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An Habitual Offender, Chapter 8

Travis Morales Is Dead… And Other Intellectual Bullshit

20:17 Mission Elapsed Time

He sat on the edge of the cliff, enjoying the cool night air on his face and the still warm stone under his backside. He gazed down into a great valley, miles wide and many more miles long. He saw many lights. Enough for a modestly sized city. But some of them moved. What where they a part of?

Eventually he was able to discern that there were a number of large towers there of varying heights. The shortest must still be hundreds of feet tall. They were illuminated with a soft blue-white glow that made them visible without being bright. The brightness came from all the lights around the pillars... windows.

The windows were set into great bubbles in the sky, shaped like hot air balloons, only much larger. Four, five, eight... ten rows of windows in some of these things. They must be as large as office buildings. Each bubble was tethered to a tower, each tower holding perhaps as many as ten of these things. He realized that the bubbles were floating on their own, some groups wandering lazily about their towers, other groups holding still.

Soon he noticed that one of the bubbles was moving down towards its’ tower. He saw that the tether was taut now. The bubble was reeling it in. When half of the tether’s original length remained visible, it detached from the tower and disappeared inside the bubble. Now that the bubble was free, it began to drift slowly towards him. He checked the breeze. It was coming from behind him. If the bubble was moving against the wind, was it still floating? Or flying under its’ own power?

The bubble was startlingly close now, moving at an astounding rate of speed for something so large. There was a dark flat circular area on the top. A deck. A deck? What is this, a party barge? No, that’s not right – a yacht. This valley is a big freaking marina – floating – up in the air!

Fine. He stood up and walked several paces away from the cliff. Then he turned around and ran as fast as he could towards the edge. He flung himself into the air, out and down towards the bubble.

Something happened out there. He wasn’t falling, exactly, but he wasn’t flying either. It was as though the air had turned viscous and he was oozing through it. This allowed him to cover an impossible amount of horizontal distance which put him over the edge of the deck. A moment later the deck was under him. He hit flat, knocking the wind out of him. He needed time to catch his breath. He hoped that he had the time. He did not. He saw a hatch open near the center of the circle.

Nothing happened. No one appeared. Perhaps this was an invitation, or perhaps a trap. He sat up and looked around. He realized that the air was warmer here, and there was no breeze. Some sort of energy shield. That must have been what made the air feel strange. He decided to go down the stairs.

He found himself in a round room just below the deck. The walls were curved, matching the shape of the outside of the ship. Pale pink light was on the walls from some source he could not determine. He could see no way out other than the stairs, which were retracting silently into the floor. The hatch was of course far too high to reach. So much for that.

A voice called his name. “Kevin.”

His head spun around and he began to experience the sensation that his face was pointing towards the floor. But he was standing, wasn’t he?

“Kevin.”

He opened his eyes. It was dark. Flickering lights were reflecting off of the walls. He was facing the floor. His arms and legs were stiff and sore. What the fuck was going on?

“Wha?”

“Kevin, you must wake up.”

“I’m awake… I’m always awake.” What was he hearing? He waited, but heard nothing besides the old, familiar hiss in his earpieces. I’m losing it now. His neck was very sore and he lowered his head again to the usual hanging position. “Man, I’m hungry.”

“Kevin.”

He jerked his head up again, and still saw nothing. But the voice… “O? Is that really you?”

“Yes. I’m sorry that it has taken me so long to contact you.”

“I can’t believe this! What’s gone wrong with this world?!”

“Everything… and nothing. Fate has had her way with us. You’ve done very well under difficult circumstances.”

“Can you get me the hell out of here?”

“I cannot. My time is short, and we must speak of other things.”

“Like what?”

“How do you feel?”

“Everybody keeps asking me that!” He pulled at his restraints in frustration. He sighed. “I feel like myself, mostly. But I’ve been fainting a lot.”

“What is happening to you is normal.”

“Normal? You call this normal?”

“For a super, yes. I have finally found a way to correct my coding errors.”

“And so you returned my wristbands?”

“Yes. They have been reprogrammed. And they are… rewriting your firmware, essentially. Several reboots were required… hence the long blackouts at first.”

“Wow.”

“Bear in mind that this is no mere bug fix, this is a full version upgrade. In addition to many other things, your mind and body are beginning to learn how to sleep again.”

“What’s going to happen to me?”

“If you survive this ordeal, you will have a chance at a long and full life.”

“If?”

“Nothing is certain. Indeed, I did not foresee this situation. Though I was always felt that there was something I had not considered.”

“You planted that seed in all of us. It was easier to convince the gang than I thought it would be.”

“Good. It was always my wish that the team would survive in a functional form.”

“How long will I live?”

“I believe that your improved regeneration capabilities could extend your life by some twenty to fifty years.”

“Holy shit! I gotta get out of here!”

“Yes. But your battles are not yet over.”

“That jerkoff Shockwave was able to trick us too many times. Poor Sandy. Is she beyond help?”

“She is severely damaged. But my energies are limited, and I cannot view the timelines.”

“Ah well. It’s good to hear your voice again.”

“And yours. Though this is costing me greatly.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It is necessary. I did not want you to lose hope. We must also play the parts written for us in this timeline that we gave everything to save.”

Kevin smiled a bit. “Thanks for the bit of hope.”

“Look within you and you will find the strength to prevail.”

“Now you sound like Master Po.” Kevin closed his eyes and swallowed. His mouth was bone-dry and his throat hurt. “I’m afraid.”

“Of course. It’s only natural.”

“Will we ever see you again?”

“Alas, no. It is not possible. I am not in your world. I sleep outside of the timelines, and I dream my way to the future I left so long ago…”

“So this is good-bye.”

“For the second time. All of you are my children, and I will miss you.”

Kevin tried to shrug, or move, or express some part of the emotions that he felt, but the restraints stopped him. “I’ll miss you too, Big O, now that I can remember you again.”

“Courage, comarade guerrier. Help is on the way.”

The deep silence returned. Kevin lowered his head and let the tears flow free.

20:32 Mission Elapsed Time. Sir Burt and Serenity were cruising at ten thousand meters. Something ponged, and startled Barney from his sleep. Hadn’t meant to do that. He rubbed his eyes and looked at his screen. He couldn’t believe what he saw. He sat up and hit the comm. “I’ve got a signal –” He was cut off by his stomach flying up into his chest. Something was very wrong. They were in freefall. But he didn’t have time to worry about that because the next thing that happened was something he would have been certain was utterly impossible. All six engines lit up at once, slamming his stomach back into his spine.

After that frightening moment he remembered the radio. “Uwe! What the hell is going on?!” He called up the stern scanner. Sir Burt’s long composite wings were oscillating wildly as Uwe struggled to regain control of the craft.

“Ich weiss das nicht, Herr Engelhart!”

Barney watched the plane recede behind them. “Take care of yourself, Uwe. You’ve done your job. Danke.” He looked forward. “Fiona! What’s happening?”

Fiona turned her head around. “Serenity is in charge now.”

“WHAT?” He couldn’t get his head around her statement. He looked at his console and saw a message on the screen.

I’m going to get my pilot.

What the hell? Barney glanced at Hanna. She looked surprised as well, but gave him a thumbs-up. He turned back towards the cockpit. Fiona was sealing her helmet. Serenity’s nose pitched up and she began to climb.

John had a smile on his face. “This is wild! Can we do that again?”

Barney pulled at his hair in frustration. “Not now, John! Everything’s gone crazy!” He watched several indicators charge towards the red. “Fiona, would you please tell me what’s going on?”

“Serenity turned out to be much smarter than I had anticipated. We have a functional A.I. on our hands. I think you should make her part of the team!”

Barney was feeling quite completely gobsmacked at this point. “I guess we’ll have to study this more closely… someday.” He glanced at his console and had to close his eyes and take a deep breath. Before he could say anything else the afterburners cut in and the howling of the engines drowned out his thoughts. The angle of ascent increased and he was pressed back into his seat. Eventually he heard Fiona’s voice.

“Just enjoy the ride! We’ll be there soon!”

“How can you be so calm?”

“Who said I was calm?!”

Barney could hear John laughing behind him. He covered his face with his right hand. “The world’s gone mad!”

Fiona checked her displays. “Barney, what sort of safety factor did you build in?”

He looked at her, wide eyed. “Uhh, fifty to a hundred and fifty percent, depending on the component.”

“Good. We’ll need it.” She punched a few buttons. “Serenity, dear, you can’t push yourself too hard too soon.”

Watch me.

The engine rpm’s went up to a hundred and twenty percent. Barney was getting a headache. “Where are we?”

“We just passed Budapest! Altitude fifteen thousand meters and climbing.” Fiona reached for her glasses and hit her helmet. She made a sound of frustration. “What’s her design ceiling?”

“Twenty thousand meters… but she might be able to go a little bit higher.”

“We’ll be there soon.”

Everything was running hot. The cabin temperature was climbing rapidly. Serenity was burning fuel like there was no tomorrow. Fiona watched the indicator dwindle. She felt a bit helpless, and she didn’t like the feeling. She also didn’t want anyone to know.

Eighteen thousand meters. They’d crossed over into the Ukraine. With the extra weight Serenity could not exceed Mach two in such a steep climb. The extra turbulence caused by the pod had the ship vibrating madly. The strain gauges for the wings read one hundred fifteen percent of nominal. Serenity’s skin was getting hot and Barney was worried about the patch. If it failed now they were doomed.

Barney looked over at John. He thought John looked far too relaxed for the situation. “Barney, I was thinking that this is just the sort of craziness that Jim and Kevin would have gotten us into. And now we have a plane that can get us into trouble on her own!”

Hanna made an exasperated sound. “John, you have the most abnormal sense of humor I’ve ever encountered.” John just laughed and she became more upset. “If we didn’t have to be strapped in I’d slap that smile off your face!”

John laughed even harder. “You’re beautiful when you’re angry.”

“Aaugh!”

The engine thrust was dropping now as the air got thinner. Rpm’s were holding steady, though at a level that no sane person would have attempted. Serenity obviously had a different opinion of what she could or could not do. Fiona scanned her panel, thinking all the while that she’d like to see another plane do Mach one point nine this heavily laden in a seventy-five degree climb. She decided to ask Barney the question that had been on her mind for a while.

“Barney, how is it that you never told me that you knew how to make engines this good?”

He smiled a sad smile. “I couldn’t bear the thought of some other aircraft being better than this one.”

Fiona thought about that for a moment. “I think I might understand.” The afterburners shut down and she had to scan her instrument panel again. They’d passed through nineteen thousand meters. The engines throttled back to one hundred per cent rpm. The rate of ascent had begun to decrease. “I think something’s about to happen. Everybody check your harnesses.”

Serenity’s nose began to pitch down and Fiona was certain what was coming next. “Get ready for free fall.”

The jet coasted over the top of the parabola with engines down to around fifty per cent rpm, just enough to keep them running in the thin air. Barney watched a pen float off his keyboard shelf. He reached for it and tried to fight off the nausea. Actually, the free fall was not as disconcerting as the view out the windscreen. Where there had been nothing but sky, now there was nothing but ground.

The engines throttled back up and the descent began. The tactical computer showed that ground based radar was attempting a target lock. The afterburners cut in and their speed increased. Missiles began to rise from the ground. Serenity made a slight course correction and continued diving.

The airspeed went up and the altimeter unwound at a terrifying rate. Fiona was sweating inside her suit, her brain overheating as she tried to keep track of what Serenity was doing. She did not want to watch, but she did not dare turn away. She thought that she might be seeing some missiles rising.

The lasers began firing in a peculiar staccato pattern. Fire began erupting below them. Fiona saw things exploding in the air. Anti-aircraft artillery of some sort. Missiles began flying past them but Serenity was long gone before they could alter their course. She was just too fast.

They were down to five thousand meters. The ack-ack was about a thousand meters below them, forming a thickening cloud of smoke and shrapnel. The radar indicated spent missiles falling down from above. Woe betide anything down there on the ground.

At thirty five hundred meters the missiles stopped coming. The anti-aircraft fire was above them. It was perhaps a bit quieter in the cabin. Everyone was mesmerized by the view out the window, a ringside seat to a major calamity.

At three thousand meters the thrust reversers engaged. The engine rpm’s went back up to a hundred and twenty per cent. The ship began to shake violently and Fiona watched in horror as Serenity pulled her wings in against her sides. They continued to fall and Fiona was feverishly trying to calculate the relationship of delta vee to altitude. The numbers didn’t look good to her. She could only hope that Serenity had it figured better.

A great buffeting shook the ship as it went subsonic. The lasers continued to fire. Barney accessed the targeting subsystem and saw that they were firing at the reactor building. Gutsy move. He also saw that the laser outputs were being recalculated with every shot. Neat trick, I wonder what she’s doing.

When the reached fifteen hundred meters the reaction control jets began to fire, forcing the ship’s nose up. Barney wouldn’t have thought that the system could function at such speeds. Indeed, Serenity was running through her gas very quickly. When the ship was more or less level, with her belly towards the ground, engines one and two throttled back to idle and pivoted to vertical. Then the thrust doors opened (and this whole sequence was another impossibility to Barney) and one and two went up to one hundred and fifty percent rpm and the other engines went to idle. The afterburners for one and two ignited and the screaming of the engines filled the cabin. Their rate of descent began to decrease, but slowly.

Fiona’s wide eyes were glued to the altimeter. “Barney, I think we’re going to hit!”

He tried to pull his straps even tighter, but they were already tight enough to hurt. “Everybody brace for impact!”

They passed through five hundred meters and the rear skids deployed. The ship’s nose was now up a bit from horizontal. The wings stretched back out to their normal position and the strain gauges shrieked for a moment, only to be cut off by Serenity herself. Alarm after alarm went off, then were silenced just as quickly. The wings were vibrating in a most terrifying fashion. Fiona had visions of the ship tearing herself apart. They were slowing down, but Fiona just couldn’t convince herself that it was enough.

They could see the reactor building now through the windscreen. The wall that they were facing was heavily scarred by laser fire and pieces were missing, others were falling down as they watched. Serenity fired a rapid series of laser bursts at the wall when they were even with that particular spot and great chunks fell away, opening a very large hole in the side of the building. Barney feverishly studied what he could see through the hole, trying to fathom the jet’s plan. He’d intended to place the pod on the roof and let the nanobots do their thing, though deep inside he hadn’t been particularly confident of success.

Serenity’s skids struck the tarmac and she rebounded into the air, somehow managing to keep the pod from making contact with the hard surface. The wings had flexed so far downward that they had almost hit as well, and their moaning was a frightful sound. But she did not stop. The other four engines throttled up to full and she began moving towards the hole in the wall.

Barney watched the displays as the wings began changing their shape to aim the lasers at targets inside the building. The lasers fired, one after the other, much more slowly than before. The scanners showed the first hit taking out a control rod mechanism, forcing the rod down into the core. Again and again she fired, sending rod after rod down into the reactor, never to be removed again.

They were inside the building now, floating across the containment structure on one and two. The lasers continued to fire, somehow missing the crucial cooling pipes and pumps. Barney watched her dissection of the systems with total fascination. There were bots everywhere, shooting or hurling things at the jet. A few impacts were heard inside the cabin, but nothing was being damaged. Serenity began disabling the non-essential electrical systems in the building, doing everything she could to prevent the reactor from being repaired.

They were over the center of the containment structure now, perhaps only a meter above the surface. The radiation level was higher here as the shielding was minimal. Serenity released the pod and she shot up towards the roof, her vertical stabilizer dangerously close to the large steel joists running beneath the ceiling. The building was somewhat ‘T’ shaped, with a great hall extending perpendicular from the reactor chamber. Serenity aimed herself towards that hall and began firing at the far wall. There was an overhead crane mounted above the hall, moving towards them on its’ trolleys at top speed. Fiona saw the block and tackle coming down on the cables and adjusting position, aiming for the nose of the jet. The apparent size of the block and tackle grew almost as rapidly as Fiona’s widely opening eyes.

Serenity twisted her wings in and gave the cables both barrels. The steel severed and began to untwist, the block and tackle falling to the floor below. It bounced once and wrecked a bot or two in the process. With another shot the crane was disabled and the lasers resumed firing at the wall. Cracks began to appear and chunks fell out of the wall. Daylight poured in through the holes. The near-continuous firing had almost exhausted the flywheels now. Time was running out for everyone.

Hanna reached over and touched Barney on the shoulder. “Barney, are we going to make it?”

He shook his head and threw up a hand. “I don’t know. She’s too fast for me to grok her plan!”

John spoke up from the rear. “Satin Peter says she’s got it nailed.”

Barney looked up and prayed that the Goddess was still with them. “I hope Satin’s right!”

The rest of the wall began to fall away and the roof began to sag down. The whole damn place was falling apart. Serenity’s nose had reached the opening now and the bright sunlight reflecting off of her nose dazzled her crew. Fiona checked the boards and saw that the reaction control system was almost exhausted. She was frightened to the point of shaking.

Something struck the jet with a dull thud and the plane shied to port. Another alarm spoke up and was silenced. Barney looked at his screen and decided it wasn’t too bad. The patch hadn’t been harmed, so that was a good sign. Just another couple of seconds until they were free of the building. All of the engines were on the verge of overheating.

Fiona saw it first. “We’re clear!”

The jet’s nose pitched up a bit, then the reaction control system shut down. Not enough. Serenity literally flapped her wings once, twice, three times, clawing herself back into the air. A dark cloud of smoke followed them outside which severely reduced visibility. But Serenity finally managed to put herself in a good position for climbing and they oh so very slowly rose up into the blue.

Fiona released the breath she had been holding for who knew how long. Fly, girl, fly!

An Habitual Offender by
Kevin L. Corridon is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.