6.9 Fiz wound her way through a maze of passages. Some went down and up and others were narrow corridors leading back on sharp angles. She never hesitated. She'd been through the drill hundreds of times. Once, when a drill evacuation took place, the skipper had even asked her about the four forks. She was remembering the artichokes when something flashed ahead of her on the right. Then, on her left, someone stepped up and held her as he grabbed the wheel. Fiz let out such a blood curdling scream that Hooper almost let her go.
"It's okay, we're not going to hurt you. It's just old Father Brown and his helpers come to save a soul or two." Fiz looked up at him, smiled and clamped her teeth down on his nose, her hands reaching for his crotch. Hooper released her as the little tractor tried to drive up a ramp and tipped over. He stood up and dusted himself off. Stan ran over, "Ride'm cowboy. Who was driving?"
"I think it was a little girl" Hooper said and gently touched his nose, "but it could be some kind of ferret."
Stan walked to the front of the small tractor and called out, "Hey, It's Acetate!" Hooper hurried around the waldo (its arm waving helplessly in the air) and knelt down to Ziggy's body.
Fiz stepped out of the darkness and leveled some kind of rifle at Hooper and Stan. Only a moment went by before Hooper turned to the body, "He looks drugged." he turned back to Fiz, "Is he alright?" Fiz remained still, alert, silent.
"Ziggy, Ziggy wake up." Hooper patted Ziggy's face. Fiz cocked the shotgun. Alban had been standing behind her in the dark. He brought his hand up under the barrel and lifted the rifle above and away from her.
"We are friends of this man. We're here to help him." Hooper smiled at Fiz. No response. Hooper turned back to Ziggy and continued trying to rouse him, gently talking and rubbing his hands and neck. Fiz shrugged away from Alban and walked over to Ziggy. She knelt next to Hooper and broke a small ampule under Ziggy's nose. He stirred and opened his eyes.
"Party, Brown?" His voice slurred, still under the affects of the mild sedative that Ruby had injected him with, "wha's up?
"Where's Ruby? Who's this little one?" Hooper helped Ziggy up.
Ziggy turned, "You guys do what you want but I warn you if you come with me, your lives are in danger."
He turned and walked toward an opening in the cave wall. Stan, Alban and Hooper followed. Fiz stood in the darkness, listening.
The citizens of Thunder were well prepared for the Kong's attack. Before the enemy could reach the town, clouds of smoke had filled the tunnels. The Kongs wore masks and the Special Force combatants had complete control of the temperature and air mix in their helmets. But the going was slow. It took forty minutes longer to arrive even with the use of pheromone and electrostatic readers. By the time the troops arrived, all defence and evacuation plans were well under way. Skip knew that the Kongs were in on this. They'd wanted Thunder for a long time. They never would have gotten this far without Planck's resources but that didn't matter now. The children and elders were placed in a tube made up of three old subway cars, and jettisoned through a discrete tunnel which ran dangerously close to the oncoming enemy. The tunnel collapsed behind the speeding car. Eight teams of six to ten Thunderians left by different routes to create diversions and, once topside, to get associates ready to disperse the refugees. The rest left by three tunnels that presented the best probability of avoiding contact. These escapees were the most heavily armed.
Skip had stayed with a small brigade to detonate just those charges that would facilitate the safe escape of his people and the ruin of the city. Ruby stood by his side. The data on Hardwickii's approach had led them to the decision on the routes and the timing of the evacuation but one company had already reported combat in an escape tunnel. An SF concussion grenade had exposed an access tube to an upper level of passages. The refugees were just approaching it. Skip knew they were evenly matched. The old pistols and carbines were much better weapons than the hand to hand stuff that the Kongs had. Bullets were also better suited to the tunnels than stunguns and missile pistols.
"Well that does it." Skip's aggressive focus kept the retreat running smoothly. Ruby marvelled at how he managed an optimistic quality to everything he said. She found herself reassured. "All we do is blow mine four and mines eleven through fourteen. That will keep them from the evacuation block. It collapses two tunnels on to a third." He pushed four buttons with his right hand and one with his left. "We have five minutes" he said and stood up; "Let's go."
They had just gotten out of the door to the control room when the explosion took place. "It's too early!" Skip shouted and grabbed Ruby. The road beneath her dropped seventy feet. They pinned themselves to the wall of the control room and froze. The road hit the one beneath it and that gave way too, creating an up draft that threw truck-sized debris twenty feet in the air. Sand and fragments of wood hit Ruby in the face and she closed her eyes. Behind her left eyelid, a yellow damage alert flashed. If she used her micro implants now, she would probably fry herself. The roar of the cave-in made her want to scream. She felt like her face was being squashed. The noise and rushing air subsided suddenly. Ruby had no idea how they had escaped falling into the rift. It seemed like the control room was solidly planted in the rock face. She looked to her right and saw Skip staring at a metal rod protruding from his left shoulder.
"Skip, I'm coming." She edged toward him, feeling the wall for obstacles, making sure she kept back from the edge. The rod had buried itself in the wall behind him. He was still conscious but glazed from shock. Ruby caught the glint of something to her left. There, across the rift, were a dozen SF Troopers. They knelt at the edge and trained their grenade launchers and stunners at the stranded couple. Behind them, what was left of the Kongs stomped and yelled. Fifteen angry, wounded scavengers. They swung chains and chunks of metal in slings. Skip knew they'd lost close to fifty of their tribesmen. Ruby's eyes remained steady as Hardwickii emerged from a cavern behind the Kongs. He moved to the edge of the hundred yard rift and stood gloating, "They always said you were special, Yablonsky. Where's the brat?"
"Fuck you, dickhead." Ruby figured Hardwickii was going to kill her anyway so she tried the micro waves. Low power. They were too far away. Hardwickii turned to the soldiers and gave the order to fire as he backed toward an abuttment. She realized he had suddenly remembered his dead friends in the basement in D/W . She turned back to Skip and tried to smile. Skip actually did smile "Cup of tea would do nicely." he said. Ruby smiled too.
"I said fire! Kill her, kill her!" Hardwickii turned with such anger he almost flew backward over the precipice. Kneeling in front of him were twelve glass men. Everything; clothes, weapons, helmets and bodies, now brilliant, blue-white glass.
Hardwickii reached for his own weapon and shrieked in pain. His hand had solidified. He watched the veins disappearing, the bones dissolve into a frozen, transparent clutch of terror. The Kongs were gone. Ruby looked around fiercely for Ziggy.
On the other side of Skip, a hand appeared from around the corner of the control room. It was Hooper. He edged up to Skip and felt the end of the rod which pinned him to the control room. "There's not enough clearance to pull him off this thing. He'd fall." Hooper was talking to Ruby but her attention was focused on Ziggy, standing on the other side. Even at that distance the torment in his face was riveting. Hooper thought frantically for something to say. All that came out was a feeble, "What's he doing?" Ruby was breathing hard. She knew Ziggy was losing touch with his human side, forcing himself to become what his enemies saw him as. Her thoughts were interrupted by a glint of chrome from above. A long pair of mechanical hands descended like a giant insect looking for a morsel of food. It was one of the waldos. Fiz was on the roof of the control building reaching with the mechanical arms to free Skip. Ruby looked up at her and nodded in support. When she glanced back, Ziggy was gone. In his place were two small men, impeccably dressed. They wore dark blue suits and bowler hats. One held a small box, the other, an umbrella.
As Hooper and Ruby carefully guided Skip off the metal rod and into the arms of the waldo, Ruby glanced down. Had they pushed Ziggy off? Suddenly, a bolt of light rocketed into the door which Skip had been pinned to, tearing it like paper. Hardwickii's hatred and fear of Ruby had overcome the pain that Ziggy had inflicted. He had picked up his blaster with his other hand and was firing wildly at Ruby.
Hooper grabbed her and flung her up toward the receding metal arms. She grabbed hold and was lifted out of the line of fire. Skip opened his eyes momentarily, smiled and said, "That's us, isn't it?" Then he blacked out again. The blaster continued to flare violently below her. Ruby closed her eyes as the front of the control room burst outward and sailed down the chasm. A silent calm overtook her. When she alighted the waldo, jumping ahead of Skip, Ruby said "Hooper's gone," more to herself than Fiz or Skip. Fiz had manoeuvred Skip gently to the roof of the control building and jumped down with a medi-pac. "Who hoo? Who hoo?" It took Ruby a moment but she suddenly understood what Fiz was asking. "An old friend", Ruby said and saw that Fiz's eyes were watering. She could hear the D/W cop yelling, "I'll get you you, Yablonsky! You're dead. You can't hide." He continued screaming as he ran away into the opposite wall. His voice eventually disappeared. Ruby pulled Fiz toward her and they hugged, comforting each other as the pain killers comforted the Skipper. She didn't see the two men walk into the tunnel that Ziggy had disappeared into.
It was completely noiseless. From the chasm below the roof where Fiz, Ruby and Skip were just catching their breath, a blinding array of lights arose. Like deer in headlights, Ruby and Fiz stood paralyzed, stunned horror on their faces. Fiz tried to run, Ruby held her as the lights dimmed and she could make out two hover cars. They were saucer shaped and had a bubble with two or three people in each one.
"Ms. Yablonsky, your presence here verifies my theory that an extraordinary chaotic algorhythm is focused on this area. Prepare to board."
The voice jolted her more than the lights but she reacted quickly, shouting, "We've got an injured man here. Hurry up!"
"Way ahead of you, Yablonsky. "
Ruby turned to Skip. He was already being lifted into the bottom of a third hover car. It had come silently up behind them. A cargo disc had dropped with two people on it. They wore holo reflective suits which blended into the surroundings. They would have been completely invisible except for the fact that they weren't wearing their face masks. As it was, all Ruby and Fiz saw were disembodied faces floating above Skip. Fiz looked up at Ruby, eyes wide in terror. "It's okay Fiz, It's Kerby... Doctor Kerby," she added with a smirk.
He was a small round man with tufts of red hair on either side of a shiny, bald dome. He didn't look up from the small terminal at which he was seated, "Your friends will be fine, Ruby. I've sent the other two saucers ahead to the medi-lab."
"Friends?" said Ruby.
"Yes, the one on the roof and the one we picked up about eighty feet below the fissure opening. He's really a mess. But we can save him."
"Hooper", Ruby quickly suppressed the joy she felt at hearing that Hooper was alive. She narrowed her eyes and said, "Don't mess with them, Doc. Just fix them up."
"Ruby, if I am to save your friend, Hooper is it? then I must use every available resource. Lucky for you all I am equipped with more than most."
"No experiments, Kerby. They don't need any enhancements. And by the way, my eye is on the blink."
"You have such a way with words" Kerby remarked, "I'll fix you up, too."
"No, I mean it Doc. You've already fucked up my life and Ziggy's. How many more are there out there trying to adapt to your gifts?"
Kerby responded sharply, "You don't know what you're talking about so shut up!" Ruby plunked down, exhausted, on a padded bench. She thought of Thunder and watched Fiz, asleep, on another couch. The saucers found their way back to the air shaft from which they'd entered. The walls had been widened with acids and drills. Ruby was soon asleep .
"Chip off the old block." Kerby mumbled.
She awoke in the hovercraft. There was a blanket on her and a pillow beneath her head. No one else was on board. She got up, rubbed the back of her neck and walked down through the open hatch into a cargo bay. As she walked across the cargo area toward an exit sign, a large man jumped out excitedly, "RUUUUBY!", he yelled and opened his arms.
Ruby stepped forward and gave him a hug. "Tinker. Still working for Dr. Jeckyl, huh?"
"Naa, I just hang around to keep him in line, is all. He's missed you all right. He's been real worried about Siegfried, too."
"His toys aren't working all that well, huh?" Ruby said smuggly. Then her eyes softened, "How are you?"
"Now I spanked you before for wise-crackin and I could do it again. You got words with Doctor Kerby, then have'm. He's in the lab over there."
Ruby kissed Tinker on the nose and said, "See ya later, Unc."
7.3 The lock
"Researching river blindness, that's what I'm doing. I've had to put everything on hold since the head office rammed this through," Kerby handed Ruby a print out of details on the scope of the epidemic. "The worm is spreading through the West indies into India. It has already decimated California, and Mexico. You wouldn't believe what's it's done, Ruby. It attacks the nervous system. People start scratching their eyes. They don't believe it at first, but it's already too late. Selective dysfuntion, enhanced muscle and sensory activity. It's like some kind of drug gone wild."
"Probably just another experiment by your colleagues gone wrong" Ruby handed back the paper and levelled a severe look at the scientist. "Have you found anything?'
Dr. Kerby ran his hand through his hair, "No, and if I didn't notice weird messages over supposedly locked lines, and if my datascans hadn't picked up your name and your boyfriend's, I might get to a solution sooner." He sat down and waved his hand apologetically adding "It would take a lot more than that to figure this out."
Ruby saw how grave he looked as he said that and nudged his shoulder, 'Ziggy's not my boyfriend, Doc."
A tired smile crossed the doctor's face. Then he resumed his superior scowl, "I've got work to do. Where is the culprit anyway?"
"I don't know. I don't know if he got out of there alive."
Ziggy had wandered around in the caverns for a while. It was so easy to navigate in an electronic communication system. Info services, databases, even privatized constructs. Down here, under London, he was totally lost. His disorientation was compounded with the overexertion, both physical and emotional, resulting from his encounter with Hardwickii. He had 'iced' six soldiers. What preoccupied him now was thinking about the frightening pleasure he had felt in causing Hardwickii harm. It felt good. He had killed six men and transformed Hardwickii's hand into blue crystal. The incredible rush of power frightened him more than anything but he couldn't deny it, the sublime excitement of it.
He had witnessed the arms of the waldo descend to help Hooper, Ruby and Skip get to the roof of the control cabin. He had turned and set off to find a way across the chasm. Exhausted and disenchanted, Ziggy sat down with his back against one of the tunnel walls. Two Chinese gentlemen, in immaculate suits, appeared over him, smiling. One of them seemed to be talking. The other held a small plastic aerosol bottle which he nonchalantly was spraying over Ziggy's head. The dream went on. He was summoned to a room. It had curved walls and everyone sat facing the same direction. He thought it might be a movie theatre. The movie started and the screen was very small and very far away.
7.5 It was not like Lawrence Hardwickii to indulge himself in the finer points of personal hygiene. But here he was in a bathtub full of bubbles, soaping himself, his eyes half closed as the steam rose and clung to the cool stone walls. When the Kong council told him how they deal with people who lead their citizen soldiers to their death, Hardwickii had had to think fast. The suite was given to him by Socket, the Kong council secretary when he told of the vile ambush that had befallen his brave Kong kinsmen and promised part of the ransom money he was sure to retrieve when that detective bitch was caught. They had literally drooled with greed and gave him their best accommodations. Hardwickii also noticed the awe in their faces every time he raised his sparkling glass hand.
He slowly lifted it up now out of the bubble bath and sponged the blue crystal. "Beautiful" he mumbled, "Those superstitious fools are going to make things a lot easier now I've got a little totem on hand." He snickered gleefully.
A cool breeze drew his attention to the bathroom door. Hardwickii placed his left hand on his service revolver and said icily, "Who's there? I don't want to be disturbed."
"My name is Clay and I am here to serve your every need." Hardwickii could see him now. A young man with blond hair and fair features stood over him. He removed a small plastic container from his pocket, opened it and poured it in the tub. Hardwickii started to raise the gun but lowered it again as the young man knelt down, picked up the sponge and delighted the policeman by soaping his back. " Hyacinth," said Clay.
7.6 May Wen Ti
"Sit here, collect yourself . Open yourself. The correct thing will happen. My name is Mr. Su and this is Mr. Shoo. We are here to assist you during your trip to the art festival in Shenzhen."
Ziggy looked away from the small movie screen. He was in an airplane. The advice of these two strange gentlemen was appreciated. At last aware of the power he wielded, he adamantly remained calm, in control. He turned back and watched the movie. It seemed to be about some elderly biped turtles who ran a restaurant in space and taught martial arts on the side. Ziggy's eyes widened as he remembered his last conversation with Ruby. He had wanted her to meet him at Kerby's. He wouldn't be there. He wanted her to know he was alright.
"Strange thing is," Kerby didn't take his eyes off the screen as he spoke to Ruby, " the blindness is selective. People are walking into walls, off rooftops, in front of trains, but sometimes events occur that would have to require sight. Here's one in which an apparently infected man made his way to the top floor of a hospital in Nevada..."
Ruby interrupted, "That's possible for a blind man."
"Please Ruby, let me finish." Kerby continued to stare at the terminal, "It seems when cornered by the security team, the man, described as eyeless, turned, took the latch off a metalmeshed window and jumped. There are many cases like this."
"Doc," Ruby leaned toward the terminal, "cross reference the day of that occurrence with the patient list of the top floor and the roster of security personnel on duty at the time. You should also know what the research and technical facilities are like there."
"Because It's what I do for a living. You're a scientist. I'm a detective."
"Alright, you don't have to get upset. It's a waste of time though. Don't you think I've already investigated the possibility that this disease is man made?" Kerby keyed in database reference commands as he explained, "The worm's immunity to the so-called cure must be an evolution brought on by our very fight against it. Its fitness landscape shows a steep adaptive trend that always stays one step ahead of any attempt to overcome it. Through mutation it makes itself invulnerable to our best efforts to contain it. A mind control drug to supply some despot with an army is unlikely. I'm the only one with the knowledge and technology close enough to the scale required for such work and the others, I know them all. Biogenetics isn't at that stage to get out of hand. We slowed down when the clones died in 03. We're at least two years from destroying all life with enhanced foods. Here. Here's your list. Sit at that terminal there and I'll get back to reading case studies."
Ruby was studying lists of hospital statistics. "Here! This is something." Ruby handed the printout to Kerby and pointed, almost knocking her coffee over. "This name, Clayton Lewis, he was on the security team that watched the patient in Nevada jump. He's been missing from work for six weeks. We should check that. And this word, 'WIP' keeps coming up next to certain patients and personnel. What's that all about ?" Before Kerby could reply Tinker entered blithering something incoherent as if he had gone mad himself. He grabbed Ruby and pushed her to the door, babbling. He sputtered and waved to the Doc to follow. Soon half of Kerby's research team, Kerby himself, and Fiz pushing a weak but smiling Skipper in a wheelchair were all on the outside deck. It was then that Tinker pointed at the sky. The moon was large and full and distinctly had the word 'RUBY' printed on it. Ruby blinked back her tears and looked at Fiz. Fiz smiled, pointed at the moon and said "Ziggy Zags". Ruby picked her up and laughed, "Yeah Fiz, he sure does."
On to World on a String Part 8
Back to the present.