“You didn’t understand a word of that, did you, Sheriff?” Andy looked at him with that frozen smile that would have looked perfectly friendly if it had reached his eyes. He’d have to mention that to Fargo the next time he gave the deputy a tune-up.
Carter cleared his throat. “I understood ‘experimental’ and ‘enhancement,’ and I think I can guess what ‘endoskeletal’ means.”
Andy nodded once, and flipped the data-pad towards Jack. “Here’s the diagram. Basically, it’s a series of implants that align themselves along the skeleton of the subject, kind of like a scaffold of metal filaments, only on the inside,” he explained, putting on an extra-folksy twang. Maybe he thought it made it less irritating to have to have everything spelled out. “They’ll increase both the speed and the power of muscle contractions, and give the bones enough strength to withstand the extra oomph.” He punctuated the last word with a faux-uppercut, punching the air between them.
Jack studied the diagram, swiping the slider to turn it in 3-D. “And you think I ought to volunteer to be one of the test subjects, is what you’re telling me.”
“Well, it’s not my place to tell you,” the deputy said, shrugging, “but I know sometimes you get just a tetch annoyed when I outrun you, or you have to wait for me to turn over something heavy that’s on top of the evidence. Remember when the redwood fell on me? With these, you could have just rolled that tree off of me by your lonesome.” He paused. “You still couldn’t have picked it up, now, but just shifting it off of me would have been no problem.”
“If these specs are correct, and if I’m remembering your operator’s manual correctly, even with the implants I couldn’t outrun you, either.” Jack glanced down the column of numbers beside the diagram; at least some of them made sense. “And given how often something happens around here that makes electronics go screwy, I’m not sure I want any in me when that happens.”
Andy frowned slightly; somehow, that expression looked much more genuine than his smiles. “Technically, the implants aren’t electronic, Sheriff; they don’t require an outside power source - they run off the human body’s bioelectrical signals, just like your muscles do. But,” he allowed, “if you really wouldn’t be comfortable with it -”
“Not in the first round of testing, at least,” Jack admitted. “Maybe once they’ve worked the bugs out.” He paused. “Is this about you not wanting to be partnered with someone less, um, talented than yourself?”
“No, of course not,” Andy said, shaking his head. Then he looked slightly sheepish. “To be honest, sir, it’s sort of the reverse. I know we didn’t get off to the best start, what with me replacing you the first time and all. Not that I think you feel you don’t measure up, because I know now you’ve got intuitions from years of doing law enforcement that I just don’t have yet, even with all my fancy programming.” He paused, his cybernetic pupils widening as he searched his databases for the right words. “But I don’t want you to feel like your deputy is always after your job ‘cause they feel they could do it better. I figured, if you had these, we’d be - well, more like real partners.”
Jack blinked. “You’re jealous of my working relationship with Jo, still?”
“Not jealous, Sheriff. Jealous would mean I wanted her not to have it.” Andy grinned, and this time it looked almost real. “But - maybe envious, just a little bit. I’m programmed to build rapport, but it doesn’t always seem to click, quite.”
“I think that’s something else you’ll learn from experience,” Jack said, trying to be reassuring. He clapped the robot on the shoulder. “Tell you what, once the first round of testing is over, I’ll think it over again. But no fair getting S.A.R.A.H. to pressure me on the decision, okay?”
“Aw, you made me give up my secret weapon,” Andy protested. “But okay, it’s a deal.”
Jack set the data-pad down on his desk, next to yesterday’s files. “So what do we have on the call roster for today?”
“It’s really simple,” Fargo explained, pointing at the four blinking pylons at the corners of the meadow. “I just need you two to keep an eye on the equipment while we get the second site set up.” He grimaced. “After Mansfield’s last set of budget cuts, we don’t have enough personnel to leave a whole lab group here; we need all hands for site prep. It’ll only take an hour, maybe two at the outside,” he reassured Carter.
“Even if you don’t have the scientists to leave here, doesn’t this really fall under Jo’s job?” Jack asked. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to spend half his morning out here, although to be fair, he would rather be in the office where it was warmer and dryer, too; mostly, he just didn’t want to step on her toes, even if it was at the director of Global’s request.
“Normally, it would be,” Fargo sighed, “but we’re having the first test run of the endoskeletal enhancement implants this morning, and she insisted that not only did she need to be there personally, she wanted half the security staff on hand.”
Jack’s eyebrows jumped. “That’s today? Andy was just trying to talk me into volunteering this morning.”
Fargo looked startled. “Yeah, you would have had to sign up by Wednesday to be part of the first trial. S.A.R.A.H. must have just mentioned it to him.” He sighed and rubbed absently at one temple. “Anyway, with Team Gamma still mostly out with fevers after the thermal equilibrium experiment went haywire on Monday, that only gives us enough left to secure the building.” He shrugged. “I’m not about to try to convince her that a positronic field experiment is potentially just as valuable as a bioware test run, especially since Mansfield is a lot more interested in the latter.”
“Got it,” Jack said. “We’ll be here, then. Um, anything in particular we should be watching for?”
Fargo looked upwards, thinking. “Well, if any of the plants either suddenly die or begin growing really, really fast, call me. Oh, and since the positron field can interfere with electrical currents, Andy needs to stay outside of the field boundaries.”
Jack raised an eyebrow; Andy laughed and said “Will do, Dr. Fargo.” He glanced at his boss. “Come on, Sheriff, let’s establish some perimeters.”
Half an hour later, Jack was strolling idly back and forth along the open side of the square meadow. Andy had decided that an elevated perspective might be helpful, so he’d shimmied up one of the redwoods directly across from him. Normally, Jack wouldn’t have approved, but he knew from experience that Andy could just jump down from there and hit the ground running, so it wasn’t going to slow their response time down significantly.
His head came up; something had just changed, but he couldn’t see what. “You hear anything?” he whispered into the mouthpiece.
“Movement at nine o’clock, coming in fast. Might just be a deer,” his deputy answered, “but keep your eyes peeled.”
The figure that burst into the field wasn’t a deer - at that speed, the only animal it could have been was a cheetah - but it was on all fours and panting. For a brief instant, Jack wondered if Lojack had decided to make an appearance, before recognizing it as human. He darted forward just as Deputy Andy dropped like a stone from his tree perch.
“Don’t go in there -” Jack started, just as the person crossed the invisible line between two of the pylons. He - at least Jack was pretty sure he was male - jerked once, violently, stumbled and went down.
Immediately, Jack had his phone out. Fargo picked up in one ring. “Hey, Fargo, someone just showed up and crossed into your clearing before we could stop him -”
“Oh, great,” groaned the voice on the other end of the line. “Listen, it should be safe for you to go in after him, but don’t send Andy; he could get all kinds positronic interference at this stage of the experiment. Can you, um, detain whoever it is back at your office, and leave the deputy to stand guard? We’re almost done here, but apparently now there’s a crisis back at Global, too.” He swallowed loudly. “And I can’t be both places at once.”
“Sure. Call me when you’re done.” Jack waved his deputy back and jogged the few yards to their trespasser. “Hey, this is private property,” he started. “You need to -”
“Sheriff?” asked a familiar voice, before it dissolved into coughing.
Jack sniffed; the trespasser’s hair and clothes were burned, but what remained of the shirt looked familiar. He reached down; a wisp of smoke brushed past his hand. “Hey, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” said the man, who looked like he’d recently been set on fire and then put out by being dragged through a mud pit. His legs twitched once, sharply.
“Are you okay? Hold still,” Jack commanded, gripping the man’s shoulder and turning him over. He almost let go again in surprise. “Zane?”
“Hey, Carter,” Zane mumbled. His face was red and smudged, his eyes bloodshot, and his shoes torn to shreds. “I think I’m in trouble again.” His eyes rolled back, and he went limp.
“Understatement of the week,” Jack grunted as he hefted the young scientist over his shoulder.
“Never thought I’d be glad to be here,” Zane wheezed.
Jack fumbled under the cell’s bunk for the blanket. “I’m not clear on whether I’m supposed to lock you in here or not.”
“I don’t think I could leave, even if I wanted to.” Global’s smartest troublemaker took the coverlet from Jack and tugged it over his chest, shivering. “My legs don’t want to work right.”
Jack rolled his desk chair over to the door of the cell. “Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“As much of it as I understand,” Zane answered, looking up at the ceiling. “Today was the first field test of the new implants -”
“Already?” Jack replayed Fargo’s earlier conversation in his head. “I figured they weren’t testing until this afternoon, at least. Andy just mentioned them this morning.”
“Yeah, I’m a little surprised Section One decided to move this fast on the design, myself,” Zane admitted. “If Taggart were around, I’m pretty sure they’d have gone through a few more rounds of animal testing first. But they’re getting pressure from General Jerkoff, and - anyway, they asked for four test subjects, and I thought it sounded kind of neat, so I volunteered.” He grinned wryly. “It’s a really fast procedure, honestly - they injected little nanobot packages into the major joints, and you can feel them attaching the microfilaments to your bones.” Carefully, he stretched out one scraped-up hand, as if he were trying to look through the skin. “They asked us to lift some weights, that sort of thing. Testing the strength limits. Not all that impressive, although I can bench-press at the Olympic level now. Then they had us run the vehicle track, and that was all kinds of fun - like being on a motorcycle, except it’s just your feet.”
He closed his eyes, dropping his hand back to his side. “But then - I don’t know what happened, exactly. One moment, I was zooming around a nice big paved oval at sixty miles per hour, and then - it was like my legs just wouldn’t stop. They just kept going faster and faster. I tried to grab the pit-stop gate to slow myself down, which in retrospect was stupid - I’d’ve yanked my arm out of the socket. Instead, I flipped myself off the track, and landed on the other side of the fence. Jo was screaming, and I guess I panicked, because the next thing I knew, I was in the speeder chase scene from Return of the Jedi, just trying to dodge redwoods. Somewhere in there, I ended up galloping on all fours, so I wouldn’t fall over on the turns. I was going so fast the friction was making my clothes smolder where they were rubbing together, and I couldn’t - I’m almost surprised I didn’t get a sonic boom.” Slowly, he took a deep breath, filling his lungs and letting them empty. “After going around Lake Eureka the long way, I was starting to slow down, I guess because I was just out of energy; I think I was back to about fifty miles an hour or so. Then I came out into your meadow, and it was like the filaments just all froze up at once, and I fell over.” He sighed. “You saw the rest.”
“Uh huh.” Jack opened the little mini-fridge, fishing out two cartons of orange juice, a leftover muffin from Cafe Diem, and an apple. “After that, I’d imagine you need a chance to refuel.”
“I’m not really hungry,” Zane started, and then saw the remains of breakfast in Jack’s hands. He darted forward, stumbling as he came off the bunk and landing heavily on his knees. “Ouch, he mumbled, as one hand groped towards the cell door, almost as if it were acting independently.
Jack handed him one of the cartons. “Let’s get something in you before you try moving around too much,” he suggested, his eyes crinkling with concern.
Zane ripped the top off the container and chugged it. “Please,” he begged, reaching out again. Jack handed him the apple; he devoured it in about six bites, core and all. The muffin met a similar fate, and the last carton of juice was poured down after it. Zane’s eyes met Jack’s, huge and wary. “More?”
“Let’s let that digest first,” Jack suggested, reaching in to help Zane off the floor. “Once you’re a little more functional, we can try something a little more solid.”
“Eggs,” Zane gasped as he clutched at the edge of the bunk. “Protein.”
“Later,” Jack assured him, tucking the blanket up around Zane as he shivered violently. Zane clutched at the edge of the throw and fell instantly asleep.
Jack stepped out of the cell and closed the door. “Okay, Fargo,” he muttered, “you better get someone down here.” He dug his phone from his pocket and touched Allison’s number; maybe a doctor would have a better idea of what was going on. He was pretty sure some of those abrasions were going to need medical care.
Three rings, then her voicemail. Jack grimaced. “Hey, Allie. Um, Zane seems to have gone AWOL from the implant trials and landed in a field south of the chicken ranch. He’s a little torn up, and I think the implants seized on him. I need to know whether to bring him up to the infirmary - Fargo asked me to keep him here, but I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Give me a call back, okay?” He dropped the phone back into his pocket and hunted in the cabinet for the first aid kit.
It was odd, he thought, how some of the things in the white box with the red cross painted on it were exactly the same in Eureka as they’d be anywhere else, and some of them were barely recognizable. There were no alcohol swabs or cotton balls; it took him several minutes to realize that the tiny folded hankie was a self-sterilizing ultra-absorbent antiseptic towelette. The bandages were practically invisible once they were out of their packages. But the big gauze pads were still there, just like they’d been in the one he’d carried as a boy scout, or the one in his car, back when he was a marshall.
He tugged the desk chair through the cell door and reached for one of Zane’s hands, unfolding it carefully. The pads of his palms were scratched and bloody, dotted with fresh scabs; here and there an evergreen needle or a thorn from some woodland bramble was still stuck in the raw flesh. Jack winced - people weren’t supposed to run on all fours; even the super-speed kids from Global hadn’t ended up that way. The implants must have started shorting even before Zane crossed the positronic whoosiwhatsis Fargo’s team had set up.
Gently, Jack began picking the bits of plant matter out of Zane’s palms, cleaning the scrapes as best he could. It reminded him a little of one time he’d bandaged Zoe’s hands after a bad spill off of a ‘borrowed’ skateboard; he grinned despite himself. The young scientist’s hands were larger, of course - and stone and bark left different marks than concrete and asphalt.
Zane’s hands were warm. Jack squeezed a daub of antibiotic cream out of the tube - yes, that was what it was labeled for; good - and brushed it against the abrasions lightly. Zane stirred and made a soft whimpering noise, but didn’t wake up. The bandages shrank and sealed against his skin; at least he wouldn’t knock the scabs off and start bleeding again.
Jack folded Zane’s hands back onto the blanket, closed the cell door as quietly as he could, and tiptoed out of the office. If he was lucky, he could get to Cafe Diem and back before Zane woke up.
Vince was in a good mood today; he’d taken Jack’s order for one Angus beef hamburger all the way and one veggieburger with lettuce and guacamole in perfect stride. He handed over the to-go containers with a broad smile. “One for you, Sheriff,” he said, presenting the box, “and one for Zoe.”
“Actually, it’s not for her,” Jack said before he caught himself. He half-shrugged; after all, it wasn’t necessarily his business to keep Global’s secrets. “This one’s for Zane. He’s in the pen again.”
“Oh,” Vince laughed, “you should’ve told me. I’d’ve made him sweet potato fries instead of Idaho. Actually,” he interrupted himself, “if you can wait four minutes, I’ll just whip up a fresh batch.”
Jack’s phone went off. “You just might have that four minutes,” he muttered, before glancing at it. Allison; thank goodness. “Carter here,” he said into the receiver as Vince scuttled into the kitchen again.
“Jack? Hey, I got your message - sorry it took so long. We’ve had kind of a situation up here.” Allison sounded exhausted; something was whirring in the background loud enough to make her words hard to pick out. “You said you have Zane there?”
“Yeah,” Jack started, “and he’s got -”
“Okay, can you hold him there until the positronic field test team can relieve your deputy and then bring him straight to the infirmary?” Allison interrupted him. “The endoskeletal enhancement implants have some, um, interesting glitches to work out.” Something metal in the background crashed noisily to the floor. “Jo, Henry, and I have our hands full dealing with the test subjects who didn’t make it over the fence - I think a couple of them are having full psychotic breaks. Henry, watch out!” Another crash, glass this time. “Jo was worried that he’d tried to run across Lake Eureka or something. She’ll be relieved to hear he’s okay.”
“He’s worn out and bleeding,” Jack started again.
“Just give him basic first aid and hold him until you and Andy can bring him in together,” Allison pleaded. “Oh, and try and keep him hydrated. See you then - I’ve got to go. No, Dr. Ausbaum, don’t -” The connection cut off.
Jack sighed, and slipped the phone back into his pocket just as Vince handed him a bag full of piping hot fries. “Here you go, just the thing for an injured prankster. Don’t let him get salt in the wounds.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jack promised as he turned towards the door. How many test subjects did Zane say there had been? And if the implants were affecting Zane like this, what were they doing to the others?
Deputy Andy’s car still wasn’t in its usual parking spot. Jack frowned as he reached for the door to the sheriff’s office - he was sure he’d closed it, but it stood slightly ajar. “Oh, great,” he muttered, already fairly sure of what he’d see.
Yup, the cell was empty. But the lock wasn’t picked, even though that appeared to be this universe’s Zane’s favorite way of escaping. Instead, the bars next to the door were simply bent outward, just enough for a slender frame to slip through them.
“Olympic-level, my eye,” Jack grumbled before heading back through the door, takeout still in hand.
“He hasn’t come back here. Just keep an eye out. He could be anywhere,” Andy crackled through the radio in a tone that was no doubt meant to be reassuring.
“Actually,” Jack replied, “I think he just went home.”
“How do you figure that? Not,” continued the robotic deputy, “that I’m doubting you - you’ve got pretty good intuitions when it comes to fugitives.”
“Comes from living with one.” Jack leaned out the Jeep window. “But in this case, it’s that his tires are running flat.”
There was a long pause. “Come again?”
“His sneakers got pretty worn through in his initial race through the woods. He’s down to the foam on parts of the soles.” There, there was another black rubber mark on the sidewalk. As long as he could tell them from the scorch marks from the annual soap-box derby, the trail was pretty easy to follow. And there was Zane’s cottage up ahead.
“Yeah, even you could track that by naked eye,” chuckled Andy. “Dr. Fargo says he’ll have a team here to relieve me in about half an hour. Do you want to wait to apprehend the suspect until you have back-up?”
Jack shook his head, forgetting for a moment that the deputy couldn’t see him. “I don’t think he’s dangerous. I’m going to try to talk to him first.” He pulled up at the curb and set the radio back in its cradle.
The door was open here, too, but it was clearly because someone hadn’t bothered with the doorknob to get in - it was nearly split in half, splintered where the deadbolt met the frame. “Zane?” Jack called, reaching in and knocking on the wall just under the light switch. “You home?”
“Go away,” answered a rough voice from somewhere inside the house.
“Can’t do that,” Jack said, stepping in slowly.
Zane laughed, his voice raw. “Why not? Fargo sent you as a flunky to haul me back?”
“No,” Jack replied, holding up the bag from Cafe Diem. “Your fries are already getting cold. Vince would kill me if I let them go completely to waste.”
That got another laugh, a bit less desperate. “I could probably use a bite. Set them down.”
Jack paused, then did so, placing the bag and the carryout box on the floor in front of him. He barely saw the blur that snatched them up; suddenly Zane was halfway up the stairs, veggieburger in hand.
“Guacamole, no tomatoes. Did you remember, or was that Vince?” Zane scarfed the sandwich in three bites and began rummaging in the bag for the fries.
“Me. Vince figured I was ordering for Zoe,” Jack admitted. “Hey, I thought your legs weren’t, um, weren’t working quite right.”
“They aren’t,” Zane sighed. “Right now I’d guess there’s only about a 75% chance I could stand up - but if I can, I could run from here to Portland.” He stuffed a handful of soggy sweet potatoes into his mouth and gulped. “That’s the big problem with the implants, Sheriff - they’re getting chaotic feedback from the neural interface, I think.” He licked the salt off his fingers; Jack found himself staring at his tongue, and looked away.
“So, sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t - and sometimes they work too well?” Jack tried not to blush. It had been a long time since he’d stared at another man’s mouth like that; what was he thinking?
“Yeah.” Zane took a deep breath. “And when they are working, I think they’re getting input from my subconscious - from the reptile brain, more than the conscious one. I’ve always been more one from running from my problems than facing them, and so -” He broke off with a wave of his hand. “Also, you saw the door, right?”
“And the bars back at the office.”
Zane nodded. “The bars were sort of deliberate, I mean, I didn’t mean to mess stuff up, but I really, really wanted out of there. I guess I got claustrophobic for a minute. The door, though - that was completely by accident.” He ran one hand, still greasy from the fries, through his hair; it stood up in tousled peaks. “I can’t control them, Carter. They do what the thirteen-year-old jackass-me wants, not what makes sense.” He shivered. “I’m going to hurt somebody.”
“I don’t think so,” Jack said. He glanced down to make sure the safety on his sidearm was off, then edged towards the stairs. “Pranks, sure - even cheap ones, that’s you. But I don’t think even the most immature, selfish part of you would want someone hurt.”
“I don’t know.” Zane’s eyes darted from Jack to the shadows to his own hands and back. “That’s just it, Carter, I don’t know.” He blinked once, then looked down. “You guys don’t look at me the same any more, you know that?”
Jack hesitated. “What do you mean?”
“Since fall started, I think. Before, when you looked at me, there was always - I don’t know, you just saw another perp. Like I was a teenage vandal, and that was all you expected me to be. You were annoyed - you didn’t hate me or anything, I wasn’t important enough for you to hate, but I was one of the things about Eureka that kind of pissed you off.” Zane paused, as if he were hunting for words. “And Jo just hated my guts; I was everything that wasn’t military, wasn’t nice and neat and orderly. Fargo, too, although he enjoyed bossing me around. But now -”
His head came up; his eyes met Jack’s, and there was a strange, desperate gleam in them. “Now, when I do something stupid, you’re not angry, you and Jo, and maybe even Fargo and Henry. Now, when I screw up, or pull a really juvenile prank, you look at me like you’re disappointed in me, like you expected better.” One hand gripped the bannister, tightening as he spoke. “Like you’re seeing a responsible adult screw up, instead of some overgrown kid. Like I’m someone you care about, a person, not just a perp.” Splinters popped under his fingers. “And I don’t know how to handle it.”
Jack opened his mouth, then closed it again. “Yeah.” His head spun; if Jo hadn’t figured out a way to explain this by now, how could he manage it? “Maybe - maybe we just had a glimpse of the person you could be.” He was at the foot of the stairs, now; flakes of paint snapped off the handrail as Zane squeezed it tighter. The steps were vibrating, Zane was shaking so hard . “I don’t know if the bad-boy thing is a persona you put on to protect yourself, or if that’s really you.” Slowly, carefully, he eased up the stairs. “But I’ve seen a lot of real criminals, before I ever got to Eureka, and believe me, Zane - I don’t think you’re one of them.” He swallowed; why was his mouth so dry? “I might have, before - but now, I’m sure you’re not.”
Zane pulled himself into a half-crouch; one of the rail spindles cracked in half. “And exactly how do you know that?”
Jack shook his head and extended one hand. “You’re just going to have to trust me on that one.”
“I’m not very good at trusting,” Zane said, looking more at the hand than at Jack.
“Yeah, I figured,” Jack admitted. “But - sometimes you have to risk getting hurt.”
Now Zane’s eyes found his face. “And you’re willing?”
“Well, yeah.” Jack blinked. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Suddenly, Zane flew off the stairs and collided with Jack, nearly sending them both sprawling, and Jack found himself in a bear hug. Instinctively, he leaned into the impromptu embrace, holding on to Zane as he shivered. Comforting someone wasn’t always something that came easy for him, but Jack was willing to try; his hands found Zane’s back as he tucked the rogue scientist’s head into the crook of his shoulder. “Hey, hey,” he whispered, “it’s okay. I’ve got you.”
“Sorry,” Zane murmured back. “This whole being trusted thing is kind of new to me.” He slid one hand down Jack’s side and into the small of his back. “Never thought I’d fall for a father-figure, you know?”
Jack’s eyes went wide. “Um, ‘fall for’?”
He felt Zane grinning against the side of his neck. “New to you, too, huh?”
“Well, not exactly new, but -” He paused. How much of his wild college past did Zane need to know? Hell, if he’d gotten into and read Grant’s file, he’d probably read everything that was in Carter’s long ago. For all that Eureka was a secret itself, it was as bad at keeping secrets as any small town. “Let’s just say that bad-boys aren’t exactly my type, either.”
Zane chuckled, and his hand fell lower. “So, not interested in playing with handcuffs?” He nuzzled behind Jack’s ear, and finally stopped shivering.
“This is going a little fast for me,” Jack admitted.
“Should have figured Sheriff Boy Scout isn’t interested in going past first base on the first date,” Zane said, still grinning.
Jack was saved from coming up with a reply by the electronic breedle of his phone going off. He half-let go of Zane and reached for it. “Carter here.”
“Uh, Sheriff?” Fargo’s voice was high and reedy. “We, um, we have a situation here.”
Zane nipped at Carter’s other ear; Jack edged to the side and shifted his grip on him. “What now?”
“When we, um, when we activated the positron field receivers, they, ah, they worked a little too well,” Fargo confessed. “And, um, Deputy Andy is, well, you remember he climbed up one of the redwoods to get a better vantage point?”
“Well,” Fargo continued, “the positronic field shorted out his servos, even from that distance, and now he’s stuck up there.”
Jack closed his eyes and counted to five, as Zane started shaking again - with suppressed laughter, this time. “I’ll be right there.”
“Are you sure you want to come along?” Jack said, glancing to the side. “I mean, it was running into the positron field in the first place that made the implants screw up.”
“No, they were fritzing out from the start of the tests,” Zane answered. He was wearing a different pair of shoes, but the rest of his clothes were still singed. “The implants aren’t really electronics, remember - they’re bioelectrical, not like Andy’s circuits. Honestly, I’m not sure I could have stopped if I hadn’t run into the clearing - I think the positronic field served as a damper.” Jack made a mental note to tell Allison that as soon as they’d rescued Andy.
Fargo jogged over, his tie completely askew. “He’s in that one, over there,” he gasped, out of breath; he pointed at the tallest redwood on the north side of the meadow, its top bending just slightly under the deputy’s weight.
Jack glanced up. “Okay. What do I need to do?”
Fargo bit his lip. “Well, basically he needs a complete system reset. Um, how good are you at AI programming?”
Jack blinked. “You’re kidding, right?” He rolled his eyes as Fargo shrugged apologetically. “Just - tell me what buttons to push once I’m up there.”
Zane shook his head. “Nope. I’ll go.”
Fargo gaped at him; Jack gave him a quizzical look. “Are you sure?”
“Hey, you saw how good a grip I can get on wood now, earlier.” Zane flexed his fingers and grinned. “It’ll be way faster than us having to explain to you how to rewire his access panels from down here.”
“But what if he tries to run away again?” Fargo whispered as Zane strode over to the base of the tree.
Jack shook his head. “He won’t.”
“How can you be sure?” Fargo winced as Zane’s fingers dug into the redwood bark.
He kicked his shoes off and did the same with his toes, shimmying up the side of the tree like a squirrel. Jack smiled lightly. “Just - trust me.”
Zane disappeared into the canopy of needles; here and there a branch bent, a twig shook, a cone dropped to the ground. The top of the redwood swayed, then went still.
Five minutes passed, then ten. Fargo glanced at his watch. “He should be done by now. A cold reboot shouldn’t take this long.”
Jack was beginning to contemplate climbing up after them when Fargo’s phone went off. “Fargo here - oh, crud.”
Fargo switched the phone to speaker mode. “Okay, you said which circuit’s fried?”
“The main servo controller for his legs, and one of the two for his arms,” Zane’s voice said, thin and tinny through the tiny speaker. “He can talk and move his hands. That’s about it.”
“It’s a mighty perplexing predicament,” Andy added, sounding as chipper as ever.
Jack thought fast. “Okay, if I call Henry to come out here with the tow truck, we can have Zane climb back down to get a pulley, take it back up there, and lower Andy down.”
“Well, that’d work for my chassis,” Andy said, still sounding like he was explaining how to cross the street safely, “but I’m still too close to the positron field for comfort - my main memory circuits are starting to corrupt.”
“Does that mean he’s going to start speaking Dutch again?” Jack asked.
“Possibly,” Zane answered. “Or he might go all Terminator on us, if his moral code corrupts before his firearms program does.”
“I don’t think that’s possible,” Andy argued. “The Three Laws are primary programming for me.”
“That’s what I thought about S.A.R.A.H. before the B.R.A.D. incident, though,” Fargo worried aloud.
“What if I forget about her?” Suddenly Andy actually sounded scared. “I don’t think I’d ever be the same. Please, get me out of here before that happens?”
“Besides, she might try to flatten you again if you forgot her,” Fargo muttered.
“Tell you what, let me try something and I’ll see you guys in a sec if it works,” Zane said. The phone connection abruptly cut off.
“Is he going to try and jump?” Fargo asked. “Even with the implants, the extra weight from Andy would break both his legs.”
Jack didn’t answer; he broke for the tree at a dead run. As he skidded to a stop on the carpet of fallen needles, he heard from above, “Careful, now, Zach - whoa, whoa, whoa!”
Zane came into focus clinging to the trunk, both feet and one hand gripping the tree as he slid down, as if it were an enormous fire-pole. Long peels of redwood bark stripped away under his hands as he picked up speed. Deputy Andy was casually slung over one shoulder, blinking against the increasing wind.
“Look out, Cartwright!” Andy called. Jack veered into their path, arms outstretched, trying to catch them; Zane half-collided with him and they went down in a heap.
Fargo arrived a few seconds to late to interfere. “Carter? Zane? You okay?”
Deputy Andy flopped onto the ground like a rag doll. “Dr. Fortnight, I believe everyone is relatively uninjured.”
Jack rolled out from under Zane and staggered to his feet. “Well, I’m going to have some bruises from that, but yeah, I’m okay.” He reached down. “Zane?”
Zane spat out a mouthful of bark. “I’ll be fine once I get all the splinters out.” He scrambled upright and scooped up Deputy Andy. “Let me get him in the Global truck and out of the positron field.” He disappeared in a blur.
Jack leaned against the tree. “I think we might need some portable positron generators for your implant victims, at least until you can figure out what went haywire.”
Fargo nodded. “I’ll get Henry right on it. And Dr. Blake’s working on removing the implants without causing massive tissue damage.”
Zane reappeared. “I dunno,” he grinned, “with the damper field, I’m kind of getting used to the super-speed, super-strength thing.”
“That’s all I need,” Fargo groaned, “a Loki or a Mr. Mxyzptlk on my staff.”
“He’s nowhere near that powerful,” Jack objected.
Zane blinked. “You read comic books, Jack?”
“Read, past tense. And yeah, I liked the old Superman ones,” Jack said defensively.
“Aren’t you just full of surprises today,” Zane grinned.
Fargo peered owlishly at both of them for a moment, then shook his head. “Okay. I’ll take Deputy Andy back to the AI lab to get fixed up; Jack, can you get Zane to the infirmary? I think they’re about ready for him now, or at least they will be by the time we get there.”
“Sure,” Jack said, nodding. Fargo picked his way back through the tall grasses as Zane plucked a large redwood splinter out of his palm.
“I think I messed up your bandaging from earlier,” Zane mumbled, not quite looking Jack in the face.
Jack shrugged. “Allison will do a better job, anyway.”
Zane shook his head. “I liked yours.”
Jack leaned against the tree and inspected Zane carefully. He was a wreck - the jeans he was wearing were going to be rags once they were washed, his hair was askew and peppered with pine needles, and his skin was scuffed raw in several new places from the slide down the tree. “What you said earlier - if that was just the fear talking, I understand.”
“Not a chance.” Zane turned towards him, chin up. “Someone thinking better of me - I’m not ready to give that up. And it’s still pretty powerfully attractive.” He stepped closer. “Unless you’re thinking better of it, now.”
“I don’t know if I’m the guy who can put you back together,” Jack said slowly. “But - if you just need someone to watch out for you -”
“- Then you’re the guy I need,” Zane finished. “That’ll do just fine.” He leaned forward and pressed his lips gently to the corner of Jack’s jaw.
Jack shifted so that Zane was between him and the tree. “Care to try that again?” he said, closing the gap between them carefully.
“All right,” Zane agreed, and found his mouth this time. The kiss was long, slow, and warm; when Jack finally pulled back, something unfamiliar stirred in his chest.
Zane was flushed and breathing heavily. “Not bad, Sheriff.”
Jack grinned back. “Come on, let’s get you up to Global.” He slid one arm around Zane’s shoulders as they stepped away from the redwood. “Afterwards, maybe we’ll see how that works when you’re not, you know, bleeding.”
“Aw, that’s not a turn-on for you?” Zane asked, eyes sparkling impishly. As Jack sputtered, he grinned, dropped one hand to Jack’s backside for a squeeze, and then took off in a blur for the Jeep.
“This is gonna get complicated, isn’t it,” Jack complained, rubbing the back of his neck, but he was still smiling when he climbed into the driver’s seat.