharf. And I'm not giving up now!
The Getter-ray aggregator suddenly glowed even brighter, its light so intense it was nearly white. The crystal cylinder cracked with a sound like a rifle shot, but wasn't breached. Before Amy's astonished eyes, the needle of the energy level gauge shot from 94% up to the maximum reading of 125% and jammed against the stop. The rising motes of energy became a vortex, swirling up from the floor to obscure Rose's feet, then her legs.
"Breakthrough imminent!" Amy declared breathlessly. "Crossover in four seconds!" Meeting the Professor's eyes again, she grinned in amazement and called, "Godspeed, Rose!"
Rose's reply, "G'bye, Amy," came just before the Getter vortex swallowed her up and, with a thunderous BOOM and a blinding flash of light, collapsed in on itself.
Standing at the control board in the suddenly dark and silent lab, Amy Pond found her hands moving automatically, following her well-drilled training and locking down the board. The overhead lights came back on, revealing that most of the UTA had been reduced to so much melted scrap by the final implosion. A wisp of greenish smoke puffed from the crack in the dark and empty Getter-ray aggregator.
"Well," said Thomas Edison after a moment. "That was... remarkable. I wonder if she made it. I... suppose we'll never know."
Amy looked down at the locked board, noting the positions of some of the indicators, and smiled. "Yeah. She made it."
GPO Headquarters, New Albion
Brigadier Sir Daniel J. Griffin-Hudson entered his outer office looking weary and a little shell-shocked, and was surprised to find his adjutant, Captain Luornu Durgo, still at her desk.
"Welcome back, Brigadier," she said. "How did it go?"
"She's away," the Brigadier replied. "Constable Pond tells us the instruments indicate she made it through."
Lu smiled. "That's a relief." Indicating the door behind her, she added in a businesslike tone, "There's a new recruit waiting in your office, sir."
The Brigadier looked at his watch. "Lu, this really isn't a good time for me," he said, but she just smiled enigmatically.
"No, you want to see this one. Trust me."
Griffin-Hudson sighed, rubbing at his face. "All right. If you say so." He trudged past her desk, giving her a tired smile, and entered his inner office.
There was a woman sitting in the green leather wingback chair facing his desk. At the sound of the door behind her, she got to her feet and turned to face him, and the Brigadier just stood there and stared at her in amazement for a few moments.
She was about twenty, dressed the way young people dressed in New Albion these days, in a T-shirt with some slogan printed in a font so stylized as to be casually unreadable, jeans whose legs were a little too long, sneakers, and one of those half-zip-up tops with the single big pocket on the front. Her hair was bleached blonde, but in a fashionable way rather than one that was intended to fool anyone - the parting in the middle was dark brown, as were her eyebrows. She looked a little nervous, as if she wasn't quite sure what she was doing here.
"Uh... hi," she said awkwardly. "I think, uh... are you the Brigadier?" Her accent was pure Albion, the dialect spoken in the working-class neighborhoods to the southwest of the city center - Powell, the Brigadier thought, or possibly Southbank.
"That's me," Griffin-Hudson replied.
"I got this email," the girl said. She handed him a datacom unit; he thumbed the holodisplay on and read:
You're much too clever to be wasting your life selling hoodies at Henrik's. What you need is a challenge. Go to the GPO building and ask to see the Brigadier. Go now. The reception staff will let you in.
And brace yourself. You're in for the time of your life.
"I don't really know why I came," the girl admitted. "I don't even know who this 'Professor' is. But... he was right about them letting me in, so... what else might he be right about?" She smiled nervously, then blinked. "Oh. I'm sorry. God, that's so rude. I didn't even tell you who I am."
The Brigadier looked from the message to her face - a face from his past, the face of the woman he'd just said goodbye to as she had looked when he'd first met her, nigh on a decade ago.
"That's all right, Miss Tyler," he said. "I know who you are."
Sunday, May 8, 2410
Universe GCC #100/W
Rose materialized so suddenly that her vestibular system mistakenly assumed she was falling, which meant that she did fall, crumpling to the ground and slightly wrenching her knee. She remained there for a few moments, until her head stopped spinning. She felt the slight springiness of turf under her, smelled the acrid tang of burnt grass. The air was warm and spring-fragrant; after a moment, birdsongs resumed, hesitantly at first.
She opened her eyes and slowly straightened up, not quite daring to hope, and saw that she was standing in the middle of a large lawn. To her left, the grass sloped slightly down to a quiet suburban street. To her right, the lawn was strewn with cobbled-together electronic-looking gadgetry of no immediately obvious purpose (and what appeared to be a settee). Heavy cables snaked from parts of this apparatus across the grass and into two larger objects that stood at either end of the assembly. One looked like a Pepsi vending machine. The other was a tall, solid-looking blue box that was so instantly familiar that Rose felt for a moment as if she might fall down again. Just as she'd hoped, the UTA had used the TARDIS's key, which she'd carried with her all of these years, to find the machine itself. And where the TARDIS was, somewhere nearby had to be...
She saw a little group of people standing near a tree, not far from the TARDIS, maybe fifteen yards away. A stocky black-haired man in a green trenchcoat, a slim brown-haired woman, two teenage girls - one redheaded, the other another brunette. She knew them all. And standing next to the man in the green coat, a tall, thin man in brown, his shock of dark hair standing up, his eyes wide with astonishment and delight.
"Or we could just wait until she builds one herself," said Don Griffin blandly.
The Doctor said something in reply that she couldn't hear from this far away, then broke into a dead run across the lawn toward her.
Rose met him halfway, her sore knee momentarily forgotten, and just about crushed him with her embrace.
"Told you, didn't I?" she said after a few silent seconds, enormous satisfaction in her voice.
"Hm?" the Doctor replied.
"They keep trying to split us up, but they never ever will."
The Doctor grinned. "You know what," he said, "I think you might be right."
"Of course I'm right," said Rose. "I'm a scientist. Now do me a favor?"
Rose smirked slightly, shifting her arms so that they were linked behind his neck. "I've come a bloody long way to find you. So will you please just shut up and kiss me?"
"Breakthrough" - A New Albion/Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2010 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
[I used to get email occasionally, presumably from people who were unaware that Zoner's the one with the Sandman fixation, telling me that I should use more Neil Gaiman characters. But hey, sure, I'm customer-focused, right? So okay, here's one. --G.]
June 4, 2410
For twenty years they have laughed at me. Called me a joke. Said I was no kind of mystic, said my spirit was corrupt, said I was unworthy of the Art. Master Terez-Ar. The Circle of the Many. Even that dark-eyed little bitch who works at the bookshop on Strange. She, in particular. Throw me out of her pitiful little establishment, will she!
I have always been cursed with a perfect memory. Every slight, every snub, every sideways look - every time since I was a mere child that someone has tried to stand in the way of my destiny - I remember them all as though they only just happened. I remember Mrs. Eidelen, my first-grade teacher, sending home that snide little note. "Henry has poor powers of concentration even for a child of his age, but his biggest flaw is his unwillingness to invest true effort in anything. He is always looking for the 'quick fix', the easy way out. His work is therefore shoddy and its foundations based on incomplete understanding. I very much fear that unless something is done quickly to change Henry's attitude toward life and learning, this pattern will be set and he will come to no good."
Can you imagine writing that about a six-year-old? Mrs. Eidelen did. I made certain she remembered it, too... before I showed her what I had learned in the ten years since I had been a prisoner of her class. But even with the light fading from her eyes, there was still that dismissive look. As if I hadn't killed her in a creative and clever enough manner to suit her standards.
But that doesn't really matter when she's the one that's dead, now does it?
The fates have smiled upon me at last. Today - purely by chance - while shopping for furniture in an antique shop in Salutown, I discovered an Artifact of Power. I'm not sure what it is yet, but its significance is obvious. It fairly pulses with ancient potency. I will penetrate its secrets soon, and then whatever power it contains, I shall possess.
The man who ran the antique shop clearly had no conception of what he had in that item. Who's the fool now? He obviously felt it was I, for paying his miserable asking price without even asking his ignorant opinion as to what it was for. As I paid he looked through me as if he'd already dismissed the entire encounter from his mind. Unimportant. Forgettable.
I see that same dismissal wherever I go. It is as if people are willfully blind to my importance. That shop girl at Strangefate Books gave me the same look as she told me to leave the shop, as though a teenage retail biscuit has any reason to give anyone a superior look.
Well, she'll learn soon. They'll all learn soon. Because before long...
... the joke will be on them.
Monday, September 6, 2410
Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense Headquarters
Avalon County, Zeta Cygni
A chilly rain was bucketing down outside, and the guard on duty in the lobby of BPRD Headquarters was slightly surprised to see someone open the door and walk inside. It wasn't like the building, perched as it was on a hill out in the woods, miles from anywhere, got a lot of visitors on nice days.
The new arrival was a human girl of about 20, slim and average-height, dressed appropriately in a long yellow rain slicker, sou'wester hat, and big old-fashioned rubber Wellington boots. As the door hissed hydraulically shut behind her, she took off the hat and smoothed back her shoulder-length dark blue hair, blinked at the sudden brightness of the lobby lights, and then smiled and made her way across the wide expanse of marble to the guard's desk. If she was aware of the multitude of hidden weapons that were tracking her every move as she did so, she gave no sign.
"Hi," she said. "I have an appointment to meet with Agent Sapien at 9:30."
The guard looked at his appointment manifest, then back at the girl. "You must be our new hire," he said with a smile.
"That's me," she replied; producing an Avalon County driver's license, she handed it over, adding with a wry grin, "Coraline Jones, paranormal investigator, at your service."
The guard compared the little holo on the card to its owner's face, then handed it back and asked, "You have your paperwork?"
"Right here," Coraline replied. She opened the flap of the battered brown messenger bag she wore slung over one shoulder and held out her hand expectantly over it; a moment later, another hand emerged from within the bag, as though its owner were (quite impossibly) stationed inside it, and handed her a sheaf of documents, which she smoothed on the desk in front of the guard. That was not even slightly the oddest thing the day-shift guard at the BPRD had seen, but it still rated an arched eyebrow.
"That's pretty useful," he observed. "Where'd you get it?"
"What, this?" Coraline asked innocently, lifting the bag by its top handle. "It's just a handbag," she added with a conspiratorial wink.
The guard laughed, thinking, This kid's going to fit in just fine around here. Riffling through the documents, he verified that they were all in order, then handed them back to Coraline, apart from the one that he was expected to keep.
"Welcome to the BPRD, Agent Jones," he said with a grin. "Agent Sapien was unexpectedly called into the field a little while ago, but if you'll go on through into the great hall, I'll let someone know you're here."
Coraline nodded. "Thanks," she said, stuffing the papers back into her handbag. She looked down at the floor, then added apologetically, "Sorry about the floor," and trotted off through the inner doors.
Where the lobby of BPRD HQ was an understated space in dark marble and bright fluorescents, suitable for the headquarters any government agency or biggish bank, the great hall beyond it was the place where the Bureau liked to show off for the benefit of those visitors who were cleared to know what really went on within its walls. It was a much more well-decorated room, with its high vaulted ceiling and golden Art Deco fluting, and its mahogany-paneled walls were lined with trophies and exhibits, like a small art museum - but exhibits that no museum would ever have dared show off.
Coraline walked from one to the other in rapt fascination, taking it all in: a gleaming silver spear with an inscription in ancient Norse runes engraved upon the blade; a small, plain wooden box secured with a hefty black-iron lock; what looked like a funerary mask made of some rough-hewn green wood. There was a hand of glory, and another one that appeared to have been combined with an old-fashioned palmtop computer, and something that looked very much like the Antikythera mechanism, except it was made of glass. The oddest thing in the room, though, was the coffin-shaped piece of equipment standing against the wall between two sets of doors that led off to somewhere deeper in the building. It was supported at a 45-degree angle by a sort of high-tech plinth covered in inscrutable workings and coiled tubing; a thin white vapor wafted off the tubing, heavier than air, sinking slowly toward the floor as it dissipated.
Moving closer, Coraline confirmed her initial suspicion, which was that it was some kind of suspension chamber. She wondered if it were coffin-shaped because its designer had had a perverse sense of humor, or out of some esoteric engineering necessity. It had a little window in it, about where the brass plate would be on a coffin, and above that was a small bracket of bent metal that surrounded a 3x5 card on three sides. The card had a long code number on it, and was otherwise unadorned, except for four letters boldly handwritten in black Sharpie: SAYA.
Coraline leaned toward the window and peered inside, shading away the glare of the overhead lights with one hand. She saw the face of a dark-haired girl in her early teens, too perfectly composed and unmoving to be asleep. The window was near enough to her face that if she were breathing, surely she'd be fogging the glass by her nose.
The sound of a throat being cleared behind her made Coraline abandon her survey of the girl in the capsule and turn. If she found anything out of the ordinary in the sight that confronted her then, she covered it very well. Certainly most people would have, for the man standing just inside the door at the far end of the room was quite preternaturally ugly. He had a completely bald, somewhat misshapen head, prominently pointed ears, and bulging, pale eyes that seemed to stare at everything and nothing simultaneously.
The rest of him was just as remarkable, if less unsettling; he was very tall and lean, and dressed in a crisp and starkly archaic style, like a 19th-century gentleman of some importance.
"Miss Jones?" he said in a clipped, precise German accent, and as he spoke Coraline could see that he had very pronounced canine teeth. She wondered why they didn't interfere with his speech as he continued, "Agent Sapien is in the field. He asked me to conduct your initial orientation." Drawing himself up even straighter, this remarkable figure clicked the heels of his brightly polished shoes smartly together, folded one long, thin hand across his midsection, and gave a short bow. "Maximilian Friedrich Wilhelm Schreck, Graf von Orlock, at your service."
"Hi," said Coraline with a friendly smile. "I'm Coraline Jones and this is Dexter." The hand emerged from her messenger bag, waved, and disappeared again. "I take it this is kind of the Bureau's trophy room, huh?" She gestured to the capsule behind her. "What's with the dead girl in the stasis chamber?"
"Oh, she's not dead," said Orlock, crossing toward her with long, rapid strides that put her in mind of a spider with an urgent appointment. Stopping by the chamber, he turned to her with tilted head and went on, "Or, to be more precise, she's undead. Right now she's in a sort of hibernative state. She's in here so we can more easily monitor her condition. And to answer your first question, no, this isn't a trophy room so much as an observation area. These are among the Bureau's most dangerous, or potentially dangerous, artifacts."
"Then why not lock them up in a vault or something?" Coraline asked. "I mean, here they're practically in the lobby."
"In a sense, all of Headquarters is a vault," Orlock told her. "We keep them here because it's centrally located, easily monitored, and if something does happen, a response team can be here in seconds. This is a lesson we learned the hard way," he added with a somber expression, and Coraline made a mental note to defer further investigation on that point until she'd had a chance to get better established around here.
"Well, if you're my orientation officer, I guess we should get orienting, then," she said. "Abe said there'd be paperwork."
"Isn't there always?" Orlock asked with a philosophical smile. "It's the life's blood of any organization of this size... " He smirked slightly, an expression that looked wholly out of place on his hideous face. "... If you'll pardon the figure of speech. First things first, though: Here is your Bureau identification." He reached into the inside pocket of his cutaway jacket and produced a wallet-like leather item, which he handed to Coraline. She took it from his black-nailed, talon-like fingers and opened it to reveal a gleaming sword-and-fist BPRD badge opposite an ID card. The card had a holo of her face that looked like it had just been taken in the lobby when she arrived.
"For the rest of your equipment, we will need to visit the Technical Services department. The paperwork can wait until - " Orlock was interrupted by the chiming of a communicator. Arching one eyebrow, he muttered, "Ach. Excuse me a moment." He took an old-fashioned flipcomm from another inside pocket. "Orlock."
"Red," a gravelly voice replied. "Is the new girl there yet?"
"Ja, she's right here. I was just about to take her to Tech Services and begin issuing her equipment."
"Have to do that later. We need her down here ASAP. You've got the location. Has she got her ID?"
"Ja, ja, first thing I did, but Hellboy - "
"Good man. Get her on her way. We'll be waiting for her on the lower level. Red out."
Orlock blinked in mixed amazement and annoyance at the now-dead communicator, then closed it, put it away, and turned an apologetic face to Coraline.
"It's not normally our policy to send new agents into the field within 15 minutes of their arrival at Headquarters," he said, "but you heard, ja?" He shook his head. "He's often like that when things develop unexpectedly in the field. Surprise can make him quite insufferable. I'm sorry about this, Agent Jones."
Coraline didn't seem any more fazed by the sudden change of plans than she had by Orlock's appearance. She just grinned and clapped the vampire on the shoulder.
"I better not keep him waiting, then," she said cheerfully. "Where am I going?"
August 5, 2410
Two months. Two months it has taken me to unravel the mysteries of this object, but I was determined not to give up, because I could sense its importance as plainly as I know my own. I knew that it would be the key to my future... and it is, albeit not in quite the way I was hoping.
It's an ancient phylactery, designed to house and elicit the life force of a supernatural being. Judging by the carvings, it's of Earth origin. I believe the characters in the inscription are Sumerian cuneiform, though they are too badly eroded to read. No matter. It is merely decorative. The actual ceremony to summon and command the being within is simple enough, and well-documented in numerous sources. I believe the one in Unaussprechliken Külten will be the most suitable, so I have begun preparations. Tomorrow - the summoning! I know not what kind of creature's essence is housed within, but the phylactery itself is clearly the work of a god, so whatever it is, I can only benefit from having it at my command. And from there... who knows?
Who knows indeed?
Monday, September 6, 2410
Millrace North Subway Station
Malden Avenue, New Avalon
It took Coraline a little more than half an hour to drive back into the city from Headquarters and find her way to where she was needed. The rain had tapered off as she approached the city, and it was barely coming down here, though the streets were wet and the gutters awash, testifying to the recent downpour. Spotting the exact place wasn't hard once she got within a block or two; it was the only subway station in the district that was cordoned off with yellow police line tape on both sides of the street. She pulled her old grey Citro?n DS to the curb in the space between two NAPD patrol cars and climbed out, her BPRD badge case folded open and hanging badge-side-out around her neck on a lanyard. One of the two uniformed cops standing guard at the top of the station stairs politely asked to see her ID, then told her to go on through.
Below ground, the station's ticket hall was deserted, eerily so, with abandoned newspapers and various detritus giving it an abandoned air that the N's stations usually didn't have even at four in the morning. The electric gate at the end of the turnstile bank automatically opened to let Coraline through - some kind of transponder built into the badge, she suspected - and she went down the escalator to the platform level. This, too, was deserted, except for two figures standing in the middle of the platform, facing toward the southbound tracks. One was slim, bald, greenish, and dressed in snug black tactical gear; the other burly and trenchcoated, with coarse black sidewhiskers and bright red skin. Both turned to look as Coraline reached the bottom of the escalator.
"Hey, Abe," said Coraline. "What's up? I was expecting some kind of emergency."
Abe Sapien smiled. "Hello, Coraline. As a matter of fact, that's just what we're trying to prevent. Come, let me introduce you. Coraline Jones, this is - "
"She knows who I am," Hellboy interrupted gruffly. Turning to Coraline, he said, "Your file says you're a dowser."
"Among other things," Coraline replied.
"Good," said Hellboy. "Get dowsing."
Coraline tilted her head slightly, looking up at him; she wasn't a particularly tall woman, and he towered over her, but she didn't seem to find him intimidating. If anything, his brusqueness seemed faintly to amuse her.
After holding his gaze for a couple of seconds just to demonstrate that she wasn't cowed by him, she reached into an inner pocket of her slicker, took out a pair of white cotton gloves, and carefully, fastidiously pulled them on, making sure they were just so. Then she flipped open the flap of her messenger bag and said, "Dexter, the No. 4, I think, please." The bag's hand - similarly gloved - proffered what appeared to be a Y-shaped twig. Coraline took it, thanked the hand (which withdrew), and closed the bag, then flourished the twig and followed where it led. When this proved to be onto the tracks, she didn't hesitate, but jumped nimbly down into the space between the rails. Abe and Hellboy glanced at each other, then followed. They trailed behind her in silence as she walked steadily into the southbound trains' entrance tunnel, back northward along the tracks.
This went on for about 300 yards, the tip of the divining rod dipping lower and lower, until finally it nudged into the space between two of the ballast stones with a gentle tick and Coraline stopped walking.
"Here you go," she said. "There's an underground lake below here. Feels like it's oblong, more or less at right angles to the tunnel. Not sure how far down... pretty significant amount of water, though." She turned to Abe. "I'm not an expert on the subterranean topography of greater New Avalon," she added, "but I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess that that isn't supposed to be here."
He shook his head. "It wasn't here when they did the last general survey of the subway line. Which was last month."
Hellboy regarded the girl for a moment, then asked, "How sure are you?"
"Sure enough," she replied. "It'd be pretty hard to miss."
He thought that over, then grunted, nodding. "Okay. You can take off. Thanks."
Coraline raised her eyebrows. "Take off? Oh, I don't think so." She dropped the divining rod back into her bag and the gloves after it, then went on, "I'm not only a dowser, I'm a full field operative, and I'm on this case now." She folded her arms and gave him a pugnacious look that, given the disparity in their sizes, should've been comical.
Hellboy gazed levelly at her for a few seconds, then smiled slightly and said, "Fine, stick around. But if you get tentacled, don't come crying to me." Then he walked past her and crouched down at the spot she'd indicated, brushing his left hand through the ballast stones and feeling the tunnel floor beneath. Coraline caught Abe's eye and grinned; he smiled back, then went to Hellboy's side.
"What do you think?" he asked.
"I think we need to get to that lake and find out where it came from," Hellboy replied. Then, without warning, he reared back his massive stone right hand and slammed it into the ground, sending ballast flying. Abe recoiled and Coraline held up one side of her slicker like a vampire's cape to shield her face.
"Uh, Red, I'm not sure that's such a good idea," said Abe, but Hellboy took a second swing. Something went crack in the tunnel floor, and the ground subsided slightly, those stones that hadn't been scattered now sliding down the slope and vanishing into the darkness below. A third blow widened the fissure into an actual hole, big enough for Hellboy to climb down through if he so chose; instead, he took a highway flare from one of the pouches on his belt, set it alight, and leaned down with that in hand to have a look.
For a few seconds, there was silence apart from the sputtering of the flare and the slow, steady drip of water from somewhere above them. Then the investigators became aware, slowly at first, of a low vibration, a deep near-subsonic rumble, that seemed to be approaching from a long way away. For a second, Coraline wondered if someone had mistakenly let a train through onto the line.
"Do you see anything?" Abe asked.
"No," said Hellboy, but then his eyes widened and he took on a look of complete disbelief before lurching back from the hole. "Look - " he cried, but the rest of the exclamation was - literally - drowned as water erupted from the hole he'd made, gushing torrentially out with such force and speed that it blew him over backward. The tunnel flooded almost instantly, the water bowling all three investigators back toward the station. Even Abe, whose element this was, found himself hard-pressed to maintain his bearings, much less offer any sort of resistance to the cataract, as it relentlessly swept him and his colleagues southward.
Before any of them really knew what was happening, the wave had cast them all up on the platform at Millrace North and then withdrawn, leaving them dripping and (in Hellboy and Coraline's cases) coughing on the slick tiles of the platform floor. Coraline raised herself up, sputtering, and watched the river that the southbound tracks had become flowing away to the north, bearing with it all the loose papers and random trash that until moments before had littered the platform. Within a few more seconds it had become a placid current, mild reverberations lapping at the edges of the track trench like waves in a bathtub.
Coraline flipped open her bag. "Dexter? Are you okay?" Dexter emerged and gave her a thumbs-up; smiling, she bumped knuckles with him, then closed the bag again and got to her feet, regarding the subway river with growing fascination.
"Well," said Hellboy. "Wasn't expecting that."
"Are you all right, Coraline?" Abe asked, but Coraline didn't answer; she was standing at the platform's edge, water streaming from her clothes, and staring off to the north, watching the trash disappear into the shadows of the tunnel. "Coraline?" Abe asked again.
Coraline shrugged out of the strap of her messenger bag, putting it carefully down on the tiles; then she took off her sou'wester hat, slicked her sodden hair back from her face with an obviously unconscious gesture, and dropped it on top of the bag.
Then she spread her arms wide and toppled forward into the water, her unbuttoned slicker flying open like a pair of bright yellow wings as she fell, then spreading out on the surface for an instant before furling and disappearing with a splash.
"What the - " Hellboy blurted.
"Coraline!" Abe cried. He hit the water after her like an arrow, slicing through the darkened surface, eyes open and searching. With her bright yellow raincoat and boots, she should be easy to see, and the trench was no more than six feet or so deep -
- but she was gone, as utterly gone as if she had never existed at all.
Abe searched the full length of the trench, but when he tried to enter the tunnel to the north, the water churned again, forcing him back. He tried again and again, but was repulsed each time, until finally, exhausted, he had to admit defeat. He surfaced near where he'd gone in, steadying himself against the tiled lip of the platform, and Hellboy hunkered down by the water's edge.
"Well? Where is she?" he asked.
"I don't know," Abe replied.
"You don't know?"
"She's disappeared," said Abe. "Completely disappeared."
"Well, that's just great. I told her to take off." Hellboy sat back on his haunches and blew out a sigh. "I think that's gotta be some kind of record for losing a rookie. What the hell are we dealin' with here?"
"Whatever it is, it has great power over water," Abe said. "Even I can't get anywhere near that tunnel now. It's as if the water itself is against me." He shook his head. "I'll have to check my references. There are a number of entities that could do something like this, but I'm at a loss as to why any of them should suddenly manifest in a New Avalon subway tunnel."
Coraline suddenly surfaced next to him, making both Hellboy and Abe draw back with stereo cries of consternation.
"Her name is Nomia," she said. "She's a naiad. But she won't come out unless you promise not to hurt her."
"A naiad?!" said Hellboy. "What's a naiad doing in the subway? We're not even near the river."
"She'd tell you herself if she dared," Coraline told him, "but you frightened her bashing in the roof of her grotto like that."
"I frightened her? She tried to drown us!"
"Speak for yourself," said Abe.
"You know what I mean."
"If she wanted to drown us, I'd be dead," Coraline pointed out.
"Why aren't you?" Hellboy asked. "Not that I'm complaining."
"Coraline has a special gift for communicating with supernatural entities," Abe put in. "It's the main reason why she came to the Bureau's attention in the first place. I suspect the naiad understood instinctively that she meant it no harm."
Coraline nodded. "And she's hoping for the same assurance from you... because she needs our help."
"Well, I don't make a habit of punching nymphs," said Hellboy. "As long as she means us no harm, she's got nothing to fear from me."
"That goes for me as well," Abe said.
"Okay. I'll see what she says to that. Wait here." Coraline disappeared below the surface again. Abe and Hellboy were kept waiting perhaps a minute... and then the remaining water drained away, disappearing whence it had come and leaving Abe low and dry in the middle of the tracks. A few moments later, Coraline appeared from the darkness at the mouth of the northward tunnel with another, even smaller figure walking hesitantly at her side.
August 8, 2410
All is ruin.
The summoning proceeded without flaw. The creature appeared at once: a water elemental, and one of exquisite beauty - its form feminine... perfect. But then - disaster! I could not control her! She refused my simplest command, defied my will, even injured my face before making her escape. Now she is gone. Gone! And I have nothing. I have tried repeating the summoning, hoping that it would drag her back to the phylactery, but apparently the Külten ritual will only serve to make her manifest on this plane. Now that she is so, the ritual does nothing.
There must be a way to compel her to return. There must! I cannot accept that I could come so close to being rewarded for all my patience and hard work simply to have my reward defy me and disappear into this cursed city. I - must - possess her! Iä! Iä! Hgahk'nagh ghanaag'agl fhtagn! Azathoth fhtagn!
But calm, calm, Shipman. Think it through! You have the phylactery still. Even if no ritual exists that can force her back to it, she will return for it of her own will eventually. She must. Her body may be at large somewhere in New Avalon, but her soul still resides in this tube of glass and silver, resting upon my desk. She must try to get it back. She will hold out for a month, perhaps two... but eventually she will come. She will bargain for it. She will try to cloud my mind with her charms and take it away for free... but that will not happen. Now that I know what she is, I will be prepared for her return. It will be Shipman who holds the upper hand.
And then the elemental will be mine... body and soul.
Monday, September 6, 2410
303 Fate Avenue
Claremont, New Avalon
Henry Webster Shipman sat in the garden behind his townhouse, which backed onto the canal that carried Millrace Stream through Claremont. He turned the phylactery over and over in his hand, letting his thumbs trace the complicated silver seals at both ends, occasionally tilting it and watching the little air bubble trapped in the water within race from one end to the other. In the month since the creature he'd summoned from it had escaped, he'd learned more about it. It was not, as he had originally surmised, Sumerian, but Greek. The creature who came from it was no mere elemental, but a naiad - thanks to the old man on New Crete he even knew which one. And he knew that he had been luckier even than he'd thought, for though elementals were powerful, naiads were kin to the gods of old Olympus. To a determined and enterprising enough mortal, they were a path to power in their own right.
He looked up sharply as the water in the silver reflecting bowl at the other end of the garden, left over from the summoning and carefully tended since, began to bubble. His hatchet face brightened into a look of something like glee as he rose from his chair and stepped around the garden table, and a few moments later, the creature rose again from the waters to face him. Hard-hearted though he was, prepared though he was, Shipman had to catch his breath at the sight of her. Petite but perfectly formed, her skin a pale, almost colorless blue, she had hair that looked like whitewater perpetually rolling from her brow back over her scalp and down her slender back, before being lost in a froth of ephemeral foam near her waist, and her eyes were a slightly darker blue than her skin, luminous and liquid. Even the way she moved reminded Shipman of flowing water as she stepped over the rim of the reflecting bowl and stood before him.
"I knew you'd come back," he said, making a conscious effort to shake off the effect of her beauty and assert his upper hand. This was made a little easier by the air of profound exhaustion she had about her, showing through even her otherworldly grace. She was paler now than she had been when she escaped, even slightly transparent. Her time on the run had clearly taxed her few remaining reserves of strength near to their limits.
Shipman tried not to smile as he saw how weary she was. He held up the phylactery and asked on, "Are you ready to do as I say now?"
Nomia glared at him. When she spoke, her voice was like a mountain stream running over rocks, but her words were angry: "You have no right to that. It was made for Daphnis, and he is dead."
Shipman shook the phylactery at her and snapped, "Enough! Do you not understand, creature? I hold your life in my hand! You will do as I command!"
Nomia shook her head. "Do as you will. I shall not submit."
Shipman shook with rage. This wasn't how he'd imagined this scenario playing out at all. She was supposed to be desperate, at the end of her tether. She would wheedle and cajole, and he would then turn her attempt at persuasion back upon her and seize command of her very being. Instead she was forcing his hand, and if he followed through on his threat, he'd be right back where he started, having gained no advantage at all from his miraculous find, all his diligent effort. That wasn't the way it was supposed to work. Unable to think of any way of turning the situation back to his advantage, he found all the desire he'd felt for the nymph transmuted instantly to a vengeful hate.
"So be it!" he spat, seizing the phylactery by both ends. "If perish you would, then perish you shall!" He raised the vial above his head in both hands, intending to bring it down and snap it in two -
The townhouse's back door exploded open upon the application of one of Hellboy's hooves, and the rest of him crowded out into the garden after it, his BPRD sidearm at the ready.
"Hold it!" he roared, leveling his weapon at Shipman's head. "Put that down on the table, nice and easy."
Normally something of a coward, Shipman was far too firmly in the grip of wrath to be intimidated now. Instead of complying, he brandished the phylactery and snapped, "I think not! Come one step closer and it's all over for this creature. Do you realize what I hold here? The water sealed in this vial is all that remains of the lost spring of Neronomeias. If it is spilled, the naiad of that spring dies." He pointed at Nomia, his face a mask of fury. "She dies!"
Hellboy glanced at the nymph with his eyes, keeping his pistol covering Shipman. "Is this true?"
"Yes," Nomia replied, then added, "but I care not. I will not be this mortal's plaything. Better to die."
"You see?" Shipman snarled. "Ungrateful creature! I brought her back from a thousand years of oblivion and she hasn't even the good grace to do as I say."
"Well, then the vial's no good to you anyway," Hellboy reasoned. "So why don't you just hand it over and we'll forget this whole thing happened."
Shipman tore his eyes from Nomia, somehow lovelier still in her infuriating defiance, and gave the investigator a glare that softened into a crafty look as something occurred to him.
"All right," he said. "All right, demon, you win, I'll let you have the phylactery... but you must give me something in return."
Hellboy shook his head. "Nope," he said. "That's not the way this works. You want to file a claim for whatever you paid for the thing, the Bureau will reimburse you, but you're not getting me to agree to some kind of goofball favor-for-a-favor arrangement. This is real life, buddy, not The Thousand and One Nights."
Shipman gritted his teeth and shifted his grip on the phylactery. "Then she dies!"
Hellboy regarded him over the pistol's sights and replied flatly, "You won't be far behind."
As Shipman hesitated, his mind flailing for some way in which he could come out of this situation not only alive but somehow ahead, Hellboy's partner finished climbing up the slick stones of the canal wall and the iron parapet of the garden fence. Sizing up the situation in an instant, Abraham Sapien tensed his lean muscles and leaped from the rail. Shipman spotted the motion out of the corner of his eye and had just begun to turn toward it when Abe hit him high in a flying tackle, nearly bowling him over backward - but the wiry would-be mystic was stronger than he looked and in a towering rage, so he held his ground and began wrestling the fish-man, still clutching the silver-sealed vial in a madman's grip.
Hellboy cursed - with the two of them tottering around like a couple of aggressive drunks, he couldn't get a clear shot - and had just resigned himself to putting his pistol away and wading in with his fists when Shipman managed to twist free of Abe's grasp. Roaring with wrath, he produced a snake-bladed dagger from somewhere inside his robes. If he hadn't been so busy, Hellboy would have palmed his face, so comically typical was the image: a wannabe wizard waving a kris around, straight out of the funny pages.
"Back, merman!" Shipman barked, slashing at the air in front of him. "You'll not have it!"
"Put it down, Shipman!" said Hellboy. "There's no other way out of this for you now."
"Put it down? Put it down? Oh, I'll put it down, all right." So saying, he raised the phylactery above his head again, meaning to dash it to the patio flagstones beneath his feet.
Except that when he brought his hand violently down, it was already empty.
"Wha?" he blurted, looking at his empty hand with disbelief. He whirled - and behind him stood Coraline Jones, a triumphant smirk on her face and the phylactery in her hand.
"Miserable girl!" he barked. "Give that back at once!"
"Nuh-uh," she said, "mine now." She scampered back out of his reach as he lunged for her, shoving the vial into her messenger bag as she went. Abe and Hellboy moved to grab him, but before they could do so Shipman, bug-eyed with rage, had taken his kris and slashed his own wrist, speaking some ancient words as he did so.
It was typical of Henry Webster Shipman's grasp of the eldritch arts that this little trick didn't do what he expected it would. He thought it would call forth an extraplanar being which, though it could not be directly commanded (which, along with the requirement for self-inflicted injury, was why he'd lost interest in the spell after learning it), would wreak havoc on his enemies. And that was true, as far as it went. What he hadn't understood, from his imperfect reading of the ancient text in which it appeared, was that this being would not bring along its own body to our universe from its place of origin.
Rather, it would use his.
The transformation was brief, nauseating to watch, and agonizing to experience, but when it was all over with, some part of Shipman reflected that if he'd known about the feeling of power that would come with a bit of planar possession, he'd have sought out a way to do it years ago. Ignoring the petty annoyances of Abe and Hellboy's gunfire, he turned his newly monstrous form toward Coraline, backing her up against the garden fence. She had nowhere to go now, unless she tried to climb the fence and jump into the canal, and if she tried that, he'd catch her and tear her limb from limb before ever she reached the top rail.
She didn't seem too concerned. Instead, she reached into her bag and removed the phylactery, then stood there regarding it as if there wasn't a ten-foot-tall fungoid horror that, until moments before, had been a man standing there demanding it. Behind it, Hellboy put his regular pistol away and hauled out the Samaritan, but Coraline caught his eye and gave a little shake of her head.
"You know," she said to Shipman, "there's a funny thing about naiads. They personify bodies of fresh water - brooks, ponds, that kind of thing - and if those bodies of water ever dry up, they die."
"I know all that," the thing that had been Shipman slavered, its drool sizzling on the patio flagstones. One of the three mouths he now possessed did not speak along with the other two; rather, it quietly chanted in a language which no one present understood, but all felt a slight chill just hearing it.
"Mm," said Coraline, unconcerned. "But what do you think happens," she went on didactically, "when a naiad's home waters are completely absorbed by another body of water that hasn't got one of its own?"
And having asked that apparently rhetorical question, she snapped the top off the phylactery, turned, and poured the last few ounces of the spring of Neronomeias into the Claremont Canal.
Nomia cried out in horror for a second, until she realized what Coraline's action really meant; then her face went blank and she wobbled on her feet as she felt a fundamental change sweep over her being. With one simple gesture, Coraline Jones had wiped away her dependence on the last fragment of the long-vanished Neronomeias and replaced it with a connection to one of the pseudocontinent's most mystically significant waterways.
As new strength flooded into her, Nomia knew that Millrace Stream was far from the sleepy woodland spring the Neronomeias had been. It was fast-flowing and much-loved, passing through one of the most densely populated, vibrantly alive urban areas in the galaxy. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of beings lived within sight of it, particularly along the length of the Claremont Canal. It was one of the flowing arteries of the city's heart.
And now, in an instant, the naiad called Nomia had become the living personification of all of it.
She opened her eyes to see the monstrously transfigured form of Henry Webster Shipman staring at her with seven bloodshot, bulbous eyes. In those eyes she could see disbelief, dismay, anger... and still, peeping in at the back, the most oblique corner of that covetous lust that had lighted his face when she had first seen him.
That, much more than the twisted inhumanity of his changed body, filled her with disgust and loathing.
"My curse upon you, Henry Shipman," she spat, the bubbling-brook quality of her voice changed to something reminiscent of a catastrophic flood. "Let this form you so desired be the last thing ever you see!"
Shipman recoiled, clutching at his hideous face with his taloned paws and screaming with all three throats. When he lowered his hands, all his eyes stared blankly, their black-centered redness replaced by milky obscurity. His three voices uttering different imprecations, he turned and lurched away, flailing, whether seeking to escape or to have his revenge, no one present really knew. In the event, Coraline jumped out of his way and his massive, shambling form crashed into the garden fence with full force, tearing loose an entire six-foot section from its mountings, and the blinded thing that had been Shipman plunged into the canal.
The water closed in like a live and furious thing, crushing Shipman and dragging him down. He thrashed briefly at the surface, roaring polyphonous hate... and then he vanished, never to be seen again.
Hellboy, Abe, and Coraline stood by the broken fence, looking down at the spot where Shipman disappeared. The surface of the Millrace went placidly by, heading on its unconcerned way to the Oxbow and the lake. Then, slowly, all three turned to regard Nomia. The nymph stood looking back at them for a moment, then walked slowly toward them until she stood at the canal's edge. Turning, she smiled at Coraline.
"Thank you," she said. "I will not forget this." She smiled also at Hellboy and Abe, but her gaze returned to Coraline before she spoke again: "My waters will ever welcome and protect you, my friends. If you have need of my help, seek me out." Her smile becoming slightly wry, she added, "This city is now my home, too."
Then, with the effortless grace of a waterfall, she dove into the canal, vanishing beneath its placid surface without a ripple.
Hellboy and Abe looked at each other, then both looked at Coraline, who grinned back at them. Hellboy cracked a grin of his own.
"You're gonna do all right, kid," he said, thumping her on the shoulder. "C'mon, let's go tell the N it's safe to start repairs on that tunnel."
"Should we leave out the part where you made the hole in the first place?" Coraline asked impishly.
"Uh... yeah, probably just as well," Hellboy agreed.
"Welcome to the BPRD" - a BPRD Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins with Geoff Depew
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
SEPTEMBER 12, 2410
ETTI IV CRIMINAL DETENTION AND INTERROGATION CENTER 14
Geoff Depew tapped his fingers on the table in front of him. Despite the opera mauve jumpsuit he wore, and without all the gear usually stowed about his person, he seemed unconcerned.
The mission was simple: head to the Corporate Sector, pick up the data core from a hastily-abandoned Big Fire base on Etti IV, and get back. Of course, there were a few issues.
"Uh oh." Geoff said, glancing upwards as a flash of light crossed his face. "This is not good."
"What’s wrong?" Lensman Samuel Guthrie – codename Cannonball – replied, keeping his eyes forwards.
"I think I just got made. I didn’t think they had these scanners running here yet, but I forgot that the Espos live for oppressing rights."
"Do you think we’ll make it to the spaceport?"
"We came commercial. There’s no way we can get offplanet. But that’s okay." He shifted the bag slung over one shoulder, and in a quick motion slid it onto Sam’s. "You can get offplanet. I’ll distract them."
"That’s not how we do things! Besides, Logan'll never let me hear the end of it if I let you get nabbed." There was a twang in the other man’s voice now, and he sounded offended at Geoff’s plan.
"If I let myself get caught, the data will get offplanet, you’ll be safe, and… well, they don’t usually use phasers." Geoff gave a half-hearted smile. "Which means I can call for help later, or break out of jail, or something. You better go – I hear sirens. And be careful with that bag – my guns are in there!"
The Chief had given him a number to call in case of trouble, and the Espos did let him have his phone call.
He’d done the research he could about the people he was calling – not a lot, really, as coach class on the liners he was on was lucky to give drinks, much less have data access. But the firm of Nelson, Murdock and Walters was highly regarded, and the IPO had an account with them, so he called, was told someone would be out as quickly as possible, and waited.
Waiting in an Espo holding facility was not fun. They took everything away from him, including the vambrace he’d developed (minicomputer, recorder and miraculon injector), his grapple, his shoes, the garrote in his underwear waistband – everything. Their search was, he thought with a certain amount of remembered discomfort, very thorough.
Add in the fact that he was fresh meat, and it was no surprise he’d been jumped. That got him two days in solitary, but breaking arms and noses got him respect, and no one had bothered him for the next three days.
Now he was here, waiting for one of the giants of the New Avalon legal profession, who was famous for her defenses, the woman who advised the legal team that got Bruce Banner acquitted. (Apparently there was some kind of conflict that disallowed her from actually being part of the legal team, but he hadn’t found out what that was.)
So when the door opened, and a woman entered, he was surprised to see she was five foot two, with mousy brown hair in a bun, brown eyes behind glasses, and carrying a briefcase as if it was a bit heavy for her.
"Hello, Mr. Depew. I’m your attorney, Jennifer Walters."
He raised his hands a bit, to show that they were shackled to the table. "I’m sorry I can’t shake hands." He paused, appraising her. While she might have been blown away in a strong wind, her stance and expression showed confidence. "I’m sorry, I expected you’d be taller."
She shrugged, smiling slightly. "My reputation exceeds me."
They both laughed at the joke, and she sat down. "So. You’re under arrest for…" she opened her briefcase and pulled out a thick folder. "Corporate theft, assault on corporate personnel, assault on a corporation…" She trailed off, flipping pages. "...Is this actually a crime?" Another few pages. "When did you have time to sleep? What do they mean here by ‘theft of corporate water services’?"
"The team I was with... one of them had to use the restroom, and washed his hands."
"Yes," she said, "this is the Corporate Sector. So. Seven hundred and thirty-two charges. All related to a single smash-and-grab." She nodded, then pulled out of the briefcase a square box, and tabbed the grey key on top. Lights went red on the corners, flickered twice, then went solid. "Now that the bugs are jammed, what happened?"
Geoff shrugged. "I don’t know how much you’re cleared for."
She recited a number at him. He blinked, and recited one back, and they did it twice more.
"Huh. That much. Okay. I used to work for Big Fire. Before I was moved up into one-man operations, I was used as muscle – in a usual run, the street samurai role, but for BF, all internal. We got into a Renraku building, lifted the data, got out, but on the way out they got pictures of our faces, and Renraku filed the charges." He shrugged again. "And that’s the situation."
The door slammed open, and two Espos entered, guns drawn. A third, an officer, stomped in afterwards and blew the jammer apart with a blaster.
"That device is in violation of Security Police code 912.03. A prisoner of the Security Police has no privacy nor expectation of same."
Jennifer Walters narrowed her eyes. "Corporate Sector Charter 224.8.4. A lawyer’s communications with a client are confidential."
The Espo officer sneered. "You’re no lawyer, shyster. Not in the Corporate Sector."
Walters stood up, coming up to the Espo’s shoulder. "I passed the Corporate Sector Bar four years ago, renewed last year, and my credentials are current. Now, you’ve got a choice – get out of here and turn off your bugs, or I will have your badge, your balls, and your left sock to hang from my rear view mirror!"
Briefly, Geoff wondered if he’d have to take apart the table and fight with a four-by-four square of thermaplast shackled to his hands, but the officer relented.
"Fine, shyster. But you’ll have to trust me that we did it." He sneered and walked out of the room, followed by the two guards.
"Whew," Jennifer said, sitting and fanning herself. "I got a bit hot under the collar there." She smiled. "My family's always had anger issues."
SEPTEMBER 13, 2410
ETTI IV CRIMINAL PROCESSING CENTER
"All rise. The Honorable T. Coraghassian MacTavish presiding."
Everyone stood in the time-honored tradition, as the judge – a florid man with a deeply self-involved air – entered and took his seat, advising everyone they now could sit down.
The bailiff – a droid – beeped, and said, "Docket number 1222315. Corporate Sector Authority versus Geoffrey Depew." Holograms appeared around the judge, who glanced, nodded, and said, "I have the prosecution and defense cases here. Movement for trial by jury rejected, movement for change of venue rejected, movement for my recusal based on my position as a vice president of Renraku rejected. All right. Guilty, penalty is death of personality, next case."
Jennifer Walters’ jaw dropped. "Your Honor, I-"
"Your objection is overruled, your appeals are rejected, one more outburst like that and I’ll have you removed from the courtroom, take him away and wipe him."
"Well," Geoff muttered, "I didn’t expect actual justice here." He stood up as the four Espos approached to take him away.
"Geoff, you’re supposed to be a tactical genius," Jennifer said. "What are the chances for escape?"
"This is the part," he said glumly, "where the hollow laughter begins."
"That’s what I thought." She sighed, pulled the stick out of her hair to undo her bun, and took off her glasses. "That's why they sent me. It's enough to make a girl feel like her legal skills are proportionately undervalued."
/* "The Lonely Man"
The Incredible Hulk */
Her face suddenly formed a rictus of rage, a terrible anger, and between blinks her eyes changed color to a startlingly clear emerald green. It took mere moments for the color to suffuse her skin and hair. And then she grew, expanding out of the black skirted suit she wore, and the shoes, revealing a white one-piece bathing-suit sort of thing underneath.
The court watched in horror as she changed.
Ms. Walters said, in a much deeper voice, "Your Honor, I'm afraid that this is going to end up declared a mistrial." Then she looked down, and muttered, "Dammit! I thought this was my other suit. That's going on expenses."
With that, she grabbed Geoff and the table, ripped the manacles free of the table, and threw the table at the Espo squad. With a wide grin, she said, "As your attorney, I advise you to keep your knees loose." And then she threw Geoff at the doors.
Geoff closed his eyes and prayed that the doors weren’t locked and that he really, really needed to get himself a new travel agent, until he felt first a hand on his shoulder, then a familiar shiver, and a sudden sense of slowing down with it. As he hit the floor and rolled (knees loose as instructed), he opened his eyes to recognize a familiar face.
"Mrs. Griffin, a pleasure."
Kitty Griffin grinned, and aimed him. "That way, round the corner, and you’ll know where to go!" A look that way showed two unconscious Espos, and the ten security cameras blown apart, probably by those shuriken-bombs she'd come to enjoy.
He ran, she followed, and Geoff said, "What about my lawyer?"
There was a sudden crashing noise behind them, along with some blaster fire, yells, and a cry of pain.
As they turned the corner, thunderous footsteps and alerts behind them, they found a dead-end corridor with a soda machine. This wore a Pepsi logo, in the neo-Soviet Brutalist blocky designs popular in the Corporate Sector, with the words "NO CHOICE FOR A NEW GENERATION" emblazoned across the blue and red stylized monoliths. Geoff grinned, and his hopes were made manifest as the Pepsi machine swung open.
"All aboard," Don Griffin sang out, and then got out of the way as they entered the TARDIS, Jennifer skidding to a halt and barely avoiding hitting the opposite wall. The door closed behind them.
"And we’re away." Don turned to look at Geoff, then gave him a thumbs up and a sardonic, "Stylin'."
"Espos and fashion have never been friends," Geoff riposted, then looked at his legal counsel, who’d grabbed her briefcase on the way out.
"So," she said with a grin, "is this the kind of taller you expected me to be?" She posed, laughing.
Geoff took a moment to think and then said, deadpan, "I invoke my right against self-incrimination. What's in the briefcase?"
She opened the briefcase, and pulled out bundles. "Chief sent me with lunches for everyone."
"Truly," Geoff said, "Working for the International Police has great responsibility and great perks."
"One Phone Call" - a Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Geoff Depew with Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2011 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Sunday, December 5, 2410
02:41 hrs Nekomi Standard Time
Beiwiru, Nekomikoka, Tomodachi
Belting on her robe and grumbling slightly, Kitty Griffin made her way down the stairs to the front hall and wondered who could possibly be ringing the doorbell at this unholy hour. It wasn't entirely out of the question for Stately Griffin Manor to be receiving guests at quarter of three in the morning, admittedly, but generally that kind of visitor would either knock down the door, or have arrived by plummeting through the ceiling into her bedroom. Being a graduate of the Xavier Institute did tend to set the tone for one's peer group later in life.
Emma. It had to be Emma, didn't it? Quarter to three on a Sunday morning? Drunk and looking to score. She hadn't done that for a while now, but was it realistic to think she'd ever give up entirely? Kitty opened the door, drawing breath to unleash a torrent of abuse, and then stifled it when she saw that the person on the doorstep was not Emma Frost, nor, in fact, anyone else she recognized.
He was tall, and he gangled, and that was really all that Kitty could tell in the dark. She wasn't getting any kind of hostility read from him on her ninja radar - quite the opposite, in fact. At the sight of her, backlit by the hall light, he threw his long arms wide in a gesture of delight.
Now hopelessly puzzled, Kitty switched on the outside light, illuminating the strange figure and revealing that he was not, as she had briefly and whimsically considered, Abraham Lincoln. Way too much chin for that, and Lincoln wouldn't have been dressed as a high school geography teacher from the 1950s.
"Kitty my love!" he declared with a great, beaming smile. "Ah, home at last."
"... what?" Kitty replied.
"It's me!" the stranger said. "The Doctor!"
Kitty folded her arms and narrowed her eyes at him. "The Doctor's upstairs," she said. "And he has a key."
"Mislaid it someplace, terribly sorry about that. Happens to me sometimes," said the stranger. "And - hang on. What do you mean I'm upstairs?"
"You - he was a couple of hours ago, anyway." Kitty leaned back and looked into the front room. "TARDIS is still here... "
"But that's - " The Doctor frowned, then looked at his wristwatch, his face falling. "... Oh," he said. Then, glancing guiltily around, he leaned toward her and pleaded in an earnest whisper, "Don't tell me I was here."
"I may not even remember it myself," Kitty replied sincerely.
The Doctor smiled, bussed her on the cheek, and then whirled and darted back down the steps, calling, "Hattori! Wrong decade, we're going."
"Hang on, what is that?" Kitty demanded as a dark shape emerged from the shrubbery and fell into step beside the Doctor.
The Doctor paused, turning back. "Wha? Oh!" He looked from Kitty to the dark figure and back. "It's a ninja. I have a ninja now." The ninja straightened up and bowed to Kitty while the Doctor beamed at her. "Ninjas are cool."
Kitty half-smiled. "I guess I can't argue with that," she said.
"Right! Back to bed! Sorry for the inconvenience. Pleasant dreams!" With a wave, the Doctor and his ninja disappeared into the night.
Kitty stood in the doorway, looking out at the quiet suburban street for a few moments. Presently she heard the distant sound of a TARDIS departing. Shaking her head with an indulgent sigh, she shut the door and went back upstairs.
"Cool" - A Future Imperfect Micro-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2013 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
This came about as I realized that, even in UF, there aren't many time-traveling doctors. I thought that it'd be amusing to see what would happen if two of them met and maybe tie up a loose end or two in the process. It's rough, talky and unfinished, but I hope that it's mildly amusing.
MONDAY, DECEMBER 20, 2410
He loved Christmas, but he hated Christmas shopping. That was the purview of his wife. She knew him well enough to buy what was needed, and he helped her carry the packages. It was an exchanged that had worked for years. Besides, he didn't feel like wading into the crowd for a bargain.
The man in green and blue was sitting patiently on the mall bench. It was something he'd had long practice doing, especially since he was waiting for his wife. As such, he was in a semi-meditative state when he heard a familiar wheezing, whooshing noise. It was the sound of something that desperately needed a tuneup and it was instantly recognizable.
He sighed. Keriyn was a huge Professor Enigma fan, and she had adopted the TARDIS materialization sound as her ringtone for her phone.
"You know," he began without opening his eyes, "you could turn that down a little."
"So sorry," a male voice apologized. "She's been a bit grumpy lately. Is this seat taken?" The voice was oddly familiar, with a British accent and an undercurrent of amusement.
He opened his eyes and saw a moderately tall, thin man in a dark blue suit with red pinstripes. Over the suit was a light brown overcoat. His dark hair was somewhat messy, with sideburns, and his eyes sparkled with vaguely manic intelligence. Behind him was a blue police box, one that looked utterly out of place in the mall.
Pearson "Doc" Mui suddenly felt intimidated. Oh, the man in front of him was genial enough, but his reputation preceded him. He felt the brief, irrational urge to get up and run. He quashed it and instead gestured to the seat next to him.
"Not at all, Doctor," he said with what he hoped was a respectful nod.
"Thank you, doctor," the Doctor replied, somewhat amused. He took a seat and leaned forward, clasping his hands in front of him. "You know, it occurs to me that this is the first time that we've actually met. I mean, when you really think about it, there aren't many time-traveling doctors around in this universe, are there?"
"We've bumped into each other at parties and such," Doc pointed out.
"Yes, and it was always a rather brief contact," the Doctor noted. He arched an eyebrow and gave Doc a vaguely unsettling look. "Living 900 years, you get a feeling for how and why people act. If I didn't know better, I'd think that you were trying to avoid me."
Doc cleared his throat uncomfortably, but he did not squirm in his seat. That alone told the Doctor that he was on-target.
"Well, let's see," Doc began by pointing out his DeLorean in the mall parking lot. "That is my time machine. There are many who like it, but that one is mine. I like my time machine, even though it's not nearly as flexible as your TARDIS. Yes, she has some quirks, but I've learned to live with them.
"Second," he continued, "I consider time travel to be a hobby. I am a responsible hobbyist. Did you ever hear about American coins in Mayan ruins? No. Did you hear about spent power packs in Native American land? No. That's because I take great pains to minimize my impact on the space-time continuum, even going so far as to make sure my money is right.
"Finally, you have this little thing where you disable time machines from `amateur' travelers. So, yeah, that's probably why we've never had any in-depth conversation," Doc finished. "Also, there's this thing about the whole Q Continuum looking over my shoulder."
The Doctor frowned and blinked. "What?" It sounded more like `wot' due to his accent.
"The Q Continuum," Doc repeated. "You know, I'm talking about near-omnipotent, highly obnoxious beings who seem to enjoy meddling with people?"
"What?" the Doctor repeated, a bit louder this time. "I know about the Q, but...did you not get the memo?"
"What memo?" Doc asked, not sure if he wanted to know.
"The Q Continuum is gone, doctor. They've been sealed off from this dimension for years."
Doc gaped at the Doctor. "What? How? I mean, they had this whole nigh-omnipotent thing going for them. Who could seal them off?"
The Doctor rubbed his chin in mock contemplation. "Last time I checked, the All-Father had the authority. Seems he didn't take too kindly to the Continuum buggering off when the whole Ragnarok thing went down, especially after they'd promised to stand by him. He's not one to take kindly to oath-breakers, you know. So, he decided to seal them off for being such a bunch of twits."
"Whoa. They're really gone?"
"Been that way for years," the Doctor confirmed.
"So...what's with this persistent feeling of paranoia that I've had for years? Only the Continuum sparked that feeling."
The Doctor shrugged. "No offense, but have you checked your dance card lately?"
Doc mentally went through his list of enemies, both his personal ones and the ones that his friends had. It was quite a list, mitigated by the fact that 400 years was enough to make a few entries drop off. He grimaced expressively as he went through the ones who were still active.
"Yeah, that'll do it," he agreed.
"If anything," the Doctor said, "I should be annoyed with you! Do you have any idea how many flux capacitor knockoffs I've taken care of every time I'm in the neighborhood? Have you never heard of sensor-reflective coating?!"
"Wait, how many knockoffs--?" Doc asked.
"Sixty-seven attempts, last time I checked," the Doctor confirmed. "Fortunately for me, the flux capacitor is fairly easy to sabotage. Alter a few circuit pathways, and the test vehicle just sputters to a halt. That was the polite way of doing it. You don't want to know how badly I could have messed them up."
"I have an idea," Doc said. "I ran through some of the worst-case scenarios, and one of them was that half the traveler would arrive while the other half would be scattered through time." He shuddered at the thought. "Thanks for not going that far."
"I don't like to do that sort of thing," the Doctor said quietly. "Not unless I don't have any other alternative."
Doc decided to change the subject. "You know, you're not exactly what I expected when I heard of the famous `Doctor.'"
"How's that?" The Doctor tilted his head slightly.
"I always imagined you as a slightly awkward person, socially. You know, the geeky intellectual who has his own rules. I always thought you'd be the kind of guy who'd wear a bowtie all the time and maybe a tweed jacket, just to get the professor-like look down."
Now it was the Doctor's turn to grimace thoughtfully. "Bowtie?" he asked. "You mean, wearing one separate from a tuxedo? On a daily basis with a tweed jacket?" He frowned for a few moments and shook his head. "No, really can't imagine it. Not in this lifetime, no thank you."
Doc held up his hands. "Okay, okay, I was wrong. I've been paranoid of Time Lords since they waylaid me in mid-leap so many centuries ago."
"Now why would they do something like that?"
"You don't know?" Doc asked. He would have thought that if anybody had the answers, the Doctor would.
"Sorry, but much like you, I didn't get the memo. I was out and about, you know. Don't really get to Gallifrey too often. Actually," he admitted, "staying away would be a good idea for a little while."
"What did you do?" Doc asked.
"IT WASN'T ME!" the Doctor exclaimed, his pitch rising. "I was locked in a vault with Don Griffin at the time! Good man, looking more and more like Alec Baldwin every time he regenerates--which, thankfully, hasn't been that often."
Doc sensed that there was a Big Story that the Doctor probably couldn't talk about. Keeping secrets was something he understood.
"You know, why don't we stretch our legs for a bit?" he suggested. "I could use something to drink."
The Doctor didn't quite bolt out of the bench. "Wonderful idea! I have this craving for a good cup of coffee!"
"I hate coffee," Doc said flatly.
"What? What?! WHAT?!" The Doctor advanced upon Doc with each iteration. "You're over 400 years old, and you don't like coffee? How is this possible?!"
Doc shrugged. "I never cared for the stuff. And by my best estimate, I'm around--let's see, 40 years of leaping, 17 or so years of dimensional hopping, about a year cumulative of recreational time travel--around 494 or so years old. And the Starbucks is just one level below us," he pointed out.
"STARBUCKS?!" The Doctor almost cracked his voice with that exclamation. "Do you think that I'd actually stoop to sip that soulless, pretentious, mass-produced and franchised mangling of the bean?!"
"If you were desperate enough, yes," Doc said almost glibly.
The Doctor blinked and seemed to think about it. "You're right, but that's not the point here. What I'm trying to say is, you travel as much as I do, you find some really good spots." With that, he strode to the police box.
"How long will this take? My wife is still shopping, and she'd kill me if I'm not there."
"Five minutes," the Doctor said breezily, opening up the TARDIS door.
"Five minutes in this time plane, or five minutes total traveling time?" Doc asked.
"Does it matter?" the Doctor asked glibly.
"YES!" Doc exclaimed.
The Doctor sighed and shook his head. "You see, mate, this is why you're not enjoying your Christmas. You're too tense, too stressed, and too worried about people who are out to get you."
"For good reason, as you just pointed out," Doc reminded him.
"Oh. I did say that, didn't I? Well...never mind that, a change of scenery will do you a world of good. We are going to get one of the greatest cups of coffee I've ever had, and we're going to bring some back for Rose and your wife--"
"Professor Tyler is here, too?!" Doc exclaimed. "Is there some conspiracy to get me to unwind?"
The Doctor held out his hand and waggled it a bit. "`Conspiracy' implies malicious intent. I prefer to think of it as a mutual gathering for the benefit of a good man." His grin was almost infectious, and Doc found himself trying hard not to follow suit.
"Keriyn is in on this, isn't she?" Doc asked.
"Very much so. So, shall we be off?" The Doctor gestured to the TARDIS, and the room was, as expected, larger than the small confines of the booth.
Doc sighed and combed his fingers through his hair. "Why not? I'll come along while you get your fix of the evil bean. Where are we going, anyway?" he asked as he entered the TARDIS.
"I know a place in Constantinople that serves some of the best coffee--"
"You mean Istanbul," Doc interrupted him.
The Doctor grinned. "It's Constantinople where we're going. Where else can you get authentic Turkish coffee?"
Doc blinked. "WE'RE GOING ALL THE WAY TO TURKEY?!" he exclaimed, just before the TARDIS door shut. Moments later, the TARDIS dematerialized, fading from view.
Four and a half minutes later, the TARDIS rematerialized in roughly the same spot, albeit with the usual undulating noises. It stood there for a moment, apparently inert until the door opened.
"--always carry so many weapons?" the Doctor asked from within. He sounded aghast.
Doc didn't quite stumble out. "Well yes, Doctor, because I have this aversion to, I don't know, dying. I especially hate the thought of dying because I was unprepared!" He took a deep breath and dusted off his jacket.
The Doctor followed him. He was carrying a tray of small cups, an ornate ceramic pot, and a small dish of sweets. He looked satisfied and amused.
"All right, I admit that having you go slicey-dicey in that cave came in handy. It's a bit hard to adjust my screwdriver in pitch darkness."
Doc didn't quite throw himself onto the mall bench. The Doctor sat next to him, carefully balancing the tray on his lap.
"Is there anything your screwdriver can't do?" Doc asked, obviously tired.
"Pound nails for one," the Doctor said. "It is, after all, a screwdriver, not a hammer. Although, if I adjust it--"
"Don't. Start. Please." Doc leaned his head back on the bench and closed his eyes.
The Doctor grinned. "Admit it. You had fun."
Doc opened one eye and peered at the Doctor. A grudging smirk appeared on his face.
"Maybe," he allowed. "Somewhere in between nearly getting beheaded, being trapped in a cave, and finding a nest of Daleks, I might have had a little bit of fun." He opened his other eye and sighed. "I have to admit, it felt good to cut loose."
"There you go!" the Doctor exclaimed, causing some of the cups to jiggle precariously. "So, where would you like to go next time?"
"Can I have some time to think about that? Keri is partial to 1940's New York for some reason, but I'd like to avoid that time era."
"Any particular reason why?" the Doctor asked.
Doc shrugged. "I like keeping my arteries lard-free. Oh, and the whole anti-Asian thing was going on back then." He changed the subject. "May I ask why you're keeping the tray on your lap?"
"Rose said she'd be around in a bit. Your wife's not the only one doing Christmas shopping. The worst thing about this season is the endless loop of Christmas songs that keep trying to bore your way into your brain. Is there anything else to listen to around here?"
Doc sighed and dug out a portable music player. Turning it on, he couldn't help but chuckle.
"What? What's so funny?" the Doctor asked.
"I hope that you like The Proclaimers," Doc began.
"Are you kidding? I love The Proclaimers! Is it the 500 Miles song? Please tell me it's the 500 Miles song!" the Doctor said excitedly.
Doc nodded. "It's the 500 Miles song," he confirmed.
"Excuse me," the Doctor said, carefully putting down the tray. He seemed to be calming himself down, but the effect was shattered as he pumped his fist with a triumphant "HOHYES!!! Take THAT, endless Christmas songs! Queue it up, please!"
"So, how do you think the boys are doing?" Rose asked. She wasn't carrying much, as she didn't have many people on her list.
"I'm sure they're doing fine," Keriyn said, balancing no less than five boxes in her hands while carrying half a dozen shopping bags. "Heaven knows, Pearson needed some fun in his life. He was getting to be a--"
"--grump?" Rose suggested.
"I was going to say--no, you're right, `grump' is a pretty good word for it. Hold on," Keriyn gestured for Rose to stop before they rounded a corner. Her brown secondary ears twitched slightly. "I didn't know that the Doctor could sing."
"He does it once in a while," Rose replied. "What song?"
"It sounds like `500 Miles.' Pearson's actually singing a duet with him. He almost never sings," Keriyn remarked.
Keriyn shook her head. "Lack of self-confidence. He'd be the first to say something like, `I'm a doctor, not a crooner,' or something like that."
"Then this is a rare treat," Rose smiled mischievously. "I vote that we listen in."
"Seconded, and motion carried. Just don't spook them until they're done."
And I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walked a thousand miles
To fall down at your door
The two doctors finished the last stanza with a bit of a flourish, waving their hands. They rode the last bit of the song until it ended, totally ignoring the odd looks that they got from the shoppers.
They then did a double-take as they heard someone clapping politely. Doc froze, but the Doctor merely grinned and waved Rose to come closer.
"Care for some Turkish coffee?" he asked brightly. "I also have Turkish delight. It's fresh."
"I can vouch for that," Doc said, still looking faintly mortified. He knew that this was something his wife would never, ever let him forget, even if he didn't have an eidetic memory.
"You should sing more often," she said as she gave him a peck on the cheek.
"You are an evil, evil woman," he declared with a grin.
"I love you too, dear."
"Coffee Run" presented by Pearson "Doc" Mui
An Undocumented Features: FI Mini-Story
Exclusive to the Eyrie Productions Forum, Copyright 2012
1:45 PM Nekomi Prefecture Standard Time
Sunday, May 1, 2411
142 Sakura Avenue
Geoff Depew was polishing his new car's fender when the Chief walked in and regarded the car.
"Geoff," Gryphon said, "I know I don't pay you enough to buy something like that, even something like tenth-hand." He gestured at the sleek car.
"It's not an original," Geoff protested mildly. "They sell them as kits now."
Gryphon walked around it, a look of admiration on his face. It was a low-slung car, mostly black with silver fenders, what looked like an air intake in the front, and a massive (for the size) fusion turbine visible through the rear window.
"A kit car version of a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport? I'm surprised. I'd figure it would be too easy to screw up."
At that, Geoff opened the hood and removed a book, which he tossed to Gryphon. "You have to sign that before they'll deliver it to you." The book - well, tome, really, Gryphon thought - was made of disclaimers, waivers and renouncements of rights to sue if you ended up injured, maimed, heavily borged, or dead as the result of screwing up anything with the kit. He laughed, tossing it back, and Geoff replaced it in the cargo bin (which, Gryphon noted, held an emergency kit for the car, an IPO emergency kit, a three-pack of Gatorade boxes and a box of chewy granola bars).
As Gryphon admired it, he suddenly paused. Geoff raised an eyebrow, then opened the driver's door and started to get in.
"Geoff!" Gryphon said, "Bank robbery over at the Ultrabank branch on Third and Fukunaga! They have hostages."
"Get in, I'll drive!" Even as he said this he was getting into the driver's seat, hitting the button to latch the autoharness.
Gryphon slid into the passenger seat, the door closing as the car left the garage with a tremendous roar.
"Just for amusement's sake, other than you got there first and it's your car, why shouldn't I drive?" The Chief asked as the car rounded a corner, deploying emergency-services lights and siren at 80 MPH.
"You're not on the security system's approved list, and I feel that it's bad form to call Luornu and tell her you won't be back until after dinner due to the stunner effect."
Gryphon nodded, sagely. "Good answer." Then he said, smiling a bit, "I could break the security system pretty easily. I've been around the block a few times."
Geoff nodded back, concentrating on the road. "Time we don't really have."
Gryphon chuckled, then frowned. "Dammit! They got away, and they have a hostage. They're on the Tomodachi Freeway now, heading east."
Geoff power-slid around, leaving a cloud of smoke, making it onto the eastbound lane (which they were about to pass when he did that) with mere centimeters to spare, and put the hammer down. The getaway car was two klicks ahead and just as much of a supercharged roadster as the kit Veyron. As they got closer, it was actually a blocky minivan, engine screaming and windows black as sin.
"The car's got EMP shielding and polarized windows," Gryphon reported from his Lens. "Too dangerous for a sniper to take them out since we can't see into it. Any ideas?"
"Yes. You're going to use your superhuman perceptions and your sword to cut the roof off."
Gryphon laughed out loud. "That's crazy! Brilliant! Can you drive it?"
Geoff gave a big grin. "Top honors in getaway driving classes!" And with that, he put his left foot on the brake, leaving the right on the gas, and reached down to press his thumb against a scanner on the right side of his seat. The console beeped, then tweedled, and the car seemed to lower just a little. On the digital display that usually showed the satnav, the radio information, and other secondary information, instead four words appeared:
Gryphon drew his katana, closed his eyes, and focused himself with a pair of deep breaths. The window rolled down.
Geoff's hands tightened on the wheel, and then suddenly he brought the Veyron up close to one side of the tricked-out van. Gryphon used his skills (and the strength of his body and mind) to carve just under the top roof of the van, a horrific screech of forged metal on modern plastics and alloys, the modern losing the match.
Then came the hard part, as Geoff slid the car sideways in front of the van, keeping it going just fast enough to slide around and leaving enough room for Gryphon to reach and cut across the front windscreen, severing the A-pillars in the process. Once that was done, the other side was easy enough, and pure aerodynamics alone took the roof clean off. Geoff spun the car again to bring it going eastbound, and then took after it as Gryphon pulled himself back into the car while disengaging Top Speed Mode.
"PA mike on the right side of the glovebox," the former assassin said cheerfully, bringing the car up next to the decapitated van. It was slowing down, the rear window gone with the roof, and there was an small struggle going on. In fact, it was resolved as one of the bank robbers went flying backwards and out of the van. Geoff deftly avoided running him over, and as they caught up, Gryphon chuckled.
"Oh wow," the First Lensman said, shaking his head. "If I'd only known."
The van slowed to a stop, and the two thieves scrambled out to lie on the ground. Geoff pulled up, drawing one of his pistols, and got a look from the Chief.
"Force of habit," he said, shrugging.
"Well, you won't need it. I think they're intimidated enough."
The two men - come to think of it, the third lying unconscious and probably badly injured a half-mile back - were dressed in black jumpsuits emblazoned on the back with some kind of bug symbol. As Geoff and Gryphon approached, the auburn-haired young woman the men in black had kidnapped stepped out of what remained of the van, removing the oversized goggles she had over her eyes. Emblazoned across the front of her black t-shirt was the stylized white icon of a spider.
"I had it under control, Chief," she cheerfully groused.
"Yeah, but I didn't know that until AFTER cutting the roof off. You might've let me know... "
"I didn't know you were on Tomodachi until then. Geez." She shook her head then looked at Geoff. "Nice driving. Anya Corazon, and you are?"
"Oh, cool. Nice to meet you. Anyway, these Wasp jackasses thought they'd get me in the bank, make it look like something simple. Hate these guys." She sighed. "Bunch'a posers."
"Okay then," Geoff said, as members of the police arrived. "If you'll excuse me, I think I need to go take my car for repairs." He sighed dramatically. "To paraphase a great man, my tires are slicks now."
"Ah," Gryphon said, "we'll ship it to HQ, get the SA1 treatment put on it. And replace the tires."
"That's good," Geoff said, then chuckled. "It is a very nice car, isn't it?"
Anya burst suddenly into a fit of giggles, leaning against the ruined van to hold herself up. As the two men watched, she recovered her composure long enough to squeak out,
"Drove circles around this thing!"
Geoff facepalmed, Gryphon shook his head, and the three of them headed off for a late lunch.
"Getaway Cutaway," a Future Imperfect mini-story by Geoff Depew
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2011 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"So anyway," Gryphon said to Anya as he dredged a mozzarella stick through some marinara, "what's got you on Tomodachi?"
Anya finished chowing down on some garlic bread and took a drink. "OK, funny story. I got an email two days ago telling me that I won a contest with a shopping spree here on Tomodachi. Didn't cover food, I was hungry, went to the nearest bank branch, ATM inside, bam the Wasps hit me under cover of robbery. Figured I'd see where we were going before calling for help."
Geoff's eyes briefly bugged out as he munched on some calimari. "Dat's-a spicy!" he said, then took a drink himself. "Sorry we interrupted you."
"Eh, no big deal," she said with a dismissive handwave, "it happens. Besides, this way lunch is on the company."
Gryphon rolled his eyes and released a put-upon sign as the pasta was delivered. "A person would think I didn't pay my agents the way you people are always angling for free food."
The first thing that crossed Paige Guthrie's mind when she regained consciousness was that that must have been some fight. Her head hadn't felt this way since the time she'd gone toe-to-toe with the Abomination. She opened her eyes gingerly, wondering where she was about to find herself. Based on the dull throbbing in her back and shoulders, she wouldn't have been that surprised to find herself buried under a collapsed building.
Instead, it took her a few moments to realize that she was in bed. Not her own bed, that much was immediately apparent - she didn't own silk bedclothes, nor indeed any bedclothes that involved vivid black and white stripes. Now more confused than ever, Paige extracted herself (with some difficulty) from the tangle of sheet and coverlet she'd managed to wind herself into in her sleep, thrust the untangled covers aside, and sat carefully up. Her head swam for a moment, then stabilized, and she looked around herself with ever-deepening puzzlement.
The room, like the bed, was completely unfamiliar to her. It was huge, perhaps the size of a tennis court, with a high ceiling (down from which filtered a dim grey light) and slightly slanted walls leaning in toward the gigantic bed in the center (the thing had to be 10 feet square). Three of the walls were black and glossy, the distinctive sheen of blacked-out varicrys windows. The fourth was white and pierced by a gleaming alloy double door. The whole effect had something of the feel of a starship stateroom, except on a ludicrous scale. No starship designer would ever have wasted so much volume on a single bedroom unless the ship in question was a caliph's pleasure barge or something.
Paige went to the double door and hesitantly opened it. Beyond lay a sort of sitting room, fitted with a couple of plus white sofas and a corner desk. Out here was another double door at the far end, and a single door on either side. A little investigation disclosed that both of those doors led to bathrooms easily as palatial as the bedroom she'd just left, in the same sleek, supermodern style.
As she slowly regained more and more of her wits, Paige realized that the whole apartment had the very distinct air of a scene of recent mayhem. Articles of clothing hung haphazardly over the backs of the sofas, on the desk and its chair, and from various projecting surfaces and corners. The table in the middle of the sitting room was littered with an empty large pizza box and the remains of a cheese-and-crackers platter. And there were green glass bottles everywhere.
Flash: The sharp, festive pop! of a champagne cork.
Paige blinked, then bent and picked up the nearest of the bottles, examining its label.
"Dom Pérignon 2393," she murmured. Putting the empty bottle down, she went into one of the bathrooms and regarded herself for a moment in the floor-to-ceiling mirror behind the shining chrome pedestal sink. She looked better than she felt, apart from her wildly disordered hair. She found some ibuprofen, washed it down with a glass of water, splashed some more water on her face, combed her hair as best she could with her fingers, and then went back out into the sitting room to try and find her clothes among those scattered around the room.
Flash: Buttoning on a baseball jersey with the price tag still hanging from one sleeve.
There was such a jersey hanging on the back of the desk chair. Picking it up, Paige found that it was indeed her size. Number 24 - JOHNSON. She put it on and went back to the main room.
More empties... more clothes. Far more than could have come off one person. Was that a kilt?
She took a few moments to work out the room controls built into one of the bedside stands, then reduced the blackout on the far wall by 30 percent. Paige recoiled as even that modest change brought bright sunlight streaming into the room. Shielding her face, she walked hesitantly toward the window; then, as her eyes adjusted, she lowered her hand and looked out upon a scene she didn't recognize at all.
Far below, a neatly geometric pattern of red-brick streets and tidy ornamental gardens stretched off to a sunny horizon. It was a brilliantly sunny day without a cloud in the sky. Paige couldn't make out what anything down below was from up here, but the scene was entirely too green and low-rise to be any urban area she knew of, and it was definitely not New Avalon...
... wait a second.
She could make out one structure down below. Standing in the midst of the gardens and brick lanes, one building stood boldly into the azure sky, the sunlight glinting from its white stonework and the rich blue tiles of its wildly, cheerfully irregular roofline.
Flash: That same structure at night, seen from ground level and much nearer. A huge, architecturally improbable fairytale castle, powerfully floodlit from below. The flash and crackle and rich gunpowder scent of fireworks filling the night-black sky above.
Flash: The grinning face and sparkling, slightly unfocused eyes of her roommate, Jubilation Lee, as she holds up a full champagne flute and declares, "You're fallin' behind, Hayseed!"
Paige turned and went back to the bed. Sure enough, there - on the opposite side from where she had found herself on waking - was Jubilee, burrowed into her side of the covers with just the jagged crest of her dark hair showing. Suddenly and nonspecifically indignant, Paige pulled away the covers and shook her roommate's shoulder.
"Jubilee," she hissed. "Jubilee, wake up."
"hnngh," Jubilee replied, one hand fitfully grabbing for the coverlet again. "f'koff."
"Wake up," Paige repeated, a little louder.
"champagne's not korbel," Jubilee mumbled.
Paige put a hand to her forehead, closed her eyes, and said, "Jubilee, if you don't wake up and explain to me right now where the hell we are and why - let alone HOW - we managed to drink 34 bottles of champagne, there is going to be real trouble in here."
Jubilee opened one eye and regarded her blonde roommate blearily for a moment, then rolled slowly onto her back, sat up, rubbed at her face with both hands, and said, "... Thirty-four?"
Paige folded her arms and nodded. "Thirty-four."
Jubilee stretched, causing her back and neck to make satisfying-sounding cracking noises, then shook her head and muttered, "Damn... we got ripped off. There were supposed to be 36."
"I hate you so much," said Paige.
"Wait, you mean you don't remember? Anything?" Jubilee got reluctantly out of bed and made for one of the bathrooms. "Damn, girl," she remarked from the doorway. "I mean, A, I thought you were invulnerable, and B, you had the best time of any of us. That just doesn't seem fair."
Paige sighed her I'm-being-patient sigh. "Still waiting."
For several seconds, there was no answer but the sound of running water. At length, returning from the bathroom, Jubilee discovered a Stark Industries T-shirt over the back of one of the sofas. It was much too large for her, but she put it on anyway, then returned to the bedroom and said, "OK, well, last night was Game 5 of the World Series, right?"
Flash: Knights Field. Floodlights and crisp autumn evening air; Paige can see her breath and Jubilee's as they cheer for the Big Train.
"The Knights won, so we went out to celebrate," Jubilee went on.
Flash: Chucking-out time at McLeary's on 12th. Jubilee remarking, "Oh, come on, we're not done yet, are we?"
"One thing led to another, and, well... " She gestured. "Here we are."
"Where?" Paige demanded.
"The presidential suite of the Ultramoderne," Jubilee replied offhandedly.
Paige blinked. "... On Disney's World?!"
"How can we possibly afford that?"
"Eh, we know people," Jubilee replied. Crossing to the bed, she climbed back onto it, kneewalked across to the heap of covers in the middle, and draped herself casually across it. Then, to Paige's infinite surprise, she flicked back the edge of the coverlet to reveal that what she was leaning was not just a mound of bedding; it was, in fact, a third person whose presence Paige had not suspected. "Right, Chief?"
Without really waking, Gryphon replied, "hmn," and replaced the coverlet over his face.
"Aaaahh!" Paige cried, recoiling in dismay.
"What?" Jubilee asked.
"What's he doing here?!" Paige demanded.
Jubilee regarded the Chief's mostly-concealed profile for a moment, then replied dryly, "I believe the Earth phrase is 'sleeping it off'." Then, yawning, she doubled up a fold of the vast bedspread over herself and settled down against his back, as if he were a windbreak. "Which I gotta say is not a bad plan."
"I - you - we - ... " Standing next to the bed, Paige sputtered for a moment, then put her face in her hand.
Flash: Flushed and laughing, already well-lubricated, walking down Main Street UFP after the fireworks. Gryphon grinning like he won the World Series himself, Paige on one arm, Jubilee on the other. They pause, laughing so hard at something that they have to lean together in a sort of human tripod to keep from falling down. In that moment, they get their photo taken by one of the park's official photographers, with the castle as a backdrop and Goofy photobombing behind them. "Thanks, Chief!" says the photographer. "This'll be great for the website!"
"We're going to end up on the front page of the Post," Paige moaned. "Sam's going to kill me."
Jubilee hitched herself up on her elbow again and regarded her roommate. "For what? Having an awesome time? News flash: Sam is not a monk." Smirking a little, she added, "Ask him about the Kryptonian girl sometime." While Paige was taking that on board, she gestured to the other side of the enormous bed and went on, "Grab a corner and get some more sleep. You worry too much."
Paige hesitated, then sighed and, for lack of any better ideas, did as advised, pausing only to black out the window again.
"So... " she asked the darkened room after a few quiet moments.
"Yeah?" Jubilee replied.
"How much do you remember?"
She could hear the smirk as Jubilee answered, "Enough."
"Then do you know why my shoulders are so sore?"
"That is not our fault," said Jubilee. "We told you to leave the Cosmosphere where you found it, but noooo, you thought it would look better on the other side of the lagoon."
"... I'm sorry I asked."
"For what it's worth, you were totes right, though."
"Well, that's consoling," Paige grumbled.
Before Jubilee could say anything else, the double doors suddenly burst open with a great splintering crash and the room filled with light and submachinegun-toting men in pointed black hoods.
"Just as we were informed!" the red-hooded Q-boss in the lead declared. "Strike now, men, while he's vulnerable! Together, allegiance or death!"
"Big Fire!" the Black Hoods chorused.
The bed's three occupants sat up, blinked, and looked at each other in bemusement.
"OK, who invoked Chandler's Law?" Jubilee asked.
Then all three of them smiled conspiratorially, hurled aside the covers, and charged.
"Bottle Service" - a Future Imperfect mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
title by Janice Collier
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2012 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
[The original version of this story was posted on Memorial Day, 2007. It was later revised somewhat to make it part 1 of the Manhattan Trilogy. --G.]
Thursday, August 9, 2412
North American Aerospace Defense Zone One
A half-dozen Pelican-class aerodyne dropships flew northward in echelon formation. The vehicles wore the grey and red livery of the International Police Organization's Tactical Division. Aboard them, squads of armored soldiers fidgeted, adjusted their equipment, and made private bargains with their gods, as soldiers have done aboard transports since the dawn of war.
In the troop compartment of the lead Pelican, a man in a colorful costume sat looking out the open side door at the gleaming waters of the Atlantic. Tall and brawnily built, he stood in stark contrast to the blue-armored TacDiv troopers surrounding him. Unlike them, he wore no armor - just heavy canvas trousers, sturdy old-fashioned combat boots, and a blue leather cavalry jacket emblazoned with a white star and alternating red and white stripes. On his head he wore an old-fashioned steel pot helmet, painted blue, with a distinctive white "A" on the front. Also unlike the troops around him, he carried no weapon... only a red-and-blue-striped metal disc with a big white star in the center.
The troopers of the 17th Division were in awe of this man. Though he was unarmed and unarmored, save for his shield and helmet, they all felt safer just knowing he was with them. They still feared the unstable, possibly hostile situation they were flying into - only a fool would not have - but they had faith in their leader that surpassed any fear of harm or death they might feel. His hair might be going white under that steel pot helmet, he might have been flying a desk in New Avalon for the past dozen years, but none of that mattered. His sheer presence swept all such practical considerations away.
These men and women were going into potential danger with Captain America on their side.
The aerodyne formation banked inland as orbital controllers vectored the pilots toward their landing zone. As the vehicles turned, Rogers leaned closer to the doorway and swept the horizon with his eyes, his heart lifting at the mere sight of the New York skyline. Modernized and then battered since his last visit, it was nevertheless instantly recognizable. Though the lesser towers across the river showed gaps like broken teeth, all of Manhattan's most distinctive structures still stood. The Interstellar Friendship Tower. The Geosphere. The Baxter Building. By God, the Empire State not only still stood, but looked somehow indestructible, as if mocking William Clark's ambition to devastate the Earth. And there was the gleaming spire of the Chrysler Building, with its magnificent Tesla-designed Art Deco deflector array that had kept the city safe as fire and wreckage rained from the skies.
The Pelicans made another turn, setting themselves up for the approach to Battery Park. Before the dropships were fully on the ground, the troopers were out and forming up. Unslinging his shield from his back, Captain America took point and led them toward the East Coast Memorial.
The disturbance there had been described to him as a riot, but as he and the TacDiv troops approached, Rogers thought it looked more like a gang fight. There was a large group of agitated people in the memorial plaza, to be sure - and, to Steve's mild surprise and discomfiture, many of them were wearing clothes with a motif similar to his costume. Displays of patriotism for the abolished member countries of the Earth Alliance had been illegal since the crackdown of 2406, and to see people breaking out their stars-and-stripeswear only to form an angry mob struck the Captain as fundamentally wrong somehow.
Wronger still was the behavior of the mob in question. As he approached, he could see that this wasn't a riot. This crowd wasn't fighting among itself. It seemed to have the art deco eagle statue that formed the centerpiece of the memorial surrounded, and seethed there like a single entity, hurling undifferentiable curses and the occasional bottle or rock. Only as he drew near could Steve see just what they had cornered there: a terrified-looking trio of Salusian aid workers, all dressed in the white uniform of the International Green Crescent. They had apparently thought to flee from this mob into nearby Castle Clinton, only to be surrounded and backed up against the base of the eagle.
A few members of the mob noticed the colorful figure as he approached with most of a company of TacDiv infantry behind him. They seemed uncertain what to make of him. Blinking in puzzlement, they fell silent, took a couple of steps away from the rest of the mass.
Raising his voice to a parade-ground bark so it would cut through the roar of the mob, Captain America demanded,
"All right, what's going on here?"
The jeers and imprecations died away, replaced by a murmur of excited recognition. One member of the mob, a young man with dark, spiky hair and a star-spangled T-shirt, shoved his way back through the crowd so that he could confront the new arrivals.
"Clear off!" he snapped. "We don't need the International Police to take care of this. We'll deal with these alien scum ourselves."
Rogers fixed the young man with a flinty gaze. "These people are aid workers," he said, pointing to the huddled Salusians' uniforms. "They came here with the Galactic Alliance task force. They're here to help the people of New York. Here to help you during the transition of power."
Uncowed, the young man spat on the ground. "Transition, hell. The EA's history now, and good riddance, too. This is America again - and we don't need handouts from alien spies in America."
A few members of the crowd shouted out agreement or encouragement, but all fell silent as Rogers narrowed his eyes and advanced a couple of steps.
"Son," he said, "you don't have a clue what America needs."
That seemed to crack the young man's composure a little. "Oh - oh yeah?" he said, his face flushing. "Well, I can tell you what it doesn't need, and that's advice from museum pieces like you! Where were you when President Clark abolished your country?"
"Working with the only people who stood a chance of bringing him to justice," Rogers replied flatly. "Where were you? Cheering while Earthforce revoked offworlders' visas at gunpoint, probably," he guessed, the lines of disgust in his face deepening as the young man's shifty-eyed flinch proved him right. "'Earth for Earthers'. You think that's America?"
Turning his attention to the rest of the crowd, Captain America demanded, "Do you people have any idea where you are? Have you forgotten your history so quickly? See that building over there? That's Castle Clinton. Centuries ago, it was the place where thousands of immigrants were welcomed to the New World." Pointing, he went on, "That statue is called Liberty Enlightening the World. For 500 years she's been a symbol of the freedom and opportunity this land offers - to all decent beings. And behind me," he added, angling a thumb to indicate the unmissable spire of glittering alloy and crystal rising nearly a mile into the sky from the Financial District, "is the Interstellar Friendship Tower, Earth's first official port of entry for offworld visitors. Humanity's hand extended in friendship to the entire galaxy, from right here in this city."
Rogers returned his shield to his back and folded his arms, raking the crowd with narrowed eyes. "Have you all forgotten what it was to be Americans before William Clark?" he demanded. "Because I haven't, and if you have, I'm more than willing to teach you again."
The crowd wavered, on the brink of dissolving - and the young man who had done the talking suddenly charged, drawing a blade from under the light jacket he wore. The TacDiv troopers nearest the front stiffened, raising their weapons, but before they could do anything more, Captain America moved. With a speed that completely belied his apparent age, he sidestepped the attack, seized his assailant's outstretched arm, disarmed him, and hurled him to the ground. Then, as if dismissing the young man entirely, he turned back to the crowd.
"The Earth Alliance government has used the power of fear against its citizens for the better part of a decade," Rogers told them. "The Night Watch, the Ministry of Peace, the Psi Corps. Their constant presence - their constant propaganda - has taught you to be afraid. Of offworlders; of your own government; of each other." Fists clenched, jaw set like a steam shovel, Captain America drew himself to his full height and declared, "That ends now."
Jerking a thumb back over his shoulder at his defeated adversary, he added, "My young friend there was right about one thing. This is America again - right here, right now, we're taking it back. But we have to keep in mind what it is to be American. Americans don't express disagreement with the point of a knife. Americans don't turn on our friends. And Americans do not fear - not our enemies, not our friends, and for damn sure not ourselves.
"A great American once said: 'We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men.' We didn't do it then and we're not going to do it now. Not when the whole galaxy is depending on our example."
The silent onlookers stood staring for a few moments. Then, slowly at first, some at the back began to applaud. Within seconds, this new impulse electrified the crowd. Where just minutes before they'd been baying for blood, now they cheered and waved their hands, buoyed by Captain America's message. Near the monument, a couple of crushed-looking teenagers helped the Green Crescent workers up amid tearful apologies.
Suddenly, a burly man with a bushy red walrus mustache pointed and yelled, "Cap, look out!"
Rogers whirled, raising his shield just in time to deflect a bolt from his risen opponent's hold-out blaster. Like lightning, he crossed the few yards between them and bullrushed the young man back to the ground. A swipe of his shield sent the blaster skittering across the memorial plaza, and a solid right put his attacker out for the count.
Rising to his feet again, Rogers was slightly surprised to find the beefy man who had warned him now standing by his side. With a suspicious frown, the man knelt down and rummaged through the unconscious youth's jacket, then uttered a triumphant sound and straightened up.
"Look at this!" he declared, holding high an item he'd removed from the young man's jacket. The crowd uttered a sound of surprise and dismay at the sight of it, a gleaming black badge with yellow trim: the emblem of a Night Watch undercover agent.
"A plant," someone in the crowd cried.
"My God, what he almost made us do," another voice quavered.
The burly man dropped the Night Watch agent's badge on his chest, then spat on the ground next to him.
"Cap's right," he said. "This isn't the way we're supposed to do things in this town. Most'a you are kids, but I'm old enough to know better. We all oughta be ashamed of ourselves."
"Well," Rogers said as he shrugged his shield onto his back again, "consider it a lesson learned." Turning to his TacDiv detachment, he said, "Secure the park and get this guy out of here. Intel Division's going to want to talk to him about possible Werwolf operations by EA loyalists."
"Sir!" the ranking trooper said, saluting.
"What about us, Cap? We want to help," said the man with the mustache. "Like you said, we're Americans. We wanna do our part."
Rogers smiled. "Come with me," he said, and led the way across the park toward Castle Clinton.
Standing in front of the ancient fortification was a flagpole, its lanyard drooping forlornly. It had been shorn of its Earth Alliance flag when the EA surrendered to the Galactic Alliance Treaty Organization forces the previous day, but no flag had been raised yet to replace it. No doubt someone somewhere had it on a list of installations to be graced with the GATO occupation flag, but Captain America had other ideas.
Reaching into the double breast of his uniform, he drew out a parcel of colorful fabric, carefully unfolded it, and ran it up the flagpole. Then he stepped back, drew himself to attention, and saluted the Stars and Stripes as they flew over his hometown for the first time in six years.
Then, turning to the silent crowd, he said, "Go home. Think about what happened here today. Think about who you are. We've all got a lot of work before America, and Earth, can stand on their own feet again, but stand they must, and soon. You're all going to be instrumental in making that happen."
Murmuring, subdued, the crowd began to break up and drift away. Before it could fully do so, though, the man with the mustache spoke again.
"What about you, Cap?"
"Me?" Rogers grinned. "I'm going to be right here. Helping to rebuild my country."
The man grinned. "You need any help, you gimme a call. Name's Dunphy. Dennis Dunphy. I'm in the book."
"I may just do that. Thanks. Oh, and Dennis?"
"Thanks for the warning."
"Any time, Cap," Dunphy said, and then he left.
Alone in front of Castle Clinton, Rogers stood looking up at the flag for a few moments, lost in thought. He was brought out of his reverie by the arrival of a blonde woman in the uniform of a Tactical Division major.
"You're a sentimental fool, Steve Rogers," Major Samantha Carter remarked with a smile as she walked to his side.
"Guilty as charged," Rogers replied.
"You think it'll work?" Sam asked, taking his arm.
"Rebuilding America? Sure it will. She's bounced back from worse. And the galaxy needs her."
Sam studied his face for a second. "You really believe that, don't you?"
"Of course I do." With a slightly wry grin, Rogers added, "I am Captain America, after all."
"Battery Park (Part I of the Manhattan Trilogy)
a New Frontier Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007, 2011 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Thursday, August 9, 2412
North American Aerospace Defense Zone One
A half-dozen Pelican-class aerodyne dropships flew northward in echelon formation. The vehicles wore the grey and red livery of the International Police Organization's Tactical Division. Aboard them, squads of armored soldiers fidgeted, adjusted their equipment, and made private bargains with their gods, as soldiers have done aboard transports since the dawn of war.
In the troop compartment of the lead Pelican, a man sat looking out the open side door at the panorama of the Brooklyn skyline to the dropship's starboard side. Not very tall but barrel-chested, with great broad shoulders, he stood in stark contrast to the blue-armored TacDiv troopers surrounding him. Unlike them, he wore no armor. Instead he was dressed in sturdy, old-fashioned clothes: khaki trousers and brown leather military boots with canvas gaiters, a leather gunbelt like the ones some of the TacDiv troops had seen in cowboy movies, cavalry gauntlets, and - despite the summer heat - a khaki wool shirt and dark necktie. On his head, where the others had the latest in hard-shelled protective headgear, he wore a battered old campaign hat that wouldn't have looked out of place on Smokey Bear. Even his golden pince-nez and the style of his bushy mustache spoke of another age.
The troopers of Company F were in awe of this man. Though he was completely unarmored and armed only with an antique revolver, they all felt safer just knowing he was with them. They still feared the unknown, possibly dangerous situation they were flying into - only a fool would not have - but they had faith in their leader that surpassed any fear of harm or death they might feel. His gun might be old, his mode of dress outlandish, and his claim of identity absurd on its face, but none of that mattered. His sheer presence swept all such practical considerations away.
These men and women were going into potential danger with Theodore Roosevelt on their side.
Well, all right, he wasn't really Theodore Roosevelt. The official story, handed down from Command when he joined their operation, was that he was a clone created by some mad scientist the Experts of Justice had busted a few years back. The basic idea seemed to have been to bring back some of the greatest Earthpeople of the pre-Contact era and use them as the spearhead of an effort to conquer the galaxy, or something like that. The problem there being that most of the people he'd pseudo-resurrected in this fashion were generally heroic types who promptly failed to play along. Result: downfall of mad scientist; several instant recruits with very familiar faces for the Experts.
But that was the point as far as the men and women of Fox Company were concerned. This guy might not be the actual 26th President of the United States, but somehow it seemed he had the spark of that man in him. He believed, and did so in such an all-encompassing, charismatic fashion that a person couldn't help being swept along and believing right along with him. Fox Company's troopers would have followed him into Hell... or New York City after the fall of the Earth Alliance.
Several detachments of TacDiv troops, each with an Expert in the lead, were being inserted into the city now, each tasked with securing a key point or dealing with an unfolding crisis. The Pelicans of the flight ahead of this one were bound for Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, to handle a reported riot in progress. Company F's flight, on the other hand, was making a slight detour, heading not for Manhattan itself, but one of the smaller islands to the south - one on which stood a famous statue,
As the Pelicans touched down, the TacDiv troopers were already dismounting, weapons at the ready. No more than ten seconds later, the Pelicans were dusting off and Fox Company was fanning out in a standard patrol formation. Quickly but cautiously, they moved past the Visitors' Center to the edge of the circular plaza surrounding the flagpole. As they approached, they saw their SA1 commander's jaw set and his blue eyes become flinty at the sight of the flag that flew there. It was not the flag of the Earth Alliance, nor the lately outlawed banner of the United States. Instead, it was a stark and simple red, white, and black flag the mere presence of which, in a place like this, was an obscenity to a man like Roosevelt - almost as great a one as the bullet-riddled body of the Park Police guard who lay sprawled at the flagpole's base.
"Nazis," Roosevelt said, biting the word off like a piece of beef jerky.
"Jeez, those guys get everywhere," one of Fox Company's sergeants muttered.
"Cockroaches always prosper in the corrupting shadows of a monstrous edifice like the Earth Alliance," Roosevelt told her. "When that happens, it's up to people like us to shine light on them... " He drew his revolver and grinned fiercely. "... and start stomping." Then, with a quick gesture of his left hand above his head, he directed the squad forward. "Move out! Safeties off."
The leader of the Nazi team which had silently secured Liberty Island in the wee hours of that morning knew immediately that some effort was now being made to retake the facility. He was up on what had been the roof of Fort Wood, in front of the Statue of Liberty's base, and he could plainly hear the gunfire from below as the IPO engaged his perimeter guard. He didn't know for a fact that the attackers were IPO, but it was a reasonable conclusion. He'd just watched a formation of TacDiv dropships pass by en route to the diversionary riot in Battery Park. It stood to reason that more of them would have come here to investigate the silence of the Park Police.
He had been hoping the chaos gripping the governmental structures of the planet in the wake of the Earth Alliance's collapse would have enabled that silence to go unnoticed until the operation was entirely concluded, but no matter. It was too late now to stop the plan. He needed only a few seconds more to make the Nazi squad's success inevitable, and there was no way the attackers, even if they were completely routing his troops - and it didn't sound like they were - could get up here in time to stop him. This building was called a fort for a reason.
The Nazi squadleader was thus quite surprised to see an archaically-dressed man vault the parapet a few dozen feet in front of him as if hopping over a traffic barrier, level an ancient firearm at him and his tech specialist, and announce, "That's enough of that, gentlemen."
The tech reached for the control board, intending to complete their mission - or at least make it certain of competion - by turning the key that would irrevocably arm the explosive. Before his hand could reach that key, however, the man who'd just jumped the parapet fired his Colt M1917 twice from the hip. The first .45-caliber slug struck the key, neatly snapping its head off and leaving the shank stuck uselessly in the lock. The second took Scharführer Ensbeck square in the chest, punching clean through the plastron of his armored battle dress. He went down without a word, kicking and scrambling, then lay still.
"'Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,'" said Ensbeck's killer in a fiercely enunciated, slightly gravelly tenor, "'With conquering limbs astride from land to land; / Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand / A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name / Mother of Exiles.' Not that you would view that as anything other than weakness, would you, Herr Skorzeny?"
SS-Obergruppenführer Otto Skorzeny regarded Roosevelt with pure hatred in his eyes. "Theodore," he said through his teeth. "How delightful to see you again."
Still covering Skorzeny with his revolver, Roosevelt walked slowly, casually, but cautiously toward the Nazi officer. "This surprises me, Otto," he remarked. "I mean, a Nazi plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty? It's so unpractical. You were always a man for the useful coup, not grand but hollow theatrics."
"I follow orders, Theodore," Skorzeny replied. "I'm a soldier."
So saying, he moved - faster than a normal man could ever have moved - to his left, getting the damaged bomb console out of the line of fire, and opened fire with an E-11 blaster carbine. Holstering his revolver, Roosevelt sprang into the air, impossibly high, the spray of blasterfire passing beneath him, then came down on top of Skorzeny like a ton of bricks. The Nazi barely avoided the blow, hurling himself backward. He lost his grip on the blaster in the process; it clattered away.
Rising to his feet, Skorzeny spotted the softly glowing device attached to Roosevelt's belt and smirked. "One of Tesla's gravity inverters? You're actually adopting this era's technologies now? Though I see you're still too proud to use a modern weapon."
"It did well enough for your friend," Roosevelt replied, unperturbed. Skorzeny noticed then that his old foe hadn't come through the firefight below entirely unscathed; there was a bloody wound in his left shoulder where a bullet, presumably from one of Skorzeny's men's MP97 submachineguns, had struck him.
"Yes, poor Ensbeck. He had to have his deflectors offline this close to the bomb." Skorzeny sighed. "Ah, well. He knew the risks. His name will be added to the roll of the New Reich's martyrs."
Roosevelt scowled and balled his fists. "You're a mad dog, Otto, and it's long past time someone put you down."
Skorzeny emitted one bitter laugh. "And who will that be? You? You already have a bullet in you, you old fool."
Roosevelt glanced at his shoulder wound as if it were of no consequence, then replied, "So I do - but you will find, sir, that it takes more than that to stop a bull moose."
Skorzeny didn't even dignify that remark with a reply; he just threw himself into the fight. Without compunction or concern, he unleashed all the inhuman might with which he'd been endowed by Zola's mad science and all the dark and savage experience he'd accumulated over centuries of insurrection, sabotage, and assassination. Roosevelt was just an American, and what was more, he still clung to ridiculous notions of fair play and honor.
Roosevelt, for instance, would never have stooped to punching an injured man where he was already hurt. It wouldn't even have occurred to him to do that. Skorzeny, on the other hand, concentrated his offense there, landing no fewer than five solid hits to Roosevelt's wounded shoulder as the two of them lunged and dodged and feinted across the stone-paved expanse of Fort Wood's roof.
The fifth time, apparently, Roosevelt had had enough. As Skorzeny's fist struck his wound again, his only response was to grunt - and drive such a punishing underhand left into Skorzeny's thus-offered midsection that the Nazi was lifted off his feet and thrown to the ground, his breath gushing out in a great anguished cough, as two of his ribs fractured.
No one could ever say Skorzeny wasn't game for a fight. He recovered his wits almost immediately, got his feet back under him, and rose, drawing a fighting knife from his boot as he did so.
Roosevelt ducked back from Skorzeny's first lunge, evaded a second, completely ignored a third, and downed the Nazi again with a murderous right cross.
"'"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she / With silent lips,'" Roosevelt said, waiting at arm's length, his fists raised in a boxing stance, for his opponent to rise. "'"Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore."'"
Skorzeny hauled himself to his feet with rather less bounce than the first time, rubbing with his free hand at the side of his jaw. "Do you never stop prattling, Roosevelt?" he grated.
"When I was a boy, Herr Skorzeny, I learned many important lessons," Roosevelt replied. "One of them was this: The limitations of the body can never obstruct the diligent man's path to a righteous goal."
"Be silent!" Skorzeny roared, putting all his remaining strength and speed into a single inhumanly fast lunge that sought to direct his blade through Roosevelt's heart.
By the time he got there, Roosevelt was six inches outside the kill zone, driving one of his sledgehammer fists into the hitherto-uninjured side of Skorzeny's face. The knife kept going along its original path, sailing out over the edge of the fort and disappearing. Its erstwhile owner reversed course, sprawling full-length on the stone.
"They only make achieving that goal all the more satisfying," Roosevelt said.
Skorzeny, gasping for breath, heaved himself up on his elbows and gathered his strength to rise once more - until he saw the light gathering in the distance, beyond Roosevelt, and his bloodied lips curled into a cruel smile.
"Ordinarily, at this point, I should say something like, 'You win this round, Roosevelt, but there will be another.'" His hand moved to a device on his own belt, pressing a control, and as he began to glow, Skorzeny added, "But not this time. I'll see you in Hell, Theodore."
Then he was gone, vanishing in a flash of blue-green light.
Roosevelt stood scowling at the place where the Nazi had been lying. "Bother," he said, then turned and saw what had so delighted his fallen foe.
A crackling, scintillating silver nimbus was gathering around the shining stainless-steel crown of the Chrysler Building. Above it, clouds gathered rapidly, darkening the sky above midtown Manhattan. An unseasonably cold wind began tugging at Roosevelt's clothing, nearly snatching his hat from his head.
Roosevelt concentrated on his Lens. Steven! he called.
I see it, Steve Rogers replied. My team's done here. We can be there in four minutes.
I'm still on Liberty Island, but the crisis here is mostly secured, Roosevelt said. I'll join you there as soon as I -
No need to rush, gentlemen, a third voice broke in, sounding perfectly unruffled. I'm already there... and I believe this dance is mine.
Roosevelt glanced at his Lens in surprise, shook his head, and radioed his squad's top sergeant to take over the mopping-up operation.
"And get someone up here to secure this bomb!" he added, then got a running start and leaped from Fort Wood straight into the teeth of the gathering storm.
"Liberty Island" (Part II of the Manhattan Trilogy)
a New Frontier Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins with Geoff Depew
quotations from "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2011 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Thursday, August 9, 2412
New York, North America, Earth
Johann Schmidt first heard rumors about the secret of the Chrysler Building in 1944. Operations in North America were not his department, but he was the kind of agent who liked to keep tabs on what his colleagues - and potential rivals - were up to, and it had amused him to hear of Skorzeny's frustrations in New York. The claim was that the building's decorative crown was actually the façade for a powerful defense system, one capable of protecting the city - possibly the entire eastern seaboard of the United States - by both sea and air, and rendering the continent impregnable to Nazi attack.
Of course, by then the very idea of attacking North America with anything short of the A10 rocket and Diebner's bomb was the merest pipe dream, and when Captain America hijacked the A10 and the bomb, well, that was the end of that. Skorzeny abandoned his efforts to penetrate the veil of mystery around the Chrysler Building's crown, returned to Europe, and took part in Operation Eisenfaust instead. The war went on. Rumors of New York's secrets faded into the background, were lost in the cacophony of the Third Reich's collapse, and vanished in the postwar silence.
Not even Schmidt thought about it again until centuries later, when the device's existence was dramatically proven in the closing days of the Federation Civil War. Because it was there, New York City had emerged from President Clark's mad attempt to scorch the Earth with only scratches.
Because it was there, the Red Skull was now here.
He supposed the honor of piercing the Chrysler Building's veil at last should have gone to Skorzeny, but such were the fortunes of war. Schmidt was the ranking officer in New York - indeed, the ranking officer on Earth! - and Skorzeny worked for him now. And so Skorzeny went to Liberty Island to divert as many of the IPO's people as possible with a symbolic gesture he knew to be entirely devoid of real strategic value.
With the city in chaos and the IPO's interlopers held up at several key points by various diversionary operations, gaining access to the building unnoticed had been simple; reaching the uppermost floor even more so. Finding the secret access to the level above that had been slightly more involved, but not overwhelmingly so. It was intended to evade casual discovery, not thwart a determined search by a clever intruder.
The Red Skull stood with his hands folded behind his back and just looked at it for a few moments. The room at the very top of the Chrysler Building put him in mind of a small, narrow cathedral, with its sharply sloping walls that soared up to the pinnacle of the building, uninterrupted by any ceiling. The room was dimly lit by shafts of dusty light that slanted in through narrow triangular windows - and by the blue-white glow of the object in the very center.
Schmidt had no mental comparison for this item. It looked like nothing he had ever seen before - a rostrum or pedestal of sorts, about five feet high, composed of metal flanges, ribbed and smooth pipes, and other, even less identifiable, but unmistakably technological features. The smooth pipes or tubes, as well as various seams and translucent panels around the surface, gave off the light, as though illuminated by some powerful but mostly hidden source buried deep within. It was surrounded by a brass railing, now dull from decades, even centuries, of neglect, and connected to the building's peak by an incongruously ordinary-looking cylindrical column that rose from the top of the device and merged straight into the convergence of the slanting walls. To one side of the device, just outside the railing, stood what was obviously a control panel, encrusted with dust and cobwebs.
Schmidt brushed away the worst of the debris with one gloved hand and ran his eyes over the controls. The system was utterly unfamiliar, but although brutal and vicious, Schmidt was a very intelligent man, and it didn't take him long to grasp the basic layout. Here were the controls that governed the system's passive modes; here were its sensors and targeting system; here the switches and dials that controlled its active usage. And here were the controls for maintenance.
"I must advise you not to touch that, Herr Schädel," said a voice behind him. He turned to see the tall, thin figure of Nikola Tesla standing at the edge of the room, his back to one of the tall triangular windows. With a disapproving look, he added, "I built this facility to protect the city from the Nazis, you know. I am hardly likely to permit a Nazi to destroy the city with it."
A lesser man would have asked the obvious but stupid question - "How did you get in here?" - but the Red Skull said only, "You're too late, Tesla."
Tesla's mouth quirked in a small smile. He began to walk, not toward Schmidt, but around the edge of the room, his pace measured and deliberate. As he walked, the Skull sized him up, looking for weapons. He appeared to be carrying none - he was dressed only in a dark, slightly old-fashioned suit and tie, as he always seemed to be - but the Skull knew by now that with Tesla, appearances were always likely to be deceiving.
As for Tesla, he, too, was examining his adversary, taking note of the fact that the Skull was wearing his full-dress SS uniform, armband and all.
"Still you fight for the glory of Hitler's Germany?" he asked, shaking his head, and then, still pacing around the room's perimeter, he began to recite in his soft, precise voice,
"I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: 'Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"'"
The Red Skull would have sneered if he'd had lips in the ordinary sense of the word. "This place is your work," he pointed out sardonically.
Tesla nodded. "Yes. But you are Hitler's." Shaking his head sadly, he added, "Nothing beside remains, round the decay of that colossal wreck."
The Skull jerked his pistol from its holster and pointed it at Tesla, who had nearly reached a spot directly opposite him.
"I'd love to bandy words with you further, Tesla - you are the only Slav I've ever met who was even halfway bright - but time presses."
Tesla looked faintly insulted. "Really, Johann. A gun." He made a negligent gesture; the Skull recoiled, dropping the pistol, as electricity crackled over its surface and stung his hand. "I think we're both a bit beyond that phase at this point, don't you?"
Schmidt held his wrist in his hand for a moment, glaring at the inventor, teeth gritted. Then he smiled, inasmuch as a man with his face could smile, and clenched his fists.
"If you prefer that I beat you to death with my bare hands, Nikola, you only had to ask."
And with that, he sprang to the attack.
Johann Schmidt was one of the deadliest men in the galaxy. He had been trained as a saboteur, spy, assassin, agent provocateur, and commando - essentially, as the world's first super-soldier - by the finest masters of all the martial disciplines available in the Germany of the 1930s, and he'd kept his skills sharp and current ever since. Ageless and untiring thanks to derivations and distillations of his enemies' own superscience, he was a remorseless and efficient killer who could end a man's life more quickly than an ordinary person could dial a phone.
Nikola Tesla was not any of these things. He was perhaps the greatest inventor/engineer/technologist the human species had ever produced, but that wasn't necessarily important right now. After all, the Red Skull's old friend Arnim Zola might be humanity's most brilliant bioscientist, and the Skull could have killed him without missing more than one sentence out of the editorial in the Saturday Review.
Tesla was different, and the Red Skull knew it. Tesla - with the aid of some technology and a lot of room in which to work - had put down one of the toughest superhumans the Skull had ever met, Big Fire's infamous Shockwave Alberto in his day. He wasn't an ivory tower intellectual, all brains and no guts, and he had more muscle - and more idea how to use it - than his gangly frame and reputation for peaceability suggested. He was one of the IPO's Experts of Justice, and that title was not handed out lightly. So the Skull was under no illusion that this was going to be simple - but, with the limitless arrogance that so clearly characterized the man in the minds of all who knew him, he did expect it to be easy.
It was not.
Tesla's technology had advanced markedly in the nearly two decades since his legendary battle with Shockwave Alberto, as had his adeptness in using it. Though a peaceful man, he was no longer a pacifist in the strict sense of the word, as he had been in earlier, simpler times. As he had watched the galaxy darken throughout the first decade of the twenty-fifth century, and helped the IPO prepare to confront and hold back that darkness, he had come to embrace fully that organization's founder's unofficial motto: Qui desiderat pacem, praeparat bellum.
Whomsoever desires peace, let him prepare for war.
He was hampered by the close quarters and the fact that he couldn't unleash his most powerful weapons - his latest-model Electro-Gauntlets, no bulkier than an ordinary pair of evening gloves - without endangering the Deflectron Core, but Tesla still more than held his own. In five furious minutes of no-holds-barred hand-to-hand combat, he made the Red Skull know that he'd been in a real fight for the first time in years - maybe decades.
But he still lost, at least the first round.
Breathing hard - but not too hard, in order to keep from outraging the ribs he thought Tesla's onslaught had cracked - the Skull returned to the center of the room. Tesla, crumpled in the corner, was probably still alive, and he had been tempted to finish the man off, but it would have put him even further behind schedule, and Johann Schmidt did not like falling behind schedule. Mission first. Recreation later.
He went to the control console, found the section he thought pertained to maintenance again, turned one of those dials to the setting furthest to the left, flipped a couple of switches, then took hold of a lever and pulled it back. Despite their obvious neglect, the controls worked smoothly and easily. For a moment, nothing happened; then the column atop the central device moved upward. Dust sloughed off it as it moved, revealing that it was actually transparent, a crystalline pillar, socketed into the top of the machine. The machine's pure blue-white light poured from the opening where it had been seated. It rose perhaps four feet in silence, then halted. Schmidt threw another switch. From within the machine, a metal handle emerged, rising until he could see that it was the top of some kind of bracket - a bracket secured around that which he had really come here seeking.
It was a cube, about six inches on a side, and clearly the source of the machine's strange illumination. As he stood looking at it, Schmidt realized that he could not quite consciously register what it looked like. Sometimes he was convinced it was metallic, with a dull, titanium-like lustre - but then he blinked and became just as convinced that it was crystalline, its entire structure suffused with the blue-white glow that now filled the room. It seemed to be perfectly smooth and featureless, yet covered in strange, otherworldly markings, yet insubstantial and perhaps even containing the ghostly image of another, smaller cube within it.
How long he stood looking at it, trying in vain to fathom its dimensionally transcendent mysteries, he wasn't sure. He got hold of himself with a fierce effort of will, reminding himself sternly that losing oneself in contemplation of a hypercube was the act of a mental weakling, and reached toward the handle. There would be plenty of time to plumb the cube's mysteries once he had taken it with him back to the Alpenfestung... and plenty of time to unleash its might.
Tesla stirred, raised himself from the floor, and shook his head, feeling experimentally to determine that his jaw wasn't broken. Then he noticed the light and came fully back to his senses.
"Schmidt!" he barked, his voice sharp over the rising hum of the now-exposed cube. "For the love of God, don't touch that!"
The Skull turned his head and replied, "You're too late, Tesla. The tesseract is mine."
"Don't delude yourself," Tesla said. "That item is not a tesseract. At least not only a tesseract. It's far more than that - and far more dangerous."
"Was that supposed to discourage me?" the Skull asked. "I'm counting on its being dangerous. That's what I want it for." He took hold of the handle and drew the bracket - and the cube - out of the machine altogether. Its circuits and tubes remained illuminated as the cube and its holder came free, evidently holding a residual charge.
"Honestly, destroying the city would merely have been a side benefit," said the Skull, gazing covetously at the cube's glow. "The true prize is this."
"You're a fool. Just like your master." Tesla climbed to his feet, wiping blood from the corner of his mouth with a handkerchief. "A greedy, destructive child, grabbing at anything shiny and dangerous-looking. You have no idea what that object truly is."
"Don't bother trying to insult me, Tesla," the Skull said. "This is your greatest achievement - and allowing me to become its master, your greatest failure."
Tesla shook his head. "You're wrong on both counts," he said. "You'll never master the Cube. You'll never even have the slightest inkling what it is. To you it merely represents power - power you think you can use to... what? Revive your mad Führer's long-dead empire? Plunge the Earth into a barbarism that will make the nightmare from which it just awoke seem like a passing fever dream in comparison? Deutschland über alles in all the galaxy? Viennese jackanapes!" he spat. "Just like Hitler, you're not even German!"
"Enough!" the Skull roared. "Goodbye, Tesla! The next time I see you, it will be to send you back to eternity. Until then, do me a favor and tell Steven I have not forgotten him." He reached to his belt and pressed a button on one of the small devices affixed there.
Nothing happened. The Skull glanced at the device, pressed the button again, then pressed it again. No response.
Tesla chuckled. "I designed this enclosure myself, Herr Schädel. Did you not think it would have occurred to me to prevent unauthorized teleportation within its boundaries?"
The Red Skull glared at him for a moment, but only a moment. That was all the time it took him to formulate Plan B. He pressed another key on his belt. This one activated an escape device based on a stripped-down version of Big Fire's already-stripped-down Emergency Battle Harness - basically, just the EBH's pop-up jetpack, which now tore through the back of the Skull's uniform jacket and began emitting a low whine as it powered up. With almost the same movement, he took a small grenade from his belt, thumbed the activator, and threw it over his shoulder, ducking as the blast blew a jagged hole in the wall behind him.
Then he picked up the pistol he had dropped earlier and fired it several times, not at Tesla, but into the vulnerable components of the Deflectron Core, causing it to begin sparking and guttering in a very dangerous-looking manner. Holstering his sidearm, the Skull transferred the cube in its bracket from his left hand to his right, turned, and made for the hole in the wall. He had just reached it when one of the arcs from the Core, shaped by the field emitters of Tesla's Electro-Gauntlets, touched his shoulder. He fell through the hole and out of the building, yelling incoherently as his right arm went numb... and the Cube dropped from his hand.
Tesla scrambled forward, warding off the discharges from the Core, and seized the bracket before the Cube could slide any closer to the edge; then, sparing only a glance for the fast-receding dot that was the fleeing Red Skull's jetpack exhaust, he turned to the Core's control board, reaching through sputtering jets of energy, and began working to keep the machine from destroying itself, the building, and a fair percentage of midtown.
At street level, a few seconds earlier, Theodore Roosevelt, Steve Rogers, and a contingent of TacDiv officers arrived just in time to dodge the stainless-steel shrapnel raining down from the Skull's impromptu exit.
What's your status, Dr. Tesla? Rogers inquired via his Lens, making sure to cut in all the other Lensmen on the island to the conversation.
The Cube is secure, but the Skull is making his escape, Tesla replied. I dare not pursue him with the Deflectron Core in this condition.
Blast, Rogers said. Then, keying his comlink, he declared aloud, "Any air assets in South Manhattan, this is Rogers. I need - "
"Steven," said Roosevelt.
Rogers paused. " - yes, Theodore?"
"Hold my hat, will you? There's a good fellow."
Not sure why he was doing so, Rogers took the battered campaign hat the former President was offering to him. Then he watched as Roosevelt turned to one of the TacDiv troopers and borrowed her S2-AM sniper rifle, turned, and raised the weapon to his shoulder. Two tense seconds ticked by as the glimmering dot of the Red Skull's jet exhaust grew ever smaller in the distance, heading south.
"Hmph," said Roosevelt, lowering the rifle. It was a clearly impossible shot now - the Skull had to be five miles away, not counting his altitude, which had to be considerable if his contrail could still be seen from street level in Midtown.
"I repeat, this is - " Rogers began -
- but Roosevelt simply made an adjustment to the rifle's teleoptic, snapped the weapon up again, took aim, and fired a single shot.
A palpable span of time later, a speck of fire bloomed in the distant sky, then spiraled down in a pall of black smoke toward the harbor.
"I do hope Herr Schmidt can swim," Roosevelt deadpanned, handing the rifle back to its owner.
"Of course, we found nothing but the wreckage of his jetpack," said Rogers with a sigh. "That could mean that he's dead and his body's gone out to sea, but more likely he was able to teleport away." He shook his head. "That's how things always end with the Skull and me."
IPO Chief Benjamin Hutchins nodded sympathetically. "I know the feeling," he said. "But try not to let it get you too down. You and the others did good work today. New York is secure now thanks to your efforts, and those of the other teams. Our ability to ensure the city's stability during the transition has been an example to the rest of the world - and to the galaxy at large - that we mean what we say when we talk about wanting a peaceful rebirth for a free Earth, and that we can back it up. And the Cube is now secure where the bad guys will never get hold of it again. Couldn't, even if they knew where it was."
"True," Rogers agreed. "I just wish so many of the Nazis hadn't gotten away. They'll be back. They always come back."
"We'll be waiting for them," Gryphon promised. "For now, get some rest, Steve. I have another job for you and Theodore in the morning. In Washington. And then Winston would like your help with a little something in London."
Rogers smiled. "You've been busy filling up my dance card," he said.
"Well, hey, you wanted to be a rock star... " said Gryphon with an affected shrug. Rogers laughed, clapped him on the shoulder, and left the room.
"The Chrysler Building" (Part III of the Manhattan Trilogy)
a New Frontier Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins with Geoff Depew
quotations from "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley
and The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2011 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Monday, May 6, 1689
If anyone had noticed the tall red box standing near the quayside, no one had seen fit to remark upon it - and this in spite of the fact that it was completely out of place in its setting, being a tall red box in a place where boxes tended to be neither tall nor red. In spite of its unusual appearance, it seemed somehow to be completely ordinary, doing nothing, attracting no attention.
Even when the three people came pelting down the quay as fast as they could run, flung the doors open, and plunged inside, nobody around seemed to notice. The furious mob of pistol- and sword-waving young men who had been in hot pursuit of the trio ran straight past the tall red box, entirely failing to take note of it or consider that their quarry might have taken refuge within it.
A few moments later, with a flashing of the lamp on its roof and a strange grinding wheeze, the TARDIS Phoenix faded away and disappeared, leaving no trace that it had ever been there beyond a square impression in the dust - an impression that was wiped away moments later by a stray swirl of seaside breeze.
In the Phoenix's Console Room, the three travelers leaned against various of the room's coralesque structures, panting.
"I'll give you this, Julie," said Jack Harkness with a slightly haggard grin, "you've definitely got a way with people."
The tall, auburn-haired young woman to whom he was speaking shrugged expressively. "All I said was that the Baron was an indifferently educated halfwit. Which he is."
"I don't think that's what he took offense at, actually," Jack told her. "I suspect it was probably the 'inbred, impotent catamite' part."
"I admit part of that was speculation," Julie conceded.
Jack laughed. "Good to know," he said. Then he turned to the timeship's pilot. Rose Tyler still stood leaning forward against the Phoenix's control console, one hand braced amid the improvised-looking helm controls, shoulders hunched under her black leather jacket. "Hey," he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "You OK?"
Rose turned her head to look at him, a puzzled expression on her face. "I think so," she said, and then, "Just got a - stitch in my side. Can't seem - to catch - my breath."
Then, as Jack stared at her in horror, a trickle of blood ran from the corner of her mouth. She moved her other hand, which she'd had pressed against her side inside her open jacket, and then blinked in consternation to find it streaked with crimson. Looking down at herself, she registered the stain spreading slowly under her white T-shirt.
"... Oh," she said, then stumbled away from the console, nearly falling. Jack caught her and half-walked, half-dragged her across to the brown leather settee that stood at the base of one of the coral support columns.
"How'd that happen?" Rose wondered, sounding somewhere between confused and indignant, as she hiked up her shirt to regard the wound.
"One of the Baron's men must have hit you on our way out the window," said Jack, his usual flippancy erased by urgency as he dug around under the console for the first aid kit. "Just hang on."
"How did I not notice getting shot?" Rose demanded, sounding more annoyed than anything else.
Jack returned to her side, propping the kit open on the settee next to her, then set to work with the medical scanner. "Come on, come on," he mumbled.
Julie crouched next to the settee and took Rose's hand in both of hers. "I'm so sorry," she said, bowing her head over their hands. "This is all my fault."
"Hey, hey, relax," said Rose, patting their hands with her bloody free one; then, muttering, "oh, sorry," she removed it.
"Relax? How can I relax?" Julie demanded. "I could have restrained myself, for once in my life. I could have not needled the Baron to the point of violence. But I did it anyway, because I thought it would be fun, and now look what has happened!"
"It's just a flesh wound," said Rose, but as she said it, Jack looked up from the scanner, his face grave, and shook his head.
"If you've got a canister of nanogenes kicking around someplace, now's the time," he said with a weak attempt at a smile. Julie all but collapsed, her forehead on their still-linked hands, weeping bitterly.
"OK, then, not just a flesh wound," said Rose, her voice a bit fainter. "On to plan C... " she murmured, closing her eyes.
Jack set the scanner aside and took her free hand. "Rose," he said urgently. "There must be someplace we can go to get help. Give me some coordinates and I'll see what I can do."
Rose opened one eye and gave him a sardonic look, then emitted a chuckle that turned into a cough. "We know what you can do when I let you drive, 'Captain' Harkness," she said wryly. "It involves glaciers."
In spite of her grief, Julie had to laugh at that, though it transmuted instantly into a stifled sob. Rose sighed and settled back on the couch, looking for all the world like she was just tired and trying to get comfortable.
"Rose," said Jack sharply. "C'mon, stay with me. Have we got a, a distress beacon or something? Can't we call the Doctor? Or Griffin, or Romana, or somebody?"
Rose gave another sigh, opened her eyes, and told him as sternly as someone in such a weakened state could tell someone, "Will you please stop wittering? I have to concentrate. I'll be back in a minute."
So saying, she closed her eyes once more, sinking fully back onto the cushions. After a few seconds her brow furrowed as if in puzzlement; without opening her eyes, she mumbled,
"... that's funny... "
And then, with a long exhalation, she went absolutely still.
Jack blinked tears from his eyes and stared at her in horror. "Oh no," he whispered. "No, no, no."
With a sharp intake of breath that made her startled friends jump back, Rose suddenly sat bolt upright. Her eyes snapped open, an eerie glow flickering behind them.
"Oh yes," she said, in a vaguely uncanny impression of the way the Doctor often said it, and then she seemed to explode in a roaring storm of otherworldly orange light that poured from the sleeves of her jacket and the collar of her shirt. The Console Room's lights flickered, the gravity fluctuated, several of the overhead hoses disconnected with writhing sprays of steam, and sparks burst from a number of places on the console. Relays chunked and clattered somewhere beneath the deckplates as automatic failsafe systems sprang into action. Above the sudden cacophony, Rose's voice soared in a high, sustained wail that might've been anguish, or ecstasy, or both.
Then, as abruptly as it began, it was over, and Rose sprawled back on the settee in the sudden dim quiet, blinking wide-eyed at the ceiling, her chest heaving as if she'd just surfaced from slightly too long underwater.
"Whaaaa!" she cried, sitting up and looking at her hands. Shaking her head, she got unsteadily to her feet and looked around at the shambles she'd made of the Console Room. "Woo! Now that's what I call a bloody ride! A-plus plus plus would buy again!" She raised her hands and pushed them through her hair, then dropped them to her sides and shook herself like a wet dog. "Somebody kiss me."
Julie straightened up from the defensive crouch she'd assumed when Rose had... whatever she'd just done. She hesitated, but only for a moment, since truth be told, she'd wanted to do exactly that since she'd first met this gorgeous mad Englishwoman.
So she did.
"Hmm," said Rose with a judicious expression once Julie had released her. "Not bad! Never kissed a girl before. On the other hand, I never died before either. It's a day for firsts! I - whoa, 'ang on." With a sudden thoughtful frown, she felt at her upper chest, first one side, then the other. "That's new," she mused. "Take some getting used to. They're not even in sync. Kind of a bossa nova thing going on there. I wonder if that's bad?" Shrugging, she turned to Jack, who stood staring at her with bafflement all over his face. "What?" she asked.
He looked at her for a few more seconds, then said, "... You didn't change."
Rose went to the console and looked at her dim reflection in the surface of the blank master monitor, then turned back to Jack. "'Course I didn't. Why would I want to?" she asked, then grinned. "Look at me."
"What just happened?" Julie wondered.
"Sorry, right, no briefing," said Rose. "Bit distracted. You know, the whole fatal gunshot wound thing. What were we doing?"
Before either of her companions could answer, the Phoenix lurched as if she had struck something. More sparks, more smoke, and from somewhere far away, the low and ominous tolling of a bell.
"Oh!" said Rose brightly, clearly thrilled with the discovery, as she commenced grappling with the sparking console. "Crashing! Brilliant!"
Julie and Jack looked at each other, then lunged for handholds.
"The Only Thing" - a New Frontier(?) mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2013 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Monday, May 9, 2411
Stately Griffin Manor
How many times, wondered Don Griffin idly, have I done this?
In a career that now spanned more years than he really liked to think about, he guessed the answer probably ran into the hundreds, but even after all these times it still gave him a thrill to make his selections, suit up, and prepare himself to face adversity - and to watch his teammates do the same.
"OK," he said after securing the last piece of his protective shell. "Equipment check."
His wife Katherine - Kitty to her friends - looked him over with a practiced, critical eye, then reached out and tweaked the knot of his red-and-orange tie slightly. Satisfied, she brushed down his suitjacket lapels and nodded.
"Almost respectable," she said. "How about me?"
Don gave her a slow once-over, taking in her more-elaborate-than-usual hairstyle and the sleek but businesslike lines of the scarlet skirt-suit she wore, the sensible but stylish shoes, and the crisp white front of her blouse with its big, jaunty buttons and collar tabs.
"You'd better get going," he said with a salacious arch of one eyebrow, "or I cannot guarantee your clothing's continued freedom from unseemly wrinkles."
"Down, boy," Kitty replied, rolling her eyes slightly. "I can't stagger into my thesis defense looking like I've just had to fight off the Tasmanian Devil... " She smirked. "... and you can't show up for your meeting with the Board of Education wearing somebody else's makeup."
Don sniffed thoughtfully at the air. "Or somebody else's perfume," he agreed. "Is that 'Supremacy'?"
Kitty went slightly pink in the face. "What if it is?"
Don shrugged. "Works for me, I dig it," he said. "Just don't let Emma find out."
"I can wear any fragrance I like," said Kitty stubbornly. "Even that psychotic - "
"Now, now," Don chided her as they left the room. "That's unfair and you know it. Emma's not bad, she's just drawn that way."
"You always take her side."
"I'm merely pointing out that you have a tendency to judge her too harshly."
"She kissed you without my permission."
"Sweetness, if you harbored homicidal wishes against every woman who's ever kissed me without your permission, you would be one busy ninja. I'm just saying."
"Hah. Even if I slacked off, I'd be done by lunchtime."
"Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that."
By this time, their nerves settled by the pretend bickering, they'd reached the front foyer of their big, rambling red-brick house. Before they could get to the door, though, they were intercepted by not one but four people, two arriving through the archway behind them, one (with a small purple dragon perched on her shoulder) emerging like a ghost from the side wall ahead of them, and one rather abruptly appearing between them and the exit with a percussive sound and a small cloud of sulfurous-smelling blue smoke.
"Hey," said Alex Summers from behind them. "The big day has arrived, huh?"
"We couldn't let you leave without wishing you luck," elfin Kyra Wagner explained.
"You sure you want to bother doing this the hard way?" asked the Griffins' foster daughter Rachel with a slight smirk. "I mean, I could fix it for you. I know people."
"Hrgfnrxt," scoffed Lockheed from Kitty the Younger's shoulder.
"Lockheed's right," Kyra agreed. "That's cheating. Especially if you involve the Master."
Rachel shrugged. "He gets stuff done."
"Anyway, good luck," said Kitty the Younger. "You're gonna be awesome."
Kitty the Elder smiled. "Thanks, guys. I'll see you tonight. We'll either be celebrating or drowning our sorrows. Either way there'll be Indian food!"
Leaving the house, the Griffins paused at the sidewalk end of their front walk, eyeing each other speculatively for a moment. Then they both laughed, kissed once, and parted ways, he heading downtown, she uptown.
Back in the library, Alex Summers sat back in one end of the sofa and said, "Sure hope they go for Don's pitch."
Perched on the back of an armchair, Kyra nodded. "It's going to be a long summer if they don't," she agreed glumly.
"You said it," Kitty the Younger said from the depths of that chair.
"I told you, I know people," said Rachel calmly from the other end of the couch. "If they don't go for it, I can fix it."
"That would be oddly fitting, since it all started with you," said Alex.
Rachel eyed her. "Uh, how do you figure?"
"Well, none of it's directly your fault, that's not what I mean," Alex clarified. "But it's all sort of happened around you. First you came along, and before you know it we're all here instead of where we were."
"Hey, now, come on," said Kitty. "Ray didn't cause any of that stuff to happen."
"Not directly," Alex agreed, "but you know what they say about butterflies and storms."
Rachel eyed her narrowly. "Did you seriously just invoke chaos theory to justify blaming me for DCW? Because I think I'm going to have to officially classify that as a reach."
She had a point, as they all knew well. None of what had recently happened in the lives of these three girls could reasonably be laid at Rachel's door. She'd hardly caused Kitty the Younger's father to turn to white-collar crime, for instance, nor sent him to prison for it, nor induced (the former) Mrs. Pryde to decamp for the Corporate Sector with her (by Kitty's standards, patently unsuitable) new beau. Nor was she responsible for the sudden interest the Department of Child Welfare had taken in Alex Summers's living arrangements now that her elder brother Scott was in college and no longer spending much of his time at the apartment they'd shared since their parents' deaths three years earlier. And she was in no way involved in the Archdiocese of Rigel's decision to consolidate most of the Co-Prosperity Sphere's monastic operations on New Japan, with impending unfortunate consequences for the Sisters of Mercy convent in Nekomikoka where Kyra Wagner, also an orphan, lived.
Still, all of that had happened. Within 60 days of the start of the just-ending school year, the personnel count at Stately Griffin Manor had gone from three humanoid life forms to eight, fully half of whom were under the legal age of majority, and none of the minors was any actual blood relation to each other or the householders. (By certain standards, Alex was Rachel's aunt and Kitty the Younger was Kitty the Elder, but neither of those relationships bore even trying to explain them to the ordinary civilian authorities of Tomodachi.) This had been workable on a temporary basis - all of them did have someone's permission to be here - but in the longer term it was liable to attract the kind of bureaucratic attention nobody wanted.
Don's solution to the problem was elegant and creative, but in absolute terms it had a fair chance of not working in the Real World. It all depended on how he handled the day's meeting with the Greater Nekomikoka Board of Education, an organization that was not known for its sense of humor or appetite for zany hijinks. Since zany hijinks tended to come with the territory in the vicinity of any alumnus of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, this was cause for concern.
"Oh well, nothing we can do about it now," said Alex philosophically. "Might as well go to school."
The foursome got home from school to find that Don had preceded them. They didn't have to ask him whether his errand had succeeded. When they found him, he was dressed in that red boiler suit he liked to wear when puttering around the Manor, cheerfully affixing something to the brick wall of the house just to the left of the front door. They gathered on the walk and watched him complete the task. (Using a focused proton beam to do this struck the girls as a bit over the top, all things considered, but it certainly made a cooler noise than the regular kind of screwdriver.)
When he'd finished, Alex spoke first. "So did they go for it," she asked, "or is that a 'rooms to let' sign?"
Don turned, flipped the proton screwdriver jauntily around his hand, and tucked it into the sleeve pocket of his overalls, grinning. "Hardly," he said. "Ladies... I bid you welcome." So saying, he took hold of a corner of the protective paper covering the face of the item he'd just attached to the house, then tore it briskly off with a flourish. This revealed it to be a brass plaque in the old style, adorned with an intricate engraving of a griffin passant and a name in neat Roman letters:
"Aw," said Rachel, disappointed. "Not 'Miss Kitty's Home for Wayward Girls'?"
"That would've been a tougher sell to the Department of Education, I think," Don replied dryly. He looked past her, out to the street, and smiled. "And here comes the lady herself."
Kitty the Elder was indeed approaching, and from the spring in her stride and the look on her face, no one had any doubt that her own errand had been just as successful. Her wide smile got a little wider still as she got near enough to spot the new sign. For the last couple of steps she broke into a run, then jumped into her husband's arms for the celebratory hug.
"They loved it!" she declared jubilantly. "Dr. Kammler is sponsoring it for publication in the next TC&CS."
"Ha haaaa," said Don, lifting her clean off the ground and making a full turn on the spot. "Well done, Dr. Griffin, well done!" The girls crowded around, waiting their turn to congratulate her when he finally put her down.
"Well," Kitty said after thanking them, "it's not 100% official yet, but that's only because commencement isn't until Saturday. And as for you," she added, "either that sign is some bizarre attempt at irony, or you were successful today too."
Don grinned. "I was indeed. The Board thought it was a lovely idea, having a semiresidential advanced-studies institute on the Xavier model in Beiwiru. Couldn't wait to sign off on it. A couple of them were even talking citywide pilot program, but I think I managed to deflect that," he added wryly.
"Well, then," she said, emphasizing her point with an elbow, "go get out of your janitor costume and back into some decent clothes. It's time to celebrate!"
By ten-thirty that night, the faculty of the newly established Griffin Academy and a few special guests had adjourned to the library. There, with the youngsters safely packed off to bed, one of the guests produced a dusty bottle from nowhere in particular, sabred its cork into the fireplace with a butter knife, and poured a ration of champagne for everyone.
"To the Doctors Griffin," declared Captain Jack Harkness with a broad smile, raising what remained in the bottle.
"And the enduring success of their mad new endeavor," added Romana impishly.
"I'll drink to that," laughed Professor Rose Tyler.
"What's mad about it?" Kitty wanted to know.
"Yeah, we're only opening a boarding school for superpowered teenagers in a time of escalating social and political uncertainty," Don protested with a grin.
The Doctor raised his glass, eyes twinkling. "How hard can it be?" he agreed.
Everyone else in the room turned to him at once and cried, "Don't say that!" before breaking up in laughter.
The conversation ranged from there into matters academic, which quickly turned to reminiscences of school days. Rose related some of the highlights of her time in the parallel universe where she had turned herself, through a herculean intellectual effort, into the scientist she now was - both as student and, later on, professor. Kitty and Don unrolled some of the old Xavier's School's greatest hits.
Eventually, with four of its graduates in the room, the Prydon Chapter Academy of Time entered the conversation - and that, inevitably, brought them round to the signature moment faced by all that academy's students.
"I've always wondered, Martol," said the Master with a thoughtful air. "You entered the Academy in your teens - well into your teens. Yes?" When Don nodded acknowledgement that this was so, the Master made a gesture that took in himself, Romana, and the Doctor, and went on, "That's long after the age when any of us was initiated. Younger than Professor Tyler, of course," he said, saluting that lady with his glass, "but then she's something of a special case. By the time she received her official imprimatur, she'd already seen the Vortex before. But the rest of us... "
Romana went a bit red. "Oh dear, I see where this is going," she mumbled, then held out her champagne flute imperiously. "Jack, I fear I shall require another drink."
"At once, milady," said Jack, plying the bottle with an exaggerated courtly bow.
The Master gave his blonde colleague a puzzled glance, then turned back to Don and asked, "How did you fare with the Schism at that advanced age? And an Earthman, no less."
Don coughed. "It, uh... was interesting."
"I don't think I've heard this one, have I?" Kitty wondered.
"I know I haven't," said Jack with a grin.
"Nor I," Rose put in. She leaned forward with a broad grin. "Go on, then. Interesting how?"
Don glanced at Romana, who made an airy no, no, by all means go on gesture and knocked back her second drink.
"You're talking about the hole in time they show to kids on Gallifrey?" Jack asked, providing her a third without being asked.
The Doctor gave him a quizzical look, then nodded. "Oh yeah, that's right. Forgot I'd told you about that."
"It was kind of a busy day," Jack agreed.
"Rose, you've seen it most recently of any of us," said Don. "Did Tetrox give you The Speech?"
Rose nodded, smiling. "'Everyone reacts differently to this first glimpse of Eternity,'" she said, in a decent impression of High Provost Tetroxadoriandra's primly self-important lecturer's voice. "'Some are inspired by the Untempered Schism,'" she went on, holding up a hand (as did Romana).
"'Some run away," said the Doctor, putting up his hand.
The Master grinned and made an ironic salute. "'And some go mad.'"
"Well," said Don, "since I was human and much older than eight, those who didn't think I'd be one of the mad ones mainly thought it'd just kill me." He chuckled wryly. "Some of them probably hoped it would."
"And?" Kitty asked.
He shrugged. "Well... I'm not dead."
"No, I mean, what did you do?" she asked, elbowing him.
"Oh, you know, the usual teenage larks," Don said, unconvincingly casual. When this drew a slightly explosive snort from Romana, he added, "Except on a somewhat bigger scale."
"What 'usual teenage larks'?" Rose inquired.
"Harmless fun," Don insisted. "Pranks, really. Auto theft, vandalism, illegal interdimensional travel, unauthorized rescuing... "
"Is that actually a crime?" Jack asked.
"It is in some jurisdictions," Don told him. "I know, right? I didn't realize that either."
"Don," said Kitty firmly. "Explain."
Apart from having a zydeco song jammed firmly in the gears of his mind, Don Griffin didn't think he was suffering any particular ill effects from having just looked into a hole in the universe and seen the entirety of the Time Vortex all at once. He felt a little spacey, and a little keyed up, but really, the anticipation of the thing had been worse than the experience itself. The disappointment on High Provost Tobernel's face had been quite spectacular when Don had looked into infinity and said only,
(The old bastard would never know how narrowly Don had managed to prevent himself from adding, "Is that a piece of fairy cake? I'm starving.")
Now, walking alone through the Prydon Chapterhouse, Don was mulling over the experience. He wondered vaguely whether his natural resistance to psionic phenomena had insulated him in some way from whatever consciousness-expanding effect the Schism was supposed to have. The whole thing had been a bit disappointing to him, too, really. The sources were different, of course. Don was disappointed that he hadn't had a more profound cosmic experience; Tobernel had been disappointed that Don's head didn't explode or something.
As he passed through the Hall of Remembrance, he wondered whether having failed to have a life-altering moment at the Schism would hinder his progress. Maybe that was something you had to have in order to become a Time Lord, academic progress notwithstanding. They were a curiously mystical lot for all that they were the most advanced civilization in the universe, which Don assumed was a sort of ultimate cultural confirmation of Clarke's Law.
Take this place, for instance. Why would a people as technologically and scientifically forward-facing as the Time Lords devote a huge and ornate room solely to the expression of sentimentality? Because that was all the place was for. It was where the Prydonians kept images of their house's lost alumni - those who were missing and those known to be dead. The Doctor had told him several of their stories when he had first enrolled. Borusa, whose hubris had nearly brought the Chapter down. The Observer, whose dedication to the principle of noninterference hadn't saved him in the end. The Gladiator, about whom the less said the better...
Abruptly, without any clear memory of how he'd arrived there, Don found himself standing before a three-dimensional image of a studious-looking woman depicted, like all the others here, in the scarlet and orange robes of a Prydonian. She had long, lustrous dark hair and a faint frown on her face, as though she slightly disapproved of something in her immediate vicinity.
The large tridigraph was an official image, taken when she'd graduated from the Academy. At some point, the Doctor had come and placed another, smaller picture next to it, an ordinary photograph, showing her as he had last seen her. In between the two, she'd regenerated, and this second image showed her as a small, slim, youthful girl, her long hair honey-blonde. She was dressed here not in traditional Time Lord robes, but instead in what appeared to be an Earthly school uniform, which made her seem even younger. She looked vaguely startled by something, caught in a moment of glancing off to her right, the fingers of that hand spread as if about to reach for or point to something.
Don preferred the second image to the first. The woman in the official image was handsome, but conveyed the impression somehow that she'd be hard to get along with. The girl in the second looked like she would be much more fun - not that Don harbored any expectation that he'd ever meet her. The Doctor had seemed sad the one time they'd stood together in this place and he'd spoken of her. Of all the friends he'd had to leave behind in far-flung places, she'd been flung the farthest: not dead, but stranded in a tangential universe. Locked on the far side of a divide so perilous no Time Lord, not even the Doctor, dared attempt to cross it again.
Now, as he stood and reflected upon the photograph, Don suddenly realized that it wouldn't do. It simply would not do at all.
The Time Lords had never bothered to secure the Repair Bay beyond some basic monitoring systems. At only one point in the long, long history of Gallifrey had anyone been daft enough to steal a malfunctioning TARDIS, and he'd been one of a kind. He was obviously not going to come back and take another one.
There wasn't even anyone around when Don arrived in the storage area; just a row of blank grey capsules, neatly arranged against one wall of an otherwise empty room. He went down the row, muttering to himself as he inspected the technicians' notes on the workstations next to each one. This one had a primary motivator failure; that one was suffering from a complete navigational derangement; another's file was simply labeled "neurotic and inoperable".
"No good, no good," Don grumbled, rushing from one to the next. "Come on, there must be one that's only a little broken." But there wasn't, and a second circuit didn't magically change the verdicts on any of them. By his third orbit of the room, he was starting to think seriously about building one out of the various bits that did work, though his few remaining rational neurons figured he was unlikely to be undiscovered and unmolested for the length of time that would take.
He'd passed the Pepsi machine in the corner three times before it occurred to him that there shouldn't be one in here, or indeed anywhere on Gallifrey, the soft drinks of 20th-century Earth not having made significant inroads into the always tricky "hyperadvanced civilizations existing beyond normal time and space" market. Halfway to the "neurotic" one, he suddenly whirled and marched back to the soda machine. Sure enough, there was a workstation standing next to it, just like the ones next to the damaged TARDISes.
For a few moments, Don stood before the Pepsi machine, hands on hips, giving it an accusatory look.
"Though you could hide from me, eh?" he asked it. "Right, what's wrong with you, then?" Consulting the workstation readout, he grinned. "'Chameleon circuit partial failure.'" He frowned in puzzlement. "What does that even mean, how does a chameleon circuit partially fail?" He clutched at his chest as if in pain and gasped, "Can't - do - plaid!" Then, shaking it off, he ran down the rest of the technical report. "Still, if that's all that's wrong, pff! Who needs that anyway? You, my friend, are hired."
"Wait, wait, wait," said Kitty. "Was that the same one you stole the second time? With Ray and me?" She pointed to the Pepsi machine standing in the corner of the library. "That one?"
Don grinned. "Sure. Didn't you ever wonder how I was able to open it without a key?"
"Oh, tell me you're a - ohoho, Type 66! Power to spare!" He rubbed his hands together delightedly, then started setting various controls. As he worked, his eyes alight with somewhat unbalanced glee, he began to mutter under his breath the curious narration from the beginning of a song he'd picked up on an earlier trip to the future.
"You see," he explained to no one, or possibly to the TARDIS, "I've got this sort of field around me." He rounded to the engineering panel and prepped the engines for immediate departure. "Because... because I've got spikes." Dashing to the other side of the console, he started punching in navigational information.
His manic smile became a little darker as he observed, "Because I go between the zones even when I'm not supposed to." Finally he ran round to the helm, noted the flashing red light indicating that the course he had programmed in was unauthorized, and keyed in an override. That light went out, but another kept blinking, and on one of the pantograph-suspended display monitors he could see a group of Chancellery Guardsmen entering the Repair Bay.
"Because I am a suspicious person report," Don intoned, taking hold of the master dematerialization lever, "and it's time to go shopping."
And with that, he threw the lever and they were off.
The unauthorized Veil transit from Gallifrey to the greater universe beyond was a bit of a wild ride, though it would pale in comparison to what he had planned next. He took a brief detour to make a few preparations for later, then plotted a course for the last remaining portal to E-Space. This lay at the far end of a cosmic obstacle course that none had ever dared to challenge, where forces beyond the comprehension of even most Time Lords - and certainly beyond the comprehension of one first-year initiate - lay waiting to render the unwary challenger of their unfathomabilities worse than nonexistent.
One of the effects of Don's mutation was that he was largely immune to telepathic interaction, but the biotechnical treatment he'd received when accepted for study at the Academy had, for lack of a better term, patched in an exception for Time Lord psychic technology. Without that, he wouldn't have been able to operate even the simplest of Gallifreyan tools, the humble sonic screwdriver - at least not to do anything other than assemble flat-pack furniture.
That was doubly handy in this case, because one of the several improvements embodied in the Type 66 TARDIS, relative to the earlier Type 40 with which Don was more familiar, was its semi-telepathic user interface. The Type 40 did have one of those, but it had to be deliberately invoked, and was only good for extremely specific things that could be clearly visualized or pulled from stable memories. The newer version in the Type 66 was always on, and was equipped with advanced adaptive logic. It was quite good - within certain limits - at anticipating what the vehicle's operators were trying to accomplish, based on a combination of their control inputs and what was on their minds.
Which was why, as Don worked furiously at the navigation panel with one hand and reached around to boost engine power with the other, a holographic image of the smartest person he knew rezzed up next to him and said pleasantly,
"It looks like you're trying to traverse the Tython CVE into Forbidden E-Space using a combination of brute force and ignorance. Would you like help with that?"
"Hang on, why did it look like me?" Kitty asked.
"Semi-telepathic interface," Don explained. "It riffled through my memory and picked the person I would trust most to get what we were doing right. Given that what I was doing was basically hacking the base code of the universe... "
Kitty eyed him and sipped her champagne. "That's... weirdly touching."
The Type 66 shuddered and banged as it careened through the Tythonian Expanse, passing within hairsbreadths of catastrophe after catastrophe. Only an utter madman would even have attempted this feat - and only an utter madman could possibly have succeeded.
And then, with a final staggering, sparks-flying impact, they were through.
The sound of an approaching TARDIS was so completely unexpected that it took Romana several seconds, after waking, to fully grasp what it was - and by then, it had ceased, ending not with the traditional hollow thudding sound, but instead a splintering crash that shook her whole tower. Bolting out of bed - a quick glance at her bedside clock showed that it was still the middle of the night - she put on her slippers in some haste and dashed downstairs, her nightdress flying about her.
What she found there, lying canted on its side amid the ruins of her dining room, was not - as she had briefly expected - the tall blue shape of a 20th-century London police callbox. Instead, it appeared to be a... vending machine. Or what she fancied a vending machine would look like if such things existed on Valtren, which they didn't. While she stood looking at it in puzzlement, the front opened, swinging out and down. A cloud of white smoke emerged, and from it came a shortish, stocky form clad in a slightly torn and scorched Prydonian Academy student's robe. He lost his balance as he traversed the gravity gradient between the TARDIS interior, which was still "upright", and the wildly tilted exterior. Romana skipped back a step involuntarily as he tumbled to the dining room rug at her feet.
"Well!" he said, evidently addressing the rug. "That worked." Then, pulling himself to his feet, he dusted himself off, shook his head, and peered at her. His eyes were blue, his hair an unruly shock of medium brown, and she didn't recognize him at all - but, after a couple of blinks and a quick correction to his hopelessly askew spectacles, he seemed to know her. His face brightened into a look of utter delight.
"Hello! There you are!" he said. "On the first try! Go me!" Then he gazed at her thoughtfully for a second, his head tilted to one side, and observed, "You're even more beautiful in person than I thought you'd be."
And so saying, he kissed her.
Kitty palmed her face. "You really did need supervision back then," she said.
"In my defense," said Don, "I was 15 and having a psychotic episode."
Rose, on the other hand, was convulsed with merriment. When she could speak again, she said to him, "Let me get this straight. You'd never met her before, she had no idea who you were, and you just... crashed a stolen TARDIS into her house, said she was beautiful, and kissed her." She gave Romana a judicious look, raised her champagne flute in a toast, and said, "Your shoes, mate, I'd have kept him. I'm just saying." She tilted her head toward the Doctor. "This one's idea of an opening move was 'run for your life.'"
Romana, though a bit red-faced with good-natured embarrassment, laughed. "It was ever thus," she said.
"Oi!" the Doctor protested. "That's called being polite!"
"Particularly when the Autons are attacking," Jack agreed. "Still," he added with a nod for Don, "I have to say, and I sincerely mean this, 10 out of 10 for that entrance. Respect."
"Thank you, Captain," said Don dryly.
Romana went on, "Anyway, technically it wasn't my house. It was the tower where King Valtren had placed me under house arrest as a witch and soothsayer. E-Space was going through a bit of a medieval period. As such... "
"Whoops!" he said, disengaging. "The carabinieri have arrived."
"Halt!" one of the guardsmen shouted, leveling his halberd. "You there, step away from the king's witch!"
Don glanced at Romana with an impish look. "Sorry, am I dragging you away from something important? My original plan involved rescuing you."
Eyeing the blades of the halberds, Romana agreed, "Rescuing's good. Rescuing works."
"In that case, I'd best get on with it," he said, and pushed her toward the Pepsi machine.
"Halt!" the guardsman repeated, lunging.
Now this was familiar territory; just like being back at Xavier's, except of course that there he'd have had a) more gadgets and b) backup, probably in the form of either Kurt or Pete, to help deal with a couple of ticked-off halberdiers. Still, Don was feeling pretty chipper at the moment, and would've been well up for buckling a swash or two if he'd had a comparable weapon handy. Since he didn't, though, perhaps running the hell away was the better plan. A little laser screwdriver action on the one in the lead had his armor coming apart at the buckles, which he found a distinct hindrance to his spearing-the-intruder strategy, and by the time the second guard had pushed his way past his hampered colleague, Don and Romana were both gone from sight.
"OK, on to phase three," said Don cheerfully as he ran to the console. "Pick a control panel, any control panel. Oh, sorry, should introduce you. Lady Romanadvoratrelundar, this is a hologram of my best friend Kitty from high school, I'm assuming she's the interface for some emergency help system in this model TARDIS and not actually a representation of Kitty herself. Holographic Not Really Kitty, meet Romana. OK! Who knows how to get back to N-Space from here?"
Romana glanced in puzzlement at the TARDIS voice-visual interface, which she could have sworn responded with a millisecond search-me expression and a small shrug.
"Nobody?" Don wondered, looking from one to the other. "Oh well. Guess it's back to improvising. That seemed to work reasonably well on the way in!" So saying, he threw the master dematerializer again, then started flipping switches and turning dials apparently at random. At the other side of the console, the holographic Kitty again picked up on his intentions and began to do likewise.
"Wait, you can't do it that way!" Romana protested. She started frantically plying other controls. "You'll implode the entire drive matrix, are you insane?!"
"Absolutely!" Don replied, sounding as happy as he'd ever been in his life. "I wouldn't even consider doing this otherwise!" He grabbed the big, bronze-pointered Bakelite knob that controlled temporal thrust and turned it all the way to the stop in a single sharp twist. "BANZAIIIIII!"
There was a thunderous crash that made the last one coming in seem like a parking lot speedbump, blacked the lights out entirely for a couple of seconds, and caused breathing masks on long rubbery hoses to bungee gaily down from somewhere up in the ironwork of the domed ceiling - and then all was smooth and quiet again. Don picked himself up off the floor, checked a few readings, then dusted his hands theatrically off and switched on the main viewer.
"There we are!" he declared with satisfaction as the results of his earlier preparations appeared on the monitor. "Back in black." He turned to Romana, who was just stepping unsteadily up next to him, and clapped her on the shoulder in a comradely way. "Tell you what, why don't you take it from here? I think I need to lie down," he said, and then he did, for values of "lie" that include "fall".
Romana stood where she was for a few moments longer, gazing in half-stunned astonishment at the biggest single act of cosmic vandalism she'd ever heard of. Then she looked down at the sprawled, unconscious young man at her feet, shook her head in utter bemusement, and went to set a course for home.
"Wait a second - cosmic vandalism?" said Jack.
"I don't know if I'd say it was cosmic," Don demurred. "It was just a little tagging. Hardly notice it from most angles."
"Martol," said Romana, "be honest, now."
"It wasn't that big," Don insisted.
"What did you do?" asked Rose.
Don looked from her to the equally questioning faces of Kitty, Jack, and (a bit hilariously) the Master, then sighed and rubbed a hand down his face. "All right, I may have... just slightly... rearranged the Altara Nebula so that when observed from the exit of the Expanse it said HELLO SWEETIE."
A momentary stunned silence.
"That's - " Rose began, but Don cut her off indignantly:
"She stole that from me! And one day I shall have my revenge."
"Do I even want to know what they did to you when you got back to Gallifrey?" asked Jack.
It took him the better part of a minute to get his brain up to speed enough that he recognized it as a room in the Academy infirmary. By then, the person dozing in the armchair in the corner had awakened.
"You're finally awake," said the Doctor, rising with a smile. "How do you feel?"
"Who let in the Theta Chis?" Don replied, rubbing at his temples. He was about to ask how he'd come to be here when pieces of it started to filter back. Blinking, he lowered his hands and looked quizzically at the Doctor. "Did I... ?"
The Doctor nodded gravely. "I'm afraid so."
"... Ah." Don went a bit red as more of the picture in his mind came into focus. "Oh dear."
"High Provost Tobernel is... upset," said the Doctor diplomatically, his hands fidgeting with his rolled-up straw hat.
"I don't doubt it," said Don, lying back with arm across forehead.
"Chancellor Flavia, on the other hand," the Doctor went on, "asked me to give you this." He reached into the pocket of his fawn frock coat and handed Don a small, flat, black case. Don sat back up and took it, turned it over in his hands with a puzzled expression, then opened it. The case contained what appeared to be a silver-and-gold representation of a vortex - perhaps the vortex - on a length of iridescent purple ribbon.
"A medal?" Don wondered.
The Doctor nodded. "The Order of the Vortex," he said. "Reserved for those who dare the greatest of space and time's hazards for the sake of another." He smiled. "Flavia thought it best to omit the official ceremony. We don't want any of your classmates getting ideas."
Don chuckled. "Probably a good plan." He closed the case and put it on his bedside table. "Has anyone ever been decorated and expelled at the same time before?" he wondered.
"Oh, you're not being expelled," the Doctor assured him. "You brought back one of the Prydon Chapter's lost children. Not even Tobernel could find it in his hearts to expel a student who managed to pull that off. All the same, I'd do my best to steer clear of him for a while if I were you... "
"Now!" said the Doctor briskly. "Someone else wanted to see you as soon as you were awake." He turned and strode toward the door.
Don, putting it together a few seconds too late, started to protest, "Uh, Doctor, I don't," but by then the Doctor had already opened the door, thrust his head and shoulders into the hall, and said cheerfully that the person waiting there should come in.
It was, of course, Romana - Prydonian-robed, this time, and neatly combed, though in his heart (for he still had only the one) she would always be the tousle-haired, quizzical figure in the rumpled nightdress who had confronted him when he fell out of his stolen TARDIS onto her dining room rug. He felt his face go hot with embarrassment.
She was a bit red across the bridge of the nose herself as she approached his sickbed and said, "Hello. Are you well?"
"Er... reasonably," Don allowed. "Look, uh... I'm sorry about... before. I'd kind of, um... lost my mind a bit."
"They'd just shown you the Schism," she said. He nodded. "At your age, you're lucky to have fared as well as you did." He didn't have anything to say to that, just sat there looking uneasy. Romana smiled and sat down on the edge of the bed, patting the back of his nearer hand. "It's all right, Martol - may I call you Martol? I understand it's what you've come to be called by certain of your classmates."
He nodded. You can call me anything you please, he thought, but mercifully what came out of his mouth was only, "Sure."
"It's a name you've definitely earned with your most recent exploit," she told him. "Martol, the Navigator. Challenger of the impossible." He reddened again; she didn't help him in that regard by leaning over and kissing his cheek. "My rescuer."
"It was... my pleasure, milady," he managed to say.
She laughed and straightened, rising to her feet again. "After the way we got acquainted," she said, "I think you can call me Romana."
"I can't believe you got away with that," Rose declared.
"Getting away with stuff like that is part of the Xavier's tradition," Kitty told her, grinning. "The school officially had a normal motto, but unofficially we all agreed that it should've been 'Sometimes Crazy Works'."
"It worked that time," Don admitted. "At the end of the day I had a medal, perpetual detention, and two new friends. On balance, not bad work for a kid having a nervous breakdown, if I do say so myself."
"Two?" asked Jack.
"That TARDIS never worked for anyone else after that," Don replied, raising his glass to the Pepsi machine in the corner. "Until I stole it again after graduation, it just sat in the corner of the Repair Bay and responded to no provocation."
"They're sentimental old things, TARDISes," the Doctor observed.
"And so are their makers," Romana observed, raising her own glass.
"A toast!" the Master declared, rising to his feet and gesturing everyone else up with him. "To Old Prydonia!" As they all touched their glasses (or, in Jack's case, bottle) together, he went on, "Alma mater to all the finest renegades and misfits ever to shoplift at the candy counter of Time!"
"Prydonia!" they all agreed, and drank.
"Untempered" - a Future Imperfect mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to Mini-Story Omnibus Volume Five
© 2013 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Undocumented Features Forum Mini-Stories
Omnibus Edition Volume Five
Benjamin D. Hutchins
With the gracious assistance of
Philip J. Moyer
and all the Eyrie Productions Usual Suspects
Compilation and prettification
Benjamin D. Hutchins
E P U (colour) 2013