Chapter 21: Getting Out of Dodge
Mr. Stone walked around behind the bar and punched something behind it. “Todd: what’s going on in 7G?”
The words hung in silence as, on the screen far away on the opposite wall of the Operations Room, Sabine walked towards the camera. Emily said, “Urbex in white and boots?”
“Well, she is blonde,” Amy answered calmly.
“Ruh-roh!” Emily replied.
“Scooby-Doo was Asian?” Jason asked.
Amy said, drily, “Banana Republic is the only brand I’d wear to underground infiltrations.”
“I forget. Which one of us is racist now?” Emily asked.
“Don’t fight, kids,” Jason broke in. “You can all be racist!”
“It’s not racist to say that blondes are dumb,” Amy went on. “Cosmic rays to the brain. Stands to reason.”
“Wow. You must be really good at science to know that stuff, Miss Wong,” Emily shot back.
Mr. McNeely’s voice broke over the conversation, emanating from the walls with an eerie, old-fashioned sound. Could those actually be analog speakers? “Here we are. Someone reset the defaults wrong, so the door cycled open when I tried to close it.”
Mr. Stone stood still for a long, self-controlling second. “You could have…Never mind. Set up a route leading her back to the surface.”
“Okay, but I’m picking up a nanobot following her. That’s weird.”
“Todd, the point of nanobots is that they get anywhere that’s not sealed off. Never mind; we’ll just overpressure the tunnel after the girl’s gone and blow it out.”
“I, uhm,” Mr. McNeely continued talking, but no-one was listening to him, because the door to the library had just banged open, allowing the Captain to trot through. The big wolf dog had a leash in his mouth, and whined urgently.
“Isn’t he supposed to be in Babylon right now?” John asked.
“He’s no ordinary dog, Mr. Roy,” Mr. Stone answered. John eyed the older man for a second. Was he being serious? And, apparently, he was. John liked Mr. Stone, but he really didn’t have much of a sense of humour.
Rafaella rolled her eyes visibly. “So the whole time-for-walkies thing is a cute way of saying…”
“That we need to get you kids out of here,” Mr. Stone finished. “Todd? Is there a Liberty Clipper ready to go?”
The Captain’s whine shifted tones from urgent to happy, and he turned and trotted back through the door, and, presumably, back to his mistress’s side in the City of Man.
Once again, Mr. McNeely was left unheard, all five kids interrupted, babbling about the spaceship outside. Because there was! There was a spaceship right beyond that door, and there was no way that John was leaving this base right now except on that spaceship. If he were allowed, because the worst thing about being fifteen was that you couldn’t just take the spaceship out for a ride whenever you wanted.
“Hold your horses, guys. We can’t be opening launch doors in the floor of a supermarket loading dock in the middle of the day. We’d end up with a delivery truck falling into the trophy hall.”
There was a moment’s silence, and then Amy asked, “What about the Fairlane? Couldn’t it phase Rosa out through the ground? And I could probably cloak it on the way.”
John looked over at Amy, and she smiled tightly back. Of course she had no idea whether she could cloak something as big as a spaceship. But it was worth a try.
“It’s worth a try,” Mr. Stone said. He pulled out an ancient-looking flip phone out of his pocket and began laboriously poking a text, old person-style. The kids watched, and waited, as, on the screens, the fight over Philadelphia got steadily fiercer, while Sabine continued forward, no sign of a door to the outside in sight. “Okay,” he said at last. “Mr. Brown is bringing the Fairlane down through the utility tunnels. He’ll be here in a few minutes. John? Could you come here please?”
John walked over to Mr. Stone. “John, I’ve never met the person you were cloned from, but I know people who have. They call him arrogant, hateful, deranged. You’re not that person, are you?”
“I…sir. Mrs. Wong said that I should never think of myself as a person who is anything. That I should think about what I’m doing right now, and try to do the right thing. It’s hard, though.”
“It’s when it gets easy that you have to worry, son.” Mr. Stone held up a pen, and waved it slowly in front of John, peering intently into his eyes. “How’s your head?”
John wasn’t sure what that meant, but he didn’t have a headache, anymore, so he ventured, “Okay, I guess.”
“That’s the other thing. When you, I mean, I guess, when the original person in your body erased his memories, he used Brad Neilsen and Henry Wong’s minds to put a new one together.”
John just stared. What the hell? Although he also wondered for a second if Brad Neilsen liked potato pancakes.
“I’m told that it was a matter of skills, not personality. Don’t look at me that way, son. I don’t know anything about this psionic mumbo-jumbo that I haven’t been told. But for what it’s worth, I’ve known all three of you, and you seem like your own man, John. The reason I’m telling you this is that we’re told that there were fragments of personal memory caught up with the process, kind of like loose string, and that we were to try not to tug the strings too hard.”
John nodded, mouth dry. The weird sickness that had struck him in shop class surfaced at the back of his mind, but he put it down easiily peeking from the corner of his eyes at Amy. He pictured her in her monkey nightcap by the fire that night at the cabin. He wasn’t going to lose the last three months that easily!
“But we can’t protect you forever. You can stay here while Rafaella escapes, before we start pulling those strings in even more directions than we already have. But…”
John interrupted. “No!”
“…I know you well enough to know that you’ll want to go with your friends.”
“None of us can really judge what’s going on in your head, John. And you won’t be able to put a new mind together for yourself this time, either. If I let you go, I risk you coming back a brain-dead living corpse.” Mr. Stone looked long and steadily at John. “I know you think that I’m some old stiffie.” Behind John, Amy, Emily and Jason giggled. “But this is what being responsible looks like.” Now he stopped looking at John and shifted his gaze to Rafaella instead. That was Mr. Stone for you, always life lessons for somebody. “Please don’t make this a mistake.”
John nodded, not trusting himself to speak. There were so many questions that he could ask, but, at the same time, he could see answers and more questions reaching out to infinity, and the conversation would take forever. And he would probably never get answers to the questions that really mattered, like why didn’t he know kung-fu the way that Henry did. Sure, Mr. Wong was only allowed to teach the inner secrets of the Eight Spirit Temple to one son and one daughter, but if he had Henry’s skills… It wasn’t fair!
A thunking sound came distantly through the walls, and Jason ran to the double door and hauled them open so hard that for a moment John was actually worried that the doors would come off their hinges. And then Mr. McNeely’s voice reverberated over the speakers again. “Okay, don’t worry, I’ve got her.”
John looked back at the screen showing Sector 7G. Now instead of picking her way down through the tunnels, Sabine was suspended in mid-air in a glistening tube of some kind. “Got her how, Todd? Mr. Stone snapped.
“I’ve sealed her up in a containment tube and evacuated the tunnel. No more nanobots.”
“And how are you going to get her out of the tube, Todd?”
“I’m sending it up to the surface. There’s only about a minute’s worth of air in there, anyway.”
“The nanobots are still up there, Todd!”
“Never mind, Todd. Kids, looks like you’re going to have a passenger.”
“How do we manage that?” Rafe asked, crisply. “You guys probably don’t recognise her because she plays hooky all the time, but that’s a Tatammy student. This could blow the school’s secret.”
Mr. Stone shrugged. “That’s what costumes are for, Rafaella.”
“Sir. Respectfully, tall Asian twins, a blonde kid, a brunette, and a tall Caucasian? It’s not like there’s not a Tatammy High clique with exactly that membership. This girl may be a blonde, but that doesn’t mean she’s stupid.”
“So keep her in the brig instead of inviting her up to the bridge to play the Nintendo,” Mr. Stone said. “Rosa should be able to handle that. It’s not like we have a choice.”
Rafaella nodded. It all seemed so reasonable, but John couldn’t help feeling that it was bad idea.
Amy spoke next. “What do you mean, “You?” Aren’t you coming, Mr. Stone?”
“No, Rosa can handle the supervision chores. She’s been a babysitter often enough before.”
John would have protested the babysitting part except for the way that Mr. Stone made a meaningful thrust of his chin towards the windows overlooking the Operations Room. If there was one thing that the last ten minutes proved, it was that Mr. McNeely needed a babysitter more than they did.
“Todd,” Mr. Stone continued, “Is our intruder aboard Rosa?”
“Yes, Denver. Are you going with the kids?”
“No, I’ll be down to join you on the monitors in a minute.”
Now there was a honk from the trophy room, and the purring sound of Detroit iron. The sound of an old V8 was the kind of thing, John now appreciated, that a motorhead like Brad Neilson would know. He followed Jason out the door, the girls following on. Down the trophy hall, the Cadillac Fairlane was parked in front of the blue-and-white spaceship, driver’s door open, and Mr. Brown nowhere to be seen. Of course, John thought to himself. Two separate Hobgoblins were in operation right now. Mr. Brown’s place was at the McNeely operations centre below the mansion.
John broke into a dead run. There was no way that he was going to let Jason drive the Fairlane up into Rosa’s hold. That was the first car that Henry and Brad had ever driven, and John was going to make it a three-peat if he had to throw Jason across the room telekinetically. If he could. Jason was getting stronger, and John’s telekinetic field was topping out. John was actually hitting harder with his mental blast these days.
Unfortunately, Jason was also much faster than John, and was standing at the door long before John raced up. But he smiled and gestured inside, at the driver’s seat. “Don’t birk the ship, John.”
Again a memory that John could at last pin to a familiar source; two of them, in fact, Henry and Brad laughing together at Galaxy Quest in the shade of the Wong’s back porch, one bright summer day. And there were those fragments of personal memory, again, so that in his mind John could hold the memory of two female laughs and two mental images seen, in an oh-so familiar way, surreptitiously from the corner of two boys’ eyes: Jenny Wong and Nita Guzman, so much younger than now, but seen in such a way that John could almost feel the longing. How many years had Brad and Henry pined for those girls? Well, at least it had turned out well for Henry.
Then John got into the car, carefully put it into first gear, and, just like that, he was driving. Skills not his own took over, as John guided the front tyres onto the ramp and gently touched the accelerator. He frowned as he corrected for the slightest drift to the left from misaligned front wheels and rolled up the ramp, cutting power smoothly as he crested the level of the hold, feeling the engine brake the car as though it were part of him. The weird, alien HUD lurked in his consciousness like a window seen from peripheral vision, and John knew that he could call it up as he needed. There was the phasing control –and it could be done invisibly, too! No need for Amy to stretch her powers any more today, then.
John parked the car at the edge of the bay, set the parking brake, put it back into gear, and got out, looking around carefully as he did so for wheel chocks. There they were! He was carefully setting one under the left front wheel when he heard the rest of the team come up behind him.
John looked round. They were in their fatigues. “Dress code, dude,” Jason said.
Rafe nodded, tightly. “Jas…”
“Oh, never mind. The next team I lead, I’m going to try being the actual boss of, to start with.”
“Oh noes! I’ve lost confidence in management!” Jason replied.
“And possibly execute the team wiseass. To encourage the others.” Rafe finished.
“You live and you learn,” Emily said.
“First secret of management: Execute Jason more.” Amy added.
“That’s a secret?” John asked.
“I’m going to go somewhere quiet to cry,” Jason said, pouting hugely.
John finished putting on his uniform fatigues. That quick change ring was so awesome! Amy came over and adjusted the neck of his cowl. Darn! He’d been sure that he’d got that right for a change. “There’s a speck of grease on your nose, you know,” Amy said quietly, almost nonchalantly, until her voice broke at the end.
“That’s what I get for sticking my nose into trouble.” He replied. Amy turned away, and Jason winked at him. Emily and Rafaella either didn’t notice, or pretended not to.
A woman’s voice spoke with a Russian accent so, warm and low that the decks of the bay seemed to vibrate with it. “Welcome aboard, Class of ’17. I hope I’m not spoiling your graduation cruise.”
“Hi, Rosa,” Emily said.
“Hello, Emily. You’re as pretty as your great-grandfather told me you were.”
John had noticed that Emily did not take compliments well. None of the Neilsens did, but Rosa was the superintelligent ship’s computer AI, so she must know what she was doing. Into the brief silence, Rosa continued, “So where would you like to go today?”
Jason spoke up before John could open his mouth. “How about Mars?”
“What fun! Any particular location in mind?
“How about Arsia Mons?” John said.
“All the archaeologists want to see the volcanic caves. You know that those volcanoes may not have even been there when there was advanced life on Mars, John.”
“And maybe they were, and their outgassing thickened up the atmosphere enough for multicellular life to flourish on Mars,” John answered.
“That’s the other possibility. Well. Any votes to the contrary? No? If you do change your minds, you can let me know any time in the next hour, while we’re in transit.”
Amy asked, “You can get to Mars in an hour, Rosa? Why don’t Tony and Tara catch rides with you?”
“They do, Amy. But it’s hard to get out of here without planning things well in advance, and they’re afraid that if Victory finds out about me, she’ll be dragging them all over the Solar System and beyond. And they’re probably right. That woman is crazy.”
“Intense,” Rafaella said.
“Crazy.” Rosa said firmly. “Believe me, I’ve monitored the conversations. Well, okay. Not technically crazy. But…”
“Intense,” Rafaella said again.
“Okay, intense. And a boor, to boot. Final offer. Now, everybody except the person who is going to be operating the Fairlane up to the bridge and strap yourselves in.” With that, a line lit up on the floor to lead the rest of the kids out of the bay, as John got back into the car.
This time, the HUD sprang up in his mind with the crisp rightness of feel that came with all of the Cadillac’s other controls. This was it. John was sitting in a powerful, beautiful, antique car that could also travel time and space and the dimensions. He felt elated. And he also felt like he was sitting in an old lady’s car. Which wasn’t really fair to Mrs. Crudup, who hadn’t always been an old lady. It was just that, in the same way that John knew that he could get this machine up to a hundred on the Interstate, he knew that he could get directly to Babylon, or, for that matter, Mars, if he just wanted to take some risks.
Okay, a lot of risks, to be sure, but that wasn’t the point. It was a crime not to drive a machine like this to its limits, and it was a shame that he wasn’t going to get the chance to do that today. John shifted the car into phase space, and moments later, felt acceleration push him into his seat. Being invisible and immaterial didn’t mean being out of Earth’s gravitational field, apparently. It lasted for several minutes, and then released.
Rosa’s voice sounded through his open window. “You’re free to move around the ship, now, John. If you’d like to come up to the bridge, I’m laying on a little spread. The Major filled up my larder quite nicely the last time he was aboard. Nothing fresh, unfortunately, but there’s a good selection of cheese, nothing like that horrid American stuff, some crackers, really good sausage, or so I’m told, and a bottle each of Riesling and Crimean champagne.”
John opened his mouth to tell Rosa that American teenagers weren’t allowed to drink.
“Don’t worry, John. I would be perfectly aware that you’re not legal drinking age yet even if Amy hadn’t reminded me already. And now she and her brother are wrestling. So cute. Two small bottles are not going to make much of a dent in the six of you.”
“Wait. The six of us?”
“The five team members and your guest.”
“Sabine’s supposed to be locked up!”
“Someone should have told me that, because this Sabine girl just walked into the bridge.”