by Jane Lebak (9/99)
I just know something has happened when the Chief gets on the monitor and orders Tiny to dock us under ISO as quickly as possible. Right on schedule, there goes Mark, pretending he knows what's going on. The Chief looks hurried and haggard. Something's already come up. It's not enough that we went out Saturday morning, stayed out all day Sunday and are back late on Monday. Not ten minutes done with one mission, and already the evil people in the world have made sure we're going to be turning around without even time for a shower, and barely time to fuel up the ship. We'll debrief, brief, and head right out again.
The Chief nabs us outside the elevator. He points to me and Mark in turn, saying, "You and you, go get changed. Suits and ties. We leave in three minutes." Mark races down the hall, and I take off after him. Some diplomatic crap. Someone's jittery ambassador to wherever wants two bodyguards to hold his hand and wipe his nose. I hate that. I wish this kind of duty were relegated just to the leader of G-Force and that it didn't trickle down to the second in command as well.
This is a classic example of "mission creep". G-Force has only been officially in existence ten months and already every important person in the universe needs us for his very survival. Imagine if the Chief replied, "So you'd like two eighteen-year-olds, two high school seniors, and an eighth grader to come save your planet?" They'd piss. But say "G-Force" and the babies practically beg for our help.
The Chief's thoughtfully laid out my clothes for me. Yeah, right. He's afraid I'll find something comfortable instead of obsessing over how stately I look. In a flash, the birdstyle's gone and I strip off the jeans and t-shirt, then change into the black suit like a waiter in a fancy restaurant. This truly sucks. Because of this mission, we missed an awesome party on Saturday night. Chris was going, and it's been a while since I've seen him, since we're going to different colleges. He was still lobbying to take his younger brother Devin, and I'm sure Rob and Traz were going. I had even convinced Tiny he should come and was working on Mark. It had been only grudgingly that the Chief had given me one minute after the bird scramble to phone Chris and tell him I couldn't drive that night. As if two planets would have stopped on their axes if we hadn't shown up in time to wait one minute longer.
I rejoin Mark in the hallway. Princess has this look like she's never going to see us again, but the Chief just hustles us into the elevator. He codes in a priority so no one else can use the thing until we're done, and brings us to the circle. His car's parked right at the front, and he's all in a hurry about getting on the road. I say, "Let me drive, since we're rushing." No offense, but he's not exactly an aggressive driver, and watching him pretend to be gets my stomach all tight.
"I'll drive." He looks grim. I check my watch. It's about eight-thirty, and the street lamps have long since replaced the sun. Mark's looking tired in the back seat, as if he'd fall asleep in ten seconds if only he knew it wasn't an emergency. We'd better be getting combat pay for this drive. The Chief doesn't know how to clip a red light so it looks like you only rushed the yellow. I hope he gets pulled over. That'll make my life easier if it ever happens to me.
Mark says, "So where are we going?"
The Chief doesn't answer until he merges onto the highway, and I cringe because he's not going fast enough, then he's going far too fast for the traffic, and he's tailgating and being tailed because there wasn't any room for him where he just put the car. I can feel myself about to say something about now I know how he feels whenever I drive him.
He draws a deep breath, one of those, "You're going to hate what I'm about to tell you," breaths. He telegraphs everything by the way he prepares to talk, as though you needed subtitles to really understand him. What he finally says is, "While you were gone, Sunday morning, I got a call from Molly Sofer." Oh, shit. Molly is Chris's mother. "On Saturday, Chris was coming home from a party and a drunk driver hit his car. He was killed on the spot. Two of his friends are still in the hospital. One was checked in and released the same night."
Chris Sofer, my friend, that Chris? But the Chief wouldn't have made a mistake like that. He's spoken to Molly before. Chris used to stay over our place all the time when his parents were waging thermonuclear war in their living room, sometimes dragging along Devin. Chris was the one who brought a coconut to school and tricked me into opening it during chemistry lab. Chris got "revenge" on Mark for cracking my head over the Laura Fuentes thing, and I still don't think Mark knows who broke the combinations on his lockers and filled the locks with glue. Chris was the one who brought fireworks for us to set off in the gym and inadvertently got me the beating of my life. But...that's it?
The Chief's saying something about the wake is tonight, the funeral is tomorrow, and the wake ends at nine o'clock, and Molly really wanted us there. We've got practically no time. "Let me drive. We're never going to make it."
"Absolutely not." The Chief sounds deadly serious, so I don't protest again.
Mark says, "What about the driver of the other car?"
"He's in critical condition."
I hope the bastard dies before an enraged Condor has to take him down. I realize Mark's sitting forward in the back seat, and the next instant it occurs to me why: he's got his hand on my shoulder. I jerk away from him. Mark says, "Who were the other people in the car?"
"Neal Sullivan was the driver, and he's the one who's been released." Yeah, Neal has a nice car. Well, it was a nice car. He's pretty cool for taking Chris on such short notice.
Oh, man. The reason Chris was in that car at all...I wasn't there to drive him. I was off on another planet detonating Zoltar's toy-of-the-month and saving two billion Patalonians.
The Chief's still talking about the other two passengers. They're people I know too, friends of Neal's. There's no air in the car. I crack the window a little and stare outside. Where the hell are we? The Chief must have gotten directions from Molly. He's saying something about organ donation, that they found homes for this and that body part, as if that makes it all right. Hey, spare kidney, anyone? It looks like we're in Queens. When did we go through the tunnel? Abruptly he cuts to the right, we're in a parking lot, and he stops.
The side of the building says "Lavagnino And Sons," so it must be a funeral parlor. Mark walks at my side as we head toward the room with lots of young people congregating around it, and the only one without a lily-white crowd of mourners. Mark stops to sign a little book by the door. I walk right to the front where I see Molly and Devin sitting in the first row of chairs. I haven't looked at the casket yet when she stands and gives me a hug. My voice is very soft. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Sofer. We were out of town. I only just heard."
"Thank you for coming. It would have meant so much to him." She isn't crying, but she looks as if that's more because she's run out of tears than run out of grief. She's holding herself together by a shoestring. I've seen that expression on every one of Spectra's victims who isn't either dead or screaming. Molly looks me in the eyes and says, "You got so tall. I can hardly believe it."
She reaches out to give me a hug, and I hold her a long time, closing my eyes. Maybe she does have some tears left in her, because suddenly her shoulders jerk and she gasps. Then she swallows hard, lets me go, and wipes her eyes. "I'm sorry." She can't look directly at me as she speaks. "Why don't you say good-bye?"
I turn to face the casket for the first time and realize Mark's been standing at my side the whole time. Ignoring him, I step toward the glossy pine box. The air is sick with the smell of lilies, stronger than the smell of death and embalming. Mark advances right to the kneeler and kneels, bowing his head. He's showing me what to do. I know this, and I don't care. I stand behind him, hands in my pockets, staring at Chris. I never saw him in a suit before. He looks asleep, not like a man killed on impact in a drunk driving accident. I wouldn't put it past him to have arranged this whole thing as a joke to get me back for not driving him. Maybe he'd just open his eyes and say, "Anderson, you asshole. That's the last time I count on you!" and I'd have to give him a good shot to the shoulder, and we'd end up tussling for a while before his mother yanked me aside and gave me a thorough talking-to.
Chris doesn't wake up. Mark stands up and takes his place alongside me again, and I keep standing there. I have no idea how long it's been: two minutes? Five? Momentarily Mark drifts away to talk to Molly himself. He and Chris generally got along, and I know Molly always liked Mark. She probably wished Chris was better friends with him, like every other parent.
Damn it, Chris. This isn't right.
Abruptly I head for the back of the room. Rob is there beside Alyssa, and Traz is standing with them. Alyssa breaks away from Rob and flings her arms around me, then cries onto my shoulder. I'm holding her for a while.
Traz shoots me a sidelong glance. "Didn't think you'd make it."
"Lay off, Trazkowski. I just got back and heard." My hands are shaking in my pockets. Alyssa wipes her eyes with a tissue. Her makeup is mostly gone at this point. "I should have been there. I was supposed to be driving."
"Then you'd have been hit." Rob folds his arms. "They were making a left onto Queens Boulevard when that idiot came barreling through the intersection and hit them nearly head-on. It wasn't even like he was clipping the light--they were third in line to make the turn! I think his blood alcohol was three times the legal limit."
I know what happens in a head-on crash. Sanders went over it in incredibly gory detail during one class, trying to convince us never to drive drunk or take unnecessary risks with our cars. He took half an hour itemizing the one second after the impact, where the various parts of the car end up, what happens to the bones and organs in the body. I kind of wish he hadn't. Now I look back at the front, past the Chief and Molly, to the casket. Chris doesn't look that bad. Maybe Sanders was exaggerating.
Neal Sullivan sits alone in the back. He's got to be feeling like shit right about now. I detangle myself from Alyssa and walk over to him. Only after I sit next to him does he glance up at me, then swallow and stare back at the floor. I say, "Hey, man, if it makes you feel any better, I don't think there was anything you could have done. That guy was going to hit someone."
"But it was me." Neal swallows. "You know what Devin asked before? He asked me why he had to be an only child now." I'm suddenly cold all over. "I should have seen him coming. The idiot was driving a Ford Aspire. His 'Evil Asp' totaled my mom's Intrepid."
"Damn." The guy must have been going fast. Neal probably had no way to see him.
Neal shakes his head. "If I'd been a little slower going into the intersection..."
I'm no good at this. Mark would know how to handle it. As it is, all Mark ever taught me was that these things need to be done, but once I start, I have no idea what to say. "And now you keep reliving the impact in your head?" Neal nods. "A couple months back, I flipped my car at the track. Someone cracked into me going around a turn, and when I finally got my head together, I realized the engine was on fire. It took a few weeks before I stopped going over and over it."
Neal whispered, "But no one died because of you. Chris is dead, and Myron and Graham are still in the hospital."
Now I'm at a loss. I mean, I'm not Dear Abby. "This wasn't your fault." Let's see, is there anything I could say that would sound any more lame? I stand. "Don't think about it that way."
"I'm never going to drive again."
"Don't make that decision now." This, at least, is familiar territory. "Don't force it, but when your mom gets a new car, take it around the block. Have someone with you if you need it. Hell, I'll go with you. You can drive Sweetheart if you think you'd like to learn a standard."
Neal looks up suddenly. "You'd trust me with your car?"
Bingo. "Of course I would." I drop a hand on his shoulder. "Hang in there."
Mark intercepts me on the way back to Rob, Traz and Alyssa. "I think his father wants to speak to you."
"I think his father can bite me." With my arms folded, I turn so my back is toward the front where the immediate family is gathered. Everyone else is high school or college aged. This isn't the right demographic for a funeral parlor. Everyone here should be an old lady passing the time by knitting or hunting for her reading glasses. "What does he want to say? That he's sorry he treated Chris like garbage all those years?"
"That's something I didn't get around to asking." Mark chuckles. "You've got such a better handle on the language..."
"Please." That's why the wake is being held in Queens, I realize. So they're nearer to the father. Probably it's cheaper here than in Manhattan as well. "The only reason he knew what Chris's voice sounded like was that since the court ordered him to pay his college tuition, he might as well see what he was investing in."
Just then the funeral director dims the lights, then raises them again. It's our signal to go. I can't believe they'd just kick us out, but sure enough, we're getting herded out, everyone other than the close family. Rob, Traz and Alyssa ask if I want a ride home with them. I decline. The Chief and Mark start to head toward the car, and I balk. "I'm going to take the subway out to the track." I've got my hands in my pockets. "I'll stay at the trailer tonight."
I can just imagine the pitiful looks on Princess, Tiny and Keyop's faces. They'll hang around all night like little fish afraid to nibble the bait on the hook but desperately hungry. When they do, they're not going to like how I respond, and I won't like it either.
The Chief says, "Why don't you come back?"
"I'd rather not."
"Then we'll drive you to the track."
That's actually more of a concession than I thought I'd get, so I climb into the back seat without another word. Mark could ride shotgun, but instead he sits in back as well. I hope he's not thinking he's going to talk to me. Or that I'll answer. The Chief drives like normal this time, slow and methodical, one mph under the speed limit the whole way there. It's hard to pay attention to where we are. At the track, just before he pulls up to the gate, I pop the door. "I'll walk the rest of the way. Thanks."
"We'll come get you tomorrow."
"Don't. I'll take the train. See you." Before either Mark or the Chief can protest, I shut the door and head through the gates. The security guy waves to me, but I keep my hands in my pockets and walk fast. The car drives away behind me, and finally I can think.
The trailer is going to be cold and dark. It's only late March, and while I'm not shivering, I wish I'd brought a heavier jacket. I'm also a little hungry, and the only thing back at the trailer is a microwave pizza and a box of cereal. In a word, yuck. So rather than heading to the trailer park, I direct my steps toward the track's bar, aptly called The Last Lap. Immediately after I'm there, the waitress comes by for my order. I want some kind of sandwich and a coke. It's tempting to order a beer or three or six, and I know Sheila wouldn't give me a hassle about being only eighteen, but I never wanted to be one of those pathetic drunks. I'm all alone at my table watching Sports Center on the bar's television until one of the mechanics approaches. "Hey, Anderson! You dressed for a job interview or a funeral?"
"A funeral!" He looks shocked. I turn my face away. "Do you mind?"
Ryan didn't deserve that. I'm going to have to make it up to him. I just want to eat dinner and get out of here, and Sheila returns quickly with a roast beef and swiss sandwich and the soda. She's thrown in some chips as an extra, and she sits across the table from me. "I won't stay," she says softly, "but I heard what you told Ryan, and I wanted to let you know I'm sorry."
Then she's gone. I want to frame the woman and put her on display as the way to behave during a tragedy, saying her piece and then leaving. Hey, Ryan, take a good look. You'll notice I didn't chew her out. And on your way home, give Princess a call.
Reaching into a pocket for my wallet, I find a plastic card I must have picked up at the funeral parlor. On the front is a picture of Jesus Christ standing with open arms in front of a glowing cross, with a picture-postcard cloud-dotted sky and gentle ocean forming the background. Turning it over, I find "Christian Dermot Sofer," and his birth and death dates. It should also say, "Wear your seat-belt." Welcome to the realm of the statistic, Chris. I had no idea your middle name was Dermot. I'd have made sure to give you a large ration of crap over it. Which is doubtless why you never told me.
Beneath Chris' full name is a prayer. Or maybe it's a poem. I have no idea. Sing praise to the Lord, yeah yeah. Chris and I talked about God once, and then we never did it again. He didn't like what I believed and vice versa. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. I'll have to ask Molly about that. Hey, Mrs. Sofer, did joy come to you this morning? That's not fair, though. She probably had to pick something and they rushed her. It's hard to do more than skim this thing. What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it declare your truth? Oh, that's cold. I don't know, guys--whoever put this thing together must have had a mean streak. You know, this is for a guy who died suddenly. He had so much left to do. Chris was brilliant. He had all sorts of ideas, and I know he'd have graduated and done something jaw-dropping. All I'm going to do is race cars and blow up machines for the rest of my life. Hear, O Lord, and have mercy on me. Lord, be my helper! You have turned for me my mourning into dancing. My soul will sing praise to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
Yeah, I think as I push away my empty plate and glass. Thanks a lot.
It's really cold by the time I leave the bar, but I don't hurry. All around me, there's silence. It's not a bad silence. It's got insect sounds, and if I really strain to hear, there's always the highway. But now I really am alone, and I keep finding myself thinking. You're such an idiot, Chris. I always told you to wear your seat-belt. Remember that time we were out on the Island, and I told you to put it on, and you wouldn't? I pulled over and refused to budge until you put it on, and when you finally did, calling me an anal-retentive dork, I pointed out the dashboard light that would go on if you took it off again. I said if it went on, I was going to kick you out and make you take the Long Island Railroad home. Well, I lied. Sweetheart doesn't have one of those lights. But you still should have listened. Don't those highway patrol officers always say they've never unbuckled a dead body?
Just as I round the edge of the bleachers, I spin and land a kick on the boards. They make a hollow thonk in the darkness. I make a running jump and attack the nearest tree, and when I've hit it a few times, my arm starts to hurt, so I turn on the next best target. There's a cluster of port-o-potties right at the edge of the bleachers, and I plant a kick right in the center of one of them. The blow sounds good and hollow. I do it again. Chris, you moron! And that asshole who hit you--I'm going to kill him. I'm going to find the man, find him, and when I do, when I find him--
With every thought, I've hit the side of the port-o-potty, and before I can finish the sentence, the poor plastic outhouse rocks crazily on its base. I back off hastily, but the thing doesn't topple. Only now do I realize I'm out of breath. I keep still and quiet for a moment, wondering how much noise I made and if the security guys are going to come around to see who's demolishing track property. The plastic isn't even dented. I'm just lucky it didn't fall over.
Wouldn't that be a memorial? "Chris, I knocked over a port-o-john in your honor." Suddenly I'm laughing out loud. The look on Cassie's face as she hears from maintenance... What about Molly Sofer's expression as I tell her what I did in her son's name? Oh, geez, then the inevitable thank-you notes. "Dear Jason, thank you very much for your act of vandalism. It would have meant so much to Chris." And you know what? It would have. Chris would never have cared about the flowers and the cards, but he'd probably be bent double beside me here in the woods laughing just as hard. Geez, I hope no one was sitting inside, ducking his head in sheer terror until the lunatic outside left him alone. "Please! Don't hurt me! I only wanted to pee!" Or the anguished cry, "Ty-De-Bowl Man, NO!" Oh, wait, better still--By day, mild-mannered stock car racer...but by night, he's...Toilet Cop!, criss-crossing Queens wreaking vengeance on those who leave the lid up! And Toilet Cop's rallying cry, "I said, don't squeeze the Charmin!"
I can't help it. Crouched against a tree trunk, I laugh until it's agony to breathe. There are hysterical tears on my cheeks, and I can't stop laughing long enough to dry them.
You know what I hate most about the subway right now? Everything.
Thinking about it, Christian Sofer and I met back in second grade. Mark still despised me then, and I couldn't speak English to save my life, so I did a lot of frustrated listening and stammering in the classroom. Maybe mainstreaming ESL kids is better for them than bilingual classes, but those first months were brutal. No one understood me, so no one ever talked to me, but they loved to laugh at me. I learned to deal with not having any friends, but it was so different from back in Palermo. Except for Chris. He was a lunatic in class, a total clown, and inevitably Mr. Osterweil would get so fed-up at him that he'd exile him to the back. That was where I always sat, so we'd put our heads together and make mischief. After a while, people assumed we were a clan of two: the moody, silent Italian orphan and the sullen, black trickster. He taught me a lot of English. He'd draw pictures in my notebook, and then write the English word beneath. I'd write the Italian word next to that. I still don't know how we plotted half the things we did, but I may go back and dig up that old notebook now. I'm sure the Chief saved it somewhere.
We weren't always friends. For about a year, we didn't speak to one another because of something I can't remember now. Then one day I saw him getting teased in the school-yard, some of the sixth-graders calling him a nigger. It didn't matter that almost half the school was black. I just couldn't be silent. The one who leaped into the fray was me, and Chris and I beat the tar out of a bunch of kids two years older than ourselves. We got punished together, so we started talking again. It's always been like that. I don't see him for a while, and then I do again. I guess now it'll be a long while.
It had been a long while when I shot myself. When he heard, it was because someone passed him a note in the middle of second period. He just got up and walked out of Spanish class and went to the hospital. That was the only one of my friends to visit me there, and he just walked in and said, "Jason, what the fuck?" and I laughed because, well, he was right. But after that he hung around me more at school. I think he threatened people who whispered too loud behind my back. I know I've done the same for him.
We were trouble. We looked like trouble. On the subways once, we got picked up for truancy. Truancy! As if in the entire city of New York, there's no crime more heinous, no offense more in need of the total attention of New York's Finest. The transit cop must have looked at me, Angry White Boy, and him, Black Boy And Therefore Suspicious, and discounted Tiny, Harmless White Boy. The cop decided we constituted a threat to public safety and hauled us over to transit police headquarters until he called the school. We weren't even cutting: it was finals week, and we had no afternoon exams. He stuck us in a room and said that if he found any weapons on us, we were getting booked. Chris and I started to sweat. But, said the officer, sometimes they don't clean the rooms real well between clients, and if he walked back in and found any weapons on the table, he'd assume they were left by the last folks and we wouldn't be in trouble. He walked out to make the call. We couldn't be sure they'd really let us go, so I pulled out my knife and Chris pulled out his, and we left them there. When the officer told us all we could go, he didn't say anything about the knives, but Chris kept muttering that he couldn't believe he'd lost his best blade and all because of some puritanical cop.
Chris never understood why I loved cars, and he understood it less when I started racing. He came to the track once to watch. We set him up with some sweet seats, and I even gave him the grand tour. Afterward, he came up to me and said, "So you drove for what, a hundred miles? And you're right back where you started." Oh well. If I have to explain it, you're just not going to understand.
The subway is filled with morning commuters who don't realize the thoughts in my head aren't about the stock market or some kind of computer program. I'm back in the suit and tie like everyone else, only I get off the train while we're still in Queens. I meet up with the Chief and the others at the funeral parlor. They're all in black except for Princess, who's wearing navy blue. They must have come for me rather than Chris. Funerals aren't for the dead, they're for the living.
Princess says she brought me a new tie so I wouldn't be wearing the same one as last night. Maybe she thinks I care. Yeah, like everyone afterward would be saying, "I know we were here to memorialize Christian Sofer, but I just couldn't stop thinking about Jason Anderson and how he wore the same tie as last night."
Whatever. The Chief tells me that the family had word about the driver of the other car. He died sometime yesterday. Apparently he had passengers with him, but no one's been able to find out their condition. What an idiot. I can understand someone not caring if he gets himself killed, or if he's depraved not caring if he kills a stranger. But this idiot didn't even care if he killed his friends! No, I don't care what the other guy's family is suffering, if they're calling it a tragedy. At least he'll never get behind the wheel again.
There's a brief service at the funeral parlor. Molly sees me for only a moment, but I have no right to be up there with the family, so I stay toward the back with the others. The Chief says he sent a donation to Covenant House in Chris's memory. Man, last night...what was I thinking?
From there, we head to the cemetery, and Chris gets buried. That's almost too hard to watch. They want everyone to toss a carnation into the grave, but I stay back and let Mark do it instead. This isn't right, Chris.
The instant people start to leave, I walk toward the car. I saw Alyssa around with Rob and Traz, but I really don't want to handle her weeping and mewling right now. Let Rob deal with her. The Chief opens the doors, and I sit in the back with my arms folded while everyone crowds around me. There's no way we can sit three across the back and not be jammed shoulder to shoulder, but I wish there were more space. It's just like the damned subway. It's the same feeling I had when we were kids and Mark and I would start shouting, "He's touching me!" I just want them to leave me alone.
We pull out onto the road, and before I can ask the Chief to drop me off at the first available bus stop, he says, "I'm sorry to do this to you all, but something's come up, and we need the team."
Man, we're never going to get a break, are we?
Mark says, "Are you sure? Can't someone else take it this time?"
The only thing that means, as far as I'm concerned, is Mark thinks I'm not capable of handling my job right now. Heaven knows what the Chief told them in my absence. "Keep in mind that Jason's mental state blah blah blah..." Whatever.
"He said he needs us!" If I've got a job to do, I'll get it done, and I'd hope you'd know me better by now.
The Chief continues, "You're needed back on Patalon. This morning, the local authorities discovered the base where the attack originated, and it's completely intact and fully manned and operational. It's got a munitions factory which has apparently been supplying all of Spectra's forces in that region for the past year. They're on the verge of moving out four class-12 mechs, so your immediate action is imperative."
No, we really can't leave this to the locals. Locals tend to screw things up beyond belief, rarely doing more than running up a body count for their own side. Martyrdom is great for raising morale, but it's not good as a strategy. Mark starts asking questions, and I try not to think of men with spades shoveling a small mountain of dirt over Chris's body. We're leaving them all behind rapidly because we're on the highway. I can't go back and make them stop.
Back home, we get into our uniforms and launch the Phoenix. Once we're well on our way, Tiny can handle all the piloting, and we break off to do our own thing. I head for the kitchen and make a cup of coffee. The warmth relaxes my hands, and it's comfortable once it gets inside. Mark walks into the kitchen with Princess, and I know he's going to tell me not to have coffee prior to a mission because it'll dehydrate me and it'll make me jittery, but instead he says nothing. He and Princess leave, but abruptly he returns.
"I'm only going to ask this once, so be honest." Mark folds his arms and studies me carefully. "Are you up to this?"
"What are you, afraid this'll turn into a Star Trek episode?" I grin. "Some weird alien will turn up and pull Chris out of my mind..."
"...and then I choose between staying in a fantasy world and coming back to save all of you?"
"If you don't think you're all right, you can stay in the ship."
Mark's got absolutely no accusation in his voice. Maybe he means it, but I know this would end up on my permanent record somewhere, that I wasn't able to perform my own job, and anyhow, I'm okay. I'm not hung-over and I'm not paralyzed with grief. "I'm all right. I don't want to stay in the ship."
"If you change your mind, just let me know."
I'm not an idiot: I know Mark's going to put me in the disposable role for this mission, designing the work so four could pull it off and then creating a redundant position for me. If he has to pull me, nothing will be lost. Hell, in the same situation, I'd do the same. Regardless, they can use me out there. So I'm going.
By the time we reach Patalon, Mark's outlined our entire plan. Princess is going to have to find any stockpiled munitions in the plant and wire them to blow. Since there's no way five of us can carry enough explosives to blow four class-12s, we need to rely on their stores to do it for us. If we can get one of their mechs to detonate, it may well take the others with it. Mark is going to help Princess as best he can. Keyop will be staying in the ship. That surprises me: I won't be in a redundant role? Oh, actually, I will be anyhow. Mark wants Tiny and me to go through the entire base doing as much visible damage as we can. We're to draw the Spectrans' fire so they spend their energy chasing us rather than the real threat. There's going to be a lot of running and definitely some fighting, and he'd rather Tiny face this kind of threat than Keyop. It doesn't take Stephen Hawking to figure out Keyop would be in my place if I'd begged off. We'll load up with all the explosives we can carry before disembarking on our separate courses.
This base is huge. Even if we fired missile after missile into it, I'm not sure we could gut the place. There are two parts of the base, one the munitions factory and the far larger segment a mech factory divided into quarters. Each of those quarters is protected by a blast shield which will remain sealed until the mech within is ready for action, kind of like a chick hatching from an egg. A mile-high chick equipped with thermonuclear missiles.
The problem, as I point out to Mark, is that the Spectrans aren't as stupid as we'd like to think. They know they stockpile munitions here. They're not going to leave them positioned so if they detonate, either by accident or because of us, they'll take out the other section. Although the two segments are connected, that's to make access easier. They put the mech factory here because they already had the manpower and supply lines. But they have to have made sure the two sections are protected from one another. Mark disagrees. We're going to use his plan. It's nice to have my opinions valued.
The shaft we'll enter leads into the bay linking the two sections, the only one which regularly admits base personnel. When Keyop's baby-sitting the ship far away, we wait until the door opens for one of theirs.
The hell of it is, if we could get one of those four blast shields open, I'd bet we could fire in a bird missile and hit one of those incomplete mechs. Whether they'd detonate depends on whether Spectra installed the generators and how close the things are to operational. They may not have their complete armor yet. Mark considers this momentarily, and authorizes me to check it out at my own discretion. Once we're able, we split off. Tiny and I don't set our explosives to timers, and although we try to keep the base's structural integrity intact so he and I can escape at the end, we're able to do a lot of cosmetic damage. We're also leaving a very clear, very straight trail for them to intercept. Mark and Princess will probably have their own guards to face, but not as many. For the moment, we two constitute the prime threat.
The mech hangars dwarf the two of us, and instantly we part company. The first quarter-section we enter is easily the size of Shea stadium if it had a dome over it. The mech dominates the entire quarter.
The Chief wasn't kidding when he said we needed to act immediately: all they have left to do is apply the final coat of paint. They could launch now if they got their acts together. So far there's been some combat, but not as much as I see ahead of me. I launch into the oncoming crowd. When I'm done with them, I head up to the surface of the mech to figure out what I need to do. The thing is shaped like a grub. It's sleeping curled for now, but it's got six legs with sharp pincers tucked up under its chin, and the mother-of-pearl cast to its outer hull shows where it's been painted. It looks to me like a heat-resistant coating. This sucker's destined for underground, not the air. They're never opening those blast doors. Once it's ready, the crew will probably abandon the base by activating all four and eating their way into Patalon's surface. This explains, in part, why Spectra is running out of natural resources.
Just for kicks, I've put a tracking device on the hull of the grub-mech, but I'm sure it won't stay if the machine does head out. A moderate explosive charge does little more than dirty the metal plates along the top. At this point, my options are to get inside or else to hope Princess' bomb job will do the trick. Neither option pleases me. The course Tiny and I had to run to reach here convinced me no bomb blast would reach, and we passed through several layers of explosive shielding. This factory is a concrete bunker all its own, as impervious to external explosions as concrete and steel reinforcement can make it. The other option, to get inside the grub and do damage from within, seems even worse, overcomplicating the situation so I'd have to escape first from the mech and then from the base. There's too much that can go wrong in that kind of situation.
On the other hand, as I think about it, natural grubs hate heat and direct sunlight. If we're able to somehow set off a very hot, very powerful blast within the factory, those blast shields will keep the explosion in rather than doing what a normal building would and let it out by shattering. All that force would almost certainly crack the hull, and once one went, all four would go.
"G-1," I radio. No good. He and Princess are too far for the signal to penetrate all this metal and concrete shielding. In a moment of calm, while the Spectrans hunt for me below, I scan the area for Tiny. He's nowhere. "G-5?" No answer.
The question is, what can I use to create an explosion that massive? Nothing I have on hand would serve. I'm not sure how much ammunition they've loaded into the mechs by now. That leaves their power generators, which have to be massive. A class-12 typically has twenty generators because the ships themselves are so monumental, but by now all of them should be positioned within.
As I'm running over my options, I'm also running over the surface of the mech and through the scaffolding and up into the beams on the ceiling, raining feather shuriken into the Spectrans below and all around hunting for me. They haven't drawn a bead on me yet.
In order to build the mech, the Spectrans have had to use lots of motor vehicles to manipulate the tremendous metal shields. Electric motors can't lift loads of that magnitude, which means they must have gasoline tanks somewhere. I can't spot a garage anywhere near, but if I can, that might help. The trouble is, a gasoline explosion would roll outward rather than upward. It might kill a good handful of Spectrans, but it won't blow a hole in the mech. A big old tank of hydrogen would be a blessing, but that I doubt they've kept on hand.
Pausing way up in the scaffolding to collect my thoughts and let the Spectrans get nervous waiting for me to return, I look around. This hangar is enormous, but why did they divide the place into quarters? If they'd left it undivided, they could have constructed a class-24 or even a class-36 mech in here.
That's when I realize, they needed to install a huge structural support network in this cavern. They didn't choose this spot because it was right for what they needed--they chose it because of the munitions factory! This area isn't granite. It's mostly earth and softer rock. A cavern this huge must require massive amounts of support! If they tried to install one large blast shield the way a class-24 would require, they'd virtually insure the cavern would collapse on them and their mech.
Well, damn! I fly up to the highest point of the ceiling and bang on it with my gun. Here there's the blast shield, twin doors designed to protect the area beneath and then slide open to let the mech exit. But closer to the center, where the four corners of the different quarters meet...it's far less sturdy! There's no blast shielding overhead because at the apex, the structure can't support it.
This is brilliant. Using the drill attachment for my gun, I drill through to the next quarter, and I slide my arm through to place a tracking device there and another on my side. They're keyed to frequency beta, to distinguish them from the one on the mech itself, and this close to the top the signal should penetrate. I'm excited now. Maybe I should line the central support beam with explosives as well, but I don't want to do immediate structural damage. I want the supports to stay intact, because only then will the bunker keep the entire blast contained. This trick worked at the very end of the Gulf War, and that's probably the reason the war ended when it did. The service men took a howitzer cannon and packed it with a few hundred sticks of dynamite, then dropped it out of a helicopter nose-first into a concrete bunker. The cannon penetrated the concrete like a needle going into a balloon, and when it hit the bottom, it detonated. The explosion was completely contained by the walls designed to keep an explosion out, and everyone died instantly in a tremendous kiln.
This isn't going to be pretty, no. Effective, yes. Patalonians will chuckle about this around their dinner tables for a few weeks, probably adding that it's too bad Zoltar's family wasn't stationed in a bunker just like this one.
I check the time, and it's around now Tiny and I should be leaving this party. I try radioing him, but I only get static. It sounds like he responded. We'll meet on the way out. I drop to the floor in the middle of numerous Spectrans, and I take out a few as I speed toward the exit.
A large group springs from behind a stack of canisters where they've been waiting for me. I take down the first two on reflex alone. As I'm dealing with the remaining half-dozen, one of them yelps in terror, only he's looking the wrong way. It's sheer instinct that makes me fly into the air, gun drawn. Seconds after, a Spectran in one of the construction vehicles blows right past where I was standing.
That bastard! Sure, he might have taken me down, but he nearly killed five of his own men! I swivel the gun in my hand and fire; the safety mechanism will detect which end of the gun my suit is on and engage the opposite. The claw and cable snag the driver around the neck and, as I retract the cable, yank him from the driver's seat. The runaway vehicle crashes into one of the grub-mech's supports.
The retractor reels the man in like a trout, and I spin with the momentum to crash him into the steel wall. I have him pinned to the wall with my left hand on his throat, and I hit him hard in the jaw with my right, then in the stomach, then again in the jaw. Again. It feels good. This asshole! What the hell did he think he was doing? Doesn't he have any common sense? Doesn't he even care for his friends' lives? What an idiot! You're never going to do it again. You're not going to play the devil until everyone around you lies dead! You're never going to drive again! Never! Never! Never!
My bracelet buzzes, and I spin. Tiny's running up behind me. Oh shit...how long have I been beating a dead body? I can't even breathe. Turning, I see something awful in my grip, something ugly, and I drop the man. There are Spectrans all around, staring, absolutely chalk-faced. No one moved on me that whole time: no one dared. They didn't want to risk what I'd do to them. Oh shit.
Coming up alongside, Tiny stops inches from me, eyes huge. I snarl at the remaining Spectrans, "Who's next?" and then bolt for the hallway. Absolutely no one interferes as we blaze through the corridor, wings straight back from our shoulders. A few times I stumble over wreckage we left on our way through the first time, but not once do I fall. Shortly we're back outside, streaking back toward the Phoenix, dashing from cover to cover. I can see there's blood and worse all over my gloves, all the way back to my shoulder and streaking my chest. It comes from only one source, and it's hard to keep running.
Tiny looks ashen, and I don't blame him. I must look that way, too. He leaves me the instant we get inside, and I dash for the back rooms before Keyop gets a good look. I can't let Mark see me like this. I just can't. Locked in the bathroom, I detransmute and retransmute, and the uniform comes back clean. That's when I look in the mirror and find the man's blood all over my face. The pump doesn't give me enough soap. Why won't the water get hotter? Why won't it come off?
My bracelet beeps, and Mark's voice emerges. "Everyone in the ship sound off."
"G-2," I manage, staring at myself in the mirror. I look pink and damp, but fine otherwise. The others are counting down on the bracelet. When they get to five, we know we're all aboard, so Tiny lifts off.
I have to get to the cockpit to tell them about the trackers. As I enter, none of them spares me a glance. Good. Princess sends the signal to detonate the munitions segment, and it goes. We can tell, though, it doesn't touch the mech factory. "Ready a missile," I say. My voice sounds like hell, but they don't react. Mark lowers the gear even as I set the controls to lock onto tracker channel beta. Two signals show on the display, blinking steadily almost atop one another.
This shouldn't be hard. The missiles are going to do all the work. "Tiny, we need to be heading almost straight downward when we fire," I say, and Mark orders everyone to take their seats, vacating the front so I can sit alongside Tiny to fire when ready. He's not asking me to explain what I'm doing. I don't think I could at this point. Half a minute from now, everyone we just saw will be burnt alive in a kiln a thousand times hotter than any pottery fire. That dead man will be gone. Burnt away. Everyone will become ashes and dust buried in one giant pit.
Two miles up, Tiny pulls us into a nose-dive. This shouldn't be hard--just fire. The missile knows how to track the signal. Jason, you told it how to track. You double-checked the channel. Just fire. Please. I just need to fire the missile. I just need to push the red button. And I do.
Until the missile hits and penetrates, I can't breathe. No one speaks. The ground rumbles, but at first there's no cave-in. Good--the shielding held. Then one of the mechs blows, and that explosion takes down another, and another. It's a chain reaction until they all go. There can't be anyone left alive down there to see the final one blow. They may not even have seen the first because of the internal concussion.
Then I'm still. I'm not listening, and I have no idea if anyone's talking. My ears are ringing. My hand stings, and my throat feels raw. When it seems as if I won't be missed, I head for the back, for the sleeping quarters. There I pull the glove off my right hand. The knuckles and fingers are rubbed raw. How many times did I hit that man? Swallowing convulsively, I head across the hall to the galley kitchen and pull out the medical kit. The first aid cream and a few loose bandages will have to serve until we can return to base. I'm sick to my stomach dressing the wound. How long was I beating a dead body?
The door cracks open, and I jump. It's Tiny. He slips inside and then shuts the door. Locks it. I turn back to taping the bandage in place, then work the glove over it without tugging the gauze loose.
"I know how you feel."
I look over at Tiny, who's trying to act as if he wasn't the one who just spoke. There aren't many other candidates, of course, since he and I are the only two in the room. Please. "You do?"
"At first, what you did to that guy, I wanted to do that to the person who killed my family."
Oh shit, I totally forgot. Tiny's parents were killed by a drunk driver. His parents and his older brother and younger sister. After closing the first aid kit, I turn my back and slide the box back into its slot on the shelf.
Tiny continues, "Seeing you do that...that's like fantasy fulfillment. But you can't. I know the driver's dead already, and there's no way you can get back at him. Just one person's careless stupidity, and he had no right to take anyone away like that. But he did, and you can't change it."
I sit at the table and fold my arms, keeping my chin down. "Don't tell me to make peace with it or some new-age garbage."
"I'm not telling you to do anything. But you know what the problem is, Jason? I'll tell you what. It doesn't seem right, but one act of stupidity can change everyone's world, just like that." He snaps. "But the penalty for being stupid isn't death."
"It should be."
"Maybe and maybe not. You know the guy who killed my family?" When I nod, Tiny says, "I saw him last summer."
"You're kidding?" Now he's got my attention. I'm staring right at him. "What did you do to him?"
"Found out where he lived. He's over in Merrick. Lives there with his wife and daughter. I drove by one time when I could see he was home and pulled over in front of his house, pulled one of the spark plugs in the van like you showed me, and asked if I could use his phone to call triple-A. He said sure. And that was it. I just wanted to see what he was like."
I'm frowning. "Did he recognize you?"
"Actually," and Tiny chuckles self-consciously, "I used your name and your triple-A card. You've got a generic enough name." I laugh softly. He says, "I didn't task him about it. I've read all the documents the Chief has. The guy did time for vehicular homicide and paid a huge fine. I think he's back on the road again. And I've apparently got a multi-million dollar insurance award invested for me somewhere, like that makes it better. But the point is, he cleaned up his life. He made one mistake, and now it's over."
"It's not all over for you. It's not all over for Molly or Devin."
"Of course not. But there's nothing you can do to change that. I'm not telling you to make peace with it, because I don't think you've ever willingly made peace with anything," and here he tries to smile right after he says it because he imagines I'm about to hit him, "but you need to face reality."
"This wasn't an act of God." I swallow. "It's not like an earthquake or a tornado or a chunk of an exploding mech landing on someone's house."
"But it is just like a chunk of a mech landing on someone's house." Tiny nods vigorously. "Someone did something evil, and they didn't mean to get that particular person, but they did. And the victims deal with the consequences no matter how tough it is. That's just life."
I say, "So how do you just get on with everything?"
"I figure I'm doing this for them," Tiny says. "I'm doing it for my Mom and Dad and Stacy and Ben because it makes sense of them dying. You need to figure out what you do that makes sense of Chris dying. And going postal on someone...it just doesn't make sense."
He leaves me alone for a while. My heart's still pounding. I want more coffee, but now I really don't think my system could handle it. Tiny doesn't know what he's talking about, and he doesn't know me. He was seven when his family died. That's a lot different from what happened now. My hand still stings like crazy every time I make a fist, so I keep it flat again. My stomach is all butterflies, even when I decide I'd better return to the cockpit.
We're already out of the Patalon system, and Mark's filling out some of the paperwork. He asks me what I did to penetrate the shields, and it's hard to give him a coherent summary. When I close my eyes, I see a man in green reeled back from a construction vehicle at the end of my cable gun. My hands are shaking, so I tuck my wings around me and keep them clasped from the inside. Princess and Keyop leave the cockpit. Tiny's acting like he's not listening.
After asking about seventy questions to clarify what I just told him, Mark says, "Well, that seems to have worked, at any rate."
Jerk. Can't even admit I was right about the munitions factory not having the blasting power to reach the mechs. Without a word, I go sit, keeping my arms folded and my cape closed. Tilting back my head, I try to take a deep breath.
Mark finally says, "I shouldn't have questioned whether you were able to do your job. We really needed you out there."
"I need some time off." That came out of me without thought, and I bite my lip as if I'm going to say more. But I have to--if I don't follow it up, he's going to start asking another seventy questions until everything froths out. There just aren't any words. No way of saying it sounds right in my head. It's either too much or it's way not enough.
Mark says, "Why? You handled yourself fine out there."
Tiny says, "Lay off him, Mark. You're getting worse than the Chief."
Mark's eyes widen. I can see him trying to protest that it's not true. Either Tiny just saved my bacon, or else it's going to backfire when Mark decides to act twice as anal as the Chief ever could. Eventually he says, "How much time?"
My hands are shaking. If I say, "Never mind," that's going to blow up in my face. So I say, "Two days?"
"Oh. That's fine. We might get that anyhow. Just leave the G-2 with us if you go anywhere." Mark returns to his paperwork. "I'll put it at the bottom of the report so when the Chief signs off on it, he'll sign off on two days vacation for you too."
I try to meet Tiny's eyes to telegraph him a thank-you, but he doesn't look my way for a long time.
Hi, Chris. I didn't get a chance to talk to you before, and now I'm not sure what I should be telling you. I figure you're the one with all the answers now, and I still have a whole lot of questions. I'm sorry I didn't get back here until Thursday. I guess the cemetery isn't such a bad place. Not as bad as when it was full of people on Tuesday. You don't have a headstone yet, but some folks left you flowers. I didn't bring any. So sue me. They filled in your grave so it's a bit higher than the rest of the ground, then laid sod over the top of it. Eventually the small heap will settle and the grass will take root, and it will be as if no one ever opened the ground to put you in.
I figure you deserve an explanation. The reason I've been so in-and-out lately is because I've been fighting in the war as part of G-Force. I know it seems ridiculous, but I have. I'm the Condor, the second in command. That's why I wasn't able to keep up the pace as a full-time student at NYU. That's why I was about a billion light-years away when I was supposed to be driving you to that party.
Your brother showed up at ISO yesterday with a package for me. Apparently that's why your dad wanted to talk to me. Thanks for the early birthday gift. You're right--it does look just like Sweetheart. I'm using the key ring now.
I thought about knocking over a port-o-potty in your memory, but I think I came up with something a bit better. I'm going to do some driving one night a month for a group called Safe Rides, that drives people home on high-drinking, high-traffic nights like prom night and every Friday and Saturday. I still have to clear it with the sponsors over at NYU, but I'm lobbying to put the Safe Rides logo on the side of my team car. I don't want to get political, but some of the people who run the program think I should talk about drunk driving in interviews from time to time, like after winning a race or whatever. They said having a professional racer say he'd never get behind the wheel after having a beer will mean more than having anyone else say it. You never know with racing fans. They're incredibly loyal, and if they'll buy Tide because their favorite driver is in the Tide Car, maybe they'll fight harder against drunk driving if I say to. I'll try it once.
Shit, Chris. I'm going to miss you. I still don't know about that prayer on your card, the one that says weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning. It's been a few mornings now. The mourning hasn't turned into dancing, but maybe there are still things to be done. So maybe what it says at the end is true, that my soul may sing praise to God and not be silent. Maybe doing something constructive is like singing praise. And no, Chris, I won't be silent. I promise.