Monday, January 30, 2012

E/B:H -- Chapter Four

The car could drive itself, of course. But in case some Coal Creek APCs popped up, I wanted a human on the wheel. Andrevich had grown up in an area with old cars kept running mostly with prayer, so he was quite a good driver. Unlike me, that is. I'd never bothered to learn, and the Networks had arranged for transport all my adult life.

We found the Tidal Motel pretty easy. Calling it a shithole would be insulting to legitimate shitholes -- this place had to be a hundred years old, and looked like it. The white and teal paint was fading, cracked, and gone altogether in some areas, exposing the bare, rotten wood underneath. Ugly.

I checked with the thin, greasy guy behind the bulletproof glass in a shed at the top of the parking lot with an "Office" sign. I asked for the Global News backup crew -- he stared at me blankly for a long moment.

"You must mean Jeb," he finally drawled. "Boy always told me he was a freelance Network guy. Never did believe him. Hey, you're that dude from the news program, ain't you?"

"Dane Phoenix," I said, shooting him the old charming smile. "Where can I find -- Jeb, you said?"

"Hey! Hey, Helen!" he yelled. "Come on out here, woman! You gotta see who's at the window!"

I shook hands and signed autographs for The Thing Called Helen. She was the manager's wife, and she was 250 if she was a pound. Finally, though, we got a room number out of The Power Couple -- 407.

You'd expect room number 407 to be on the fourth floor, right? I know I did, and the Tidal Motel did, indeed, have four levels. Andrevich and I would have climbed the rickety staircase all the way up, had he not noticed room 401 from the second-floor landing.

"That... Well, that makes no kind of sense," I said, heading down the dark hallway. Room 407 was between 406 and 409. Of course. I was starting to think this entire hotel was designed as an elaborate, unfunny practical joke.

I knocked on the door. Nothing. Andrevich then pounded on the door, and he's much stronger than I am, so that got an immediate response. We heard shuffling, cursing. A few seconds later, the door opened, and I was sure we had the wrong room.

The guy in 407 looked like a full-on train wreck. He was younger than me -- maybe 28 -- but in much worse shape. He looked like he hadn't slept or showered in at least four days. His brown hair was longish, greasy, and plastered to his skull with what I hope was just sweat. He wore an old bathrobe, no shoes. Just as I was about to ask if we had the right guy, he looked me in the eyes and smiled. He still had all of his teeth, at least.

"Mr. Phoenix," he said. "Pleasure to meet you. Sorry for my appearance -- wasn't really expecting anyone to come by today."

The guy looked like shit, sure. But when he spoke -- I don't know. He came across as intelligent. Not like how he looked at all.

"You weren't told to be on standby?" I asked. I was feeling more than a little odd standing outside in the hallway.

"Oh, sure. But you gotta understand, Chief, being told to be on standby ain't shit. 99 times out of 100, that means sit back and collect pay. Last time I actually had to do standby work was... well, back when you were still fighting, big guy," Jeb said, nodding to Andrevich.

"Well, we need you now. How soon can you have your equipment ready?"

"Give me a few minutes to get cleaned up. Like, fifteen. I'll meet you over at the cafe across the street, yeah?"

I was just grateful to be out of the hall and away from the Tidal Motel. The Surf Shack Cafe wasn't much better -- definitely wasn't cleaner -- but at least I didn't feel like the building was collapsing. Andrevich and I took a table in the back, and I ordered the only thing on the menu I was pretty sure wouldn't kill me, black coffee. I never considered coffee a monumental request, but it still hadn't arrived when Jeb strolled into the cafe fifteen minutes later.

He was cleaned up considerably now, wearing jeans and a shiny, synthetic button-up shirt. He had a black bag over one shoulder. As soon as he sat down at the table, three mugs of coffee suddenly appeared.

"You gotta understand, they like locals," he said. "You and your buddy are making them nervous."

"Because of who we are?" Andrevich asked.

"What, celebrities? Nah, man," he said. "I doubt the folks who run this place have watched a network feed in 30 years. They don't like outsiders, is all."

He wasn't joking. The entire time we were in the cafe -- 20 minutes or so -- the guy behind the counter never stopped staring. It was more than a little creepy.

As we talked about the job, I noticed a few things about Jeb, the redneck one-man backup crew. First, he wasn't really a hick or a local, just tried to pass as a bit of both. I detected a hint of an accent whenever he spoke. South Africa? Accents tend to get a bit muddled these days. Everyone sounds like they're from Omaha or Kansas City or something. You'd never really guess I grew up in Holland unless I told you -- I sound like I grew up in a cornfield, like everyone else does.

Another thing I noticed about our new crew member -- he *really* wasn't a Network guy. Not a bit. At heart, he was a total ICP. Or at least he would have been, if the corporation-backed Networks hadn't wiped out the Independent Content Producers years ago. Before Jeb was even born.

It had come down to money, and the Networks realizing that while they had more of it, they wouldn't for long. So they'd thrown what they had at lobbyists in dozens of countries, and essentially made broadcasting non-Network content a felony. The US government got the Federal Entertainment Commission out of the deal, a steady flow of license revenue right to the Treasury. License fees were too high for independents to afford, so competition from the smaller guys died off extremely quickly. All history.

Of course Jeb would be an ICP. They were still around, they were just way underground and had tiny audiences. Freelance work? That was the perfect cover to have high-def cameras and a transmitter around your crappy hotel room if the Federal cops came calling.

But one thing about ICPs -- at least, from the few underground broadcasts I'd seen, they were competent and good under fire. I'd seen one of them report on a riot outside Umbra's Kyoto office years back, and I have to admit, the camera work was outstanding. So I knew Jeb would have the equipment and skills to get my transmission to the Network servers in Dallas, and that was all I needed.

I tasked Jeb with finding a place to shoot incognito, where Umbra's thugs wouldn't come looking, but that didn't look like shit. He said he'd work on it and call when he had a spot -- we'd meet there at first light.

I called Ryan in Dallas and woke him up. He was pissed off at first, but when I told him that breaking this story would really fuck Umbra over a barrel, he brightened up. Probably helped that I'd done the story the Network wanted me to do, and this one didn't mean I wouldn't cover Andrevich's award. This story was in the A.M., the ceremony was in the P.M.

Of course -- and this bit you know -- I never made it to the ceremony. The ceremony didn't actually happen. I'm not sure they cancelled it, but I am sure that no one showed up -- the reason being obvious.

As we really didn't have anywhere else to go, and the neighborhood was low-rent enough Umbra wouldn't drop by, we stayed put. Jeb, of course, left to do his prep work, but just him coming by to talk to us seemed to give Andrevich and I enough cred to order. Not that the waiter was happy about it, but he did let us put in an order for breakfast, and eventually even brought us the food. After that, we drank a metric fuckton of coffee and waited around for Jeb to call us. The coffee was, surprisingly, pretty damn good.

According to my screen, sunrise was scheduled for 6:18 a.m. At 6:10, my phone chimed in my ear, and I took the call. It was Jeb. He gave us an address, which I scrawled down on a napkin and gave to Andrevich -- I still wanted him on the wheel. Paranoia, I guess.

The big New Soviet was being an amazingly good sport about all of this, and I was thankful. I'd seen what happened when he got angry. He'd put quite a hurt on those Coal Creek bastards, and I wasn't in any real hurry to find out what that beat-down had felt like. But looking at him now, across the table as we paid the ridiculously low breakfast check, he looked calm, happy, -- amused, even.

As you know from the broadcast, Jeb picked a shopping mall that was just opening for breakfast. I thought it was a stupid choice. At first, anyway.

"You mentioned you had some Umbra PMC problems, right?" Jeb said, catching the look on my face when I arrived.


"Trust me, this is what you want. Plenty of people milling around. Makes for good shot composition, but it's also --"

"Safer," I said, catching on. "Coal Creek is less likely to try something to stop us in a crowded, public area like this."

So Jeb set up the shot, and I have to admit it looked pretty good -- even as those... things... started falling from the skies.

You remember how it went from the original broadcast. I'd already dropped the bombshell -- that something huge was up there. I'd shown the pictures from the lab, told everyone I was pretty sure it was an alien spaceship. Yeah, sure, I didn't know that yet. Fuck it, I'm a reporter. You want facts, go to a damn schoolteacher. Speculation is part of my job, has been since I can remember.

Anyway, I was just about to talk about where it would likely make planetfall -- China or Japan's airspace. That wasn't my idea. The little scientist, Jeff -- he'd done the math on that one. As we found out seconds later, he was close. Well, kind of close.

Thinking back on it now, I might have it figured out. They must have seen my network feed -- and I do mean *them*. Up there. I don't claim to know anything about how they think, but I'd wager they saw their ship on the feed and traced it right back to me. That makes sense, because a few seconds later was when the first shell hit.

Here's a little confession from me to all of you. When the hit came, I didn't connect the dots right away. Taiwan had been making angry noises of late -- my first thought was of them. Hawaii was well within their conventional missile range -- you know, the big systems we'd sold them during the China War? Yeah. Seems dumb now, but I was sure they'd decided to go Pearl Harbor on our collective asses. When that mall crumbled, I hit the ground.

'Course, they weren't missiles at all. They were pods. Carriers of some indeterminate material, strong enough to laugh at heat. Pressure. Impact. Any of those niggling little problems of being shot into our atmosphere.

The network feed cut out right then. It wasn't interference, as many have since speculated -- no, Jed plowed into his setup when he dove for cover. Smashed it right up. So you didn't see the size of the projectile that had just leveled a shopping mall. You might have seen one in your town that day. If you didn't, let me fill you in -- it was only about a foot around, a perfect sphere. And it wasn't a weapon. It was a transport.

Of course, I wouldn't have seen the pod to describe it to you, had I not still been hanging out with Vladimir Piotr Andrevich. Remember, the thing was buried in what was left of the front quarter of a shopping mall -- one that had certainly had people in it. Most of them were probably dead, but there was at least one guy still breathing. And shouting for help, as the situation turned out.

As soon as he heard the man yelling, Andrevich was on it like Action Man. Jeb was right behind him, sprinting over piles of junk. I would have been more than happy to stay where I was, in a tiny ball on the pavement, but Andrevich yelled at me to help them out. I dragged myself to my feet and joined them, helped them pull what was left of a coffee bar off some poor 18-year-old surfer kid.

He was pretty banged up, and we were helping him away from the wreckage when I saw it. I didn't know what it was at first, of course. I figured it must have just been some piece of crap for sale in the mall -- people will buy anything. But it pulsed, a bright flash. And just after the light from that first pulse faded, the thing opened neatly at the center of the sphere, the top half falling away.

Nothing happened for a second after it opened. Then, as I watched, those... *things* started slithering madly out of the ball. The best I can think to call them was worms, though that's not exactly accurate. They were each a couple, maybe three inches long. They were black, so they stood out against the white remains of the coffee bar. There seemed to be hundreds, and they were fast.

Andrevich saw them at the same time I did; neither of us said anything. He just grabbed the kid as if he weighed nothing, not 150 pounds. He chucked the surfer kid over his shoulder and was off like a sprinter, me and Jeb on his heels.

"What the fuck are those?"

I think it was Jeb who yelled that, though I'm not sure. Could have been anyone -- I was just focused on getting my ass out of there. I chanced a look over my shoulder as I ran for the street, and immediately wished I hadn't.

The worms went after the weak first. The poor fucks stuck in the wreckage couldn't get away, couldn't run. The worms didn't swarm -- a single worm picked each target. One second, they'd latched onto a poor, helpless person -- the next, that unfortunate motherfucker was twitching and bleeding out. I wasn't sure if it was because the initial targets were already injured, but it only took each of them couple of seconds to die.

We were moving fast -- adrenaline -- but the worms were already swarming out from the wreckage, and they were a fuckton faster. I tried to think of some way to escape -- maybe get into the car and lock the doors, slam on the power and get the fuck out of there.

Even as I had the thought, I saw it wasn't going to work. A car near ours had its windows up, doors locked, and it didn't matter. Worms had gotten inside somehow anyway, and the two occupants of the car were spraying blood all over the inside of the vehicle.

"Keep running!" I yelled, though that was probably unnecessary. Andrevich and Jeb were ahead of me, and weren't slowing down. Even with the 150-pound teenager on his shoulder, Andrevich was really eating up the distance, and Jeb was keeping right up with him. I was the slow one, the liability -- and it looked like I was going to be the one bitten and killed by those... whatever they were.

The thought didn't make me stop running, though. If anything, it gave me a burst of power like I'd never felt, not even on speed. I was almost about to catch up with Jeb when it happened.

Helicopters went silent before they became obsolete a few decades ago. I think it was a People's Liberation Army design from the China War, but after that, the rest of the world's militaries got them. I had seen them float over my granddad's house as a kid -- Dutch Army training flights, I think. They were fast, sleek, and silent. One of those helicopters -- a massive cargo model -- dropped down right in front of Andrevich and Jeb, and the side doors flew open. I could see Jeremy and Mischa inside, waving us toward them. The helicopter didn't land, just hovered a few feet off the pavement. I poured on the last bit of speed I had, then jumped. I felt hard, metal deck slam into my chest, felt hands grab me and pull me in.

In less than a second, we were climbing, the chaos below us getting smaller by the second. I pulled myself into a sitting position. As I looked around, I could see Andrevich, the kid, Jeb. The rest of our crew was there -- it was the chopper they'd used earlier. The one I had felt bad for saddling them with rather than springing for hoppers for all of them. Turned out that saved our asses.

"We're heading to Honolulu Airport," Jeremy said as he and Mischa slid the door closed. I looked up -- Meg was flying the chopper.

"Where did you learn to fly one of these things?" I shouted up to her.

"Israeli Army," she yelled back, throwing me a grin.

"It was in her file, if you'd bothered to read it," Jeremy said.

Ah, same old Jeremy. Always the producer. I smiled a little.

"What's at the airport?"

"Flight for all of us to Dallas. We'll figure this shit out there," Jeremy told me.

"Andrevich? Jeb? You good with that?" I asked.

"I'll go along for the ride. And our young friend here is unconscious," Andrevich told me.

"Should we take him to a hospital or something?" Jeb asked.

"Entire island's chaos," Reg said. "Better chance of that in Dallas."

We did make it to Dallas, eventually. But not right away.

When we landed at the airport, the Marines were waiting for us.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

E/B:H -- Chapter Three

OK, I thought I knew how to drink, but that New Soviet fucking took me to drinking school and left me there. I assumed we'd get hammered -- at least a bit -- but I didn't expect to wake up in the fountain in the hotel lobby.

So, yeah. We drank quite a bit that night, and there's a certain point where I stop remembering what actually happened, but my plan worked. I remember that much, because it worked pretty early on in the evening. So I should have quit while I was ahead, but...

Anyway. Andrevich. He was smaller than I thought he would be. I mean, dude was massive, but he was shorter than me. I didn't see that coming. Still, for a guy nearing 50, he was in outstanding shape. He almost crushed my hand when he shook it, and I noticed he was sweating. Like, a lot.

"The heat," he apologized, waving one of his hands around to indicate... well, everything, I guess. "Not used to it. Where I'm from, it's much colder."

I just nodded. It was July in Honolulu -- of course that wouldn't be comfortable to Andrevich. Not with him being from Siberia, and all.

He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and shorts -- likely to combat the oppressive heat. I could see his fight tattoos glowing blue on his arms, legs, and neck. He wasn't sick or injured, then. That meant I'd lost a bet. A colleague and I at Global had once figured he'd quit the fight game not because he'd killed that other guy, but because he was ill. Couldn't fight anymore. When I met him, though, I knew that wasn't the case. He looked like he could tear me in half with one hand.

"I just wanted to say, it's an honor to meet you, Comrade Vladimir. I've been a fan since I was a little kid," I said, smiling. The smile was an attempt to hide a wince at the crazy handshake, but thankfully, he let go of my hand.

"I, too, am a fan of yours. Your report on the Atlantic Rail scandal was fascinating," Andrevich told me. "Well, shall we get something to drink?"

I nodded. The bartender could smell the blood in the water, and he was at my elbow when I turned around.

"What'll you have?" I asked. I expected the answer to be vodka.

"Hmm. A Scotch, I think. Laprohaig if you have it."

I ordered a vodka tonic, and it was on. The first drinks only lasted a few seconds -- Andrevich's was gone before he even sat down.

"So, I hear you requested me?" I said.

"Indeed. As I didn't want to come to this thing anyway, I might as well use it as an excuse to meet someone I admire," he said. "I much prefer my retirement, staying at home and writing. I'm working on a book, you know."

I hadn't known that, of course. Books were a tough sell these days, but I was sure he'd do well with it.

"I was thinking about where we could do the interview. I know the heat down here is uncomfortable, and sweating like that won't look good on camera. But I was just up at Manua Kea --"

"The volcano?"

Was it? I thought it was a mountain.

"Yeah. It's much cooler up there. Not as cold as you're used to, but..."

"I like to train in the mountains, in the Urals. Good for the blood," he said, downing another Laprohaig. "And cooler weather...Well, that definitely helps. The interview is tomorrow night?"

I nodded.

"We can go up early, do all the prep work," I said.

Like I said, it didn't take me long to convince him. And then we started talking politics, something he was whip-smart about. In fact, the more we talked, I realized that Andrevich was a smart man. Possibly even a genius, but that could have been the booze.

Anyway, I don't remember much about that night, and I certainly don't remember how I wound up in the fountain. Hangover -- brutal. I didn't dare start up with the speed again, though, as I knew I was headed back up to the insane elevation at the Manua Kea site. My granddaddy's old hangover cure would have to work today -- greasy breakfast, lots of coffee, and mild painkillers. Smart plan. I was feeling quite a bit better when I met Jeremy and crew for the day's planning session. Apparently, granddad knew how to drink.

"OK, folks, let's get this knocked out quickly," Jeremy said to the four people in front of us. Two camera, one sound, I knew. I figured the good-looking 30-year-old woman who looked like she didn't belong around the others was on hair, makeup, and wardrobe.

"We're filming today at the top of Manua Kea, highest spot in the islands," Jeremy said. "I know you were all planning for warmth. That's not going to happen today -- weather says about 28 degrees for the high up there. Might want to find yourselves some coats."

I heard the crew grumbling, all but the wardrobe person. She just nodded, a short, curt little bob of her head. Her element, I guess.

"Good news, though, is that at that elevation, our link to Global will be instant. I plan to do the interview live," I told them. "So you'll have plenty of downtime."

No grumbling at that one, but no mumbled words of praise, either. Tough room, I guess.

Jeremy and I took another hopper up to the Observatory, but the crew was stuck with a helicopter that had to be 60 years old. I wouldn't have been surprised if the thing had seen action in the China War.

Andrevich and his people would also take a hopper. I'd paid for both of them, and you don't even want to know how much two round-trip hoppers ran. I could afford it, and all, but... I don't know. Maybe I could get the Network to reimburse me later.

Meg, the girl in wardrobe, was pretty good. My sizes weren't hard -- I knew she could pull them up on her screen. But even when I've had wardrobe people get the sizes right, they've messed up styles. Not so with this girl --classic-cut black leather jacket, neoprene combat-style shirt, dark gray pants, heavy black boots. Excellent. I'd have to figure out who she was and ask to have her work with me again -- good wardrobe people were tough to find, inexplicably.

Up on the mountain, Andrevich seemed to be comfortable in the below-freezing temperatures. He also seemed to not be hung over. Not in the slightest. That was annoying-- while I was feeling better than I had, I could still feel the damage from the night before.

"Dane!" he boomed, slapping a massive hand on my back. I managed to keep my feet, but I'm not entirely sure how. "How are you?"

"Feeling pretty good," I lied, trying to keep from coughing. That playful slap on the back had acted like a Heimlich maneuver.

What followed next was what you'd expect. Meetings. Those were about as interesting to sit through as they would be to recount. Jeremy and I met with Andrevich's PR person, then with the camera and lighting folks when they arrived. Upshot -- we'd film outside. The observatory had a small garden, and Meg was confident she and the camera guys could make it look good. The PR meeting was fine.Mischa, Andrevich's PR guy, asked that we didn't spend much time on what Vladimir had been doing the last four years. Fair enough. Mischa assured me it was boring anyway, and I didn't doubt it.

Andrevich and I ran through some old fight highlights after lunch. We picked out a few moments to use in the piece -- his first World Championship in 2072, his last title defense in early 2094. Easy. The interview was looking like a walk.

Tim tracked me down between meetings. He was red-faced and out of breath, which I expected. The guy wasn't in what I would call stellar shape, but he was running to catch up with me. Obesity and thin air didn't mix too well. I was surprised he didn't have a heart attack and drop dead at my feet, but he caught his breath back and started talking eventually.

"It's really close now," he panted, finally uncapping a bottle of water and drinking. "Near Mars."

"How soon will it be here?"

"I don't know for sure. Its speed isn't constant. It stopped near Jupiter for several hours. But we finally have measurements. It's bigger than we thought." [P] "How big?" I asked.

"Really fucking big. Surface area is about 270,000 square miles."

Shit. That did sound big, but I had no idea how big that was. Tim apparently saw my confusion.

"About the size of Texas. Little bigger. And it's at least twenty miles high."

"Are you sure about that?"

"Reasonably sure, yeah."

"What does that mean?" I asked. "I mean, what would happen if it hit the Earth?"

"Uh... that would mean no more Earth. Something that big traveling at speed? It would crack the planet in half, if we were lucky."

I thought he must be fucking with me. No way he could sound so calm, right? I mean, not if that was true. But even crimson-faced and panting, he didn't sound like he was in the mortal terror he should've been.

"You don't sound worried," I said.

"It's not going to hit. Neptune, Europa, Jupiter were all in its path. It went around."

"And you think it'll go around us?"

"I really don't think it would avoid all of those other bodies, plus asteroids, and not us. If we go under the theory that it's being intelligently piloted -- which I'm leaning towards -- that wouldn't make any sort of sense."

Of course, as you well know, he was right. The Object didn't hit us. But it didn't pass us by like Tim then theorized it might.

Anyway, the appointed time finally came -- 7 p.m. Central, which was only 3 in the afternoon in Hawaii. We were all set to go. Andrevich and I were sitting across from each other, the view down the mountain in the background. Reg, the lead camera, was set up. At precisely 3, he gave us the signal, and the interview went live.

I said this would be about what you didn't see, and it will. So I won't go into the interview, as you probably saw it -- especially if the ratings I saw later were any indication. It was smooth. Well, except for one small bit, about an hour into the program.

We were discussing the final title defense. I remember that well. My earpiece suddenly went live, and Jeremy was on the other end. It was way out of bounds to call a personality on-air. This was big.

"Dane. Keep talking. We've got a situation out here," Jeremy's voice buzzed in my ear. "Three patrol vehicles just landed outside. Not Honolulu PD or Hawaii State Police. Markings look like Coal Creek."

Coal Creek was a PMC -- a Private Military Contractor. I had no idea what they were doing there, but Jeremy provided updates on their movements throughout the last hour of the interview.

"They've locked off the perimeter. Guns are out, but fingers aren't on triggers."

Then, a bit later: "I just talked to them. The guy in charge says this place is in total lockdown. They're going to let you finish the interview, so keep going."

Finally: "As soon as you're off the air -- three minutes left, by the way-- they're going to escort you and Andrevich inside for questioning."

And, soon enough, they did. Reg signaled me as soon as we were off the network feed, and the doors leading into the garden opened. Six men in black combat suits -- body armor, tactical goggles, tech boots -- poured out of the doors and headed straight for us. In seconds, they had Meg, Reg, and Jackson and Celio (the second camera and sound guys) surrounded and headed back into the building. That left Andrevich and me in the garden with two of the PMCs.

They carried nonlethal weapons -- large-field tasers, foam guns. Federal law stated that only police and federals could carry lethal weapons in the U.S., but I noticed they had some of those, too. They both had pistols, old ones, probably relics from the China War or before. Probably used antique collection laws to carry them.

"You're filming here without permission," one of them, the taller one, finally said.

"We have permission," I said, smiling. "Dr. Timothy Miller --"

"Dr. Miller does not have the authority to authorize anything," tall guy said. "Mr. Andrevich. An honor. I've been a fan of yours for years. I apologize for this, gentlemen, but Umbra Dynamics has ordered the facility closed. Immediately. We will need to detain you for questioning, but we will make it as quick as possible."

*Don't rock the boat.*

I nodded to him.

"I understand," I said. "Can I contact my network? Let them know I'm going to be late?

"In time, after we've questioned you."

They led Andrevich and me to a small room somewhere deep inside the Observatory complex. Tim and another scientist were there, along with Jeremy. This second scientist was as thin as Tim was fat, and I guessed he made the fatal mistake of getting to the food machines after Tim. Without another word, the two PMCs closed us in the room, and I heard the door lock.

"So, Tim, want to tell me what's going on?" I asked, trying to keep the anger out of my voice. I doubt I succeeded.

"I'm not entirely sure," he started. "Umbra sent them. They must have read about the Object in my weekly report. I didn't even know they were paying attention to us up here."

"And me? Do they know I know?" I asked.

Tim shook his head.

"I don't think so. I never mentioned you or Jeremy."

"Anyone want to --" Andrevich started, then trailed off, waving his hand around the room to indicate "all this."

"Oh, sure. Sorry," I said, smiling. I'd have to be very careful about how I told him -- it wouldn't do to have the former Cage Champion of the World ripping my arms off. I suspected he wouldn't be too happy that I'd used his big comeback interview as an excuse to keep an eye on the Object situation.

"My buddy Tim here and his colleague -- sorry, I don't know your name -- have been monitoring something damn interesting," I said.

"Jake Cross," the thin scientist said. I did my best not to shoot him a poisonous look for interrupting me.

"Right," I said. "They picked up an Object coming toward Earth, what... three days ago, Tim?"

Tim nodded. He knew not to interrupt. Good man.

"I see," Andrevich said, nodding. "And my guess is that your superiors wanted you to cover my story more than this one?"

He had it dead to rights, but he didn't seem angry. His voice was calm, measured, as was his expression. I nodded, and he went on. "So you figured you'd talk me into coming up here, keep an eye on the story anyway? Smart. That's why I requested you. You're..."

"Not an idiot?" I guessed.

"So you've met the sports reporter Global wanted to assign to me, then," he said with a laugh.

Andrevich seemed cool, so I turned back to Tim.

"So what's the progress on the... you know..."

"Earthfall in six hours."

Christ. That was much sooner than I expected. I didn't think we were going to be out of there that soon, but I was wrong, apparently. I'm sure the PMCs would have liked to have kept us there all night, but that's not how it worked out for them. We left minutes later.

In the space of two minutes, Andrevich went from jovial, even-tempered, to agitated. I started to get worried, so I asked him.

"Vladimir? You OK?"

"Vladimir Piotr Andrevich does not get locked up," he said, snarling. "Does not like to be told what to do."

He was standing now, pacing the room. I wondered idly if he had claustrophobia.

The room we were in wasn't in any way secure. It wasn't a jail cell, or a holding area-- just a regular-ass room with a regular door. Before I could try to get him to calm down... Before I could even say another word, really, Andrevich was through the door. I mean, he charged himself right the fuck through it. One second he was standing back against the wall -- the next, he rammed through the locked door, turning it into effing kindling.

There were guards just outside the door, and seeing Andrevich tear through them was an insane blur of violent heraldic poetry. There were two of them, one on each side of the door, and before I could make it out of the room, I had to dodge one flying at me. He slammed into the opposite wall hard enough to knock him out, even through his helmet. Then I got into the hall and saw carnage.

The other guard was trying to raise a gun to Andrevich, who was having none of it. A quick, savage right uppercut was all it took. His knuckles connected with the guard's chin, snapping his bulletproof visor and knocking his helmet clean off, chin strap be damned. With his left hand, Andrevich caught the helmet by the broken strap, then swung it in front of him. I hadn't seen the third PMC yet. But Andrevich had. The newly liberated helmet collided with the oncoming PMC's skull, knocking him into a nearby open door.

Madness. In the space of the time it had taken me to get out the door, Andrevich had neutralized three much younger men, and done so easily. Other Coal Creek guys came at us, but it was all a blur. A blur of a pissed-off, older New Soviet, tearing through them like nothing. I lost count of the PMCs he knocked out (or possibly killed) before we made it outside, but it was a lot. He wasn't even sweating.

We fought our way outside -- OK, to be correct, Andrevich fought our way outside. Tim, Jake, Jeremy, and I just followed his wake. The New Soviet left bodies all along the observatory to the spot where our two hoppers were surrounded by the three patrol vehicles. When he finally stopped moving, Andrevich turned to us.

"I think it is time we should leave," he said, his voice a flat monotone.

"What about our crew? Your people?" Jeremy asked.

"Hmm. Suppose I should have thought to leave one of these guys conscious."

"I'm sure they're around here somewhere. We can look --" I said.

"We don't have time," Jeremy said. "The second these guys wake up --"

"They'll drop in on this place in force," Tim said, nodding. "I know this company. That's exactly what they'd do. You need to go. Get this story out."

That was something I knew I could do, especially now. Ryan would have no problem going to air with this one. Umbra Dynamics ran National News Network, Global's only real competitor in the States. A chance to royally fuck Umbra Dynamics? Ryan would be falling all over himself to jump at that one.

"I'll stay behind. Find our people. There's a backup crew in Honolulu. They're at the Tidal Motel. Find them and get this story out there," Jeremy said.

"I'll need data," I said. "Video. Something."

"I can do that," Jake said, bringing his screen online and tapping away. My own screen chirped -- a data transfer was in progress. In a few seconds, I had everything I needed.

"Umbra's soldiers will be looking for you," Andrevich said. "I will come along. Not to be insulting, my friend, but I don't think you could handle them in a fight."

"You're 100% correct," I told him. "Let's go."

I normally hated that the hoppers were on a programmed flight plan, but not that day. The control freak in me took a back seat. Jeremy and the scientists had us in our pressure suits and helmets in a minute flat, and as soon as we were in, the hopper took off. The flight was short, and there was nothing we had to do to make it safely to ground. I expected Coal Creek guys at the landing site.

Nope. Just the same bored local who had been there the day before, and earlier that morning. I wondered if he ever left the area.

"Other hopper?" he asked in a slow, monotone voice.

"Coming down soon," I said.

"K. Gonna have to charge an extra day. Don't have it back by midnight, that is."

"That's fine," I said. "You have my account info on file."

"Yep. Back by midnight."

I nodded and headed for the cars we'd taken from the hotel to the launch site.

"Shit," I mumbled.


Uh, yeah. There was a problem, and if I already wasn't feeling emasculated by watching this guy knock out several soldiers while I cowered...

"Um... Vladimir... I don't suppose you know how to drive, do you?"