I'm told that some people fainted from the shock of it live on TV. By the time I got to Center Neptune, that emotion had hardened into disgust and anger. And even a little pity.
At the moment it happened, I'd had eyes only for Lucy. Princess and I had been 100 feet away and she'd been remarking on how beautiful it was. The triumphant pair preening in glory on the podium, Jason with his right arm encircling Lucy's waist, his other hand on the trophy and a mad happy grin on his face. Lucy leaning her cheek against his shoulder. You could see the fingers of her left hand just peeking over his shoulder and she kept her other hand in her lap. Any closer and it'd have been overly saccharine, but the photographers were snapping it up. So far, there hadn't been a single Spectran agent in sight, excepting the one before us, who was behaving. A breeze blew a whiff of victory into our faces: champagne-wetted dust, sweat, grease and gasoline. Someone asked us just where we'd gotten the same-style t-shirts from.
There's a leadenness that comes to your joints when you're moving at the only speed that doesn't matter: not fast enough. The gun was tiny – at first I thought that Lucy was reaching for the trophy, but her hand continued its smooth arc to come rest against Jason's side. We started forward at the same time. One moment Jason was sitting on the car; the next he was splayed out on the podium. Princess kept running for him, but I had eyes only for Lucy. She'd leapt off the podium and was pushing her way through the crowd, opening up a lead far faster than I could close it, but then I had a clear shot all of a sudden and I threw my boomerang in Blade Only mode. I meant to hit her: I wanted them to be shoveling dirt over her blood.
I didn't miss.
She spun the boomerang out of the air and sent it straight back for me. Self-preservation got me only just out of its way – terror made me lunge after it. For a frozen moment, I thought I'd missed and it was going to go scything through the crowd, but then my left hand closed over it and I hit the ground, safe. People were stopping to stare at me as I stood. I didn't worry about it as I tossed the boomerang to my right to sheathe – and it just fell to the ground. I looked at my right hand...
"And so we rejoin the living." He watched me watch him for a while. "Then again, I expect you're still confused."
I shook my head. "No, Mr. Smith. I'm wondering, how did you get here so quickly?"
"And he's even cogent. I'm on Center Neptune, Mark, examining my latest casualty. You really did yourself good this time."
He lifted my arm to my sight.
I gasped – an angry red stitched line ran from the inside of my elbow to my wrist. "Right down to the bone and don't spare the arteries," he said. "You're lucky those trackside docs are good, or you'd be in a body bag."
I looked away – it made my stomach roll. "Jason?"
"Still in surgery, where you're going back to as soon as I like the results of your blood work."
So this is what it looks like when the hyenas close in.
The crowd -- a shouting, confused mass -- is all around us, their reaching hands forming an ever-shrinking cordon. They're only trying to help, but it's sure to kill him. The race stewards are trying to push them back but they're overwhelmed and it's just a matter of time. I look for Mark – but he's not going to be here. Not in time. It's down to me.
I push myself off my knees, where I'd been beside Jason, helping him keep half-slumped by the car so he could breathe, into a crouch.
"No!" I say and at last it is firm enough, loud enough for the massing crowd of officials, security staff, reporters and over-excited bystanders to stop in their rush to do something, anything, to back off, give us space and see me. They're taken aback – they saw me as vulnerable, lost. I stand up – I'm taller than many expected and I get more space. Into that momentary evaluation, I say: "Clear a path for the stretcher." I say it with as much imperiousness as I can muster, but inside my heart's going jack-hammer fast at the audacity of my tone. But it seems that a clear idea is just what people needed, and people start looking round for evidence of a bearer. Miraculously, it happens -- a path opens up and the stretcher-bearers appear.
They strap him in to the stretcher flat because this is just a carry stretcher, not a proper gurney and he's starting to choke, but there's nothing they can do except hurry. I follow as they bear Jason away, keeping the would-be followers at bay. He's still conscious, still holding as much presence of mind as he can -- but the increasing harshness of his breathing tells the tale of its being a battle that will be shortly be lost.
I still can't see Mark anywhere.
It's wretchedly far to the mobile clinic, consisting of two cojoined truck trailers designed to dock to form one cohesive whole; an entire 500 yards through roped off areas and around corrugated makeshift fences marked NO ADMITTANCE WITHOUT PERMIT. But at least he's still breathing when they make it in. I stop just inside as the bearers hurry straight through to the one remaining operating theatre, dispensing with the niceties of registration or explanation.
You can tell that serious injury is nothing new to them: what staff I see move fast but without an air of panic. For the first time in more minutes than I can count, I make myself exhale: whew! Then I look round and see Keyop, sitting hunched over in a hard chair some kindly soul has found for him even though it puts him nearly in the way in this cramped space.
"Hey," I say and he looks up, then springs up to hug me. I hug him back then ask, more sharply than I intended to, "where's Mark?" He looks up to meet my eyes. His chin wobbles, though his eyes are dry -- and then I notice the blood streaks on his arms. "He's in there, isn't he?" He nods. "When?"
"J...just now," he replies.
Just now -- at this imprecision, unusual for him, I check the time. It's been an hour since the race ended, ten minutes since they presented the prize, five, maybe six since it all went wrong.
No question about it, we're in trouble: mobile track hospitals are first-class for stabilizing acute injury, but not much more. I have to get both of them to Center Neptune, a mere 8000 miles away -- and quickly. I can feel the ragged edge of shock tugging at the sleeves of my consciousness, asking to be felt, but this isn't the time.
I open a channel to Zark and when he answers, all worried tones and asking for an update, cut him off with a single command: "Listen." Bless the robot's understanding of nuance -- I don't need to add anything else. I leave the channel open so he can passively pick up whatever I have to say and relay any instructions without having to be specifically told.
The Chief gets through to me. //I know I don't need to tell you that Mark and Jason are still in the gravest of danger.//
//I'll ensure their transfer as soon as at all possible, but it's imperative that they be transferred back to Center Neptune on the Phoenix within an hour of that.//
//Make a mess if you have to – I'll handle any complications.//
To Keyop's quizzical look, I said, "Let's get some air." We go outside and I crouch to his level so that the ring of reporters outside have less of a view of what I'm saying.
"What_" he begins.
"Shh. Where's Mark's boomerang?"
"Great. We're going to need to divert some choppers. But first, we're going to have to make sure we don't get followed."
He caught on right away. "Spotter craft?"
"They need grounding."
"Leave it to me!" He bounces off, worming his way through the reporters like a slender eel.
I call one of the stewards over and have him move the cordon out another 100 feet, then watch as it happens.
I raise Tiny. He answers immediately. //Hey what's going on?//
"I need you to send me your co-ordinates and sit tight: we'll be coming your way shortly."
A man in surgical scrubs approaches, introducing himself as one of the surgeons. He's been peeled away from the desperate duty of salvaging lives to get details, to understand the situation and to get authorization from the next of kin if at all possible. "We're in the process of stabilizing them and should be able to airlift them to Clinque Al-Ibqal within the hour."
"Can you make it any sooner?" I ask.
"Are you next of kin?" he asks.
"No," I say and continue before he can turn away, "we're his, the racer's, bodyguards. In plain clothes. My partner's in the other theater."
"I understand. Would you have the details of the next of kin of either?"
With apposite timing worthy of divine intervention, the sole telephone in the trailer rings. A nurse answers it, calls the surgeon over. I can't hear the speaker's side of the conversation, but the surgeon's replies and tone, first interrogative, then indignant, then argumentative and finally resigned allows me to guess: it has to be Chief Anderson.
He comes back over, frustration evident in every worry line. "I can't advise this: your client in particular is critical, but we'll stabilize them as best possible for transport. Apparently, there's a security concern and we need to be ready to airlift them in thirty minutes."
"Your best is all I can ask for," I say, conciliatory.
I retrieve their personal effects while I wait. Their wrist communicators and Jason's t-shirt are in a bag: the staff were bemused when I'd insisted. One of the nurses had asked if I'd like a broken pair of scissors too: they'd broken on Jason's shirt. One thing I didn't get: permission to ride on the helicopter with them. It was going to have to be the hard way... Keyop comes to join me as the medical crew completes its final preparations for the transfer. He gives me the thumbs-up.
The helicopter is evidently press-ganged from the local military: it's big enough to take both stretchers and a small crew. The helipad is a wetted down sandy arena 200 yards from the clinic. An 'H' has been delineated in quicklime.
I've never regretted not carrying a gun more than now: people understand when they're being threatened by a gunman. It's a lot easier to set up a hostage situation with a gun than a knife. I consider divesting one of the armed policemen now keeping the crowd at a respectful distance of his gun, then shelve it: it's best I don't risk a fire-fight.
No time for niceties -- I'd have to rely on shock. We stand on the side opposite that the patients are being loaded into – most looky-looks crowd at that side, leaving us with a thinner press of bystanders and a single armed guard. As the pilots put their heads down to complete the final pre-takeoff checks, Keyop snatches the policeman's wallet. As he skitters away from the lunging grasp of the man, I sprint up to the co-pilot's side and wrench the door open.
It takes 100 milliseconds for the most prepared person to react to a stimulus. In that time, I had driven my left elbow into the co-pilot's face, slashed open his seat harness and had started hauling him out. The pilot's pupils start to dilate; when a situation makes no sense, a person's mind demands more information and it takes at least 500 milliseconds to react. By then, I had wedged myself between them, braced my left hand against the seat back for leverage and kicked the co-pilot to arc clear of the helicopter. I could feel his ribs crack under my foot; he'd not be getting up any time soon.
The pilot comes to a decision and starts to shout 'Hey!' He doesn't finish as I jab the knife point forward at his throat, stopping just short of the point that would compel him to raise a defensive arm, deep in enough that he recoils instinctively and feels the constriction of his harness and the door. He looks at it, his eyes crossing with the effort of focusing on something so close, then at me. "Fly," is all I say.
His Adam's apple bobs up and down and then he turns to the controls. He reaches for the radio transmitter, but stops when I send him a warning look.
His hands may have been shaking, but he lifts off dead steady.
No one takes shots at us, thankfully. I don't allow myself to glance down at what is sure to be the growing melee below: any inattention now could result in the pilot making a desperate bid for freedom.
As we take off, the paramedics recovered enough for one of them to say, "You'll kill them if you don't let us fly to the hospital."
I say without turning around, "do what you can: I'll take responsibility for the rest."
I do risk a glance back once we're well underway. To my relief, I saw that Keyop had slipped into the back with the paramedics. A couple of them looked askance, but did not comment.
With the pilot pushing it, the rendezvous point is fifteen minutes away. Nothing follows us, not even a fighter jet -- well done, Zark.
The Phoenix was parked in a wadi, dry at the moment, with enough space for the helicopter to land. "You'll want to land at least 200 meters away," I advise the pilot. "Those engines kick something fierce."
Tiny had the elevator platform down. "Take the patients over to that platform," I instruct the paramedics.
I don't let him finish the statement: "Move it!" They leave, picking the gurneys up so as not to bog the wheels down in the sand. Keyop leaves with them.
I don't follow immediately. I turn to the pilot and say, "Make it safe."
He does so, powering down the engines. And then I hit him, hard enough to send his body rocking against the door before he slumps over the consoles. I take the ignition key and rip off the radio receiver. The craft probably has a transponder but I don't have time to look for that: we needed to be gone by the time anyone tracked it down. I want to check that he's all right, but I refrain: whatever the answer, I don't have time to do anything about it.
On board the Phoenix, we directed them to the Sick Bay, watching as they transferred them to our cots, strapped them down, switched over to the Phoenix's oxygen supplies and hung up the fluid bags. I wince as I take note of the crudity of the stitching on Mark's arm and at the still-leaking tap draining Jason's chest but this isn't the time to fret over those details. They handed over the patient records when asked. We let them leave unmolested.
Tiny hails me: //Okay, the coast's clear – they're back on the chopper, Princess.//
"How long will it take to get to Center Neptune?"
//The way I drive, two hours.//
"What will it take to make it an hour?"
//Chief's not going to like it -- it'll mean a low orbit space shot.//
"Do it. I'll take the rap."
I set up the cots' telemetry, call Center Neptune and let them talk me through doing the best I can for them.
As it is, we made it in 35 minutes. On arrival there is an entire medical team waiting for us, rushing across the drydock as soon as it's been pumped dry.
I want to follow them, but Tiny stops me with a question: "What now, Commander?" There isn't a hint of sarcasm in his question.
What now indeed. "Well, they're in as safe hands as they can be. We clean up the mess and go for a debriefing."
Tiny nods, then adds, "You might want a quick shower before the debriefing."
"You've still got blood on your face."
"These images aren't as detailed as we'd have liked because the gun started deteriorating as soon as we hit it with X-Rays, but as you can see here," Dr. Morecambe paused to change slides, "this is one mean little engine."
I rubbed at my arm. Princess noticed and frowned at me. Remedial surgery had taken eight hours, but five days later, my arm was nearly healed. The stitches had come out the day before, leaving a still-red scar, a power grip I needed to rebuild and a promise of a Security Council hearing for 'recklessly endangering civilians'. Among other things. But compared to Jason, I'm getting off light.
"Near as we can tell, the main propelling agent for the bullet is some sort of electromagnetic field."
Tiny interrupted to ask, "What'd they do that for?"
Dr. Morecambe shrugged. "We're not sure, but they've definitely managed to get very high muzzle velocities out of a very compact weapon. It may even be quieter -- which probably ties in with your not reporting hearing any gun shots."
Princess had said: "He was on his knees when I got to him. He was leaning against the car and he didn't want to give me his hand. I thought he was going to make it up, but then he started to cough and..." She'd put her hand over her eyes, as if she were refusing to see it again. "It's good you couldn't see it, Mark, the way the blood started to foam out of his mouth, it was awful."
It could have been worse: if our clothes weren't bullet-proof, he wouldn't have had a chest. The bullet didn't break skin. But our civvies are a lot thinner than their transmute form and they aren't shock-proof. The bullet shattered three of his ribs: they picked eighty-nine bone shards out of his chest.
"...of course, we couldn't conduct any test firings, but we think that this could be a similar weapon to that used in killings of several of our agents. We've never been able to recover any weapons in those cases."
Dr. Morecambe paused and behind us, we heard the Chief stand. Tiny and I exchanged glances. 'Here it comes,' his look said. Indeed. I have to admit it, Chief Anderson's never been one to pass up an opportunity to lecture. But he's been quiet: I understand he didn't say anything at the debriefing. When I handed in my account yesterday, he asked only a couple of questions. Eerie. He's been winding up to something big and I hope this is it.
He walked to the front of the room, turned off the projector, nodded his thanks to Dr. Morecambe, turned on the lights and stood there, looking each of us in the eye in turn.
In the silence, his cell phone rang. He answered it. "Anderson." He listened, then said, "Thank you." He pocketed the phone and asked, "Shall we go pay Jason a visit?" He walked out the door. We followed.
"Jason want to see us?"
"Wrong question, Keyop. Wrong question," Tiny said.
Jason did look pleased to see us. With his bed raised until he was nearly sitting up, he looked almost comfortable and he didn't stop smiling at us as we filed into the room and the Chief commandeered the only chair in there. The Chief asked, "You called?"
"You could say that." He more mimed than spoke the words. Tiny pointed to his throat to ask if it hurt. "Naah. Resting lungs."
"Well, I'm glad to see you're on the mend," the Chief said.
"Yeah, between you and Mark, we've had an awful time," Tiny began.
"What?" Jason said. I'd tried -- I'd had my hands behind my back. No good. He looked at me. "What happened?"
"Er, I suppose you could say I nicked myself."
He beckoned me closer and I let him see my arm. He pursed his lips as he inspected the scar. "I'm sorry."
"There wasn't anything you could have done. As far as we can tell, she must have been a cyborg," Princess said.
Jason shook his head.
"Does that mean you disagree or that you could have done something?" the Chief asked.
"Could have tried something."
"We're not here to dissect your actions. Yet. In the meantime, every spaceport is being watched and I've got the Galaxy Patrol intercepting every outbound craft. With any luck they should be able to find her and deal with her before she can leave Earth."
"*No.*" His voice rose to a painful whisper. "I don't want Lucy harmed."
The Chief stood and leaned over him. "Jason, is this what you insisted on seeing us for? There is a difference between loyalty and stupidity and you would do well to learn it. While it is my fault for allowing this ill-thought-out recovery mission in the first place, she nearly killed you and Mark and you're in denial if you're pretending otherwise. We also have evidence that she's been systematically killing our agents. Despite your acquaintance with her, Lucy is too dangerous to be allowed to live. Do you understand?"
Jason held the Chief's gaze for a long moment, and then he said, slowly, putting emphasis on each syllable: "Yes. I'll kill her myself."
I don't remember dreaming. And yet I'm well rested; I must have dreamt. I suppose it's what happens of letting Jason take the night stages, especially the last one. He'd insisted: "Most folks just aim to hold steady overnight – real easy pickings if we push it a bit." I didn't sleep listening to the sound of his driving, the way he pushed the car without redlining her, made her stick to the terrain without being over-cautious and every so often, there'd be the plik-plik-plik of a car throwing dirt on our windshield and then he'd cruise past like it was daylight: how could you not love him? I opened my eyes when it was dawn and he glanced my way and smiled. "Morning sleepyhead. It's the last day and we are number one on the runway." His smile got bigger. He really wanted us to win this too.
And it won't be happening again. Anyway... I snap my fingers twice and the lights come on. This I remember: my berth on the pick up vessel. Back to Spectra, to give my report. And then, finis. I stretch... time to get dressed.
Before I leave for the deck, I pull the room's monitor and ask it for a view outside. It's completely black outside. True ink; at this particular relativistic compensation, we're completely invisible to the outside universe – not even the finest transient gravitational effect sensors will detect us until we drop out of warp. So is everything to us. Mala must really want to be sure I return. Pleasant surprise: everyone on board is Ananzi Ishaii. Not so pleasant surprise: I only recognize Ilte, who's captaining. I know why. She knows I know why and behind her mask her smile is not quite full.
Ilte says, "I trust you rested well?" It is not a question.
"Yes, thank you. How far along are we?"
"Just over halfway. We are six hours from re-entering normal space-time."
Six hours. Five hours, forty-five minutes when I take a seat close enough to a monitor to allow me to look out, so I can count the minutes by. In true stealth, it'll mean another two full days will pass on Spectra, five days on Earth, before we're back, before I can finish.
I am disturbed. She's not wearing a mask of any sort and she's blushing. She bows to me and says, "I'm Rani. I understand that you enjoy a cup of coffee. Would you like me to get you one?"
She's showing me her true face and she doesn't even know me. I laughed with Lani for a week before she showed me hers. Then I understand: I'm a hero. I'm sorry, I think, I didn't do it for you. I didn't even do it for Lani. "That is usually correct, but no. No longer."
But she's still smiling and it's a real one. I add, "But I would like some water if I may."
'The dinner reservations -- I need to change them.' That's the first that came to my head when I woke up. I must have overslept. And for the life of me I couldn't remember what the restaurant's number was. I woke up a bit more and... and my chest felt like it'd lost an argument with a rhino. Oh yeah, I had been outside pushing the car when it came after me... 'Better cancel those reservations then,' I wanted to say. Whether we won or not, I'd made them anyway, just so long as we finished. Cause enough for celebration. Only I couldn't remember that number. Ah. I couldn't speak either.
Eventually a nurse came over. Eventually she explained that I'd been shot. Now *that* was ridiculous.
It wasn't true until I saw the others. Not true until I saw Mark's arm, until I saw Princess's face. Then it was too true.
A little too true to believe. I said it to Dr Adams as soon as I was well enough to talk, when he came to ask if I wanted to talk about anything. "I was told that Lucy shot me," I said. I hadn't thought that I'd thought about it, but it made sense the moment I said it: how did they know it was *her*? It made more sense the more I thought about it -- Spectra had to have had a second assassin in the crowds, just biding his time and oh, I got elaborate. I tried to listen to the why nots, but my sense was stronger than theirs. Until they showed me the footage.
There we were, sitting on the car, she waving at the crowd, me with the trophy. I remembered that: hot sun on hair, sitting on hot car, wedged between windscreen and Lucy, anchored by that solid trophy between us -- we'd done that, wow. I remembered the spread of the crowd before me with its toppings of faces. I'd been looking to spot Mark and Princess. It'd been very important that I found them...
Dr. Adams had stopped the video. "Are you sure you want to see this?" he asked.
"How many times do I have to say yes?"
"I'm just making sure_"
It looked as if I'd slipped off the car. It'd look that way if I hadn't flopped over as if all the bones had gone at once. I've done that to someone before -- and I hadn't wondered what that was like. I'd just thought 'that was clean.' Like nothing at all. But my target hadn't tried to get up. Hadn't nearly made it up. And I couldn't remember.
"Why?" I'd asked when it was over.
"I'd tried to tell you -- it takes ten minutes to translate short-term memories into long-term ones. You didn't have a chance to remember and you've been confabulating to fill in the gap."
"Not that why, doctor."
I started inspecting guns the next day. And *still* there's nothing that's right.
I pushed the fiber-optic scope a little further down the barrel. "Definitely pitting. I'd say someone's been playing with black powder and been lazy about cleaning up."
Ed said, "You know we don't allow that stuff around here."
"Has this piece been on issue?"
Ed thought about it a moment. "Possibly. Yeah, yeah, I know – I'll bring you another one, Jason."
I looked at the eight other handguns I had on the bench, each lying dismantled, cleaned and oiled on a square of chamois cloth. "I think I've got enough for the moment. Thanks." Test firing them all was going to take up what's left of the afternoon easy.
I love the way Mark announces himself when he's almost sneaking up on you. I waited until the polite scuff and then asked, "Yes?"
"I see you're giving McDonnell a work out."
"It needs doing some days, I reply."
He placed his hands on the bench by me, the left flat, the right, less so. "I understand you went out with Tiny yesterday."
I chuckled. "Well, he knows I didn't come along for the fish. Is he still upset?"
"Could be worse – he's not telling. Seriously, Jason, you got discharged just two days ago. You can't be throwing yourself into the rough sea like that."
I shrugged. "Hey, how do you know if you're all better if you don't try?" It'd been so right – I'd just tossed off my shirt, kicked off my shoes, jumped off the skiff and made for the nearest buoy. It hadn't taken Tiny a minute to catch up to me.
"And were you all better?"
I wasn't going to let Tiny haul me back on until I needed it. It'd only taken a hundred yards to get to that point. "No."
"May I?" He gestured to the nearest gun, the Contender. I nodded and he started reassembling it. It wasn't the smoothest job I'd seen and not all of that was because he was agitated.
Not taking his eyes of what he was trying to do, he said, "You don't know what you're talking about yet, Jason. Try being 'almost better' for a week and then you'll see."
"Chief still won't clear you to fly?"
He pulled a face like he'd bitten into a slug. "Medical advice. I have to recertify." The barrel stuck and he started to jam it in before taking it apart and restarting. I started putting away everything delicate. Out of sight, out of reach. "I can do missions though, if I stick to hand-to-hand combat."
"You're one up on me. I expect you'll be all better when the bruises fade in a day."
CRASH! Impressive, it's not every day you see a gun ricochet. "You know?" he asked.
"We all know. Hard not to, what with your wandering around the place in that cardigan. Makes you look like a scary Mr. Rogers."
"Fine, fine, I'll take it off." He does and his arms *are* colorful: every shade from yellow to purple, though only one bruise is really fresh. "If Lucy gets stopped tomorrow, it won't be soon enough for me. Though, I can't understand why you want to do it so badly."
"I know her, I said."
"Yeah, and that's exactly why I don't get you. She's your friend, isn't she?"
"She chose her side. I respect that."
I hate the way Mark tries to be clever sometimes. He said, "But you've got to accept that she's at least a cyborg. Have you considered that she might not be in control of her actions?"
"If it's all the same to you, I'd rather you didn't insult her."
He left after that, leaving me to retrieve the abused gun, to finish reassembling all of them and pack them for the shooting range. I don't mind today. I'd tell Mark to eat crow and take working with the dummy boomerang, but I haven't got the energy for that. That's how he's getting bruised: when he can't focus for the humiliation and gets hit. And now recertification... I guess he'll be crashing the simulator repeatedly. What Mark doesn't get is that the Chief can wait him out: he can pound himself raw, but that won't soften the Chief any.
I know. Which is why I'm starting now, before Anderson decides on what 'remedial' action I need.
Lucy could have shot me any time. She chose not to, for a while. I really thought we were clear until the end.
I started washing up and drat, there's a bluebottle buzzing overhead.
The one good thing about coming to G-Force as late as I did at six is that I can still remember a before. Just. I snatched it out of the air by ear, pinched it dead and tossed it in the wastepaper basket.
Did she really think I wouldn't understand?
I report straight to them when I return. No choice -- they'd sent a car out to meet me at the dock. I found them in one of their more private rooms, smaller and sparser than their usual briefing room. They themselves were standing, so I bowed to the both of them and gave the shortest, driest account I could of my mission.
They listened without interruption. At the end of it, Zoltar said, "Thank you Lucy. Now I do have one additional task for you."
"Absolutely, so long as you keep in mind that my service to you ends with this day, in fourteen hours."
"I'm afraid it does not."
"With all due respect, Sire, we did come to such an agreement."
"Certainly, I have it right here. However, I do not see how I can fulfill its terms, given that you have not fully fulfilled your goal."
"What?" I know the bullet hit home. I was driving down the last leg. This was my farewell tour: goodbye, goodbye to the Africa 9000, farewell to ever racing, goodbye to this life, all going, all gone at 200 mph. On the podium, we sat side-by-side on the car, close yet respecting each other's space. I reached my arm round his shoulders. He started, but then he wrapped his arm around my waist and pulled me in to his side; such a 'you're mine' gesture. And then it was time to say goodbye to him too. He understood in the end. Understood what I was going to do the moment I reached for the gun, even before he felt it, tested my grip and understood that he'd woven himself in too tightly to break free. I've never felt anyone go so still then: not the slightest tremor, not a whisper of entreaty. I did not miss. I could not have.
"You failed, Lucy," Mala said. "I should have known better than to entrust such a_"
"Enough! We have spent quite enough on your child's vendetta," Zoltar said, and she silenced immediately. "I can assure you that we have incontrovertible evidence that Jason is still alive. However, you did not fail for lack of execution," he smiled at his own pun, "which brings me to this question – what else happened at that time?"
"And why did you not take a second shot?" Mala asked.
"Because, My Lady Mala, I never shoot to miss. 3 seconds before I pulled the trigger, two people, a man and a woman of approximately my target's age broke from the crowd and began to run for the podium we were on. Afterwards I made to escape through the crowd. The woman ignored me but the man altered his path to give chase. 10 seconds into his pursuit, he threw a bladed weapon at me, which I intercepted and returned."
"Bladed weapon – could you describe it?"
"Would a sketch suffice?"
Zoltar nodded and I walked over to the electronic easel. As soon as I'd drawn the outline, he stopped me. He had gone a true white and he shook so badly Mala asked him if he was ill. He shook his head, swallowed and found his voice: "Mala, we have been such *fools*! Of course that devil Anderson would never take on 'disadvantaged children' out of the goodness of his heart."
Mala too had paled. "He knows we would search for them..."
" ...yes, and so he parades them every day in the open," Zoltar finished for her. "Lucy, I can now tell you why you failed. You shot a member of the G-Force team."
And I'd called him Superman... "It hardly seems credible," I said. "It is just circumstantial evidence."
"Strong enough. By now, they will have realized that they have tipped their hand dangerously and will be looking to cover that. Which means that you, Lucy, have the means like no one else to lure them out and destroy them. I would like you to return to Earth as soon as you can. They will find you, I guarantee it."
I narrowed my eyes. "Since technically, I did not fail, technically, I consider our agreement to still stand. My service ends with this day."
"I take it that you wish to refuse?"
"Do you hope perhaps to anger me sufficiently to destroy you?"
I said nothing and he turned away from me. He walked the length of the room once and when he returned to me, he was smiling.
"I have no intention of threatening you, for I *can* control your will. You do remember Ty, do you not, how for four days that cyborg lay outside and writhed, his every defiant thought a stab of utter agony. And then he did do my bidding."
"He killed himself afterwards."
"Indeed. Almost a pity: he was one of our better constructs. So, do you wish to cooperate or walk his path?
"I am not your dog."
"As you will, then. Lucy Hahn, I place you under obligation to do my will entirely and without question until such time as I see fit to release you."
And then I have ten seconds of free thought left. I close my eyes so I could better steel myself against the pain that was to come and so I don't see their anticipatory grins.
Five seconds. Four. Three.... One. None. I wait for the world to turn, but nothing happened. I give it five seconds more and opened my eyes. Everything was still there. Their grins had turned to slack surprise. I wondered why...oh, that's right. I don't have a squelchy organic brain. He can't oblige me to do anything.
I start to smile at them. I can't be made to go against my will. Ever. The only option he had left was to destroy me and that's okay. I'll have won, I'll have won.
I bow. "Most esteemed rulers of Spectra, I fear I must insist. I am finished."