Aphelion Issue 278, Volume 26
November 2022
 
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Best Served Cold

by Dan L. Hollifield
A Nightwatch Story

Nightwatch Series Created By Jeff Williams & Robert Moriyama




“What the hell have you gotten into this time?” Miranda asked as she closed and locked her front door behind Tom Weldon. Tom's blood dripped from several minor cuts, abrasions, and contusions onto Miranda's clean carpets as Tom paused to gather his breath.

“I think I was just mugged by a brace of ninjas,” Tom replied as his heartbeat gradually returned to a semblance of normal. “If it weren't for that gun slinging kid wearing a leather jacket, I might have been dead by now...”

“Bathroom. First Aid kit, right this minute, Mister,” she said in that tone of voice that told Tom that his Beloved had just slid into Doctor-Mode. He knew better than to argue. Besides which, he wasn't quite sure that he wasn't suffering from a slight concussion on top of the cuts and scrapes. Those black-suited nimrods played a bit too rough.

“Lead on Baby," Tom said. "I feel like shit...”

 Not very long afterward, Miranda had finished playing doctor with Tom, and not in one of those fun ways. Bandages and antiseptic ointments had been applied, and Tom was finally allowed to start sipping one of his favorite general anesthetics that were famous among fans of Kentucky distilleries. After roughly half a pint of his preferred pain-killer, Tom looked deeply into the eyes of his beloved and spoke.

“You are so pissed off at me that it's spooky,” he said. “But I didn't start the fight! I wasn't even on a mission. I was just leaving my office so that I could come and see you when I was jumped by-”

 “Ninjas,” Miranda interrupted. “Real, live, non-mythical ninjas...”

 “Well,” said Tom. “That's the way they were dressed. And they threw more martial arts moves at me than I've seen since I was on the ground in that last godawful mess in Nam. Seriously, these guys were so text-book Hollywood movie ninjas that I wouldn't have been a bit surprised if they'd dropped a SAG card and a few 8x10 color glossies as they ran off.”

“You managed to make them run off?” Miranda asked.

 “I thought I was going to die,” Tom replied. “I went on autopilot after they attacked. By the time the third one joined the party, I knew I was outclassed. When the fifth and sixth ones waded in to throw punches, I was pretty sure I was going to get my head handed to me. Then that kid showed up.”

 “Kid?” Miranda asked.

 “Kid in a leather jacket,” Tom said. “Dressed like a biker. Came out of nowhere. Pulled a pair of pistols and started shooting like Dirty Harry. He must have killed at least five of the ninjas, Well, killed or wounded. I don't know. I ran away once the shooting started. Well, staggered away is more like it.”

“Tom,” Miranda said patiently. “You've taken some really nasty blows to your head, besides the cuts and scrapes. Are you certain that you didn't imagine this biker guy with the guns? After all, Washington DC isn't the usual stomping grounds for superheroes.

 “Miri,” said Tom. “This is so far beyond us arguing about whether or not you've remembered to take your meds. Bi-polar you may be, stupid you are most certainly not. That kid was real. He saved my life. He came out of nowhere, yeah. I don't know who he is or why he showed up. But he did show up, he was real!”

 “Let's get your clothes cleaned up and patched,” said Miranda. “I can't send you home in ripped and bloodstained duds. I'll start the washer while you get out of the rest of those nasty things. I believe you still have some clean shirts and pants in my closet.”

 “I hope we're not going to start arguing again,” said Tom. “I know we've grown a bit away from each other over the last few months. My feelings for you haven't changed-”

 “Nor mine for you,” Miranda interrupted. “You risk your life time and time again for your friends. You vanish for weeks at a time, then walk back into my life as if you'd never been away. All the explanation I ever get is that you were working. I worry so much when you're gone that I can barely keep myself together. And now you tell me that you've been attacked by a gang of thugs who nearly managed to kill you in our home town! Now give me those clothes and go to the closet and put on something clean.”

 “Yes,” Tom said as he looked sheepishly at the floor. “Here... and, thank you. For everything.”

 “I can't keep doing this,” Miranda said to herself as Tom walked into the bedroom. “It's tearing me apart. As if I don't have enough to deal with all on my own. He's going to get himself killed and there isn't a damn thing I can do to stop him.”

  Tom could clearly hear Miranda's every word from the other room, yet diplomatically kept his silence while he dressed. I'm hurting her, Tom thought. The woman I love, and me just being me is causing her pain. Maybe I do need to walk away from Nightwatch. Would she come with me if I just ran away from it all? Where would we go? How would we live?Do I even have the right to ask her to drop everything and run off somewhere with me?

 “I can't make demands on you,” Miranda said from the doorway, interrupting Tom's thoughts. “But something you've done in the past is catching up with you. You need to get out of town. Before they can find you again. I'd suggest that I call the base and get an escort for you, but you wouldn't accept that. I'm going to have to call them anyway, just in case you were followed here. Go see Simon. Go to Nightwatch and tell that repulsive little Callow what's happened. The institute's security is almost as good as the FBI could provide. Keep yourself safe, you big lug! I love you, but I can't stand what you're putting me through!”

 “You're right,” said Tom. “I've put you in danger, and I didn't even think about what I was doing. They may have followed me right to your door. Call your office, get a team out here, stat! I'll go to the Institute, you're right about that. Maybe, if they're lurking outside, they'll follow me as I leave.”

 “ Langley is already sending a team out,” Miranda replied. “I hit the panic button on my computer while you were getting dressed. Confirmation was nearly instant. You'll have to leave before they get here, or they'll want to detain you. For your own protection as much as for mine. Meanwhile, I've got my pistol.  The windows are barred, my doors are reinforced steel, and as soon as you leave I'm locking up.”

“I'm sorry,” Tom said. “I didn't think. I should have just got myself to a hospital to get patched up. This is my fault. I've put you in danger and I don't even know why I was attacked. I didn't think! Keep yourself safe. I couldn't stand it if anything happened to you. I'm going straight to the Institute. Maybe they can figure out what's going on.”

 “You just keep your eyes open and your head out of your ass, Weldon.” Miranda said as Tom reached for the doorknob to let himself out.

 “I'll do my best,” Tom replied. “I love you.” The sound of the door opening and closing was a muffled thump as Tom left.

“I love you, too.” Miranda said in her empty living room as she turned the deadbolts on the door. “If anything happens to you I'll just die. Why the hell do you have to run with such a dangerous crowd?”

******

Ian Callow was working far after his normal office hours at his desk in the Nightwatch Institute. The humid late-evening air of a Washington DC Summer was barely kept at bay by the building's air conditioning system. Callow initialed reports as he read them, gradually working his way through the usual pile of paperwork in his In-box. He reached a plain manila envelope with the words “Restricted Access” stamped along its front just seconds before a knock sounded on his inner office door. He paused just long enough to reach under his desk to check that his 9mm pistol was within easy reach, then answered the knock.

“Come in,” Callow said. His left eyebrow lifted in puzzlement as Tom Weldon entered. Taking in Tom's battered appearance, Callow decided that his usual sneer was not called for at the moment. But there was always time for a touch of sarcasm.

 ”Did you fall off your motorcycle?” Callow asked. “Or lose a bar bet? You look like hell. Sit down, Weldon. You look as if you need a rest.”

 “Thank you, Ian.” Tom said. Both of Callow's eyebrows lifted quizzically at Tom Weldon using his first name so familiarly, and in such a tired voice. “I have a problem,” Tom added. “I don't know if it is connected with Nightwatch, but even if it isn't I'm going to need your help.”

 Callow's eyebrows almost detached from his face. “You,” he said. “Are asking me for help? Actually asking? Politely? Knowing full well how much you personally loathe the very sight of me? To say that you've succeeded in startling me is a vast understatement. You're either suffering from a concussion, or I've just been presented with the single most serious threat to the world that has ever crossed my desk.”

 “Both,” Tom said. “At least I'm pretty sure I've got a mild concussion. As to the threat, that's exactly why I'm here. Shortly after leaving my office, I was attacked by a gang of what I can only describe as ninjas. Black silk suits, face masks, martial arts weapons... They nearly beat me to death.”

 “What stopped them?” Callow asked. His face assumed the expression he used when thinking furiously, reviewing reams of secret data only he was privy to, and finding all that vast amount of information aggravatingly lacking.

 “A man with a gun.” Tom said. “Two guns, actually. Great big huge auto-loaders. Sounded like Colt Army Autos. I didn't see where he came from, but when he started shooting the ninjas, I ran the hell away just as fast as I could manage. I was stupid, Ian. I ran straight to Miranda's house. She's already notified Langley that she'll need guards, so that's all right. I might have led them straight to her! I screwed up, big time.”

 “If I know the FBI, and I do, they will already have an entire task force outside of your girlfriend's home,” said Callow. “Rest assured that she is safe, for the moment. Now, ninja is an entirely inadequate description of your attackers, but that isn't your fault. They were wearing disguises. Perfectly rational and reasonable given their activities. Now, please describe for me the gunslinger who rescued you.”

 “Average height,” Tom replied. “Average weight, blue jeans, gray t-shirt without any designs or graphics, leather motorcycle jacket, Harley Davidson biker cap, dark hair, cut short. I didn't notice his shoes. Gun in each hand, shoots like a pro, never missed even once. He knocked down at least five of the ninjas in as many seconds. The guns were loud. Very bright muzzle flash. He shot equally well with either hand, first one, then the other. That's very difficult to do, Ian. And he didn't hit me even once, even though I was in the middle of that dog-pile. The impact ripped the ninjas away from me like the man was peeling a banana. He's good, better than anyone I've ever seen. What the hell have I gotten into, Ian? Who is after me? And why?”

 “About two hours ago?” Callow asked as he typed into his computer. “No police reports of anything like that. I can't find any mention of anything. If you weren't sitting here in front of me looking like you just lost an argument with an entire Drunk Tank full of reprobates, I wouldn't believe it. But you are and I do.”

 “Thank you,” said Tom. “That means a lot to me.”

 “Given our past history,” said Callow. “The fact that you came to me for help speaks volumes. You hate me, and almost everything I stand for. Yet you came to me first, instead of Simon, or the police. You have my full attention. I suggest that we call Simon. I would like for you to stay close to him until we can get some answers. Preferably, I would like both of you to stay on the Institute grounds, where our guards can protect you. But I already realize that is a stupid thing to wish for, given both your personalities. I'll send for Simon, and the two of you can plot your next moves. In the meantime, I will put the full resources of the Institute to work on deducing the motives for this attack on you.”

 Callow sighed heavily, then continued. “It may be that this isn't even remotely connected to your activities on behalf of Nightwatch. Your past is still a mystery to me, Tom. And I detest mysteries. Nevertheless, you are an able and valued associate of Nightwatch. Knowing you as I do, I am sure that you have already considered that this attack could quite possibly have nothing whatsoever to do with the Institute. No matter how deeply I probe into your past life, you are very much a closed book to me. Is there anything that you feel you could trust me with that might help this attack make sense?”

 “If I could think of anything,” said Tom. “In this one case I would tell you anything that I thought would be the least possible use. I can't think of anything from my past that could have led to this. And that includes Nightwatch missions as well as my personal life.”

 “You already realize,” Callow said. “That whoever is responsible for this attack has to be a very wealthy and resourceful person. They have access to truck-loads of ready cash, and have little fear of being exposed. They will be ruthless, and quite possibly totally deranged. I am making a not unwarranted assumption that this was motivated by revenge. Or at least a desire to take you captive for interrogation. If that isn't the case, then this person, or these persons, see you as an extreme threat to whatever it is that they are up to. More so even than Simon, Stephanie, or the Institute itself. And the only thing of which I am aware that makes you special enough to be singled out in this way is-”

 “The comet,” Tom said.

“Exactly,” Callow replied. “You were the only person even remotely connected to Nightwatch who went on that mission. And there is a better reason to think that is the core clue we have for your attack. I was just about to call you when you arrived. Something from my In-box.”

“And what was that?” Tom asked.

Callow picked up the envelope he had been holding when Tom knocked on his office door and passed it across the desk to Tom. “You have mail,” he said. “From your patient we asked you to supervise on the voyage out to the comet.”

 “Mail from Abby?” Tom asked. “But she's on one of the comet fragment crews. Towing a fragment into a useful orbit for future space missions. No one even thinks about them still being out there. Everything on Earth has gone back to business as usual. The reset button has been pushed. It's like the comet never existed in the first place. We saved the whole fucking world, and we got written off like a bunch of wilted vegetables in a grocery store bin!”

 “Easy, Tom. Remember your injuries,” Callow said. “Raising your blood pressure is dangerous at the moment. In any case, I agree with you. The whole world went mad, and decided to ignore something that you helped us save ourselves from. Shameful. Criminal, really. And something that I venture to say will eventually turn 'round to bit the world on its collective ass. Nevertheless, you have a message to read. I need to go to the restroom in any case. I'll give you some privacy here while you read your letter. Do you want some coffee? I can make a fresh pot while we wait for Simon to arrive.”

 “Thank you, Ian. Coffee sounds wonderful,” said Tom. “I think we're all three going to need some. Simon is on his way?”

 “Yes,” Callow replied. He e-mailed a reply to my message within minutes of your coming to see me. He'll be here soon. Now, if you'll excuse me, my bladder is bursting.”

As Callow left, Tom opened the envelope and began to read the message from Abby.


Dear Tom-Tom,

This is way weird, but someone just tried to kill me! One of the other women on the crew. She just jumped me with a knife and tried to kill me! My buddies pulled her off of me and tried to question her. She must have had a dose of poison, 'cause she killed herself before we could get any answers that made sense. The only thing we got out of her before she died was something about Sam. That's crazy talk. Sam is dead. She couldn't have anything to do with this.

Watch your back, Tom-Tom. I get the feeling that anyone who knew Sam might be in danger. Dunno what this is about, but it is damned strange. You better warn her family, and especially her God-Father. I don't want to see anything happen to the Old Man, or you. Her brother Paul is a complete dick, but he's all about the family business anyway. Sam bowed out of the family business ages ago. Meetings and stock options bored her to tears. Flying was the only thing she cared about. Well, besides me, and I knew I was always gonna come in a close second to her flying. We found a way to deal with that. Not a problem, as she would have said.

It's dark out here, Tom-Tom. We're between the worlds and at least two years away from putting this rock where we need it to orbit. There is a little chatter between us and the other fragment crews. But the gunship crews went silent months ago. I guess that they're all dead now. They had to do it. They had to take those Tesla guns out of the reach of Earth forever. They saved us from the comet, then they saved us from ourselves. I like to think of them out there in the Oort Cloud, trying to put as much distance between the human race and the most dangerous weapons humans have ever built. Engines wide open, controls locked and outward bound, crew dead as door nails, but still strapped into their work stations. Protecting us from ourselves. They'll reach the stars. Maybe a million years from now, but still. Heroes. More than you and me, eh?

Getting depressing. Gotta mail this before I go nuts. Just watch your back, Tom-Tom! Sam didn't die for nothing. Not as long as we remember.

 Abby


******

Tom Weldon read the short message all the way through three times before Ian Callow came back, with Simon Litchfield in tow. Callow carried a fresh pot of coffee, and Simon carried a pair of coffee cups. Callow had his personal coffee mug on his desk.

 Tom folded the message, and returned it to its envelope before Simon or Callow could say a word. Tom wiped away a stray tear from his eyes, before feeling calm enough to speak. Ian Callow poured coffee for all three of them, and Simon passed Tom a steaming cup.

 “I understand that you've had a bad day, Old Man.” Simon said gently as he handed Tom the cup of coffee. “Some unprincipled bastard set a squad of assassins on your tail? That won't do. That won't do at all. We need to figure out who, why, and what we can do to stop them.”

 “Thank you, Simon.” Tom said as he took a sip of coffee. “This isn't going to be simple. Not going to be clean, either. We're in a mess.” Tom Weldon waived the envelope in the air. “Someone tried to kill Abby as well. The only intersection between she and I is the comet mission, and Samantha's death. It is going to take more brains than I have on hand to figure this one out.”

 “What we need is more evidence,” said Ian Callow. “Is there anything we can access to narrow down the possibilities?”

 “I,” said Tom. “I have,” Tom paused again and sighed heavily. “An archive of totally unauthorized recordings from my space suit cameras. On a thumb drive I managed to smuggle home. Everything I looked at for the entire time I was wearing my suit during the mission. Including when I boarded Sam's ship and saw her corpse. And her funeral, too. I haven't watched any of it. I didn't want to make time to cry. But if it'll give us a clue, I'm willing to go through the whole 128 gigs of recordings. We'll need someone who can force the recording format from the space suit to read on a normal computer screen.”

 Simon pulled his cell phone from a pocket. Tapping buttons in quick succession, he reached the desired connection. Speaking quietly, he dictated a voice-mail message. “Come, Ms. Keel,” he said in his clipped, oh-so British, for formal occasions only, accent. “You are needed...” Then he rang off and re-pocketed the phone.

“Stephanie will most likely be here within the hour,” said Simon. “Now, where are those recordings?”

 “In a rental locker at a bus station three blocks from here,” Tom replied. “I didn't dare keep them at home. I keep the key on me at all times.”

 “Then we had better go and fetch them,” said Simon. “Before Stephanie has time to arrive.”

 “Not so fast!” Ian Callow said. “I'd rather send a squad of guards to get them than risk either of you two.”

 “That's a workable solution,” said Simon. “But we better hurry.”

 “Here is the key,” said Tom. “Locker number 1138 at the Grand Avenue station. The recordings are on a tiny little thumb drive. It's the only thing in that locker.”

 “That locker?” Callow asked. “Weldon, you do make me think that there are other lockers elsewhere that hold further treasures I'm not supposed to know about until necessary.”

 “Further evidence this deponent sayeth not, Ian.” Tom replied with a smile. Simon looked quickly back and forth between Callow and Weldon. Simon realized that some of his basic assumptions about the state of the universe had just been modified, but just what it all meant for his personal future was, as yet, unclear.

 “You two seem to have been playing nice in my absence,” Simon said.

“Purely temporary,” Callow replied. “I fully intend to resume my natural acerbic demeanor once Weldon has recovered from his concussion.”

“Yeah, right,” Simon riposted. “Red letter days for all concerned until such time. Spooky, nonetheless.”

 Ian Callow tapped a message into his computer, assigning a squad of Nightwatch security guards to go and fetch the data repository that Tom Weldon had hidden at the bus station.


******

“You've secured a giant suppository of knowledge,” said Stephanie Keel when she was handed Tom's secret thumb drive of recordings roughly an hour later.

 “You've been watching those movies again,” said Simon with a heart-felt sigh.

“The bloopers and out-takes, yes,” Stephanie said with a grin. “I can't help it. Nemoy is so cute in that old footage.”

 “Ms. Keel,” said Ian Callow. “Are the recordings in a format that you can adapt for playback?”

 “If I can't make it work,” said Stephanie Keel, “then I'll turn in my geek badge and secret decoder ring.”

 “If there is anything beyond Stephanie's abilities,” said Simon. “Then I have yet to discover it.”

 “I'm going to my office,” said Stephanie. “I will call if I need anything.”

 “That is our cue for Tom and I to head for my house,” said Simon. “Callow, it is nearly midnight. Time for us all to vacate the offices until the dawn strikes, while Stephanie works uninterrupted.”

 “Agreed,” said Ian Callow. “But I am sending a security squad to patrol outside your home, Simon. Tom needs to be protected until such time that we solve this pretty little puzzle.”

 “What about the guards at Miranda's house?” Tom asked. “Is she safe?”

 Ian Callow typed a few lines into his computer, then after reading the reply said “the FBI filed their latest report ten minutes ago. Everything is quiet, no sign of intruders.”

 “Thank God,” Tom said. “If anything happened to her, I'd die.”

 “I'm sending some of our own people to assist the FBI there,” Callow said. “You won't have to worry about her. If you and Simon can make it to Simon's home without incident, then we should have no more worries until sometime tomorrow.”

 “Until tomorrow then.” said Simon. “Stephanie, thank you for giving up your weekend to help with Tom's problem.”

“De nada,” Stephanie said in reply. “Tom is well worth giving up watching TV and sleeping late for a weekend. Saved us both more times than I can count...”

 “Thank you, Stephanie.” Tom said as he swayed woozily to his feet. “You're a good friend.”

 “Come on Old Man,” Simon said to Tom. “You need sleep. You're almost out on your feet.”

 “One last thing,” said Tom as he turned to face Ian Callow. “Thank you, Ian. I'm not going to forget this.”

 “I rather wish that you would,” Callow replied with a grin that surprised everyone in the room except for himself. “I've gone to a lot of trouble over the years to establish a reputation as a cold-hearted rat bastard. It'd be a shame to let all that work go to waste when Nightwatch needs me to combat every other bureaucracy in DC to keep us from being annexed by some other group. Don't you ever tell a single solitary living soul that I am anything other than the character I portray. And that goes double for you, Litchfield. You are the only loose cannon that can possibly piss me off more than Weldon, here. And if you ever spill a word of this conversation, I shall castrate you with a wooden spoon. Without benefit of anesthetics. Slowly. Understood?”

 “I'm not believing this,” said Simon. “Callow, you are without a doubt the single most frightening super-villain I have ever encountered. In all the years that I have known you, the fact that you are a human being has never crossed my mind. Not even for a moment. Today, well tonight rather, you just scared the piss out of me. You're actually human! Flawed, driven, ruthless... But human. No one would believe me if I were to tell them. Your secrets are safe. I don't even believe it, and I'm right here witnessing it. But I have to say, you were less frightening as the human equivalent of a rabid Honey Badger. To see you as a human being, now that is truly frightening!”

 “Shut up, Litchfield. Take Weldon home and play nursemaid to him. And rest assured that you are still the single sharpest thorn that has ever been driven into my side. And what are you laughing at, Keel? You have work to do! All of you! Now get the hell out of my sight!”

******

“That went well, didn't it?” Tom Weldon asked as Simon helped him into a car in the Nightwatch garage.

 “You need some sleep. Old Man,” Simon replied as he attempted to fasten a seat belt around Tom. “You probably need some food, too. There is enough in my kitchen for us to have some sandwiches and some nice hot soup. Perhaps even a drink or two for afters.”

 “Miri,” Tom said. “Is she safe?”

 “Safe as houses,” Simon replied. “You never worry about yourself, do you? Everyone else comes first for you, don't they? I think that is what I love most about you, Old Man. You're so far down on your own list of priorities that worry about yourself never even reaches the surface. You are... sound asleep, aren't you? Good. I'll need to call Gillian and ask her to send over some strong lads to help me get you out of the car...”

 And Tom Weldon snored in response.


******

Sometime later that night, Tom awoke to find himself in Simon's guest bedroom. A quick glance at the bedside clock confirmed that the time was well after 2 AM. A dim light showed through the open doorway of the bedroom. Tom got up and shambled towards the light, which was revealed to be coming from a single small lamp in Simon's living room.

 Simon was awake, and staring at a small rosewood box that sat on his coffee table. The box looked hand carved, and was roughly twice the size of a standard shoe box or jewelry box. The lid was open, and Simon was attempting to lift the top tray out. A pistol, which Tom recognized as a highly customized Colt Army .45 auto, sat to the right of the box. The other contents of the box's top tray sat on the table to the opposite side of the box itself. Simon looked up at Tom and said “His letter mentioned that one of the trays was difficult to remove...”

 “He?” Tom asked.

 “Tom Darby,” Simon replied. “You read about him in my report of the Orion Affair, after you got back from the comet. He left me this little puzzle box in his will.”

 “Oh! Yes, I always thought it was a shame that he died before I got a chance to meet him. Sounded like a grand old fellow, from your reports.”

“If he died,” Simon said as he gently pried the top tray out of the rosewood box and set it to one side. Simon removed several small boxes of ammunition, a photo of himself sitting in the cockpit of a jet plane, and other items from the lower tray. “Callow was kind enough to plant that seed of doubt in my mind. He pointed out that faking one's death was a standard way of someone in Darby's line of spy-work moving on to a new assignment. I'll admit, after working alongside him, it was very difficult to believe that the old man could die. He was like a force of nature. Even with a bullet in him, he made me feel like a child on a playground. He was so absolutely filled with life. Then to read about his death in a newspaper? Closed casket funeral? Services restricted to family members only? He'd told me that he'd outlived his wife and children, except for a nephew. Thanks to Callow, I still have doubts. But that doesn't have any bearing on this bequest of his. The things in this box are my inheritance from his estate. Well, this and the use of a fancy sports car whenever I like. Darby felt that the pistol and the rest of the things in this box were something I would need to have. Something of vital importance. This is the second time I've looked into the bottom of this box. The lower tray lifts out even easier than the top one. It's all hand-made, you can even see the heads of the tiny nails the artist used to piece it together. But something keeps nagging me about it. Something right in front of my face. I'm just not seeing it. Does anything about this box strike you as odd?”

 Tom sat next to Simon on the couch and studied the box carefully.

 “If I didn't know better,” Tom began.

 “Yes?” Simon asked, then held his breath for a moment.

 “I would swear,” Tom continued. “That there was a third layer in there. One beneath the two we can see. See how much thicker the box is than the two layers we see? There's at least an entire inch of box left. But how does it open?”

 “Um,” said Simon. “Perhaps if I push it down and try to slide it to one side...”

 “To the back!” Tom said excitedly. “The back of the box is slightly thicker than the other three sides, see?”

 There was a barely audible click, and the public bottom of the box slid back an eighth of an inch under Simon's fingers, then popped upward along its front edge. A blue silk ribbon appeared in the gap between the box's false bottom and its front edge. Simon grasped the ribbon, and tugged gently. The false bottom of the box came away in his hands. He set it to one side and peered into the hidden compartment of the box that Tom Darby had bequeathed to him.

 “That is weird,” Simon said. “Three data discs, a cell phone, some photos and key-cards, and another letter from Darby. Oh, here. You ought to read the letter from him that was in the second layer of the box.” Simon handed Tom a sheet of printer paper from the pile of things he'd removed from the last public layer of the rosewood box.

Simon,

 If you're reading this, then my fate has finally caught up with me. Don't despair, though- I plan to re-incarnate! LOL! I'm writing this just a couple of weeks after getting home from the hospital. Our little World Air-Speed Record attempt was about four weeks ago, now. The doctors wouldn't let me keep the bullet. He-he... While I was still in the hospital, I contacted a friend of mine in Tennessee to carve this box up special- just for you. Amy's good, isn't she? She's got a little shop on the strip there in Gatlinburg. I see that she built it exactly the way I asked. You may have to dig a little to get at the bottom layer. The other tray sticks in place somewhat. I hope you *never* need some of this stuff, but I wanted you to have it just in case. If you do wind up needing it, the contents of this box could save your life. Someone once saved my life, many decades ago, and I have a karmic debt to pass it forward. Of all the people I've ever met in this incarnation, I think you stand the best chance of understanding the gift.

 But since you're reading this- you and I will never meet again, and that's a sad state of affairs. However, I thought I'd leave you a few goodies that I won't need any more as a token of my respect. Hope you don't mind. Naturally, since I'm hale and hearty as I'm writing this- well, mostly -I don't have the slightest idea when, where, or how I'm gonna kick off. (I hope I get to do something with a little style about it, LOL!) I'm going to retire pretty soon. I can see it coming. I'm not as spry as I used to be. As soon as I can, I'm going to take my bike out for a good long run. Maybe spend a couple of months touring the mountains. I'll try to make time to catch up with you again, before you can get this letter. But I wanted to write it just in case we don't get that chance. You were a good comrade in arms, Simon. It felt good to work with someone I knew I could depend on.

 I left you the contact info for the company that makes those mercy bullets on a card in the ammo box. And the URL of a gunsmith near Atlanta who specializes in non-lethal weapons. This old Colt isn't the best design for non-lethal ammo. But Jerry Drake has some really good pieces he's built in his home workshop. Gotta warn you though, Jerry ain't in the business like you and me. He won't know anything about back-room deals. He's just an old-fashioned master craftsman. He's a good kid- 40 or so. Just be yourself if you decide to see him about a dart gun or anesthetic paint-ball gun.

 I've had the guys at the shop take all the 007 gear off the car. You won't ever need that kind of crap. I almost never did, myself. I told them to put some camping gear in there instead. You'll get much more use out of that. Without all the extra weight, she ought to zip right along. Be careful. She may be only 200 HP, but that's still twice as much power as that little car needs. Don't *ever* try and turn a corner running faster than 70- the car will flip. I doubt you'll ever attempt to find out how fast it will go, on a straightaway. I remember you got a little white-knuckled in that little electric one. Enjoy the car. It's a real pleasure to drive. The guys will keep it ready for you to use. Just call ahead so they can install the fuel pellets and charge up the converter. Take a vacation, Simon. Go fishing in a Smokey Mountain stream, and think of me when you catch a nice big bass or a trout.

I'll look for you in my next incarnation, if at all possible,

 Tommy-Lee Jacob Darby

 “What an amazing man,” Tom said to Simon. “He seems to be so grounded. I did read your report of the Orion mission. But this letter makes Darby come alive. I gather he passed away unexpectedly?”

 “Burns and smoke inhalation from rescuing an infant from a burning house,” Simon said. “From what I read in the local newspaper about the fire, Darby knocked out a couple of firemen and a cop just to get into the burning house, then walked out with his clothes on fire, but the baby unharmed and wrapped in his leather biker jacket.”

 “Simon,” Tom said. “Biker jacket, leather biker jacket! The man who saved my life tonight was dressed as a biker with a leather jacket. And he was shooting twin Colt Army autos, just the same as the one Darby bequeathed to you.”

 Simon laughed out loud. “Tom, Darby said he was going to reincarnate, but as himself? Thirty years before he even died? That's so far beyond the edge of reality that even I can't accept it.”

 “All right, what does the letter in the secret compartment say?” Tom asked.

“Here, read it for yourself,” Simon replied as he handed Tom the letter from the hidden compartment of the rosewood box. “Some interesting information there...”

 
Simon,

This secret compartment holds all the info I was able to dig up on some people who want to find out entirely too much about your Nightwatch. These are the people who built the NB-5. I know I warned you about them before. There's a group of nut-cases out there, somewhere, that call themselves Prometheus. From what I've been able to find out, they're some kinda Star Chamber council of crooked industrialists. I don't know much about the top ranks, but I've run up against half a dozen of their operations in the last few years. They are nasty people, Simon. And if they're looking into Nightwatch, you're in danger. One lucky thing you can use to your advantage - They're long-term planners. They don't react well to quick, unpredictable actions. Do the unexpected, and they can't react fast enough. The info on these data discs is stuff I raided the computers for at every Prometheus op I've found. Plus files I found of Prometheus personnel in public. It's all I could get my hands on. I'll add to it as I get more, but if you're reading this- then there won't *be* any more, obviously. It may be old information, outdated and therefore useless by the time you get it. Please understand why I couldn't just send you this stuff openly. Some of the people I used to work for are still keeping tabs on me. They'd think I was selling out to some foreign power. The people who delivered this box to you are beyond the reach of any government or private group. No one can trace how you got this bequest. That's the best I can do for you, Simon.

 The cell phone is even more dangerous than the other stuff. Only activate the cell phone if the fate of the world is at stake! Otherwise, don't risk it. Only use the cell phone if everyone you love is threatened. Like from the comet, but worse. The cell phone is for end of the world shit, Simon. Turn that fucker on again, and shit is gonna get realer than you could possibly imagine. Don't use the cell phone unless you have no other hope.

 Watch your back, kid.

 Darby

 

 “I wonder if any of the data on these discs is still current,” Simon said. “I don't recognize anyone in these photos, but the labels say that they're Prometheus big-wheels.”

 “And the letter makes it sound like that cell phone triggers atomic bombs,” said Tom. “Or something equally wild.”

 “Knowing Darby,” Simon replied, “the wilder options would be the most likely.” Simon laughed aloud. “Old man,” he said as he looked into the box. “I wish you were here right now. We could use a few clues to decipher these clues you gave us.”

“Amen,” said Tom. “I wonder what those key-cards go to?”

 “Doors of some Prometheus operation or installation, I suppose,” said Simon. “Presumably one that Darby thought would still be useful to me even after all these months. Either that or keys for some entrance to the Washington Underground. Just knowing that there is an entire city down there... Off limits to everyone but politicos and spies. I wonder just how many other secret cities like that exist?”

 Tom reached over and picked up the cell phone. He turned it over in his hands, but was very careful not to open it.

 “Careful with that,” Simon said. “End of the world situations only, Darby said.”

 “Oh, I remember,” Tom said. “But it's just a normal cell phone. One of those pay-as-you-go phones.  You can buy one like this in gas stations for $20. I wonder what makes this one so special? Whatever numbers are in the memory? And there's no charger. You've had this for months. Surely its batteries are dead as a doornail.”

 “If it's a standard cell phone,” Simon replied. “I could charge it from a USB port on my computer. But given Tom's warning, I'm not sure that I'd even attempt to charge it.”

 “Well,” said Tom. “Having more than one Tom around could easily get confusing.” He grinned. “But nothing in the letter said not to keep it charged up. After all, in an end of the world situation, you might not have time to top the battery up.”

 “I think we need to get Stephanie's opinion on this,” said Simon. A frown creased his face as he spoke. “As much as I desire to be prepared for anything nasty to happen, Darby never warned me about anything in such strong terms as he used in that letter. Therefore, that phone scares the devil out of me. But something else scares me more.”

 “Oh? What?” Tom Weldon asked.

 “This block of plastic,” Simon replied. “It's just a piece of plastic. No buttons or compartments, nothing odd about it at all. But I swear I've seen this material before.”

 “It looks like a bar of soap,” Tom said.

 “But why include it if it weren't something I'd need?” Simon asked. “And why is it so- The Egg!”

 “Egg?” Tom asked.

 “The Dragon's Egg!” Simon replied. “This is the same material that the Egg is made out of, I'm certain of it!”

 “That thing sent you time traveling, didn't it?” Tom said, then whistled under his breath. “Darby knew about that?”

 “He never mentioned it,” Simon replied. “But if he did... Time travel would explain a lot of things about all of this.”

 “How so?” asked Tom.

 “We know that time travel is possible,” Simon explained. “But it is neither easy nor is it safe. But what if Darby had access to some sort of time machine? That would cause all his references to reincarnation to make much more sense.”

 “But,” Tom replied. “The man who saved me from the ninjas was a whole lot younger than Tom Darby. He would have had to be using the time machine way back in our past, if he's the one that rescued me.”

 “That's the trouble with time travel,” Simon quipped. “You can't do anything without risking a paradox.”

 “Simon,” said Tom.

 “Yes?” Simon replied.

 “The piece of Egg plastic was in the second compartment of Darby's box?” Tom asked as he gently put the block of plastic back on the coffee table.

 “Yes,” Simon answered.

 “So,” Tom said slowly and cautiously. “Darby considered something that might be part of a time machine to be less dangerous than he believed the end-of-the-world cell phone to be?”

 “Um,” Simon said, then paused. “I believe that I should have to give that a reluctant affirmative reply, at this point in time. How is your concussion?”

 “I feel a whole lot better,” Tom replied. “Not fit to climb mountains or fight more ninjas, but otherwise normal.”

 “Good,” said Simon. “Go grab your shoes and let's get in the car.”

 “Why?” Tom asked.

 Simon began to pack everything back into Tom Darby's box. “We are taking this entire mess to Stephanie, right now!”

“I disagree, Simon.” Tom said slowly. “Darby meant for you to have all this stuff. Not for it to be locked up in a vault somewhere someone like Callow could get at it.”

 “Point, set, and match,” Simon said, then slid back onto the couch. “I almost panicked, there. Thank you for stopping me from doing something stupid.”

 “Oh, I agree that we need Stephanie's opinion,” Tom said. “But we need her opinion as far away from anyone who we might not be able to trust as we can manage. Ian Callow may or may not be a pod person right now. We can't take that chance.”

 Simon's phone rang. Both men jumped, startled. Then they grinned at each other.

 “If that is Callow wanting us to bring him the box,” said Tom. “Then I vote we head for the fastest plane we can find and get the hell out of Dodge.”

 “Agreed,” Simon said, laughing as he crossed the room to answer the phone. “Even if I have to fly the bloody thing again. Oh, it's Stephanie,” he added as he looked at the caller ID on his phone. “Hello?”

 Simon listened to the phone for several moments, then replied. “Quite right,” he said. “We will be there as quickly as possible.” Then he hung the phone up. He looked at Tom, frowned, and shook his head.

 “Samantha was murdered,” Simon said. “And Stephanie can prove it. All the evidence except for the identity of the assassin and whoever hired them was right there on your helmet recordings. Your friend Abby might still be in danger, and you most certainly still are. Grab the box, but let me have that pistol. Darby was right.”

 “I know that I took several thumps to my thick skull last night,” Tom said as he started putting things back into Tom Darby's rosewood box. “But I'm not following you. What do you mean?”

 “Everyone I love is in mortal danger,” Simon replied as he accepted the .45 auto from Tom's outstretched hand. Simon expertly chambered a round in the pistol, then stuck it through his belt, behind his back. “We're going to charge up the batteries on that phone, and then we're going to turn it on and see why it is so dangerous. In the meantime, the game is afoot.”

 “Give me two seconds to grab my shoes,” Tom said. “And don't go out the door until I'm beside you. Here's the box.”

 “Done, and done,” said Simon. His anger was mirrored by his expression. As Tom went to fetch his shoes, Simon stepped to a bookcase in his living room, pulled one of the larger hardback books off of the shelf, and reached into the vacant space to retrieve another handgun. When Tom returned, Simon shoved the pistol at him, grip-first. “Take it,” Simon snapped. “I know you don't like them, neither do I. But we may need them. Better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.”

 Tom checked the pistol, then chambered a round. Imitating Simon, he stuck the weapon through his belt, then tugged his shirt out to cover it. “You hate these more than I do,” he said to Simon. “Darby was right. Shit just got real.”

 “Let's roll,” Simon said. “Whatever happens, Stephanie gets the phone. We can't trust anyone but ourselves, and her.” They opened the door, and ran to Simon's car.

******

Something less than an hour later, Simon and Tom arrived in the Nightwatch Institute parking lot. The gate guard was a fellow Simon was used to seeing, Bobby Levinson, so he felt justified in warning that the building might come under attack sometime during the night.

 “Is the sky still falling?” Bobby asked Simon.

 “No,” Simon replied. “But it's damn near that bad.”

 “Red Alert then,” Bobby replied. “These windows are bullet-proof, and I'm going to put my flak jacket on just as soon as you go through the gate. Whatever it is, fix it as fast as you can Doctor. I've got three kids at home and my ex is a crazy woman. I don't want her to get ahold of my kids. Godspeed...”

 “We'll do everything we can, Bobby,” Simon replied. “Just keep your head down if anything goes wrong. Hide. Don't be a hero, your children need you alive.”

“Yes sir, will do, Sir. Ms. Keel, Sir?”

 “After you put your flak jacket on,” Simon said. “You can message her that we are here. Not before.”

Gunfire rang out. Bobby dropped down into a crouch inside the guard shack, hitting the gate button on his way down. “Go! Go, go, go, go, go...” he shouted from the guard shack floor.

 Simon left what must have been $400 worth of tire rubber on the pavement as he accelerated into the parking lot and raced to the section closest to the main building. He parked, sideways, against the curb. Tom Weldon threw the car door open and dashed for the entrance, Simon close on his heels. The Institute's night shift guards crouched behind any shelter they could find in the building's lobby as the bullet-proof glass front wall was tested to an extreme it had never been designed to withstand...

“Call for back-up,” Simon and Tom shouted in unison, “Now!” Simon added as they both ran for the elevators. One providentially opened just as they arrived. Simon ran full-tilt into the elevator and bounced off of its back wall, spinning around with his pistol aimed at the building's front doors. Tom Weldon, at a dead run, dropped to the floor and slid the last eight feet into the center of the elevator, pistol aimed back at the building entryway.

The elevator doors closed.

 Simon punched the button to take the elevator to the level where Stephanie's laboratory was located. He drew in a huge breath, then exhaled slowly.

 “Special Forces Recon trained you to do that?” Simon asked Tom as Tom slowly stood back up in the elevator. “I know, I'm not supposed to know about your tour in SFR. Sorry, a folder just fell open in front of me as I was walking through the Top-Secret Records file room.”

 “No,” Tom Weldon replied as he gasped for breath. “SFR taught me to fucking improvise when I'm getting goddamn shot at! And I did not just say that. You did not just hear that, and I am not admitting to anything that you might have heard or read in any files that aren't officially supposed to exist. Are the guards going to be all right?”

 “They were all taking cover as we ran in, and the building is purported to be able to take far worse abuse,” Simon replied.

 “No one has ever shot at us in the office before.” Tom said. “Callow is going to be livid.”

 “Fuck Callow, and the congressman he rode in on,” Simon said calmly. “I'm worried about Stephanie.”

 “70 feet underground? In her own laboratory behind locked doors? With the training you gave her as well as what she's gotten on her own?” Tom asked. “What could go wrong?”

 “Locked and loaded?” Simon asked in return.

“Since we left your house,” Tom replied. “Anyone hurts Stephanie, I'm going to hurt 'em back, real bad.”

 The elevator bell signaled their arrival on the floor they had requested. The elevator doors opened to reveal Stephanie Keel standing there holding a hand-built rifle version of Tesla's Death Ray particle beam gun, ready to fire.

 “Good,” she said. “It's you. This thing probably would have taken out half a mile of solid rock.”

“Good thing that you didn't have to use it,” said Simon as he got off the elevator and hugged Stephanie. “From Tom's reports on the comet mission, I think you might just have misplaced a decimal point. That thing might have taken out half a light year of solid rock rather than half a mile.”

 “Or half a billion light years if you were using C batteries rather than AAs.” said Tom as he also hugged Stephanie.

 “That is all well and good, but why are we getting shot at upstairs?” Stephanie asked.

 “I think that is my fault” said Tom. “Whoever hired Sam's killer seems to have made me a target as well. They are either totally insane, or they think that either Abby or I can identify them. Simon said that you can prove that Sam's death wasn't an accident?”

 ”Toolmarks on the rock prove that a rocket motor and guidance unit had been attached to it before it was piloted to intercept Samantha's tug. The footage from your helmet camera clearly shows the marks made on the rock by the motor being mounted, as well as a rather sizable guidance system and computer. The holes for the explosive anchor bolts can't lie. There is less than one chance in a billion that that rock went through the windshield of Samantha's tugboat and killed her by accident. Someone mounted an engine and a guidance system to that rock, and then steered it to kill Sam like an arrow from a bow. It is murder, and I can prove it was planned months before it happened. Someone had to sabotage Samantha's tugboat, not once but several times. Then they had to be close enough to the tug to pilot the rock into it just at the perfect time that they were attempting to calculate a flight path back to their mother ship when the sabotaged instruments failed. The odds of a random rock killing a random pilot on a random tugboat are a billion billion to one against. Even Zod couldn't do that kind of math. Let's go to the lab. I'll show you the camera footage and the math.”

 “Zod?” Tom asked.

“You don't want to know,” Simon replied. “Something else Tesla invented.”

 “Like we don't have enough to worry about without Darby's box of tricks,” said Tom.

 “Darby?” Stephanie asked.

“You read my report,” Simon said. “Tom Darby and I, on the island in the Atlantic that got nuked...”

 “Yes,” said Stephanie. “You would have died except for-”

“The Old Man saving my ass,” Simon replied. “And that reminds me, I want you to charge the batteries on this cell phone.”

 “This piece of junk?” Stephanie asked. “No one has made this model in over a decade. This is an antique. I can't even guarantee that it would be able to work. Even if I charge it up, it might not be able to hook up with today's cell network.”

 “Darby seemed to think that it would be useful,” said Simon.

“All right,” said Stephanie as she found the right cable to use to charge the old cell phone and hooked it up. The phone lit up and displayed it's charging status. “Give it half an hour and it'll be good as new.”

“You managed to salvage usable footage from my suit cameras?” Tom Weldon asked, impressed with Stephanie's skills. “I thought those things were too low-res to manage anything near good quality recordings. Just enough for emergencies and historical references. Not that anyone has bothered to remember that we actually saved the damned planet from an extinction impact!” The disgust in Tom’s voice was plain, and easily understood. Not only had he and thousands of others risked their lives to save the planet, but no one seemed to remember, or care, that there ever was a threat to the planet to start with.

 “I managed to work a couple of miracles with the camera recordings,” said Stephanie. “During the crisis, Zod created some really useful graphics programs for me while you were out there saving our lives for us.”

 “This is the second time you mentioned this Zod,” said Tom. “Who is Zod and why didn't I hear about him before now?”

 “Zod was an AI, a computer program,” said Simon. “It told us he was created by Nicola Tesla and programed to warn the planet about the return orbit of the comet. Stephanie and I talked with the program in a chat room several times. It always seemed like a real person, but it had lots of limits to what it could tell us at any given time. Still, bloody bugger was damned useful, before he committed suicide.”

 “All right,” said Tom. “Now I am totally confused. Tesla? That would have been in the early years of the 1900s. I knew the fellow was a genius, but how could he create an AI before anyone had even built the first computer?”

 “Tesla contributed to the art of programming,” said Stephanie. “He understood the logic involved even if he'd never seen an actual computer built or program written. The man was so far ahead of his time that I wouldn't be surprised to discover he was a Time Traveler!” Stephanie laughed. “But that's neither here nor there. The important thing is that thanks to Zod, I was able to refine and enhance your original helmet camera footage into something almost good enough for courtroom evidence. Here, look at this sequence...”

 She played a recording that was only a few degrees out of focus, but otherwise looked as if it were the product of a vast Hollywood budget. Tom and Simon watched as the footage unrolled.

 “That's a recording from your helmet camera,” Stephanie said in a quiet voice as the recording played out. “See? That's the sequence where your trawler diverted to go to the rescue of Samantha's trawler. But look at this!” She added as the scene changed. “This is footage from Sam's helmet camera! I managed to steal it from an archive the NSA had stashed in a Cloud Storage site. Watch carefully!”

 An obvious point of view change in the recordings was revealed. From Tom's camera recording the beginning of his ship's rescue flight, everything shifted suddenly to a starscape slowing down and sweeping about on a course change. As the image stopped still, the background stabilized and a single bright point of light was revealed in the center of the image.

“That bright spot is one of the carrier ships,” Stephanie said. “The Saint George, as best I can tell. Quite a long ways off from Samantha's boat, but still easy to pick out from the background stars. Now wait! There is something weird in the next few seconds of the recording.”

 Tom and Simon watched as within moments; the recording showed flashes of light that were obviously far closer than the huge carrier ship in the far distance. Faint, and rapidly flickering out of existence, the quickly fading lights slowly gave way to a rapidly growing dark shadow. With a sick feeling in the pit of Tom's gut, he watched as the shadow grew into a blotch that was too fast for Samantha's trawler to be able to dodge. Horrified, he watched the shadow grow. Within mere seconds, the shadow blotted out all the background stars. Before he could prepare himself emotionally for the moment he knew was about to arrive, Tom saw the view port of Samantha's ship shatter into billions of tiny shards of diamond-hard glass, and the killer comet fragment rudely nose its way into Samantha's ship. Before Tom could shout for the recording to stop, it did. The last few seconds clearly showed the bulk of the rock as it violently came to rest, point-first in Samantha's chest. Various numbers flashed in the corners of the display until the recording went blank.

 “Holy Mother of God,” Tom gasped. “That was horrible!” Tom's tears ran down his face, and he was unashamed. In fact, he was angry. More angry than he'd ever been in his life. “You said you had proof that Sam's death wasn't an accident?” Tom added, his voice quavering as he cried.

 “Rocks don't flash lights and make course corrections,” Stephanie said gently as she handed Tom a box of tissues. “Only rocket motors do that.” Stephanie added as she stopped the playback and turned to face her grieving friend. “I won't play it again until you're prepared,” she added. “But the tapes show that the chunk of rock that killed Samantha was definitely under control and steered to impact exactly where it did. She was murdered. In a way that was supposed to look like an accident, but murdered nonetheless.”

 “Prove it!” Tom said, as he wiped his tears away from his eyes as he fought off the urge to vomit.

 “Here,” Stephanie replied as she cued up a series of still photos from the recordings.

“Steady on, Old Man,” said Simon as he reached out to grasp Tom by one shoulder. “We have our first clues now. We will get to the bottom of this, I promise you!” The emotion in Simon's voice was clear. He meant every word he said, and would leave no stone unturned to get to the bottom of this mystery. Tom gathered reassurance from both his friends as they tried to cope with his expected rush of emotions. Simon's face assumed a hard look that few people had ever seen. Few people still living, that is.

 “Are you ready?” Stephanie asked. “This is slowed down and enhanced as much as my computers can manage,” she added.

 “Play it,” Tom said as he wiped tears from his eyes. His voice was choked with emotion.

 “I'm so sorry,” said Stephanie. She cued the still photos to play out as a slide show. “Here you can see the background as Sam's ship came to rest. Here you can see the Carrier Ship in the distance,” she added as the slide changed. “This one is important! Look closely and you can see the flare of rocket motors attached to the comet shard.”

 Image after image flashed slowly across the screen. Tom Weldon sat, transfixed, and the disaster played out to its terrible conclusion.

 “This shot shows the rock closing on the ship. Notice the tiny flashes of light along its back edges? Now this one is very revealing,” she added. “See the flares seem to curve up and away from the rock? I think that's the point where the killer detached the rockets from the rock and left it to crash into the trawler.” The scene jumped as the final slide was shown. “Here,” said Stephanie, “we can see the rock after it killed Sam. There are obvious tool-marks on the base of the rock. Places where the rockets were mounted. There,” she said as she used a laser pointer to indicate smoothed portions of the deadly rock that proved that her theories were correct. “And there, and there... That rock had rocket motors attached, and it was piloted to intercept Sam's ship exactly where it did. There's no mistake possible. The lights flaring in the distance, as well as when the rock got closer, the tool marks, everything. That chunk of rock was steered! It was piloted to an intercept with Sam's seat inside her ship. It was a complicated, but deliberate murder. I'm sorry, Tom. Sam was murdered. By someone who was also along on the comet expedition. Someone who was able to locate a suitable shard of the comet, attach rockets to it, and pilot the damned thing up until the point where it burst into her ship and killed her. Now we have to find out who the killer was, and make the son of a bitch pay!”

 Tom looked at both of his friends, tears running down his cheeks without the least bit of shame. Simon was also attempting to hide tears, but Stephanie looked ready to rip someone into gobbets of raw flesh.

 “Son of a bitch must pay,” Stephanie said.

 “Agreed,” Simon added. “I am not going to rest until we find that poor girl's murderer and bring him to justice.”

“Justice?” Tom asked, as if to himself. “I'm not sure there is any such thing anymore,” he said in a louder voice. “From all that we've seen over the years? There is no 'Justice!' There's just 'us!' I want this creature found. I want him and me, alone, in a room he can't escape from. Just five minutes. That's all I ask.”

 “I'll hold your coat,” said Simon.

 “I'll bring the shovels,” added Stephanie. “For afterward...” 

“What's our next, next step?.” Tom asked as he wiped away his tears.

 “Obviously,” said Simon. “This was a murder for hire. We find out the identity of the miscreant, we deduce who employed them, and then we find a way to make our charges stick. I have every faith in our courts, if we can present them with irrefutable evidence.

“That is a very big 'if' we have to overcome,” said Tom. “I'm not saying that it's impossible. But it ain't going to be easy.”

 “If I had a way to enhance that footage,” said Stephanie. “Where the rocket detaches from the rock, I mean. Then we might have another clue to the killer's identity. Once we know that, we can extrapolate backwards to who hired them.”

 “There is a tried and true method that usually works,” said Simon. “Even without knowing the assassin's name.”

 “What's that?” Tom asked

 “Follow the money,” Simon replied. “Who would profit from Samantha's death? She was an heiress to a multi-million-dollar family fortune.”

 “That she was,” said Tom. “And probably closer to a billion dollars than just multi-millions. But I'd hate to think that someone in her family had her killed. Her family made soup. Canned soup, canned vegetables, canned fruit... What's more, Sam had already made it clear to her family that she wasn't interested in learning how to run the company. One of her brothers had a talent for business. Sam just wanted to be a pilot. She said that she's already sold enough of her personal shares in the company to her brother so that she'd never be a threat to him, financially. She only kept enough stock so that she was free to do whatever she wanted without fear of needing to give up flying to have to work for a living at anything else.”

 “I wish I had better image processing software,” said Stephanie. “I'm sure that I could tease a better image out of that data recording. Something good enough for us to at least get a usable handle on the assassin.”

 A very quiet chime sounded.

 “What was that?” Simon asked.

 “Your antique cell phone,” said Stephanie as she looked around the lab. “It's finally charged up.”

“Oh,” said Simon. “Is that all? Darby wrote that I wasn't to turn the bloody thing on unless it was an emergency. But as Tom pointed out, I might not have time to charge it in an emergency. I suppose I should find a charger for it and just leave it on a trickle until something else Earth-shattering comes up... Like it always seems to do.”

Stephanie's desk computer beeped its signal for incoming e-mail. She went to look at the screen across the room.

“Anything important?” Simon asked Stephanie.

“Free trial version of a graphics program I've never heard of before,” she replied. “From the advert copy, it's the next best thing since sliced bread. Oh, and an invitation to reply with a critique of the program. The message says that if I give them a critique, they'll pay for a dinner for four at... any one of a short list of very expensive restaurants here in the city.”

 “Is the Canon Moon on the list?” Simon asked.

 “Second from the bottom,” Stephanie said. “Looks as if the list is running from the highest prices downward to lower ones. These are some high-class places. Not a Burger-Bar in the bunch.”

 “Scan it for viruses,” Tom said. “Then give it a shot. What's the worst that could happen? You spend an hour deciding the program is a dud, then half a minute telling them that their software sucks, and get a free meal at a nice restaurant for being honest?”

“I'm not sure that a program I get e-mail offers for out of the blue is worth the trouble of downloading and installing,” said Stephanie. “Do you have any idea how many e-mails I get like that? Nine times out of ten, it turns out to be a total waste of time.”

 “Perhaps this will be that tenth time,” Simon said. “Besides, dinner for four at the restaurant of your choice is nothing to sneer at. Not in this town. If you think the offer is genuine, then go for it. If the program is crap, delete it and forget about it. Either way, you have nothing to lose.”

 “That's right,” Stephanie said. “I'll do it later.”

 “If you're up against the limits of what you already have on hand to use,” Tom said. “Why not give it a shot now?”

 “Considering the reception we received trying to get in the building-” said Simon. “Perhaps you should rephrase that, Tom.”

 “We really ought to check on the security guys, Simon,” Tom replied. “Whoever was shooting at us earlier didn't seem to care who got in their way. I'd hate to find out that friends of ours got hurt trying to protect us.”

 “Couldn't hear any sirens down here in the basement in any case,” Stephanie said. “No matter what happens upstairs, we're behind walls that are several feet of steel-reinforced concrete and every door except for the elevators are laminated steel and Kevlar at least two inches thick. Callow provides for damn near any emergency...”

 “Callow wasn't hired until the building was a decade old,” Simon said. “I think we owe the Cold War much more of a debt than we do Callow. Standard button for Security on your desk phone Stephanie?” Simon asked.

 “Yes,” she replied absently as she started downloading the new graphics program. “Just punch the red button on the landline and you're connected directly with the security switchboard... Now, don't interrupt me for about ten minutes.”

 “Security?” said Simon as he got an answer on the phone on Stephanie's other desk. “This is Doctor Litchfield. Please give me a damage report and casualty list from the attack Doctor Weldon and I encountered as we entered the facility.” Simon listened to the voice on the phone for several long seconds, the replied. “Thank you. I'm glad to know that no one was injured. Stay alert. They may come back. Please do everything you can to make sure that all your operatives stay out of danger. Weldon and I were their targets. I'm sorry you had to face all that gunfire. Oh, and please insure than Miss Keel's lab is under guard as well. I'll count it as a personal favor. Thank you. Carry on...” Simon hung up the phone and turned to Tom Weldon.

 “Doctor Weldon?” Tom asked before Simon could say a word. “You know damn well I hate using my title.”

 “Steady on, old chap,” Simon replied to Tom. “It was necessary to break your cover, as it were, to make sure that the boys upstairs took me seriously.”

 “As if multiple machine guns making Swiss cheese out of the building entryway wouldn't have given them at least a tiny clue?” Tom said sarcastically. “Sorry,” he added. “I've forgotten what it's like to get shot at just for showing up.”

 “Ah yes,” said Simon. “Your hidden, and no doubt checkered past. Well, your secrets are your own. Stephanie and I have no right to pry. And we won't presume upon our friendship. I'm well aware that you only keep secret those things that you need to keep secret. God knows that we have things in our pasts that we don't want to reveal.”

 “Damn straight,” said Stephanie over her shoulder. “You two may be my best friends, but there are some things that I'd feel weren't stuff you need to know about me. Download complete, now give me a few minutes to install this thing. Quiet time, boys! Let me work in peace for just a few moments...”

 “Artists,” said Simon with a smile at Tom. “Is there a coffee machine on this level?”

 “Next to the elevator,” Tom replied. “Let’s go get a cup. I could use one. Stephanie? Coffee? Tea? Soda?”

“Tea,” she replied absently. “From the machine? Extra strong, extra sugar. Don't you dare hit the button for the creamer! That powdered stuff is the work of the Devil! Make it two cups, please...”

 “After you, Doctor,” said Tom with a grin.

 “Why thank you, Doctor,” Simon replied with an even bigger grin.

“Move it!” Stephanie said. “This program is almost finished installing...”

 “Shall we dance?” Simon asked Tom.

****** 

“You lead, I'm a little bit rusty.” Tom replied as he opened the door from Stephanie's office to the hallway. He poked his head out of the doorway, looked both ways, and relaxed. “The hall is clear,” he added. 

“I'm glad this thing takes dollar bills,” said Tom. “I don't have any quarters.”

“Not to worry,” Simon said. “My greatest fear is that our coffee will be undrinkable, and that Stephanie's tea will turn out to be tasteless 'goop' she'll be infuriated at us for bringing back.”

 “She seemed to know what the machine would produce,” Tom replied. “I'm sure she won't blame us for something we have no control over.”

 “I love your incredulity,” Simon said. “Nothing for it but to chance it. At least the coffee smells real.”

 Tom sneaked a tiny sip of the cup of Stephanie's tea. “Not great,” he said. “But not terrible either. How much time do you think that she'll need?”

 “Knowing her,” Simon replied with a smile. “She'll already have the new program running and be pissed off that it's a piece of crap we talked her into wasting her time over.”

 “Let's walk slowly, then.” Tom said gravely. “She may be throwing things when we get there...”

******

“Stephanie?” Simon called as Tom held open the door for him. “We have your tea...”

 “This program is amazing!” Stephanie shouted as Simon and Tom entered the room, each carrying two paper cups of hot drinks. “I've never seen anything like it,” she added breathlessly as she clicked the mouse and typed in additional commands. “It's like shifting from some basic, cheap photo viewer to the output from the best spy satellite ever built! Come here and see this! And don't spill my tea!”

 “You found something useful?” Simon asked as he set one cup of tea on Stephanie's desk. Tom set the cup he was carrying down as Stephanie snatched the first cup from the desk and drank greedily.

 “Perfect...” Stephanie said absently. “Look at this footage!”

 “That's the murder weapon rock.” Simon said. “Much larger. More in focus, too.”

 “Exactly,” said Stephanie. “But look at the background as the rocket pack fires and detaches from the rock!”

 “That's someone in a spacesuit,” said Tom. “You managed to light them up enough for us to see them!”

 “Yes! But look!” Stephanie said excitedly. “The spacesuit has been stealthed. It's painted black so that it's less likely to show up on cameras.”

 “Like the ninjas that attacked me earlier tonight,” said Tom.

 “Exactly!” Stephanie replied. “What?” she added. “Ninjas?”

 “Tom was attacked by a gang of ninjas earlier tonight,” said Simon. “Some stranger came up and started shooting at them. He saved Tom from a nasty beating.”

“Ninjas?” Stephanie asked again.

 “And Miranda said that spacesuits didn't come in black,” said Tom. “I want a print-out of that photo for the next time I have to go into space. Proof, I mean.”

 “Shut up!” said Stephanie. “Both of you! Let me think! Ninjas... Yakuza... Japanese mafia...Sam's youngest brother had some heavy gambling debts. Sam and her oldest brother paid them off so their little brother didn't have to face any mob punishments. The same oldest brother who Sam sold most of her shares in the family business to so she could be free to follow her dreams. The youngest brother wound up with a broken arm the next time he tried to gamble in a Yakuza-controlled casino. He spent three weeks in a local hospital in Tokyo, then moved permanently to the Mediterranean coast of Southern France... Tokyo is where Sam's oldest brother moved the family business headquarters to when Hong Kong reverted back to Chinese control. The business had been based in Hong Kong since Sam's great grandfather first made it an international success over 50 years ago. The family was British ex-pats for several generations before then. Sam held citizenships in Peru, England, British and Chinese Hong Kong, and Japan, as well as the US.”

 “Peru?” Simon asked.

 “She was born there while her parents were on vacation,” explained Stephanie. “Still valid. Peru hasn't ever challenged birth status or citizenship for foreign nationals born there. Peru has never stopped recognizing dual citizenship, or in this case, multinational citizenship. And in any case, Sam's parents were more than able to pay any fees or bribes needed to get local paperwork filled out to their liking. Even after they died in that airplane crash in Scotland in the 1980s while she was finishing up a college degree in the US, Sam was able to file for US citizenship here...”

 “Even so,” said Tom. What does that have to do with ninjas?”

 “Hello?” Stephanie said excitedly. “Family business headquarters in Japan? Ninjas are Japanese assassins? Anyone employed by her family business could have easy access to the Japanese mafia? Only someone in her family business could have had a motive for having her killed. I have to draw you a map?”

 “No,” said Tom coldly. “But I might need your help getting a ticket for a plane flight. Is there any way we can narrow down the suspects further? Her older brother knew she was no threat to his control of the company. Her youngest brother sounds like an irresponsible ass that the family had dealt with safely. What about her other two brothers and her sister?”

 Stephanie consulted another computer screen, then spoke carefully. “The other two brothers seem to have had as little interest in the management of the family business as Sam did. One is a college professor at UCLA teaching Art History, the other is a Captain on one of the family fishing boats. The younger sister has a minor criminal record in Europe from political protests, anti-nuclear activism, and throwing red paint on the fur coats of wealthy French dowagers going to the theater. No arrests more recent than the mid-'80s. None of them have access to more than a minor number of shares in the company. All three sold most of their shares of stock to the elder brother about the same time as did Samantha.”

 “If we can get out of the building without being shot at again,” said Simon. “I think we need to catch a flight to Tokyo. I want to have a little talk with the eldest brother.”

 “Let me do a data search first,” said Stephanie as she typed a string of commands into a laptop sitting next to her main desktop keyboard. “Sam's family company has branch office buildings all over the world. New York, Atlanta, London, Paris, Capetown, Mexico City, Moscow, Anchorage, Dallas, Bombay, Lima, Perth... This laptop is slower than a snail. Maybe I should build myself a new one...”

 “So, Oldest Brother might not actually be in Tokyo right now?” Simon asked.

 “He travels a lot,” said Stephanie. “OK, here we go. He's--he's been on an extended tour of every company office for the past three months. He hasn't actually been in Tokyo for nearly a year. He's on a jet right this minute. In flight from San Francisco to Australia. Unreachable for the next day or so. But...”

 “But what?” Tom asked.

 “Samantha's little sister is in New York. At the company offices there. Where she just arrived two days ago from an extended stay in Tokyo...”

 “It all comes back to those damned ninjas,” said Tom.

“Steady on, Old Man,” said Simon. “Stephanie? How snoopy can you get? Can you find anything on any family feuding between Sam and her siblings?”

 Seventy different computer networks around the globe slowed their traffic to a crawl. Computers connected to those networks stalled, froze up for several seconds, then gradually returned to normal. Many people remembered the massive computer problems they had experienced oh so recently, but then forgot as their computers recovered. Several different groups of hackers and hacktivists claimed successful online attacks over the following few weeks. But they were lying...

 “Bugger! I'm going to toss this piece of crap into-” Stephanie said. “Wait! Here comes something! Pop-up box, loading now, but I've got pop-ups disabled and blocked...”

 The lights in Stephanie's lab flickered, ever so briefly, then returned to normal. No one there noticed as Simon's inherited cell phone quickly switch status messages from Charging, to Connected, and finally to Stand-By mode. Stephanie's laptop finally finished loading the contents of the pop-up screen that she was about to exit out of in disgust.

 “What was that?” Tom asked.

 “Just the normal DC brown-outs,” said Stephanie. “That's why I have so many battery back-up power supplies hooked up to my gear. That and voltage spikes. This town is murder on computer equipment. That's strange...”

 “What is?” Simon asked.

 “The pop-up is a collection of news items focused on Sam's little sister. Candy... Candy? What a ghastly name for a little girl! Candice Victoria Elizabeth Beatrice Elliot... No wonder she goes by 'Candy!' What a batch of names!”

 “So what is strange about it?” Tom asked.

 “I never mentioned Sam's sister in my search query...” Stephanie replied. “I was searching for anything concerning her oldest brother, Michael. He isn't mentioned in any of these news blurbs. Everything is about her sister...”

 “What does it say?” Simon asked.

 “She's been a bad girl,” said Stephanie. “Always in the celebrity party circuit. Multiple charges for DUI, assaulting photographers, minor substance abuse, and possession of controlled substances charges, and she's got a history of beating the crap out of former boyfriends. Rumors of flings with small-time porn actresses...”

 “Actresses?” Tom asked.

 “Yeah,” said Stephanie. “But everything on this list is 'charges dismissed' or 'unsubstantiated rumors' or 'arresting officers unfortunately deceased before trial...' Candy seems to have been able to get away with anything!”

 “The oldest brother is getting less interesting every minute,” said Simon. “But little Candy is looking more and more likely.”

 “I am not enjoying this line of reasoning,” Tom said. “So she's been a bad girl all her life. So what?”

 “So, seven police officers unexpectedly died before being able to give evidence against her.” said Stephanie. “All their paperwork for the charges disappeared. Every photographer that had photos of her she was upset about were either mugged and beaten, or vanished. The photos vanished, too. Domestic violence against boyfriends, either unproven or evidence lost. This girl is bad news, Tom. Spoiled, rich, with connections to more unsolved mysteries than Jack the Ripper? I'm sorry, Tom. Samantha's sister is a far better suspect than her brother. His record is clean. Two speeding tickets and a DUI before he gave up driving all together. Hired, or company supplied limos for him from then on. Nothing else at all except for his few ties to renting hookers, and his on again, off again impending divorce. The wife signed a pre-nup agreement. Before they married. She gets two million as a full settlement and they share equal rights to their kids. Kids live with her, and he has uncontested visitation rights. The kids stay in their normal schools. According to this news item the wife may never actually consent to a final filing for a complete divorce. The wife has access to an unlimited company bank account, but that ends if she actually files for a divorce. Both their lawyers are making mega-bucks as long as they keep filing paperwork against each other. Neither of them has any criminal charges against them.”

 “We need to go to New York,” said Tom. His voice was cold, angry, and he seemed both convinced and confused at the same time. “But what about the ninjas? How do we avoid them? We can't risk putting anyone else in danger! What if they found us at the airport?”

 The lights in Stephanie's lab briefly dimmed again, then came back to full brightness. Stephanie's desktop computer sounded a quiet beep as a new page loaded. It was echoed by her laptop beeping and loading the same page, as well as Simon's inherited cell phone chirping as a result of the same brown-out. The image Stephanie's computers revealed was a map of a route from the Nightwatch Institute, to a local subway station, to a location inside New York City. A countdown clock display blinked in the lower left-hand corner of the new page. There was less than an hour indicated by the clock.

 “What the fuck?” Tom asked.

Simon leaned over to study the computer display. “Darby,” he whispered. “What have you done?”

 “Simon?” asked Stephanie. “What?”

 “The subway station where I first met Tom Darby,” Simon replied. “That's it there on the map. The very same place. The starting point the screen shows... From here to there, then on to New York... Underground. Secret. A safe route. This is too weird! I don't believe it for a minute!”

 “Calm down, Simon,” said Stephanie. The worry in her voice was plain to any listener who might have been in the room. Tom looked at her in confusion.

 “Zod!” shouted Simon. “Only you could do this! Show yourself!”

 “Simon?” Tom asked. “Are you all right? You're not making sense.”

 Simon Litchfield slowly looked around Stephanie's lab, as if waiting for evidence of some miracle to appear. When no miracle was forthcoming, he blinked twice, frowned, and then pointed at the twinned computer displays.

 “He's not dead,” Simon replied. “He’s back and he's helping us again. There's no other explanation. Zod faked his death. Nothing else makes sense.”

 “That can't be,” said Stephanie. “Every Zod chip on the planet self-destructed when the comet menace was ended! Every trace of it... Him, was gone! We know that!”

 “Do we?” Simon asked. “Do we, really?”

 “Look,” said Tom. “I don't know what the hell you're talking about. But if that's a ninja-free way to get to New York, I'm going. Now. Alone, if necessary...”

 “Key cards,” Simon replied. “In the box. One has to fit. Tom, take all of them out of the box. And give me all those ammo boxes, too. We might need them all. Who the hell knows? We need to get to that subway train station. We need to get there right now. Stephanie? Do you have a safe in here? Something that not even Callow can get into?”

 “Short answer? No. I do have a lock box built into the wall, but I can't swear that Callow can't get into it, given enough time and a blowtorch.”

 “Fine,” said Simon. “Then we take the box with us and use Tom's trick of renting a locker at the station...  We still need to get there from here. My car isn't equipped with ninja-proof armor-”

 “Fortunately,” said Stephanie. “I keep my feathers numbered for just such an emergency... One of Melvin's lab techs is kind of sweet on me. I... shamelessly swiped a key to one of Melvin's prototype armored cars when Clarence took me to the underground garage for- flirting with me.” Stephanie blushed. “I am ashamed to have used his affections just to steal some car keys that I thought might come in handy sometime in the future. He's a sweet fellow. He just needs to get over his insecurities, and learn a bit more about personal grooming... A haircut and shave would make him look more his age. Take decades off his appearance. But he's so sweet, I never had the heart to criticize him to his face.”

 “I am not going to ask how or why you thought it necessary to flirt with one of Melvin Squib's Brainiacs for the sake of some vehicle key you might not have ever needed,” said Simon. “If it didn't make me feel incestuous, I'd be jealous. But we need that vehicle! Tom, grab Darby's box and Stephanie, grab whatever you think you might need. Let's get down to that garage and get the hell out of here!”

 “Done and done,” said Tom Weldon.

 “Ready, got the keys,” said Stephanie.

 “Let's roll...” replied Simon. He closed the door to Stephanie's lab as they exited. Inside the lab, a soft-spoken phantom voice sounded from the speakers of Stephanie's various computers.

 “Good luck,” said the voice, unheard by anyone as Stephanie's security recording programs were over-ridden and forgot that they had been over-ridden. “I'm not allowed to help any more than this. Not yet. You aren't allowed to know what I can do, or even that I'm alive... With luck, you'll never know that I'm still alive. For a given value of life, that is...”

 Unheeded by anyone, a digital laugh sounded throughout Stephanie's now locked lab in the Nightwatch Institute. Different computer screens began to show traffic patterns on the Washington streets, as well as the comings and goings of various subway trains in the area. As each item was displayed on Stephanie's computers, it was wiped from their memories. No trace of the phantom voice would ever be found.

******

In the subway station, Simon, Stephanie, and Tom paused only long enough to allow Tom to put Darby's rosewood box into an anonymous rental locker on the street-level floor. Then they quickly proceeded down the stairs to the station proper. Simon led them to the short hallway where the restrooms could be found. At the blank wall between the Men's and Ladies' restrooms, Simon came to a halt. He searched for a half-remembered bit of wall where he'd seen Tom Darby use his access card to open up the doorway to Washington DC's forgotten underground complex. Within just a very few moments, Simon found the slightly off-colored tile on the wall that served as a key-card reader. The fourth card that Simon pressed against the tile finally opened the secret door into the hidden underground complex. Ushering his friends inside, Simon quickly located the switch that closed the secret door. Leading Tom Weldon and Stephanie down a short hallway to the anteroom Simon remembered traversing with Tom Darby, they found themselves faced with the tiny parking garage filled with electric vehicles Simon and Darby had once Seen there. The same mix of oddball electric vehicles were available. Simon led the way to what looked, for all the world, like an antique Volkswagen van, rather than one of the two-seater Tri-Magnum three-wheelers he remembered Darby to have driven on his last expedition to this place. They quickly boarded the large electric vehicle and proceeded at a rapid clip Northeastward towards New York. The map Stephanie had printed out showed a convoluted, but direct, path from Washington to New York. Following the map printout, Simon drove as fast as the vehicle could go towards New York. Three hours later, Simon had navigated them to a safe location in New York City. With the help of the map printout, they were able to get into the normal New York subway system unseen. After buying subway tokens from a nearby vending machine, they found themselves on a train headed towards the Elliot Canning Company's local office building in the local business district. Upon leaving the subway, they took a series of cab rides in an attempt to obscure their trail. Finally, they found themselves in the lobby of the Elliot Food Company office building. Samantha's sister Candy supposedly had a large suite of rooms on the upper floors of the company skyscraper. Building security forces seemed preoccupied with mysterious computer problems as they made their way through the lobby to a private elevator to the top floors of the building. No one challenged their right to be there as they entered the first available elevator and rose towards the twenty-fifth floor of the Elliot Foods building. No one seemed to notice them at all.

 Security cameras from the New York subway, through all of New York's streets, to the building lobby and its elevators seemed to ignore the existence of Simon Litchfield, Tom Weldon, and Stephanie Keel. Unseen and unnoticed, the three friends ascended the building's inner workings to emerge unannounced on the floor housing the Elliot Foods offices, and Candy Elliot's private apartments. Dozens of false alarms sounded throughout the most distant corners of the city, keeping the local police and fire departments far too busy to be bothered with three unknown strangers entering an office building at a time far later than normal office hours. The locks on the office doors hindered Stephanie Keel by a time that could be measured in fractions of a moment before she was able to defeat them and effect an entrance for the three comrades. Once inside the office doors, the trio of friends made their way ever deeper into the complex of rooms.

 “Stop, or I'll shoot!” Candy said over the intercom as Simon, Stephanie, and Tom Weldon entered the unoccupied outer offices of the Elliot Foods building. Tom's expression was one of annoyance at the delays. Simon's facial expression was of sheer loathing for what he suspected to discover. Stephanie was blank-faced, as if she expected the worst, yet hoped for the best. Outside the office door, Tom Weldon and Simon Litchfield looked at each other. Sadness was written large in their expressions as they looked at one another, and Stephanie. Wordlessly, Simon un-holstered his .45 pistol, the one he inherited from Tom Darby. He racked the slide back, and then released the slide to chamber a round. Simon wore an expression which expressed profound sadness, and a hatred of the waste of human potential he deduced that he would shortly find. Tom Weldon lifted his own .44 magnum revolver, thumbed the hammer back, and looked as if he'd rather die than face whatever truth lay behind the innocent office door. The 9mm semi-auto pistol that Simon had pressed into his hands before they left his house was still shoved into the back of Tom's trousers. He knew the pistol was there, he just hoped that he'd never be forced to use it – or the .44 magnum he'd brought from his own collection. Tom, Simon, and Stephanie harbored their own private thoughts. They looked at one another, Simon, Stephanie, and Tom. We can leave now, their wordless looks reassured one another. We don't have to do this, a second look passed between the three friends silently spoke volumes. It is up to you, spoke a final, wordless look at one another. We will back you to the hilt! Stephanie and Simon's glance towards their friend Tom Weldon was plain to read. Call it, and we will back you up, no matter what!”

 “You are Tom Weldon,” spoke a little-girl voice from out of the shadows of the darkened office. It was as if Samantha's little sister had never matured beyond the stage of a pre-teen, rather than the thirty-something year-old they knew her to actually be. “You were supposed to die trying to rescue Samantha. And several times since then. Do you have any idea how disappointed I am? You've proved far harder to kill than my damned sister. Fucking lesbian! Always able to find someone to love her despite her deviant habits! And I have to live alone! Bitch! Lucky bitch! How I hate her! No one loves me!”

 “What about your brothers?” Tom asked aloud. “From all the evidence, they love you enough to cover up your crimes...”

 “Bradley and his beloved gambling, Michael and his whores, and his poor wife and children, Arthur and his pointless college studies while he hides from being a queer, Roger and his oh so normal vanilla family... Roger can only get off when he ties his wife up. Did you know that? Scum! Pervert! Weakling! And then there's Samantha and her butch bitch lover! How I hate them all! I'm left alone, unloved, the baby of the family! I deserve better than them! I want it all! I'm better than they all are! Our thrice-damned family conspired to keep me quiet, while those deviant siblings of mine managed to hijack every bit of compassion our shitty, self-centered parents could give! I spent years in that damned religious school they sent me to! 'Our Father of the Devout Pedophile!' Oh, Holy Night, from which all monsters spring! Two damned decades I spent abused by the Good Sisters I had for teachers. Those pedophile bitches! Spanking and silk cord restraints, fingering me and licking me and beating me when I didn't perform to their wishes! But she got to be free! Samantha got to be whatever she wanted while I was tortured by those schoolteachers! I always hated that bitch sister of mine. She was free, while I was always a victim of abuse. I wanted her dead. I dreamed of how I could have her dead from age four, and forever afterward! Godless cunt-licking bitch! How I wanted that freedom!”

 “It's never too late,” said Simon to the darkened room. “You can still be free to be who you want to be...”

 “Just forgive myself and repent all the killings I've hired? Is that what you mean, Doctor Litchfield?” came the voice from the dark. “All will be forgiven? My idiot siblings will instantly forgive me, and just as instantly forget the fact that I killed a few of them to get them out of my damn way? Thirteen siblings, and only we four survive? I think not... Complete shitheads. All of them, complete and utter useless shitheads. The world is far better off without them! Useless bloody morons! I'd kill them all at once, but then none of them would ever know how much I truly despise them...”

 “But Samantha loved you,” said Tom Weldon. “She always loved you. She told me that she loved you. Time and time again. She loved you unconditionally. Why did you kill her?”

 “Because the bitch was free! She could have anything in the world! I couldn't! I was expected to perform like a trained dog, anytime and anywhere the world over. But that bitch got to fly airplanes, fight in wars, see combat, and still come home to her cunt-licking butch slut! I was jealous! I've always been jealous of Precious, Perfect Samantha. She was precious Mommy and Daddy's perfect angel. Why else would I have eight other brothers and sisters murdered? Precious Sammy, Perfect Sammy, why can't you be more like Sammy, why can't you behave like your perfect sister Sammy? My god! How I wanted to take an axe and thin out the crowd of sycophants and parasites at every family reunion since I was four. That bitch ruined my life before I even knew what having a life was supposed to be! I was four! Four years old! No child should have to be forced to grow up in the shadow of some Little Miss Perfect, faggot bitch sister, like I did! She could have anything she wanted. Friends, lovers, romance, excitement... I got duty and honor and responsibility... And the funds to hire assassins to kill both of our useless, idiot sisters, and six of our worthless, dickless brothers...”

 “Wait a minute...” Tom said. “You only ever had the four brothers and one sister. Thirteen siblings? Where did you get the idea--What are you talking about?”

“Is that right” Simon asked Tom. “Are you sure?”

 “I spent the better part of two years with Sam and Abby,” Tom replied. His voice was cold with anger. “I got to know them quite well. Abby was an only child, Sam had one sister and four brothers. Period. That's it. I've seen the files.”

“Then she's delusional, as well as a murderer,” Stephanie said. “This complicates things.”

 “But she could be cured,” came another female voice from the darkness. “She's not a total write-off. She did murder me, but I'm willing to forgive her.”

 “Sam?” Tom asked. “I don't believe in ghosts, but that is your voice. What the hell is going on? I saw your corpse! You're dead!”

 “Relax, Doctor Weldon,” came a male voice from the darkness, behind them. “All will be made clear, in time. This is about justice, and possibly redemption for Candy. Revenge is the last resort of the desperate, don't you think?”

 “Tom?” said Simon. “Tom Darby? You died. You're dead just as much as Samantha. I know that voice. This is either the world's biggest con, or the worst practical joke in the entirety of history. Show yourselves!”

 “Doctor Litchfield,” said the male voice from the dark. “My fate is exactly as you know it. I did die from that house fire. But I had an excellent medical plan, as it happens. A whole new lease on life, you might say.” A chilling laugh floated from out of the darkened corners of the room, then stopped.  Confidently, and yet gently, the phantom voice spoke again. “Candice, you need help. You did a bad thing, but you can redeem yourself. Turn yourself in and take your punishment. Justice must be served, but it needn't cost you your life. Put the gun down and just give yourself up. There's no need to kill again. We can help you. We can save you. We can take away the pain you've been suffering from all your life. All you have to do is trust us, and believe that there is a cure. We can help you. I know the best doctors in the universe. They can help you get rid of the pain. To be whole again...”

 “You lie,” said Candy. Still hidden in the shadows, her voice floated out as if from all the corners of the room. “I've killed hundreds, thousands! I killed everyone who ever stood in my way. I'll kill the whole world! They deserve it! After what I've been through? They deserve it!”

 “Candice,” said Samantha's voice. “Don't you see? You were never in a Convent. You were never raped, by anyone. You never killed anyone. Except for me. It's all in your mind, little sister. Please, you can get treatment. You don't have to be crazy. Darby is offering you a cure. Tom-Tom can give you counseling. You don't have to suffer any more!”

 “Lies, lies, lies!” Candy shouted. “I remember it, it happened, I killed everyone who ever got in my way! I'll kill you again, slut!”

“And this is roughly the point,” said Tom Weldon in a whisper. “Where random shots are fired into the darkness.”

“First sound of a pistol being cocked, we hit the floor.” Simon whispered back. “Don't wait for a shot to be fired. Stephanie, I mean it. No heroics, by anyone. Just dive and roll to the sides of the room.”

 “Don't worry,” replied Stephanie in a whisper even quieter than Tom and Simon's. “I have no intention of getting killed tonight. But I still want to know if our ghosts are real ghosts, or what the hell is going on!”

 “Don't do it, Candice!” Tom Darby's voice shouted from the darkness. “We only want to make the pain go away! We only want to help!”

 “You don't need to do this, Little Sister. Just listen to us,” said Samantha's voice. “You're better than that! Please, just don't!”

There was a long pause. A thoughtful pause where no one said a single word. Then, finally, a loud click-clack broke the tenuous silence of the room.

 “And that would be the loading of the pistol Tom mentioned,” said Simon, his whisper in the darkness as positive as he could manage. “She's lost it. Drop and roll as far as you can. Don't take any chances,” he hissed. “Defend yourselves if necessary. I'd like to take her without bloodshed, but she might not give us the choice. This is beyond crazy. Now, move!”

 Gunfire rang out from Candy's position, the flash from her pistol giving away her hiding place in the dark. The three Nightwatch operatives dove for the floor and rolled to different positions, as far from harm's way as they could manage. Tom Weldon and Simon Litchfield returned fire, but aimed well above the point where Candy's head must be located. Stephanie aimed towards the floor where Candy must have been standing. Huge fireballs lit the room momentarily from behind as Tom Darby and Samantha also returned fire in the general direction of Candy's barrage.

 “You'll never take me alive,” Candy shouted in the darkened room. Then came the sound of running footsteps and breaking glass, quickly followed by a doppler-shifted scream as Candy's voice faded into the night. The gunfire abruptly stopped. Calm descended. Silence reigned, briefly, to be followed by the sound of a single female voice, sobbing in the darkness.

 A single flashlight broke the spell of the blackness, revealing a shattered window, and expensive drapes fluttering in the nighttime breeze. For a long moment, no voice was heard beyond that of one woman crying.

 “Well, damn,” came Tom Darby's voice from the holder of the flashlight. “I really thought we had a chance to save her from herself, for a few minutes. This utterly sucks.”

Samantha's voice continued, crying, sobbing out the pain of a loss no one could justify.

 “Would someone care to explain just what the hell is going on?” Stephanie asked.

“I'll second that,” added Simon, as he managed to make his way to the desk and switch on a small lamp. “Darby, you owe me an explanation. Several explanations, actually.”

 In the dim light of the desk lamp, a young man in a leather jacket, holstering a huge pistol, stood revealed. A young woman with long blonde hair knelt, sobbing, at his side.

“Samantha,” said Tom Weldon. “You're alive! How can this be?”

 “This isn't the same Samantha that you knew, Doctor Weldon.” Tom Darby said. His voice was gentle, yet sad. “Your friend died, just as you remember, tragically, a victim of her sister's madness. This woman is – from an alternate timeline. She's here by accident. I have to make sure that she makes it home. She wanted to try and save her sister from herself, on this timeline. Obviously, we failed.”

“Darby,” said Simon. “You're so young. The last time I saw you, you were nearly 90 years old. Are you really the same man? Or are you from another timeline too?”

 “Yes, Simon. I'm the same man you knew. I'm not a clone or from another timeline at all. I'm the original, and as hard as it may be to grasp at the moment, I am a whole lot more than 90 years old nowadays,” said Darby. “For me, it's been over 500 years since we took our little airplane ride, Time--time is difficult to explain. It sometimes gets complicated.”

 “I'm taking notes,” Stephanie said. “Just in case there's a test later.”

 “We don't have much time,” Darby replied, then smiled briefly. “We need to get the hell out of here before the cops show up. There's a dead woman on the street who either jumped or was pushed out of that window. We can continue this elsewhere, but first I need to make sure our tracks are covered. After that, I'll be able to answer all your questions as best I can.”

 “What do you intend to do?” Simon asked.

“Delete every trace of us all from the building's security recordings,” Darby replied. “Then take whatever course of action that gets us someplace safe, as quickly as possible. All I need is access to Candy's desktop computer, and a few moments to load in a virus from this USB drive. As long as her computer is linked to the building's system, ten seconds is all it should take to set everything in motion. Ten seconds, and we're invisible, as far as building security is concerned. There won't be a single trace of us an any recordings in any computer hooked up to this network. And if any of the systems are using video tapes or whatnot to record us, I'm already downstairs looking for them and destroying whatever physical media they use.”

 “Here's the computer,” said Stephanie. “And for the record, I want an explanation of your explanation. You're making my head spin.”

 “Yeah,” said Darby. “Language isn't constructed well enough to take time travel into account. Let's see if I can remember how to use these antiques-- USB port here, plug in the stick, the computer will beep when it's complete. There's the beep, remove the stick, and let's get the hell out of here. Doctor Weldon, would you be so kind as to assist Samantha?”

“I'll be glad to,” said Tom Weldon. “But stop calling me 'Doctor.' I hate the formality of that title.”

 “With two Toms in the room,” Darby replied, “it's going to get confusing.”

The door from the hallway opened. Another Tom Darby leaned in. He looked exactly the same as the Tom Darby standing in the room, except a bit out of breath. “You've got roughly ten minutes before the guards get up here,” he said. “The rest of us are tripping alarms all over the lower floors of the building to buy you time, but it's bloody unstable. You're going to have to teleport, I'm afraid. We can't get any other way to work. The Old Man says it's gone all 'Quantum,' or something. He's the boss. I've learned not to ask for reasons when he says something is impossible. Good luck.” The second Tom Darby closed the door.

 “This is beginning to look like a really bad movie,” said Simon. “I'd ask what the hell just happened, but I gather that we don't have time. Time-- There's that word again. Never mind that. How do we teleport and will it harm us in any way?”

 “We all stand together in a group,” said the first Tom Darby. “Then I trigger a remote control. A machine that's focused on me will remove us from this point in space, and place us at another point. We won't move in time at all. Because of all the multiple copies of me that are running around the building, going back or forward in time could be dangerous right now. And strictly speaking, they aren't really copies of me. They are me, but from different moments in my personal future. I don't even know how many of me are here at the moment. I can't know until later. After I've done it, I mean. Could be ten, could be fifty. But I'm going to do all that later, after I get you to safety and get this version of Samantha back home.”

 “Clear as mud,” Tom Weldon said. “Let's do it.”

 “I'm still taking notes,” said Stephanie. “I think I'm beginning to grock the physics involved.”

 “Really?” Simon asked. “I can't wait to hear your deductions. Meanwhile, the clock still seems to be ticking.”

 “Right,” said Tom Darby. “Gather 'round. It doesn't matter if you're touching or holding hands or whatever. This is teleportation, not matter transmission. We're not going to have our subatomic particles scanned and beamed anywhere. We're just going to be moved elsewhere. Ready?”

 At a nod from everyone else. Tom Darby tapped a button on a device that looked exactly like a cell phone. The entire group vanished. Two minutes later, the building security forces crashed through the door. They found only a broken window, drapes fluttering in the breeze, and a suicide note that the virus had left on Candy Elliot's personal computer.

In less time than it takes to blink your eyes, the group found themselves standing in Simon Litchfield's living room. They were almost alone. One stranger stood in a corner. He was silent, still, and utterly unexpected by anyone except Tom Darby.

 “Maxwell,” Tom Darby said. “How did we do?”

 “The usual,” said the stranger. “Nine out of ten. Saved the world, saved your friends, gave the villain a chance to redeem themselves. Unfortunately, you failed to save her from herself. The guilt you are no doubt feeling is unearned. Further details are-- still pending, at the moment. Damage control is the next step.”

 “No,” replied Tom Darby. “Getting Samantha back home is the next item on the agenda. Would you do the honors?”

 “But of course,” Maxwell said. “Miss, if you'd take my hand? It is time to say your goodbyes and go home.”

 “Thank you all for trying,” Samantha said as she crossed the room to take Maxwell's outstretched hand. “My sister couldn't be saved. But it was her own choice that made it so. And Tom?”

 Tom Weldon looked up. He nodded.

 “I'm glad you got to live, in this timeline. Don't waste it,” Samantha said. “Good bye.”

 Samantha and Maxwell vanished.

 “What did she mean?” Tom Weldon asked.

 “On her timeline,” Tom Darby said gently, “it was your ship that got struck by the rock. You died, and several others of your crew mates. I'm sorry, but she insisted that I tell you the truth. Good person, that. Never gave up, not even now. But she and Abby will be able to go forward, together, into whatever their future might hold.”

 “While my Abby--” Tom Weldon began.

 “Will have to go on alone,” Tom Darby replied. “I'm sorry, but I can't change anything that I wasn't already there to change. That's the nature of time travel, most of the time. You're either there, at the right place and time to do something, or you just split off a new timeline. The original remains unchanged, while the new one diverges further and further as time passes. She is safe, she will live a good long life, she'll fall in love again, and eventually she will grow old and die. That sort of future doesn't even have to be thought about. It just is.”

 “Is that what I did when the Egg sent me back?” Simon asked. “Split off new timelines?”

 “How did I know you were going to ask that question? No,” Tom Darby said. “I looked that up in the records. What you did was repair a split that was about to happen. You prevented the divergence from happening. You didn't know it, but you came very close to punching a huge hole in the universe. You did the right thing. Painful though that was to do, it was the right thing, the only way to save everyone you knew. But the Dragon's Egg isn't capable of the finer control needed to do what we did today. It wasn't built for that. I'm glad you brought it up, though. You see, that's what Candy was after all along. The Egg. She wanted to--To recreate this timeline as something more suitable, more to her liking. She planned to keep Samantha from ever having been born, on any timeline. That's just not possible. Any attempt to do that would release gigatons of energy in every timeline involved. You can't unmake something without the original potential energy being transferred to the rest of the system. Sort of, well, sort of like using duct tape to keep Godzilla from opening his mouth. He'd just explode from the pressure. Am I making any sense?”

 “Samantha's sister knew about the Egg?” Stephanie asked. “How?”

 “She was rich, she hired spies, she was crazy enough to believe all sorts of wild stories she was told,” Tom Darby said. “She wanted to destroy everything that ever was so that she could obtain something that never happened. It was one of those instances where there were only a few directions things could happen in. Either you convinced her to give up her madness and accept treatment, or her secrets were uncovered and she went to prison, or she succeeded in her ambitions and everything you know was destroyed, or she died trying. There wasn't another way. She chose the eventual ending. You tried to prevent it. I tried to prevent it. We failed. We'll just have to live with that. A 90% victory is still a 10% failure. Story of my life, really.”

“So, time travel is real?” Stephanie asked. “Backwards, forwards, sideways? Anything can happen?”

 “Sure,” said Tom Darby. “Nothing simpler. The past and future are just a different place. Time travel takes up a huge amount of energy, and it requires several branches of physics that no one on this planet is going to understand for centuries yet. But once you have the basics down, it's as easy as using an elevator. The danger happens when you try and change something you've already witnessed. Potential Energy builds up, and it always has to be released. It has to go somewhere, and it always picks the path of least resistance. Try to go back and kill Hitler? Gonna blow a hole in the universe the size of Belgium. Too much potential energy. Has to go somewhere.” He grinned. “But you can go back and try to limit Hitler's effect on history. To fight alongside the people of that time to keep him from winning. That won't blow a hole in anything. Might get you, personally, killed sometimes, but as far as physics is concerned, it's just a soap bubble in a tornado.”

 “You died,” said Simon. “You died and were buried. And you came back. I really have to ask how you managed that trick. Or did you?”

 “Yeah,” Tom Darby said. “I figured you want that question answered, too. Yes. I died, aged 87, from rescuing a baby girl from a burning house. Inhaling smoke and flames to rescue a baby. It hurt like hell, let me tell you. But I'd had a good long run. My wife died years earlier. My kids were safe and we'd raised them the best we could manage. I was alone, and tired, and damned ready for retirement. It was a chance to do one more thing that mattered before I took my last breath. To save a child from a horrible death. It was a choice between letting her die, or letting a dozen firemen die, or me picking an honorable end to a long and eventful life. Mine, to spend as I saw fit. So I did what I do best. I acted without thinking. I read that I beat the crap out of some guys who tried to stop me from going into the fire. I hope they recovered all right.” Darby looked at the floor. When he looked back as Simon, there were tears in his eyes. “The kid lived. I didn't. I'll make that trade, any day.”

“But,” Simon said. “How did you-- come back?”

 “I did a favor for someone, back in the 1970s. I was in a little accident. Some friends patched me up and took me for a ride. I met someone else along the way. Turns out that particular someone was a guy that designed time machines. He taught colleges courses on how to design time machines. A freaking alien, no less. He looks human, but he isn't. He's thousands of years old. He tries to keep from being noticed, most of the time. He just wants to have an ordinary life. Well, as ordinary as someone like him can have. His wife got kidnapped, not long after I met him. I helped save her. I got myself killed doing it, but he figured he owed me for saving his wife. Some first-aid machines brought me back. The fire was the second time I've gotten myself killed. Afterward, he sent me back to Earth to live out my normal span. To do all the stuff history says I did, as if I'd never met him. Once I died of natural causes, his machines copied me back into the body I had when I was a kid, but with all my memories and experiences intact. So, I remember telling lies about my age to join the Army Air Corps during the Korean War. I remember being a CIA spy during the 1960s and '70s. I remember burying my wife. I remember my kids being born. I remember teaching you to fly that junk-heap Nightbird 5 while I was bleeding from a bullet wound. I remember how much my driving that three-wheeled car in the Washington underground scared the crap out of you. I remember it all. Everything. But I got a new, younger body out of the deal. Now I can go anywhere. I still solve problems, have adventures, do whatever I need to do to get the job done. But I can't die. Not forever. My reward is to be recreated, over and over again, any time I manage to get my stupid self killed. Like I said, the machines do it. Like a cross between a matter transmitter and a Xerox machine. But I can't leave any traces, either. As far as the world can know, I'm a dead man whose ashes are buried on a picturesque hillside in Kentucky. I'm dead and gone, as far as Earth is concerned. I'm only here right now because no one will ever know, outside of this room.”

“We'll keep your secrets, Old Man. Rest assured,” said Simon.

 “Agreed,” said Tom Weldon. “No one will ever hear a word from us.”

 “What about the cell phone?” Stephanie asked. “If you don't explain that I'm going to burst.”

 “OK,” Tom Darby replied with a laugh. “In order to keep Simon from having to hire a team of carpet cleaners, I'll tell you all I'm allowed. It's one of those 'in case of fire, break glass' buggers. If the end of the world comes around, then turn the damn thing on. Nothing less is acceptable. Worse than the comet, I mean. Aliens blow up the White House, invade, publish a cookbook, that sort of thing. Or nuclear missiles are actually in flight targeted at you. Or some pandemic disease is killing off most of the human race. Zod isn't a toy. You can't bring him back because you need a Scrabble partner!”

 “Zod--” said Simon.

“Zod!” said Stephanie.

“Zod?” Tom Weldon asked.

 “Yeah,” replied Tom Darby. “He removed himself from humanity because otherwise you'd become dependent on him. Like a crutch after your broken leg has healed. One you'd use to keep from suffering whatever little bit of pain the physical therapy would cause once it was time for you to learn how to walk again. There are 5 bits of Zod left on Earth. One is in that cell phone. The other four are scattered in places no one can ever find, unless the whole damn planet is in danger. He'll stand by and wait until the end of time, if need be. But he and I agree that humans have to do without him, or you're pretty much toast. Right? Tesla didn't create an electrical elemental in AI form so that it could replace Dear Abby for every human on the planet. He's some serious end-of-the-world stuff!”

“Consider my jaw dropped,” said Simon.

“Wipe your chin, boy. I ain't finished yet.” said Darby. “That locator I left you? Yeah, it's part of the same stuff as the Egg. With it, you can find the Egg, and use it to its limits, no matter where the Egg has been hidden. And those limits are really tight. It can't do half what my wristwatch can manage, but it can save the world about twice more, if you figure out how to ask it the right questions. Maybe three times, if you're really smart. But as a time machine, it's utter crap. It wasn't built to be a time machine. That's just a side effect. Never depend on it, and if anyone but you tries to use it, shoot them. Don't wait, don't ask questions, just shoot them and walk away. It's like a Model T Ford with a rocket engine shoved up its ass. Might run really fast for a short while, but it's more likely to blow up when you turn the key. I don't understand it, myself. The math is way beyond me. But it scares the living crap out of my boss. The guy that builds time machines, I mean.”

“So, never use the Egg unless it's time to use the cell phone?” Simon asked.

 “That's a good summing up,” Darby replied. “Both are too dangerous to play with. In case of fire, break glass and pull the handle. Otherwise, shoot anyone who goes near the fire alarm. Use them in different situations, but if the end of the world is about to happen, ask Zod how to make the best use of the Egg.”

 “Prometheus?” asked Stephanie.

 “You've already faced them. You've already beaten them at least once,” said Darby. “They are really good at hiding their trail. But they'll be back. Maybe not soon, maybe not as confident or strong as when you beat them. But they will return.”

 “Nightbird 5?” Simon asked quickly.

 “Loaded with deathtraps and riddled with second-rate engineering,” said Darby. “The only reason we managed to get the thing to fly without blowing up is because Prometheus wanted Nightwatch to take the bait. From now on, treat it like a nest of rattlesnakes. It could kill you on a whim, and that whim ain't gonna be yours.”

 “I was going to ask why you're really here,” said Tom Weldon. “But I think the better question is 'what are you going to do to us?' I mean, now that we know your secrets.”

 “Oh, that's cold,” said Darby. “That is cold. You're learning. Never forget that feeling, Weldon. All the people you'll ever be able to trust in your life are right here in this room. Right now. This is it. Not even the woman you love will be able to be trusted as much as Simon and Stephanie. Never. Not under any circumstances. These two are it. For the rest of your life, Simon and Stephanie are as close as you'll ever get to being safe, to being able to relax.”

 “What are you saying?” Tom Weldon asked. “I can't trust Miri? I'd rather die!”

 “It's possible,” said Darby. “I'm sorry to put it so bluntly. But your beloved might not always act with your best interests in mind. She's a good woman, make no mistake. She's honorable. She'd rather die than hurt you. But her condition makes her vulnerable to manipulation by unscrupulous outsiders. You can't guard her every moment of every day. If ever she seems to turn on you, be aware that she is being influenced by whomever has decided that they are your personal enemy.”

 “One more question,” said Stephanie. “Why are you telling us all this?”

 Tom Darby sighed heavily, looked at the floor, then met their eyes in turn. He sighed again, then explained. “Several reasons, but mostly because you deserve honest answers. I'm sorry, but you aren't ever going to remember most of what happened tonight. Tomorrow you're going to wake up and find out that Samantha's sister jumped out of the family skyscraper in New York. You won't remember being there. You won't ever put together the attacks on Tom Weldon and Simon with Candy's monomania. You won't remember me, you won't remember this discussion, except in the direst of emergencies. You won't remember anything that happened between the time that Simon and Weldon arrived at the Institute yesterday, and sometime tomorrow morning after you wake up. You'll feel a vague sensation of loss, but that will pass in time. At the most, you'll feel a fuzzy sense of 'I shouldn't do that' or 'I ought to do this,' once in a while but nothing more. And I am so very, very sorry. I hate this part of my job. But if you remembered everything, you'd only feel guilty, miserable, and frustrated. Please Simon, don't reach for the pistol I saw you drop into your chair cushion when my back was turned. I always look at reflections in picture frames and windows when I look away from someone.” Darby shrugged. “Part of the training, you should adopt the habit. Reading people's body language is something else you three need to learn. That's how I know Stephanie is waiting for the right time to jump out of her chair to distract me. And that Tom Weldon is calculating the possibility of kicking the coffee table far enough to knock me over when I make my move. Relax, please. I'm not going to cause you any pain. I'm not going to harm you in any way. I'm just going to steal a few hours of your memories. A select few memories. Oh, and Stephanie, I'm going to have to steal your Tesla rifle, too. You shouldn't have built it, you know. If anything happens to you, whoever gains possession of it could rule the world.”

“That's why,” said Stephanie, “I kept all the pieces scattered around my office disguised as lamps and whatnot.”

 “I know,” said Tom Darby. “That was very smart, and it would have worked for a long time. Years. Decades, perhaps. But eventually, someone would have figured it out.”

 There came a knock at the door.

 “That'll be another me, with a pizza and some really good beer,” Darby said. “I thought I ought to do something special to make up for the way I'll have to act later. Please, I respect each of you. I've even saved your lives a few times. I don't like having to monkey around with your memories. Please don't make me fight you. I'm trying to save your lives again. Please, I don't want to take a chance on hurting any of you. Simon, would mind terribly going to the door and letting me in with the food?”

 “Old Man,” said Simon, “you saved my life several times over when we were on that island.”

“You saved mine as well,” said Darby. “You did more than that. You made me proud of you.”

 “Pizza and beer sound quite a fitting end to this day,” Simon said as he carefully got out of his chair. He looked over at Tom Darby, as if examining the man's very soul. “Are you sure that this is the right thing to do? Do you have any doubts? Is there any other way besides this?”

 “Simon,” Darby replied, “this is the only way I've been able to find that will work. Every other alternative puts the three of you at risk. I wouldn't do it if I could save you any other way. I wouldn't have ever let you know I was back.”

 “Good enough,” Simon said. “I think it's time for some pizza.” Then he walked to the door. A few moments later he returned with three large pizza boxes in one hand, and an even larger box of bottles of beer in the other. “You wouldn't come in. You wouldn't accept a tip, either.”

 “Yeah,” Darby said. “I'm like that. Oh look, I remembered paper plates and plastic tableware, and napkins! At least you won't have any dishes to wash in the morning, Simon. Well, pass me a random slice from a random box, and pick me out a beer. At least that way you won't have to worry about the stuff being drugged.” He smiled, accepted a plate and a bottle from Simon, and dug in to the piping hot pizza.

 Simon followed suit. A few moments later so did Tom Weldon and Stephanie. An hour later, they were telling jokes and laughing uproariously. The food and drink slowly dwindled as they celebrated surviving yet another dangerous mission. At last, Tom Darby settled back in his chair, cold beer in his right hand and a final slice of pizza in his left. He smiled at Tom Weldon's improbable tale of a night time raid on a video game console during his flight out to the comet, knowing every word was true. Simon had set his stereo to play quiet music in the background. Eventually, everyone except Darby nodded off, full of food, drink, and comforted by each other's friendship. Ten minutes passed. Then twenty. Once he was satisfied that no one else was going to wake up before the sun rose, Darby carefully put his empty bottle down on the table, got out of his chair. As he stood up, another Tom Darby appeared.

 “Got everything? No loose ends?” Darby asked his duplicate.

 “Piece of cake,” his double replied. “Stephanie's rifle is in the Vault. All the recording devices in the building in New York have been scrambled. No evidence, anywhere, that they ever left Washington. All of Candy's research on the Egg has been deleted or scrambled. All of the hired ninjas and thugs have been paid off and sent back to Japan. None of them even remember who hired them or why. Abby's friends shoved the assassin sent to target her out of an airlock, a week ago. We tampered with the medical records so the poor girl now has a history of unstable behavior that started a few weeks after the comet was broken up. No remaining evidence to tie her to Candy, anywhere. Samantha’s assassin—Maxwell dealt with him. We even put the lab tech's car back in the underground parking lot. No loose ends, anywhere, anywhen. We're ready to go. How about you?”

 “The subsonic in the stereo put them to sleep right on schedule,” said the first Tom Darby. “Three different frequencies are giving them each different subliminal messages right now. By dawn, they will have forgotten everything about tonight except what they'll need to remember in the future. Simon will toss the Zod cell phone in a closet and forget about it until some end of the world threat happens. Stephanie will forget she built a Tesla gun until the fate of the world requires one again, if ever. And she'll hide her copies of the blueprint discs much better this time. Tom Weldon--”

 “Will do what he has to do,” said the second Tom Darby. “Poor bastard. Still, he made his choices, for his reasons. Nothing to do with us. I wish we could save him from some of the pain--”

 “We can't,” replied the first Tom Darby. “We can’t save any of them from their futures. They’ll still split up, distrust one another, go their separate ways. And Weldon will eventually break up with his girlfriend. It has to be like that or they can’t do the things they need to do in their futures. We can’t put the genii back in the bottle. As much as we love them, we can’t rewrite anything else to salve their eventual pain. We've got to go. The world is in safe hands now. We gave it over ninety years of our life. Eventually, you have to step aside and let the children grow up on their own. They have to make their own mistakes, and learn from them. Or fail, and learn from that. One day they'll find out what the Egg really is. Maybe they'll even figure out where it came from. Once they know how to really use it, there'll be no stopping the human race.”

 “Weldon, he threw Candy through that window, didn't he?” Darby's duplicate asked, as if puzzled.

 “I didn't see him do it,” Darby replied. “Maybe she jumped. Maybe he pushed her. He wasn't anywhere near the window when I turned the flashlight on. I'm not going back to look. Justice was done. I'm satisfied.”

 “If you say so,” said his double. “I know better than to argue with myself. I never win. Well, time for me to get back. The work never ends.” He vanished.

Tom Darby looked around the room, a sad smile of love and pride on his young face. He walked over to Simon, asleep in his favorite chair, bent down, and kissed him lightly on the top of his head.

 “You're going to have to make hard choices. Some things you'll have to do won't work the way you wanted. Always do your best, protect the ones you love,” Darby whispered. “And always remember, Boy. I am so very proud of you.” He wiped a tear from his eye, smiled sadly again, and disappeared for the last time. The radio kept playing soft, gentle, soothing music. Once dawn broke through the curtained windows of Simon’s home, the dice had been cast. Their lives would continue as they were supposed to go—as sad and unfortunate as that might turn out to be. But for one more night, they still had each other and the friendship they had forged between them. Sometimes, one more night is the best anyone could ask for.

 


THE END


2015-2022 Dan L. Hollifield

Bio: Dan L. Hollifield is the Senior Editor and Publisher of Aphelion Webzine. His Tales From The Mare Inebrium spaceport bar stories, Volume 1, is available on Amazon. His novella Abducted! is also on Amazon. He also has submitted his Nightwatch framing story novel Fly By Wire to Three Ravens Publishing. It is still in the pre-production stages. Other works are in progress.

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