When the five -- now six, with Melissa -- returned to Suzy's with their cartons of food and short-cases of beer, the statue of Florinda Bassani was no longer seated on its table. Instead, a very mobile Florinda bustled around the kitchen, putting clean dishes away and wiping down the granite countertops. "You lot have been slacking some lately," she said as she dropped a wad of paper towels into the garbage under the sink. She turned and extended her slender arms out to encompass the sparkling kitchen, grinning at the astonished group. "Ta-da!"
"You're back!" Carol cried, rushing into her cousin's embrace.
"Told you I would be," Florinda said, each word punctuated by a small gasp as a tearful Carol pounded on her back.
"Some ass got kicked tonight," Suzy said while she stuck two short cases of Henry's into her fridge. "And you're back, so we'll get into the decent Pinot instead of beer." She straightened up and smiled at Melissa, who looked both out-of-place and unlikely to quit touching one or the other of the triplets anytime soon. "I've got some sweats that'll come close to fitting you, Melissa, so you can get out of your office clothes before we eat."
Melissa nodded and rested her slightly cleft chin on top of Hui's head while hugging the smaller woman, her eyes half-lidded. "I was hoping for clothing optional, Miz Conlon."
For the first time Suzy could remember since they all changed, the Duc Barcs looked uneasy, apparently uncomfortable with the triplet-obsessed Melissa Gardner they'd created. Suzy laughed. "Maybe later, Melissa. C'mon, let's go down to my room and see what I've got. It'll hang on you, but at least we're the same height
"I'm sub-letting my place and moving in with you guys," Melissa said matter-of-factly when she and Suzy were alone in Suzy's room, going through drawers and holding Suzy's meager array of new workout gear up to Melissa's long hoydenish body.
"Because of the Duc Barcs?" Suzy asked, wondering just how deep Melissa's bond to the little Asians went. At least as intense as they were about Suzy, she figured, and probably more so.
"Of course, but also because I'm as much at risk as you six, though less than you and Carol. On the way here, Dui filled me in on what happened to them."
"I didn't hear you two talking in the back seat. Just the other stuff."
During the entire time she'd known her snooty co-worker, Suzy had never seen anything remotely like the erotic expression on Melissa Gardner's stunning features at that moment. Green fire kindled in her eyes. "They were fortunate you and Carol destroyed the local facility and freed them. They would have been slaves. There will always be an obligation to you."
Suzy shook her head. "No. They've paid me back several times over. They owe me nothing."
"You saved humanity."
"Florinda made that possible. And the battle isn't over."
"True enough, but you also stopped Miz Yarnell from complicity with the forces of evil."
"Your new little chums did that."
Melissa kicked off her low heels, pulled off her stockings, and began removing her power suit. Her smile didn't change. "Yes, but you are the thread that binds the bones of this enterprise. The hero's role may have been thrust upon you, but you heeded the call."
"That's pretty Campbellesque, Melissa."
"I did a double major at Portland State. Sociology and Business." As she spoke, Melissa unbuttoned her blouse, not taking her gaze from Suzy's. "But I paid my tuition pole-dancing at a local club."
"You've completely upset my applecart of convictions about you, kiddo. I thought you were an inhibited prude."
Melissa laughed throatily. "A facade. I was outhibited. It seemed practical. No one got past my external protective shell. I appeared cunning, aloof, and judgmental, but I watched and I learned. I'm good at what I do, Miz Conlon, very good." Clad only in a lacy black bra and panties, she moved closer to Suzy. "Would you like see how good?"
Five popped into Suzy's mind. Take her now!
"No, Five," Suzy growled.
"Who is Five?" Melissa asked, draping her arms over Suzy's shoulders and stroking the back of Suzy's neck with seductive fingers.
"Every suit has an internal program. We activated Miz Yarnell's, and it controls her. Carol and I have normal volition, but the program, though never activated, gives advice and commentary."
"An internal voice?"
"Yes. Now take your hands off me, Melissa."
Melissa disengaged herself with obvious reluctance.
"What does your invisible companion say now?"
Sweet Kate Beckinsale, Suzy! Are you insane!
"Predictably, she thinks I'm nuts."
Melissa pulled on a pair of Suzy's sweats, a lime-green shade which complimented her eyes. She looked pleased. "I agree completely, Miz Conlon. With my small mistresses' permission, I will make you regret this tiny rejection. You can only imagine me for now. But the future..."
A kiss, Suzy! For my sake! I am burning up here.
"Five, give me a break."
Melissa saw her opening and moved closer again. "Five is right, Miz Conlon."
"Shit," Suzy replied, giving in. She grabbed Melissa and drew her close. "Only a kiss, okay?"
"There is no such thing with me," Melissa purred, pressing her moist lips to Suzy's. "I'm sorry."
In less than an minute, Suzy came, her knees nearly giving way. "Melissa..." she moaned, feeling her slim, provocative co-worker bucking against her.
"Ah-h-h-h," Melissa murmured in reply.
When their orgasms wound down, they stood together silently for another minute or two. Suzy sighed softly, looking into Melissa's dreamy gaze. "We should get back to the food."
"Yes, but that was very nice. My new body is more responsive." She gave Suzy a quick kiss. "I hope Five is satisfied."
"Five?" Suzy asked her inner self.
Oh my Gawd! said Five.
* * * * *
"What about your Avatar?" Suzy asked Florinda while the seven women finished off the last carton of Chinese.
"She's busy twenty-four-seven. She's searching every database she can access for information about our Mister Baxter. We agreed to download her findings into me every morning."
"Do you feel normal?"
"Well, yes and no. I'm Beta Latex, just like you guys, and my inclination to have sex seems stronger, but I've always been able to subvert that need by keeping occupied.”
Florinda took a long swallow of Pinot. "It might be tougher now, though."
"It's just good to have you back. You were scary-looking just sitting there smiling."
"I hear you," Florinda replied, grinning normally.
"And we may not be out of the woods yet, folks," Suzy said. "With Miz Yarnell converted into an obedient automaton, we effectively have any problems within the Company handled, but until Manning gets back to me after questioning the live captures, we still have Baxter out there somewhere."
"None of them have been very clever so far," Carol observed. "I suppose we can't count on that continuing."
"We can close ranks, though," Suzy said. "When I went to the bathroom a half-hour ago, I checked my bank balance. We have ten million, and the condo market is in the shitter. Even this place is mostly empty, so I suggest we buy the entire floor and re-model for ease of access and security. All of us in one place. Any thoughts on that?"
Every glass was raised in quick assent.
"That was easy enough," Carol said. "What do we do about Thanksgiving, though? It's only nine days away. Hui, Lui, and Dui will go as a group to their family, and Florie and I will attend the Paisano-Fest. There's some safety in numbers in both those situations. What do you do at Thanksgiving, Melissa?"
"I go to my folks with my older brother and sister. The folks live in Wilsonville." She turned to Suzy, her smile smug and knowing. "What do you do, Miz Conlon?"
"We all get together at my brother's in West Linn."
"Simple enough, then. We go to my parents at mid-morning, stay until around two or three in the afternoon, then drive to West Linn and spend the late afternoon and evening with your family."
Suzy was mildly aghast. "But they'll all think we're..."
"Lesbian lovers, yes. I cannot find a suitable alternative which still satisfies our familial obligations, yet lets us watch our backs. It would seem to be a charade which we can carry off, however, with an honest effort." Her smile grew more suggestive. "I see casual cashmere and the exchange of companionable glances."
"Here's to an honest effort!" chorused the Duc Barcs, who seemed quite happy to off-load their new creation onto Suzy.
"You okay with that scenario, Suze?" Carol asked.
Suzy shrugged. "I can't see a better way." She resisted giving Hui, Dui, and Lui the stink-eye.
"It won't be easy on you, Miz Conlon," Melissa said, her expression concerned. "Perhaps repeated viewings of 'Desert Hearts' this weekend would give you some pointers. We can watch together. How does that sound?"
Suzy looked from one of her friends to the other, pointedly avoiding Melissa Gardner. She could practically feel the corner she'd been backed into pressing against each shoulder blade.
She ignored Five's cheering inside her head.
* * * * *
Suzy had been asleep for around two hours when Melissa slipped under the sheets to lie beside her.
"I thought you were with the triplets?" Suzy asked sleepily.
"They're with Carol and Florinda," Melissa replied, snuggling against Suzy. "I chatted with Florinda's Avatar until after midnight, then did what my heart suggested."
"Your 'heart suggested?' You are so full of shit, Melissa."
"True enough, Miz Conlon, but you are not displeased." Her lips contacted Suzy's neck, nibbling lightly. "Are you?"
"No, Melissa," Suzy replied, shivering with pleasure.
I am holding my breath, Five said.
"I think I will take you for a test drive, Miz Conlon," Melissa said, stroking Suzy's belly. "Down the straightaways, around the curves, and into the tunnels. Will that be all right?"
"Good girl. Just lie on your back and let me take charge of proceedings. Do you promise to cum violently?"
Suzy grinned in the darkness.
Melissa began to suck lightly on Suzy's left nipple. "Your wish shall be granted."
Yowsa! said Five.
* * * * *
Ten o'clock Thanksgiving night found Suzy and Melissa Gardner heading north on I-5 in Melissa's red Audi A-3. "That couldn't have gone much better, could it, Suzy?" Melissa asked as she switched into the fast lane and overtook a seeming convoy of mini-vans in the center lane.
Suzy leaned back against her headrest and closed her eyes. "No, not really, except when my dad said he'd always wanted a supermodel in the family, he just didn't expect it to ever happen, and particularly not the way it did. I nearly blew gravy out my nose."
Resting her right hand on Suzy's left thigh, Melissa chuckled. "You did well with my parental units, too."
"They're nice. Your sister kept asking what product we use on our skin to get that perfect smooth look."
"'Fresh vegetables and lots of exercise.' I heard that reply several times. I think she guessed it wasn't that simple. My nephews thought you were a babe, too."
"What are they, eight and ten? They don't realize that next to you, I'm nothing special."
"You're more approachable. You paid attention to them, asked them what kids' books they like, listened to them. They can be at ease around their Aunt Melissa, but I'm old news. They don't remember a time when I wasn't in the picture, but they can have crushes on you, the new girl."
"Your mom said we could adopt, though. That confused the little guys."
Melissa put both hands on the steering wheel as the Audi swung into the Terwilliger curves. She laughed. "My gravy moment."
Suzy opened her eyes and looked at Melissa. "I could never have imagined you and me, Melissa, you know?"
Melissa shook her head. "I always thought you knew way more than I did about the business. It made me uneasy. You never displayed any ego, but you always had good, common sense answers and great project overview, and it was intimidating. A little bit, anyway. Certainly Miz Yarnell relied on you more than anyone."
"And here we are, Supermodel and Love Doll."
"That sounds cynical, Suzy, and you aren't. Carol and Florinda are, but not you." Melissa paused, going back into the center lane, and Suzy watched her in the shifting lights reflected off the wet pavement, waiting for her to continue. "You know, the hardest part for me was learning not to call you Miz Conlon. The Duc Barcs sort of programmed me, and as much as I tried to say 'Suzy,' I just couldn't, at least to your face. Finally I
locked myself in the bathroom and spoke your name in front of the mirror, oh, maybe a hundred times."
"And that worked?"
"Yes. But I still can't be jealous of you and Manning. That compulsion is really locked-in."
"We're only going out to dinner on Saturday, Melissa. That's all. Roger's a nice man. His full-time job just now is mostly us. It doesn't hurt to be decent to him."
"He wants to get into your knickers, wants to find what the whole Love Doll thing is about. And don't tell me otherwise."
"Yeah. You're right there. Don't count on that happening, though. And, please, Melissa, don't worry about it. One dinner is not the basis for a life-long pledge."
Melissa shook her head and frowned as she slipped into the right lane over the Marquam Bridge. The Willamette River shone dark and deep below. "Neither is one Thanksgiving, Suzy Q."
"One Thanksgiving spent with loved ones is the real deal, Miz Supermodel."
Suzy leaned over and kissed Melissa on her right cheek. "One in particular."
The frown disappeared as Melissa braked the Audi for the OMSI exit. "Be still my heart."
"Forget your heart. How's your camel's toe faring? You ready for a late-night Happy Meal?"
"Not 'til we get home. Coming while going can be dangerous."
* * * * *
"This is very pleasant," Suzy told Roger Manning. The two sat next to the window at Higgins on Southwest Broadway with their first glasses of Reisling. "And this is the first time I've seen you without a tie, Roger."
His answering smile was predictably crooked. "I feel incompletely dressed, for sure. A lot of job lately, rounding up the Alien's bully-boys. And girls. The three that tried to kill you and the others had five additional helpers. Two of them were women."
"Oh, yeah. Doesn't matter. Once we've asked all our questions -- and the patches really speed things up -- Gitmo doesn't care. They'll be down there with their big white boss for the foreseeable future."
"How do they secure him? He's got to be ingenious, as well as terribly strong. And there must be people willing to risk all to free him."
"A lot of concrete. His quarters are far from spartan, however. Even has an outdoor garden and exercise area. Concrete under that, of course, with a heavy cross-screened cover. Propane burners every foot or so along the tops of the walls. When he gets closer than twenty feet, they fire up. Even if he could tear through the screen, he'd fry on the top of the wall."
"How often is he questioned?"
"Most days, I understand. Interestingly enough, he's very forthcoming."
Their finger food arrived, the waiter promising their salads within ten minutes.
"Why would he answer questions that freely?"
"My take is that he believes he has nothing to fear, and I don't mind telling you it makes everyone nervous. He talks about his past, his work with the Nazis during WWII, his plans for the future. He doesn't, however, give any of his people up."
Suzy glanced out the window at the street, cars moving slowly south between lights, dark shapes bundled against November in Portland. "Are your people out there, Roger?"
"Sure. Two on the street, one on the opposite roof with a night-vision rifle. You're important, Suzy."
Suzy picked up a tofu-battered snap bean, took a bite. "It's hard to imagine."
"While we're waiting, I have something I want you to take a look at." He reached inside his sports jacket, brought out a small stack of pictures. He laid the top one in front of Suzy. "Do you recognize this person?"
Stifling a laugh at the sight of the redheaded cartoon character and her amazing figure, Suzy said, "It's Florinda Bassani's Avatar, I think, though the character is licensed. How did you come by it?"
"It's popping up on our computers on a regular basis, providing information on Mister B's henchpeople. Drops a group of names and addresses, then disappears. Our experts can't follow a trace. She simply vanishes."
"But provides good intelligence?"
"Totally. We've picked up close to fifty people on her tips."
"Don't tell anybody, Roger. She is benefiting you."
"Mum's the word. She does jerk them around, though."
"You've got the Alien. Time will take care of the rest."
Manning reluctantly agreed, and their salads arrived. Suzy resolved to put aside the cares of the Nation for a good dinner with an interesting man.
* * * * *
"How was your date?" Florinda asked from where she sat conversing with her Avatar. It was close to midnight and no one else was in the great room.
"Really nice evening, and very chaste. Only a goodnight kiss," Suzy replied, hanging her coat in the hall closet. "Where's the gang?"
"Don't you mean 'Where's Melissa?'"
"Not exactly, but yes, of course."
"They went to a movie. 'Hellboy 3' I think."
"Okay. I'm going to hit the sack, then. The architects are coming by with the final re-modeling plans tomorrow."
"On a Sunday?"
"I want to get it done and have all of us settled in by the week before Christmas. With the down-turn in the housing market, workmen can get started soon, and it's not all that difficult. See you in the morning."
Florinda waved absently and went back to her Avatar.
In her room, Suzy hung her clothes in the walk-in closet and folded her cashmere sweater carefully before placing it in her cedar chest.
She lay in bed reading when Melissa came in.
"How was the movie?" Suzy asked.
Her head cocked to one side, her thumbs hitched in her belt, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, Melissa still looked simply perfect. "Excellent. Did you get violated?"
"No, my dear. No little rubberoids will be appearing in nine months."
"Rubberoids? Is that what we have? Sounds like some painful latex affliction of the lower end of something."
"Take off your clothes, Melissa. Come to bed."
Melissa pulled off her T-shirt, spun it around over her head in one hand while grinning laciviously at Suzy.
"I can do that. Remember?"
"Maybe we should have a pole installed."
Slipping out of her jeans and undergarments, Melissa considered the possibility. "Maybe. I could give you lessons."
Suzy laughed. "Just get over here, okay?"
"I'll give Five the reins. She can show her tricks."
"You can do that?"
"I figured you liked creepy."
"I've dated creepy," Melissa replied, lifting up the comforter and sheets and crawling into bed with Suzy. "Never said I liked it. How about we save Five for some future encounter?"
Promises, promises, Five said, sounding quite disappointed.
"You still get to watch and savor, Five," Suzy told her alter ego.
"I am savory," Melissa said, guiding Suzy's right hand down between her slick, warm thighs.
* * * * *
The architects had left just after noon when Suzy's cell phone chimed. "Roger?" she asked, answering.
"Two bad things. The Alien escaped."
"How? It all sounded foolproof."
"So easily. He walked over to the wall, fragmented into several dozen small copies of himself. They went up the wall like geckos, slipped between the burners and the steel mesh, scampered to the ocean, reintegrated into the Alien, and dove in. He was last sighted swimming toward South America. Gulls did get one of the little guys, though."
"No helicopters? No patrol boats? No submarines? How could he get away?"
"Grew flippers, swam deep and fast. They lost him in less than twenty kilometers."
"Look, Suzy, don't be worried. He's not going to come for you. I'll pull more people in tomorrow, we'll be at your business. There's no chance you'll be in more danger."
"Okay. What's the second thing?"
"Something big near-missed the International Space Station."
"How big? What was it?"
"Several hundred meters in diameter. Not a chunk of space rock, either. Artificial. Ports, weaponry pods. Definitely not from around here. They think it came for the Alien, to rescue him."
"Where'd it go?"
"No one knows. It disappeared, right in plain sight, less than ten klicks from the Station." His sigh was audible even over the phone. "I'm sorry, Suzy."
"Look, Roger, don't be. The triplets will keep watch. We'll be okay."
"I hope. And could you have Florinda rein in her Avatar? She blew through White House Security, surfaced in the President's computer, made some fairly provocotive sexual offers. They said the Prez thought it was a hoot, but, you know, that kind of thing doesn't make National Security look good."
"No. I mean, yes, I'll ask her. And thanks for the warnings."
They hung up.
"Well, guys," Suzy told Melissa, Florinda, and Carol. "I've got some news."
Just as Suzy finished explaining Roger Manning's phone call, the Duc Barc sisters pelted in from the hallway.
"A black Sprinter Van just pulled up outside!" Hui exclaimed.
"Like the one the Collectors had," added Lui.
"We may be in danger," Dui finished.
"Maybe not," Suzy replied, reiterating Roger's phone call. "It could be the feds. They love those rigs, too. Let's have a look."
All seven women went to the big floor-to-ceiling window on the street side and watched four black-clad men and a large black dog get out of the van.
"They look official," Carol admitted.
"They're wearing black berets," Florinda said.
"So's the dog," said Melissa.
The four walked purposefully toward the Condos, sun glinting off their shades, the unleashed dog trotting alongside them.
"Big guys," Suzy said, estimating their heights at nearly six-and-a-half feet. "Let's see if they use the Intercom."
The Intercom panel beeped as Suzy approached. She opened the line to the entry. An obvious law enforcement face appeared on the screen, stern-eyed and thin-lipped. "Suzanne Conlon?" a deep baritone voice asked.
The man held up an official-looking folder opened to an official-looking badge. "We are here about the Albino Alien. We'd like to ask you and your companions some questions."
"Okay," Suzy replied, breathing a sigh of relief. "Come on up." She hit the entry lock release. "I think they're the real deal," she told the others.
The van now says 'Sector Enforcement' on its side," Hui called from the window.
"It didn't a minute ago," Dui said.
"They're right," Lui confirmed.
A series of three sharp raps sounded from the door.
Suzy opened the door, revealing the four tall men and the dog, which examined Suzy with more than ordinary doggy interest. The man on the intercom held out a beefy hand. "Captain Steve Strong, Sector Nine Enforcement. Pleased to meet you, Miz Conlon."
Suzy gripped the hand, and gasped as she felt its texture. "You're like us!"
"Yes, we are, Miz Conlon. Very good! Central Point dispatched us to capture the renegade albino and bring him before the Grand Tribunal to receive the punishment which he has evilly eluded for over a hundred years." Strong indicated the three other uniformed men craning to see around his broad shoulders. "These are my junior officers, Tom, Dick, and Sam Dover."
"Damn, I left my trinkets in the van!"
Strong smiled indulgently. "Ignore them, young ladies. Merely venting some steam. They've been in deep space for years, with not much to do besides watch your television programs."
"Where's the beef?"
"Three hour tour!"
The big man's smile wavered a bit around the edges. He indicated the dog. "And this is Bouncer, our faithful canine companion."
Bouncer raised a paw and pulled off his beret. He regarded Suzy with obvious intelligence, nodded his bulky head politely, and said, "Preased to meet you, Miz Conron."
"What?" Suzy asked, shocked.
Bouncer winked. "Just havin' you on, Miss. That's not the Mystery Machine out front, after all, is it now?"
"Bouncer watches a lot of BBC," Strong put in, his smile back to normal.
"Cor, strike a light," said the dog. "Stone the crows!"
"How did you find us?" Carol asked the Captain.
"The Avatar contacted us while we were inbound, two days ago. We homed in on her signal."
"Was that your ship the International Space Station saw?" Suzy asked.
The big man frowned. "Yes, I'm sorry to say. The AI reached a critical juncture while playing Grand Theft Auto 5, grew agitated, and lost control of the cloaking device for nearly two minutes."
"Look, Captain, they have children!" exclaimed one of the Dovers, pointing at the Duc Barcs.
"So cute!" said another.
"Coochie coo!" said the third, bending down and chucking Hui under the chin. "Want some candy, little girl?"
Hui seized him by both ears, pulled herself up to his level, planted her feet on his thighs, and smashed her forehead into his. She kicked off as the big junior officer toppled over backward, sprawling to the floor.
"Ooohh!" the remaining two Dovers said, looking down at their fallen brother, who held his head in both hands and groaned in pain.
Strong took off his beret and began slapping his subordinates with it. "Is this what you three learned at Space Academy, for the love of the Resilient Creator? Your female classmates may have been great hulking women, but that is not the case here." He bowed to the triplets. "I apologize."
"Apology accepted," the Duc Barcs replied, bowing in return.
The Captain turned to Suzy, Carol, Florinda, and Melissa. "May I speak with the Avatar? The ship's AI is creating a auxiliary unit to augment her powers."
Florinda walked to the TV and turned it on. "She's my Avatar, by the way, utilizing a copy of my mind."
"Then you have an impressive intellect indeed," Strong replied politely, as the screen brightened on the Avatar, wearing her red and black form-fitting uniform and smiling out at the Sector Nine officer.
"Steve! Good to see you in the flesh. As it were. And Tom, Dick, and Sam! Hi, guys."
"Hello, Avatar," the Space Patrol officers chorused.
Melissa leaned over and whispered into Suzy's right ear: "Let me see if I understand the situation. These guys are going to keep our asses safe and capture the Alien?"
"I guess," Suzy whispered back as Strong and his subordinates conversed with the Avatar.
"Not to worry, lasses," Bouncer said, nudging their legs for attention, with a doggy grin. "The Captain may appear a bit scattered, but he commanded the Special Forces unit which defeated the Albino's creatures on Murdstone in the final battle and drove the evildoer off-planet in a damaged ship. It was falsely assumed that the Albino perished during his flight, until your television commercials featuring his products began to appear twenty years ago. Then, after ten years of debate, the Grand Council finally sent the Hero of Murdstone in pursuit. You really have little to fear. The Dovers may be somewhat wet behind their ears, but they are Space Academy graduates, after all, and they will act decisively and with due alacrity when duty calls."
"Oh," Suzy and Melissa replied.
"Still," Bouncer continued, shaking his powerful jowls, "there has been a great amount of telly-watching."
"That'll screw with your head," Carol said.
"Indeed," the big dog agreed.
"Did you know the Albino escaped from prison?" Suzy asked.
Bouncer nodded. "The Avatar gave us the news just as we were leaving the ship in the lander to come here. Captain Strong is quite concerned. He'd hoped a simple snatch-and- grab from the prison would give us the miscreant mutant. Clearly circumstances have been complicated. Plus, there is also the matter of Mister Baxter, a man of no small resources."
"Where's the lander now?" Melissa asked.
"That's it out front."
Suzy looked out the window at the very normal-looking vehicle, whose side now read 'Space Academy Wants You!' "You flew a Mercedes Sprinter van from orbit to here?"
"To be sure. Of course, the wheels extrude from the body once we land, and there are modifications to insure an adequate internal atmosphere, propulsion systems, and armor, but otherwise the vehicle can pass for normal quite nicely."
The three women looked at one another. "Oh."
On the other side of the great room, the conversation with the Avatar concluded. Strong and the Dovers, flanked by the Duc Barcs and Florinda Bassani, rejoined Suzy, Melissa, and Carol by the window. Suzy wondered briefly if the four men -- and Bouncer -- were going to sleep in the van or go back into orbit. They wouldn't have room for them here until after the remodeling was complete, and she wouldn't even have the first bids till the end of the week. A problem, but nothing compared to the larger issues.
"I'm certain you ladies all have questions concerning your physical conditions," Strong began, "which are vastly different from your former more conventional humanity. I shall be glad to answer any and all." He turned to the Dover brothers. "Why don't you lads go down to that lovely park we noticed on the way here? Stretch your legs, observe the locals on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Do you a world of good, eh? Change out of your uniforms in the van. Bouncer will go with you, have a fine romp."
"We will go also," said Hui, Dui, and Lui.
"I have a frisbee in our room," Lui said, trotting off down the hall.
The Captain beamed. "There, it's all settled then."
Lui returned brandishing a bright blue frisbee and waved it at Bouncer, who looked less than enchanted. Strong rubbed the massive dog behind his short ears, bending down to speak to him. "Blend in and observe, Bouncer. Keep your friends out of trouble."
"By your request, Captain, but I refuse to fetch that damnable device."
"I understand. It would be undignified, wouldn't it, for the noble beast who tore the throats out of over a hundred lizard-men on Murdstone?"
Bouncer said nothing, merely walked to the door with his ears and tail down, resigned to his role.
The Dovers began to sing in harmony as the group filed out into the main hallway: "Who is that tall, dark stranger there? Maverick is the name. Riding the trail to who knows where. Luck is his companion, gambling is his game."
The door shut on the second stanza, leaving Strong looking paternal and the Suzy and the others with their mouths open.
"Are they always like this?" Melissa asked the Captain.
The tall officer frowned briefly. "They'll settle down over the next few days, I assure you, Miz Gardner. They're young, this is an adventure, they thirst for action. Though it's been nearly two hundred of your years, I remember my own initial call to duty after graduation." He shook his head, his dark eyes distant for several seconds. "Splendid times, first training with Bouncer, then deploying into the hotspots of Sector Nine and discovering grim reality."
"Would you like something to drink while we talk?" Suzy asked, gesturing toward the seating in the great room.
"Of course, and water will be fine. I'm sure your questions will take some time."
Carol and Florinda brought out five chilled bottles of San Pellegrino water on a tray and placed them on the coffee table in front of the over-stuffed leather chair Strong chose. Suzy and Melissa slid the rest of the seating into a rough circle. Each of them took a bottle.
The Captain opened his bottle, took a long swallow and settled back into his chair. "Who wishes to be first? How about Miz Bassani, since she is the alter ego of the Avatar?"
"Sure," Florinda replied. "What the hell are we?"
"You are artificially-created warriors, just as myself and the Dovers, as well as Bouncer. How you arrived at this condition requires a bit of explanation, but essentially depends on two things: The core information with which the Albino escaped his failing vessel and the intrinsic laziness of his evil nature."
"Go on," Carol said.
"When his compromised ship entered the atmosphere over Siberia and began breaking up, it was obvious that landing was out of the question. The Albino must have gathered every pertinent info-disc he could, knowing that he was going into a possibly hostile environment on an early industrial-age planet. He secured everything inside an escape pod and jettisoned as the ship altered course to put as much distance between itself and its master when its Starcore unit imploded."
"The great Tunguska Blast of 1908," Florinda said.
"Exactly. His escape pod somehow avoided being consumed in the resulting forest fire, and the Albino headed south before investigators arrived. The pod buried itself."
"How do you know all this?" asked Suzy.
"Well, of course some of it is extrapolation and even conjecture, but our ship's AI seems quite certain. Your existence tells us that the Albino escaped with the basic technology for your creation, a functional overlay of standard humanity. The Tunguska Explosion, the radioactive remnants of which are still observable with the sensors our ship possesses, is the only incident on this planet which fits the timeframe. It took roughly thirty years and his association with the Nazis to bring human technology up to the level necessary to begin experiments on individuals. When the war ended and the German scientists were acquired by the various victorious governments, his program suffered significant setbacks and vast experimental results literally vanished overnight. He was forced to start over, and success eluded him until the 1980s. The Avatar gave us the timeline leading to his current level of achievement, and you four are living proof of that."
"Why is he lazy?" Melissa asked. "He's done pretty well."
Strong took another drink before replying. "Perhaps I over-stated a bit. He -- his scientists, actually -- did not edit out the physical upgrades which make us so effective in combat. And they should have. Given his intent in creating the Sex Doll suits, there was no need for the inclusion of the incredible strength, endurance, and physical skills you all now possess."
"The Duc Barcs mentioned their martial arts and weapons abilities improved after their conversion," Suzy said.
"They would notice those things," the Captain replied. "You four would not. Nonetheless, you are well-nigh indestructible, and, should you need to utilize your warrior talents, they will be available to you."
"Neat-o!" Carol and Florinda exclaimed, high-fiving one another. Suzy and Melissa exchanged smiles.
"So what is the Albino?" Florinda asked. "How is he different from you and the Dovers."
"There were two facilities turning out augmented defensive latex-derived humanity, both on the planet Esmeralda, in the Barnum system. One -- ours, as it were -- has a long and successful history of glorious enterprise. The other -- much newer and smaller -- had, shall we say, a few fits and starts in its initial production."
"Glitches," Carol said.
"Exactly," Strong replied, nodding.
"One of which was the Albino?" Suzy asked.
"Yes. At first, he appeared normal, merely pasty white and subject to some hazing because of that. Then, near the end of his training cycle, just before graduation, he bolted off-planet, went over to what became known as the White Path Resistance on Murdstone."
"Bad guys," Melissa said.
"Indeed. Allied with legions of revolution-minded lizard-men and the occasional wealthy cat-man, the White Path defeated Murdstone's legitimate forces and established their own government. The Space Patrol was called in, and the five-year battle raged."
"Bouncer said you were a hero," Suzy said.
Strong blushed. "I only did my job. Which we now have a chance to complete. Thankfully, there are no lizard-men here, although that insurance Gecko still gives me quite a start."
"You four look perfectly human, though," Melissa said. "Does the Albino, except for his color?"
"Mostly. Remember that his corporate image was created nearly a century ago, designed to be appealing and non-threatening. A loveable, rubbery white lummox sporting a big smile and smoking a cigar. The reality is quite different. At the end, I engaged him personally in his bombed-out headquarters. The hand-to-hand battle lasted nearly three-quarters of an hour, when suddenly, in apparent desperation, he broke and ran. His personal vessel swooped down and carried him off though a hail of missiles and small-arms plasma-bursts, sustaining considerable damage in the process."
"And you pursued?" Carol asked.
"Yes, as quickly as possible. But when he made the first jump, the color spectrum during transit indicated Starcore malfunction. We erroneously assumed the ship would self-destruct within another several jumps, and left off pursuit, but it held together long enough to make to this habitable planet. The rest you know."
"How common is humanity in the universe?" Suzy asked.
"Very. A successful bipedal design, quite versatile, particularly on oxygen/water planets a suitable distance from their primary. Your planet is the Mother World, however, many scientists believe."
"Yes. Also the lizard-men. Some of your dinosaurs escaped the Cretaceous Catastrophe, you see."
"And what about the cat-men?" Forinda asked sarcastically.
"Not certain. Studies are on-going. The cat-men themselves seem not to know precisely."
"Now that you're here, what will you do next?" asked Melissa.
"Go to Siberia. Recover the escape pod."
"Why hasn't the Albino done that?" Suzy asked.
"He had the info-discs, the clothing on his back, and perhaps a few other items, and he was running for his life, our ship's AI surmises. He could not take everything with him. The pod buried itself as the fire swept over the landscape. He had no way of locating it once it disappeared from the surface, though he may have tried. Our plan was to capture the Albino, then go fetch the escape pod before returning to our home planet. Now the pod has become our first priority. It may contain something which will help our quest to find him."
"I see," Suzy replied. "How soon will you go to Siberia?"
"Tomorrow. I would like you, Miz Gardner, and the Duc Barcs to accompany us. Would that be possible?"
Melissa and Suzy exchanged thoughtful glances. "Well, we have a publishing business to oversee," Suzy said. "Our employer tried to initiate Carol's and my programming, but the triplets tricked her with a phony activation remote, and she ended up becoming a lovedoll herself. We freed her mind to an extent, and she seems to be doing fine as far as the business is concerned, but..."
"She plays with herself a lot," Melissa added. "Someone has to be with her constantly at the office. And she needs to change her panties several times a day."
Strong reddened. "Oh."
"Florie and I can deal with her, Suze," said Carol.
Florinda grinned. "Sure, no problem. I can spare some time from my work to help, while you two and the evil trio slog across the frozen tundra."
Suzy looked at Strong. "Will there actually be slogging? Can't you pinpoint the escape pod instrumentally from the lander?"
"We can come very close, but we'll have to do some of the searching on foot with hand-held sensors. And we won't use the lander, but rather the somewhat larger and
better-armed explorer. The lander has to be piloted. It's quite primitive by our standards, though easily disguised. The Explorer has an auxiliary AI and can navigate itself without someone at the controls. It also has a transport bay sufficiently large to contain both the lander and the recovered escape pod."
"How long will this take?" Melissa asked.
"I would judge three days."
"Well, that sounds do-able," Suzy said.
The five conversed for another half-hour, Strong mostly answering questions about Sector Nine, his years of service, and societal conditions in distant parts of the Milky Way galaxy.
Then, when they'd asked more questions than Suzy thought polite, and the conversation had wound down somewhat, they heard sirens in the distance.
The Captain sat up straighter and listened carefully to the sound. His handsome features grew concerned. "They're getting closer. I hope the Dovers, Bouncer, and your friends haven't created a problem." He shook his head. "The park seemed safe enough."
"Let's have a gander," Florinda said, gesturing toward the big window overlooking the street and the parked lander.
"There they are!" Strong exclaimed, pointing when they all were at the window, relief in his voice.
Sure enough, the Dover brothers, each carrying one of the Duc Barc sisters on his shoulders, with Bouncer running around them in lazy circles, were walking leisurely down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, all laughing and talking, seemingly at peace with the world.
"Guess they're okay," Carol said.
"I dunno," Melissa said. "Bouncer's got the Frisbee."
"He's attempting normalcy," Strong said, frowning. "He would not have it in his mouth without good reason. I know him too well. Something happened."
"We'll know in a minute," Suzy said, laying a comforting hand on the big Captain's right arm, as the Dovers strolled up the sidewalk to the condo building.
Bouncer tossed the Frisbee aside when they were safely indoors, practically spitting it out. "Gaaah!" he said.
"What went wrong?" Strong asked anxiously.
The door closed behind them, the Dovers and the Duc Barcs all burst out laughing. "Drug dealers!" one of the brothers managed to get out before being overcome by another laughing fit, doubling over in mirth.
The Captain turned to Bouncer. "Drug dealers?"
"I'm afraid so," the huge dog replied. "We were walking through the park, conversing, watching visitors feeding the ducks and squirrels, when we were approached by several young gentlemen purveying assorted illegal substances. The Dovers asked them to hawk their wares elsewhere, but they persisted, growing quite strident."
"We wanted to physically discourage them," Hui said, grinning from ear-to-ear.
"Bouncer intervened," Dui added.
"Solving the problem dramatically," Lui said.
"What did you do?" Strong asked the dog.
"He sprayed them with an aphrodisiac," one of the Dovers managed to get out before another bout of hilarity began.
"They began copulating with one another," Dui said.
"Enthusiastically," said Lui.
"To the dismay of the other park-goers," Hui said, "who called the police while we fled as rapidly as was decorous."
The Captain seemed momentarily at a loss for words, looking from his subordinates to the Duc Barc sisters and back again.
"Bouncer sprayed them with an aphrodisiac?" Suzy asked Strong.
The Sector Nine officer nodded, grim-faced. "He has a array of drugs available for dispersal from a mechanism under his tongue. Usually only for last-ditch circumstances, but it appears a wise move in this instance."
"They cozied right up to one another," Bouncer explained. "Garments were shed as necessary and quasi- reproductive rituals began."
"Jesus Christ," Florinda said, giggling.
"No attempt to get out-of-sight?" Melissa asked, one slim-fingered hand over her mouth to stifle her own laughter.
"None," the Dovers admitted, looking entirely too pleased with themselves.
"Well, if you're certain no one connected you to what happened..." Strong replied, pausing for effect.
"Regardless, we need to get cleaned-up after our exertions," Hui said, grinning up at the Dovers.
"Please join us," Lui told the brothers pointedly.
As Lui's words sank in, the three tall men seemed momentarily at a loss for words, but gradually smiles of understanding spread over their rugged features.
Dui addressed Suzy and the others, winking lasciviously before the six disappeared down the hall. "I suspect there may have been some overspray from Bouncer's efforts."
Roger Manning examined the forward screens as the big explorer began its silent descent into the Central Siberian Plateau. Below the ship, ice-free waters of the Stony Tunguska River wound through the wintry landscape, a dark sinuous line surrounded by white. "Pretty impressive," the government man said. "And kind of you to let me join you, Captain Strong."
Strong smiled modestly, his muscular arms crossed over his massive chest. "Your superiors would have been dismayed if you had lost the objects of your surveillance, Agent Manning. This is simply a sensible protocol. And please, check in with them as often as you feel the need. Reassurance is important under these circumstances, else they will fret. The fact that we travel in a space-capable vehicle should go unmentioned, but otherwise be truthful."
"Right," Manning agreed. He turned to Suzy, Melissa and the Duc Barcs, all bundled in government-issue goose down and black Gore-tex. "You ladies doing all right?"
"The time of our lives," the triplets replied without looking up from their acceleration couches, dark heads bent over the plasma rifles they were field-stripping and reassembling for the umpteenth time.
"We're enjoying this, Roger," Suzy said, "aren't we, Melissa, dear?"
"Absolutely," Melissa answered, giving Suzy a quick hug and one of her mega-watt bright smiles. "This is frosting on the cake of you, lover."
Suzy felt Manning flinch rather than actually seeing it, and gave Melissa the stink-eye. 'Don't overdo it,' she mouthed silently.
'I could use some donut-bumping here,' Five said from inside Suzy's head, sensing an opening.
'I don't think so, Five,' Suzy replied to her inner voyeur in equal silence.
'Later, perhaps," Five said, sighing.
Suzy glared at Melissa, whose green eyes had lit up. She had become entirely too good at knowing when Suzy and Five were communicating. Five had access to all of Suzy, and Melissa was smart and observant enough function at nearly the same level. Still, having an intelligent, inventive, and intuitive lover wasn't the worst thing in the world, Suzy reminded herself, even as she smiled reassuringly up at Roger. She was fairly certain he knew Melissa was jerking him around, but was equally certain he wasn't positive, so she tried to allay his concerns.
"We are approaching the outpost of Vanavara," the explorer's AI, Nego, announced into the momentary lull. "The lander is fully provisioned and Agent Krulik awaits your arrival on the planetary surface."
"Good," Strong replied. "Thank you, Nego."
"Please try not to be killed, Captain. I fear for your safety, as always."
"Not to worry, Nego."
"Death can come at any moment, Sir. Suddenly, gruesomely, and without warning. One moment, hale and hearty, the next, severed limbs and spurting blood."
Strong looked put-upon. "That's enough, Nego."
"Body parts strewn over the snowy landscape."
"Is he always like this?" Melissa asked, as the AI subsided into reluctant silence.
"Yes," Strong replied, glaring at the control board. "The programmers ratcheted up his concern levels excessively."
"I merely show normal caution," the AI groused. "Unlike some optimistic foolhardy adventurers."
"Let's enter the lander and prepare for our short voyage to meet Mister Manning's contact," said the Captain, gesturing toward the lander, which now rested on a set of four wide tracks suitable for their overland trip to the Tunguska site, roughly fifty miles distant.
The triplets left their plasma rifles behind, carefully replacing the weapons in their cases before joining the others inside the lander.
"Conventional weaponry will suffice," Strong assured them. "A large LNG depot and assorted refineries are simply too likely to combust were we to utilize such advanced ordnance to any degree. An errant bolt could destroy the town."
"We understand," the Duc Barcs replied, as they fastened their seatbelts, and Suzy smiled at their reluctance to abandon their new toys. Still, the H&K automatics buckled onto their slender waists should prove more than adequate protection in the bustling frontier town. The bay doors beneath the lander opened and the sturdy vehicle dropped slowly away from the explorer and began the thousand-foot descent into the outskirts of Vanavara.
* * * * *
Ten minutes later, the lander rolled up in front of Hotel Potemkin, a massive and majestic four-storey stone edifice which looked decidedly out-of-place amongst the old log buildings of the original 19th Century settlement, not to mention the metal-walled industrial warehouses and service facilities of the late 20th and early 21st.
"Pretty impressive," Suzy remarked to Melissa as the ten travellers mounted the broad front steps and passed though two sets of heavily-insulated doors into the well-lit lobby. Bouncer stayed with the lander, in case someone attempted to gain entrance to the vehicle.
A stocky greying man of medium height awaited them on the polished wood flooring, standing with his hands in the pockets of a well-broken-in Russian Army greatcoat with a fur collar.
"Good morning, Roger," the man said, flashing an instant's smile.
"Pyotr," Manning replied, giving his contact a much longer smile as the two men shook hands warmly.
"You two know each other, then?" Suzy asked, surprised.
"From old days," the man acknowledged somberly. His pale blue eyes had an Asian cast. "Much vodka, many women." He shrugged, tilting his head slightly to one side. "A few farm animals."
"Pyotr!" Manning said, reddening.
"I am teasing, of course. Even about the women. Roger is an uptight prude." He eyed Suzy, Melissa, and the Duc Barcs speculatively, lifting one eyebrow. "But the company he keeps has changed. Perhaps his ways also. You are all knockout babes."
Sighing, Manning made introductions. "Pyotr Krulik, who, in my kinder moments, I would describe as a friend."
Krulik shook hands with them all, leaving the Duc Barcs until last. "From the mountains?" he asked them.
"Yes," the triplets replied. "We were born in the States, but our families were Montagnard."
"Good-looking women there," Krulik said, smiling broadly for the first time. He bowed gracefully, his arms at his sides. "Welcome to Siberia."
"Your English is excellent," Melissa said.
"South Chicago," the sturdy agent replied, shrugging again. "My grandparents came from here, though. Left when the Revolution began. I jumped at the chance to be
posted back. Development proceeds at a breakneck pace, and that's an understatement. Half the petroleum engineers and mineral experts in the Rodina seem to be here." He looked around the beautifully-appointed lobby, shaking his head. "An amazing place, Vanavara."
"Are you ready?" Manning asked.
"To be sure, Roger." Krulik retrieved a large leather bag from a nearby chair. Suzy heard the sound of glass against glass as their contact hoisted the bag to his shoulder and gestured toward the doors with one beefy arm. "Vodka, local moose sausage, and musk-ox cheese for later celebration."
* * * * *
Vanavara lay to the southeast of the Tunguska site, roughly fifty miles distant. A hundred years and current development levels had improved access roads to the point where the lander could proceed rapidly over the route, its treads humming as the vehicle sped over the gravel through the pine forests and rolling hills. Huge trucks laden with raw ore passed them in the opposite direction, tires nearly as tall as the lander. The drivers invariably honked and waved from their lofty perches.
"They seem awfully friendly," Suzy said, waving back.
"Despite the local activity levels, this can be a lonely place," Pyotr Krulik said from behind the wheel, smiling. "But you are obviously attractive young women, and from their higher vantage point, they can at least fantasize looking down into your cleavage."
"Oh," Suzy replied. Tight against her side on the wide front seat, Melissa snickered.
"Are there many night spots in Vanavara?" one of the Duc Barcs asked from the rearmost seating where they sat with the Dover brothers.
"Depending upon your meaning, yes. Several clean and well-staffed houses of prostitution, a considerable number of bars and pubs, some featuring nude dancers, and the jewel in the crown, the bar at Hotel Potemkin. It takes up much of the first floor, along with the dining room. The food is excellent, the selection of drinks extensive, and service is second to nowhere I've been."
"Are there also women at the hotel?" another of the triplets asked.
"Of course," the sturdy agent replied, laughing, "but none with your probable ability to squirm compellingly and to great effect, my dear."
"Pyotr," Manning cautioned.
"Only the truth, Roger," said the Russian, still laughing as the lander accelerated down a long straightaway across a broad snowy valley.
"We've gone nearly twenty kilometers," Captain Strong said, in what Suzy thought was an attempt to change the subject. As he spoke, he reached down and scratched absently behind Bouncer's ears, and the big dog moaned happily.
"We will shortly be at the Chambe' River," Krulik replied, "then northwest along the Makirta to Khladni Ridge. Once over that we will skirt the edge of the Southern Swamp to its western border, beside the Kimchu River. And there we halt, as there is no closer approach to the actual blast site. Even there, the roads are quite primitive."
"Well before that, our sensors should be able to locate the general position of that which we seek," Strong said.
"And that is..?" the stocky agent asked, his right eyebrow raising.
"A vehicle used to escape the disintegrating ship whose final demise created the actual blast in 1908," the Sector Nine officer answered solemnly.
Krulik threw back his head and guffawed. "So the great legend is true! A detonating interstellar vessel leveled a hundred square miles of forest and devastated the landscape. And someone or something got safely away." Shaking his head, the Russian continued to chuckle.
"Yes. We believe it to be on the southern slope of the Khaladni Ridge."
"The wreckage, you mean?"
Now it was Strong's turn to chuckle. "No, not wreckage. The escape pod will be intact, having burrowed some distance underground to survive."
"Steve, you have to admit this has to sound pretty far-fetched to Pyotr," Manning said.
"It sounded pretty far-fetched to us," said Melissa, and Suzy echoed her.
The Captain shrugged. "Yes, of course, yet I have to be frank. We are likely in no danger, but there's no easy way to explain the unearthing of an alien artifact to a knowlegable chap like Agent Krulik."
"Not if you intend to let me live," Krulik replied grimly.
"Oh, for God's sake, Pyotr!" Manning exclaimed. "Let's not get melodramatic."
"Okay, my friend, but Captain Strong uses English in an very old-fashioned way, and the guys in the back are like three peas in a pod, apologies to the three young Asian ladies. I figure I'm already in the presence of some kind of alien life forms."
"You are correct," Strong confirmed, "except that we are as human as are you. Or nearly."
"That's comforting," the Russian replied. He pointed out the front windscreen of the lander. "See the bridge up ahead? Once across that, we pass beside forty kilometers of mining operations and drilling sites. It'd be good if your 'object' isn't close to one of those. Their security people won't take kindly to a bunch of people with shovels charging around their backyard. How big is this thing, anyway?"
"The pod is about twice the size of this vehicle, but shaped like an elongated throat lozenge. Once we pinpoint it, however, we hope to activate it and it will burrow to the surface for us."
"We enter the pod, investigate..." Strong began.
"...and when we are finished, the Explorer lands and carries the pod away," one of the Dovers put in. Suzy heard rising excitement in his voice.
Krulik didn't reply immediately, concentrating on the bridge, a broad steel-and-concrete span roughly a hundred meters long. About half-way across, the Lander's treads whistling metallically on the concrete, he simply asked: "The Explorer?"
"A larger vessel which will easily accommodate the escape pod. It brought us here to Siberia."
"Sure. But how do you pinpoint the escape pod?"
"Even as we speak, the Explorer is scanning the ridge. It will tell us where to begin when we arrive at that point. We have only to establish communication with the pod and order it to surface."
"After a hundred years, it'll still respond?"
"We have the universal codes," Strong replied, nodding.
"Will there be a bonus for this, Roger?"
"I can put in the paperwork, Pyotr, but the explanation might be a little too much for our respective bosses."
"Yeah, no shit. Well, be that as it may, we keep west of the Makirta River and keep a low profile. Vehicles are running around all over this area, even this time of year, so until we actually get out of ours, nobody who sees us is going to think twice about our being here. It also helps that the Lander is superficially like a lot of the other mobile hardware in the vicinity."
Ahead, several kilometers away, pillars of grey smoke rose straight up into the winter sky.
"Burn-off from the natural gas wells?" Suzy asked.
"Yeah," Krulik replied, "and in another ten klicks, the mines on the side of the hills will show up, each one with a service bridge which connects to this highway. In fact, we'll go over the last bridge in the line, which leads up over the Khladni ridge. Hopefully, the mines will have dwindled out by then, so we won't arouse the interest of the security crews."
A pair of the huge trucks appeared in the distance, a mix of dust and snow billowing out from under their enormous tires in pale clouds.
"Can this thing get airborne?" the heavy-set Russian asked.
"Yes, but flying over or around the trucks seems hardly prudent," Strong answered. "But I see what you mean. We're in for a real buffeting at the speeds they're travelling."
"We'll manage," Krulik said, grinning wolfishly. "This thing's no lightweight, and the truck drivers won't have been drinking this early in the day."
"Do the mining and drilling companies bring their own security to the sites?" Melissa asked.
"No, they use locals, the Tungus, who used to be your basic nomadic reindeer herders, but mostly they've given that up. They pitch their tents near the mines and wells,
set up perimeters, and patrol the hell out of them. Good people, very devoted to their jobs."
"Are you a Tungu?" asked Suzy.
"Half. I speak their language, understand their culture. And like I said, they're good folks."
"Do the Security ones know you. Pyotr?" Manning asked.
"Sure. I've been careful to go out and socialize with them. The descendants of my grandparents' family are still here locally, so I have an 'in' with them. I'm accepted."
The huge trucks passed them by with only minor disturbances in the airflow. The Lander swayed a tiny bit, but otherwise nothing significant, and then the road was clear as far as they could see. Forty-five minutes later, the last of the mines and wells faded away to their right, and the Khladni Ridge rose up in the near distance, stark and snow-covered.
The voice of Nego suddenly filled the interior of the Lander “The escape pod appears to be located about three-quarters of the way up the ridge, Captain, about a half-kilometer beyond the bridge. It is fairly deep, something in the order of ten meters. I am attempting to establish communication, but have been unsuccessful thusfar.”
“Are you directly over the site?” Strong asked the AI.
“Not yet, but within a very few minutes. I am also descending slightly. By the time you reach the ridge, I should have a positive report.”
“Thank you, Nego.”
“Remember, Captain, utmost caution. There will be considerable soil disturbance when the escape pod surfaces. An avalanche is possible.”
“I shall be careful, Nego. Rest assured.” Strong rolled his eyes.
“I saw that, Captain.”
* * * * *
The Khladni Ridge didn’t exactly soar up from the surrounding terrain, but Suzy thought it was close to a thousand snowy feet higher than the mostly-level road they traversed, and covered with thick stands of pine rooted in rocky pumice. The lander hardly slowed as it thundered up the gravel road
“This side of the ridge is less sparse than the other side, which, even a hundred years later, still shows the effects of the blast,” Krulik said.
Nego interrupted the stocky Russian. “I have contact with the escape pod, Captain. It is working its way to the surface. Also, it is quite angry over being neglected for a hundred years. And, though it has no idea who the individual is, it contains an occupant.”
“An occupant?” Strong asked, surprised.
“Indeed, Sir. Precautions should be taken when you enter the pod. A hazmat suit seems prudent, in case the occupant carries some sort of contagion.”
“I hardly think we need be that careful, Nego.”
“Lizard-men have been known to carry many parasites, Captain, and Cat-men may harbor a very potent feline distemper.”
“You say the pod has no idea who the individual is?” Strong asked the fretful AI, ignoring its fears.
“No, but the deep-seated anger issues of the pod may have over-ridden its memory banks to some degree. The individual is contained within a stasis unit which was brought on board well prior to the ship’s swift and erratic departure. If the evil albino informed the ship of the suspended individual’s identity, perhaps the ship did not pass the information on to the escape pod.”
“Well, I suppose we’ll just have to open the stasis unit and find out,” Strong replied.
“Perhaps a Druidian Princess,” one of the Dovers said hopefully.
“You don’t need a Druidian Princess, Sam,” Dui replied, her soft voice laced with menace as she grabbed the big man’s arm tightly.
“I suppose not,” Sam mumbled with a sickly grin, blanching.
“Where is the pod?” Strong asked.
“Fifty meters to the right of the road a quarter-kilometer down from the ridge crest. The pod shielded itself from the blast using the ridge, then the albino departed hastily, loaded with infodiscs, and the pod burrowed into the earth.”
Up on the ridge, several pine trees suddenly tilted and fell over.
“There it is now, Captain,” Nego said.
“Just as you say, Nego. Good work.”
Something dark and vaguely metallic thrust itself up from the soil, poised upright for a few long moments, then slowly sank down to the ground, unmoving.
“Incredible,” Krulik said, depressing the lander’s gas pedal. The heavy vehicle picked up speed.
“How do we get inside?” Suzy asked.
“Nego has the codes, as I mentioned earlier,” Strong replied, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. “In only a few minutes, we will know who lies within the stasis unit. Perhaps they will have information about the albino.”