21 The Countdown
Jason pulled the boat up the beach, trying not to step on the dead fish. The virus stank—Winston said that was the ammonia, whatever it was made the ocean smell like a dirty catbox.
“We’ve been monitoring the virus. It doubles in size every few hours.”
“Doubles?” Neri asked.
Jason nodded. “At this rate it’ll surround the island in a few days. If you’re there, the only way you’ll be able to leave is by boat. I don’t like the thought of leaving you trapped here, but Orca isn’t exactly safe these days.”
“I will stop it. As soon as Malakat goes from the pyramid.”
“That’s if he keeps his promise.”
“He will.” Neri said, “He wants the virus to stop too, and he knows only I can do it. Or all will die.”
Neri stood up and turned away. She looked haggard, almost like when she’d been so sick.
Jason stood and walked with her. “You’re missing Charley, aren’t you?”
Brett found Cass in the galley, along with the rest of Orca’s juvenile population.
“They agreed to leave the pyramid.”
“They’re not the only ones leaving. We’re all being evacuated to the mainland.”
Brett hadn’t heard this. “Not me, no way!”
“Orders are orders.” Cass said.
Dianne spotted them and added, “Absolutely right Cass, and to be followed to the letter.”
“There’s no way you’re staying on board when Orca’s becoming a nuclear launch pad.”
“But...” Brett looked from his mother to Cass, who winked. He finished, “But I’d like it put on record that I seriously resent being called nonessential personnel.”
Cass said, “Well, Brett, let’s go pack and make sure Winston can handle everything while we’re gone. You mind if we get a later shuttle, commander? It’s that or showing up on land with no clean undies.”
Dianne laughed at both of them. “All right, pack. But let me know when you’re leaving so I can see you off.”
Once they reached the safety of the lab, Cass became all business. “My Dad called—they were suppose to return to Orca tomorrow, but nobody’s coming on board now that Praxis has taken over. Winston! We’re all getting the boot so you have to do this part.”
“I am ready for instruction.” Winston said.
Brett turned away as his com went off. Jason said, “Everything set to go, Brett?”
“Guess what? We’re being evacuated to the mainland weather we like it or not.”
“What? What about the plan?”
“Winston’ll follow it through. Cass is briefing him now.”
“Well... have a nice trip top the mainland.”
“Sure. Good luck.” Brett said and signed off.
Dianne appeared in the doorway. “Why aren’t you two packed and topside?”
“Oh, we’re just tying up a few loose ends.”
“You made an exception for Ilona.” Brett grumbled.
“Agent Hauser made an exception for Ilona. She insisted. It was that or turn her over to Praxis as an alien and none of us want that. You, pack. I want to see you at reception in ten minutes. And Cass...”
Cass looked innocent.
“If you’re planning anything, as I know you are... this is serious. I don’t know if Orca will survive. Leaving now may be your only chance to see your parents again.”
Cass’ jaw dropped. She started to say something, stopped, and ran out the door.
Winston said, “Commander, do you really think..?”
“I think we need to prepare for the worst.”
Everyone was gathered in the central chamber. Malakat said, “Nothing more to be done here. Time to leave.”
“What do we do with her?” Shersheba asked, gesturing at Mera who sat in a corner.
Malakat turned to her. “We are leaving the pyramid as agreed, Mera. You may come with us or wait here for your sister. The choice is yours.”
“I will wait.”
“As you wish. Proceed.” He added in the language of the ocean planet. The soldiers turned and filed towards the pool.
Shersheba stopped to say, “The final insult. Running away in defeat.”
“We are not running away, we are merely honoring our end of the bargain. Please greet your sister for us, Mera. May her efforts bring a speedy resolution to this most pressing of problems.”
They left. Mera listened to the footsteps receding down the hall until they faded to silence. Then she stood up. Somewhere around here there would be food. And...
She reached up and touched the carved ankh in the statue’s hand. “Mother?”
“My daughter.” The statue shimmered and the hologram stood up. Mera backed away to get a good look at her. “Mother!”
“I fear time grows short. If you are seeing these messages than my worst fears have come to pass. I cannot believe...” The queen’s ghost shook her head, her face pained. “You must take control of the pyramid, Neri. If I am gone you are the only one who can protect our people. The threat may be worse... our scientists have predicted that the red virus will mutate and become deadly if... contained in the body of one who has eaten the flesh of a jali.”
Mera clapped her hands to her mouth, gagging on the thought.
“I do not want to believe anyone could do such a thing, but all who predict the future say this will happen. I hope I can stop this before it touches the world my children live in.”
The message ended and the hologram folded away. Mera wanted to scrub her brain. She’d never get the horrible image out. Someone had...
Malakat. He said he’d created the virus. Perhaps Shalamorn had suspected him, but you would need a lot of proof to accuse someone of such a horrible act, or maybe the queen hadn’t wanted to believe in it. Mera wouldn’t have believed it. Until the virus started and people became scared, she’d never seen any cruelty in her own people.
It was a few minutes before Mera could gather her thoughts. Then she went and found the food store, and took as much as she could carry back into the main chamber, where she sat at the statue’s feet and stuffed herself.
Jason was checking the helmet for the third time when his com rang. “Yes?”
“Winston. What’s happening?”
“They are leaving the pyramid. Absolutely no question.”
“Excellent. We’ll head out there.” Jason waved to Neri and started walking towards the water.
Winston said, “Jason! Jason, please wait one moment.”
“We’re given to understand Praxis may launch the nuclear torpedo at any time. It is far too dangerous to swim to the pyramid now!”
Jason and Neri looked at each other. Jason said, “You hear that?”
Neri nodded, her face stern. “We must get to the pyramid before the weapon. Mera may be there, we must get her away.”
“Right. Thanks for the warning Winston, but this might be our only chance. Keep your eyes on the sensors for the virus too, in case the pyramid gets rid of it instantly do whatever you can to stop Praxis.”
Winston opened his mouth to protest, remembered this really might be the only chance, and said, “Be careful.”
Jason nodded, cut the call, and settled the deep-dive helmet on his head.
“These guys are taking forever.” Shelby complained. The Praxis technicians still swarmed over the bomb, running checks and taking off all the failsafes.
Richter replied, “Relax, agent. The torpedo will be ready in just over an hour.”
The door opened. Louis came in with his hands behind his back and a wobbly grin on his face. “Hi. I just came to say goodbye.”
“Great.” Shelby steered him right back at the door. “See ya’ Louis.”
“You sure you couldn’t pull some strings and get my name taken off the list?” The boy whined.
“Forget it kid.”
“But you’re Praxis! You could overrule Commander Bates anytime. Couldn’t you?”
Richter looked at the kid. “What makes you think so?”
“Agent Hauser made her take Ilona Smith’s name off the list and she’s under the age limit.” Louis made an innocent face and hoped.
In the Smiths’ cabin, Ellie and Ilona were chatting, almost like normal people except that they were talking about events on the ocean planet.
“So your people are convinced the only way to escape is by migrating to earth?”
“Yes. But Malakat says the human race will fight us off. That if we wish to live here we must make war with the humans and turn them into ‘slaves.’ If only more of us knew that humans are not the warlike monsters Malakat says. If only they believed we could come here in peace. In their hearts, our people are only frightened. They don’t want war any more than you do.”
“Ilona... I’m sorry to have to say this, but in some ways Malakat is right about humans. We have done many terrible things to our own people in our history, mostly because they were frightened just as your people are now. Many earth people would be afraid of you and not welcome you.”
Ilona looked stunned. From across the room her mother said, “You are honest.”
“And you came to Orca as a spy... why? I mean, why you and not an adult, Ilona?”
Ilona looked down at her hands. “I wanted to come to Earth. I’d heard many things about your world and wanted to see it.”
“Heard? From who?”
“One of my people was lost on earth most of her life. We were friends. She told me things about your planet. Good things. I do not know where she is now, if she lives.”
The wall screen came on and Ilona jumped. Richter said, “Agent Hauser, you and your friends remain where you are.”
When the screen went dark, Ellie tried the door. “Locked from the bridge.”
“Take some men and escort them to the bridge. Agent Hauser not only concealed the fact that aliens are on board, she talked Commander Bates into helping her in the coverup.” Richter said.
“You wouldn’t have found out if it wasn’t for me.”
“Kid, for the last time-” Shelby began, but Richter stopped him.
“The young man has a point. It seems he knows as much—or more—than you do about what’s going on around here.”
Louis puffed up. “Of course. I can move all over the base and find out things and nobody bothers me.”
“What kind of things?” Richter looked down at the boy.
“Um, things like... what Commander Bates is doing. Wouldn’t you like to know about that?”
“That could prove useful. It seems there’s more to Commander Bates than meets the eye. You’d need your father’s permission.”
“That’s not a problem. I know he won’t mind.”
Upstairs, Helen reported to a room full of grumbling children with backpacks, “The last shuttle will be leaving from the pontoon in approximately five minutes.”
“You heard the machine.” Dave Hartley said, “Shout when you hear your name. Jessica Barnes.”
“Yeah.” Brett said.
“This is a pain, Dave.”
“Better than getting blown up, Nico. Tenille Colwell.”
Cass sat down next to Brett. “Got any last minute bright ideas, now’s the time to use them. Hey Louis. Better see Dave, get your name checked off.”
Louis grinned at them. “Don’t need to. I’m not going.”
“What do you mean you’re not going? This is the last shuttle.”
“I’ve got permission to stay onboard.”
Cass weighed that. “I don’t believe you. Hey Dave, Louis Danton reckons he’s been allowed to stay on board.”
“No way.” Dave said, “Louis, get to the lift. Move it.”
“I think if you check the list, you’ll find my name is missing.”
Dave turned, checking his clipboard while herding Louis toward the lift. Helen announced, “The last shuttle will leave for the mainland in exactly two minutes. Two minutes.”
Brett and Cass looked at each other, shrugged, and ran for it. They heard Dave shout as they careened through the corridors. Then footsteps—they dodged into a side tunnel and held still, pressed against the wall as a Praxis team marched past.
“Think they’ll hold the shuttle?”
“No way.” Was Cass’ opinion. “Down to the wire as it is. Uh oh—in here!” Cass waved open the nearest door and pointed to a hatch in the wall. Laundry chute. Still carrying their bags, they jumped in.
Winston watched the screen. A dozen bright spots on the screen indicated the ocean planet soldiers leaving the pyramid. But now the image was flickering worryingly. “Helen, the image is breaking up again. Are you sure your analysis is correct?”
“Are you suggesting I have a malfunction?”
“In this case I’d be happy if you did.” Winston muttered. He looked up suddenly as the door opened. “Why on earth are you two still here?”
“No time to explain.” Brett said.
“Only you haven’t seen us, right? What’s this?”
“Well I’ve been monitoring the departure of Malakat and Shersheba’s troops from the pyramid. But the image keeps breaking up and Helen informs me that they’re simply interferences causing shadings of light on the screen.”
Helen added, “The technical term for this phenomenon is ghost images.”
With growing alarm Brett asked, “As in, not Malakat’s guys leaving after all?”
“Just an electronic illusion.”
“We’ve been had!”
“We’ve got to get in touch with Jason!”
“I’ve already tried without success. I can only assume they’re swimming to the pyramid.”
Ellie was thinking ‘Spanish inquisition’ again. She noticed that Ilona, scared as the girl looked, stood in front of her mother protectively.
“You took no steps to inform me when you discovered these aliens?”
“I, ah, didn’t have time.”
“You had time to get the girl permission to stay on board.”
Shelby said, “You know, you can be charged with treason for harboring aliens? They’ve already begun spreading dangerous propaganda. We should get them back to headquarters as soon as possible.”
Richter stepped in front of him and surveyed the captives. “Not... necessarily. They could well prove far more valuable here as hostages. Take them below and hold them until further notice.”
Dianne appeared between two Praxis goons. “Just a minute, Richter. This is a marine research facility, not a prison. I won’t have you treating our employees like this.”
“I’m sorry Ms. Bates, but you’re no longer in command. Is the torpedo ready?”
“Ready sir.” Someone answered.
“Good. Then target the pyramid and prepare for countdown.”
“No!” Ilona wailed.
“Take them below.”
Behind Richter, a white-coated man spoke into the intercom. “All personnel to action stations. Repeat, all personnel to action stations.”
Shelby was smiling, an expression Dianne wanted to wipe off his face. But there was nothing she could do now. She left the bridge.
They climbed out of the pool. The pyramid was silent, its blue glow muted. “This way.” Neri murmured.
In the main chamber they found Mera standing over the console, her hands on the controls but not moving. Her eyes were closed, her lips moving. In front of her a triangular projection showed blue static.
“Neri!” Mera jumped up—the projection vanished—and hugged Neri quickly.
“They have hurt you?”
“No, I’m all right.” Seeing Jason’s confused look she added, “I try to speak to my planet, but Malakat locked the system.”
Jason said, “We’d better hurry. They’ve all gone?”
“Good. Malakat has kept his promise.”
“For once.” Jason muttered.
It was hardly out of his mouth when Malakat’s voice shouted, “Seize them!” and toe room filled with commandos. Jason shouted, “You lied!”
“How foolish of you to expect otherwise.”
Neri was grabbed from behind, and surrounded. Shersheba took the ankh from her hands. “We only appeared to leave. Your friends were monitoring holographic images. We simply waited for your arrival, and you did not disappoint us.”
“But you were gone!” Mera said.
“And you, little girl, are sick. It was not hard to conceal our presence from you.”
Mera attempted a tackle, failed, and sagged against the soldier holding her arms.
Shersheba cuddled the ankh against her cheek, smiling. She turned towards the console. “I’ve waited so long for this moment. My very own moment of truth. Pyramid... your princess attends you.”
She was aware of Neri’s steady gaze, and turned away.
Jason began, “Um, I think you should know Praxis is set to nuke this place...” And the pyramid started humming dangerously. A woman glanced at the console and said, “We’re being targeted, princess!”
“Attack or no attack, Malakat, I will not be denied!”
Neri went for the ankh, “Please, I must-!” They wrestled for it.
A soldier shouted in the language of the ocean planet, he sounded scared. Malakat said, “We’ll take refuge deeper. Below—quickly!” He grabbed the ankh from Shersheba and vanished into the tunnels. Shersheba shrieked and followed.
“Neri! Let’s go!”
“We must follow them!”
“Neri!” Jason shouted, grabbing her.
“The torpedo! We have to get out of here!”
Mera made her decision and ran for the exit, and Jason dragged Neri after her saying sensible things like, “It can’t be helped—we’ll never get it back now—they’ll just get you too!”
The door to the computer room opened. “Winston—what are you two doing here?”
“We think Neri and Jason are in the pyramid, Mum!”
Dianne gasped. Then, “Helen, can you abort the countdown?”
“Negative. I have not been programmed to override Praxis firing protocol. I am sorry, commander.” The countdown read two minutes remaining.
Brett tried, “You can do it if you try Helen, please!”
“Helen, that program endangers Orca personnel.”
“I am unable to override Praxis firing protocols.” Helen repeated.
“Surely you’re not telling us it’s beyond you, Helen! That Praxis has a more sophisticated system?” A minute twenty.
“Helen, listen to me. Commanding officer’s emergency override code zero-eight-zero. I order you to disregard Praxis protocol.” 56 seconds.
Helen said, “Processing.”
17 seconds. Dianne held her son. Cass ducked, in case that helped. Winston saw her and did the same.
Four, three, two—
“Fire!” Richter barked.
A second later Shelby blinked and said, “It didn’t fire. What happened?”
Cass whooped. “Helen, you’re a genius! The best in the business.”
“Of course we all knew you could do it—at least I did.” Brett said, finally squirming out of his mother’s grasp.
Helen said, “Thank you, but I cannot take the credit.’
“Can’t take the credit? But you did it! You obeyed the commander’s order to the letter!”
“I’m sorry Winston, but that is incorrect.”
Curiosity overcoming relief, Dianne said, “What do you mean incorrect? Did you or did you not override Praxis firing procedure?”
“Affirmative. But it was not in response to your order, Commander.”
Dianne blinked. “Then what was it in response to?”
“It was in response to instructions from a higher power.”
“Higher power? What do you mean?”
“I regret relevant data is not available at this time.” Helen replied, and that was all she would say about it though asked several times. Finally Winston shrugged and said, “Perhaps Helen’s artificial intelligence has discovered religion? She will tell us when the relevant data becomes available, won’t you Helen? In the meantime we have avoided disaster by a hairsbreadth, but perhaps not for long. And Praxis will not be happy about this!”
Shersheba kissed the ankh and lowered it into its place. It sank into the stone and turned by itself, and a new pattern of lights appeared on the console. The miniature pyramid flared to life, and words in the ocean planet script rolled across its sides. Full access granted. All systems ready.
“The power of the pyramid is mine.”
The beach was strewn with dead fish, their bright sides stained red. Mera murmured, “Just like ocean planet.”
“And now we cannot stop it.”
“Perhaps Shersheba...” Mera began, when Jason shouted, “Hey look!”
The girls ran back to him. Jason pointed out to sea, just as a familiar shape arched above the waves.
“Charley!” Neri whispered, her eyes shining.
“I don’t get it, I mean—the virus. I thought he was dead.”
“I too. We were wrong.”
“He say...” Mera swayed on her feet. “Say he was sick, but is better. It’s impossible.”
“Hey you don’t look so good Mera. Let’s get you to the tree, away from this smell.” Jason said and put his arm around Mera to help her up the beach.
Just then the ground rumbled. Jason gasped, “What was that? The torpedo!”
“No.” Neri said. “They have started the pyramid.”