Junkyard Heroes

This is a roleplaying game I ran in 2009. It centered around a group of friends in New York who played host to a crash-landed alien visitor named Aura, and how they saved the world from an alien invasion.

Sessions

Scrapper and Aura

May 9, 1995. The Oklahoma City bombing happened only a few weeks ago; it's still in the news. What got less attention was a fiery dart that seemed to fly straight down from the sky, embedding itself violently (but not explosively) not far from I-280, just outside of New York City. The projectile was large, and hot, and glowing. It landed squarely on the property of Tobacek Lazureiwicz, known less clumsily to the Americans in his area as Toby Lazarus.

Toby is a junkyard dealer by trade. He drives a burly tow truck and hauls cars to his yard. for scrap, expertly dissecting them for useful parts and salvaging the rest however he can. He takes old appliances from the neighborhood, extracting any remaining usefulness and discarding whatever he can't use. Such a man would be almost karmically suited to the task at hand: making some sense of the wreckage of an alien ship which now burned and gleamed red in his yard.

Toby lagged only a few minutes behind another interested party in tracking the craft's descent: NORAD. Of course, it actually landed before an executive decision to shoot it down could be reached. A rather more bemused second decision was made: send some people.

Toby found a survivor in the wreckage. It was a humanoid, with feminine features, sculpted out of a sort of shimmering living metal and crystalline amalgam, and it smiled and called him by name when he approached. He named her Aura, and the two were already in conversation when the military arrived.

Now Toby has put out a call to everyone he knows. The military found out the hard way that their weapons aren't effective against either the junk dealer nor his extraterrestrial visitor; now they've settled for a form of conflict resolution that works against someone who isn't immune to bullets: negotiation.


The higher-ups have called in their most dependable man. Someone not given to excitability; someone level-headed; someone capable. Now that impulsiveness has failed to pay off, a radical rethinking of the situation is working its way through the chain of command who are aware of just what happened.

The man they've chosen is equal parts historian and investigator. Secrets that could have once toppled governments moulder in dusty archives; this is their curator. He waves away the body armor that is offered, leaves his sidearm with the soldiers. He approaches the angel and the scrap dealer with a mix of awe and exhaustion. "Angels fall from heaven," he muses, "and the government sends me. Your tax dollars at work." He holds up a hand in greeting. "Special Agent Francis O'Shea. Call me Floyd. I'm here to make a deal."

I needed new parts for ol' Silver anyway, muses Jason Lane as he steers the  beat-up '89 Buick into the gate of the junkyard. He wasn't sure what to expect when old Toby called him, but he certainly wasn't expecting the military. "Whoa," he says aloud, suddenly nervous, and suddenly a lot more careful about his speed; Silver tends to backfire when he stomps the gas, and he doesn't want a noise like that going on around here.

Marcus Golden rarely goes anywhere these days without careful planning and scheduling, but when the call comes out from a good friend he's quick to clear his calendar and make an appearance. He steps confidently out of his vehicle and appraises the situation quickly. Some nervous looking feds fiddling about who leave a clear path into the Junkyard. Having made his way dozens of times before, Marcus simply crosses the street and heads right through the entrance.

After a quick trip to his own car, to grab his sword, Colin wanders onto the scene. He looks over, waving to Toby as he runs over, seeing the men on the scene. "Hey boss, what happened!" He jogs over, slowing down a bit as he sees the fuzz. He looks at Floyd with a bit of trepidation, but until they look over and start pointing, he'll continue to approach.

Floyd rises slowly. "Mister Lazarus, I'm hoping this is a friend of yours." He eyes the sword, knowing that only two kinds of people carry such a thing in this day and age. Neither of them is good news in this situation.

Toby sighs. "Ellis is coming soon, my comrades," he says, shaking hands with his friends as they arrive in turn. He refers to Captain Ellis Tove of the US Air Force, another friend of his. "I want you each to meet someone. You too, er, Mr. Pink Floyd. Come this way."

Colin waves at Floyd with a beaming smile. Hey, he hasn't demanded he be disarmed yet. "Howdy! You like Mokoto?" He says, gesturing hilt in Floyd's direction. Anyone who knows, and looks, can see that it is indeed peace knotted. But still carried. He nods to Toby. "Sure thing, boss." As he follows.

He leads the way to where the 'angel' is sitting. She's wrapped in a grease-stained white sheet he uses when painting cars, and smiles as the group draws close. "Hello," she says, in a musical voice.

Jason runs a hand through his hair. "Like, what's this about?" he asks, following in Toby's wake. "It must be like, some serious…" And then he turns the corner, and his jaw drops open. "Holy shit."

Colin gives Jason a friendly whap across the shoulder as he swares. "Manners, man. Jesus." He bows, in a very Japanese way, from his midsection, head lowering to just below the waist, before coming back up. "Nice to meet you."

"Toby, sorry I couldn't get here faster, I was on the other side of town," explains Marcus. He nods to the others, "Jason, Colin, how are you doing?" The small talk is cut rather short by the revelation of the vrey strange 'angel'. One black eyebrow arches for a moment, and then Marcus simply rolls with it, "Uh, hello there, miss."

The angel smiles again. "Hello," she repeats, just as beautifully. Toby beams proudly. "I call her Aura," he explains. "Comrades, listen. These government people, I don't know what they want to do to her. But she is a newcomer, huh? She just arrived. Let us make her feel at home." He turns. "Aura, my friends. Mr. Marcus, and Colin and Jason. And this is Mr. Pink Floyd, he is from the government."

"And he's here to help us," says Jason, always ready with the wisecrack.

Floyd had been praying in Latin under his breath; Jason's remark brings him up short. "Yes. Yes, I am. Otherwise, those men over there," he gestures in the direction of the assembled soldiers, "are going to have to figure this thing out for themselves. None of us want that."

"A pleasure to meet you, Aura. Welcome to America," says Marcus warmly. He's still calculating just what kind of situation he's in in the back of his head. "Wait a minute…" He quickly puts two and two together. "Just how far has our guest travelled to get here?"

Aura looks up at Marcus. "I don't know," she says, matter-of-factly. "I was captured in my unformed state and sent here unaware. But I don't know where my home is. So I cannot tell you how far."

"Heaven's a long way away, I'd imagine." Colin nods to Marcus. Then he beams a smile to Aura. "No matter how far you had to go, but you seem to be welcome here."

"Miss Aura," Floyd begins softly, "On behalf of our leaders, I apologize for your rude reception. The United States Government is prepared to offer you asylum."

Aura looks confused. "You think I'm crazy?" she asks.

Floyd looks confused himself for a moment. "Um. No. It's a legal term, it means that wherever you came from, the authorities here will give you protection under our laws, equal to any other person." He withdraws an envelope from the pocket of his trenchcoat and holds it up.

"Peace on our world is always uneasy," he continues. "It used to be common for pilots to come here from the opposition, land in a foreign aircraft, and request asylum. That's the easiest way for our leaders to understand this situation." Floyd looks meaningfully at the others. "Otherwise we have a mess."

"Oh." Aura turns this over for a few moments. "Then I'll accept your asylum, if that will make things easier on you," she concludes brightly.

Colin smirks, "Are you sure we don't have a mess anyway?" He nods at the various soldiers around the area.

"Wait a moment," says Marcus. "I think there are some other details in that little offer, right?"

"Dude, shut up. This is serious," Jason says to Colin, still stinging from the gentle rebuke he'd gotten from Floyd.

Floyd smiles. "Not for long!" He makes a hand signal in the direction of the assembled troops. Within seconds, weapons are lowered and guns stowed. Further back, police cruisers turn off their warning lights. The sigh of relief is almost palpable.

"There," he remarks. "Far less serious."

Toby claps his hands together. "Fantastic. Now, Mr. Floyd, er, don't you have some paperwork to go file or something? May I speak to my friends alone here?"

Floyd says, "Almost, Mister Lazarus." Floyd withdraws a second envelope, and looks at Marcus. "Aura has asylum, no matter what happens. I'm also authorized to negotiate an agreement for access to her… um… vehicle. Our top men will want a look, but I won't let them take without giving." He hands the envelope over and retreats to the line of soldiers. He can be heard a moment later, shouting, "Someone get me a coffee!"

Toby grins widely. "Comrades, that man didn't even think to ask how our dear Aura learned English. But I will tell you. She is linked with me — she learned what I know, and I am slowly learning some of what she does too. So here is the bargain." He gestures out the door. "Parts of the vehicle which she wrecked herself here on are scattered over the planet. Things called links are falling to the world. They will cause great hardship and calamity, so I have to help her make this right."

"She can give links to you, and you will be able to help me. What do you say, comrades?"

Colin looks at Toby. "You're sounding like I do sometimes. But… what do these links… do?" He hesitates, "I mean, if I have the capacity to help the world, I'll do it, but…" He smirks, "This sounds like something out of a comic book."

Before Marcus focuses on this new offer, he's going to peruse what Uncle Sam has put on the table. "Seems fairly straight-forward. Suspiciously so. Selling the government a ream of paper involves more legalese than this." The second part of the offer seems to give him more to chew on, and then he is drawn back to the conversation. "Links?" he murmurs.

"Links are…" Toby pauses, looking at Aura. The lovely alien smiles and smoothly steps in for him. "A link is a sort of machine. On one end is your thoughts, your mind, your brain. On the other is …" It is now her turn to pause, and a rapid stream of musical tones emanates from her voice. "I don't have words for it yet. But think of it as an invisible machine which touches some part of your planet. Your skies, your oceans, your devices, the things around you. Elements."

Jason looks enthusiastic. "Elements, eh? About time that chem major was good for something."

"Can you show us?" suggests Marcus. "After all, our hands touch all those things. I have a feeling you mean more than that."

Toby nods. He claps his hands together, rubbing the palms, then reaches out gingerly. His fingertips make contact with a steel sheet. Carefully he lifts it — but not with his hand. It moves along with his hand, floating and flowing in impossible ways, reshaping itself. He smiles as he works; the shape becomes more and more apparent. A steel rose is its final form, and he presents this to Aura, who graciously accepts the gift.

"Now that's something you don't see every day," breathes Marcus. Being rather impulsive he says, "At my age, it's rare to have the opportunity to see the world in a new way. I'm interested."

Colin smiles. "Usually the magician will run the trick hoop around the subject, but yeah, I'm totally in."

"Okay, that's pretty sweet," says Jason, clearly impressed.

Toby grins. "So. Aura, will you link them?" The alien nods, and reaches out a hand, touching each man in turn. Around their right wrist a glowing halo of white light springs into existence, shot through with darker particles which move and dance. It quickly fades, but the presence of it remains.

Colin closes his eyes, and feels the cool, if fragrant breeze of the junkyard wash over him. Even in his days in his dojo, he has not bee this aware of the space around him… The way the air moves between and around him, the cool touch as your lungs take a large breath. He can see fire spring from his blade, or the wind pushing objects around him. His mind frames him into one of his mangas, the hero, wielding mystical chi powers.

For Jason, the experience is somewhat similar, and yet vastly different. The air around him suddenly has a tangible presence, but instead of the immediate sense of combustion barely held at bay, he senses the air as something tightly bound together. And yet, it is a binding Jason now feels as if he can loose at will. And not only the air… he can sense a lesser echo in the people around him, and in his own flesh, realizing that those powerful bonds also hold living things together.

For Marcus, the change is as weird a thing as he's ever felt, though once he realizes what it means he has to laugh. In his mind he envisions himself in a swirling vortex of business cards, invoices, contracts, and print outs. Mixed in that whirlwind of documents is a battered and much-used coloring book, a copy of The Gettysburg Address, and a little black book.

The whipping flotsam in Marcus' mind grows more dense as every note he's ever written, every book he's ever read, and every ream of paper his company has ever produced appear. Marcus realizes he can sense them, he can recognize each scrap without even looking. He doesn't have to touch the paper to know how brittle it has become or how sturdy it is. The scent of the fresh 20lb letterhead he's used for years comes to him without the need to get near it.

It is then that Marcus feels the paper around him. Reaching out tentatively for the first time, he sends a business card leaping from his pocket. Marcus snares the paper out of the air and smiles at Aura. "Thank you! I honestly don't know what I'm going to use this for yet, but I have a feeling that—assuming I don't wake up from what would be a very strange dream—my life has just changed radically."

Aura smiles sadly. "Do you see that device there?" she asks, pointing a lithe finger at one of Toby's large, portable power-saws. "This device — as I see — would be very harmful to you if you did not know how to use it, but were given it. There will be many people on this planet who are now somehow linked, but don't have the control which I've given you. They… will use that link in the manner of a novice with this saw."

"Stopping that from happening is what I hope you will use these links to do."

Colin nods. "I will do this as long as I am able."

"Makes sense," Jason replies, somewhat distracted — looking at his own hand as if he'd never seen it before.

"What do we need to do to stop them?" asks Marcus. "Can we just bring them to you so they can get the control they need?"

Aura nods. "If the linked individual is violent, he must be restrained. Once that is done, I can remove the link from him." She glances at Toby. "Right now, I don't know who should or should not have a link. I must leave that decision to all of you."

"This isn't just a matter for us to decide," replies Marcus. "America's leaders need to know. This could put thousands of lives at stake, and a normal soldier wouldn't have a chance."

"Or they will take our Aura away and do unspeakable things with her hardware," mutters Toby darkly. "You should not trust these government people too far!"

"Well, let's think of this carefully," says Marcus. "Who is going to find these people fastest. Will it be us, or the FBI?"

"You are smarter than me, Mr. Marcus," concedes Toby. It's probably true, but he's man enough to own up to it. "But! They cannot take Aura anywhere she doesn't wish to go. They cannot just march into my junkyard. So, do what you wish."

"Well, Toby, you know I don't have any interest in that either. Aura should be afforded the full rights she deserves, and your junkyard is yours, as well." Marcus smiles, "And fortunately we have just the person we can negotiate all these terms with. After all, we have a lot to offer now, don't we? Let's go have a chat with Mr. Floyd."

"These other bits… they could've fallen anywhere, right?" asks Jason. "So I guess we're gonna need some help." He shakes his head. "O'course, if one of these… rogue links pops up, I'd guess they could cause an awful lot of trouble." He looks up at the air, grabs hold of a handful of it, and chins himself, then lets go, to sit on nothing. "So yeah."

Colin crosses his arms across his chest. "You're all welcome to associate with the fuzz…" But he will follow the others…

Floyd apparently found his coffee, and drinks it while conferring with the National Guard Colonel. "Look, let me try this one more time: you didn't see bullets deflecting in mid-air, that's physically impossible. This is a junk yard, right? So your guys come in firing all over the place, you're going to kick up some sparks. I was in Desert Storm, it happened all the time." He takes a sip, pointedly ignoring the Colonel's scowl. "It's just another crash of another experimental aircraft. Happens all the time in Nevada. Wouldn't expect you to see it here again."

The older soldier calls for his men to clear out, with an unmistakable air of disgust. Floyd turns to Toby's vagabond posse and grins. "Best to stay out of their way for the moment. Some less trigger-happy folks are on their way from Livermore. So. Until then, what shall we talk about?"

Marcus smiles at Floyd, "Well, unless you want to make a career out of damage control, you will want to hear a few more things about this little event and how serious things are about to become."

Floyd loses his smile and tosses the empty paper cup into a nearby barrel. "Already is. So let's get to it."

The paper cup falls into the barrel only to leap out and into Marcus' hand. He doesn't catch it in the normal sense. The cup floats over his open hand. For a moment it spins in place, than grows still. A quick thought and it crumples utterly. Another and it springs back into its original shape… but without wrinkles. "Now imagine I could do this with, say, the steel of a skyscraper. Or the dome of the capital."

"This little event has apparently made others capable of doing something like I can. Like we all can now. But they have no control and probably don't all share our moral stances or political allegiance," says Marcus.

"And not all of them will have as much common sense as Marcus here," adds Jason, unable to resist a brief glance at Colin.

The color drain's from Floyd's face. "Because of the alien?" he asks.

Colin's head cranes back, and looks at Jason. He says nothing, but pulls his mouth open in a large, toothy smile.

"At least it seems that way," says Marcus. "Now she's given us these talents so we might be able to deal with these rogues. Essentially we need to bring them to her and they can have their abilities turned off." Marcus draws in a breath and smiles more certainly, "Of course, we have a need of support to do this effectively, and I personally want to ensure that our police and armed forces aren't sent off like lambs to slaughter. Oh, and I think these young men will probably need some kind of salary for the job."

Floyd's cheery demeanor is leaving almost as quickly as the soldiers. "Yeah, figured it couldn't be that simple. All right. Here's the deal. I'm on direct Presidential order to keep this from turning into a mess. I'll tell you what I've learned in fifteen years of Federal service: you don't screw Uncle Sam. You want to be part of the solution, I'm game for that. Don't make me figure out what to do, if you become part of the problem."

"Wouldn't think of it," replies Marcus. "So let's work out something equitable, then I want some time for my friends to have a chance to carefully consider what I'm proposing before they leap off the cliff with me." He holds out a hand to Floyd, "I think this is a great start, sir. Let's build a consensus and defend the American people."

Floyd nods, and shakes Marcus' hand. "A deal is made."

Links

Colin has been taking the past week to work on his link. His new found powers. Spending more time in the dojo than normal, (if this is even possible), Colin has been working on developing the proper flow and chi for his new found link in with his normal kendo style. Moving and shaping the winds around himself, using them to facilitate sharper and faster strikes. Even walking on the air sometimes, dancing around an opponent. In theory, that is. Plans usually don't survive the first encounter with the enemy.

Marcus spends his time on the practical side of things. He meets regularly with Floyd and a few advisors to hammer out a few important details. On a lark, the amused CEO brings in a detailed and completely fake proposal for a movie. "You know, PR is important, and branding is critical to our success." His nights are spent practicing control and learning just what it means to control paper. It's not the most potent material at first blush, but with effort he's found ways to will it to greater strength.

Floyd watches the supermen practice from a corner of the room, with his omnipresent coffee cup. "I'm almost afraid to ask what you mean by 'branding'. How do you brand secrets?"

"Just trying to put your hackles up, Floyd," comes Marcus' reply. "We can't really do a movie about anything real. If people knew the full story there'd probably be hysterics in half a dozen cities. First sign of trouble and people would be screaming and and fleeing their homes."

Floyd chuckles. "So glad you see it my way. Seriously, I don't think it's as bad as all that. Sooner or later, every story needs to be told. The people have a right to know. Just… not yet."

Meanwhile Jason, being a science student, has taken a more scientific approach to exploring his newfound powers. At his next chem lab class, he used his Link to fill a beaker, and with a few tests, discovered that his element was, simply, nitrogen. The rest of the week was spent buried in the library, looking through every book on nitrogen chemistry he could find. Oh, and one other book — on the use of nitromethane racing fuel. He has no idea if poor Silver could survive nitro power, but by god he's going to try.

And, of course, it's in the interest of trying that very thing that Jason is back at Toby's junkyard, looking through the tiny handful of sports car junkers for any parts he can use to turbocharge an ancient Buick.

Floyd's mobile phone rings. It's bulky, but nothing says 'I'm a Fed' louder in this day and age than a trenchcoat and a phone with no wires. "O'Shea," he answers, and hangs up a moment later. "Those guys from JPL are a few minutes away. I want to be there to make sure everyone gets along. You're welcome to join me but try to avoid breaking the laws of physics in the first hour, OK?"

"It's best if we go. It will keep Toby from getting jumpy, I think," replies Marcus. "And we need to make sure everyone plays by the right rules."


By hook or by crook, everyone of interest has a reason to be at the junkyard today. Colin received a call; Jason has a personal interest in the prosaic function of the business; and Floyd and Marcus appear in the name of Mr. Lazarus's new side-line. It doesn't take long for the government man's liaison to report something to him, though: parts of the wreckage, and important parts by the look of it, have already been removed. Nor was there any sign of damage (or damage that they could hope to detect…). The removal was done professionally.

There is one more here today, aside from Toby and Aura, who have become inseparable despite her apparent inability to get up and walk around. A blond-haired, boyishly handsome man is speaking with the pair as Floyd and Marcus enter the office. He turns and smiles. Toby grins broadly.

"Mr. Government!" he calls. "My friend, Captain Ellis Tove. Comrade, this is Mr. Floyd of the government."

Floyd nods, and extends a hand. "Floyd O'Shea, FBI. You're Air Force?"

Captain Tove nods and grins, returning a firm handshake. "Mr. O'Shea. Toby's told me a lot about you, sir." He salutes smartly to Marcus in turn.

Floyd says, "Well. Now I'm in trouble," Floyd jokes. "We might all be. Doctor Wingley — that's the rocket scientist in the yard — tells me that pieces of the wreck are missing. I sincerely hope that's due to the actions of someone in this room, because it means that we stand a chance in Hell of finding them. Otherwise we've got a problem."

"Captain, it's a pleasure to see you again sir," replies Marcus. He returns the salute with a serious expression that is quickly replaced with his usual smile. "I have a feeling now isn't the time to swap stories, unfortunately," he adds, nodding at Floyd.

Toby glances at Captain Tove for a moment, then nods quickly. "Yes. Yes. Some of the elements in the craft are unstable in the long term, Mr. Floyd. So I took them and I have been building a holding room for it."

Floyd thinks back to the results of the background check into Tobacek Lazuriewizc, the junkman. An immigrant from the Old Country — but with the assistance of the Captain, who married Toby's paraplegic sister and since returned to a posting on American soil. The junkman himself soon followed. There's no sign of criminal background, although plenty of corners were cut to get the man into the country in a timely fashion.

But one thing is for sure — he doesn't have the skill set to dismantle alien hardware unassisted.

"That's a good idea," Floyd allows, "but all the same, don't you think we should take inventory? Make sure that all of it's there? Miss Aura, I'm sure you can tell if he's got a complete set or not, right?"

Aura shakes her head. "You see, this machinery was not created by my people," she explains. "I understand its operation because of my maturation into form, but I don't know its full contents."

"Your maturation into form?" asks Marcus.

The feminine form smiles widely at Marcus, her metal and crystalline face turning to look at him. "I was not born to look like the people of this planet," she says gently. "I am still in my nascent state, but in their native condition, my people are unformed."

Marcus raises an eyebrow at the explanation. "That must be a very interesting civilization," he muses.

Floyd refills his coffee cup. "I thought you didn't remember where you came from," he asks, and takes a sip. "How sure are you, of where you're going?"

Aura shakes her head. "Some part of the ship must know. Some record of its journey, its… black box?" She stares quizzically at Captain Tove, who nods and steps in to explain. "It's a guess, but a logical one," he says. "Any sort of craft will have a flight recorder and navigational charts. You don't just throw it out into space and hope it lands in the right spot."

"That sounds logical enough, but are we likely to recognize it when we see it?" asks Marcus.

"As I become more formed, I will harmonize more closely with the wreckage," Aura explains. "I was able to warn Toby about the… the…" She pauses to search for a word. "The dangerous bad thing which turns. It's locked away now, and stable."

"And you were able to easily disassemble this alien craft?" asks Marcus of Toby. It's clear he's a bit surprised. "Is it similar to our own construction?"

"It has iron in it," grins the junk-man, flexing his hands.

Colin laughs at this.

"You know, it is interesting," says Marcus. "It can't be coincidence that you control iron and I have paper."

Toby shrugs. "Echt. I think other metals too, but yes, I'm very proud." He grins at Aura, who smiles back radiantly.

Floyd has a look out the office's dusty window, and waves cheerily at the scientists, who are conversing excitedly in the yard outside. "Rock, paper. Who has scissors?" Another pull at his coffee mug. "This could change everything. You think the world is ready for that?"

"Does the world even have a choice at this point?" asks Marcus.

Colin says, "I rather thought the point was that the world was not ready…"

"The world wasn't ready for nuclear bombs either," points out Jason. "And yet here we are."

Floyd says, "Well… that is my point. I was trying to be, what's the word, 'rhetorical'."

"And here we are," repeats Marcus. "So, how do we deal with the matter of missing dangerous parts, Floyd?"

"They aren't missing," grumbles Toby.

"That's the problem, it sounds like they need to be kept contained, but can we tell the scientists that?" asks Marcus. "Will they decide they know best and ignore the danger?"

Floyd says, "I think those guys have seen enough for one day," Floyd says. "What I'm more concerned about is the missing Links. Other people that do what you do, but without as many scruples. Or a Fed keeping them honest."

"I imagine you can just pick up a newspaper," observes Captain Tove drily. "But I'm in the area for awhile and I'm going to work with you all if I can, and see if we can come up with a solution."

Marcus nods at the Captain, "We appreciate it. I would rather not have to wait for a reporter to find them. Who knows what someone might do by accident or by malice?"

Floyd pulls on his coat. "I'll go and escort our rocket science friends out. Then I'll see what the Bureau can turn up. Bad news tends to flow to Washington."

"That helps explain a lot of what comes out of it, too," replies Marcus.

Floyd grimaces as he opens the door. "Some of us believe in what we do," he says flatly, and then he's outside.

As Floyd departs, Jason pipes up. "Hey, Colin. Didja ever figure out exactly what it is you're controlling?"

Colin smiles at Jason. "Oxygen, it seems. Moving the air around us about. What about you, Jason?"

Jason grins. "Nitrogen. So between the two of us we control like 98 percent of the atmosphere. Now that's a hell of a thing."

Toby once again opens up, with the Fed gone. "Jason, you know the '60 Eldorado Seville?" he asks excitedly. "I have installed some of the components I gathered from the wreck of dear Aura's ship. Now I want your help. Actually both of you. Come remove the rust and help me with the assemblies, eh? Mr. Marcus, Captain, will you come too?"

Colin laughs. "Is that so?" His hand moves to where the hilt of his sword or bokken would be. He doesn't carry it all the time, as one might think. Colin is beginning to demonstrate his walk on air trick as Toby addresses him, "Anything you say, boss."

"Toby, as much as the government can make a mess of things," begins Marcus, "I'm not interested in deceiving Floyd. He's been a straight shooter and you know how I stand when it comes to deception."

Toby leads the way out of his office — first stopping to unfold a wheelchair. He assists Aura into it, and she smiles gratefully. This done, he leads the motley procession out into the yard and off into one corner. "Mr. Floyd!" he calls as he goes. "Come see where your dangerous doodads got off to!"

"You didn't tell me she couldn't walk, Toby," remarks Ellis as they go. Toby shrugs and keeps wheeling. The Air Force Captain hums. "Just like Shala." Toby scowls, and still says nothing.

In the corner of the yard is an old 1960 Cadillac Eldorado Seville. The hood has been taken off entirely. Emerging from the car is what looks to be a pile of scrap metal, but upon closer inspection it's an artfully arranged facade. Underneath is a much more modern-looking collection of machinery whose purpose frankly baffles its witnesses.

"It won't fit into the engine block," Toby observes mournfully. "I had such hopes for this car."

Colin nudges Jason in the ribs, "Is that what the Buick looks like?"

"Toby, what exactly are you making?" asks Marcus. "I understand you have a link and can do something with metals, but just because I can move paper doesn't mean I know the language of every page I touch. I guess I'm just not clear on how you know what these parts do."

"I link to more than metal," Toby grins. "I link to Aura as well." The metallic woman smiles politely, bobbing her head in agreement. "So I am learning what she knows, and she also learns from me."

Jason is too busy looking at the conglomeration. "Hmm… yeah, I don't see any way to get that lot in any further. If that's as big as it's gonna be, you'd need something like a truck if you wanted to fit it." He puts a hand on the side of the car. "What'dja do with the engine?"

Marcus nods slowly, understanding Toby and filing that away for later discussion with the others. "That is one interesting link, I imagine."

Toby scowls at Jason. "Listen, my friend. You are young and wise in many things, but a 1960 Cadillac engine is handmade by Italians. It is not even worth selling as scrap. You would serve yourself much better with a Hemi. Please, take my advice and do not ruin your life."

Jason nods glumly. "That's a shame," he says. "Nah, I didn't want it for myself." He reaches out hesitantly to the more alien components. "Just a shame that it had to go… even if it was to…" He pauses. "Actually, what is this s'posed to do?"

"My dad put Cadillacs together for GM," Floyd says quietly. "He's Irish. Like me. Still… he wouldn't recognize… whatever this is," he trails off.

"This ah…" Toby thinks a moment. "I don't know what this is, to be quite honest, comrades. But it is a machine that contains the spinning badness that Aura is worried about. So you see, it is like a refrigerator almost. We have some cooling and venting over here… and you see the wiring, like a motor's brushes over here, and we had to add some windings to keep it from making that noise. So… oh yes, also we weighed it down to keep it from flying away."

"But! That is why I had hopes. You see, comrades, if I can control it, we could have a flying car!"

"So essentially what you have is a really angry power source?" ventures Marcus.

Colin arches an eyebrow, "A flying car…" He looks over into the car, "About how much are you using to weigh it down?"

"So there is about 16 tons of metal here," muses Toby. "I'm afraid the soil here isn't going to hold up very well. I excavated last year when the phone company wanted to put their cords in past my property. Very bad soil. I'm going to have to rent a backhoe again. Mr. Floyd, Mr. Marcus, I may need to call on your services, comrades."

"Oh my God," Floyd moans. "When you said you were putting it somewhere safe, I thought maybe you had, I don't know, a bomb shelter or something hidden in this rubble. You're telling me that you put the engine from the crashed UFO… in a Cadillac? Hell. Guess I should be glad it's not a Pinto." He pulls out his phone. "OK. So this time it's the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And a crane."

"If you remove it from the container, it may do unusual things which you would have trouble explaining," observes Toby slyly. "Plus I didn't like the look of it going in, and I doubt its mood has much improved."

Colin scrates his arm a bit, and glances over to Floyd. "You know, I don't like all these Government types around here all the time, Toby…"

Toby sighs. "You will be fine, comrade. Mr. Floyd is our friend now! And we will cooperate with him as much as we can, Mr. Marcus, please rest your laurels about that."

Floyd either misses the interplay, or ignores it for the moment. He glances at Aura while navigating FedLand's needlessly complex phone directory. "Isn't this going to be a movie next year, about some kind of warp drive? With Jodie Foster? Makes holes in space?"

Marcus nods to Toby, "Glad to hear it. We were brought together for a reason, so we should take extra care to build trust. Without it, our unit won't stand a chance. Speaking of which, I think we're going to need some kind of training to better use our skills and to learn to work together. We can't just wing it."

"That, hopefully, will be my job," Captain Tove explains with a smile. "I declined Toby's offer of a link, for hmm, various reasons. But I'm still willing to help out, as full-time as I can manage."

Colin crosses his arms over his chest.

"That's very generous, Captain," replies Marcus. "And it will serve us well, I think. We can't face a rogue link without preparation."

"But Mr. Floyd should not be talking about removing dangerous things," Toby grumbles. "He does not understand."

"I'm not removing anything," Floyd says, a touch defensively. "I promised that these things would stay in your possession, and they will. That's just as real as Aura's passport." He puts away his phone, sensing that the alien engine is not an urgent problem after all.

Toby scowls. "Hey! Come here." He grabs Floyd by the arm, dragging him off from the others as he begins to berate the man. "You people are going too far with her. She is fine, I will take care of her, she'll be happy here, you're meddling…" But once he's far enough away, his voice lowers dramatically, speaking only to Floyd. "Mr. O'Shea, I thank you sir. But please. Let us talk about this away from others next time." He fidgets briefly, then walks back toward the group and yells again. "And that'll be a lesson to you!"

Jason has missed most of the discussion, being too busy hovering over the Cadillac. "Flying, eh…" he says. "Wonder how you'd hook up the controls…" He looks in the window, poking at the steering column and muttering to himself. "We'd almost have to get a tilt steering wheel in here to provide up-down… unless we can get a yoke out of a small plane…"

"If we're going to make something that flies, why not just use a jet?" asks Marcus. "It looks a little less suspicious than a flying car, don't you think?"

Colin blinks at the old man seems to explode in emotion. He jumps a bit to the side as Toby takes Floyd away for a good tongue lashing.

Colin gives Marcus a … look. "You have no romantic soul, do you?"

Colin turns back to Jason, "If it's just a floaty dohicky, wouldn't we need some way to go forward and back?"

Floyd remains were he was led for a moment, looking bewildered. Finally he walks away, in the direction of the coffee pot.

"This isn't a time for romance," replies Marcus. "This is a time for careful planning and rational thought. What we're signing up for will probably start landing us in some pretty hot water, and it could come really quick."

Jason doesn't look up. "Gas pedal and brake are fine for that, probably. Though… yeah, probably need something cleverer than that. Maybe we could rig up something on the steering column…" He's got his head in the window of the car by this point, and anything other than flying cars is making no impression on him at all.

Colin grins at Marcus, "Are you always this fun to be around? I mean, seriously, if you think about the concequenses of everything, you'd never do anything. Heck, the dingus that they have weighted down with 16 tons in this car could be streaming out huge amounts of radiation."

"Son, if you consider the consequences of doing nothing, you will never stop achieving," replies Marcus.

Jason finally emerges. "Of course, it's all a moot point until we figure out how to control it at all," he says. "And I guess that's up to Toby and Aura, cause they're the only ones who seem to have any handle on how it all works." He looks between Marcus and Colin. "Uh… what're you guys talking about?"

"There is no radiation," murmurs Aura. "Or at least, if I understand your use of the word correctly. The technology is the same as the links. It never radiates."

Colin shrugs at Jason, "The impracticality of flying cars, it would seem. Apparentally we should all drive Volvos.:"

"Taking chances, I'd say," says Marcus. "But since we've all signed up to put ourselves squarely in the line of fire, it's pretty hard to call anyone excessively cautious, don't you think?"

Colin just shrugs.

"I was thinking of making the whole junk yard fly," announces Toby nonchalantly.

Colin looks back at Toby, "I think you have more than 16 tons of material here, boss."

The scrapyard owner grins. "Ahh, but that is just the spinning thing in its un-energized state!"

"Wouldn't you think that might draw a bit of attention?" asks Marcus. "Plus it's rather hard for people to use a junk yard if it's floating out of reach."

Toby hums. "To be honest, Mr. Marcus, I am hoping for a fat government job as alien ship consultant now, yes? And if not, well, junk business was never very mobile to begin with. We can now tow your wreck right to the yard. Also, do you realize that I pay $450 a month to those thieves at the landfill?"

A light seems to go on. "Property taxes," he breathes. "You see. I pay no taxes if I am not taking up land, eh? Eh? Pretty smart."

Colin says, "I'd ignore Mr. Marcus today. He was being a wet blanket about the flying car idea too. "

Floyd returns, with a foam cup of coffee and an ill-concealed sulk. "You know, you can probably make this whole place fly. And Marcus could probably make the Declaration of Indepedence do the cha-cha. My God, you can't think this is a good idea! You want a job? Fine. You're on the payroll. We'll figure out which payroll, later. But this isn't you versus the government! It's… whatever is going on, versus the safety of the American people!" The cup slips from his grasp, spilling on the ground. Floyd looks genuinely agitated when it happens. "God dammit," he mutters.

Toby nods in agreement. "No, I am not against the government. I trust you, comrade Floyd. You have looked out for my friends and me, and I believe in you." He takes the hand recently emptied of its coffee, and shakes it vigorously. "Sir, I have my dream. Please don't stand in its way. But I will follow your wishes as well, and support this great country of America."

"I'm with Floyd on this one," says Marcus. "And unless there's a different oath in the Air Force, I imagine the Captain is in agreement too. I'm more than a little concerned by what I'm hearing. If anything, I'm more convinced than ever of the danger of rogue links."

Toby lets out a quiet sigh. His manic energy seems to drain out of him, and his eyes now meet those of the people around him. "Then. Tell me, if I cannot do this, how will I get Aura home?" he asks.

"If that's your goal, why not try a location that isn't so likely to draw every curious eye on the globe? Do you have to work here, Toby?" asks Marcus. "With a bit of help from Floyd we could get you access to the best materials and give you space where you can work without interruption."

Toby regards Floyd slowly. "Well?" he asks.

Floyd shrugs. "You know, most people in the government don't believe in aliens. That's God's honest truth. I've seen all the files. There were no little green men at Roswell. No face on Mars. It all drove old man Hynek nuts. But… if there's a way to do it, we'll find it. And if not?" He directs his next comment at Aura. "You're welcome to call this place home. There is honor to be found here."

Aura smiles slightly. "Thank you, Mr. O'Shea," she says quietly. But her delicately defined eyebrows furrow nonetheless.

"I will accept help from my friends," Toby says firmly. "But please. Let me do this."

Floyd nods a few times. "As you wish."

"Toby, it might help us if we better understand why you want to do these things," says Marcus. "You've always been enthusiastic to make things, especially the unusual and cool, and I can see that coming through. It's just that the stakes have changed a lot, and for us the big focus is on keeping people safe." He looks to the others, "Right?"

Toby nods. "So, comrades. Let us talk about these important government matters for a moment." He pauses, smiling at Aura. "Please excuse me." She smiles brightly and nods her assent, and the junkyard owner leads the rest of the pack away a short distance.

Toby lets out a short sigh. "My friends, I have never been so happy. I know Aura very well, and she knows me. So you see, I must do everything I can to help her. It's a man's duty, you understand. She is everything and everyone I always wanted, do you understand? But I cannot tell her yet. I have so much to do before I can tell her."

Marcus' eyebrows both shoot up, "Toby, are you trying to tell me that you are in love with our guest? Why didn't you tell us that before! I was worried that you were crazy from the link, now I know you're just crazy for more normal reasons." He slaps his friend on the back, "Don't scare me like that!"

Toby flushes, looking distinctly embarrassed. "Yes, well, Mr. Marcus, you have known me for long enough that you should know better."

"Yes, but I also knew long enough that nobody can control oxygen, or nitrogen, or metal with their mind, and look how far that is going to get me in the world now," answers Marcus. He can't stop grinning, "If we weren't under heavy observation by who knows what agency I'd say we should hit a good pub to celebrate."

Floyd doesn't seem to understand at first. "People do things for their own reasons," he finally states. "Love is better than most of them."

"Love is the best reason of all," agrees Marcus.

Toby nods. "Are you married, Mr. Floyd?" he asks.

Floyd seems about to speak, but just shakes his head once.

"A shame." But then the junkman grins. "And too bad for you I have only one sister! Well, my friends. I am quite serious when I say that it may be difficult to move the spinning thing, but I am confident that it is as safe here as anywhere else. So, we must decide what we will allow me to do, and then do it, eh?"

"Well, Toby, with you and Aura being the only experts there's no reason to move it until you say it makes sense," says Marcus. "If you need something, you know I'm good for it. I have a few stock options that are kicking in, and I wouldn't mind a bit of diversification with an investment in your business. Probably be the best move I've ever made with my money."

Toby responds with more than characteristic intensity. "We will have a very profitable business soon," he promises.


In the next day or two, Captain Ellis Tove's true value becomes readily apparent to everyone. After observation, he's concluded that Toby and Aura are progressing in their understanding at about the same pace, and that Aura knows approximately what Toby does. Based on that, he's called in a former college professor, Dr. Chastity Williams, who will be instructing Aura in the basics of science and technology as Earth understands it. Behind her sweet face is locked the understanding of this alien technology, and the Captain believes language is the key. For Toby, he trusts Marcus to handle what the junkman is missing: perspective.

"If Aura can tell us what she knows, we can get the most out of what we see," he explains. True enough, the group working together soon come up with a way to track the rogue links. Based on Aura's explanation, all the links somehow tie together with a sort of invisible, higher-dimensional thread. Toby, Colin and Jason work up a compass of sorts, which by its nature must be mounted somewhere immobile, which will show the direction to the nearest link. It takes awhile longer to figure out how to exclude themselves, but Toby is convinced that the problem can be solved.

Dinner

Satisfied that his old friend is not suffering from an unnatural insanity, but rather a very natural one, Marcus wanted to find a time to talk, like before things got so weird. A quick call to make sure the schedule is clear and Marcus finds himself arriving at 8 PM, bringing along a brown bag in which Toby's favorite drink is safely concealed.

Toby's house is a simple one-story, two-bedroom apartment. It has that subtle alienness of decor that many immigrants seem to adopt, along with a plethora of photographs and a dizzying array of trinkets, curios, and other mementos of his time in America.

Aura has been set up in what was once Toby's home office. Despite his directness, he is still a businessman, and the signs of a hasty clearing of his LLC's paperwork to make way for a bed and such are clear.

Marcus always feels relaxed visiting the home of his friend. He can't put his finger on it exactly, but somehow it helps him believe that the American Dream is still alive and kicking. He greets Toby with a friendly handshake and a grin, "I brought the usual! It's good to see things are working out well for you. I still remember all the challenges I had when I first moved in with my wife… that was what? A hundred years ago or so?"

Toby smiles quietly. Some of his energy is gone, but he's still got a twinkle in his eye and a firm handshake. "Well, Mr. Marcus, then a woman has been happy with your one hundred years. You are blessed."

Marcus laughs, "More blessed every day, my friend. And this new excitement is quite welcome, honestly. The world feels like a newer place, somehow."

"Well, er. I had to fix some things up." Toby shuffles his feet. "The plumbing needed some cleaning, and uh, I had laundry that needed to be cleaned. You understand."

Marcus nods, "I imagine things are a lot easier to do, with your new gift. I'm still figuring things out, but…" He leans in conspiratorially and finishes, "I found something really amazing that I can do. Sometime I gotta show you. I totally understand your excitement now. It's hard to keep myself from being reckless."

Toby nods, grinning. "Oh, very well comrade. What is it?"

"Well, I have some extra paper in the bag," he explains. "But it's not really enough, and I don't want to make trouble in the neighborhood." He takes out a few sheets of paper and holds them up, slowly changing it into the form of a dragon. "Imagine something like this, only bigger," Marcus says. "It's not much for talking, but I bet it'll be pretty useful."

Toby coos approvingly. "Yes, very nice comrade. Do you know how big it might be yet?"

"Not yet," admits Marcus. "But I figure a trip to the mill will give me a much better idea. Speaking of which, I have a question. Have you been practicing? It's clear you are really good with your link. Is it because of Aura, or just practice?"

With the conversation clearly getting more serious, Marcus follows his friend to the dining table and in a familiar ritual crack open their first beers together with a toast to life, happiness, and profit. This complete, they get back to business.

"She is very very skilled," says Toby, sketching invisible diagrams with his finger across the surface of the dining room table. "I understand better now. Imagine that there is a spiderweb, which spreads out from the crash, yes? It connects all the Links. The Links then root into our brains. It is all a single large machine."

"And that is why we will be able to find the others," muses Marcus. "Do you know what happens when we get all the links?" he asks.

Toby shrugs. "Then we retire?"

"I wonder." Marcus shrugs in turn and takes a longer drink. "I'm not sure about the retiring business. My wife keeps telling me to do that. What does someone do when they have nothing on their shoulders anyway?"

"You think you'll have nothing on your shoulders?" Toby laughs out loud. "Comrade, your world will be there waiting for you. Work is the distraction from our true business."

"Speaking of that, how long do you imagine it will be before we run into our first bit of trouble?" asks Marcus. "You know, it's been a while for me, but I've at least been trained a bit. I hope your friend the Captain can help get all of us up to speed."

Toby shrugs. "I don't know. We know what we possess, so we may choose to use it. How long until someone uses it without knowing? No man can say."

Marcus turns back to what Toby had said earlier. "So right now the links are all attached to someone… they are out there, possibly in use. It's just a matter of us not knowing who, or where." He looks to his friend seriously, "Does everyone have a different link?"

Toby turns at a sound; Marcus hears it a moment after. It is Aura, wheeling her self into the dining room in her wheelchair. The sight is momentarily incongruous: a woman made of metal and crystal, a faint radiance adorning her, using a tool for the infirm. "Hello Marcus," she says with a bright smile. "I think I can tell you more about the links, if that is what you wish to know."

Marcus stands and moves over to greet Aura with a friendly hug. He returns to his seat, making sure to clear room for her to sit by Toby. "Miss Aura, I would like to know more about them, but I am concerned. Are you alright?" He frowns as a thought occurs to him, "There's no way for a link to find out where you are, is there?"

"It doesn't work like that," smiles Aura. "The machinery of the link sits, um, sideways to the world. It touches it in certain bands, or ranges, like an FM radio, I think? This is why you can discern your linked element, but nothing else — it pokes through the planet in the places where that element can be found."

"But if you followed the threads back, you would not follow them through your three dimensions. You would follow them through other spaces. And so while we might be connected, you cannot locate me."

"That's good," says Marcus. "I was concerned that a link may track it back here and decide to do something unpleasant. Of course, they might be able to learn to track us. Right now, though, it's not likely they'd suspect that others have their power."

Aura smiles patiently. "If they had our machines, perhaps they could build another compass. But it would still need to be near the center of the link machinery. I have no fear. Please don't worry about this, Marcus."

"You are the expert!" Marcus grins and ventures, "I don't suppose you appreciate beer, do you Miss Aura?" He seems to like the extra formality. There's something about Aura that demands a bit more respect. "Toby here has a very good taste for these things. This particular brew goes best with old friends and conversation."

The woman pauses, looking downward for a moment. "I don't know… I don't know if I'm even capable of drinking. Or eating," she says at last. "How would I find out?"

"Well, hmm." Marcus looks to Toby, then back to Aura. "I guess for humans it just comes naturally. My best guess is that you probably don't need to if you haven't already. Do you need to breathe or sleep?"

Toby, when glanced at, gives that helpless shrug. His face spells out the whole message: I tried, but I have no idea.

Aura shakes her head. "I rest, but I don't breathe."

"I think if you don't need food, it's probably wisest not to try," agrees Marcus.

The conversation turns away from the lofty and serious for the rest of the night. Marcus and Toby have been friends for long enough that they don't really need much to talk about to enjoy each other's company, and Aura, no matter how alien she might appear to most, is seamlessly integrated into things. Only when it hits eleven does Marcus finally say his goodbyes, the one beer having had its time to clean out of his system. The CEO has a lot to think about, but he's resting easy, knowing that for some reason, his ability to change the world has grown considerably.

Callsigns

Toby has called another meeting of his Linked allies, along with Floyd and Captain Tove. "Captain Tove has made a suggestion I wish to run you over with, Mr. Floyd," the junkman announces. "He tells me about aviator call signs and code names, for secrecy. If we are acting, we should not give ourselves away, yes?"

Colin beams a smile at Toby. "I've always thought that being a bit more, undercover about this sort of operation would shield us from many… unfortunate side effects of saving the world."

Floyd looks bemused at the junk man's choice of words. "Call signs, sure, but saving the world? Aren't we getting a bit ahead of things?"

Colin looks at Floyd, "Isn't that what we're talking about here, though. I mean, seriously, I don't think Toby or Aura ould disagree with my assessment."

Floyd shrugs. "I guess that depends on how much faith you have in the average person to use superhuman power wisely."

"Eventually that may be exactly what we do," says Marcus. "Right now I don't think I have quite enough firepower to make the claim." He looks to Toby, "I take it you have something in mind?"

Colin glares at Marcus. . o O ( His designation should be sourpuss ). He turns back to Floyd. "The average person? maybe not much. But I don't think Toby has selected average people."

Floyd chews his lower lip. "No. He didn't, did he?" The fed looks lost in thought.

The Captain steps in at this point, speaking to Floyd. "The proposal, sir, is to open a new project, classify it, and delegate authority within the project to the civilians already involved in it. Those civilians will then operate under the guidance of a duly appointed civilian deputee of the United States — presumably you."

Floyd nods. "That is, in essence, my advice to the Bureau. We're still fuzzy on some of the particulars, though. Remember, we solved the crisis with the military by classifying this as a civil aviation accident. We all know that's a stretch. So what authority am I asking the American people to delegate here?"

The Captain thinks a moment. "You're deputizing these people as an arm of federal law enforcement, tackling a potential outbreak of mass destruction."

"Gentlemen," interrupts Marcus, "I did have a question. The designated authorities of the American people seem to be jumping into this quite eagerly. What is causing this level of cooperation? I have every reason to trust my good friend's judgement concerning the Links and Aura, but why is the US of A so willing to do so?"

Toby coughs. "I will tell you why, comrades," he says more quietly. "Captain Tove showed Aura and myself a movie. It is called 'Forbidden Planet'. In it, there is a machine which gives great power to these alien men, but their minds are not prepared for it. They destroy themselves because of the sins they hide away, yes? The links are the same."

"We all have been given control by the angel. But what about others?"

Floyd frowns. "The truth is murky. You might as well go with what Toby said. But keep this in mind: we had a guy in a junkyard talking about angels and aliens. We had a military standoff. Since Waco, we're a little more careful about where we point our guns. And I distinctly remember Assitant Director Hart saying 'Not in an election year.'" He shrugs again. "My superiors understand that this is a real problem and I think I can convince them that you're the best way to deal with it. But I'm not going to bullshit you. We're off the books. You don't get badges. We keep this quiet, clean up the mess, everyone lives happily ever after. In thirty years it gets declassified, they make a movie about it. You guys all get played by the rising stars of 2020's and do book deals. I get set up as the evil spook that tried to cover it all up, I probably get played by Gary Oldman. The end."

Toby laughs. "Well then comrades. Let us be very quiet when we save the world. And now, Aura has said that the wreckage of the ship may yield more information. She was captured, you know. We might find out who did such a thing."

Colin looks back at Toby. "She was captured?" Colin looks over at Aura, then back at Toby. "Captured usually means taken away, you know, boss…"

Aura smiles brightly. "I was taken from my home in my unformed state. I believe that I was sent here and that there might be more information about my capture in the ship."

Colin tries to figure this out, "So, at some point in time, you were taken. And so you were sent here to find out about the point in time, in the past, that you were taken from… something?"

The alien angel shakes her head. "I don't think so. I think you might say… kidnapped as a child, and sent to live in a foreign country?"

Colin nods. "Right. But after that event, possibly way in the past, you were sent here to find out about your capture? "

Jason shakes his head. "Nnnnot exactly. I don't think she said why she was sent here. The ship she was in crashed here, and then Toby linked with her, and she started… forming?"

Aura answers with a dazzling smile. "Yes, that is how it is."

"Let's have another look at the ship," Floyd suggests. "The JPL guys have gone home for the moment. Toby took out the dangerous parts. Maybe someone left a note." Recorded by Marlon Brando, maybe.

Toby wheels Aura outside. She regards the monument of the alien wreckage for a moment, then smiles and claps her hand happily. "Yes, there it is." She reaches a hand out, passing it through the bulk of the wreck as though it weren't there, and withdraws clutching a sparkling conglomeration of light-motes which dance about each other in a hypnotic pattern.

"Whoa. Now that's pretty," says Jason, whistling appreciatively. "You could make a fortune waving that around at a rave."

"Ahh, I was supposed to read this to you," she says after a few moments of consideration. Clearing her throat, she orates. "Attention intelligent beings of this planet. Our war machine has arrived to take possession of your resources. You will surrender yourselves to our governance while this takes place. Interference with our operations will result in loss of life and the destruction of your possessions."

Jason's face falls. "That's not pretty."

Colin shakes his head, "It's always the pretty ones that let you down."

The angel looks up and around at the others. "Well, I don't think any of that happened, right?" she asks.

"Well, looks like saving the world is back on the agenda, boys," replies Marcus. "This would indicate, however, that a war machine has arrived." He looks to Aura, "Seems that the one referenced isn't quite ready to demand our surrender now."

Aura frowns in bemusement. "I don't feel like conquering anything," she says at last. "Maybe I wasn't formed the way they thought I would be."

"Or maybe there was supposed to be something else aboard that was going to form you differently," says Jason. "Maybe something that was wrecked in the crash."

Colin looks over at Marcus, then at Aura, Toby, Jason, Floyd. "Quite possibly. Of course, I've never known a tactician to rely solely on his first wave."

With an almost ashamed look on her face, Aura tugs at Floyd's sleeve. "Do I still get that asylum?" she whispers.

The muscles are working in Floyd's jaw, indicating severe worry, or perhaps a recent root canal. Aura's plea takes him off-guard, innocent and pitiable as it is. "Yes," he finally says.

With that settled, Aura reaches into the ship again and seems to fish around with her hand. After a few moments, she pulls out a polyhedron of light which seems to float around her hand, changing the number of faces it has every few seconds. "Oh, and I think this will work for a container for links until I can find the real one," she says. "If you can subdue those with uncontrolled links, I can remove them and keep them in this."

Colin thinks about this for a moment. "Given your last statement… subdue is where they can get up and walk away later, right?"

Floyd walks a few feet here and there, looking at the wreckage. "So the Links are all part of a weapon system, each one for a specific substance. And they'd only need one flying saucer to conquer the whole Earth?" He shakes his head, and nudges a piece of the wreckage with his toe. "Even Ed Wood had a bigger budget than that." He pauses. "But if you can control all substances, then… maybe you'd only need one. Hmm. If we recover the missing links, and you put them in your little jar, can you get them far the hell away from here? Like maybe, I dunno, Pluto?"

Aura smiles. "The links are simply parts of a larger machine, I believe. If we can hold down people, or get them to not interrupt me while I work, that will be sufficient. The removal should be harmless."

Colin looks at Floyd. "I think it might be better if she and the links stay here. Especially if there's a limited quantity, it might be nice not to give them back to Aura's people so they can try again…"

This causes the woman to frown deeply. "It is not my people who sent me here," she states emphatically.

"And it's not her people that worry me," Floyd adds.

"Yeah, I think Colin meant whoever captured her," says Jason. "And I think they worry the hell out of all of us."

"And I will build my ship," Toby insists. "But to make Mr. Floyd and Mr. Marcus happy, I will build it under the junk yard. We will lift off once everyone is happy. And until then, we have a place to go for this business."

"Toby, you are very understanding," says Marcus. "The big thing is to make sure that Aura is safe. From what I understand, we are the shock troops. That makes us at least somewhat disposable. Not from our perspective, of course, but in the greater scheme of things."

Aura reaches out a hand, and touches Marcus's own. She looks up, her bright eyes meeting his directly. "You are not expendable," she says firmly.

Colin grins. "We're the good guys. I'm not sure we get expendable shock troops."

Since Aura's pronouncement of conquest, Floyd's veneer of humor is gone. "You know, we really don't have anything in place for this. The government, I mean, and as far as I know, nobody else does either. Not us, not the Soviets… well, Russians, now… not the UN." He shakes his head. "We can't bury this or hide from it. So… I'm in. I'll sell the White House on Captain Tove's plan, one way or the other."

Marcus reaches out to pat Aura's hand. "Colin is right, we are the good guys. Makes me think we should be doing some kind of military training. Preferably in the montage format so I can lose 20 pounds in about ten minutes." He nods to Floyd, "And welcome in! Not sure what it entails yet, but we're all going to find out soon enough, I imagine." He asides to Jason, "Sounds fun, doesn't it?"

Jason grins at Marcus. "Yeah. It's gonna be a helluva ride."

Toby gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Tove grins, and turns to his immigrant friend. "Well that leaves you, junk-man. I remember you punching that guy out in one shot at the Lumbley. You've always fought for what you think is right, so your call sign is Scrapper." The Captain turns to the others. "You never pick your own call sign. Someone else does, and you'll often be the last to know. These are code names while you're on duty, so that radio intercepts don't pick up real names."

"So what does an old guy who makes a paper dragon get for a call sign?" asks Marcus. "Fogey Origami? The AARP Avenger?"

Colin blinks, "The pulp?"

Captain Tove rubs the back of his neck, smiling uncertainly. "Please pick something I won't be embarrassed to tell the Air Force about."

"I'll just listen to my grandkids talk about video games and pick something out," decides Marcus. "Preferably not Mario."

"How about 'Papercut'?" Floyd quips, supressing a grin.

Marcus arches an eyebrow and shakes his head. He had intended on a demo, in any case. He opens up his rolling suitcase and taps the paper, gaining control of it the way he's accustomed to. It is clear he's concentrating pretty carefully, weaving ream after ream of paper into a growing form. It stabilizes for a moment, then suddenly shoots up in size, until a dragon about thirty feet long is formed, its wings stretching out over its creator. On its paws are claws as large as swords. "Neat, huh? I bet the grandkids would get a kick out of it. Just like that video game they play. I'm curious, though… cause I bet these young men can do things even more amazing than this." And from his tone, it's clear he believes it.

Colin jumps back and looks up. "I…" He pauses for a second, "Well, I would like to think so, but I'm not sure I have anythign quite as… visually impressive to demonstrate…" He mutters, mostly to himself, "Yet."

"I figure we should have callsigns that make sense for what we do," says Marcus. He draws the dragon down to a more reasonable size of fiften feet. "Paper Dragon sounds rather dumb, though, don't you think?"

Floyd takes in the display, in utter shock, but stands his ground. His lips form words in Latin: "Ave Maria, gratia plena…"

Colin says, "Anyway, isn't it usually paper tiger?"

Colin says, "Besides, I don't see why just plain 'Dragon' can't fit, anyway."

Tove laughs. "You know what you do. the goal here is to obscure, not to inform. But, I'm not in charge of this."

Colin says, "It seems to describe you and your…" Colin stumbles at a loss for words, "… pet."

Jason looks impressed. "Now that's a pretty cool dragon. But it doesn't breathe fire." He concentrates, closing his eyes, and the air begins to ripple in front of the dragon's mouth like a heat haze. Then — there is an explosion. Well, more of a firecracker, really — but a small fireball erupts in front of the dragon's mouth, and the sheets of paper that form the dragon's nostrils catch fire. "There, now it breathes fire." He frowns. "…But where's the kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom."

Colin raises an eyebrow as Jason demonstrates.

Jason chuckles. "Heh. Y'know, with all three of us going at once, and Marcus feeding sheets through the flame, we could get a fire-breathing dragon. I start the fire, Marcus supplies more fuel, and Colin feeds it."

Toby rubs his hands together. "Well, Jason, you will now be my welder! We must begin construction as soon as possible on the ship."

"Well, you do much more with fire and there'll be a pile of ash," says Marcus, laughing. "This thing is rather flammable. Hm. Dragon? I guess that's better than Old Guy, which is really what I am in this group."

Jason shakes his head. "That's not a very efficient way of making fire," he says to Toby. "I have to react the nitrogen with a half dozen things in the air. Takes a lot of concentration, and you don't get much of a bang — as you saw. You'd be better off with a plain old acetylene torch."

Colin laughs, "Jason's found himself a job…" He looks over at Marcus, "Well, older, but also wiser, slow to action, thoughtful. You know, in contrast to the rest of us."

The junkman shrugs. "Fine. I will teach you to weld, if you don't do a good job I fire you."

Marcus grins at Toby. "He's a fair manager." The words from Colin make him look a little more serious. "Well, I will try to be the level head. That means it falls to you and Jason to follow impulses and take chances. You have to believe in what you are doing, even if it might not always be the wisest thing. My prudence isn't enough to guide us through every challenge, but with the Captain's help it should give us time to gain experience. Once we have that down, your courage and willpower will be the real force our opposition has to deal with."

The group's attention is drawn by the wavering of something nearby — the link compass. They look over. The device is orienting itself unsteadily, but after a few seconds it has managed to point itself firmly in a single direction: southeast, toward New York City.

"Right," says Jason. "Let's get to it. Who's driving?" He doesn't wait for an answer — he's already headed for his own car.

Gold Bug

The link compass is pointing at New York City. Scrapper's got his truck, but Floyd has slightly better transportation: an anonymous van, scrubbed of Federal identification, whose intended purpose was transportation of material and personnel.

With Floyd in the driver's seat, the others help Aura into the back, and she smiles in gratitude. Everyone buckles up, and the van lurches out of the junkyard and off toward the city.

Driving is bearable. Floyd is hearing police chatter over his radio, concerning something going down in Washington Heights — just over the George Washington bridge. While nobody's calling for an evacuation just yet, police units in the vicinity are being asked to keep a lookout for "something", and Floyd hears hints of a robbery that was committed.

Floyd works the radio with one hand and the steering wheel with the other. New York City has an 'alphabet soup' of agencies almost as complex as the federal government — but unlike the feds, they all share a common radio system. Some more chatter may prove enlightening. He weaves in and out of traffic, towards the Deegan Expressway.

"I saw it! I saw it! It's all gold! Went down the drains!" comes an excited voice over the radio. "Say again?" calls out Dispatch. "21 Charlie, 21 Charlie, reporting a sighting of suspect fleeing Villanueva Jewelry, 1265 Saint Nick," comes another voice.

"Gold," muses Marcus. "That should be an interesting start for us."

"Suspect is wearing gold outfit, moving incredibly fast. Got some legs on that guy. We lost visual," call the police.

Colin says, "It plugs straight into a basic human vice…"

"He's using the Link to boost his speed. Pretty clever," comments Jason. "Still, he can only think as fast as anyone else."

Floyd says, "'A committee has six or more legs and no brain,'" Floyd quips. "My brother is always saying that. Anyone got any ideas?"

Jason says, "I do. Floyd, is there a phonebook in here? City map? Let's see if we can find the nearest jewelry store and stake him out."

More traffic comes over the radio — it sounds like the dispatcher. "Silent alarm triggered, 1284 Saint Nicholas. 21 Charlie, 23 Charlie, please investigate. Amoros Jewelry."

"Son of a bitch is working his way uptown on Saint Nick." Floyd slews the van onto an off ramp. "Map is in the glove box. We'll head south until we run into him."

Floyd slows reluctantly as they near the bottom of the ramp and turns right. "West 155th. I hope that was right? Where do we go from here?"

"Follow Broadway north, around 10 blocks," says Marcus. He is curious about what is going on, but not nervous. "Where it turns into Saint Nicholas Avenue," he adds, almost as an after thought.

Jason turns to Aura. "I don't know much about how you relate to the Links. Can you sense anything when we're close? Or do you have to touch them, or what?"

"Distance doesn't matter," answers Aura with a sad smile. "Once you find this poor soul, I can help him."

As Floyd drives north and signals for his lane changes, Jason thumbs through a dirty, oil-stained copy of the Yellow Pages as quickly as possible. He finds about half a dozen jewelry stores and pawn shops up and down this stretch of the street.

"Okay, let's keep our eyes peeled," says Jason. "Saint Nick might as well be the Jewelry District, so he could turn up anywhere." He pauses. "What're we gonna do when we find him? Just tell him to stop in the name of the Link?"

Colin glances up. "Maybe ask him to stop?"

The van pulls up at the original store they recall hearing; already they can hear police sirens. It's been quiet, but now one unit calls in. "21 Charlie to Dispatch. Suspect is… covered in some sort of gold outfit. Very strange looking. Subject is armed with knives or swords of some kind. The last place he hit, the proprietor said it was like an insect came in and… ate his stuff. Dispatch, requesting 5 King lift off, he's too fast for us on foot."

"I have a strong suspicion that this one isn't going to just fold for us," says Marcus. "These actions aren't consistent with a cooperative attitude. We may be able to do this without a fight, but we need to prepare for the worst."

Jason hands Marcus the phone book. "Agreed," he says, winking at the older man.

"The NYPD just called in their air circus," Floyd mutters. He stomps the accelerator and withdraws his own phone. "That won't do at all."

A golden blur streaks past the van. The police sirens start up again, blaringly loud now that they're so close. The group can see a pair of black-and-whites driving up the street in their direction as well.

Marcus accepts the book and lets out an almost relaxed sigh. "Floyd, are we okay to go airbourne, or are we aiming for some manner of secrecy?" The blur makes him raise his eyebrows, "This one is not going to be easy…"

It's the measure of Floyd's experience that he doesn't startle easy, even when a giant golden insect passes him at highway speeds… but there's worry in his eyes. "Do it," he barks. "Whatever it is."

"Hell with secrecy!" shouts Jason. He hurls open the van's door and jumps out, heading in the direction of the golden blur. Inspired by the felon's insight, he summons a tailwind for himself.

The golden shape disappears into another building, and the police cars converge on it with squealing brakes. Three cops pile out of the cruisers, while one stays behind to radio in the situation; Floyd can hear him starting to make his report.

Floyd dials. "I'm going to get the FAA to  re-route all air traffic, including the NYPD's. Marcus, if you want to invite your friend out to play…" The van screeches to a stop by a recycling dumpster, overflowing with paper and cardboard. "Let 'er rip!"

"Alrighty, let's start, then," says Marcus. He turns his attention to the reams of paper that were brought along and dives right in. Seeing Jason rush off makes him grin, but he doesn't pursue just yet. Instead, he works carefully at weaving all that paper into a quickly enlarging dragon.

Colin steps out of the van, and pulls his peace knot off of his sword. He looks at the police rushing by, the secret agent in the van, and the team of heros. "Right out of Cutey Honey." He looks down, "With more clothes…"

Colin runs after Jason. But at his normal speed.

For the moment, Floyd is running the switchboard. While his phone is ringing, he broadcasts back to the NYPD, asserting his name, rank, and don' t-screw- with-me number over New Yawk's Finest. He sees the uniforms on the sidewalk, barely a hundred feet away, stop and start griping, not yet noticing the team of unlikely heros converging on their position.

As Jason comes round the edge of the door to the latest jewelry shop being hit, he has time to hear the cops yelling at him. And inside, he catches sight of a human-sized… bug. It looks like a scarab beetle made out of solid gold, with six limbs, and it's literally ingesting jewelry from the shop's broken racks.

"Hold it, gold bug!" yells Jason, raising his hands. He concentrates — and the nitrogen around the beetle mimics his movements, turning into an invisible but quite tangible pair of hands that attempts to grab onto the shell.

Marcus isn't sure how Jason fares inside the store, but he's not going to sluff off and waste time getting in there to back him up. He reaches up with boths hands, plucked easily off the ground and carried towards the jewelry store by the massive paper dragon.

All around the street the usually unflappable people of New York either run in panic or stare slack-jawed at the spectacle. Still, there are some who don't even notice. A rather bored woman walks down the street with a newspaper in one hand and a little boy holding the other. The child exclaims in delight, "Mommy, dragon! Dragon mommy!" The woman just nods and mutters, "That's wonderful, dear," paying not the least mind.

The extraordinary strength of the gold bug is evident. It smashes out of its aerial imprisonment, and scuttles toward Jason.

Colin jogs along side with Floyd as the unlikely duo make their way to the jewelry shop.

The police officers are unholstering their weapons, too surprised to do much else except stare at the creature inside.

Marcus finally catches sight of exactly what he's up against and goes into defensive thinking right away. "Glad you're still barking, friend! The cavalry has arrived!" he says to Jason.

"Shit!" cries Jason, and backpedals. The low ceiling makes it hard for him to get too far out of reach, but nevertheless, as Jason retreats, he steps on the air which becomes solid for him. As does a shell of air surrounding him — those solid gold arms look like they'd hurt if they slashed at him.

Marcus first move is to protect himself and Jason. The papers he bears spring into action, racing out to form a protective wall. "I take it our diplomacy has failed," he calls out.

Jason is relieved as the paper wall forms itself, but he's still careful enough to duck under a gold dart that whistles from the creature's mouth at him.

Floyd pulls out his badge and holds it high. "FBI!" he shouts. "Federal investigation! Fall back and take cover!"

Colin jogs the rest of the way too the scene, kind of late to the party. He looks at what they've gotten into. "This seems to be fun." He smirks.

The cops back off, nodding obligingly. "5 King's in the air!" one shouts at Floyd.

"That's the end of the line, mister!" He points at the gleaming monstrosity again. If there is indeed a person under all that, he needs to breathe — and he may find that hard with nitrogen pressing around his head and crowding out his air. "Hey you!" he calls, as Colin rushes up. "Give me a hand!"

The gold bug spits out a hail of golden darts, showering its assailants — but fortunately for them, paper and air are enough to fully brunt the attacks.

Floyd gets a glimpse of the brawl going on inside the jewelry store… a giant bug, spitting spikes. "Call a riot unit," he barks. "What's King 5?"

With the enemy in range, the paper dragon is able to attack, and it makes the most of it. The tail of the great dragon whips forward with a scream through the air, tearing into the golden insect.

"Just an observer!" calls back one of the cops. The officer in the car is coming forward, toting a shotgun.

Colin rushes up infront of the others under attack… Drawing his weapon, he closes to striking range of the… bug.

Jason focuses on the creature, intent on forcing as much of the oxygen away as he can — grimacing as the creature manages to move fast enough to get out of the anoxic bubble. "Damn you…" he mutters under his breath, beginning to sweat.

Marcus knows his business well enough. He's not equipped to take down the enemy with a direct attack. He will stay focused on keeping his allies up and kicking to bring this target down.

Golden scales flutter and flap from the creature's body, and for the first time Jason hears a gasping noise — but not from its mouth. It breathes, but not in the way a man would. What happened here? It concentrates all of its energy on attacking the two sources of annoyance: Jason, and the dragon.

A dozen more golden spears are spit out, but the paper barrier turns everything aside.

The paper dragon lashes out once more with its tail, but this time the enemy is simply too fast, avoiding the attack entirely.

The crash of the golden spears against the paper barrier is unbelievably loud. Floyd winces. "Hey, is that a Benelli?" Before the officer can react, Floyd's swapped his Beretta for the police shotgun. Remington. Oh well. He cycles a round into the chamber and runs towards the fight.

Colin swings at the bug, his sword dancing around the many arms, but ultimately it bounces off the golden frame of the bug.

"Patience," is Marcus' only advice. "Can we get some fire laid down?" he asks calmly. The shield is his focus, and he will continue to shield his allies.

The bug has had enough. Retreating from the aerial assault, Colin's sword, and the dragon's tail, the creature darts for a back door.

Jason struggles to keep the pocket of nitrogen around the bug, but it's too fast. "Come back here you…" he growls. "What the hell's up with your breathing? Colin!" he yells. "Where's his oxygen?"

Floyd, with little knowledge of insects or metallurgy, falls back on the modern man's cheapest superpower: twenty years of training with shotguns. He draws a bead on whatever part of the metal bug looks vulnerable.

Colin runs after the bug, his Katana dropped to one hand, as he beats feet in pursuit.

As the bug scuttles away, Jason jogs across the air in pursuit. "Come back here!" he yells, concentrating again. This time, he knows he kept the bubble on him… he's sure of it…

The gold bug rears back, intent on sending fatal spikes through Colin and Jason. But as Jason's focus takes hold again, it makes a raspy noise that sounds like untuned violins and collapses to the floor of the shop.

Jason's feet rattle on the floor as he lets himself drop out of the air. "Marcus! Wrap him up good! But try to leave him some air holes… wherever he left them. I dunno how long he'll be out."

As soon as the bug hits the dirt Marcus rushes up, his paper spinning out and engulfing the bug like a spider's web. "Fitting way to capture an insect." He does his best to not kill the target, but he's just guessing. "We'll have to drag him out of here, too."

Scrapper isn't far behind. He's wheeling Aura forward in her wheelchair, wrapped under a heavy comforter.

Floyd slings the shotgun. "Good timing. He's in there." He motions to the paper cocoon, and goes outside to keep the police clear of the Unexplained Phenomena.

As the metal angel is wheeled inside, she lets out a soft sigh. She guides Scrapper to push her forward next to the bug, as it heaves and rattles within its confines. She leans forward and reaches out a hand. And as she does, wings of light sprout from her back, engulfing the entire jewelry shop in a blinding radiance.

"Come back to us, friend," she whispers to the bug, and strokes what passes for its head. The gold of its skin slides from its body onto her flesh, slowly transmuting Aura from a burnished metallic hue to that of a golden statue. What's left of the creature begins to shift.

It isn't shrinking so much as sliding somehow. There's a distinct sensation of movement as the others watch, although it isn't changing position on the floor. What's left is a naked man, with sweaty hair. He's short, scrawny, and pale.

Colin kneels down, and checks the man, to see if he's still alive, breathing, or what have you. "Is there anything we can cover him with?"

Jason glances at Marcus. "I think we can come up with something."

"Wow," breathes Marcus. "Aura, that was… what was that?" He turns his attention to the man on the floor. "I suppose he's under arrest, right?" He reaches out to set a hand on Jason's shoulder, "Fine work there, young man. That was some excellent use of your gifts."

The wings collapse into nothingness, and Aura sits back in her chair. "It is done," she says with a smile.

Jason grins at Marcus. "You did pretty good yourself. Those darts of his were hitting pretty hard."

Floyd saunters back inside. His apparently gave the shotgun back to the police, and has his handgun out. "I don't think they believed me when I told them that this was all routine, but nobody saw anything conclusive, so I asked them — ok, ordered — to go check out the other robbery sites. The FBI is on the way to help us sweep this under the rug." He kneels next to the naked, unconscious man. "Victim of his own greed, right? I bet he worked at one of these jewelry stores. Probably the first one." He stands up and holsters his weapon. "Sounds like he was kidnapped by a monster from his own id. You don't arrest kidnap victims."

Marcus nods, "I'm going to have to practice. I need to be strong enough to leave you and Colin free to attack. Colin, how is he?" Marcus will look around for a scrap of clothing, then stops and rolls his eyes at himself. "Duh." With a simple exercise power he's working the paper about the man.

"Can you give him some extra air?" Jason asks Colin. "I don't envy him the headache he's gonna have."

Jason looks at the man and adds under his breath, "But until then, sleep well and dream of gold women."

Colin nods to Jason, and uses his gift to make sure that he is actually getting some oxygen. He pulls one of the skirts off the table in teh jewelry store, and at least covers the poor man.

Floyd walks back to the entrance, smiles, and waves to confused passerby. "He was eating gold. He got a lot bigger. Where did all the extra weight go?"

"We'll have to debrief later and talk about what we've learned from this episode," decides Marcus. "I know I need to work on indoor effectiveness at some point." He grins suddenly, "And Colin, I gotta say… charging the thing? That took some serious brass."

A few agents from the FBI field office arrive and help Floyd co-ordinate the information coming in from the NYPD. The linked man is Joseph Goldberg, who earned the unflattering nickname Goldbug. The name turned out to be providential; Goldberg remembers little of what happened after he got his link. Floyd officially writes Goldberg up as someone kidnapped by unidentified thieves, and makes a plausible but bogus link to other unsolved gold thefts. Unofficially, Aura explains the truth. "He was compelled to consume his element at any cost," she says. "It came to him, and he was not ready."

By the end of the day, it's a case for insurance adjusters. New York has had strings of robberies before. Thanks to Scrapper and his allies, it didn't have to be any worse than that.

Aftermath

Aura informs the group that the jewelry shop where the Gold Bug met its end has enough Link filaments still present that another compass could be built. The significance of this is that Link activity can now be triangulated.

The filaments can't be moved from their location without disrupting their usefulness, however. If the government wishes to make use of them, Aura explains patiently, they will need to work with the store owner. Captain Tove suggests rather more pragmatically that the Fed should simply buy the property.

Floyd takes a long pull on a cup of coffee before answering. "We're the government. We're not generally in the jewelry business." He nudges debris with his toe. "But it is a disaster area. I don't know, maybe we can put it under Nuclear Regulatory Commission seal. Not exactly subtle."

"We're gonna need an explanation for what happened here, anyway," Jason points out. "Too many people saw the Gold Bug, never mind a huge paper dragon flying down the street."

Floyd shrugs. "If it was the Macy's Parade nobody would think twice about it."

"Sounds good," cracks Jason. "We'll wait till Thanksgiving to stop the next one."

The FBI quickly discovers that an unfortunate side-affect of the Gold Bug incident is that a lot of pure gold has suddenly disappeared, and the insurance agencies backing the jewelry stores become relunctant to pay out. At Floyd's suggestion, the FBI provides appropriate paperwork for all of the establishments, save the final one. On the one hand, without the federal affadavits, the jewler cannot obtain an insurance settlement. On the other, the government itself steps in to buy them out. It's a dirty trick, but everyone gets what they deserve, and with the area sealed as a crime scene, the second Link Compass is safe for now.


Toby has formally proposed his plan to Floyd: start construction of a flying craft under the junk-yard, incorporating alien technology into it, and using it as a base of operations. All he wants is to be left alone while doing it; he'll do the work himself.

"I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea," Floyd hazards, "but are you sure that you want to do it all yourself? We've got dozens of top scientists who would give their right arm to see this thing. They can help you."

"I've worked on cars before," replies Toby calmly. "This is just a very large, roundish car. I will be fine, but your lab-coated boys may visit me at any time and admire the progress."

Floyd looks to Aura for confirmation, and the alien woman simply smiles in reply. "Alright, suit yourself. It will take a while to find some eggheads who won't lost their minds over it anyway."

Colin turns to Jason, musing on Floyd's report of the latest findings. "Jason. Usually 'stuff' doesn't just up and dissapear, right? Or did the gold 'dissapear' in that special way which means we'd be opening crates for a while to find it?"

"Good question. Aura, what happened to all the gold?" asks Jason, redirecting the question to the local expert.

The golden-hued woman smiles. "Right now I'm disentangling the filaments from the gold," she explains. "After that is done, I can lock the Link away in its container, and I'll be done with the gold. But, hmm, am I to understand that it was already shaped into things?"

Floyd chuckles. "You could say that. As near as we can tell, he shaped it into a new body."

Aura bobs her head. Despite being metallic, her hair waves gracefully with the motion. "So then… I don't think we'll be able to give it back to them the way we found it."

Colin blinks, "Er… yeah? But yes, it was made into ornament. But I'm sure someone somewhere owuld like to have the material itself back."

"Apparently he shaped it right out of our normal understanding of existance while he was at it," comments Marcus. "Is that what we are to accept as the explanation?"

Aura nods agreeably. "Well… sort of. I think the Link was too strong for him, honestly. It gave him… something, well, something that a part of him wanted. His dark side?"

"Yeah," Floyd says. "That part bothers me. Why would it drive him crazy, but not our fine friends here?"

Aura looks from face to face. "Do you have dark sides?"

Jason scratches his head. "I'm not sure. Apart from spending a bit too much time working on Silver… I figure I'm just an ordinary guy."

"We all have flaws," says Marcus. "We just have the will and moral fortitude to keep the more unpleasant aspects of ourselves in check."

Colin stamemrs a bit. "I don't have a dark side like a villian in a Batman comic… BUt there are parts of my life of which I'm not proud."

"Where does will come from?" asks Aura.

"Depends who you ask," replies Marcus. "Being a Christian, I would say it's a gift from God."

Aura thinks a moment, tapping her bottom lip with a finger. "So, then… The Link spreads through your brain, waiting to connect to something. It waits for something to attach to. I think, because you made your choice to Link, that it connected to your willingness. I think, because that man's dark side grasped for it, that that's what guided his actions. Does that sound sensible?"

"It's reasonable enough for us to work with," says Marcus. "Finding more of these rogue links may give us the answers we seek. I'm kinda curious about a few things myself, at this point."

Colin hrms. "I'm sure some people find this sort of pondering interesting… But I'm more worried about Aura's kinsmen or those that know she's here."

Floyd says, "Hey, isn't this getting a little philosophical? Scrapper is building flying saucers in his backyard, and we've got two Link detectors. Maybe we should be looking for the next one of… whatever they are." He looks at his watch. "And I'm going to have to brief the Director, and not to put too fine a point on it, explain how we avoided a remake of 'War of the Worlds'. Either the Orson Wells or the George Pal versions."

Colin looks at Floyd. "Have we avoided it?"

Marcus dodges the philosophy by directing his own pointed question to Aura, "It occurs to me, in this admittedly small sample, I'm the odd man out. Everyone else seems to link to elements, yet I link to paper."

"I'm guessing that 'element' doesn't mean earth, air, fire, and water here," Floyd adds. "What's the difference?"

Aura blinks owlishly. "Don't you like paper?" she asks after a moment.

"I'm in the business," replies Marcus. "Of course I have a soft spot for it. Some of the best ideas ever recorded make their home on paper." He looks to Floyd and says, "I think we'll save the chemistry lesson until a bit later."

"Along the same lines, why is the link just one element and not, say, two or three?" asks Marcus.

It's as though a candle flickered to life above Aura's head. "Ah!" she says. "Your Link might be bent."

"Is that like getting your Schwartz twisted?" jokes Marcus.

Though not a word passes between them, Toby retrieves a pair of C batteries from his tools, along with a wire coat hangar. He sets the batteries side by side, and untwists the hangar, then presents it to Aura with a proud smile. She rewards him with a smile and nod, then returns her attention to Marcus.

"So, you see…" She pushes forward, using the coat hangar as a primitive instrument, and nudges one of the batteries away from its spot to rest a half-inch away. "This is Colin and Jason. And Mr. Goldberg. So…" With Toby's help, she bends the end of the hangar into an  L-shape. Now, when she pushes again, both batteries move together. "You see?"

Jason studies the demonstration. "So… because Marcus has a bent Link, he can push more than one battery at once? Atom, I mean."

Aura nods. "Ones close together."

"And here I thought we were going to get alien technology powered by Duracell," remarks Jason.

Floyd nods. "I guess that makes sense. I won't feel like a fool trying to explain it to my boss, anyway."

"Works for me," says Marcus. "It's like having white light scattered by a prism, in a way."

Floyd frowns. "For the record, my degrees are in history and law."

"I wonder if I can bend it more," muses Marcus quietly.

Captain Tove speaks up at this point. "Legal enforcement powers work within the confines of the United States, Floyd. Now that we have the possibility to track these things, we may find them world-wide. I think it's pretty clear now that our guys here can get the job done quicker and quieter than a task force. But have we considered how to deploy them rapidly enough to save lives?"

Colin looks at Toby. "That's being worked on, yes?"

"I guess that depends," Floyd says to Tove. "What are you qualified to fly?"

Tove's lopsided grin shows an appreciation for the question. "Pave Hawk's the last bird where I had the stick, if we're talking about something without obvious guns."

Floyd nods. "I've been in those. Or the ground-pounders' variant, anyway. We might be able to get one, and that will help if we run into something within, say, three hundred miles. Ai yi yi," he suddenly grumbles. "Black helicopters, the FBI, flying saucers… we're making every one of Lear's paranoid fantasies come true and it's only Thursday."

"The UFO won't be done for a few days," Toby grumbles.

Floyd gapes. "I thought it would take months," he blurts.

In response, Toby scoops a handful of rivets out of his pocket, shaping them into a fist with an upraised middle finger. "To that with your months," he grins ferally.

Colin says, "What about the compasses?"

"What about em?" Toby asks. "The last one was simple enough to build. So will this one be. I think…"

Tove smiles. "Well then. Let's see about getting a helicopter now, and save the UFO for when we need it. This way, Darth Vader and St. George here can do their jobs."

"We'd probably better learn how to use a parachute," adds Jason. "Unless Aura can guarantee that our Links can't be disrupted? I mean, I'd hate to lose my hold on nitrogen five thousand feet up."

Aura shakes her head sadly. "It's possible to Unlink you. But… I think it would be very difficult for humans to do."

Jason nods. "So we'll save that worry for when the next invasion craft shows up."

Floyd goes through the now-familiar routine of unstowing his phone and tapping through dialing codes. "They keep Blackhawks at Quantico, along with all the parachutes and cop stuff you could ever want. I'll ask for some flak vests while we're at it, there are plenty in stock since we took away the ATF's toys." Floyd steps outside the door for a long convesation in Fed-speak.

When Floyd returns, he looks puzzled. "Some guy from ARPA, named Maurer, said he has a delivery for me. He's a plasma specialist, whatever that means. I've never heard of him before."

"Sounds like a lot of fun," says Marcus. "Plasma!" He isn't really sure what it is, either. "You know, at some point, we're gonna have to tell something more close to the truth to the public." He asides to Floyd, "You know, if we have someone control the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument and take them for a walk…"

"After the UFO, Mr. Marcus," says Toby firmly.

Floyd feigns heat palpitations. "Please, not in an election year!"

Martinez

Floyd goes to meet Doctor Maurer at the edge of Scrapper's property, out of respect for the junk man's hostility towards uninvited, armed guests. The Fed-approved rental Taurus pulls into the driveway and discharges its passengers. Floyd doesn't know the driver, but stops dead in his tracks when he sees who was in the passenger seat. "Martinez?!"

Despite the silver-headed cane, Martinez is fit for his sixty years. The former fed has traded his suit and tie for a Hawaiian shirt and grey cotton slacks. He's kept his trademark opaque sunglasses, though; once a MiB, always a MiB. "Hiya, Floyd," he says mildly, with a hint of a Brooklyn accent. "This here is Doctor Johann Maurer. You're probably wondering what we're doing here."

Maurer holds out a hand. "Call me Johnny," he says in a mild germanic accent; Floyd is fairly sure that 'Call me Johnny' really means 'Call me Doctor Maurer.' Still, the man has a firm handshake; indicating that he's been around Americans for a while.

"Agent O'Shea. Call me Floyd," he replies. "Martinez. You were retired." It might be an accusation.

Martinez waves a hand at Floyd. "I AM retired. Relax, kid. I'm not here to steal your thunder. The Attorney General asked me very politely if I would act as a consultant for your operation. You wanna tell her 'no'?" He shifts his weight on the cane, a kind of shrug. "Anyway. The important thing is that Johnny here has something he wants to show you."

Maurer is already at the trunk of the car, and unloads a gleaming silver apparatus. The scientist attaches a sling and maneuvers it into an approximation of 'port arms'. "That thing looks like the bastard offspring of a vaccum cleaner and the Starship Enterprise," Floyd quips. "Where did this come from, Martinez? Not from here. Scrapper would have known." He frowns at the older agent. "You told me that all that Roswell stuff was bullshit. So where did this come from?"

Martinez chuckles; even Maurer cracks a nervous grin. "Roswell was bullshit, Floyd. I never lied to you. To the best of my knowledge, 'they' have never been here before. This thing — " he motions with the cane — "was a piece of gear that Maurer built to analyze the… stuff… left at the jewelry shop you just made Uncle Sam impound."

"I didn't really build it," Maurer adds. "It used to be a real-time magnetic resonance spectromater. It was on loan from the Princton Plasma Laboratory. Very expensive."

Floyd looks suspicious. "Why are you both speaking in the past tense?"

Maurer opens a panel on the side of the device; the circuits within are suffused by an ethereal blue radiance. "It's okay to have a look," the scientist says. "We think it's safe."

"You think?" Floyd mutters, but he's not really listening. He knows a little bit about electronics, and recognizes something familiar in the traces and wiring. "Those are Link shards!"

Martinez smiles. "When Johnny put this thing down on the floor to do his readings, the little buggers crawled inside and made themselves at home. It… uh… built itself."

Floyd straightens, and Maurer closes the access panel. "OK, fascinating. Does it do something?"

Maurer nods. "To demonstrate, we need a suitable object. Something between five and seven hundred kilograms, non-living, no more than six meters in length." He points to the rusting carcass of a Ford Pinto. "That will do nicely."

"Whoa, hey," Floyd blurts. "Scrapper is real touchy about cops and guns -"

He gets no further. Maurer fires from the hip, Rambo-style. The business end of the device releases a pulsating coil of orange and blue energy that shines like fire and flows like water. It engulfs the wreck in a blue haze, but Floyd sees no obvious damage.

Maurer shifts his grip on the device, and the car's remains lift into the air. Though it must weigh five hundred pounds, it rises and moves as if Maurer had it on a leash. The scientist grins. "Pretty good, yes?"

Maurer twists a knob, and the energy flows away from the car, and disappears back into the device. The wreck falls back to earth, but far more slowly than Floyd would have expected. It lands with a dull 'thud'.

Floyd has learned to control his astonishment lately, but he still spends a few long seconds gawking. "And it's safe?" he finally asks.

"Well, we tried it on a few lab animals, and they were no worse for the wear," Martinez reports. "It has one side-affect on humans."

Floyd stares at Martinez, but the old man doesn't elaborate. "The field has an unexplained effect on the verbal mannerisms of those caught within," Maurer says quietly. "Put simply… they temporarily accquire an English accent. A perfect, BBC accent," he adds.

Floyd snorts. "Oh, come on. Is that a joke? You must be joking."

Maurer fixes Floyd with a look of mild annoyance. "I never joke about my work, Agent Floyd." He removes the device and starts packing it into a padded metal carrying case. "Anyway. It was only that one poor fellow. Just don't be cavalier with it, and your victims will be no worse for the wear."

Floyd leaves Maurer to his work. "So what about you, then?" he asks Martinez. "'Consulting?' Come on. You said you wanted out."

Martinez fiddles with his cane, drumming his fingers on the silver grip at the top. He starts to walk; Floyd follows him. "The Legacy Office goes back to World War One, Floyd. I was the fifth guy they put in charge. That's five guys who spent nearly eighty years chasing after everything from Little Green Men to Hoover's missing panties." He sighs. "That's a lot of dirty laundry, and a lot of boring crap. Who wouldn't want to spend the rest of their life playing golf after that?"

Martinez stops. "But this… this new thing you're doing, this is the real shit." He motions around the junkyard with the tip of his cane. "The United States Government hired a bunch of guys in a junkyard to save the world. Floyd." His tone becomes ever so slightly reproachful. "You think I'd miss this?"

Floyd nods slowly. "Yeah. I get it." Maurer trots up and hands Floyd a key, presumably to the gun case. "Alright, then. If you two are here for the duration, let's go meet the rest of the team."

Triangulation

After the last mission Marcus has decided it a wise time to ask an important question. With the team gathered up in there new-but-not-fully-operational battle station, he starts the conversation with his usual flair for the direct, "I think we need to operate with some general rules of engagement, Floyd. When we can go full-power and when to put on the kid gloves, is in essence what I think we should be clear on."

Colin looks up. "Plus remember, rules of engagement are for those who respecthem…"

Floyd opens a box containing the base's latest acquisition — a new coffee pot. "This could come right out of the MP's operating manual," he replies while unpacking. "First priority is civillians. If it's someone else's life, you don't need to hold back. Second priority is our lives; but since that's something we have control over, don't go boldly where angels fear to tread." He hooks a thumb at Colin. "He's half-right. If the suspect seems to be pulling their punches, then so do we; but for guys like the Gold Bug…"

The fed shrugs. "They don't know what they're doing. We do what it takes to stop them. That, and Aura's treatment, are the only medicine we have."

"Colin is spot-on," says Marcus. "The question also is, what is our readiness and thought process when it comes to using lethal force?"

Colin looks. "Well, I think that more or less goes without saying. I don't think we have any cold blooded kilelrs in our group. BUt what about exposure, and media attention. I'm about the most subtile one here, and I can walk on air…"

"How subtle do we have to be?" asks Jason. "More or less subtle than a man-sized statue made of gold scrambling around downtown and eating all the jewelers?"

"This will go public someday, and when it does, I think we're done," Floyd states flatly. "Even if we're squeaky clean and stay out of jail, there's too many powerful people that will use the whole incident as an excuse to pursue their own grudges." He shrugs again. "If it came to the difference between a congressional subpoena and, say, demolishing the Statue of Liberty, I'd call it a push."

"Anything less than that," he adds, "do what you have to as long as its out of sight of any camera crews."

"Do we have permission to damage cameras in subtle ways?" requests Marcus.

Floyd finishes with the coffee machine, and flips its switch. The machine starts to gurgle and hiss. "Cameras? Absolutely. Newsies? Just don't leave a mark."

"Works for me," says Marcus. "I can always pay to fix them on the backside or subsidize their paper for a while." He looks to Jason and Colin, "You guys okay with this whole super hero business? I'm in for the long haul, but at my age I don't have all that much to worry about. I've been in different levels of the spotlight for a few years now."

"I really hope this doesn't take THAT long," Floyd mutters. "Running coverups is hard work. Take it from me."

Colin shrugs, "I'm ready for it for now. I think that's all I can say at this point."

"Well, I figure… this needs doing, and we're the men on the spot," says Jason. "I'll do what I have to do."

"Your country thanks you," Floyd quips. "And I'm only half-kidding."

"In that case, let's get back to work," suggests Marcus.


The twin link compasses have been assigned a dedicated intern, whose job it is to take readings (piped via high-resolution video) from both compasses and narrow down the position of the next activation of a link. The young man's shaky voice is evident when Floyd listens to the voice mail box that's been set up for this purpose. But if the youth's skills are better than his confidence indicates, a link has become active in Ripley, West Virginia or immediately nearby.

Floyd finds Ripley in a road atlas while waiting for the USGS to fax something better. "This is nowheresville. With the last two sites being around New York, I was beginning to think it was all local." He looks over at Scrapper and Aura; the two are never far from each other. "So there's no coherent 'debris field'?

Aura hangs her head; she looks almost embarrassed. "I'm sorry for the trouble you all have to go through to recover the links, Floyd. But yes, I think that the links will have… umm, wrapped themselves around the planet during the vessel's entry into the atmosphere."

"Actually, Aura, this seems to be to our benefit. It's less likely to draw national media attention," says Marcus. "It has to be easier to  cover-up something there, right?"

Scrapper grins. "You will inspire gossip for a thousand years, probably, if this place is anything like the villages I heard about. But, they are yokels. Who will believe them?"

Colin peers over, "So is there any buzz as to what this might be?"

"Let's not encourage anyone to go looking," Floyd says. "And this isn't trouble, Aura. We're all happier with you as our friend. Anyway. I'm sure Captain Tove will enjoy getting some flight time." He pulls a mobile phone out of his pocket. "I'm going to call for an air taxi. Some days I love my job."

THe Scenery rolls under the VTOL as the unlikely heroes are whisked away to the site of the latest link. Several times one of the crew will check to see if anything has run over the wire, any intercepted 911 calls, but the town is surprisingly silent. At least, until the dual-rotor vehicle touches down in a church parking lot on what could charitably be called the outskirts of town.

The party has been anticipated; the Jackson Country sheriffs have sent two cars, and the men from those cars are casually leaning back against their hoods, holding their hats down with their hands as the chopper lands.

For a full minute before landing, Floyd has been engaged in something that might be called prayer. The prayer is very simple. "Please, God, don't let it be a Buford T. And if it is, give me the serenity to let him live." Floyd alights from the helo and does his best to look like the man in charge.

As Floyd steps out, one of them spits out a mouthful of chewing gum and approaches, mindful of the noisy, gusty rotors still spinning down. "Yew O'Shea?" he calls.

Colin starts to step out of the chopper, but, beign the only one who carries an obvious and large weapon, he decides it might be best if he waited until he wern't shot for it.

Floyd holds up his badge as he approaches. "I'm Floyd O'Shea," he calls. "Sorry for the short notice." In his other hand he has a stack of papers, a briefing for the local offices. It's even true, in part: Floyd and the civvies are retrieving space junk for the government, but since there's a chance it might be the property of a foreign power, the Air Force is along too.

The sheriff nods. "Y'awl look lahk a motley assortment t'me," he drawls. "So have yer fun here, 'n be sure to gimme a yell if y'awl need somethin. Ripley's beautiful this time o' the year, s' enjoy yerselves too."

Floyd nods. "Civvies. Scientists, I mean. They're like that. But we'll do our job and get out of your way. Now, where can we rent some jeeps?"

"Jeeps? Don't think we can accommodate ya there. But I'll see if'n I can get some guys to send around the Bronco we got," the sheriff answers.

Marcus takes a breath and quietly prays for patience. His prayers are like most people's, except they end with 'and may I not use my gigantic dragon to tear any racist punks limb from limb.' He steps off the chopper and looks to Colin, nodding. "We need to keep our tempers in-check," he says abruptly, mainly hoping it will remind him to do so himself.

The sheriff sees Marcus climbing out and gets a wide grin on his face. "Well I declare. Y'awl did come from a ways, didn't ya. Well I'll see about bustin out the Bronc for ya." He turns, waving to his compatriots back at their cars. "Lawrence! Get Ed on the horn! Tell him to head up the road and get the keys to the Bronco! And hurry it up!"

Colin shrugs, and steps our of the copter with Marcus, carrying the  No-Dachi at his side, walking in Floyd's direction.

"That would be great, thanks," Floyd says, genuinely puzzled by the man's enthusiasm. Oh, well. Guess I've got to learn, they're not all that bad.

Floyd intercepts Colin before he gets too far from the helicopter. "Here, that thing is kinda conspicuous," he says, referring to the sword. "Get a plastic map case, or something. "We're in luck. The natives are friendly and oblivious. That means the shit hasn't hit the fan yet. Let's keep it that way for now."

"I guess when you come down to it, folks are just folks," says Jason.

It's a few minutes before the vehicle is delivered. The Bronco is a 1990 Ford vehicle, its red paint job covered with dust but not rust, with a cap on the back. It won't be comfortable for everyone, but it's a start.

Colin turns to start protesting… Then ducks back into the Hawk. There's a decided lack of 5 foot map cases, he finds some canvas tarp to wrap around the sword, as he runs ot catch up with the rest of the crew.

"Alright," Floyd says. "Let's split up. Half the team, with Marcus, takes the bronco and checks the outskirts. The rest with me, we check the town proper. Everyone gets cameras and notepads and is encouraged to use them; any questions on lab procedure go to Jason." Floyd produces a military-green field radio and gives it to Marcus. "Aura and Tove will be listening. They're the cavalry, if it comes to that."

"If we are in need of cavalry you know what I'm busting out," says Marcus. "So, who is going with me and who is going to hit the town?"

"I'm with you." Colin says, from the back of the Bronco.

"So I guess I'll stick with Floyd," says Jason.

Toby thinks it over. "I will go with Mr. Floyd," he announces at last. "Dear Aura will be in the safest of hands, I know. And remember, my friends — call signs!" He seems inordinately pleased about this.

Floyd says, "Sounds good to me. Maybe Jason can explain some of that crazy stuff Maurer was talking about," Floyd says, pointing to the Pelican case containing the exotic weapon.


Marcus and Colin sit in the front of the Bronco. The music on the radio is a mixture of Christian gospel, country music, and some sort of weird repeating pattern that sounds like Morse code but isn't. Every so often the CB in the cab will squawk. It seems that plenty of people in the hills around Mill Creek are talking, and a few are talking about them.

Colin points at the Radio. "You ever heard one of those crazy stations where some guy reads a list of numbers every once in a while?"

"Yeah," says Marcus. "In Vietnam they were used a lot. Numbers stations," he says. It clicks then, "That just can't be a coincidence, can it?"

Colin ponders this for a second, "Well, supposing the transmitter is in this town, maybe we should tip off Jason and Floyd too it? Make it their first stop, as it were?"

"That sounds good to me," says Marcus. He'll send the call out, "Hey Cooper, it's Saint George. I'm with a pretty damn sharp young man here. He found a numbers station and we'd like you to scope it out."

"Vader here," calls Jason over the radio. "What's the frequency?" He pulls out a pad of paper. "Not that I have much of a chance, but who knows. Maybe I'll get lucky."

Floyd pulls a map from his pocket. "When you're done, I have to call Tove. We've got three different locations, we should be able to triangulate with a little work."

Floyd talks the team through a few radio exercises. The truck samples signal strength from a few stops along the backroad; Floyd does the same from several points around a heavy brick building in town. Of course, the radio gear on the FBI helicopter is better than both; all that remains is to do the math.

While Floyd works on the math of trigonometry, Jason immerses himself in number theory and cryptanalysis. It's not quite the same as the math he uses in chemistry class, but a numbers station is, in many ways, as much about pattern recognition as arithmetic. And he's got a decent knack for pattern recognition.

There are two riddles: the position of the apparent numbers station, and the string of digits themselves. While Jason isn't able to penetrate the latter mystery, the former suggests that the transmission is relatively short-ranged and probably somewhere to the southwest.

Floyd crosses his arms, drums his fingers on his bicep. "Okay. First, I call Martinez and see if this numbers station is known to us. Second, we start looking in the southwest. If we can't find it, we can ask the local hams for help, or…" He points down the street to a building with a large antenna on top and an illuminated sign, WCEF. "We ask them."

West of Ripley is I77, leading south past Parchment Valley and past a delicate spiderweb of back roads and tangled trails.

It's dark by the time the Bronco has navigated far enough from Ripley to make another triangulation attempt meaningful. Marcus and Colin are parked at the side of the road, tuning the dial.

Colin feels a tingly sensation, like a limb that fell asleep. There's something happening in his mind — a brief awareness of something. And abruptly a loud BUMP from the roof sends the Bronco rocking. There's a motion off to the right, in the foliage away from the road, as though something had just moved through it.

Colin looks around, to see if there's any locals to spook, and starts his invisible-staircase roubine, climbing up to see if he can get a better look for… it.

"It's time to defend ourselves, I think," says Marcus. He pops open his case and works on bringing out the dragon and a protective shield as well.

"Amen to that," Floyd replies, and pops the latches on Maurer's 'remote manipulator'. The device hums loudly as it powers up.

Numbers

The Bronco is parked at the side of the road just southwest of Ripley, West Virginia. On the trail of a numbers station broadcasting in the area, something bounced off the roof of the vehicle and disappeared into the underbrush by the road.

As soon as the vehicle is brought to a halt Marcus tugs a case of paper outside and immediately works at the best defense he has — a really big work of origami in the form of a dragon. "I have heard of hitting animals in a car, but not having them jump on the vehicle," he says quickly. "You catch sight of what it was?"

"I didn't see anything," says Jason. "But I felt something. Like… a sort of premonition, I guess." He floats a few feet into the air, looking out onto the horizon.

Colin looks over at Marcus. "Well, there wasn't anythign to see, but… I felt." Then he looks over at Jason as he said the same thing, "I wonder what that means. Maybe we should get on the radio and ask Aura."

"Whatever it was, I didn't feel it," says Marcus. He looks up at Jason and then pulls a wall of paper around himself, just in case. "I think this must mean we're onto something, though."

Colin picks up the radio and talks into it. "Umm, is anyone there?" Colin asks, weakly. An generally affirmitive noise is heard from the other side. "Yeah, we made contact with… something just now. Can you put Aura on? We have a question…" Some shuffling later… "Yeah, something just ran past, and both Jason and I felt… a twinge in our links. … DO you know what that might be, Aura?"

"What does that sort of feeling usually mean for you, Colin?" Aura asks, sounding concerned even over the crackly radio.

This question evokes a period of silence from Colin. He closes his eyes, and tries to think. It was more of a poke…

Colin thinks back, remembering a nightmare he had when he was a boy. In the dream, there was a closet in his room and the door was slightly ajar. A light was coming through the crack. When he went over to it, he could feel a presence behind the door — the tenor of the echoes, the movement of air — and he thought he could hear a voice. But he knew there was nobody inside. And when he went back to bed, and turned his face away from the closet door, he could feel a figure creeping toward him, arms outstretched. But when he looked to see it, he saw nothing. This feeling is exactly the same — a human presence without physical evidence.

Colin picks up the radio again, only slightly shaken by the running of his memory, if only a childhood dream. "It felt like someone was there…" He pauses, "I coudl feel somethign or soemone familiar, perhaps of me. Something I didn't see, but that I felt…"

Jason, on the other hand, felt a very definite association with a phenomenon from the real world. Movement in the corners of his eyes, and things that seemed to lurk and impinge on his awareness but which fled when he tried to focus on them. He later learned to associate them with strenuous activity — it was simply a matter of the blood vessels in his eyes becoming strained from heavy circulation in his blood stream. But still, those vague ghosts that vanished upon inspection were an amusing, if inconsequential, memory.

"I felt something similar," said Jason. "As if there was someone, or something nearby, but went away when I tried to look right at it."

Aura listens. "Oh," she says at last, sounding cheerful. "Well then… that's probably what it is. Something which is there but which can't be seen."

For his part, Floyd is inspecting the vegetation at the side of the road. Something did come through here — there are indefinable prints on the ground, and some of the twigs are broken by the passage of a material body.

Colin looks at the Radio, and asks the next question, "So… why would, say, Jason and I feel it, but not Marcus?"

Floyd doesn't understand ghosts. He trusts his cop's instincts. "Someone was here," he says. "We just didn't see it." Then, he mutters, "Maybe they don't show up on infrared at all."

"The link that we're after might be connected to yours somehow. Like a compound element. Do you know anything that contains both nitrogen and oxygen in its composition?" asks Aura.

Colin looks blankly at Jason.

Floyd kneels by the prints. "Explosives are like that, aren't they?" He doesn't sound nervous. Just… wary.

"Yeah, that's how my fireball works," says Jason. "But… living things would have both things as well. As well as minerals made from living things. We're in coal country, aren't we?"

"Yeah," Floyd says. "Loretta Lynn came from around here." He slings the bizzare weapon that was Maurer's gift. "We can try to follow this print. Maybe the best way to figure out what happened is to make it happen again."

"Does the print give us any idea of the general shape or weight of the thing we're going after?" asks Marcus. He'll take a look for himself, just to see.

Floyd shakes his head. "I don't know. We needed answers to that kind of question, we'd send it to the lab." A thought occurs to him, and he fishes a radio out of the truck. "Tove, did you ever do Combat Search and Rescue?"

"Fraid not, Floyd," the Captain responds. "What do you need?"

Floyd starts to speak, then lowers the radio. "This isn't very secure," he says. "And we were detecting the numbers station… oh, man. Funkspiel. What if it can hear us?"

There is a pause from Tove as he waits. "Well, figure out what you need and I'll deliver as best I can."

"Maybe that's how he found us in the first place," comments Jason, quietly enough not to be picked up by the radio. "Or maybe it was just chance. Either way… I can't see any way to follow him through the woods. Anything against trying to keep tracking it?"

Colin looks at the radio. "That's got to be a neat trick if it, er he, can read radio waves out of the air."

"So we're not encrypted?" asks Marcus. He's looking around trying to get an idea of the general direction the 'thing' was heading. "In any case, I think we should head on to the station unless we're up to tracking that thing."

Floyd keys the mike again. "Yeah, I think you have the right idea, Captain. We're just gonna have a moment of silence here."

The numbers station isn't far — it's not actually in any of the settled areas that Floyd can find on his map. After some intensive searching, he thinks he can spot some trails that might lead up into the general area.

"So you want to walk or fly?" asks Marcus casually. The dragon following him suddenly grows to its full height, looming over its controller like a titan.

Colin looks up, "Don't you think that walking might be slightly less conspicuoius?"

Floyd snorts. "Some of the old-timers, when I was in the Army, they told me about things in 'Nam that were like this. You fly until you can walk. But make your pet a little smaller so we don't spook the … whatever we're looking for."

Marcus grins and the dragon shrinks down to a slightly more managable size. "Foot it is. I just hope this one is not hostile."

The Bronco takes the group most of the way. They find a half-hidden trail leading off from the road near their destination. Parking the Bronco, the group get flashlights to light the way.

Floyd takes a last look at his map, and keys the radio again. "Tove." He reads two strings of numbers: a latitude and a longitude. Then, "Squawk every ten mikes. We miss, dust off and reinforce. Confirm?"

"Wilco, Cooper. My bad for earlier," comes the reply.

Floyd makes a brief reply. "Per Aspera Ad Astra." He puts the radio away. "Let's go."

The trail is a narrow hiking trail, well-worn, that leads up a forested hill. At the top they find a ramshackle wooden cabin with a brick chimney, and a tall radio tower about thirty feet away. The tower isn't much different from what amateur hams use for their broadcasts. Light is streaming from the windows of the cabin.

Floyd and Marcus, keyed up as they are and sensitive to the prints from earlier, are the first to spot similar ones in the soil around the door of the house.

Floyd taps Marcus, points to the dragon, and then points up into the sky, swinging his arm around in a broad circle. Then he makes sure everyone else sees his next gesture: finger to lips. Keep it down.

Marcus nods and steps towards the dragon. He offers a quick nod and the dragon pushes itself into the sky, growing to full size while it's airbourne. The papermaster gestures to himself, points up and raises an eyebrow in question.

Jason and Colin, on the other hand, are convinced that there's someone standing just on the other side of the door to the cabin.

Floyd silently grinds his teeth, then nods. And, stepping closer to Marcus, whispers, "No unnecessary risk. One sweep, and back."

Colin circles around to the door, his feet not even touching the ground, as stands next to the door of the cabin, and points at it, trying to let the others know what he feels, silently.

Jason, on the other hand, keeps to ground level, but leans close to Floyd and Marcus. "He's here," he whispers softly, pointing in the direction Colin is headed.

Marcus nods and is drawn up inside the shell of the dragon, leaving just enough of a gap to keep an eye on the ground below as the giant form rushes off on its single sweep.

Half a minute passes. Marcus, from his vantage point, sees nothing but the travelers. The others approach the cabin, each armed with their respective tools of apprehension.

The interior of the cabin, as glimpsed through moments of inspection, reveal a living area in disarray. In one corner, Floyd can make out a fully equipped ham set, still on and transmitting something on its own by the look of it. There's a kitchenette, sleeping area, and closets. The rest of the place is crammed with books and several awards, placards, and newspaper clippings are hung on the wall.

Floyd whispers to Jason. "Where is he?"

"He was just behind the door," Jason replies. "Maybe he's invisible."

Colin walks back over to the duo, "I think he's right by the door. I'm pretty certain, anyway. Our cover might be blown." Colin is still lowering his voice.

"Maybe he can sense us too," notes Jason.

Colin ahs, "This is, indeed, quite likely."

Floyd sees Marcus returning, and shrugs. He waves Colin and Jason to about twenty feet away, then stands to one side of the door and knocks on it. Mentally he adopts his 'Officer Friendly' role. "My name is Floyd. Anybody home?"

Floyd knocks again. "Sir, we have reason to believe that somebody at this property is sick or injured. If you're in there, please open up. Otherwise, we have to come in."

Colin starts to walks up invisible stairs next to the door, so that before someone actually opens it, Colin is above the door, looking down.

Floyd scrubs his forehead with his free hand. No warrant. Shit. Well. He pulls on gloves and tries the doorknob, though he's pretty sure any given piece of this 'radio shack' would give way to a strong breeze, never mind a swift kick.

The door opens as Floyd twists. There's no resistance, no sound of movement, no indication that anyone is behind it. But from Marcus' perspective, things are happening. All around the cabin, the ground is beginning to show signs of burrowing from beneath. Something or other is surfacing.

The pockets are individually small, but Marcus counts about two dozen distinct spots in the vicinity of the cabin where dirt is being pushed up.

"Something's coming," says Jason, taking to the air. "I don't know where, but I feel it!"

Colin looks around from his higher vantage point… He points at the spots on the ground. "Umm… guys…" And then he runs over to where the closest one is coming up.

There's a sudden odor of sulfur in the night air. Spidery, spiny creatures are digging their way up from the ground. They seem to be composed of coal and loosely aggregated stone and dirt, held together by little more than the same uncanny force which the group itself wields.

Floyd takes Jason's warning as a sign that something behind him is more interesting than an uninhabited shack. He looks around and gapes; it looks like gopher holes but his soldier's instincts says minefield. He runs away from the shack, trying to get outside of the area.

The sulfur spiders begin scuttling with obvious menace toward the remaining ground-bound explorers.

Colin lowers himself closer to the ground, and inserts himself between one of the spiders and his other two friends.

A terrible, whistling shriek comes from the great paper dragon as Marcus sends it diving down at the enemies, it's tail and claws ready to test their strength against this new enemy.

Floyd is a bit spooked, but he's also well-armed. He leaves the grappler slung and draws his Beretta.

Colin's sword sings through the air, neatly bisecting one of the spiders. He looks around, and rushes to the next one.

The air gathers itself into a ball and smashes into another spider, which staggers, but keeps coming. Jason curses, and winds up another attack.

The attacks of the dragon are effective, but rather excessive. Two of the spiders are reduced to fine power in moments. The hulking form settles on the battle field, where it will hope to draw attacks from vulnerable allies.

Several of the spiders fall. The rest come. It becomes starkly evident to the defenders on the ground that they had better find a way to control where approximately 20 earthen creatures with sharp spikey legs are going to travel.

Scrapper, who has been quiet and taciturn and frankly rather mopey (with no doubts as to what he's being mopey about), straightens up as the spiders appear. "Comrades, we will be overrun," he announces calmly. Then a strange thing happens. Iron curls around his skin, his arms and legs, his head, and his body, from literally out of nowhere. It seems to slide from intangibility into a suit of knight's plate armor, just as the Gold Bug's body seemed to dissolve away to human form. Thus armored, the junkman takes a solid (and iron-backed) punch at a nearby spider, crushing it into pulverized powder.

The spiders begin combining, flowing over Colin and Floyd, squeezing them and entangling them in coal. Jason is a harder target, and they can make very little purchase on the dragon.

Colin pushes himself a bit higher off of the ground, running across field to dislodge the spider. As the bituminous arachnid looses it's grip on the martial artist, colin swings his sword in an overhand arc, neatly cleaving the spider in two, the two hunks of inert coal now laying on the ground.

"In here!" calls out Marcus, from inside the dragon. Though there's no apparent entrance with his shield extended, the paper master stands ready to lower the gap for just long enough to get his friends inside and get the heck out.

"Come on, Floyd!" Jason says, swooping down and taking the government agent by the hand. Floyd feels thin air grasp his other hand as the two lift off into the air, heading for the safety of Marcus' dragon.

Colin, for his part, maintains his perch on the air, and runs into the saftey of the dragon.

As soon as Floyd is free of the clinging mass of walking fuel, he grabs the radio from his pocket. He can only think of one thing to say: "Tove! Get Aura over here!"

"Wilco, Coop. Side note: that numbers station? Pattern broke about a minute ago. Did you guys find out who was there?" calls Tove.

"Get us to the roof!" Floyd calls to Jason, trying for the moment to ignore that he's airborne without benefit of an aircraft. He replies to Tove, "Yeah, just come and see!"

It takes a few minutes for the helicopter to lift off. Aura's voice comes over the radio, and Marcus must concentrate to hold his paper dragon together against the buffeting of the nearby rotors. "I see things below, but… they are more like Marcus's dragon than a link," she announces. "I don't think our goal is here."

"I can sever their connections to the source," she adds helpfully.

"Then we'er gonna need to find some way to crack the code and find where our target is," Jason says. "If we can fight off the spiders, maybe there'll be some clues inside."

"Like a burglar alarm or guard dogs," suggests Marcus. "While the link is away… Can we track the source, Aura?"

"Not really. Not any better than before," she replies, sounding apologetic.

"Then please shut down his pets and land," Floyd says. "We need to have a look at the radio." He pockets his own transmitter again. "Funkspiel. Dammit. I was right."

Devil

With things more or less under control, Marcus turns his attention to his friends. "So, what kinda range do you think our target gets on that transmission? If he's going through the trouble, and he's not here, it would seems logical that he's listening. Further, he-or she, I suppose-now knows we are here. Ostensibly."

Colin shrugs, "Well, unless he's very sophisticated, he needs to be in the general vicinity to change the broadcast." He hmms, "Maybe if we made a device to block the broadcast, he couldn't control the bugs as easily?"

"That's something I didn't think of," murmurs Marcus. "I wonder if that's possible to remotely do that manner of thing." He nods to Colin, "Hopefully we can experiment with that. For now, knowing the limits of that transmission might just help us find the link we're looking for. And maybe we can track that thing that hit us earlier."

"The transmission changed when we showed up," Floyd mentions. "And a rig like this, in VHF, could have a range of ten to fifty miles. I want to have a look. Aura, can you keep the coal-bugs off our back for a few minutes? Long enough for me to search the shack?"

The golden woman bobs her head — gracefully, despite the peculiar fact of her seeming metallic composition. "Please bring them near to me, and I will do what I can," she promises.

"I will keep you protected," says Marcus. "Be careful in that shack. I'm not sure who we are dealing with, but this time they seem a lot more prepared."

Floyd taps Tove. "Set us down but keep the engine hot. I need, say, fifteen minutes." To the others, he says, "I'm the cop. I need to go. Jason, you seem like you'd be good at forensics. You don't have to come but it would make me feel better."

Tove parks the big helicopter outside the shack. It's a tight fit, but he's good at his job. The rotors slow and the engines get quieter, but do not stop. Floyd wastes no time, covering the short stretch of open ground to the open shack quickly.

The owner of the shack, by the look of it, is an author — a man named Francis or Frank Shelby — and published in Appalachian newspapers and magazines from the clippings. None of the group have heard of him. He has licenses to operate a ham radio set, fly propeller-driven aircraft, and half a dozen other odd occupations.

The most significant discover is what isn't here. There's no remote control rigs, no gimmicks, no sensors, no home automation, no traps. The radio set isn't even tuned to the frequency on which the numbers station is broadcasting, but provably it's still sending out a signal. There's no evidence that the shack was put in order for an extended departure; signs are everywhere that Shelby left in a hurry.

Throughout the examination, Jason can definitely feel a presence lurking nearby.

"He's… his aura is here," says Jason. "I don't know how else to describe it." He peers at the radio set. "If the numbers station changed when we arrive, he must have something he's Linking to here…"

Marcus calls out to his friends inside, "Let's cover the few facts we have so far. This guy can control coal. That's carbon, right? And from what you say, this tower is alive without any indication of why. Sudden departure evident, too. The numbers station changed when we arrived. Is that all we have?"

"This guy is a pro. He had time to tidy up," Floyd says, "but he still left in a hurry. That means that something came up. He went somewhere." He jots down the frequency on the transmitter. "A pilot and a ham. Two vocations that know how to keep a logbook. If he had time to tidy up, he would have written what he was up to."

Colin perks, and yells down at Floyd, "Are there any aircraft registrations down there? Maybe we can look up call numbers, find out is the plane is still there?"

Floyd looks around quickly, seeking a logbook — either of the aviator's or the radioman's type.

"Can carbon somehow generate a signal?" calls out Marcus.

While Floyd looks, Jason uses his affinity to his linked element, sensing out the radio and its component parts. The radio itself feels fine — normal, given the electronic components he expects to find. But there's a  build-up of something he can feel in the connections from the radio to its tower. Physically there's nothing he can see in the cables. But if he were to describe the sensation, it'd be as if someone somehow tapped into the output.

Outside, Aura is sitting comfortably, surrounded by small piles of dirt and coal and rocky lumps, a pitying smile on her face. "I think someone is here," she calls in through the door.

"Damndest thing," Jason says, shaking his head. "I don't know how he does it, but he's got something Linked to the cable outputs. That's probably how he's changing the signal from a distance…" Overhearing Aura's announcement, he ventures outside.

"You think like the last one, he's essentially become the element?" asks Marcus.

"He's here alright," Floyd mutters. "So how do we cure him?" He knows Aura won't hear him; but his cop instincts still tell him, figure out where the guy went, and he'll know why.

Colin looks at Aura, "I think if we're not careful, Aura's going to becomime his element, too…"

Colin looks down at Aura again. "Can you tell where you think the person is? I get the same feeling, but… I can't tell where… except… around…"

Aura sighs quietly. "I still don't have the ability to locate people by direction, Colin," she explains. "I'm sorry I can't be more use to you."

"I don't know if his body's here at all," says Jason. "How far can a Link's influence reach, anyway?" he asks Aura.

The woman hums. "Distance isn't… really relevant," she says at last. "What you want to think of as space and distance and such don't really enter into it. The range could be considerable."

Floyd finds the most recent radio logbook, and unfortunately, there's nothing enlightening. Nothing so direct as 'Going to check out meteorite, back in an hour.' Oh, well. The Gold Bug didn't even have to the leave his house to be affected. He puts the book back and heads outside. "Aura, can you cure him, like you did the Goldberg?"

"So theoretically, he could be anywhere. To within the accuracy of our Link compasses, at least," says Jason. "Just because we can feel his Link doesn't mean he's anywhere close. Just that he's… able to find his Link target out here."

Aura nods. "I should be able to. If we can find him."

Colin calls down to the ground, "Hey Floyd. Do you think we could get some of the local fuzz to track the spider things?"

"So he's 'here'," Floyd says, "but he's not really here. Okay. We know he went somewhere from here. So yeah." Floyd grinds his teeth. The thought of reading in the local cops on the matter upsets him. He exits the shack and shuts the door. "Let's go get help. I need some coffee."

Floyd takes a detour on the way to the helicopter, to have a look at the antenna. "If he's tapped into it, and he's living in the ground…" he says, thinking aloud.

"That's all speculation," Marcus points-out. "Just playing devil's advocate. From the sound of things, he could be a long ways off. Our best bet now is to track the spiders and see what happens, right?"

Floyd straightens and climbs back aboard. "In that case, maybe the transmission we're hearing is the spiders 'phoning home'."

Tove tries the radio a few times, while Toby helps Aura back into the helicopter. After some attempts, the Air Force man shrugs. "I think they're asleep," he reports. "I couldn't raise 24-hour dispatch, they might not even have it out here."

The chopper lifts off, flying a little short of 50 miles south. It touches down at Yeager, near Charleston, WV. There's cots and coffee, and Uncle Sam will pick up the tip.


Morning comes. Tove reports to Floyd after a few more minutes. "I tried the pay phone here and the radio. Nobody's answering the police number in Ripley. I'm frankly a little concerned."

Colin perks up, assuming he's around to hear this. "We should probably go back. After briefly checking to see if this is normal."

"We'll check on the way," Floyd says. "I've got a bad feeling about this."

"Looks like the tracking job isn't our top priority anymore," says Marcus. "Let's get back up there and make sure those people are safe."

The Pave Hawk leaves the familiar and welcome ground of an airport to wander it's way back into what most people would classify as the less civilized. The trip is relatively uneventfun. Colin looks out the window, his fingers stroking along his long scabbard idly as he does, lost in thought. Aura and Scrapper are silent in back. By request, the Police parking lot has been cleared out in order to accomidate the black bird, and one again showing his skill, touches the bird down on the pavement.

"I got somebody on the radio," announces Tove at last. He takes a few moments to hold conversation. "A hunter, about 20 miles north. He's camping out and brought his CB along — nothing from town."

The town is deserted, even at this hour. Streets are empty. Lights are off.

"This looks quite bad," says Marcus. "You picking up anything with that weird feeling you sometimes get, gentlemen?"

Colin looks at Tove. "Is this not talking silent? Are the radio stations coming in at all?"

Cars are parked on the streets. Windows aren't broken. There's no sign of panic or riot; it's simply that people aren't here. Shop signs have power, but nobody's turned on the lights inside.

Floyd approaches the front door of the police station and knocks heavily. "There's a radio station down the street. Is it transmitting?"

Tove listens in. "Nope. Nobody. Except, you know who…"

Colin says, "Tove, can you contact the Tracker and let him know to stay put, and we'll come find him?"

The Captain gets on the radio, relaying the request. "He says he'll stand by," is the word.

Colin points to one of the jeeps in the parking lot, "Surely they leave the keys in these…"

Floyd grins. "Ignition coils… they have a lot of iron in them, don't they?"

After a bit of fiddling, Scrapper's able to hotwire a pickup, and proudly sticks his hand out at the vehicle. "Our new chariot, comrades."

Floyd nods. "Okay. Tove, Aura, and Scrapper in the Pave Hawk, for when it hits the fan. Everyone else, let's go hunting."

Colin gets in the back of the pickup… Taking his large impliment of death with him. Hey, there's no people to spook here anymore, right?

The truck revs its engine and starts out of town. At the road out, however, the brakes squeal and it comes to a stop — to avoid running over the man who suddenly ran out onto the street, having hidden under an SUV.

He looks disheveled and terrified, and is dressed in the garb of a priest. He's panting and wide-eyed.

Colin scoots over in the back of the pickp, and looks the man over. "Get in, Father. Tell us what youve seen…"

The man is trembling. "Drive! DRIVE!" he yells hysterically. "The Devil! It's upon us!"

As Colin helps him in, the stink of brimstone is evident on his clothes. He's also bleeding from one arm, but he's managed to bandage that fairly well.

Colin is caught momentarily speechless as the man exclaims. He turns to Floyd, "Back to the Pave Hawk first?" He turns to the new crew member, "What have you been through, Father?"

"Satan has come to claim us," the man announces matter-of-factly. "He came from the ground. His minions, the army of Beelzebub, came for me! I saw her… Susan… dragged into the ground…" He clasps his hands to his face, and begins weeping.

"So that's where everyone went," mutters Marcus darkly.

"Okay, this is getting serious," Jason says grimly, as he grips the wheel of the Jeep and sends it hurtling back down the road in a shower of gravel. "I think the time for skulking and hunting is done."

Floyd shakes his head. "Keep going. This is getting urgent." Then, to the priest, "Is there anybody else? In the church, maybe?"

Colin closes his eyes and concentrates, this time his concentration is under the ground, he knows what people's respiration looks like, from an oxygen point fo view. He's seeking out signs of this feeling… below them.

"I… I don't think so…" The priest clutches his bandaged arm. "No, no, they're all gone," he says at last.

Colin looks over to the Pastor, and looks at his arm. "THen, I think you should help us go find your lost flock, yes?"

The man looks at Colin as though he were crazy. Where else would he go, after all.

Floyd gets on the radio to Tove. "Captain, this is getting serious. The… uh… suspect… he apparently dragged the locals underground. We can only hope that it's reversible." Then, to the priest, "Reverend, you believe there's a Devil. I don't, not like this anyway. But if it is the Devil, we've got the right Angel with us." He does his best to sound convincing.

Before Jason drives too much farther, Marcus excuses himself from the vehicle. He takes a radio, "I'm going to scout this place out and try to pick up any other survivors, and maybe catch sight of our elusive trouble maker. When you pick up our tracker, let me know. I will keep in touch, every two minutes or less. If you need the thunder, call me."

With the paper master dropped off, Jason drives on into the woods, trying to stick to roads, or at least well packed dirt, as much as possible. "Well, this is the place," he says eventually, bringing the Jeep to a halt.

Colin looks at the Father, "You got a name, Father?" He smiles, waits for the mans answer, then jumps out of the pickup. "Hello?"

"Fa- father Coughlin," the man says.

The hunter, named Bob Salzman, brought an ATV on his trip. Consequently he's at the road when the vehicle pulls up. "Whassamatter?" he calls, then spots the man of the cloth. "Father, y'okay? Guys, what's goin' on here?"

Colin looks at the hunter. "We can fill you in on the way, but it seems that some devilry has hit the town, and we're trying to track it down. I assume you're our man to do that?"

Salzman appraises the group and chuckles slyly. "Y'all don't seem the woodcrafty sort, so I guess I am," he answers.


Salzman knows his business. He finds the tracks left behind on the road outside of Ripley. The group hunt their way through the woods, following the traces. They arrive at a large, odd-looking hole in the ground, sloped steeply down into the bowels of the earth, and the stench of sulfur is heavy.

"Sulfuric acid," comments Jason. "If this guy's Link is coal, he's got really exquisite control over it. I guess the coal around here is high sulfur."

Floyd pokes the dirt with his shoe. "He dug a hole with it. If we get doused in it we're going to be very, very dead."

Colin looks back to floid, "Most carbon rings include oxygen and or nitrogent, right? We should be… fairly safe." He himself sounds unsure.

Floyd looks confused. "I'm a cop, Colin. English, please."

Colin feels ahead of himself, followed by the others. The tunnels are large and odorous, and the group eventually resort to wrapping their faces in parts of their clothes. They emerge into a cavern, and behold a sight out of someone's Hell.

Bodies are here, hundreds of them, all stacked like cordwood. The oxygen here is faint and pitiful; Colin's doing his best to concentrate it around the group. The people of the town are here, and they don't seem to be breathing. But they aren't dead either — rather, they're in a sort of suspended animation. Sulfur spiders are skittering throughout the tunnel, poking at the bodies, spitting out sulfuric acid in an effort to dig new tunnels.

Tove is on the way with Scrapper and Aura, and Marcus is coming as well.

"What the hell does he want with them?" wonders Jason, bewildered. "Hell with it. We need to get these people out of here." He strides straight for the nearest body.

The spiders perk up, and as a group they wheel to face Jason and the others.

Floyd reaches and pulls Jason back. "We're only breathing because Colin can concentrate. This isn't a time for half-assed."

Colin will simply take his sword out of it's sheath, discardign the scabbard somewher nearby. He tries to detect whereelse the oxygen might be flowing. POssibly around our mark?

Jason rears back. "Right. You little twerps are gonna get in our way, are you? Shoo!" He concentrates — though the air is stifling, there is still plenty of gaseous nitrogen — and attempts to sweep the spiders away.

Colin looks over at Jason, "Step back… maybe they'll jsut ignore us-" He's intrrupted as Jason speaks. So much for that idea.

Seeing what it's come to, Floyd readies Maurer's grapple beam and begins praying in Latin. "Ave Maria, Gratia Plena…"

Colin will step over to Jason's location, sword at the ready, to fight these things off.

Two spiders get through — one for Jason, and one for Colin, both leaping on their respective parties. Colin loses his sword, while Jason loses his balance and falls over.

WHO DARES!

The voice shakes the cavern, and Floyd sees a pair of brightly burning eyes open on the far wall — followed by six more such eyes. They are literally pits of flame, flickering in the cavern, and the ground beneath the explorers' group cracks open.

A gigantic column of earth, stone and coal bursts upward from below, and pierces the ceiling above. DO NOT PRAY HERE, LITTLE MAN, warns the voice.


Near town, a small hillock bursts open. Marcus and his dragon spot it easily from the air. A worm — a worm beyond all imagining — has sprouted itself from the ground and now flails its way upward. Spotting the paper dragon, it lunges out with its body, trying to strike at it.

The first strike is moments too late to be a surprise. The dragon has its own armor, and Marcus' shield adds to it. The response is swift and terrible. Talons like swords sweep out at the enemy, shredding its earthen flesh.

But the worm is fast, large beyond management. "Clash of the Titans," whispers Marcus softly. The only saving grace is that the worm is not the most agile of things, though it is fast. So fast and so strong that occasionally Marcus' shield is simply not enough. Still, the dragon does not miss easily, by tail and by claw it wears down the enemy, turning its flesh to dust with blows that would crush a car.

The paper master grins suddenly, realizing that at the current rate, there's no way he's going to win. "Time for plan B!" The dragon's body opens for a moment, long enough to let the man break out. The dragon continues its battle, and the worm, for all its power, is limited in focus. Marcus slips close and opens his case of paper. Noticing a tractor left nearby, plan B is suddenly much more clear. With his left hand he opens the gas cap of the vehicle and with his right he controls the paper, which dives in. Thus soaked, it is cast at the enemy.

"And he will cast them into the lake of fire," whispers Marcus. A flick of a lighter is lost in the noise of the battle, but when that little flame catches hold of the gas-soaked paper, the worm finds itself transformed into a blazing totem in moments.


Colin concentrates as the ball of fire enters the chamber. He looks quickly over to Jason, who should be taking care of his end of things, but he works to pull as much oxygen as possible from the flaming worm. He stares it down, and watches the orange and crimson flames die down before him, deprived of one source of fuel.

The coal-spiders are tiny, compared to the weight that the beam was designed to lift. Floyd has little trouble plucking them off the floor and hurling them bodily across the chamber. He stays clear of the burning column. Okay. Think fast. Talk the crazy man off his ledge. "This isn't Hell, and you aren't the Devil! Where's Shelby?"

"Leave the spiders to Floyd!" calls Jason, shaking free of the rubble from the last one as he wraps nitrogen around the inferno, forcing it into the gaps left by the oxygen sucked away by Colin. Even as he does so, he uses another little trick — slowing the motion of the nitrogen molecules, to suppress the raging heat from the flames, protecting himself and his companions from heatstroke.

In the helicopter, Aura has asked Captain Tove for a strange request: put her directly over the hole and the burning worm. Marcus has the best vantage point on what happens next.

The woman jumps out of the helicopter and plummets directly toward the flames. Bright wings of light emerge from her back, supporting her and slowing her descent. And she reaches down.

As her hand touches the mass of the sulfur worm, it begins to collapse away. Chunks of rock fall to earth around her, driven away from the central core of the worm. A soft glow around her hand becomes a brilliant flame of purification. And within the cavern, the tunnel explorers see Aura descend slowly toward them. All around her, the fire still burns, but she is unharmed.

"The link is being purified," she announces. "I think… please, can one of you carry me to the cabin?"

"Sweet mother of mercy," breathes Marcus.

Floyd offers his shoulder. "This one, on the other hand, is really an angel." For her metallic countenance, she seems no heavier than another human.

Colin perks up, "I think we'd better go check that out. Good job there, but the way, Jason…" He runs, pickign up his sowrd and scababrd to the outside, to witness the distruction.

The groups reunite on the surface, and Marcus transports everyone directly to the cabin in the interest of time. Once there, Aura is carried inside. "I'm so sorry I didn't see you before," she says to the air, and reaches out. And from nothingness she begins pulling a human figure: a haggard fellow that the others recognize instantly as Shelby. He promptly collapses.

Floyd gapes. "I suppose there's a scientific explanation for where he was," he says flatly.

Colin says, "Of course. Scientific explanations seem to be the order of the day, right? We should probably get everyone out of that cave…"

"He's… the same place Goldberg was," says Jason. "Out of phase, or something. But I wasn't expecting him to be completely disembodied."

Colin, for his part, does turn to start hauling bodies out.

Shelby is showing signs of starvation and thirst. Whatever happened to him, it's clear that he hasn't been able to eat or drink since it did.

"Is he still Linked?" Floyd asks.

Marcus is no doctor, but he will do what he can to help stabilize the man. "What he really needs is about a gallon of water and a meal that is easy on the gut," says Marcus. "And I imagine his link is going to go away if it hasn't already. Right?"

"He is unlinked," reports Aura. "This is very curious. Part of him was left behind, and part went along with the link. I shall want to ask him about his experiences."

"Let's get him to whatever passes for a hospital here," Floyd says. "Get a saline IV going Talk to him all you want, the town is empty. The rest of us need to go back to Hell. Get the rest of the town out of there, and into the fresh air."

"I take it I can't use the big guy to help move people, so I'll get the clinic on its feet," says Marcus. "I remember a thing or two… hopefully you can find us a doctor and nurse pretty soon, though. My stitch work is rather rusty."


The townsfolk are still unconscious. Some sort of obscure biochemical change has taken over their bodies, and Aura positively identifies it: "they are hibernating. They are… somehow related to the link, I think. But this is hibernation. I can pull them out of it." And so she sets to work at the local gymnasium, where people have been stored.

Shelby tells his story as soon as he's conscious. With Floyd and the others in tow, he relates what happened.

"I came here to get away from it all. I like the wilderness, and the country here is beautiful. But for… various reasons, I guess some people didn't appreciate that I was an atheist. A few fellows came around the cabin one night. They were telling me how I was going to hell. One of them shoved me. I said… I said… 'I'll send you to hell,' or something like that, I don't remember."

"And I… I think I did. I was so angry at these yokels, I was just blind. I … I think I lost control. I felt terribly guilty about whatever it was I did, but I know that I… I took them somewhere. Took them to some place to show them what hell was like. And you know what? When I did it, I knew what they were thinking. Knew about the entire town. So… I guess… I guess I took them too."

"I felt just awful. I called out for help, tried to get someone to help me, someone who could listen. But it was like I was dead, a ghost. I couldn't do anything."

Colin watches the man as he tells his story… He stares, impssively. Of course, Colin doesn't know what it's like to experence sucha thing. The message leaves his stoic, however, and really wishign he could have a trink.

Jason scratches his head. "That… that does explain a lot," he says finally. "Though… not everything. I still don't understand what was happening with the radio, for example."

"I tried calling on the radio for help," Shelby asks hopefully. "Did you get the message after all? I couldn't touch it, but I tried… I tried everything I could. I wanted someone to hear and find out what'd happened."

"We got a message, all right. But it was just a sequence of numbers. A numbers station," Jason says. "I'm sorry. If we'd been able to crack the code, we might have understood you."

Floyd has years of playing the Man In Black. Outwardly he stoically records the statement in his notebook. Inwardly, he's somewhat more shaken, still seeing the pillar with the eyes. "We heard you. We came. And we're all very lucky that everyone gets to go home when it's done." Floyd folds the notebook and puts it aside. "So tell me, Mister Shelby. What do you think this town has learned? Yourself included."

"I think… I think if that connection was not just between me and them, I think the town has learned everything," Shelby says after a moment. "You see… I wanted to show them all… show them how wrong they were. To… to make them all understand. Do you think that it really happened?"

Colin looks at Shelby, "I think that, perhaps, it has not happened." He thinks back to his conversation with the preacher. "Perhaps a demonstration of hell simply servers to solicify the idea of heaven?" He shrugs after this statemetn.

"I think you've all been given an opportunity to understand what it means to condemn someone to Hell," Floyd says. "Perhaps they won't do it so lightly now. Nor you, either. I saw your home. You've accomplished much and have reason to be proud." He allows himself to warm to his role. "But here we've learned that there are strange things in heaven and earth, and even the very wise can cause a tragedy with a careless word, and I think that's a humbling thought no matter what you believe. Wouldn't you agree?"

Shelby nods slowly.

The townsfolk are being brought around. But they behave in a very strange, very singular fashion. Several of the men (and a few of the women) have gotten up, and surrounded the beds on which their fellows rest. They say nothing, not to each other, nor to any other. But as several men are brought up, the civilians restrain them while they're handcuffed. And still no explanation is offered.

Others rise from their beds, covering their faces and bawling loudly or sniffling softly. Some look with obvious contempt at their fellows. A few rise with intent to brawl, only to be restrained by almost prescient neighbors.

Aura approaches the group, wheeling herself in her wheelchair from the helicopter. "Their minds were linked," she explains to the group. "All of them. Together."

"How is such a thing possible?" asks Marcus.

"'Hell is other people'," quotes the Captain to himself.

"Aura…" says Jason, slowly. "Is… is this something the Links were designed to do? Or is it just a side effect of the way they interact with human minds?"

Aura shakes her head. "The link normally terminates in one brain — your own. I think he willed it to extend to his victims as well," she says thoughtfully.

"But I thought the link was gone," notes Marcus. "So why is this particular effect still present? And how can they even operate now? Anyone who comes here will suggest they all get put in some kind of institution."

"They… still remember what was shared during the link," Aura says quietly.

Jason cringes. "I… don't know if I'd be comfortable with other people knowing that much about me. Even if I knew about them in return."

"So this is just a memory?" asks Marcus. "And not like… psychic communication? Or whatever."

Colin says, "Almost assuredly things that, when surfaced, are going to create conflict."

Nearby, one of the townsfolk is getting himself settled into a chair, with a sandwich in one hand and a shoe in the other. He bangs it against his knee, without words. The others approach; one prompts him: "Judge?". The judge nods, seeing the half-dozen men brought before him. "Guilty. Life," he announces laconically, and slaps the shoe again. The prisoners' escort nod grimly.

"Confession can be a bitch, too," observes Marcus. "Reminds me of that old Chinese curse… the last line, anyway. May you always get what you deserve."

Colin looks over the courtroom scene. "A perfect trial… One withought law enforcement or jedges…" He scoffs, but says this low enough that people outside his immediate vicinity have reasonable doubt as to what he said.

Floyd stands. "Justice is being done. If we'd figured this out last night, they wouldn't be going through this now. So is this better or worse?" He shakes his head. "I don't know. I think we should stick around a few days, though, and tell people what happened. A bullshit UFO cover-up is one thing. This is something else."

Colin shakes his head, and puts a hand on Floyd's shoulder. "I don't think we can tell them anything that makes more sense than what they already know."

"True," Floyd replies. "So there's no danger in telling them the whole truth, is there?"

"Oddly enough, it is perfect justice without need of evidence. If they truly shared one mind, anyway," says Marcus. "Whatever we do, it's going to be pretty tough to get things back to something approaching normal in this place."

Aura smiles brightly and beautifully as always. "Now their secrets are laid bare. What will help them most now is love for each other, because now they have nothing behind which they can hide." Scrapper stands behind her, watching the ad hoc courtroom with intense curiosity. He starts when he hears these words, and a bright flush spreads across his face.

UFO

Toby Lazarus has been constructing a UFO beneath his scrapyard.

The "UFO" is more like a cylindrical city block than a ship as such. Toby Lazarus has nearly emptied out the supply of iron scrap in his junkyard for raw materials. On paper, the amateurish blueprint he's drawn up makes the thing look like an extremely compressed beer can: a concave base, rounded sides, with indentations on the top for external access. The insides are absurdly minimalist: a core marked "web management" about 20 feet in diameter, situated directly below a control room. The rest is devoted to storage, such as a vehicle garage, sleeping and living quarters, and so forth. About 75% of the available internal volume is designated "DUNNO YET".

The hull is mostly iron sheets and supports, welded together with the best precision Toby, Jason and Colin have been able to muster. It looks crude, but it's sturdy. The old El Dorado where the extraterrestrial component was stored has been moved to the center of the underground structure and incorporated somehow into the whole works.

A handcrafted spiral staircase leads up from the El Dorado's passenger seat to the control room, where a pair of sailing ship's wheels — one vertical, one horizontal — are set up to control the ship's position. A power lever and an oversized numeric keypad are present as well; the keypad is routed into an old Kaypro PC, which in turn is wired electrically into the El Dorado's ignition. The whole thing is a mystery.

To the extent that the UFO can be said to have an interior decor, one might compare it to Early German U-Boat. It's welded iron, molded into useful shapes, and power outlets are wired up at odd intervals. Interior lighting isn't finished yet, and Toby has strung up electrician's work lamps with duct tape through the corridors. There are no hinged doors, only sliding cargo doors here and there in the compartments which have been segmented from the large open body.

Marcus has none of the skills the others put to work in helping Toby, but he does have a fairly impressive bank account and a desire to help his friends. "So, Toby, we don't really know how long this ship has to fly, so I figure the best concept is to use a lot of the space to make a perpetual garden of some kind. I think if we tap into our good friends in the government we can get some suggestions from NASA. We'll want to get this thing prepared for  zero-g, too. Unless you have something in mind to get some gravity."

"The Dark Star will push us ahead. I think… this is how rockets do it?" Toby asks. "So, you know, we fly up, we fall down? Something like that?"

Colin looks between Toby and Marcus. "I think what Marcus is saying is that our destination is a long ways away. ANd people like to eat."

Marcus manages to cover his extreme concern for Toby's planning with a nod. "Colin drives directly to the point. We're going to need more than just propulsion to get to wherever it is we're going. I also imagine if you fly in an iron can too long with nothing of the comforts of home you aren't as likely to succeed."

"Oh, haha, yes. My friends, I have that worked out." Toby grins. "You saw the parking level here, of course. So we will have RV hookups. Waste out, water and electricity in. We will need food, of course."

A welding mask emerges overhead, is taken off to reveal Jason's face. "Destination? We've got somewhere in mind for this thing?" He gives the impression of having ignored all aspects of the UFO project that didn't, well, have to do with simply building a UFO.

Toby holds up his hands. "We will work that out when the time comes!" he announces emphatically. "Right now we are still due for a test flight, that is all."

Colin looks at Toby, then at Marcus. "You know, round about to Bernard's Star and back yes?"

"If you can get this baby off the ground, Toby, I'm sure we have enough room for the gardens, waste handling, etc." Marcus looks to Colin and scratches his head, "Honestly I wonder how we're going to fly a few city blocks into the sky without drawing a bit of attention."

Toby nods along in agreement. "Oh, we'll fly at night, Mr. Marcus, please don't concern yourself."

Colin blinks, "I'm sure it's just a weather balloon, Marcus." He walks over to Jason, and ponders, "So, what have we put in for… venelations an the like, my good friend?" He asks, thinking aloud. He seems to be staring straight ahead, but is actually playing with the air in front of him, taking it apart, putting it back together…

"Colin, have you tested to make sure the whole ship is airtight already?" asks Marcus. "Or is the test flight tonight staying in the more comfortable levels of the atmosphere?"

"If energy is a concern, we are getting both 110 and 220 volts through the outlets," Toby says, pulling out a scratch pad and short pencil. He starts doodling figures. "The alternator is good for… hmm… 6500 megawatts right now. I wound the coils myself."

Colin looks over at Toby. "Hey Jason, have you looked at Toby's alternator?" Colin is more than a little concerned. But if it's only a short flight…


Martinez is sitting across the table of a diner, watching Floyd eat. "How are the eggs?" he asks.

Floyd scoops up a forkful of something yellow-white and scrambled. "Edible, with a lot of pepper." He munches carelessly. "Gotta eat on the run a lot lately. I'm sure you heard about the West Virginia thing."

"Yeah." Martinez shifts; something seems wrong with him. "There's a lot of hells a man can imagine, Floyd."

"My parents raised me Catholic," Floyd replies. "I think they'd say that man can't imagine the true Hell, because things can always get worse." He signals for another cup of coffee. "What's eating you, Martinez? Did I screw up?"

"You're functioning normally, Floyd," Martinez replies. Something about his voice changes. "They did come, you know, back in 1947. Just like this time. The men of that time built us, you and me, to take care of it if things happened again." Floyd feels like he's frozen, listening to this sudden burst of strangeness. But that's nothing compared to what happens next: Martinez removes his face entirely, leaving nothing behind but ticking clockwork and electrical components. Nobody else in the restaurant seems to have noticed.

Floyd recoils, moves his hand to his sidearm. He stops just short of pulling it. "What the hell! Who are you?" He spares a glance at the counter; the waitress is working on his coffee, and sounds of activity are still coming from the kitchen. His hand tightens on the pistol grip. "Am I dreaming?"

"You can't dream," the Martinez-thing says. "You're just an imperfect human being. They made us to be guardians of the secrets of the 20th century, not to be people."

Someone must have noticed this 'man without a face' by now; but nobody's reacted at all. Floyd's eyes narrow. "You're screwing with our heads. Made we may be, but I'm no robot. So why tell me I'm one?"

Martinez reaches forward. Floyd feels his body freeze. The man touches his face, then pulls away with something that obscures his vision for a moment. The brief blackness passes, and Martinez holds out his new acquisition for inspection. It's a perfect replica of Floyd's own face, but with blank holes where the eye sockets would be.

Floyd reaches up to feel his face, but stumbles off the stool as he does. He charges out the door of the diner. He swears he can hear his own feet clank and gears wirring in his ears; the hiss of a gas-spring as the door swings open startles him. There's nothing special outside — a few cars in the parking lot off an empty street in a small town. He stumbles to his car, a rented Impala, and desperately studies his face in the driver's door mirror.

The face is exactly like Martinez' own — whirring mechanical components, blinking lights, a nightmare of soulless machinery. Floyd feels a pressure on his shoulder. He's jerked backward away from the sight, and twists around. What he sees is Martinez — with a very worried expression on his very human face. "Hey, Floyd!" the older man yells. "Snap out of it! What happened to you just now?"

Floyd looks carefully at Martinez; even more, he listens. It's the old man's voice, not the weird theatrical parody of a moment ago. "Shit," the Fed grunts. "This case is messing with my head. Let's get back to Scrapper's. You drive. Tell me what I did, and I'll tell you what I saw."


The two agents arrive around nightfall; the others have already been busy. Toby's been keen to test his UFO, and privately some of the government researchers have also been very interested in the work that he's doing — enough so that they've written short anonymous notes to Floyd, personally asking him to clear the event (with them on board, of course).

Toby and Aura are waiting outside when the two pull up. Aura, in particular, frowns when she sees Floyd get out of the car, but she says nothing. Toby is all smiles.

"Come aboard, come aboard!" he calls. "After sunset we are going to lift off. I have made all arrangements!"

Floyd notices Aura's frown. As the group walks over to the UFO 'entrance hut', he asks her quietly. "Is there something wrong with me? Did I catch the wrong end of a shard?"

"Something has found you, yes," murmurs Aura. "We will speak later, please." She reaches out a hand from her wheelchair, resting it comfortingly on Floyd's fingers. "I promise it will be okay."

Colin looks over to Floyd, and then once to Toby, "So, where are we going?" He beams a grin, but can't quite hide the fact that he's afraid the old man hasn't planned ahead.

A van pulls up at the property as well. Captain Ellis Tove hops out, then moves around to the side door and opens it. A wheelchair ramp extends, and he helps the other occupant of the vehicle to exit. Other than being human, and with some facial details different, she could be Aura's twin sister.

"I built a ramp inside my office," Toby explains. "We will come this way please. Dobry wieczorowy, siostra!" he calls to the woman with Tove.

The way down into the underground structure is through a metal staircase built under a trapdoor in the scrapyard's office building. The procession of footfalls clangs noisily until they reach the bottom. Not surprisingly, the whole thing is built with accessibility in mind: a powered wheelchair ramp is available for both women to use.

Toby guides the way to the control room and indicates where the others should stand. There are rails into which the wheelchairs can be fitted; around the outer wall of the control room are sets of seats taken from a disused schoolbus and fitted with seat belts.

Floyd looks around, worridely, as the enormity of the thing sets in. "Wait, this whole THING is the ship? You have to be kidding. The Hindenberg was smaller!"

"Well, at least this thing isn't full of hydrogen," notes Jason. "I think we'd know about it if it was."

"Ahh, but we are not powered by very explosive fire," points out Toby. "Instead it is the dark star material."

"Actually, Floyd, this is going to be the most massive ship to ever fly on Earth, from what I understand," notes Marcus. "Hm, it may be the largest object to ever move under the power of man, come to think of it."

Colin smiles a bit. "It is quite… large. But it somehow feels homey." He gestures around, since it's basically a large scrapheap.

Toby grins. "Colin! Man the explosive charges, please. Jason, on throttle. I will take the helm. Mr. Marcus, if you will observe the radar… err… I think we may have forgotten to install the display, but if you will please just sit there and relax yourself."

Colin blinks, "Explosive charges, boss?"

The junkman nods enthusiastically. "We will blow the dirt away from the property line, allowing us to rise gracefully without straining the hull, you see," he explains.

Colin ers, and looks. "You're the boss, boss…"

Marcus looks to Toby, "Since this is the maiden flight, you really should have some special words prepared, for once we clear the horizon." The paper master whispers to Floyd in a cheery voice, "Assuming we don't all die, anyway."

Toby fishes in his pockets and tosses Floyd a set of car keys. "Please go downstairs and start the El Dorado, Mr. Floyd? Give it plenty of gas. It had trouble turning over this morning, don't let it flood the engine. Alright? Alright, now please go."

Jason wraps his hand around a lever. "Well, look on the bright side," he mutters. "If something does catch fire, the four of us'll do as good a job as a whole fire department."

Floyd catches the keys and moves off. "Please tell me I'm still hearing things," he mutters, but does as he's told.

The car warms up with a satisfying roar, and Floyd immediately begins hearing a strange humming noise as well. "That's normal!" shouts Toby from upstairs. "It is the dark star spinning up! In a moment it'll…" He stops, as a new and distinct sound unlike anything else permeates the cabin. "Yes, it'll do that."

Marcus, deciding that all is well in hand, shapes a bit of paper into a chair and settles down comfortably. "And don't forget to take off the parking brake, Floyd," he calls out. He assumes he's made a joke, but with Toby one can never be certain.

Colin thinks the parking break might be his department, "Should I take it off now, Boss?" His fingers hoving over the level…

"Yes, explosive charges now, Colin!" calls Toby. He reaches for the wheels, putting one hand on each. "Just push the button please. The charges will fire themselves."

Floyd slowly removes his foot from the gas pedal. "So uh… leave it idle?" The humming seems less like a noise and more like a taste. Something he can feel in his teeth. He recalls that Toby merged the 'dark star' with this very same El Dorado.

"Yes, leave it … uh. Shift into neutral, please!" Toby calls.

Colin covers his eyes with his hand, and presses the button. Possibly shocking to everyone else, but to Colin's surprise, a large chain of explosions rattles the large iron can. The charges are mostly deflected away, but quite a rumble can still be felt underfoot. The whole junkyard rocks as the ship begins to lift from it's foundation.

"Say, Toby, do we have a window somewhere so we can enjoy the view?" asks Marcus casually. He refuses to get ruffled by the sheer insanity that has become the norm of life.

The junkman bobs his head. "We will be opening the … dorsal and ventral? hatches, I think they are called?" He glances at Tove, who nods approvingly. "Then everyone will be able to see. We have tethers for safety of course. Oh, and we will need to test the altimeter."

Toby then turns to Jason, pointing a finger and grinning. "My friend, full throttle!"

Jason looks at Toby nervously. Sometimes, Toby's enthusiasm is a bit too much even for him. …and then he grins widely. "Whatever you say, boss!" he says, shoving the lever over… though he gets a strong grip, both with his muscles and his Link, just in case full throttle throws him to the floor.

The bad news is that the throttle sticks a couple notches up from zero. The good news is that this is quite sufficient.

The entire iron fortress heaves and groans, and a shivering makes its way through the superstructure. The crew can feel the hand of gravity pressing them downward. Toby glances around him, taking in the farrago of controls and avionics he's thrown together and grinning wildly. "Ease off!" he commands after a few seconds.

Jason does as he's asked. "We probably should open the windows, so we can see where we're going," he remarks.

Floyd stumbles up the ramp from the 'engine room'. "Big aircraft always fly on instruments anyway," he quips, looking meaningfully at Tove.

Tove laughs, but his voice betrays a certain nervousness. "The radar should be wired in, we just need to hook up the scope. But the altimeter should…" He glances over as he speaks, and catches his breath. "Wow."

Floyd says, "'Wow'? What wow?"

Colin's head glances over too. "Wow usually isn't good… when you're talking about altemeters, and…"

The craft heaves to a stop, and the painful downward pressure ceases. Tove immediately jumps up. "Come on, boys," he announces. "We need to get radar hooked up. Toby, get out the radio from the toolbox please, you're almost at the ceiling. Floyd, you come with me, we may need you on the radio."

Jason gets up from his chair. "So. Just out of curiosity, you understand," he says, his voice forced to be calm as he looks at Toby. "How high?"

A sudden shift in the attitude of the craft sends everyone almost sprawling. "Come on!" Tove yells, breaking into a run after regaining his balance. The tilt of the deck makes it hard, but he does what he can. "We need to get to the toolshed."

The sudden tilt sends Jason sprawling as he moves to follow Toby. "Hell with this," he says, and doesn't bother getting to his feet, instead reverting to flight.

Marcus gets to his feet and shifts with the roll of ship, managing it with uncharacteristic grace. "I hope we're getting airline miles for this!"

Floyd straps himself into a bus seat, in front of a rack of brand-new aviation radios and navigation aids. Scrapper has obligingly fitted a quad speaker system from an old Pinto, but they play nothing but static. "Oh, hell. All the frequencies are off." He gets to work retuning.

Everyone is sprawling for the electronics and control systems — Tove, Jason and Colin all know more or less how it works, but it's Jason who is first to get the radar set plugged in.

The ship almost immediately rights itself with a loud groan. "That's what I get for arguing safety with Toby," Captain Tove mutters to himself wryly. He grins at the others. "Come on, let's head back. I'll explain."

Back in the control room, Tove gestures. "We tried to make it safer. Ironically it backfired. You see, past a certain point, we could see the curvature of the earth and we'd start to lose our orientation. So I had a programmer friend right some code that fed radar readings into the attitude control. The ship would steady itself at most altitudes. Except, we didn't get everything plugged in after all."

Marcus is quite pleased to be away from the electronics, "So, now that we've got that down, perhaps it's time to… what is it we are going to check again? We've certainly got off the ground."

"'How high' would be a good start," Floyd says. "Over 12000 feet and we have to worry about airliners."

Colin blinks for a second, "Something like… what… 30,000 and we have to start worring about air?" He glances at the air for a second, trying to deduce oxygen content around here…

"So can someone now answer the simple question of 'where are we'?" asks Marcus.

"We are…" Toby holds up a hand, looking at his instruments. "10,000 feet up, just above the junkyard. Yes. So…" He flips open a box and pulls a hidden lever; the humming from downstairs decreases slightly. "Controls locked. Let us take stock. And uh, I also have some Budweiser in the fridge."

Floyd continues to work the radio. "Ten thousand feet. Good. Small planes won't be this high and airliners won't be this low. My God, we might be according to plan after all!"

Colin thinks, "Hatches… Hatches…" He wanders to one side of the room… "Here we are…" He says, as he finds a lever. He pulsl it, and the roan of iron machinery can be heard. THe hatches begin to open downward. As their seal is broken, a minor hiss of the pressure escaping the ship can be heard, as it works to equalize the pressure between our city block and 10,000 feet. THe hatches drop themselves down, and reveal … The landscape below…

As the hatch opens Marcus does the prudent thing, and with a ruffling of paper forms the dragon, its form just the right size to take advantage of the huge hatch. If anyone falls, there's something that can try to catch them, now.

Toby emerges from the control room and heads toward the hatch, wheeling Aura along with him. The other woman comes as well. "I'm Shala Tove," she announces, in an accent similar to Toby's. "So pleasure to meet you all, I've heard everything." And smiling, she nods to Aura. "And it is so nice to meet you at last, my dear."

Aura smiles gently and inclines her head. "I thank you for everything you've done for Toby," she says, and Shala smiles in return. The two women seem to have exchanged some ineffable secret between them.

Marcus nods politely to Shala, and does his best to reveal none of his uncertainties at the moment. "Looks like it worked out alright, Toby. We're up a fair ways and sailing smooth."

Floyd nods politely. The similarity between Aura and Shala is striking; it reinforces a thought he had long ago. "We're lucky this happened to Scrapper," he asides to Marcus.

Tove jogs off and returns after a minute, arms loaded with beer. "We're flying, ladies and gentlemen," he announces. "So drink up and enjoy the fruits of your hard labor."

Colin glances at Floyd, "Careful, the fuzz is around. THey might tag you for FWI…"

Colin's ceerful grin across his face betrays that he is, of course, joking.

Jason laughs. "Yeah, I was gonna say," he says, selecting a beer for himself. "Who is the DD here anyway?"

"I don't think I can get drunk," muses Aura. "And Toby has showed me the basics of steering. So please relax, and enjoy yourselves."

Floyd retrieves a thermos with a pervasive aroma of cheap, strong coffee. "I'll stay sober. That makes it legal. I mean, what the hell, it's not like the FAA is watching right now."

Marcus smiles at Toby, "Thank you my friend, but for now I want to keep my wits about me." He looks out the hatch and sets a hand on the dragon at his side, "I don't know why, but I feel strange. Wary."

Floyd says, "Help me, then," Floyd says to Marcus. "Part of the deal is that we make measurements for JPL and NASA. Can your dragon work a camcorder?"

"Man, you guys are such wet blankets," Jason says, smiling. "Bah, you've got a point. I'll just have the one," he says, waving his bottle. "We can have the big booze-up when we land."

Outside the hatch, the group hears a faint, distant buzzing noise.

Colin looks out the hatch.

"An airplane!" calls Tove; he recognizes it about the same time as Floyd does. "That guy's gonna hit us!"

Floyd runs for the radio. "Shit, how can he not see us?"

"Shit!" yells Jason, making a flying leap for the throttle. "Up or down?!" he yells.

Sure enough, there's a slight noise that emanates from the hull.

"Do what you can!" calls Marcus. He leans into the dragon and vanishes inside it. The great form rushes forward, racing out towards the plane.

"He went over us. Scraped the top deck," Tove estimates. "Marcus! Colin! Jason! Get out there! He must be going down."

Jason reverses course in mid-air, less than halfway to the controls. "Right!" he yells, flying back the way he came and down through the hatch, grabbing a handful of paper dragon.

Colin jumps into the dragon, "If you can just get me close…" He looks at Marcus, ready to follow.

Floyd retrieves the grapple beam, and then charges into the expanding mass of paper. "Marcus, don't drop us!"

A wild series of sparks emanates from the work lights and Tove glances up. "Toby, with me — the electrical harness. Let's go!"

As the dragon clears the base of the UFO, and everyone can see the single-engine turboprop spiral toward the ground, Jason picks out the person on a different trajectory. "Marcus, Floyd! You get the plane, I'll get the guy!" Without further ado, Jason jumps loose and rides the air toward the plummeting pilot.

Marcus keeps his eyes on the plane, "I hope the damn thing doesn't break up!" he shouts out. The dragon beats its wings, forcing itself into greater and greater speeds in the pursuit of the fatally wounded aircraft.

Floyd takes aim with the beam. He can't really lift the whole plane; but he can brake the fall and steer it. There's no way to tell the weapon; it just seems to sense his intension as he pulls the trigger.

Floyd blinks. For a moment, it almost looked like the device had plugged something into a metallic port in his arm. He blinks, but it's gone.

Colin climbs to the top of the Dragon and just waits, his Nodachi behind him, watchign the rescue attempt, waiting for the need, watching for people or things.

Marcus focuses intently on his target. He's never flown the dragon this fast, and he urges it one, trying to figure out just what terminal velocity is like. The plane is hardly an easy target. Without a pilot it's flying around like a bird with a broken wing.

Colin glances back at Marcus and Floyd, and curses, "Damn." As he sees that the plane is going to fall apart. He jumps into the air, his steps not hitting anything, but still gaining speed. The Nodachi in his hands now, as the swordsteel, a fiery edge upon it, slices through the frame of the plane. His feet stop against the frame of the plane, and he ducks into tha cabin, checking the occupant in there…

The grapple beam emits a golden tangle of energy which locks onto different parts of the plane. Unfortunately, it's too big; Floyd accidentally tears off parts of the plane without catching the whole thing. "It's gonna break up no matter what we do! Marcus, you gotta catch the whole thing! I can only steer it!"

"Right!" calls back Marcus. The whole thing. The dragon's insides are fairly roomy, but an airline hangar they are not. "I think I have an idea! Stay close to me here… this is gonna be a hell of a ride."

Jason pulls out of his flat dive. "Hey!" he calls, and, getting no response, reaches out a hand to stop the pilot's tumbling, then grabs him with both hands, wrapping a layer of air around him as well. He decelerates slowly — noting that the pilot appears to be injured — and watches the plane continue to tumble past, the paper dragon matching speeds. "Good luck, guys," he whispers, and heads back for the saucer.

Colin bends into the cockpit, rent open by his sword, and carefully drags the girl out. He looks her up and down, "She's hurt…" As he carefully balances her over his shoulder, he starts to run across the air back to the dragon.

The dragon is finally within range of the plane, and Marcus urges the great beast to engulf the top of the plane, whipping its tail and legs about it to cradle it tight to its chest. With all the volume pressed inside, Marcus and Floyd have very little room to maneuver. Marcus doesn't have to move, though, he can feel the incredible strain of the weight already, and it feels as if he were lifting it himself.

Floyd scans the horizon for a body of water big enough to safely ditch the small plane. There isn't one… but the spaceship must have left an enormous hole in Scrapper's junkyard. "Marcus! Let's just divert the thing! Straight down in the hole we made at launch!" He raises the grappler again and fires, brushing aside a nagging suspicion that the weapon is cursed.

Marcus nods to Floyd and the dragon's wings go to work, fanning out in a vast arc to rush the crumbling plane to a fitting gravesite. "Crumbly as a dry cookie," mutters Marcus. He pauses to reach out and draw upon another helper, and into the cavity of the dragon a paper cat appears, whipping strange tentacles out to take greater hold of the plane below.

The combined efforts of two paper golems takes a lot of the strain off. Marcus looks merely focused now, and not like he's doing himself injury. Assured that Colin and Jason have saved all the passengers, Marcus releases the plane the moment things are clear below. As a final gesture of safety, the dragons talons sweep down, ensuring that there are no incidents involving a spinning prop in one of the most direct of ways.

With the plane incident behind them, Marcus sends the dragon skyward once more, racing towards the flying fortress.

"Is there a doctor in the house?" Jason exclaims as he rises through the UFO's hatch, cradling the pilot in his arms. "This man's hurt!" He lays the man carefully on the deck, looking around frantically for a first aid kit.

Tove's got the ship's first aid kits on deck and has been standing by to assist when the two were brought in.

Colin climbs the stair to the fortress with his own parcel, laying her in the hold…

Floyd sees to Colin's passenger, the woman who was stuck in the plane.

Colin looks down at the woman's injuries, and tries to patch them up as best he can, but seems to make a worse mess of things than when he started, "I think she's goign to need serious help…" Colin calls out…

The pair are stabilized. And everyone can't help but be aware of the stench of alcohol on the couple. This, at least, explains a few things.

Floyd says, "Toby, any chance you've got stretchers on this thing? We might have to fly them to a hospital, and the Dragon has no seats."

"Shit on a stick," murmurs Tove, having seen what the group just did. He shakes himself free. "Yeah, let me clear off some of our workbenches and wheel them out here." Toby nods, and starts jogging toward the control room. "I'll set course!" he calls. "Jason, Colin, assist me, please?"

"Flying while drunk. Jesus," Floyd groans. "And we were about to do the same. Well. Maybe it was lucky they ran into us after all."

Marcus can only form stretchers of paper. "This reminds me, we'll need a sickbay… and someone who can make use of it." When Tove returns the paper master will gently ease the injured couple down.

Colin nods, "But of course…" He runs over to Toby, and does whatever is required.

As things calm down, Aura wheels herself over to Floyd. "Let's speak now," she murmurs. "So… you have been touched by a link. Something has insinuated itself into your brain. But it is not a rogue link. The good news is that I can remove it for you. The bad news is… that there is someone else on this planet that can control links."

Floyd spends several seconds sputtering. "Wait… someone ELSE? Who? How?"

"I don't know." Aura bites her golden lip and looks away. "But remember that I was seemingly sent here to invade this planet… and the only thing that halted that was the compassion of Toby Lazarus. What if another came here, another of my kind who came into a form not so… benevolent?"

Colin looks at Aura, "So, the super villian appears, eh…"

Floyd nods. "Yeah. I get it. Well, that makes this a lot more serious." He finds Tove. "We should land, get these people to a hospital. I think there's a lot more work to do."

Quisling

Colin scratches his head. Their wounds have been administered too in various ways. Both passengers of the unfortunate jet lay on the floor of the cargo hold, unconscious. "I say we find the nearest public hospital, and drop them off as quickly and quietly as possible…"

Jason rubs his chin, and looks downward. "There's still the matter of a missing Cessna. We can park the saucer on top of its wreckage, but these two can't possibly have been drunk enough to forget that they had an airplane. Questions will be asked."

Floyd sighs, and shakes his head. "If the FAA gets word of this he'll never fly again. Apart from that, drunk as he is, nobody's going to believe any story about flying saucers. It should be pretty easy to convince him to shut up."

"I think maybe you should work behind the scenes to make something happen to keep these drunks out of the air," suggest Marcus. Next time they might risk killing more than just themselves."

"Well…" Toby seems at a loss, and scratches his chin. "His insurance will pay for this, yes?" he asks finally. "I have not insured this junkyard for motion, you know, but they were the ones who hit us, comrades."

Floyd says, "He's not going to sue you, Scrapper. But we should land and unload them. I'd feel better about doing it again after we work out some details — the radar, the radios, convincing the FAA to look the other way…"

Colin looks over at Toby. "I think rather the money to pay for this is the least of our concerns…" He looks down, then looks up at Floyd. "I'd like as little police involvement as possible…" He ponders, bending down to check on the overserved gentleman, just for looks.

The lights flicker for a moment. "Ah, the stators," mutters Toby, sounding worried. "I will unlock the controls and we will see to steer ourselves at a hospital, okay?"

"My folks had to get insurance to pay for some water damage in the house once," notes Jason. "If anything, they'll be even nosier than the FAA. Of course, I guess airplane insurance would rely on the government reports…" He chews his lip, looking at Floyd. "I guess… I guess that's the sort of thing you can solve."

Jason looks at the passengers. "Still, Toby's right. They hit us, and they were flying drunk — they're responsible. Heh. I wish one of us had figured out how to use our Link to make us invisible."

"I'm thinking flying there is not the best move," says Marcus. "Can we land and have one of our official friends do some sort of delivery? It's not like this thing isn't going to be noticed."

"Toby," Floyd says evenly. "I can't stop you if you want to keep this heap in the air. And it's the most amazing flying machine since the Wright Brothers. But taking it to the hospital is a little… too much. Please land, okay? So we can think this over."

"I can actually get to the chopper, if one of you flying gents wants to drop me off," volunteers Tove. "We have plenty of room to land it anywhere you like."

Colin nods, "That might be for the best, at least…" He nods to Tove, and smiles, "Ready to hang on?" As he walks with Tove to one of the exit ports.

Jason carefully lifts the passengers with the air around them, careful not to move them any further. "Yeah, let's go. Colin, give me a hand?"

Colin blinks, "Oh… I thought the chopper would come back up here for them, then deliver them silently into the night…"

"Well, that just leaves our landing to manage, then," says Marcus. "That hopefully will be a little less eventful than the flight."

The UFO controls are unlocked, and Toby's directions and his copilots' cooperation bring the craft into a carefully-controlled descent. Colin drops off the captain at the nearby airfield where the team's transport helicopter is stored. Since Tove has 24-hour authorization, he's able to lift off within 90 seconds. Colin receives the ride this time, and gets to watch from the copilot's seat as the bird deftly approaches the upper deck of the black iron monstrosity.

The two evacuees have been brought up the wheelchair ramp on their stretchers and are loaded inside without much effort. The chopper has plenty of room, and still more for anyone who cares to come along to the hospital for some vitally necessary explanations.

After the passengers are safely on board, Colin moves a short distance from the helecopter, and watches…

The chopper lifts off and speeds toward its destination. Captain Tove knows his business after all.


In principal, Floyd tells the pilot the truth… that the pilot collided with a federal aircraft, that as a federal agent he should report his drunkenness, that everyone involved is lucky to be alive. It's perhaps a little cruel to drop all this on the poor sap while he's still in the ER, but Floyd's patience is short. "You're damn lucky you didn't kill your lady friend, never mind me. The deal is this," he finally says. "I'm willing to report that you got hurt in an emergency landing at an unmarked airfield. You can forget about your plane, it's already in an FAA warehouse." Or under it, Floyd adds mentally. "Take it or leave it."

The pilot's reaction is a confused slur. Words come, but Floyd becomes aware that the mind behind them isn't really going to process this for another day or so. The hospital staff, however, don't really care where people come from — they just want to heal them.

Floyd leaves his business card with the duty nurse, who has been waitin for an explanation. "Hey, you're FBI, fine," she says impatiently. "But what the hell happened?"

Floyd shrugs. "You ever have a car crash with a cop? It's like that, except that I'm the cop, and the car is a top-secret experimental aircraft." He pauses. "Look, would you want to go to court over it? No? Then let us work it out ourselves."


The chopper flies back to the UFO. By this time Toby has managed to open one of the big dorsal doors, and Captain Tove lands his helicopter right in the belly of the beast.

Along the way, he did a few experiments. "Fascinating. This thing doesn't really show up on radar that well," he announces to the others when the experimental aeronauts are reunited.

Floyd looks shocked. "Hey, really? That explains a lot."

Colin mutters, "Probably nother reason to ground it until we can figure something out…"

"A big hunk of metal doesn't show up on radar?" asks Jason. "I wonder why not?" He glances to the basement, where the Pontiac resides. "Of course, I don't properly understand why it flies at all."

"A lot of UFO's don't," Floyd hazards. "I wonder… if this isn't the first time."

"Comrades, let's set down then," suggests Toby, who makes for the controls.

Colin wanders over to his control station to help Toby land.

Floyd gathers the NASA instrument packages. "Invisible to radar," he mutters. "Well, well… that's makes this easier…"

After a tense few minutes, Toby and his friends have wrestled their craft down to the niche from which they left. And as the field shuts off, the junkman emerges with a triumphant smirk and makes straight for Floyd. "Your FAA should be pleased," he announces. "My successful design has a curved bottom, you know. We landed above that plane's wreckage, and didn't even squash it."

"Well, good," says Jason. "The insurance company should be able to get a good deal on the salvage then." He winks at Toby.

"If it's not invisible to eye, however, we still must be cautious," says Marcus. "But, well, if we get past taking out nutjobs, we have the ultimate stealth bomber."

Floyd frowns. "I don't want it used that way," he says. "There's only one of these engines in the world. Why waste it on a weapon?"

Floyd finds Aura. "So… about this other 'visitor'…"

Aura nods, and smiles. Reaching up, she brushes Floyd's face with her golden hand. "It's gone," she says after a moment. "But I still have a grip on the filaments."

"Did it come here with you," he asks, "or with someone else? We've got lots of legends, especially one in 1947."

Jason blinks, and scratches his head. "Wait… what's this about another visitor?"

"Aura thinks that someone 'linked' me," Floyd explains. "But not in a good way. I had a hallucination over breakfast."

Colin looks over at Aura, "You said you have a hold of the filaments?"

The golden woman nods.

Colin looks at her nod, "Does that mean you can… do something with them? Or figure out where it came from?"

Aura nods again. "I think… we can use the compass, somehow," she says, sounding doubtful. "I think I will need to talk to Floyd's scientist friends."

Floyd chuckles nervously. "The problem, thus far, has been keeping my 'scientist friends' away. They mean well, but if we're not careful, half of NASA will be living in your back yard."

Colin nods, "With the filaments, can you tell the nature of the link?"

"It's not to an element. It's more sophisticated," muses Aura. "Think of it like a link to manipulate the element of Floyd."

Floyd chews his lip. "Uh… okay, that scares me."

"Well, what are we waiting for?" says Jason. "As soon as the eggheads wake up, let's get 'em in here and get to finding this thing." He looks at Aura. "I remember you were originally supposed to be part of an alien invasion. Anyone else who has that much control over Link filaments almost has to be part of the same invasion force."

"I agree," says Aura quietly. She looks crestfallen and pensive, and turns her face away.

"Hey," Floyd says gently. "When we gave you asylum, that wasn't a joke. We know you mean no harm, and it's not our way to hold people responsible for their family's mistakes."

Aura smiles. "Well then… let's figure this out, shall we?"


Even if the US government has no formal program of extraterrestrial studies, there are plenty of people in the government that would happily join one. Floyd and Martinez know most of them. From the extensive files on the subject, they've selected the thirteen best, with Doctor Maurer at its head. Their initial briefing is at the Department of Energy's Brookhaven Laboratory on Long Island. Floyd takes to calling the group ' LI-13', which amuses Martinez.

The majority of the research happens at Brookhaven, with frequent field trips to Toby's underground lair. At Floyd's insistence, the scientists balance their curiosity against Toby's privacy, and by extension, the other members of the impromptu team of link-hunters. The circumstances of the invasion are made quite clear, along with LI-13's first goal: find the other Visitor.

Technical teams take samples from the wreckage, make measurements and readings from the singularity engine, and conduct interviews with Aura. Floyd loses his grapple beam for a few days, so that Maurer can investigate the mental side effects. The link compass is a particular focus of study, and under Aura's tutelage, the device is adjusted to seek out the other controller.

Floyd spends the time digging through old Legacy Office archives, particularly about the Roswell Incident in 1947. Martinez only shakes his head. "Kid," he says, "you're digging up a buncha crap, based on something you saw while doped up. As a chain of evidence goes that's pretty weak."

Professor Williams' role in  LI-13 is to determine what she can about Aura's people. Her time is spent with the alien, asking a very long list of questions. Her initial battery consists of an hour of yes/no questions, following by descriptive questions about art samples, and finally increasingly advanced tests to determine Aura's physical capabilities.

The professor's review, along with transcripts of early conversations with Aura and things the alien woman now reiterates, point to something which becomes obvious once Captain Tove's wife Shala is brought in as well: Aura resembles her beyond any possibility of coincidence. The functioning of her golden mineral body is still quite beyond the scientists' ability to understand. And yet somehow she is what she is because of her initial exposure to Toby Lazarus.

Toby, whose sister married the captain, has no clear answers and seems rather reluctant to discuss the issue.

In the absence of Toby's words, evidence will have to do. This isn't an inquiry for amusement or to sate curiousity, after all. Professor Williams turns to Floyd for this, and requests simply, "Give me everything the bureau and everyone else has on Mr. Lazuriewicz. He's uncomfortable talking about the shape Aura has taken and I want to know why. I may be requesting both of them to see a psychologist, as well as his sister. I think this similarity may be a critical point. If there are others like her, it may be the most important information we can gain."

"I'll get you what you ask," Floyd replies. "But whatever else you find, this confirms a belief I have. Aura is the way she is, because she met Toby. She was originally an invasion weapon. Her willingness to help us, is a reflection of Toby Lazarus' idealism. So… we're lucky that she met him. He's eccentric, but he's a good man. There are millions of ways it could have been a lot worse."

Professor Williams has been assigned an office of her own, soundproofed of course. Captain Ellis Tove calls on her shortly after her inquiry to Floyd. He eyes the floor as he enters, closing the door behind him and sitting down with hands knitted together. "We gotta talk about Toby," he says evenly.

"Yes," agrees Professor Williams, "We do. Please, sit. I'm not sure what is happening, but as you can tell from the nature of my inquiries, I am concerned about him."

"Well, really…" Tove rubs his palms together, and looks up, meeting the doctor's eyes. "We need to talk about Shala. When I was active in the service, I was posted near Toby's family. We became friends at that time, and I found myself attracted to him at that time. There was a misunderstanding about that, which we worked through, so we stayed friends. He's not like that. But, he had a problem, and I had a problem, and we decided to solve them both at the same time."

"He wanted to get to America. His sister was… well, Shala was someone that wasn't likely to be be married soon. She's attractive as you've seen, but… well, Toby's had to spend a lot of his time caring for her. And she'd give me cover. I mean I liked her, and I felt guilty about this, you know, the whole idea of marrying just for something like that. Not for love. But, we talked it out, and she understood."

Tove looks away, still rubbing his palms against each other. "Toby, frankly, found his sister more interesting than I did. Out of sight, out of mind, you know? So, I helped him out. We got his paperwork done, we got him over here. Everyone's happy. I mean it, we're really happy. So, if you want to know about Aura, I think… I think he imagined a solution to his problems and he happened onto something that made that imagination a reality."

"The thing is… the interesting thing is that Aura isn't Shala. She's not. I mean she looks like her, and they're both sweethearts, but… deep down, they're such different people. So don't judge him too harshly, okay?"

"This makes a lot of sense," says Professor Williams. She doesn't judge, she doesn't pity, she just understands. "And of course none of this will be officially reported, except one part: when these visitors arrive, they are shaped to an enormous degree by those who find them." She rises from her desk and sighs deeply, "I am sorry for dragging this out of you, Captain. It was necessary. As I said, the rest of what you have shared with me today ends here like a whisper in a vaccuum."

"There will be no need for me to dig farther," adds the professor. "My fears have been confirmed, and my research can focus on the next step. I must figure out where these visitors come from and why they are sent here to grant enormous powers to normal people." She smiles just a little, "In a better world, we'd take a break from all this and go shopping, I suppose. Have a nice day, Captain."

Tove nods, and wordlessly rises to depart.

Floyd receives Professor Williams' report shortly after. It indicates that all Aura was shaped in a large part by the needs and wishes of Mr. Lazuriewicz. The exact degree of this shaping is still being studied. The requests for evaluations has been withdrawn based on superior evidence from an anonymous source.


There's a Subway on Middle Country Road, near Brookhaven. The team has congregated there for a quiet lunch to discuss their options.

Outside, something draws their attention. A figure dressed all in black has jumped off the back of a passing truck and lands quite without injury. In a single smooth motion he has thrown out a hand, and a black tentacle of something or other grabs hold of a trash can. He chucks it through the glass window of the store. "Floyd O'Shea!" the figure yells in a hoarse voice. "Y'busy?"

Carbon

The black-clad figure at the Subway stalks forward, watching the lunch-hour patrons flee for their lives. Shattered glass lies all over the floor inside.

Floyd gets up from his seat, hand disappearing inside his jacket. "Why are you here?" he growls.

"Just wanted to show off my new toy," the figure answers insouciantly, flicking its fingers. It has no face; instead, it seems to be wearing a full-body suit of something black and textureless.

Floyd's hand is closed around the butt of his Beretta. "Looks kinky. Is it bulletproof?"

There's no sign of a mouth, but the humanoid's body language betrays a grin. "Oh yeah."

"How do you breathe in that thing?" says Jason. Despite the mocking tone, he takes the apparition very seriously; it's clearly connected to the alien invasion in some way.

This seems to change the thing's attitude somewhat. Its voice now betrays a greater amount of interest; less mocking, more self-absorbed. "Pores, y'see. Tidal motion in the suit brings in air and… well, the other part's for you to figure out."

"Look, that's great," Floyd says. "But we have to get you back to the lab. You work with LI-13, right? You should know this stuff is dangerous. It screws with your head." Floyd points to the damage done to the restaurant. "Does this look like the kind of thing you want to do?"

Colin looks blankly from the black-encased weirdo to Floyd, "He-" He starts to question, but decides perhaps it's not the time. He closes his eyes, sword in his hand, trying to detect the oxygen flow around the … thing.

"Yeah, y'know, about that. Actually, it is. I'm so tired of this bullshit. Y'all are soo particular about what we do." The figure waves his hands about, pacing about on the ground just outside the broken window. "You've wasted the potential of what this stuff could do with your red tape and your budget cuts…"

Colin whispers over to Jason, trying to keep his voice low enough so our new friend can't hear, "He's taking in oxygen… but nothing's coming out…"

"That's federal spending for you." Floyd draws his sidearm and points it dead-center of the menacing figure's chest. We can never negotiate with these guys. "Wanna get fired?"

"Try it, you useless droid," laughs the figure in black.

Jason starts. "Excuse me… what did you just call him?" he says, peering with renewed suspicion at the figure… as if there weren't enough reason to be suspicious in the first place.

Marcus, who hasn't jumped to his feet just yet, reaches out, snaring control of the paper at hand. He looks pointedly at Jason, then at the enemy, readying a shield for when this gets ugly.

Colin mutters under his breath, "These aren't the Droids you're looking for."

"Fine. Y'all can wimp out if you like. Me, I'm gonna be god. Now give me your links." The figure raises a hand, pointing at the group, singling out those with that uncanny alien-derived power. "And tell that golden barbie doll to give me hers too."

Floyd has a startling moment of clarity. Oh, shit. Eyes wide, he pulls the trigger twice and dashes for the broken window.

The bullets find their mark, but with an audible ping clatter to the ground in front of him.

"Come and take them!" snaps Jason. The gig is up, and it's time to get dangerous. This man may not be exhaling, but he's still inhaling… which means he should still need oxygen. And so Jason channels nitrogen to surround the figure, in the maneuver that gave him his code name.

The paper wall is thrown up immediately, Marcus making his move to shield his friends and once the net is up, he'll work on bringing in the cavalry, reaching out to form one of his golems.

Colin, matching Jason's call, starts to pump the oxygen away from him, pooling the gass away fron his suit, however he can manage.

"Not good enough!" the figure shouts, and a cloud of black motes seems to detach itself from his body. It gathers in the air, somehow sucking the oxygen back toward the black figure — Colin can feel his efforts being resisted.

"So this isn't subtlety time we're on now, right?" shouts out Marcus. At his side the paper has formed into a large cat with whiplike tentacles sprouting out of its back. In eerie silence it rushes forward, slashing at the enemy.

Colin runs at the black clad figure, the air around him splitting, as he closes the distance between him and the stranger. He stands toe to toe with the figure, his sword between them, the blade crackling with heat and fair as he stares at the faceless man.

"Don't try that paper shit with me," the black stalker sneers. An ebon tentacle lashes out from his back, striking open a nearby fire hydrant near the curb.

Marcus narrows his eyes and mutters, "Sorry bud, the cat's an upgrade." The feline certainly shows no signs of dreading water, focusing completely on the assault while outside, the titanic form of the dragon takes shape.

The aerial restraint tries to take hold, but Jason can feel the resistance. Whatever the suit is made of, it has tremendous strength and resilience.

Still free to move, it backs away from Colin and his weapon, heading toward the hydrant.

Going outside may put the water in reach, but it also puts the dragon in reach. The creature pushes into the air, seeking a more mobile vantage point to strike from. The huge creature lashes out with claw and tail, putting this suit to the test against brute strength on a collosal scale.

The suit seems to respond by itself, as evidence by the surprised and painful cry of its wearer. It expands outward into a bubble, changing its very nature as it goes, forming a crystalline sphere with a faintly visible human silhouette inside. At this point the nature of the material becomes obvious — few have seen graphene composite up close, but it's impossible not to recognize diamond. This man is linked to Carbon.

Although the dragon is easily able to buffet the diamond sphere about, getting damage through it seems more of a challenge.

Colin is running after the strange suited figure, he runs over to the carbon link, and he watches the suit bubble itself out. "Oh… a diamond suit. How clever." Colin thinks to himself… Carbon burns, right… He concentrates,a ns tries to match the ogygen with the carbon in the suit, trying to burn or catch it alight.

Floyd closes the short distance across the parking lot quickly. As he does so, he holds down the speed dial key for Martinez on his phone. He doesn't even bother to bring it to his face — as soon as it starts dialing he tosses it through the car window, and tries to open the trunk.

What Colin recognizes after a few moments is that the diamond sphere as it is won't burn. But, it transitioned forms once. It couldn't have been bonded into diamond the whole time. What if he can wait until it transitions from diamond to something else and attack at that time?

"Very clever indeed," Jason says, rather less sarcastically than Colin. "However, I wonder if you remember everything you should know about carbon…" His hands are held before him as he breaks apart nitrogen atoms in the surrounding atmosphere, urging it toward oxygen, carbon dioxide, and rarer trace elements…

As long as he remains bubbled, neither Colin nor Jason are able to get a hold of the carbon atoms — they simply don't have the force to overmaster his own control. How can they force him out of his turtle's shell?

Finally, the chemical reactions are complete; a chunk of atmosphere right adjacent to the sphere has been converted into a mixture of nitrogen-rich and very volatile compounds mingled with the surrounding air. "Diamond is the hardest substance known to man… but did you know it's also very brittle?" With that, Jason excites a clump of nitrogen gas to the ignition point, and the side of the sphere erupts in a loud explosion.

Jason's prediction is true, and the man inside seems aware of his plan as well. The sound of the explosion is mixed with a cracking noise, but an all-too-brief one. His carbon control has let him restore the integrity of his bubble in under a second.

Colin concentrates,a nd makes sure that the head inside the bubble is allowed as much oxygen as it needs, pulling the air around the bubble to the inside, to fuel the fire…

Floyd retrieves the Grappler from the trunk. The weapon is activated in the blink of an eye and its internals suffuse with a warm orange glow. He doesn't know where the explosion came from, but he instinctly aims for it and yanks hard on the firing handle.

Colin's attempt isn't fast enough to really do much. But what happens to all that heat he feels inside?

Jason saves his wisecracks for now… whatever he may know about the physical properties of carbon from his textbooks, his foe seems to know instinctively. Instead, he focuses on another task. Letting his air shield drop for now, he focuses all his power on heating the nitrogen — inside the bubble if he can, or in the air just outside the bubble if their foe's Link prevents him from reaching inside. Outside is sufficient; the diamond will conduct the heat just fine.

Floyd adds the grappler's power to the dragon's grip on the sphere. Unfortunately, just holding the carbon-master in place isn't changing anything. Floyd growls. A scientist. He must know all our tricks already.

Marcus directs a suggestion to Jason, "Can you give him the bends?"

This seems to confound the carbon master. After several tense seconds, Colin can see what he's been waiting for — an abrupt transition from diamond, as the carbon atoms free themselves to adopt a new configuration.

Colin moves in an instant, rapidly trying to combine the now free carbon particles with oxygen to create heat, drawing as much oxygen aroudn the changign sphere as he can to try and inact teh exothermic eaction.

"Gah!" The man cries out — and the diamond shell shatters. You have him now.

Colin calls out, "Jason!"

Jason nods curtly to Marcus. "I tried! But now…" The temperature of the nitrogen is now left to its own devices, and instead — now that the man's carbon suit is temporarily out of his control — Jason forces the nitrogen to surround the man once more. Floyd and his Grappler will help restrain him, but they need to use every resource at their disposal.

Colin keeps controlling the oxygen, and turns to Floyd, "I think we need Aura…"

FallGM says, "you can attempt controlled oxygen starvation, blunt trama, whatever"

"They've been called!" Floyd shouts. "But we need him out now! Suffocated or anything!"

"Marcus, Floyd! Take your hold!" Jason calls out, waiting for the target to be enfolded by paper or grapple beam — and once that happens, he'll relinquish his nitrogen grapple and attempt to smother him once more.

Marcus drops his shield and focuses on the binding instead. A bit of lightning origami follows and leaves the target quite well restrained.

This time, without the carbon suit to draw oxygen in, the carbon master has nothing to protect him from Jason's attack. The man squirms, and they can hear a gasping noise from inside… and then Marcus feels the resistance against the paper bindings slacken, then cease.

Well before the van arrives from the lab, several police cars have pulled up. It's taken all of Floyd's persuasiveness — and the clear evidence of his Federal authority — to keep them from opening fire, much less arresting everyone on the premises. Nevertheless the black and whites are here with guns drawn, waiting carefully for clarification from people of the appropriate pay grade.

A special agent from the New York FBI office pulls up around the same time as the van. Aura peeks out of the window, waving with a smile at the group, then ducks back out of sight as the Fed strides forward.

Another several minutes of explanation and Federal dick-waving commence. However Floyd feels about it, it's certainly his specialty and probably his greatest contribution to this particular battle. Finally the police are convinced to form a cordon around the area. Aura is wheeled from the van to the unconscious scientist, and after a few moments of contact nods and lets out a quiet sigh. "The link is removed. But it wasn't mine. Someone else empowered him."

Colin blinks and looks at Aura. "So, I suppose it's useless to ask who, right?" His eyes cast an accusitory glance over at Floyd, but for now he says nothing.

"I guess this means things are about to get very ugly," says Marcus. "How do we stop someone like this, Aura? Can they just… turn off our links at will?"

Floyd runs a hand through his hair, clenching it at the top and nearly tearing a clump out. "He knows something. He called me a 'droid'. That wasn't coincidence. But if all he has is carbon then he's not the other Master, right?"

The woman nods. "He was linked just like you three," she says. "And I think whoever empowered him could remove your links too."

"Whoever it was, has our research team pretty well infiltrated," remarks Jason. "First Floyd, and then now this guy." He shakes his head, turning to Aura. "What would someone need to have to be able to Link or Unlink someone? Do they have to be able to see them? Or are we doing like the old magic stories, where it's sufficient to have someone's True Name or something?"

Aura smiles. "Just contact with the link, and contact with the person is enough for that. But I think — I hope — that they would be as um, distinctive in appearance as I am. So you can trust people who look like people."

"We don't take him back to the lab yet," Floyd mutters. "We need to put him somewhere else, out of sight of an infiltrator. But we do need to get Doctor Williams to interrogate him."

Colin looks over at Floyd, "So… surely someone who's giving links… would probably need to have a government sponser like us?"

The man himself is identified from files as Amos Finch, one of the newer researchers brought into the investigation of alien technology. He's had close exposure to most aspects of the program.

Floyd rides with Finch and Aura in the FBI van, and doesn't leave the man's side until he's installed in a small, windowless, underground room under the Federal building. Questions crowd Floyd's mind, chief among them: who linked Finch? And what did Finch mean by his 'droid' remark?

A couple of hours of interrogation yield useful information. Finch, after all, was a professional scientist — not a spy or soldier.


Somehow, somewhere, there was a second protoform — like Aura — trapped in the wreckage. Unlike Aura, it didn't have a chance to find form until later when Finch examined it. Although he doesn't seem to be aware of the formation process as Aura explained it, Floyd puts this much together: when Finch examined the protoform, what he was expecting was a wounded alien invader, hiding out and waiting to make its move. Tragically, that is exactly what he got.

Through a link, it managed to siphon information from Floyd's mind, as well as from the research files. And it imbued Finch with a link to carbon, promising him power in exchange for aid. Presumably it remains in the lab.


Floyd exits the cell; Martinez is waiting. "I heard it all," the older man says simply.

Floyd nods by way of reply. "We need to get Finch to the hospital, and everyone else out of the lab. If we can't talk this monster down, then…" he trails off.

Martinez slaps Floyd on the shoulder. "Then what? We'll be in deep shit?" He leads him down the hall. "Think positive, kid. You told me that's how Scrapper tamed Aura." But Floyd hears little of it; he's on the phone again, dialing, ordering an evacuation under a cover story about radiation leaks.

"If Finch is the one who made contact with this protoform," Jason says, "then wouldn't its personality be shaped by him, just like Aura's was shaped by Toby? Do we have a personality profile on Finch?"

"We have profiles on everyone," Floyd replies. "The Department of Energy wants to make sure nuke plant workers aren't whacko, and we did a full workup on everyone selected by  LI-13. But…" He pauses. "We might not need all that. The down-side of linking is that it seems to bring out the worst in people and he gave it to us right there in the Subway. We're talking about someone highly intelligent, frustrated in his job, possibly with a big ego and a persecution complex."

Marcus listens, adding helpfully, "And a very small… social life." Jason's snickering adds just the right punctuation to the comment.

Brother

The second alien — Aura's "backup" — was either at the lab, or still is. This much is clear. Amos Finch, the human quisling who traded his planet's safety for a link to carbon, has been put under a battering round of rapid interrogation after his capture.

Whatever gave Finch his link must have been in the debris that was taken back to Brookhaven for analysis. Under the influence of sodium pentathol, the man ocnfesses that he expected to find some sort of other invasion mechanism, but thought that such a discovery could be of use to him. As with Toby and his ideal creation Aura, Finch apparently got just exactly what he expected.

The team heads back to Brookhaven in short order. Only a few hours have passed — but if this alien is as much in touch with its partner as Aura is with Scrapper, it probably already knows that the jig is up.

In the skunk works' offices, Floyd and the others learn an interesting piece of news: 'Amos Finch', at the very moment the real scientist was fighting the group at Subway, was signing transfer papers to have the wreckage moved offsite. Somehow, the second alien either mimicked or duplicated Finch's appearance, along with enough of his memories to make a convincing facsimile.

Tracking shows that it was bound for a military base down south; somewhere far enough away that the alien could presumably make a head start and try to break the chain of paperwork. Two squads of soldiers were sent thanks to the cooperation of the Army. If the alien can't simply kill them all outright, it need only wait for a moment to strike. There may still be time to catch up with the convoy.

There's one obvious way to catch up with the other protoform in a hurry. Marcus and Toby take the paper dragon to the Lazarus junkyard, and return in minutes with the UFO. Nobody waits around to explain the arrival of the machine to the shocked scientists at the Brookhaven lab.

Before the departure, the hopeful heroes request reinforcements. Using Floyd's rank as well as possible, a squad of army troops is added to the mix. "Well, hopefully our powers can be used in a way that will grant us a quick victory," says Marcus. "At this point I think keeping our heads down is an obsolete notion."

"Good," Floyd says. "The people deserve to know. Besides," he motions around the cavernous steel hangar. "We're so bad at subtle anyway."

Colin looks over at Floyd, 'Where do you think they'd have gotten too by now?

Floyd stands next to the rack of expensive navigation gear, and pulls out a $1 road map. "If they really are heading south, like the orders say, it will be on  I-95. At this time of day, given light traffic, that will put them in New Jersey… on the Turnpike." He points at the map. "Somewhere along here." He looks where his finger has fallen. "Oh, that's funny." The spot on the map is marked 'Grover's Mill', a few miles west of the Turnpike.

"So how public do we want to go now, Floyd?" asks Marcus. "Should I launch the dragon and rocked along, or are we content to merely show off this UFO of ours?"

"The UFO is faster to start," Floyd replies, "but be ready to launch when we get there. Toby? Please take us up."

"Zatanczymy!" yells Toby, taking hold of the controls of his gigantic steel craft. The others take their stations. "Let's dance." A rocking motion puts everyone momentarily off their balance, and a shuddering squeal edges through the superstructure. But the craft lifts off, its complement of soldiers and civilians aboard.

The black saucer wobbles in air. There's a police siren after a few moments, and the entire disc starts to spin in place. "Stabilizer!" yells Toby, and Captain Tove calls back, "compensating…" The spin subsides. Slowly, ponderously, the disc picks up forward momentum.

"According to the aerometer thingie here," Toby announces, "we shall be breaking the speed of sound in…" His words are cut off by a sudden and deafening whine of tortured metal. "Okay, I think that was it," he finishes lamely. "Tove, what's this called?" "Airspeed indicator." "It is speedometer, like in car. "No, it's an airspeed indicator in an airplane." "This is not airplane, comrade."

Colin looks between the two in disbelief. "So… when do we need to start stopping?"

Colin and Jason busy themselves with their instruments, while Floyd inspects the GPS unit that's been wired to an antenna on the roof. The GPS is no longer giving an indication; most likely this means the antenna's been sheared off. Tove, perhaps anticipating this, comes up the staircase to the control room with a stopwatch in hand. "40 seconds," he announces. "Then you should start decelerating. Floyd, want to head topside so we can get GPS reception? My unit failed too."

"Next time, we put windows in this thing," Floyd quips, and moves off.

Colin reaches over, and turns down the throttle, and even applying a little reverse to keep it from drifting too far, he looks around, "You're surrounded by Iron, probably a lot of it magnetized…"

The UFO churns to a stop. All instruments show zero speed. "Time for dragon to find the truck," Toby grins, turning to his friend. "Can you do it, Mr. Marcus?"

The answer is made with the sudden eruption of the paper dragon from Marcus' briefcase of paper. "Of course," he says calmly. The great beast lunges over him, as if to crush the paper master, and then swoops outside, carrying him down to have a look. Over a radio, Marcus says, "I'll keep you in the loop."

Departing the UFO with a trio of soldiers and a radio, Marcus' paper steed flies groundward. To avoid alerting the truck that's hauling the wreckage — and to avoid alerting 'Finch', who is reportedly still with the crew — nobody can simply ask it for its position. But the group has a good idea. No other Army transport trucks are in the area, and the local police won't tip off the quarry.

In a few minutes, Marcus is able to surveil the vehicle through high-powered binoculars. He swoops down for a closer look, mindful of detection, using white clouds to mask the white paper dragon from visual inspection. Sure enough, the truck has been found.

"I've got them in sight," says Marcus. "What's my next move? Should I try to take the whole truck or do you have a better plan?"

Colin has an idea as Marcus takes his paper dragon out to find their quarry. He finda Aura in one of the control towers. "So, we're going to go up against your backup… What do you suggest? Is there any way to neutralize them?"

In response, Aura hands over a thin envelope with Toby's name on it. "Please give this to Toby if something happens to me," she says. "I need to join you when you confront the other."

Colin looks at Aura, and takes the envelope solemly. He opens his mouth to speak, but decides that silence is the better option, he turns, and departs, off to find the rest of the crew

From the roof, Floyd can see the late afternoon traffic moving smoothly along the highway . Somewhere down there is the convoy… and a few miles south, the toll plaza at Hightstown. "We can't just drop in there, guns blazing…" He grins as an idea comes to him, and pulls out his phone. "I hope the Turnpike Authority is a union shop…"

Floyd comes below a minute later. "Just got off the phone with the state police. Very shortly, there's only going to be one open toll lane south of here. That's going to cause a godawful traffic jam. Our quarry will either stop in their tracks, or be forced onto surface streets. Either way, it slows them down. As soon as that happens, we land and make the bust."

"We've also called the Army," Floyd adds, "to recall the convoy… quietly. So maybe the fake Finch won't get spooked and try to kill them."

With ruthless efficiency, the Turnpike Authority closes down all but one southbound lane, and as predicted, traffic slows to a crawl. The wave of cars builds, visible first to Marcus, then from the ship. "Now," Floyd says, "We drop in on them."

The UFO approaches the convoy at tree-top height, and lands on a golf course next to the highway. Everyone is waiting in one of the hangars; Aura's presence is a surprise to most.

Marcus waits for everyone to get in position, then does his thing. It's excessively dramatic, perhaps, but it works. The enormous paper dragon swoops down before the unmoving transport and gun slits open for the soldiers inside to take aim. Marcus shouts out in a commanding voice, "Step out of the vehicle with your hands on your head and surrender!" Sure, it'll never happen that way, but this is what the good guys are obliged to say.

One of the soldiers with Marcus begins barking orders as several of the grunts in the truck go for their guns. "By order of General Wellington," he shouts, almost chewing each word as he shouts it out, "you are hereby ordered to stand down! Dr. Amos Finch! You will be taken into custody! Move it!" This appearance of authority — and from a fellow soldier no less — is taken much better than Marcus' civilian challenge.

"You need to show us your authorization, and we need to call this in," the driver answers back. In response, the man with Marcus snaps out a piece of paper from his uniform pocket and presents it for inspection. "Sir, I need to speak to the convoy driver about this order," he directs to Marcus.

A larger access port is provided for the soldier, while his fellows remain alert, pointing their weapons through the holes Marcus provided. Finch steps out of the cavernous back of the truck, hands on his head, escorted by two soldiers with their weapons out. He has a smile on his face, and watches Marcus with amusement.

The driver begins calling on the radio for confirmation. As he does, a scream goes up from behind him. Those men guarding Finch have met a quick and nameless death in a manner that sears itself into Marcus' memory in a wave of shock. The flesh literally falls from their bones, leaving behind a pair of skeletons that keel over.

Before anyone can react, Finch shouts. "Hold! They all die if you open fire." The soldiers aboard the dragon, almost ready to squeeze the trigger, keep a tight aim but look to Marcus fearfully, silently seeking guidance.

The others arrive in time for the latter part of the standoff. Aura is with them, and she frowns. "He is linked to living things," she whispers.

Floyd steps forward carefully, FBI ID in one hand, grapple beam in the other… but pointing groundward. He's reminded of when he was called to sort out the problem with Toby and Aura, in the junkyard; he knew then, somehow, that there was an easy solution; that everything would be alright. He's not nearly so sure now. He stops a hundred feet from 'Finch.'

The alien's features contort, taking on for a moment the visage of Martinez. "So trusting," he sneers at Floyd.

"We don't want a war," Floyd says simply, "and I'm willing to die to prevent one. Finch is not typical of us."

"It doesn't matter! I'm going to do what I was meant to do," answers the creature. "And not you, and not you, and not…" He points from person to person, stopping when he gets to Aura. "Her. Surrender her to me, and I'll let the soldiers go."

Jason looks at his hand. The ability to manipulate nitrogen seems meaningless now. Whatever this thing is, it probably doesn't need to breathe, and he cannot imagine what he could do to it, even if he could hold on to his Link, before it could slaughter the soldiers, and who knows what else besides. "What can we do?" he murmurs softly."

Marcus narrows his eyes, then retorts, "So you are here to kill us, but if we surrender her, you will give us a few moments? If you are so powerful, you wouldn't be negotiating."

"Conquest doesn't mean killing," the alien retorts. "You could submit peacefully, and survive. You could die of old age. If you cooperate, in fact… I might even be able to fix that for you."

"But so can Aura, right?" Floyd asks. "Have you asked yourself why she isn't invading us? Have you asked her?"

Colin says, "So… Live free ot never die as your slave? Is sort of basically the choice here?"

The alien laughs unpleasantly. "It's no longer your world. Now send over… her… or a few more GIs will die. Protecting your freedom, I guess. How fortunate for them."

"It's what soldiers are made to do," replies Marcus flatly. "And if you knew the first thing about humans, you'd know that submission has never been our strong point."

Aura wheels slowly forward. "Let them go," she says calmly. "I'll come."

Colin steps in front of Aura. He looks at her. "It doesn't need to go this way…"

Floyd doesn't take his eyes off the invader; for some reason, he was expecting something like this, when Aura came aboard the dragon. "Now why the hell would she want to do that?" he asks.

The golden woman looks up at Colin. Her smile could be that of an angel as she touches his hand. "I need you now, more than ever. All of you. Don't forget what I gave you." And again she wheels forward.

Jason gently urges Colin out of her way. "Do you have any better idea?" he says. And then raises an eyebrow, nodding toward 'Finch'.

Aura's chair comes close to Finch and she looks up at him, then over at Toby, who is staring the hate of a thousand hells at Finch. A few drops of blood are dripping from his hands; his palms are being cut open by the fists he's made. "They're safe now. But she and I are going to have a chat. And if anything happens to me, it happens to her," the alien promises.

"Toby," Aura says with a smile. "Don't forget me. And… I'm sorry, but I need to borrow the dark star again. I hope you parked the ship somewhere safe." And with a sudden motion, her hand plunges to the elbow into the flesh of Finch. It isn't a simple penetration of skin; it's more of a melding or a sliding, similar to what the linked fighters have seen before in the bodily transformations of the rogue links they fought. Finch gives vent to a tortured, inhuman scream, and the two bodies begin to physically join.

A black blast wave washes over everyone. Aura and Finch have combined, slowly solidifying into what looks to be a completely reflective sphere of metal. The linked people watching can feel a turbulent struggle going on 'inside'; outwardly, there's no sign at all of a disturbance.

Colin looks at the sphere, as he feels his link 'react' to it. He reaches out his hand, fo rthe now familiar feel of the oxygen swirling around it.

Jason puts a hand to his forehead. "I…" he says. "Colin, Marcus, Toby… I have a feeling this won't end quietly. Be ready…"

Floyd raises the Grappler; or maybe it raises itself. Through the vents on the side of the device, he can see orange and blue light swarming within it. "Get them out of here," he says to the Army lieutenant beside him. "All the men, all the trucks. Clear the area. Clear the fucking state if you can.

Colin looks over at Toby, and pulls the envelope out of his shirt, "Aura wrote this." Colin is very terse, as he forces the envelope into Toby's hands…

Marcus diverts his attention to making a wall, but he has this feeling that if bad things are going down, the wall of paper will hardly have more affect than a casual observer might expect. "Things like this never go the way we expect or want," he growls to himself.

Colin stares at the sphere, and looks a the crew. "She said she needed us. I wonder what that means to her…"

Toby opens the envelope, pushing back tears with the knuckles of his hands. "Aura," he whispers, and begins to read aloud in a husky voice. "To Toby Lazarus and all my friends… If you are reading this, I am confronting the other passenger of my vessel. This will be difficult for me. It may be more powerful than I, but I think that it only linked to one person. And so I will need all of you. You are my family…" He stops, choking up, and passes the letter to Marcus with a trembling hand.

Jason leans over and looks over Marcus' shoulder. "That's it…" he whispers, looking up at the sphere. "Guys… I'm about to do something that might be mind-bogglingly stupid." And with that, he walks toward the sphere, hand outstretched.

Marcus accepts it and gravely continues. "… You are my family and you must now fight the hardest fight in our time together. I need you all to be human — to support each other, to support those around you, to be what you wish most to be. That strength will bolster me through the link we share. That strength will let me prevail. Above all, when you feel your own links severed, the contest is over…"

Jason's hand rests on the sphere. Within it he can feel a cyclone of emotion and hatred and resistance. It is a primal struggle of mind against mind, will against will, purpose against purpose. It is a single consciousness divided against itself, experiencing a fit of in what human beings would be profound madness.

"I get it," Floyd says. "The difference between Aura and the other alien, is all in who they met first when they came here. Who she imprinted from, who she linked to. We're the difference. We're what she's got over him." He pauses. "But what do we do?"

Jason takes his hand away. "He's in there still. They're both in there. It's… like a war of mind against mind." He shakes his head. "But I don't know what we do about it, either."

The letter concludes. "… It is vital that nobody observe us in our struggle after your links are severed. Whoever comes upon us will shape the final outcome of what happens, if I am victorious. Aura is gone. But you may discover something like me again. Remember that what you expect is what will become truth. I love you all."

Colin looks at the letter, then at the sphere. "So… We need to either move it, or take up residence here… " He looks at Floyd, "How much land can we get?"

As Jason feels the contest going on, he feels something else. Something reaching for him, something delving into his mind and his character. It is a profound need — a wish that he feel something. And he recognizes it. It is Aura's need to be bolstered by him.

"I understand," says Marcus. "We have our links, still, right?" He looks around, and suddenly smiles, "We need to be super heroes, we need to chase our dreams. We need to channel all our energy, all that is good in us, and stoke it until it's a fire that can burn all else away."

Marcus grows more animated and excited, "Don't you see? She has us. She needs us to use these powers to improve our world, to be the best we can be. And more than that, even beyond the links, in all ways… chase our dreams, and let nothing stand in our way."

"For how long?" Floyd asks, shock showing in his voice. "How long does she have to fight this thing? And what are we supposed to do with this thing until then? Hide it in a salt mine?"

"Until our links break," says Marcus. "And I suggest we find a way to not disturb it, and keep people away. We have a lot of work to do."

Colin looks at Floyd, "Well, right now a golf course seems slightly more likely, don't you think?" He looks at the sphere, and then the paper, "I expect this to last… quite a while…"

"It could be years, or months… or hours," says Jason. "I don't know if I fully understand what's going on now. But… what Marcus says makes sense. We hide this away…" he says, brushing the sphere again. "And then… we make the most of what we are. Whatever that may be."

"Really it's what we ought to do anyway," says Marcus. "We live our lives, we do what is right. We make whatever time the world has the best time it's ever seen." He extends a hand, palm-down, waiting for the others to join him, "And we do it together!"

Jason smiles and places his hand atop Marcus's. "Amen to that."

Colin looks at Marcus' hand, and looks back up to Marcus, "That's almost too hokey for me…" He places his hand atop the others, and murmurs, "Almost."

"I've got no link," Floyd says, "but I'm proud to be Uncle Sam's point man here." He adds his hand to the pile. "That's enough for me."

Colin beams at Floyd, "Sometimes I think you manage to do more than us, Floyd."

Floyd says, "Then first things first," Floyd says. "We don't know how long this will go on, but it seems like whatever else happens, we have to keep that out of sight." He points at the sphere. "Let's get it to the UFO, and see if it will still move. And if it does… we find a place to put it."

The sphere is transported carefully over to the golf course and sealed away inside the UFO. Toby erects a lightless and soundless containment closet for it, and the Army has no trouble posting a permanent watch.

The UFO itself is motionless. The 'dark star' is present, but quiescent. Its other systems, like the supplemental generators, work just fine. But for now, it won't be flying anywhere.

During the transport, Floyd is contacted by Maurer, General Wellington, and other brass. "Something's happening. We're taking you out of direct control on this matter," the general explains frankly. "We're receiving reports of machines — weapons of war — coming out of the ground. We trust Aura. You did your job — we trust you to keep doing it. But this new matter is too big for one man, no matter who that man is."

"General, this job may be too large for one man," answers Marcus, "Fortunately Floyd is not alone. Our powers are at his disposal, of course, directed with our best judgement to serve the greater good of all the Earth. Would you say the rest of the world is prepared to do the same?"

"In spite of your admirable bravery, sir, we have something else for you." The general chuckles over the phone. "You're still deputized members of the national law enforcement apparatus. Leave fighting to the Army. But if this turns as ugly as it might — if we really are facing an invasion — there's going to be a lot of people scared or hurt. It's them you should turn your attentions to."

Jason, listening to the conversation, nods to himself. "Protecting the civilians rather than fighting the invasion. I can live with that."

"Sir," Floyd replies, " LI-13 is a civillian organization. It seems like we — and they — are positioned to fill that role. I suggest we proceed as such."

"We're getting reports now … Dammit, I thought Finch was joking," Wellington says over the phone. "When we told him where you'd gone, he just laughed and said 'perfect'. That damn alien's raising tripods out of the ground."

Floyd has trouble speaking for a while. "If I recall correctly, General," he finally says, "at least that's one we win in the end."

Tripod

Three-legged war machines have begun erupting from the earth in parts of the eastern seaboard. Guided by the malign intent of the hostile protoform, they march on America's cities and citizens. And if the rogue scientist and his extraterrestrial ally had had time to prepare, they might have succeeded.

The Army mobilizes. The Navy's forces dispose themselves. The American government, conscious of what it's facing thanks to the research being done by the LI-13 team, understands the danger and is reacting appropriately. The President and the Secretary of State are working double shifts to reassure and inform the rest of the world.

This is not to be a desperate defense of all humanity. The magnitude of the affair is small and relatively localized. But how much worse could it have been?

Where the tripods go, death and destruction do indeed follow. But they are only machines, made of Earthly materials, subject to Earthly laws, and vulnerable to America's military might. What that might cannot do, however, is mobilize with the speed and precision which Scrapper and his friends have demonstrated.

With the UFO out of action, the fastest way to get around is the Paper Dragon. Phone lines aren't working, but there's plenty of radios to go around; Floyd filters reports from the Army, and Marcus' dragon is dispatched as a scout. The army has no problem dispatching a helicopter for everyone else, but has to stay low to the ground; true to form, the tripods' weapons are swatting uncautious aircraft out of the sky.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the invasion seems to be centered more or less where the team starts, somewhere off the Turnpike near Grover's Mill. So it takes no time at all to find the first of a seemingly infinite string of crises. On a nearby city street, a three-legged, fifty-foot death machine menacing a school bus that has gotten stuck in a sea of abandoned cars.

Colin looks at his companions. "Well, this is, at least, what I think being a hero should be." He says, more or less as-a- matter-of-factually. He smiles to his companions, and makes a break for the war machines, the tripods of death. He holds up his katana, walking as if on the air, and holding his own against one of the machines, as the children pile out of the school bus below him. He looks down, trying to fend off the attacks from the invader before he lets one slip, the bus smashing behind him as so much metal and glass. Luckinly the teacher is holding the last school child, and running off into the distance. Colin takes a little breather.

But there is a lot of ground to cover, Marcus has come to adjust one of his golems to serve as a fast strike craft, further aided by the masters of air. While the military mobilizes swiftly to address threats, it is those with links that work to minimize the pain and suffering and buy the armed forces time to respond. It is a very short time indeed before the work of the heroes is splashed across news, their exploits doing more than saving lives: they give hope to those who face danger every day.

Jason has always been less confrontational than Colin, less inclined to fight. Fortunately, while Colin engages the tripods directly, there is more than enough for himself and Marcus to do. Much of modern human technology, particularly automotive technology, is full of flammable liquids; left to themselves, they would have left nowhere for the schoolchildren to run. This is where Jason comes in; the skills which he used to fight fire in caves beneath West Virginia work just as well in an urban environment, and wherever Jason casts his gaze, fires subside and fade. This, too, gives Marcus more room to work — fire is anathema to the paper golems, after all.

With the bystanders out of the way, there's no need to hold back on throwing force around. There's plenty of gasoline, and nitrogen volatiles, synthesized from the air by Jason. But when it comes to a straight brawl, Scrapper lives up to his handle. He jumps down from the helicopter wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and runs towards the tripod. Iron and steel fragments leap from nearby cars, buildings, and even dumpsters, until Toby Lazarus is surrounded by a swirling, man-shaped cloud of metal. The tripod tries to kick him aside, but Scrapper catches its footpad and twists. The machine falls backwards like a surprised drunk, and the humanoid iron figure batters it with fists like wrecking balls.

With tripods raining pure hell down throughout the east coast, the group starts to put on many miles. Rest is hard to come by, and in short order everyone is getting very used to getting their sleep in brief naps inside a swiftly-moving paper dragon. Still, some attacks stand out, and when assaults spring up up in Boston and New York at almost the same time, the group is put to an even greater test.

Tripods rise out of Boston Harbor, shedding dark water and detritus from the seabed. The immediately march on Logan Airport. Military and local authorities are using it as a marshalling point for evacuation and a staging point for the response to the attack. With the operation in jeaporady, the team knows where to go.

Colin looks out. "Boston, eh?" He looks around himself, the waling death dealers bring terror and destruction, that only the linkers can mitigate. He glowers at one of the machines, his sword singing as he attempts to battle off the foe. His glance is at his companions. He was always the front line, making it safe for them to evacuate or otherwise mitigate the populace as he fends off the seemingly impenetrable death dealer.

While the evacuation is the focus of Marcus' paper dragon, helping Colin distract the enemy and hopefully gain him an opening to destroy the foe falls to the strange cat that the paper master brings along. It's claws allow it to easily race over the surface of the enemy, and though it cannot break through the defenses, it can distract and confuse.

Floyd trundles forward to engage another of the machines. His trenchcoat flaps behind him as he steadies the ultra-tech Grappler against his hip, the very picture of the Man in Black. When one of the tripods fires, he quickly picks up a discarded luggage trolley and interposes it between himself and the deadly blast. The flash fades, and he flips a different trigger; the now-molten cart flies away from him as if shot by a cannon, striking the attacking machine squarely on the nose. He raises his radio as the thing topples. "One more down."

Flares go off around yet another tripod, the light as well as the pressure waves confusing the device's sensors enough to allow Jason to weave through the air around it. They don't leave Jason enough resources to build up a death blow… but he is able to steer it toward a nearby retention pond. As it draws near to the water, Jason swoops beneath it, grabbing one of the legs — and with all his might, aided by the grip of nitrogen, he hauls it off solid ground and into the water. Suddenly caught off balance, the thing struggles to right itself — but this time, the distraction is enough for Jason to take those crucial extra seconds. A titanic bang goes off near its head — and hardened nitrogen turns it into a directed blast that knocks it off its feet.

Every kind of transport, from Greyhound buses to water taxis to tugboats, flees from Logan Airport as fast as their engines will run. The invaders were stalled by the arrival of  LI-13; as if to take out their frustration, they turn from engaging the military to taking potshots at departing civillians. Some of the last to leave where from a field hospital, set up here to take pressure off the overwhelmed hospitals; two of the tripods now turn on their convoy as it rolls ponderously towards the freeway.

Off its duty as evacuation point, the titanic paper dragon throws itself at the enemy. It strikes the foremost tripod from the sky, ignoring its blows and slamming into it at full speed. The dragon heaves the first enemy above its head and throws it at the second. The impact is not enough to stop the foe, but it surely diverts attention. Standing near Floyd, Marcus stumbles from the strain of it, the older man leaning on the other for a moment. "I don't think I can do that again," Marcus admits.

"It's OK," Floyd replies. "You already gave it one hell of a papercut." He hoists the grappler and fires at the wounded tripod's legs. The machine isn't powerful enough to lift the attacker wholesale, but Floyd has gotten skilled at tripping them up. The machine slows, trips, loses its balance, and topples. The convoy is a mile away before it regains its footing. Marcus and Floyd have departed in the paper dragon, and the machine stomps around clumsily and impotently.

As the two tripods struggle to right themselves, Jason spirals between them. A peculiar atmospheric distortion follows around him as he flies, and his body seems to ripple, as if caught in a heat haze. Energy blasts stitch the air behind him, but this time he does not generate flak to confuse their tracking. He finally comes to a stop between them, and raises both hands in a rude gesture. One of the tripod's guns finally gets its bearing and fires — right through Jason's image and striking the tripod behind Jason. The atmospheric distortion fades, and Jason can be clearly seen a few feet away. Grinning, he darts off before the tripod can gain another lock.

The cities of the northeast are never completely evacuated; among other things, where would everone evacuate to? But somehow, they manage. Away from the urban sprawl, refugees find islands of peace in gymnasiums, stadiums, even aircraft hangars. By the third day, nobody is running in terror from the machines. Word gets around — the war can be won. Then there's the rumors about paper dragons, men of iron, magic samurai, and super-soldiers… inevitably, people start making comparisons to comic book heroes. And that only makes it better…

On the morning of the third day, LI-13 is leading a search for survivors in a formerly sleepy district of Staten Island where a tripod appeared without warning. What earth-movers might do in hours, the team can do in a few minutes. In many cases, Scrapper can almost wave tangled metal out of his way, and it's handy to be able to  re-oxygenate a trauma victim with a thought. Somehow, a news crew manages to sneak by friend and foe alike, and catch one dramatic rescue on camera…

Rebirth

The battle against the emergent alien tripods didn't last long, as such matters could have. In fact, Scrapper and his little band of vigilantes really dealt the decisive blow in the war, and did so before it ever began — they stopped the hostile protoform's full invasion plans, forced him to act more quickly than expected. And so in the end, the alien invasion wasn't one of overwhelming dominance. It was a defiant, spiteful gesture from a pre-empted conqueror. It was a very human invasion.

Vital repairs on a few buildings in downtown Trenton have been wrapped up. The group has come together to work on some of the urban devastation wrought by the tripods. The event comes without warning.

Marcus' dragon collapses abruptly — fortunately it was carrying nothing at the time. A shower of paper drifts on the wind where once stood a powerful creature. Similarly, the group themselves feel abruptly bereft of their new senses. Their awareness of the elements of the world is gone, severed at the source. This can mean only one thing: the battle has been decided, one way or another.

Colin looks over at Marcus as the feeling of control slips away. It is much like losing a good friend, or even a limb. He smiles, and cocks an eyebrow, "So. Who's it going to be?"

Marcus squeezes a hand shut and watches the paper fly away uselessly in the wind. With a sigh-perhaps of relief, perhaps of  regreat-he turns to Colin and grins. "That's a fine question. I'm rather terrified to even think of it, but in a way, it seems that is perhaps the most important thing we were chosen for, isn't it?"

Jason scratches his head. "Tough question. Who among us is pure of heart, that they may draw the sword from the stone?"

Floyd taps the control panel on the Grappler. Not even a beep. He sighs and drops the inert device. "Might be better if it's nobody. I'm inclined to bury the thing on the dark side of the Moon and leave it there until better beings than us dig it up."

"Buried things are found," says Marcus gently. "Dare we take that chance? Every choice has great risks."

Colin blinks, "Stay Puft Marshmellow man. Isn't any choice we make going to turn out wrong?"

Jason laughs at the incongruity. "Not really, Colin. We already know what can happen. Toby looked… and we got us. Finch looked, and we got an alien invasion. It does make a difference."

"The only wrong choice is to do nothing," Floyd quips. "So let's get over to the grounded UFO and make sure the cordon is intact. I know some places we can hide it, if we have to. And if Mother Theresa shows up in the meantime, we'll consider letting her through."

Colin ponders for a second, "I wonder if Toby would get Aura again… " He lets this thought hang out there, it does present many many questions.

"I think he would get something a little different," says Marcus. "He's changed. I think knowing what happens even changes it. But it's all a guess."

Colin says, "Perhaps. I almost feel like we owe it to Toby to let him take Aura home… " He looks around the ship that Toby has created. "We do owe him a lot."


The UFO is intact. Its duty as a temporary shelter has been discharged; the police have been on hand to keep people from poking into the innards. Now it's hollow, and empty, and dark. The secured area where the protoform has been stored still has its police tape over it.

Toby has been tinkering uselessly with the systems. He's been mopey and quiet, and most of his energy has gone into repairs or modifications to the UFO's secondary systems. He waves listlessly as the group approaches. "I felt it too," he says.

"You didn't look at it," Floyd says softly. It's a statement; there's no signs the crypt has been disturbed. More importantly, he knows Toby. "We're trying to decide… if anyone should. Or if we try to hide it."

Colin looks down at his feet,a nd at his companions. He doesn't want to be the first to say anything.

"Why do you get to decide?" Toby asks. "Mr. Floyd, who gets to decide that? Ah? Who?"

"If we can hide it," says Marcus. "Without our gifts moving this thing may prove a lot harder than it used to be. Now that most of us are just civilians again."

Colin looks back at Toby, "Who does get to decide, then?" He shrugs, the poitn coming out a bit more fiercely than he really meant it.

"Who does get to decide, indeed?" says Jason. "We're the men on the spot. We have no right to be the ones to decide… but we have to be, even if only by inaction. If we don't decide ourselves, we've decided to leave it to the vagaries of fate."

"And the will of the state," says Marcus.

"Fine." Toby shrugs. "So then. What is your decision?"

Floyd finds somewhere to sit — a bucket seat out of some huge old Chrysler. "That I can answer. It has to be us. One thing that worries me… if this is the end of the crisis, then it will be back to 'business as usual' in Washington." He hooks a thumb over his shoulder. "I'm a good soldier, but I don't want the Pentagon to get … it." He almost said 'her'.

The UFO is mostly cleared out. A couple of police officers are drinking coffee outside. It's just the group — and a pair of loitering alley cats, who presumably have also had the good sense not to peek behind the screen.

"We have a little time," says Marcus. "We're the only ones who know what is happening, right? I think it is meant to be our decision. This is likely to be our last great act as heroes, you might say."

Colin looks over at Marcus, "Yes. It might be. And a lot of me thinks that it shouldn't…"

"OK," Floyd says. "Then let's move quickly. First question: does anyone here want it? I will say right now that I don't."

Colin shakes his head…

Marcus stares down at the floor, "I think we're all a little scared of it, honestly. Who wouldn't be?"

"Looking at it while scared or sad? This does not seem wise, comrades," observes Toby.

Jason, for his part, is looking contemplatively at the back of the room. "I wonder…" He taps his chin. "Toby, you wanted to take her home. Maybe that's the best thing. If whoever looks at it does so with the intent of returning it to its homeworld…"

Colin arches an eyebrow at Toby, "You haven't said anything, boss…"

"… I'd need some time, comrades," the junk man says after a long moment. "Let me cheer up, okay?"

Marcus smiles at Toby, "My friend, I think you have it right. We can't use this thing if we aren't positive."

Jason leans on Floyd's chair. "There's just one problem," he says. "We know we aren't alone in the universe anymore. What if there are other invaders? We were helpless against Finch's protoform without Aura. We'd be just as helpless against anyone else wielding Links. And we may not be lucky enough to have the next one crash-land to be imprinted by humans."

"We've gone thousands of years without contact," Floyd says slowly. "Someone at  LI-13 was talking about, what did he call it, Drake's Equation. We could probably go several thousand more…" He shakes his head. "Whoever 'imprints' next is going to be humanity's ambassador out there. I'm willing to leave it in their hands. And if anything does land closer to home…" Floyd grins for the first time since the 'war' began. "Well. That's a job for us, right?"

Colin looks over at Floyd, "So, I was never clear on Aura's 'mission' while she was here anyway. I know other people had an easier time, but I found talkign to her like unraveling the gordian knot. I got the impression that whatever she is wasn't intended to be friendly."

"She read us a prepared statement from the aliens that came with her," Floyd mentions. "It was pretty grim. But that was them, not her."

"Aura was a good woman," says Marcus. "The rest are details. Important, but not as important as who she was to us."


Toby has gone out for awhile. He returns in good cheer with a woman dressed in a nurse's uniform. "Comrades, I have elected to take the Pepsi challenge facing us," he explains. "And I ask that you all respect the manner in which I have done so."

He turns, gesturing at the woman. "This is Nurse Edith McKinstry, she is one of the rescue workers who have been saving lives here." Nurse McKinstry bobs her head briefly. "Hi, it's nice to meet you all."

Marcus is somehow surprised, and not. "Well, as long as have a nurse to help us along the way we should be just fine, right?" He stands up and offers a hand, "Nice to meet you Nurse McKinstry." He handles all the introductions and asks, "So, what happens now?"

Toby himself resumes. "Yes, the brief battles here have still left a few loosened ends. And I have decided that what is most important is that for nobody to be selfish in their wishes. And I have thought about what Aura meant to us. I have asked around and found the unfortunate test pilot for this program." The nurse steps outside the UFO a moment. She returns pushing a baby carriage. "This is Lisa. A newborn. Now an orphan," Toby explains.

"Do you understand my intending, comrades?"

Colin nods at Toby.

Floyd frowns. "Call me a dumb flatfoot, but… no."

"I have a guess, but I'm not sure what the outcome would be," says Marcus. "Are you suggesting we have a baby do this?"

Toby nods. "A baby will not wish the death of the world. A baby wishes for only this: the perfect mother."

Jason nods. "As long as she doesn't wish us into the cornfield…"

Colin nods at Marcus, "I suppose we can put the world's poets to the test on the innocence of a child, in any case."

"Rather too aware of original sin for that one, Colin," admits Marcus. "It's certainly an interesting idea. I've just always heard that it takes a while for a child to even realize that other people have thoughts and feelings. Still, there's something to be said for this angle."

The nurse is instructed in what to do: the cart will be pushed into the enclosure and withdrawn, perhaps 20 minutes later if nothing happens. Toby assures the nurse that nothing will happen to the child — which is true enough as far as he understands the issue. In fact, nobody is really certain what will happen.

In due course, Nurse McKinstry follows her instructions. She carefully pushes the cart to the opening, then gently eases it in the rest of the way without looking inside. Baby Lisa is cooing and inspecting her own chubby thumbs all the way in.

In a few moments the cooing stops. There's a gurgling noise, and then after a few moments, a squeal of delight and baby laughter.

A minute passes. The carriage gently rolls out, minus the baby.

Floyd murmurs, "OK, that could go either way. In any case, your country thanks you for your service. Especially you, Toby."

Soft footsteps follow it. There is a woman, made entirely out of a material with a metallic gleam and a pinkish hue to it. She is beautiful enough; similar in some ways to Aura, but also different. She could be Schala's older sister, and she's walking. In her arms, Lisa is snuggled up.

Colin looks up at the proto-mommy, and then at Lisa, then back at proto-mommy. "Er…"

Jason smiles and waves. "Hello, ma'am. Who are you?"

"I am Eve," the woman answers, smiling down at her child. "I remember all of you. And I love you all." She looks up, and her eyes meet those of her audience.

"It's a pleasure to meet you again, Eve," says Marcus. He looks around at his friends, "So what now?"

Jason smiles. "So… we won, then? Or rather… all of humanity won." He breathes a sigh of relief, as if only just now realizing he'd been holding his breath.

"I remember why I am here," Eve says, looking now especially at Toby. "I know whose child I am." She raises a hand, careful not to dislodge Lisa, and gestures. A flickering light comes into existence there, an array of crystal and shine that spins slowly in place. "Here. The coordinates to my homeworld, the place of my birth." She squeezes slowly; the crystal disintegrates into powder, drifting to the ground.

"Our kind are sent into the universe as children. We're meant to find other lifeforms, to become new things. Our parents wish us to experience everything there is in the cosmos. I was kidnapped. I was sent here by creatures who wished to use me in their plans for your planet. I became… separated."

Eve smiles. "And so I've become what my parents wished for me. There's no need to take me home. My friends, I am home."

"Do we have to worry about these creatures?" Jason asks.

"They expected a signal back from any planets that the ship had found," Eve explains. "No signal means that they think I'm still in flight — or lost. No, they won't come here."

Floyd says, "Then… the crisis is passed."

"So our job is done, then?" asks Marcus. Inside, he can't help but a feel a little bit of a let-down. It's hard for a day job to compete with being a super hero.

"There is still more to do," Eve explains. "Now that we're together, I can link to flesh, the way the invader did. And to begin with, some unfinished business…"

She stretches out her free hand, gesturing at the air, and makes a tugging sensation. Two humanoid figures are literally pulled into reality, similar to the gold bug and other things the group has seen. As their features become clearer, they become recognizable: the two soldiers who were slain by the invader protoform.

"What was done can be undone. And what has already been taken can be used," proclaims Eve. The pattern of her body begins to shift and waver. Where there was once metal, there is now living flesh. A living woman stands nude before you, cradling a child — now her child — warmly against her.

"Toby Lazarus, you really are an idiot," says Eve in a chiding voice. "You spent all this time in my mind, and I in yours, and you thought you could hide feelings from me." Toby's blush springs immediately to his cheeks, though he need not face away — he already is.

Colin stands just about speechless. He looks around,a nd collapses into a nearby chair.

Jason stares just a little too long, before blushing and looking away himself. "Uh, does anyone have a blanket? Or a, a, a towel or something?" he stutters. Though he does try to keep his voice down. This is Toby's moment, after all.

Marcus' eyes are about as wide as they can go. He whispers, "Truly the cosmos is more vast than we might ever come to comprehend… and I am grateful to only be a very small part of it, so that I can experience wonder at the turn of every leaf."

"Love is everywhere in the universe," says Eve with a smile. "Love is the most important thing. The only real thing." And as the UFO's systems begin to come alive around them, she looks at Toby. "Shall we go for a flight?"

"Ave mater sancti," Floyd intones, by way of reply. He motions to the others. "Let's give them some time to work it out. You guys can help me make some phone calls… starting with the White House."