"Dauntless, this is Mission Control, copy." The man's voice was steady.
"Sarah!" Nat gripped her armrest, knuckles white. It was hard to speak through her tight throat.
"Dauntless, can you hear us? Copy."
"Sarah!" She adjusted her headset, then grabbed another and tuned it to the main mission channel and pulled it on her head. "Josh? Sarah? Can you hear us?"
The mission commander leaned over the back of the chair of the tech beside her and peered at his monitor. The room hummed with computer fans and the nervous fidgeting of people who knew their roles but were impotent to fulfil them. No one wore white shirts or ties, and there wasn't a pocket protector in sight, but Nat felt like she was trapped in Apollo 13. She'd held her breath half a dozen times during the movie, but had never taken any more than casual note of a real space flight. Until now.
She took a deep breath. Exhaled. "Sarah, please answer. What's happening?"
"Five minutes, twelve seconds, sir." Another American voice. They were so bloody dispassionate.
"What does the TDRSS say?"
"Nothing. It's as if the Dauntless isn't even there."
"Look," a man to the left with short brown hair said. "The most likely possibility is that the ship has been destroyed. If that shot hit just the right point, it could have caused explosive decompression and torn the ship apart."
"Mac, her friends are up there!" the computer tech to Nat's other side hissed.
"Don't call me Mac!" he hissed back.
"How the hell did a firearm even--"
"TDRSS?" Nat didn't care that she'd interrupted the commander. "What is the TDRSS?"
He rolled his eyes at her. "We don't have time--"
"Tell me!" Nat didn't even try to reign in the shrillness of her voice.
Commander Bradley put his hands on his hips. "It's the tracking and data relay satellite system. It monitors the status of craft in orbit, and NASA has let us have access to it for our re-entry monitoring."
"How long has it been tracking the Dauntless?" Nat demanded.
"The TDRSS acquired the Dauntless as it reached its planned apogee. It was the only reason we knew where its last position was."
Nat backed up her chair, ignoring an indignant yelp from the commander's assistant. "Move," she ordered the man beside her.
"What? No. You're on comms, not the computers."
"Look," Nat peered at the ID card on his lanyard, "Patrick. If there is still a computer link, I can find it."
"This is my job," Patrick insisted. "If there were any signals I'd have--"
"You can shift or I can shift your chair out of the way!"
"You are here as a courtesy, Miss Redfern! I suggest you show some!" Cmdr. Bradley was curt, his pitch up.
Nat forced herself to breathe, even if she couldn't get a full, deep breath. "Okay. I'm sorry. I'm scared. My friends are up there and...look, I have some tricks up my sleeve that aren't exactly...legit. Please let me try tracking them."
The commander caught Patrick's eyes. He shrugged. "If we've lost the Dauntless, her searching the data isn't going to change that. I say let her try. Maybe she can find something I can't." He scooted to the side and let Nat in.
"Thank you," she said, already typing at the keyboard and clicking the mouse.
Voices around them were still calling the Dauntless every 20 seconds, but Nat tuned it out as she started to trace the data echoes back along the satellite feed, then triangulate the readings from the ship with other satellites. All of them showed empty space where the Dauntless had been a second earlier in the readings.
"Where are you, Sarah?" she murmured.
Her headset crackled, then whined with feedback. Everyone in the room jumped simultaneously.
"Oi! Where have you lot been? Are you just going to leave us hanging around up here with no company?" The voice was tinny, but strong.
"Sarah!" Nat felt her throat tighten. "Sarah, are you all right?"
"Right as rain," she laughed. "Repeat, where have you lot been, copy?"
"Miss Smith, please report on your stat--"
"Where have we been? Where have you been? You've had us worried sick for the past forty-two and a half minutes!" Nat gripped her headset as if holding it would keep the connection alive.
"What did you think we'd done? Nipped out for a quick fag?"
"Of course not, Sarah." Nat laughed as the vice grip around her chest relaxed. "You don't smoke."
Sarah laughed again.
Commander Bradley glared and Nat covered her mouth. "Miss Smith. Are you all right, copy?"
"I'm fine. We've got a problem, though. Kimmel's dead."
"What happened?" several voices chorused.
"He tried to kill me. Josh shot him," Sarah said flatly.
"What about Josh?" Nat asked.
"He'll need to see a doctor, but I think he'll be all right."
"Miss Smith, how did you get life support back?"
"It...just came back on," Sarah said. "That or I panicked when the shooting happened and over-estimated the danger."
Nat frowned. "That's not like you--"
"Has the Dauntless achieved orbit?" Sarah interrupted.
"We don't know," Bradley said. "We can't see her on our monitors and the telemetry cut off when--"
"Sir, all data streams are back online and TDRSS is tracking," a tech said.
"TARDIS?" Sarah demanded.
"It's all right, Sarah. It's just the satellite monitoring system."
Patrick reached for the keyboard and Nat slapped his hand.
"Miss Smith," Patrick said, "is there any visible damage to the Dauntless?"
"Just burn damage. There doesn't seem to be any structural damage, but the controls were hit by one of the shots, I'm afraid. Look here, I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but I've got to say I just want to come home," Sarah said.
"Your basic pre-flight training included familiarisation with the controls," Mac said. "If you paid attention, you should be able to tell us what is undamaged."
"Yes, of course," Sarah said. "I've just got to move Kimmel. Ewgh," she groaned. "The harness is stuck!" Then there was a thwack and the line crackled again. "I hit my hand on the bulkhead, but Kimmel's out of the way."
"Miss Smith, can you assess the damage?"
"All right. There is a hole here to the right of the stick in the middle."
"Not good." Mac pulled off his headset and turned around. "There's no way we can get them back. That will have gone through the gyroscopic positioning controls. With deep enough penetration it may have affected the thermal-regulator and oxygen scrubbers. Speaking of which, how is she even talking to--"
"I can hear you," Sarah's voice cut through the nasal rant.
Nat smiled despite the seriousness of the situation. Sarah had used her best disdainful journalist tone, full of archness and impertinence. Nat could never decide if Sarah's complete lack of subtlety was a boon or a burden for an investigative reporter.
In this case, the man gulped and back-pedalled. "I mean, clearly we're talking to you and that must mean it's possible. It looks like you're going to have to try to fly home. I hope you're up for that."
"Mac, put a sock in it," yet another tech said. "Miss Smith, the Dauntless has gone into high orbit--"
"It's not made to do that!"
"Well, Mac, look at the telemetry." While Mac gaped at it, the other man walked Sarah through securing Kimmel, Josh, and herself, then through holding the controls.
While they had her reducing altitude from the ninety-plus mile orbit the ship had reached to a re-entry level, Nat asked, "Sarah, what did you see just before we lost communication?"
"Let's talk about that after I've landed, when we debrief, okay?" Sarah said lightly.
"Yeah. Okay, Sarah."
It seemed forever and no time at all before the Dauntless was descending through the atmosphere. Nat had been warned there might be a re-entry communications blackout, but they'd hoped the Dauntless would be able to use the same satellite uplink as the shuttle. But there was nothing. Just silence.
Nat found herself thinking again of the Apollo 13 mission and the film. Surely they'd not been in blackout this long. Surely they'd not waited and wondered for over twenty-seven minutes. Thirty-three minutes. Forty-two and a half minutes. She gripped the arm rests on her chair and forced her breathing to steady.
"We made it!"
There was whooping through Mission Control, but Nat still couldn't breathe. They'd not burned up on re-entry, but they still had to land. No one had told her, but Patrick's computer relayed that they'd put down thick foam for the landing and gave less than even odds for a safe landing. Nat blinked back tears.
A hand touched her wrist then wrapped her fingers around something warm.
"Hot chocolate," Patrick said. "It's a good distraction."
"Thank you, Patrick. I love hot chocolate," she whispered.
"Well, lucky for you, it's the one good thing in the hot drink machine. And call me Pat." He smiled and she managed a smile back before sipping from the Styrofoam cup.
Next thing she knew, the Dauntless was on the ground in one piece and ambulances were squalling their way to the ship. Orders and instructions were being shouted. Nat knew there was no way she could get to the tarmac or the ambulances, not even if she'd been able to run.
"Come on," Patrick said into her ear. "I'll drive you."
"How are you going to take my chair?"
He just smiled. "Trust me."
He was so American, Nat thought. So bloody confident. But she was willing to let him look the fool for a couple of minutes then to make him call an accessible taxi.
As they entered the Emergency Room, Nat said, "You're really not going to tell me why you have a ramp in your van?"
Patrick grinned. "Why should I? You're smart enough to figure it out yourself."
Nat snorted, then tipped her head toward loud protests. "Oh, that'll be her."
"I told you, I'm fine! How's Josh? He's the one-- Nat! Thank God you're here. Nat, they won't tell me anything. Will you tell them I'm all right and find out how Josh is?"
Nat nearly ran over a nurse who didn't shift quickly enough as she went to hug Sarah. "Thank God you're safe. I was afraid for a while I'd never see you again."
"I'm fine." Sarah hugged her back. "But you've got to check on Josh. I didn't want to worry you, but he's very badly hurt." She pushed at Nat's shoulders. "Please. Go find out...just go."
Nat swiped at moisture on her cheek as she went in search of a nurse. Her heart was back in her throat. If Sarah was frightened, things were bad. The nurses stonewalled her with talk of hippos...something that sounded like "hippo" and was about privacy, anyway. Then she saw Commander Bradley.
"Commander. Please, do you know anything about Josh? Sarah says he's been badly injured."
"They've taken him to surgery, Miss Redfern. But they didn't sound hopeful. You should probably prepare yourself." He patted her shoulder awkwardly. "Excuse me."
She raced back to Sarah's cubicle. Sarah had been changed into a hospital gown and hooked up to several monitors, but she clasped a hand to her mouth when Nat entered.
Nat blinked back tears of relief. "Josh is still critical," she said, smiling, "but he's doing far better than expected."
"That's a relief." Sarah picked at the hospital blanket. "I can't wait to get out of here. This sitting around doing nothing...I don't think I can bear it."
"They'll let you out when they're sure you're ready. You are so stubborn."
"Hello, pot?" Sarah smiled a tiny bit.
Nat thought in the awkward silence that stretched several minutes, then plunged in. "Sarah? What did you see up there? Just before we lost comms, you said you saw something beautiful, something that was what you'd been looking for. What was it?"
Sarah stared at her tightly-clenched hands in her lap. "I don't want to talk about it, Nat. I still need time to process."
"Well, you can't let it go too long," Nat returned. "That's just a recipe for things getting worse."
"I've taken care of that." Sarah's voice was clipped and decisive. "I'm letting the CNN news anchor interview me in two days. It means I'll have to talk before too long."
Nat frowned. "I suppose that's...good."
Sarah raised her eyebrows.
"Sorry. I just thought you'd want to break the news of...whatever it was you saw...yourself. You were never keen on sharing a good story."
"You'll understand, Nat. This is too big not to get the word out on the largest feed over the greatest area. The entire world can watch CNN on their computers, and the entire world needs to know about this.
Nat frowned more deeply. Sarah's tone was...odd, somehow both flat and sing-songy in that last bit. She shook her head. Sarah had just been through something awful. She'd nearly died, and Josh still could die--even if his chances looked good--so it was understandable if she was a bit out of it. "Sarah, why don't I let you rest? I'm feeling worn out from all this excitement myself."
Sarah nodded and Nat left the room. As she passed the waiting area, she saw a familiar face. "Pat! What are you still doing here? It's been hours!"
"Well, I figured you'd need a ride back, and it's been a pretty rough day, so..." He shrugged.
"My knight in shining mini-van," she joked. "Thank you, really."
They walked to the car park attached to the hospital in silence.
"Look, Pat, I don't want this to sound rude but...we've faced rather a lot of nutters in the past couple of years, Sarah, Josh, and me, and what we've learned over and over is that there are no coincidences. Here you are, on a project where even Kimmel didn't know I was bringing my wheelchair, but you have a portable ramp? I could figure it out, but I'd rather you tell me the truth. Have you been stalking us?"
Pat laughed. "Not even close. Though I admit I only started carrying the ramp again once you arrived. Usually I bring it along when my sister and I go to dinner." He plopped the ramp in place and grinned.
Nat stared. "Your sister?"
"Yeah. She has cerebral palsy. Uses a chair just like yours, actually. Same brand, even." He beamed. "Allie's amazing--only twenty-four, and she has a master's in Recreational Therapy and works in stroke rehabilitation."
"That is awesome. Wow. Maybe there is such a thing as coincidence." Nat drove into the van and flicked off her power. Patrick looped a tie-down through the chair's frame. "Pat, there's something I want to ask you."
"Okay," he grunted, pulling at the ratchet.
"It...it's probably not fair to ask, but, well, I have a bad feeling about things. Can you let me back into the mainframe? I want to check some data tomorrow."
Pat leaned against the car frame, regarding her. "This isn't just hacker nosiness, is it?"
"No, it's not."
"You sound awfully serious."
"I am," Nat said, meeting his eyes. They were a lovely brown with green flecks. She shook her head. "I am serious," she repeated. "I'm afraid Sarah and Josh's lives--and maybe even ours--may depend on it."
Nat pored over the records of the mission. Something was missing. Something. Something...
She scanned the telemetry data then the in-flight recording. She frowned. Something was just not quite right.
There. There it was! "Yes!" she thought.
"Where did you even find that one?" Pat asked over her shoulder. Nat glanced up sharply, but he added, "Bradley isn't looking. He's checking in with someone."
"Oh. Well, let's just say that Sarah has made some...pretty interesting enemies over the years, and has a few rather powerful friends. Between what we've learned chasing the one and been given by the other, well, like I said, I've got a few tricks."
"What do you think it means?"
"Well, it's a gap in the in-flight recorder. It looks like a blip, but when you take it into account, there are ninety seconds missing from the time they were...'upstairs' as you call it."
"But what do you think it means?" Pat repeated.
"I don't know yet. But I re-read the entire Book of Tomorrows last night--at least all the extant pages--and...I'm wondering now if the White and Crimson Chapters both had it wrong. I think we may be facing a danger like the one Duke Giuliano described 500 years ago, and I'm not sure Sarah can help defeat it this time."
"This time." Pat shook his head slowly. "You Brits really do know how to scare a body, you know that? I've never heard crazy conspiracy theories sound so plausible, but...let's get an early lunch and you can fill me in."
Nat tapped the keyboard, cleared her history, and logged off. "All right. Then after, we can go and visit Sarah and Josh. The hospital said they were doing much better, and I'll bet the nurses will be ready to kick Sarah out."
Just as she had predicted, Nat found herself in Pat's van again in the early afternoon with Sarah "riding shotgun."
"I want to see the flight data," Sarah said. "We need to get back to Dreamland as quickly as possible."
"Don't you think you should rest, Sarah? None of the data is going to get up and walk away." Nat exchanged a glance with Pat in the mirror.
"No. It is urgent. There is something I just realised this morning. Nat, you asked me what I'd seen, what I realised in those last moments before we lost contact. It was that it's something I'd seen before. And it could be deadly."
"What was it?"
"An alien intellect far above anything of Earth," Sarah intoned.
No one was willing to break the brittle silence that filled the rest of the drive and the walk to Mission Control. Nat found herself unable to sit still and her stomach clenched uncomfortably.
"Miss Smith," boomed Commander Bradley as soon as they entered the room. "I'm so glad to see you up and around. You and young Townsend gave us a real scare yesterday."
"Well, we were pretty scared ourselves." Sarah shook his hand.
"You must have some flight experience you didn't tell us about, Miss Smith. I've never seen anyone inexperienced land so well."
Sarah shrugged with a slight laugh. "Just lucky, I guess."
Nat frowned, but kept silent, watching.
Cmdr Bradley shook his head. "Frankly, we don't know how you got back. The techs say that bullet hole in the console went right through the primary life support system. You should have died up there."
"Maybe the backup was just enough to keep us going," Sarah said. "That must have been what kicked in after you lost me. It must have brought me 'round."
Nat frowned even more deeply. She'd heard nothing about the backup life support having kicked in, and found nothing in the telemetry data either. "There's no such thing as coincidence," she murmured.
"What's that, Nat?"
"Nothing, Sarah. Just saying that I'm glad that you are back safely."
"Well, may I please look at the mission reports? When you were fading out, there was a bright light, and I think I may know where it came from."
The commander gestured for Pat to log Sarah in, and she sat and paged through the documents. "There! Look!" Sarah pointed to the projected flight path and the graph that estimated their actual flight path. See? We crossed over the vector of that comet. I'll bet it had an EMP wave that shorted out the console."
"Well, I'll be. We're going to have to debrief this right away. Everyone assured me the comet could have no effect whatsoever on the Dauntless's flight. Someone get Mac down here!"
The computer winked out with a skitch, and Sarah gasped. "What was that?"
"Excuse me, may I?" Pat asked, then reached for the keyboard. The computer did not respond and would not boot up again. He pulled the power cord, counted to five, then tried to start it again, simultaneously starting up the adjacent computer.
Neither machine responded.
Nat tucked a flash drive beneath her thigh.
Pat called for the team to test the other machines, but calls were coming in from all around base reporting system outages.
"Commander Bradley," a young man called, "I've just gotten a report from the main power station. You're going to want to hear this."
The commander took the phone and Nat watched as her stomach knotted beneath her rib cage.
Bradley's face went white, then red, then a vein in his jaw began to pulse. He hung up the phone.
"Three of our employees--they can't even identify them yet--have been found burned to a blackened crisp in the power station. There is no further information at this time." He turned and walked out of the room.
A smirk crept onto Sarah's face and a shudder ran through the backs of Nat's arms. They were in bigger trouble than she'd thought.
Nat entered the dimmed hospital room cautiously. Just a few doors down was the room where Sir Donald had died not long ago, and here was Josh, hooked up to a bunch of machines with beeping readouts.
"Oh, Josh. How did things go this wrong?" Nat said, taking his hand. "I need you to wake up. I have a terrible suspicion, but you're the only one who was there."
There was a groan and pressure on her fingers. "Na?"
"Josh! Josh, you don't know the scare you gave us. I'm going to get a nurse for you. I'll be right back."
When Nat returned with the nurse, Josh was still again.
"Josh! Wake up!"
"Ma'am, we should really let him rest," the nurse said.
The nurse checked Josh's vitals, then patted his shoulder. "Everything looks good. Mr. Townsend, just let us know if you need anything or if you're having pain. And, ma'am, only another 20 minutes, then it's going to be time to let him rest some more."
Josh squinted at Nat. "Na..? Nat? Where am...oh, God...what hit me?"
"A bullet. Again."
Josh groaned. "I've got to stop doing that. Wait. We're...here. How? Nat! Sarah! Is she--?"
"Sarah's fine," Nat said quickly. "Well, she's unharmed. She flew you back to Earth, Josh."
Josh's eyes flew wide and his grip on Nat's hand tightened. "How could...it was that voice, wasn't it? I heard a whining in my head. Everything was drifting in and out...then there was that noise. Then there was a voice...then nothing."
"Josh, try to stay calm. Tell me what you saw and heard."
"There was...everything seemed...huge. And something was pushing at my mind." He was blinking rapidly and Nat patted his hand.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket and she glanced at the screen. "All flight data erased. Sabotage evident. Program compromised. At hospital in five min. -Pat." She felt into her pocket. The flash drive with all the data was still safely there. She hated being right about this.
"Josh, everything's all right. You just rest and get better." She set his hand on the bed and smoothed the blanket. "I've got to go, but I'll be back to see you tomorrow."
"Okay," he murmured, already drifting back to sleep.
Nat hurried to the hospital entrance. She hoped she was wrong. If she wasn't, they were facing an invasion.
After Pat got a copy of the files she'd saved and dropped her off at her room on base, Nat pored over the images she had of the Book of Tomorrows and the White and Crimson pages.
"Think, Natalie, think," she muttered. "There has to be a clue. Duke Giuliano didn't know all of what happened or how or why, but he knew enough. If the Orbus Postremo is right and Sarah is the Herald, there has to be something."
An hour and a half later she shoved the computer away. "Aaagh! This is hopeless. It's like looking for a needle in a haystack!" She shifted and reached for a glass when she glanced back at the computer.
"Oh, my God, that's it. That's IT! The White and Crimson Chapters...they were both wrong. But most wrong was that they would not speak to each other. I can't believe that in 500 years no one ever saw this!" She grabbed a notepad and began transcribing, one word from the white page, one from the crimson pages, back and forth, back and forth.
There was a sharp knock at Nat's door.
"Nat, are you ready? You said you wanted to come to the interview."
She tucked her notes between her seat cushion and arm rest, put on her best smile, and pulled her door open. "I wouldn't miss it for the world. We have a lot less chances to speak to the world than someone might think." She cringed at herself.
"I think this is going to change the world," Sarah said.
No reaction. It was what Nat had expected, but it was unsettling nonetheless.
"What Josh and I saw, there are forces beyond what humanity has allowed itself to believe. The light I saw, it has visited Earth before." Sarah's voice had that sing-song quality again, and she stared ahead as they walked, a slight smile playing on her lips. "We are so fortunate to live in this time, a time when the entire world is linked by information, by these machines that store knowledge."
Despite tension in her throat, Nat kept her voice light. "Who did you hear this from?"
Sarah turned to face her, smile fixed and eyes wide. "The ones who spoke to me above the Earth. You will know them soon enough."
Nat shuddered. Her plan had better work.
They took a cab to the TV station where Sarah was being interviewed. Nat couldn't tell if the anchorwoman looked feral out of eagerness for the story, or if the impression of her as hungry was just a side effect of Nat's own nerves colouring her observations.
As soon as Sarah was occupied with preparations--and telling everyone about the "life-altering" nature of her tale--Nat slipped away. At the side door, she let Pat in. He had two bales of electrical wire and they split up, unrolling as they went.
She was out of breath by the third connection she made, leaning and stretching, stripping wires to connect to metal girders in the studio. By the tenth connection, her arms felt like rubber. She missed the stamina she'd had even just two years ago.
"One more connection, Natalie. One more."
She used every trick she knew to get her body to cooperate, concentrated on her fingers as she twisted wires, and sighed in relief as she set it in place. Patrick had instinctively planned to do two-thirds of the connections, and she scanned the other side of the studio for him. He peeked out from behind a man holding a boom mic and gave her the thumbs-up. Nat grinned back.
Under the TV lights, Sarah sat down in a red overstuffed chair.
"Here we go," Nat whispered to herself.
A woman called, "And we're live in three, two, one..."
Nat held her breath.
"I'm Carol Williams and I'm here today with Sarah Jane Smith, a British reporter herself who was also the first passenger on the first commercial space flight, launched from Dreamland just three days ago. After the dramatic events of that near-tragedy, Ms. Smith is here to tell us how she and Joshua Townsend, son of the late Sir Donald Wakefield, came to return safely to Earth. Welcome, Ms. Smith."
"Thank you, Ms. Williams. You will be remembered for being the one to broadcast this important message." Sarah looked straight into the camera. "People of the Earth," she intoned, "tonight, Mandragora will swallow the moon, just as it did half a millennia ago. On this day, the day of balance between light and dark, the light will fill you all as it has already filled me."
A stage light exploded.
Ms. Williams gasped but said, "Please tell us about your experience, Ms. Smith. What was it like to see Earth from Space?"
"The vastness of space must be retained. The Mandragora Helix has its domain, and it needs no rival. It's power is sufficient for us all. Mandragora turned back my companion's injury. It gave our bodies air to breathe in the vacuum of space. It guided me to bring my companion and the Dauntless safely home to Earth. It saved us, as it will save you all." Sarah stood up and another light exploded.
"Ms. Smith, please. The cameras need you seated. I still have several questions--"
Sarah flung her hand, palm out, toward Ms. Williams, and the woman froze in place. "Tonight," Sarah continued, "step out into the moonlight, cross over into the darkness, then re-emerge into the light of the knowledge of Mandragora!"
Sarah raised her hands and a glow emanated from her palms.
"Now, Patrick!" Nat shouted.
Patrick flipped up the master switch.
The remaining lights exploded and the light from Sarah's hands sped along the wires Nat and Patrick had laid, setting off a webbed glow throughout the now-darkened studio.
Sarah began to scream and shake.
"No, Nat! Don't touch! Mandragora energy...Mandragora will rule this puny...recombination of ionised plasma...kill you. Stay back, Nat!" Sarah yanked off her microphone, threw it away from her, and fell back into the chair shaking.
The energy sizzled along every wire in the place, crackled, shorted, then fizzled out.
"Sarah!" Nat hurried to her side and felt her wrist and neck. "Sarah! Are you all right?"
"Good work, Nat..." Sarah's eyes rolled back into her head and she slumped over the arm of the chair.
"Call an ambulance! Someone, call an ambulance!" Nat cried. She gripped Sarah's hand. "Sarah! Don't you die on me now!"
Sarah demanded to be released the morning after the news show. She had a couple of electrical burns and several small cuts from the exploding lights, but nothing serious. Nat took every opportunity to tell her she was lucky to be alive.
Sarah just responded that all the people on Earth were lucky to be alive and able to think for themselves. She would not speak of the dead electricians at Dreamland.
It was over a week before Josh was released, and that was several days after the nurses tired of his attempts at flirtatious charm.
Josh and Sarah were both drawing inward, tending to mope, and Nat dragged them to a Mexican restaurant Pat had taken her out to earlier in the week.
"It might even meet your standards for hot food, Sarah."
The three of them munched on chips and salsa.
Josh fanned his tongue and gulped water, which only made him yelp louder. He refused to go near the creamy green guacamole, declaring it a colour that should be reserved only for mould. Sarah and Nat just rolled their eyes at him, but the laughter began to relax them. By the time they were trading bites and marvelling at the presence of cocoa in the mole sauce on the food, they felt more like themselves.
"So it seems that the envelope of ionised air around the Dauntless during re-entry also allowed the ionised plasma of the Helix energy to hug the ship and magnify its power," Sarah said.
"Right," Josh said. "Did the vector of the polarity fire the dilithium vapour?"
Nat swatted his arm. "Josh! This is serious!"
"If it weren't, his jokes might be better," Sarah laughed. "You are a star, Nat."
"I know." Nat grinned.
"Now let me get this straight." Josh leaned forward and said in a stage whisper, "Nat knew that you weren't yourself because your grammar was bad?"
"Yes. And that's why the world would have been lost if it had been up to you, Josh," Sarah laughed.
"My first hint was when she joked about smoking, though."
"That was actually me!"
They all laughed at that, but it was only a moment before the gravity of the situation weighed them into silence.
"When I found the flight data was missing 90 seconds. I knew there was interference from something...then when Sarah blitzed the computer data, that clinched it."
"I guess this means I was the Herald after all." Sarah stared at her clasped hands. "Just not as either Chapter envisioned. Mandragora itself recognized me from being in my mind before. I didn't know it until I was trapped in my own mind, sharing with that maniacal laugh. That was the thing I mentioned from the Dauntless, Nat. That light, that wailing in my mind, that laugh...I'd seen and heard those before, and Mandragora just waltzed right in like it had been there all along. I'm lucky it didn't incinerate me like it did the entire Brotherhood in San Martino."
"It's more than luck. After the bread crumb trail Duke Giuliano left, Mandragora didn't stand a chance against us. I just can't believe that no one ever read the White and Crimson pages together."
"Well, the two Chapters didn't exactly 'hang out' or anything," Josh said. "And I had actually looked at the combined texts, but I couldn't figure out what could possibly be made 'diffuse', so I dismissed it as the wrong approach."
"Shall we just say, 'All's well that ends well'?" Sarah asked.
"Hear, hear," Nat said.
Josh put on his best presenter voice. "So, S.J., now that you've defeated the Mandragora Helix again--even though you insist you're not the Herald of the Orbus Postremo--what are you going to do next?"
Gamely, Sarah did a wretched impression of an American accent. "Well, Josh, I'm going to go to Disneyland!" She grinned, then sobered as she added, "Actually, I didn't defeat Mandragora the first time 'round. That was someone else." There was a long pause and Nat saw Sarah's gaze drift to the sky for a moment. Then she punched Josh in the arm. "Don't call me S.J."
"He never learns, does he?" Nat chuckled. "Do you have anything you're looking into, Sarah?"
"There is a geologist in Malaysia who found an odd crystal in rocks thrown to the surface in the eruption at Krakatoa. I'm going to investigate its history." She grinned. "Something tells me there'll be an adventure in that."
"Something tells me you could find adventure in a trip to the market!" Josh said.
"Who's to say she hasn't, or won't?" Nat grinned too.
"So...who's coming along with me?"
"Oh, no, you won't get me again that easily." Josh struck a dramatic pose. "I mean, I'm recently injured and still quite weak."
"Well then, how about you, Nat? You'd enjoy Malaysia, right?"
"Maybe. We could all three go. Make a holiday of it before my new job starts."
Nat took a deep breath, then dived in. "I'm staying in America."
"What?" Sarah and Josh chorused.
"The Dreamland space flight project has offered me a job as a contractor. I'd be trouble-shooting and programming computers. There are also quite a few archaeological projects in Nevada. I'm pretty sure that I can get involved in one and do what I trained for."
"I bet that bloke Pat is stealing you away from us. Nat-and-Pat. That's just too precious for words."
"Josh!" Sarah said. "Don't let's get ugly."
"Sorry. Sorry." He sighed. "It's just...it's really over, isn't it?"
They stared at each other and Nat felt them unfold from one another, felt the bonds relax as they drifted apart. They were no farther away physically, not right that moment, but they would be, soon.
"We'll keep in touch," Sarah said. "Nat taught me to use email. We'll write."
"Yeah," Josh said. "Email. We'll write. I've actually been thinking of going on walkabout for a while. Get my head together about my father, my life."
Nat squirmed in her chair in the silence among them. They wouldn't be going to Malaysia together. Not ever.
"Oh, you two," Sarah said and pulled them into a tight hug. "We've had the best of times together, haven't we?" She sniffed.
"The best," Josh snuffled.
"Doesn't get better than near-death, does it?" Nat blinked hard.
"We fought off Hilda Winters, ghosts, bioterrorists, the Crimson Chapter, an alien invader. I think we're all stars."
"Stars who defended Earth against invaders from the stars," Nat laughed.
"That's us, all right," Josh said, smiling again. "Defenders of the Earth."
Sarah pulled them in for another hug.