by Jane Lebak
Jason called from a pay phone and said he'd be home in half an hour, and to screen incoming calls until then. "If you don't recognize it on caller ID, you're not home." After a second's thought, he added, "And unplug the answering machine."
Mark decided not to question, and he passed the word to Chief Anderson. Princess was sitting in the chair across from the Chief's desk, giggling breathlessly.
The Chief said blandly, "I think you need new uniform t-shirts."
Before Mark could respond, Princess turned to him and opened her jacket, revealing an airbrushed likeness of herself in uniform.
"Where on Earth--"
"Down by Wall Street, one of the illegal t-shirt vendors. You know the ones that have the bootlegs of all the boy-bands and every popular cartoon? Apparently we're popular. Isn't this a scream?" Princess had a windblown pink to her cheeks, and it intensified as she grinned. Sweeping the hair back from her eyes, she pulled a wad of white cotton cloth from a yellow plastic bag. "There's a couple of you, one of Jason, and one of the whole team except for Tiny. Keyop's going to be ticked that there wasn't one of him, but at least he's in the group shot."
Looking closer, Mark recognized the pictures as having appeared in one of the news magazines. Someone had made airbrush designs from those and was apparently pocketing some quick cash, but they'd gotten the colors wrong. Jason's uniform had the scheme reversed, and Keyop had some stripes where he shouldn't. The t-shirts were pretty cheap quality. One already had a hole in the shoulder.
"Not bad for ten bucks, huh?"
"Did anyone see you buying all these shirts?"
Princess blew on some stray hair that had gotten into her eyes. "Of course, Commander. I waved them around on a stick and led a parade in my own honor. Of course I wouldn't be smart enough to buy one each from five separate vendors. They're all selling the same knockoffs."
"Unbelievable." Mark looked at the Chief. "Oh, Jason just phoned and told me to screen calls until he gets here."
The Chief turned back to his computer. "That's just the kind of thing I like to hear from Jason. So whom do you bet will be calling--the police, or a paternity lawyer?"
Princess quipped, "Maybe it's his agent--someone's making money off his gorgeous face. Can toy birdstyles be long to follow?"
They were still in the office when Jason walked in, breathless and slightly pink from the October chill.
Jason took a deep breath as he dropped his jacket on the couch, then frowned and tried to start again. After a moment, he said, "Did anyone call?"
"I took the phone off the hook." Mark sat perched on the corner of the Chief's desk. "Are you in any trouble?"
Jason started to nod, then stopped, then opened his mouth. And again he halted. "Look, let's let this ride a few more minutes. I'll be back."
Mark waited a moment after Jason left the office, then followed him down the hall. As expected, Jason had cut into the gym, where he was making a punching bag regret it had ever been assembled.
Mark joined him, half awed and half frightened by how single-minded Jason became in only an instant. He was compartmentalizing. Mark hoped so--otherwise he wouldn't want to be sharing the same highway.
Jason spun in the air and landed a kick on the bag that sent it rocking and spinning on its chain. "Damned reporters." He backed of and let the bag swing in slower and shorter arcs. "Someone wanted to do an article about the dangers of racing. Lunatics sell magazines. No one wants to read that we buckle up before we turn on the engine."
"They caught you cutting corners?"
Jason turned his head away and stared at the wall. "They caught me at age fifteen with a gun to my head."
"Oh, bad." Mark folded his arms and stared at the floor. "That was years ago."
"It'll sell magazines, which sells ad space. They searched for anyone they could find in any racing division, any age group, any type of vehicle, who ever attempted suicide or went to a therapy session or watched Oprah." Jason noticed the bag rocking slowly on the chain, and he body-slammed it back into motion. "Cassie got a call from the Sporting News reporter yesterday. This afternoon was the first she was able to get in contact with me. They went to press this morning at about two AM. Since then she's been getting calls from other magazines." Jason started punching the bag again. "Stock Car Racing. NASCAR Weekly. Sports Freakin' Illustrated..." He hit it in rhythm with the titles.
"Have you talked to any of them yet?"
"I don't have a phone, and I guess fighting Spectrans has its uses, because I realized someone was waiting at my trailer before I got there. I might have killed him."
Mark decided not to ask if that would have been a result of mistaken species identity.
"Well...will you eventually?"
"Kill a reporter?" Jason abruptly took a step backward and thrust his hands in his jeans pockets. "Everyone's going to take flack over this."
"You will. Cassie expects this kind of garbage from the press, and she'll turn it around to get you right in the limelight and increase attendance at the raceway by fifty percent." Mark relaxed when Jason finally chuckled. The last thing they needed was Jason talking to the press in a state of rage. "She lives for this. When John attacked that other racer, she turned it all around so he emerged looking like a combination of Johnny Appleseed and Horatio Hornblower."
"And I'll wonder if she leaked it in the first place. Yeah, she's good at shoveling that kind of crap." Jason walked over to the wall. "Of course, I've still got to tell the Chief."
"I could do that if you wanted. It's not exactly a secret what happened." Jason glared at him. Mark tried to smile friendly-like. "The reporters you can handle."
"I can't deny it. Then they'll want to know everything."
"Not every itty-bitty detail. Do like everyone else: say you 'battled depression' and 'have emerged a stronger person' and you're 'more in touch with yourself'. They'll be eating out of your palm."
"I'll have to sterilize my hands." Jason clenched his fists. "I just hate that they're invading my privacy. It's not like I'm streaking around the oval looking for a chance to do myself in! For goodness sake, getting involved with cars is what pulled me out of trouble!"
"So tell them that."
"They won't care about my safety record--and it's stellar. I haven't ever gotten a speeding ticket. How many of their reporters can say that? If I were going to end it all, do they really think I'd take out some other racer with me? I'd jump off the roof in private. Maybe I'd even yell 'Fore!' first to warn the grounds crew."
Mark laughed out loud, then quickly smothered it. Jason didn't seem to notice. He hit the wall with his fist. "Everything's going to go upside-down, and it's not any of their business."
"But what are they going to ruin?" Mark opened his hands. "You've already admitted Cassie will use this to her advantage--and by extension, yours. You've got the record to back you up. Stop for a minute and think."
Jason spread his hands. "It's double-jeopardy."
"Convicting you twice for the same crime?" Mark frowned. "How?"
"Forget it." Jason put his hands in his pockets. "You've never had this happen to you."
"Had what happen?"
"Major problems. You've got the perfect life."
"My father died last year."
Jason chose this moment to meet Mark's gaze. "Did people blame you for it?"
Mark went cold. "I blamed myself for it."
"That's not what I mean. You'd blame yourself if you saved the world in 21 seconds instead of 20." Jason's eyes tightened. "Other people didn't look funny at you because of your father. They didn't avoid you. They didn't stop talking to you. No one used it as an excuse to write you off."
Mark said, "You know why I couldn't tell my friends."
"But all my friends knew!" Jason took a deep breath. "It was like I had a horrible death plague. No one spoke to me for weeks. Except Chris, and he's dead now. But I'd go to school, and everyone would go into another room every time I showed up."
Mark faked a laugh. "Of course, you're not exaggerating at all. I remember hundreds of students stampeding from the cafeteria when you approached with your PBJ and an apple."
"They didn't want me around because the crap they were bitching about was nowhere near what I could bitch about, even if I kept my mouth shut. Everyone wants you to get the hell back to normal as fast as you possibly can. But then if you do they aren't happy anyhow. I'd be better off completely alone for the rest of my life than surrounded by that kind of fakery. I've never looked at anyone the same since." His words had picked up speed even as he stepped closer and lowered his voice. "And that's every bit the damned truth, Mark. I've never trusted Rob since then, even though I'll go hang out. He's okay to joke around with, but he's made it clear that if there's a problem, I'm on my own. So why not just be on my own to begin with?"
Mark realized goosebumps covered both his arms. "What about me?"
Jason stared directly into Mark's face. "I didn't really know you before. I don't think I would now if it hadn't happened. But that's what I mean. Everything goes upside-down. It's double jeopardy. Something horrible happens, and the tragedy punishes you. Then your friends punish you again."
Mark found he'd backed up a step.
Jason followed him, keeping his voice so low it sounded almost menacing. "They punish you by leaving you alone and waiting for you to be your old normal self again. They don't want anything to do with you until you've paid for the crime of being different."
Mark swallowed. "Who'll punish you when the article appears?"
"The guys on my team. The Chief. The racing fans. The guys I race at the track. That's only half my life."
Mark put a hand on Jason's shoulder. It felt awkward--Jason wanted to be ramp up for a fight, not calm down. Mark's words sounded lame even to his own ears. "You know we're beside you."
"Thanks." To Mark, it sounded as if Jason thought Mark wanted to hear that. It wasn't really settled. "So you think I'll be able to handle the reporters?"
"You've been questioned by Spectrans, and you're asking if you can handle reporters?"
Jason laughed. "I shouldn't distract myself with thoughts of setting fire to reporters."
Mark nodded. Time to punt. Jason would keep griping later. Maybe by then he'd have a clue what to say. "I'll go put the phone back on the hook, then."
As it turned out, Mark forgot to put the phone back on the hook when the Chief summoned them on the broadband.
Running to the office, Mark somehow sensed this was not about Jason's "outing" or any number of rabid reporters. "Will the rest of you get in my office" barked over the intercom would have sufficed in that case. And in fact, when he reached the office, Jason was already in birdstyle. Mark transmuted. Princess, Tiny and Keyop arrived momentarily.
"They need you now, in the western Caribbean." The Chief was sorting through a sheaf of documents on his desk, and the fax machine was spitting out paper even as the printer light blinked to signal that it was processing its own agenda. "I'll brief you on the way."
In the elevator down to the sub-sub-basements, Jason said, "There's something playing havoc with the weather down there. It whipped up a category five hurricane in about half an hour, and it's looking like it'll travel right up the Eastern seaboard."
Tiny said, "Winds of about 155 miles per hour. Tidal waves."
Keyop said, "In October?"
"It's obviously not natural, dork."
Princess folded her arms. "We've certainly seen that kind of mech before."
"Should be a snap, except that the Chief thinks otherwise." Jason's brow furrowed. "Apparently nobody could get a good picture of the thing making the trouble. They know sort-of where it is. But even the satellites aren't giving any clear data."
Mark shook his head as the door opened. "So we get briefed on the way in the hopes that he can figure out what it is in that time."
Keyop laughed. "We'll just have to figure it out first. Come on!"
Shortly after, the Phoenix launched into the East River and ascended.
From the copilot's chair, Mark said, "Status?"
"Still no incoming data. You know, what torques me off," Jason said, as though continuing a conversation, "is the way they all pretend they can just talk around it."
"Huh?" Tiny looked over the conrols. "All systems are ready. Setting a course for the western Caribbean."
"Better take us in at high altitude so we come in on top of whatever it is."
"Setting scanners," Jason said. "It irritates me when it's something so big and they don't even ask."
Mark said, "They'll get more than they want to hear. Jason, they're just being honest."
"In a snakey, ignorant fashion."
"It's still honesty."
Jason grinned. "I don't need friends more neurotic than I am, thanks."
Princess had pulled out her travel guitar and plugged it into the Phoenix's intercom, which she'd long since jury-rigged to serve as an amplifier. "Don't stop, guys, this is fascinating." And she started picking through the guitar riff from Boston's "More Than A Feeling."
Jason leaned forward. "Incoming data. Mark, I'm patching it through to your console. I can't make sense of this."
Momentarily Jason was at the front between Tiny and Mark's chairs. "That's one bitch of a weather system."
Tiny glanced at Jason, then at Mark. "Okay, now that's scary."
Jason said, "A hurricane that size had better be."
Tiny met Mark's eyes and glanced at Jason, as if to say, "No, he's the scary one."
Mark said, "Compartmentalization."
They might as well not have spoken. Jason had punched a few keys and highlighted what seemed to be the epicenter of the storm. "There's no eye in this hurricane--if there is, it's being fuzzed out by some kind of jamming device. I'm betting we'll find ground zero right there."
Keyop said, "It looks like they're following the path that hurricanes usually take."
"It's easier if they don't have to fight nature all the way to do us in. Okay, I'm convinced." Mark took a deep breath. "Tiny, you have your destination. We'll still come in on top of it."
"I can aim for dead center, but it's a guestimate."
"We can correct a little as we get closer."
"I don't think we'll be able to." Tiny bit his lip. "They've obviously got some powerful jamming equipment under their belts. We may get close and find we're blind."
Princess had moved into the chorus by now. "I agree."
Mark said, "I've got the coordinates for the center now. Before we get jammed, I'll lock it in."
Keyop said in a really deep voice, "--and rip the knob off."
Jason ignored the boy. "Then you drop us off as close as possible and we try to enter the mech directly. We've done that often enough before. They can't jam our eyesight."
Princess's hands were traveling the neck of the guitar doing the bar chords between verses. "Hundred fifty mile per hour winds and rain in your face can do exactly that. Why do you think the storm-spotters haven't had any luck?"
Mark said, "We haven't got a choice. We can't fight it without getting near."
"It's already deflected long-range missiles--or else they couldn't draw a good enough bead on the thing through all that static." Jason shrugged. "It's safer to stay away. It's also less productive. Should Tiny set a course for home?"
"I'm just pointing out that it won't be all sweetness and light once we reach this thing."
Jason shook his head. "There's got to be some stability around the mech itself, or else how is it managing to fly? There's got to be an eye in the hurricane. We just have to find it."
Princess put aside her guitar. "A hurricane forms when a warm air mass heats the water in a low pressure system. Spectra may be heating the ocean in a specific area, forming a tropical wave or something similar. You keep assuming the threat is airborne, but what if it's underwater?"
Jason's brow furrowed.
Keyop said, "You can't radar-jam from underwater."
Tiny added, "And they'd have to be doing something to eliminate vertical wind-shear."
Mark said, "Good points. Okay, so the thing is airborne."
Princess said, "Or there's more than one."
"We'll deal with the airborne menace first." Mark took a deep breath. "In the meantime, I'll radio back home and ask for a submarine confirmation that nothing is hovering beneath. I assume we've got seacraft going to the area anyhow."
Princess returned to playing "More Than A Feeling." Jason folded his arms and sat back in his chair.
When they drew close to the storm, Princess secured her guitar and guitar case, and they took up battle stations. Turbulence began to rock the ship.
"This sucker's powerful, guys." Tiny made a few adjustments and checked the instruments. "Everyone needs to be sitting."
"What are you, the FAA?" Tiny didn't respond to the barb because Jason already was seated and scanning his own monitors for any indication of the mech. "Okay, I'm patching some coordinates through to you. I think that'll be our best guess."
Mark added, "Correcting for its movement in the interim?"
"This thing is pretty slow for a mech. It's only moving as quickly as a hurricane can."
Keyop said, "Hundred fifty miles per hour?"
"In a circle around the eye--the eye doesn't travel anywhere near that fast. It won't be hard to pace."
Mark said, "I'm locking it in."
Keyop said, "--and ripping the knob off."
Tiny said, "Why do you keep saying that?"
Jason said, "Z-100 has been doing it for a couple of weeks now. Lock it in--and rip the knob off. Apparently Keyop's imprinted it like some kind of idiot savant."
"Shut up. I think it's cool."
The ship slammed into a wall of wind. "Okay, now the fun starts. I hope everyone's wearing their acupressure bands." Tiny gritted his teeth as he steadied the Phoenix. "We'll head through about thirty more miles of rough road before we're near where we think the center is. If we hit the eyewall, that'll be as bad as it gets."
Princess said, "And if we miss, we'll pop out the other side and have to come back in again."
"Radar's out." Jason looked up to find that everyone else's screen had gone fuzzy too. "Are we completely blind?"
Princess whistled rather than calling attention to the fact that she'd told them so.
"Okay, this is bad. All I've got on visual is shadows."
Mark took a deep breath. "And radio contact is severed. This is a beauty of a storm, too."
Keyop ran (or staggered) to the front of the cockpit. "Lower the portal to the bubble. I'll sit up there and tell you what I see."
Jason said, "Let me guess--rain?"
"And maybe some big bad flying thing the size of Miami, too. I can definitely see better than that, at any rate." Keyop gestured to the silver-grey static on all the screens.
Mark nodded. "Keyop, head up. Leave the portal open about four inches so you can shout down to us. The bracelets won't be transmitting through whatever they're using to jam us."
A moment later, Keyop perched on the half-retracted portal to the bubble atop the Phoenix. "Geez, I can't see anything out here. It's awful dark."
Jason leaned back in his seat. "Reporting for CNN Weather, Sherlock Holmes."
Luckily Keyop couldn't hear that. The Phoenix made rocky headway through the storm for a long time. Tiny determined that they could actually use the static as a guide toward the source of the jammer, and Princess reconfigured their receivers to detect subtle changes in the power output of the jamming device. Using that mechanism, Tiny was able to guide the ship close enough that eventually Keyop hailed down from his makeshift crow's-nest. He'd seen the enemy.
Jason looked through the opening at the rain still battering the bubble. "There's no eye to the storm. I think I owe someone a quarter."
Princess said, "This is a completely unnatural storm. And sometimes the hurricane's eye isn't completely calm anyhow. It's just less treacherous."
Mark said, "And now that we've found it--"
"I'll shoot it."
"Absolutely not. They think we're lost in this muck. I'll bet they can't see us either, with all the garbage they're putting out in the air. No way I'm revealing our position, or even that we've spotted them. We'll sneak inside." Mark arose. "Tiny, do you think you can get us stable and close by?"
"How close is close? Close enough to take out the helicobuggy, or close enough to jump?"
Mark shook his head. "In order to jump, we'd have to be overtop of them, and we'll lose our line of sight. I don't feel like falling into the Atlantic if they shift position. We need to get alongside, and close enough that Jason and Princess can shoot cables across to them."
Three jaws dropped. "Mark--that's way close."
Mark shrugged. "I know you guys can pull it off. Then Keyop and I can hitch a ride across with the two of you."
Jason nodded. "It's insanely dangerous. I think I like it. Let's go."
Princess looked up at the maelstrom battering the bubble. "Too bad we haven't got any rain slickers."
Shortly the four were perched within the plexiglass enclosure, shouting directions down to Tiny for navigation.
Jason said, "So how do we get back onto the Phoenix afterward?"
Mark said, "Keyop and I will knock out their radar and radio jamming devices. Princess and you will have to find out how they're causing the hurricane and see if you can either derail the thing or shut it down entirely. Since it's a force of nature, I assume it's got to play out now that it's started. But the surrounding weather systems won't be in synch with what's happening here, so I think they'll work against it enough that we'll have only a category one or two hurricane by the time it lands in Florida."
"And maybe spare all those little islands along the way," Princess said.
They had drawn close enough by now. Keyop grabbed tight to Princess' back, and Mark grasped Jason. Princess hurled her yo-yo at the hull of the mech, and Jason fired his cable gun; both retracted the cables and reeled themselves through the lunatic wind. On the enemy's hull, they clung tight against the gale and the wet until Mark located a portal and forced it open. They took a moment to dry off in a cargo bay before making final plans and splitting into two pairs.
Mark and Keyop headed upward, to where they assumed the main control room would be. They met relatively few soldiers as they moved; their entrance truly had gone undetected. "Gotta love full-spectrum jamming," Mark said at one point as they took cover in a closet. "If they were jamming just our frequency, we'd have been in a lot of trouble."
Keyop breathed heavily. "How much further?"
"The last guy we questioned said two more floors. Ready?"
It didn't take more than another fifteen minutes to reach the control deck. Once there, Mark and Keyop sent fistfuls of shuriken ahead of themselves into the room, then followed to knock out the remaining Spectrans. Someone had sounded an alarm, but Mark didn't let that distract him from his search of the various control screens. One of these had to control the electronics jamming mechanisms. If he could turn it off, Tiny could get a lock on the ship and follow it. Of course, the Phoenix would become visible on radar once that happened, but the team would have radio contact once again, and they'd be able to fight this beast directly. Mark could tell from this behemoth's size that it couldn't maneuver quickly. It might be armed to the teeth, but it was more like a flying brick than a bird of prey. That drill they knew well enough: Jason could fire missiles until he grinned like a maniac, and Tiny could dodge return volleys, and eventually they'd sink this beast. It was in this moment that they could equalize the fight.
Finding the switch for the alarm, which still blared in regular, annoying fashion, Mark disabled it. Then he turned toward the door and hurled his boomerang at two Spectrans who had tried to force their way inside.
Keyop called, "I found it."
Mark covered the entrance as Keyop's fingers flew over the keyboard. "I'm disabling it from here, but we've still got to find the output source, or they'll just figure out how to turn it back on. There."
As soon as Keyop said "There," their bracelets lit up with a bird scramble.
Mark's heart pounded "G-2, what's going on?"
"We've got to pull out. Now. It's G-3."
Jason's voice, though all business, had an undoubted tension. Mark looked at Keyop.
"It'd take another fifteen minutes to get to the antennae. It's at the top of the mech."
Mark raised his bracelet. "Pull out." Then he looked at Keyop. "We'll take a shot at it from the Phoenix. I'm sure it's exposed--or at the very least, they'll have to take time to retract it. I'll radio Tiny to spot it while we're withdrawing."
Mark's mind raced through possibilities as fast as his body raced through the mech. Princess must have been hurt--hurt badly enough that Jason didn't feel confident leaving her alone. That might mean unconscious. That might even mean dead. Jason said once that if he died during a mission to not bother hauling his body home, but if pushed, he'd probably risk everything to bring any of them back, even if only to a casket. The mental wanderings ceased almost instantly, though, because Spectrans crowded the corridors. He thought only of this one fight, this one compartment. But it was hard to keep from thinking the worst: every one of them he had to fight delayed them a moment, a minute, a lifetime, from their rendezvous with Jason and Princess and whatever awaited there.
A small cluster of Spectrans with short swords appeared in the junction of two corridors. Keyop tossed his bolos at them while still in a full run, and their leader sliced the bolo cord as it spun toward them. That hardly mattered. The explosion took them out before their blades could really come into play.
Eventually they reached the cargo bay again. Mark found Jason's cable-gun fired into a corner with the cable retracted so it stood out like a soldier. He must have used Princess' yo-yo to bring the two of them back onboard the Phoenix. Grasping the gun firmly, Mark and Keyop headed outside into the tearing wind and sheeting water. He raised the bracelet and shouted over the wind, "G-5, pickup now."
"Acknowledged. Give me your signal."
How long did they wait, clinging exposed to the side of the great hurricane-maker, until the Phoenix came into sight? Even in their limited visibility, Mark could barely hear it before it appeared through the wet, and he had only just enough time to let go of the side, raise the gun as he fell with Keyop clinging to his neck, and fire on his own ship. The cable-gun shook in his hand as it went home. He triggered the release to retract the cable, reeling them in even as the Phoenix banked away from the enemy and plunged back into the stronger wind currents away from the eye of the storm.
Once inside the cockpit, Mark flung off his rain-soaked helmet. Rain sheeted off his wings to form puddles on the cockpit floor. It had been wet before his arrival. A liquid trail led out the back door.
The ship vibrated ungently as it gathered speed. Tiny looked grim. "I'm bringing us to Baltimore. They're expecting us. Jason needs you in the sick bay."
Mark and Keyop dashed for the back. Just through the rear door of the cockpit, they turned right and burst into the sick bay--the compartment which normally functioned as the kitchen.
Jason had Princess strapped to the stainless steel table. The first-aid kit had its contents spread out on the counter-top, and he was just finishing plugging an IV into Princess' arm.
Mark stared. Satred at the blood all over Princess. All over the table. All over the floor.
"Mark, give me your boomerang. Keyop, I want strips of surgical tape three inches long. Just start peeling them and don't stop."
Keyop leaped past Mark. Mark fumbled for his birdrang, which Jason grabbed and used to finish tearing the shreds of Princess' uniform away from her chest. Once he had her chest completely exposed, they could see the full injury--a gash from her scapular bone down across her chest and over her right breast. "Quick--direct pressure. We've got to get her clotted or all the transfusions in the world won't do any good."
Mark felt as if his hands trembled too badly to do even that. Jason grabbed his wrists and pressed them down on Princess' chest. "Don't let up. This is insane."
With a strange disembodied analytical part of his mind, Mark reflected that they'd done everything their training dictated. Whoever was in charge when someone got hurt stayed in charge even after help arrived. The blood being pumped into Princess was her own: they'd all donated their own blood a number of times and kept it stored onboard in case of serious injury. If Jason had plugged her into the IV, she must have been bleeding profusely right from the start. In fact, looking at Jason now, Mark realized Princess hadn't been very ladylike while he carried her back: she'd bled on him too.
At some point, Jason must have paid attention during their lifesaving courses. He'd elevated Princess' legs on a couple of rolled blankets and covered her legs with a third.
Jason started grabbing the surgical tape from Keyop and fastening the lips of the wound to one another. He moved quickly and deliberately, sealing the gash against itself far more quickly than stitches and yet almost as tightly. Mark swallowed. "How deep is it?"
That sounded like Jason-shorthand for "as deep as her chest wall." Mark grimaced.
There was a long patchwork of surgical tape by now. Keyop kept tearing off strips and handing them to Jason, who would press the lips of the wound together without puckering them, then lay the strip flat and seal it down before reaching for the next. Keyop's gloves were slippery red; Jason had removed his gloves before they'd arrived, but everything he touched bore a stain. Mark felt his stomach lurching, and not with the motion of the ship. The only thing not as bad as his first impression was the floor--the puddle beneath the table was rainwater. Imagination or hallucination, whatever the reason, Mark could feel relief that it hadn't been real. Princess lay still, the one worst affected by the injury but the one reacting least. Mark freed one hand and took her pulse.
Jason didn't break his rhythm. He had about two-thirds of the injury sealed. "How is it?"
"Weak and very fast." Mark didn't bother asking if Jason had checked her blood pressure--it might not be strong enough to measure. Princess looked bluish and pale, and her upper cheek shone with a thin layer of sweat; Jason had lain her on the table with her head turned to one side.
"Tiny had better have this thing floored." Jason swallowed, paused momentarily, then resumed working. He stopped again. "Mark, you've got to take over."
Abruptly Mark realized how pale Jason had gone. "Sure. You come around this side." His own hands quivered as he started working. Jason applied direct pressure, but Mark could tell he had trouble even standing. There was nothing for it: they needed three people, and Tiny was flying.
Keyop said, "I hope we don't run out."
Jason gestured with his chin. "There's another roll."
For the next five minutes, Mark worked in silence. When he'd finished, he took Princess' pulse again.
Jason said, "Keyop, get the super glue."
As Keyop handed the blue tube to Jason, Mark intercepted it. "Absolutely not."
"They use it in every other country on Earth and every planet in the Federation."
"But not here."
"It flakes off in eight days."
"And I said no. They'll probably want to do real suturing at the hospital." Mark shoved the tube into a belt compartment. "No offense, but I want professional doctors doing this. We'll use the super glue the next time you're sliced open, promise."
Jason looked away.
Keyop had fetched a blanket from the cabinet and covered Princess tight. As he went to get another, he said, "What happened?"
Jason sighed. "They had something I'd never seen before, like electric knives."
"You mean the kind to carve a turkey?"
"I mean they had some kind of electrical field around them. They sliced right through the birdstyles."
"That's no good. I wonder how they did that." Mark examined some of the torn parts of Princess' uniform. "It's a nice clean cut, too. You can see exactly where my boomerang took over--the edges are sawed-through."
"They completely surrounded us." Jason lifted the edge of his cape, which Mark now saw was missing a few pinions. "We had no idea how powerful they were until after I lost this, and then it was only a few minutes until Princess got swamped, and then they did it to her."
Keyop gently removed Princess' helmet. "Those guys I took out with the bolos--they had short swords. And they cut the bolo cord, too."
Mark said, "But birdstyle-piercers? That changes everything. They could win the war with those."
"No kidding." Jason finally sat on one of the stools. "Birdstyle piercing bullets would end it real quick."
"Don't think about it. That'll be the Chief's job. Right now we have to get her to some doctors and then get back and fight that mech." Mark glanced at his bracelet. "G-5, how much longer?"
"Six minutes. Is she stabilized?"
"Yes, but don't slow down."
"Wasn't planning to."
Mark looked at Princess again. "Should we get oxygen on her?"
"Maybe." Jason closed his eyes and let out a harsh breath. "I should have done that. I was just so intent on getting the bleeding stopped--"
"That was the right thing to do first." Mark looked at Keyop. "Go get--"
"I'm getting. I'm getting." He and Mark fit the oxygen mask over Princess' nose and mouth. Jason just sat on the stool, immobilized by fatigue or distress.
Mark said, "It'll be all right."
"Sure." Jason swallowed. "This happens every day, right?"
Mark couldn't measure the degree of sarcasm, and he didn't say anything else until they'd landed.
At Johns Hopkins Medical Center, the staff took Princess right off the Phoenix and whisked her inside. Mark, Jason and Keyop followed them onto the roof only to be shut out of the elevator bringing her downstairs. After a few minutes, the elevator returned with a solitary nurse.
"I knew they'd send someone to get the insurance information," Jason murmured.
Mark said, "We have to speak to the doctors."
"Of course." The nurse said little as she escorted them downstairs and then along the fifth-floor corridors to an empty patient room. Grim-faced ISO guards patrolled the corridors and manned all the entrances. "We've been briefed in advance by your superior officers, and someone's on his way, but I'm sure the doctors will have questions."
Jason rolled his eyes. Keyop just took a seat on the window sill.
When they were alone, Mark glanced around the room, found it similar to every other hospital room he'd ever visited, and then walked to the window. "They can't delay us too long. We've got to get back."
"Why are we even here?"
"You mean on the surgical floor?"
"I mean in this building. They're doctors. They're smart enough to figure out she's got a big cut on her chest. They may even figure out she's been taped up and transfused." Jason folded his arms and leaned against the wall. "If they've spoken to the Chief already, what more can we tell them? "
"So let's go where we can do something."
"Weren't you just all hot and bothered about people who don't stick around for you?"
"She won't ever know, Mark. She's unconscious."
Keyop said, "I want to stay. That thing wasn't moving so fast. We've got time."
Jason threw his hands into the air.
They sat in silence for a few minutes.
Mark finally said, "Did you get to see the t-shirts, Jason?"
"Princess was wearing one of them before you came home. Herself, airbrushed."
He folded his arms. "Great. If she ever gets kidnapped, she'll have a picture for the milk carton. Look, there's no point to us being here. Leave the doctors a note--or have someone radio us en route. We don't need to be here."
Keyop said, "Then you're just like everyone else. You turn tail and run as soon as someone's sick."
"We have a job! This isn't about moral support!"
Mark said, "We'll give them five minutes."
"And in five more minutes, Spectra will have fixed up their jammers!" Jason walked toward the door. "Forget it. If you guys want to stick your heads in the sand, do it. Tiny and I will head back on our own."
Mark was on his feet. "You'll do no such thing! I'm ordering you--"
"Court martial me after we get back."
As Jason was yanking open the door, in walked Chief Anderson.
"Stand down," he said lowly, and Jason backed away. "You'll kindly conduct your policy meetings at less than ninety decibels in the future. This is a hospital." The Chief looked right at Mark. "Report."
"G-2 and G-3 got ambushed onboard the enemy craft by Spectrans with birdstyle-penetrating swords."
The Chief looked at Jason. "Did you retrieve one of their weapons?"
Jason shook his head.
"Didn't you think it might be important?"
"The thought crossed my mind as I carried my unconscious teammate through the corridors."
"No editorializing necessary. Why did you let them ambush you?"
Jason had his mouth set in a line.
The Chief said, "How reckless do you have to get, Jason? Isn't it enough to jeopardize your own life--do you have to risk everyone else's?"
Mark stepped forward quickly. "Chief, in that kind of situation--"
"Don't defend me," Jason said in a low voice. "I've had enough. If you want me, page me." And he walked out.
The Chief turned to Mark. "You've got enough explanations to make for yourself. Why isn't one of you guarding her?"
Mark's mouth opened, but the Chief continued. "Why aren't you patrolling the halls? I'm aghast at how you've let her be carted off without the slightest double-checking--"
"There are ISO guards on duty--"
"You're more highly trained than ISO guards. Her life is worth enough that you should be willing to be on your feet and working to your utmost as a safeguard." The Chief had gone white. "She's in operating room three. Go. You're her commanding officer. Protect her." The Chief looked at Keyop. "G-4, accompany me. We're going to double-check the security measures on the floor."
Keyop nodded mutely.
Jason stalked onto the Phoenix and dismissed Tiny with few words. Tiny asked how Princess was doing, and Jason only shrugged. "But the Chief's on a rampage. Go stretch your legs. Mark will probably scramble us if he decides to pull out any time soon."
Tiny didn't offer to stay and didn't leave with any further attempt at conversation. Jason sat in the pilot's chair for a moment, watching Tiny on the viewscreen as he made his way from the roof into the hospital. Then he made a cursory check of all the systems--everything on standby, the engines idling with a low purr in energy-saving mode--and made a visual patrol with all the cameras. He listened to the FAA weather bulletins (that monster storm was still traveling toward Florida, but noticeably weaker now) and then switched to a military channel. Tense, but quiet. Patrols were turning up nothing. At the very least, no one's radar and radio had gotten disrupted lately.
At the pilot's station he fingered the sliced corner of his cape without lowering his eyes to look at it. Finally he removed his helmet and rested his head in his hands, staring at the radar screen between his elbows.
Compartments. After a while, all those little portable walls in the head broke down, and all the problems ran into one another. As if dealing with the stupid reporters wasn't enough for one day.
Playing that damned guitar. I dream of a girl I used to know. I closed my eyes and she slipped away.
Of course she'd have picked some song that would sound prophetic afterward, as though Boston ever prophesied anything other than "We'll make a ton of money off this." But still he could unfocus his gaze and recreate exactly the moment of the ambush, his brazen assumption that they could penetrate the heart of the enemy undetected, and his horror at seeing one blade go home.
Maybe they were right. Maybe he really did harbor a secret death-wish, and maybe he didn't care who died alongside. Maybe he really was going to plunge headlong through life until someone else died because of him.
No, that was nuts. He didn't want her hurt. He really had thought they'd get in and out okay. They'd done it so often before.
Mark's shot, at least, was totally uncalled for. This was nowhere near the same thing as desertion. For one thing, he wasn't afraid of a little blood. He'd been there when it counted. Did it really matter if he wasn't there when it wasn't?
And that thought led him back to the reporters and what seemed all too easily to be the end of his racing career.
A mild buzzing permeated the cockpit, like a swarm of bees homing in on their queen. While Jason watched, the otherwise empty radar screen faded to static. The monitors had filled with electronic interference.
"Crap." He hit the bird scramble. "G-1, respond. We're under attack. G-1, respond!"
Nothing. The cameras showed nothing. The radio had gone dead. Radar gave only useless noise.
Jason slammed all the engines into high gear. If he didn't get airborne now, he wouldn't. Of this he was certain. He could land again if he needed to, but without the high ground, they had no hope. That mech was in the air. It had left its protective storm. They were completely exposed.
In the next instant, a blast of wind like a cyclone slammed the side of the Phoenix, and Jason ignited the vertical engines hoping the way above was clear.
Within the hospital, all the lights extinguished at the same time. A moment later, the emergency backup generator flared into life, and low-level lighting returned, along with some of the more vital equipment.
Keyop whispered, "I don't like this."
The Chief already had his communicator out of his jacket pocket. "G-1, do you read? G-1, copy?" He paused, then switched to broadband. "Any member of G-Force, respond."
Even though right beside him, Keyop's communicator remained dead.
"This is what happened on the Phoenix."
The Chief looked at Keyop. "They're here now?"
In the cafeteria, Tiny found himself surrounded by sudden darkness. Every light had gone out. Even the cafeteria windows had gone black as the outside drowned in a sudden downpour, with the raindrops sometimes driven horizontal by the mad wind. He knocked over his chair in a scramble to reach the windows, where he could hear a familiar whine: Spectran engines. This was the sound of troop transporters.
"G-Force!" he shouted over the broadband--he had to shout to be heard over the uproar of the cafeteria's other patrons. "G-Force, we're under attack!"
When no response came, he whispered, "What do I do now?"
Three troop transporter shuttles had landed in the parking lot--landed on several cars and at least one ambulance. The wing of one smashed down the car port over the Emergency Room entrance. Tiny stared. Several civilians were also standing at the windows, and one of them said, "He's G-Force! G-Force is here!"
A dozen people pushed up close to Tiny, hungry-eyed and waiting. A woman at the front said, "You're G-Force. What do we do?"
Abruptly the crowd fell into silence. Tiny looked around at the expectant and tense faces, then out the window again at Spectran soldiers lining up in the rain for a march on the hospital building. The silence in and of itself seemed to repeat the question, and Tiny clenched his fists.
What do we do?
In the operating room, Mark had drawn his boomerang, but no one entered the strangely silent operating theater. After a moment, the hiss of the ventilator and infusers returned.
The chief surgeon said, "What are you expecting?"
Mark kept his voice low. "We're under attack. Spectra's cut our power and jammed all contact with the outside world. We have to get her out of here."
The surgeon used Mark's low tones. "She's nowhere near stable enough to leave."
Mark said, "We're going to have to move her anyway."
To Be Continued...