"...and then I told the bloody incompetent investigator to shove his report up his soddin' arse," Pete Wisdom concluded his story. No one laughed. Doug held Betsy a little tighter. The mission had been botched, the security compromised and they had all been lucky to come out of it alive. Pete and Kitty had done the main part of the fieldwork, while Doug and Betsy handled the hostage negotiation and communications, respectively. Then the com central had been blown up, the hostages had been killed and the terrorists had fled in a helicopter. Once it was clear that no hostages were alive anymore, the helicopter had been shot down.
It had not been the best of ideas to pick up Caroline from Muir before going back to London. She had alternated between sullen silence and insolence throughout dinner and now she walked fifty meters in front of them, pretending she wasn't with them. Doug didn't know if all high school students were in a perpetual foul mood, or if Caroline was just being Caroline. He couldn't remember being that spiteful and harsh himself, but then, as a high school student he'd had other things to think of. The one he'd thought of the most walked beside him this very moment, looking calm and collected as always, but he could sense her worry and distress.
Kitty, on his other side, seemed worried too; about Pete. He hadn't said much during dinner, except for occasional retorts aimed at Caroline, and he had drunk a lot. The failed mission, and particularly their failure to free the hostages, had affected him deeply. Only now had he roused himself enough to tell them about the investigator's threat to report them all for willful interference. Never mind that Pete and Kitty would probably have managed to get the hostages out alive, had not the other agencies present obstructed, delayed and dithered. And Pete had been the one who had had to shoot down the helicopter.
They were all tired. Doug had negotiated for hours, using the whole range of his mutant power to buy them time. Betsy had maintained com with over sixty operatives, most of them fearing and fighting her voice in their heads. As for Pete and Kitty, they were swaying on their feet and leaning on each other. It was time to go home.
"Shit!" Pete exclaimed suddenly. "I'm out of fags. Anyone see a news-stand?"
"The subway stations are still open," Kitty said. "Let's go down that way."
Betsy stopped for a moment and closed her eyes in concentration. In front of them, Caroline turned, but she seemed in no hurry to catch up with them, as they went down into the underground. No open news-stands were to be seen. Pete swore at some length, but with less imagination than usual.
"We might as well pass through the station, now that we're here," Kitty said. They followed her down, Caroline trailing them at a distance, as they picked their way across several platforms.
"This is weird," Kitty said, frowning and pointing at a fence, barring a tunnel exit. "I don't remember there being any..."
The lights went out. Before Doug knew it, conditioned reflexes kicked in and he dove for cover, into the tunnel entrance, pulling Betsy along with him. He tried to break their fall, but only succeeded in entangling his legs in hers, and they hit the ground together, hard.
It was one of the few times Doug had heard real panic in his wife's voice, and he knew that she must be terrified, blind in the darkness. But he had no answer for her. Then Pete was beside them, and Kitty, too, phasing them both to untangle their legs.
"Betsy, I need com," Pete murmured.
<<You've got it.>>
<<Where's the brat? >>
<<Hiding by the elevator on the other sida. I told her to shut up and stay down.>>
<<For the moment.>>
Doug breathed again. He often forgot that their daughter had been trained by the man who was the best at what he did, which included stealth, sneaking and fighting to kill. When he remembered, he tended to worry anyway.
There was strain in Betsy's voice. She had raised her shields to protect Doug from any backflow from their link, but he knew how hard it was for her to maintain general com with the four of them, keep a separate channel open with Caroline and scan for targets simultaneously. Pete knew, too, and that was why he had made it a question rather than a request. Half a minute later, she exhaled slowly and reported:
<<There are four of them approaching. I can see through their eyes, but I can't take them out. They have some basic psi-shielding, flashlights and assault rifles. Mercs, I think. They seem professional enough.>>
<<Do they know we're here?>>
Kitty was the one asking questions now.
<<Not yet. They carry something. A large box.>>
It was an unpleasant thought, especially with Caroline alone out there. Kitty couldn't reach her on one breath, or she would already have been on her way.
<<Could be. Do we engage?>>
Pete, next to Doug, shrugged in response.
<< Your call. It's your kid out there.>>
Caroline was well covered. She might not be found. But if she was, she would probably be shot or taken hostage, depending on how charitable her captors were. It was not a chance they cared to take. Betsy pressed Doug's hand once, for yes. He squeezed it back to let her know he agreed and to comfort her.
<<We engage.>> Doug said. << We can't let them take explosives down in the tunnels anyway.>>
<<Sounds like I'll take point on this one>>, Kitty said thoughtfully. <<Can you keep track of their positions for me, Betsy?>>
A picture appeared in front of Doug's eyes. It seemed to be superimposed on his normal vision, as if it had been printed on his retina. It was an outline of the station, a rough one, since Betsy wasn't familiar with it. Four red dots moved there. A green one was at one end of the platform, four more at the other. It looked like an old computer game.
<<Need help, love?>>
<<You might draw some fire when I close in. Otherwise, keep your heads down. I'll try to make it quick and clean.>>
With that, she was off. Pete and Doug moved to either side of Betsy, to shield her from any stray shot. This close, Doug felt the air heat up, as Pete flexed his fingers. The green dot, which was Kitty, disappeared into the tunnel wall, came up through the platform and one of the red dots became a white one. A volley of gunshots rang out, but the green dot had already sunk back into the ground. The other red dots diverged quickly, taking up their postions behind pillars and waste-baskets. One of them were dangerously close to the green dot that was Caroline.
<<Stay down!>> Pete barked.
It was too late. Caroline moved, and the green dot and the red one merged. The second green dot shot out of nowhere, intercepting the other two. All three teetered on the edge of the platform for a moment, then fell down together on the traintracks. There was a blinding flash and Kitty screamed.
Doug was up and running, but Pete was ahead of him, sprinting towards the platform with astonishing speed. The first hotknife provided enough light for Pete to throw the second one with deadly accuracy. The terrible smell of charred flesh filled the air.
<<Doug! Behind you!>>
He turned around and shot at the same time as his opponent did. Something hit him in the head, knocking him over, but he could get up and he got up, while the other man remained on the ground. Twenty meters further down the platform, a small hotknife, no larger than a lighter-flame, flickered for a moment.
"Doug, are you...?"
It was Betsy, at his elbow. He touched his head where it felt numb, and his hand came away sticky.
"Think it grazed me," he said thickly. "Caroline and Kitty?"
"Alive, but unconscious..."
"Betsy! Get over here, quickly!" Pete yelled.
Doug heard Betsy's sharp intake of breath as she assessed the situation and then she had left his side and was running swiftly towards the light shining from Pete's outstretched hand. By the time Doug had caught up with her, she had climbed down to the traintrack and was kneeling beside Kitty. Caroline was a few feet away, blood matting the bright red hair and trickling down her forehead. The twisted body of a man, mere inches from Kitty, lay spasming and twitching on the conductor rail. Pete was hunched down down next to Betsy, his eyes never leaving Kitty's face.
"Put on your stasis field, Pete," Betsy said. "Hers won't work and I need some force to hold the molecules together. The cohesion isn't good."
It wasn't until then that Doug realised that he could see right through Kitty's motionless body.
Betsy glanced quickly at the watch on the wall, before turning back to the tank. Kitty lay inside, still unconscious, and unaware that her molecules were drifting apart. Again. Doug, dizzy and hurting as he was, had gone straight to the computer in the Midnight Runner and whipped up a small loop program, which would keep Kitty's mind at steady-state for ten minutes at a time. It could safely be used every third hour, and it allowed Betsy to stretch, eat and go to the bathroom. While Moira had bandaged his head, he had called up the parameters on the program Reed Richards had used to help Kitty, and started the re-write. Kitty wasn't thirteen anymore and it would not help her to try and force her molecules back into the shape of a teenager. The re-write would be three days work, Doug had said, already lost in complex algorithms and patterns only he could see, and then he'd have to run it through to catch all the glitches before using it.
Pete was sitting by the tank, propped up in bandages and glassy-eyed with pain and shock. He had taken a shot through the shoulder, shattering his collar bone, and no one had noticed until he'd fallen over in the Runner. Caroline had been diagnosed as having a serious concussion, but she didn't appear to have any electrical injuries. She had been sedated and was lying in the hospital section. Betsy herself had torn a ligament in her ankle at some point. She couldn't remember exactly when, but the foot was twice its normal size and had all colours she'd ever heard of, and to top it off her overextension headache was killing her.
Fifteen seconds to go. Betsy drew out the diskette, slotted it in and saw the loop starting to dance over the screen. It paused, cut in and relieved her. She sighed and reached for the aspirin bottle. It was her second one. Both Pete and herself were eating the things like candy, and she knew that Doug probably was, too. With his head injury, he should be in bed and not staring at a computer screen. Hell, they should all be in bed.
The door opened and Moira and Rahne entered with a tray each. Food. The smell of it almost turned over Betsy's stomach and from the muffled sound Pete made, she knew that he shared her reaction. "A dinnae care what ye say, whether ye want or nae, ye need to eat," Moira said, as she put the tray down. It was soup, hot from the microwave, and rye bread. Good, normal food, and Betsy knew that she wouldn't be able to keep even a spoonful down. It was that bad.
"Moira," she said between clenched teeth. "Don't do this to me."
The good doctor hesitated.
Six minutes left of the program. She didn't have the strength to fight Moira on this, on any issue. If Moira didn't give in, she'd eat the soup and throw up and waste those precious minutes of rest. But Moira nodded and Rahne removed the trays.
"How is Doug doing?"
The voice cracked. Damnit. Even Pete noticed.
"Still working. He didnae hear me come in and A didnae want to break his concentration."
Betsy knew that once Doug got past a certain abstraction level, nothing could break his concentration. He didn't eat or sleep in this transcendent state, he just worked. Although he was usually the most attentive of husbands and fathers, he wasn't aware of either Betsy's or Caroline's presence and he didn't respond if spoken to. He had tried to explain to them what it was like, but the words had failed him. Connection, he had said at last, haltingly. The universe contained in a thimble with space to spare. The meaning. And he'd fallen silent. The next day Caroline had left a gift on his desk, a single sheet of paper where it was written in her most beautiful hand: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God."
"And Caroline?" "She's asleep. Ye dinnae have tae worry about her, she'll be fine. Meggan wanted me tae tell ye that if there's anything she can help wi'..."
"No!" What Betsy intended to be a polite refusal came out completely wrong.
She didn't want her sister-in-law to be anywhere near a fragmenting psyche, or the dark guilt and despair oozing out of Pete. There was no way to predict how Doug's transcendence might affect Meggan and how much she would suffer from their combined physical pain and exhaustion.
Deep breath. Don't shake.
"No. I'm the one who did this before. I have at least some idea of how her mind works, what it should be like. As long as she is unconscious, she is in an extremely vulnerable state. I've already talked to Doug about writing a routine that Jean or Emma could internalize, a crash course in how Kitty's mind works, but it would take too long. It would be another three days before we could run it, and considering the rate at which the cohesion is decreasing, I just don't think we have the time."
Two minutes left. From the dismay on their faces she could see that they agreed. Good. Maybe they would go away and let her have her one minute of sleep.
"No offense, Braddock," Pete rasped from the corner, "but do you honestly believe you can do this for three more days?"
This from a man who was clinging to his chair so he wouldn't fall off.
"I'll do it, Wisdom. Doesn't matter what I believe."
Thirty seconds. Hands on the keyboard. Nose to the screen. Her body knew what to do. Fifteen seconds. The numbers showed some oscillations. The glitch passed through the loop once, twice, before she cut in. Five seconds. She rode the program for a heartbeat, in complete synchronization with the code. One second.
And the load was all hers for another three hours.
Pete had always known the day would come when Kitty would leave him. He'd woken up every morning for many years, thinking this day might be the one. But then his eyes find her standing by the window with that thoughtful look in her eyes or sitting by the desk typing away and he'd put aside fear. She was there. The world would be alright. He had been given the gift of another day with her. Of all the endings he'd feared, the present one was the worst; sitting by her side in the lab at Muir to see her waste away.
He'd tried to touch her as they loaded her into the Midnight Runner. Betsy had yelled at him and Doug had stepped between him and the stretcher. As if he would ever do anything to hurt her. He'd just wanted to feel the silky brown hair against his palm again, run his fingers over the soft skin, warm her hands between his own. She carried less body fat than most women and would get cold quickly when she wasn't exerting herself. He had heat to spare, he'd warm her hands and feet and keep the bed warm. In several senses. He watched her now, through the clear glass. It was all he could do.
"Mother. How is she?" A slender figure leaning on the doorframe. The red hair was shaved off on one side, but cascaded down to the small of her back on the other. Caroline, who had refused his order. Who had forced Kitty to take action. Who had all but put Kitty in the tank herself, and now she was standing there as if she had any right to be whole and healthy, while Kitty...
"Ain't you done bleedin' enough yet?" he demanded, before Betsy could answer. Caroline actually recoiled, but Pete wasn't finished. "You stupid fucking cunt," he said almost conversationally. "I used to think you were naught but a spoiled-bloody-rotten little prat. Turns out you're a murderous fumble-fuck twit tryin' yer damndest t' kill us all."
"Pete! Stop it, right now!" Betsy yelled.
"I'm sorry! I didn't mean to!" Caroline wailed.
"I'll show you bleedin' useless sorry when I wring your soddin' scrawny neck and poke your nasty, beady little eyes out, you bloody stupid cow! Get the fuck out of here! You ain't going nowhere near Kitty or I'll do yer dotin' idiot parents a big favour an' take yer fluff -fer-brains head off with me own bare hands!"
Caroline fled. Pete found himself staring into a pair of very cold, very angry prosthetic eyes.
"You," Betsy said, "are going after her."