2039 Northern California
"You are bug fucking nuts!"
Everyone in the room was frowning at me.
"We cannot . . . just . . . go rescue stranded spacemen and totally blow our cover, simply because eight people will die if we . . . don't." I squirmed under eight censorious glares.
Luther Crow shook his head. "Then we might as well just give up and die, what use are we to anyone?"
"If the, if . . . " I shut up at the slam of the door.
Aura Perrault, looking really upset. She was my girlfriend, but not one of us. She didn't know what we were. She was just . . . a regular person.
She grabbed me by the lapels, tears starting to leak. "Is that really a time traveling space ship out there?"
Well, three of them if you want to be technical.
And I guess she does know what we are.
"My brother." She waved at the screen with its continuous coverage of the damaged spaceship. "My brother , I just heard that he's died. And the rest of them . . . "
"Get to choose between asphyxiation when they run out of air, and burning up if they try to reenter with a spaceship so damaged." I looked at the others. "Oh, I give up. I guess we can always go back a few months and change everything, if we need to. I'll go do the programming. You guys try to figure out what it is we're going to do when we get up there."
"And hurry!" Aura was practically quivering.
I shook my head. "That's the beauty of time travel. We'll leave tomorrow, when these guys figure out how to stick a tube across to . . . what did you call it? The X 77M? Silly name." I waved at them and left. Hiked up the hill. I ignored the Champion, parked in the open area in front of the fabrication facility. Ignored the activity inside. I stomped on to the first hanger. The Champion was sitting right where it belonged, of course.
My old original ship. Not the new improved ones that were armed to the teeth. Not that the UTT Champion wasn't armed, but it was just a couple of lasers. And a rail gun.
Well, no one had been up here since lunch twelve hours ago, so that gave me the time frame. I warmed up the engines, checked the electronics, the time machine. Everything green. I turned on what Red called the stealth shield, really just an old smugglers trick with radio wave synchronization—a hundred and eighty degrees out of phase. I took her up a thousand feet, and fed in a chip for a negative fourteen hour jump. Out into space, of course. Location wasn't controllable enough to cut it close.
I cut back into the atmosphere, and landed in the open area in front of the fabrication facility. I warmed up the fabricator, and set it to manufacturing a pressure tight accordion tube we could run between ships. And we were going to need to fasten on . . . so some carbon reinforced straps. We could attach them to the Champion's landing gear . . . remote release connectors . . . I programmed that in too, then headed back to the ship.
I settled in, in my old cabin and worked away at the program. If we left just after midnight, there'd be fewer chances of anyone seeing us. If we arrived just after the explosion . . . I grunted and shuffled up to the cockpit and turned on the passive detectors. There were plenty of places pinging the doomed vessel . . . there it was. I calculated the orbit, and where it would have been when whatever happened had happened. I mean, where it would be when whatever happened . . . Give them five minutes to realize their predicament, then we'd swoop in and . . . do something. I finished the program, tested it. Plugged it in. Now, what were we going to do once we got up there? We'd have to go aboard, render medical assistance. Depending on how bad the damage to the shuttle, we might even need to abandon ship and haul everyone down here in the Champion. Now that would be a bit awkward . . .
Just before midnight, a single figure walked past. Ignoring me, err, himself, of course. I checked the situation in orbit, felt the slight buffet as the Champion blipped out while in the atmosphere.
Shortly followed by a stampede of the rest of the people, and Aura, up the hill.
They slowed as they spotted the Champion.
Luthor stuck his head in. "Sorry Doc, I thought you'd left."
"Yes, I did. Go check the fabricator and see if the tube's done."
I walked out to find the guys carrying an awkward accordion folded tube. "Umm . . .I hadn't thought about how to stow it, but really, just get it onto the wing near the airlock, and strap it down good."
Henry looked cheerful. "We'll have to jettison it before we reenter, but it should do well enough for the quick transfer."
Admiral Weathers was shaking his head. Our tactician. "We won't bring anyone in here. We'll go over with the scanner, keep everyone alive. Then we'll blow the tunnel, run straps around the forward section—it's all that's left, anyway—and slow it down. We'll put it down somewhere, and then we release the straps—and drift off far enough to jump back. Right?"
Red was bouncing in excitement. "And if it doesn't work, we go back and try again."
I could see my life spiraling out of control, but . . . well. I could always just fly away. "Right."
So we jumped to a spot well above the orbit of the X 77M a few minutes after the explosion, and piled on the acceleration. So to speak. The Champion was not a fighter jet type of space plane. But we accelerated forward and fell downward because we started well below orbital velocity so by the time the wreckage of the X77M came up behind us, we were able to match velocity and coast gently nearer. The explosion had been far back, in the engine area, and the crew compartment looked reasonably intact.
Marlow and Bland went out first, with what we used to call sealant, and sprayed anything that looked like it might be leaking. Then they maneuvered the end of the tube over to the X77M's hatch and sealed it to the hull.
Weathers, already suited and standing by, took the big oxy tank down the tube. We'd been noticed; they might wonder who and what we were, but they were really happy to be rescued, and opened the hatch as soon as Weathers started trying from the outside. And as soon as they got the hatch open, He eased the valve open.
I was busy making sure the Champion stayed steady, relative to the X 77 as people came and went.
Marlow and Bland were carefully wrapping up the X77 in the straps. I really hoped they didn't float off. I couldn't fetch them while the tube was attached. Which was why Henry and Luther were standing by in the Defender.
But I heard the conversations on the radio. Weathers declared the wreck air tight, so Antoinette Ferrero and Aura headed down the tube. I could hear Antoinette chatting with her patients as she went over them with the scanner, and Red ooing and ahhing as she ferried the auto injectors back and forth. Donner stayed solidly on the deck, shifting things from the fab to the airlock as the machine spit them out. From Aura, nothing.
Antoinette finally sighed. "Right, that looks much better. Doc? Looks like all eight of them are going to make it."
I'd been ignoring stuff in the background, that sounded like someone demanding information from Weathers. I'd switched off that channel and mostly watched that Antoinette was using the medical stuff correctly. But he must have gotten pretty loud, because I distinctly heard a stranger's voice accusing the Admiral of being a Russian spy.
I switched to Weather's pickup.
"Why would I be a spy? I mean, at least a Russian Cosmonaut or some such, but I'm not a spy. Nor Russian, for that matter. Now shut up while we finish rescuing you."
And a fainter voice. "I thought you were dead. Mom and Dad went to their graves, certain that you were dead."
"I know." Aura's voice wasn't much louder.
Red popped back into cockpit. All grin. "Man, Aura's brother was in bad shape. He thought she was an angel or something, until all the meds kicked in. Now he thinks she's a hallucination."
We're not the only people with secrets. Aura faked her death and abandoned her family? I put aside speculation as the others trailed back in.
Weathers counted heads, then cast off the tube. I maneuvered the Champion atop the X77M and Marlow and Bland attached the web to our landing gear, then came aboard.
I decelerated carefully, mindful of the weight of the X 77M so far off the axis of thrust. I had to pause for a bit so we'd come down over North America. We were dropping steadily, but I got us below the speed of sound before we sank into the gradually thickening atmosphere.
We got quite the escort, right to this big airbase in Southern California. I set the X77 down, Weathers popped the connections, and I used the gravity generator to float us a hundred meters away. Hit the plus one week button and turned on all my stealth measures as the universe squirmed in dimensions I usually couldn't see.
We were back in orbit, well, at orbital distance. Antoinette took the controls, to drop us back through the atmosphere. No big deal when you aren't toting double your weight. I walked back to where the others were surfing channels and picking up news.
"Anything about your brother?" I edged up to Aura. I wasn't used to her being so silent and withdrawn.
"They released him from the hospital this morning." She blinked back tears and slung an arm around my neck and buried her face in my shoulder. "Thank you. I feel so . . . I know what I've done to you."
I shrugged. "Worse comes to worse, we pick up and move. A hundred years from now we can just settle down in Iowa or something."
"But . . . Dr. Storm's secret base!" Red yelped.
I shrugged. "I've seen everyone in the world killed, umm, sixteen times? Something like that."
Aura raised her head, startled.
"Space Aliens. It . . . well once we realized it wasn't just a matter of us killing ourselves, we finally tracked down their star gate and destroyed it." I shrugged. "We were just sort of sitting around wondering how long it would be before we got bored and found some other way to get into trouble. Rescuing the X77M? Good excuse. Not, mind you, that I wouldn't like a bit more boredom before we figured out what to do next."
"Hmm. I . . .shouldn't have come with you. My brother recognized me. And . . . some people do know where to find me."
Red had been eavesdropping shamelessly. "Secret government type people?"
We all looked at the brat. Bouncing on her toes and grinning.
"What? Don't you see that this is perfect? They're sure to want a secret space force all their own. They'll help us stay secret."
Aura buried her face in her hands. "You people are insane."
"Just practical." I considered the matter. "You should call them, and make sure they don't overlook this possibility."
She raised her head and blinked at me. Shook her head slowly. "No. If they just write it off as a hallucination, you're still safe. There are some people that you don't want taking an interest in you. Really."