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Mad World Band

by Danielle L. Parker

Table of Contents
Chapter 1, Chapter 2
Chapter 3, Chapter 4
appeared in issue 194
Chapter 5

“Mad World Band” is the name of planet MWB-11 — an alternate Earth. It is wracked by war between two large power blocs that are on the verge of discovering the means of travel to extrasolar planets as well as to other alternate Earths such as Soltri.

Soltri has already experienced the nuclear catastrophe that threatens MWB-11. The Soltrians also know that MWB-11’s space explorations may well provoke fiercely hostile aliens that have already destroyed one alternate Earth.

The Soltrian agent, Dorn, must warn MWB-11 about the aliens while at the same time protecting Soltri from the warring parties of the “Mad World Band.”

Lynn Breckinridge handed her newest assistant her data pad. “See what you can do with that,” she told hiim. “Emory wants a guide to the power requirements for this next test. He’s been working on the problem for weeks. We don’t want to blow out the base generators again.” She wiped her face; they were cutting back on the air conditioning inside, and outside it was summer in Death Valley. She was miserable.

She looked at her new helper thoughtfully. It was surprising how cool that young man managed to remain, even as the temperature climbed to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit outside and over 90 inside. There was not the least sheen of sweat on his brow. No matter how long he stood in the burning sun, he did not seem to burn or tan, in spite of that baby fair skin, as pretty as the proverbial milkmaid’s. It was one of only several intriguing puzzles about their new assistant and houseguest. Lynn herself, after two years on the base, was burned a darker brown than she liked.

Dorn took the pad with a polite murmur of understanding. Lynn had no doubt that he would solve the problem in due time. Her assistant had already proved to be competent in spite of his self-effacing manner. Lynn had some doubts as to whether he really even needed the data pad and computers to answer that problem. Both Dorn and his fellow graduate student, Martin Berger, seemed to have an uncanny ability to process such advanced and difficult problems in their head.

Well, if they had not been good, they would not have been added to the project. Graduate students of such quality were precious few, and they were being swallowed up as fodder for the cannons of war as fast as they could be rammed into the breach. Lynn was grateful. If some progress could be shown soon, they might save the project and themselves.

She knew the government was fully aware of the desperate importance of Operation New Frontier. But they were so close to disaster in the war. Not much was left of the California to the west of them, and Sinoasian troops were battling with the defenders hand-to-hand for the first time on Union soil. If the Union’s defense was not successful, the entire base could be overrun. And they could not allow this research to fall into the hands of the invaders. Lynn, cold with the thought, already knew the orders that awaited such a disaster.

She put her hands into her lab coat with a sigh, glancing briefly at the absorbed profile of her houseguest, already at the task she had assigned him. She had no complaints about the newest member of the household. He was been entirely discreet and well-mannered in the cramped quarters of the small block home they now shared and seemed to have the knack of almost disappearing in plain view in spite of his considerable size. He had shared dishes and other household chores without complaining, in spite of the fact that she could see by the telltale edge of light from the attic that their guest was often working on his own tasks late into the night.

And it had been good for Sammy. Her young daughter had instantly attached herself to their kind and tolerant guest. Perhaps it was the air of competence that clung to him, as well as the comforting size of those broad shoulders. Lynn, glancing once more at those long and well-muscled arms, smiled privately. Sammy was an innocent sixteen, but she was already manifesting pride of ownership.

She looked up at the wall clock, aware by her uncharacteristic reverie that she was tired. It was close enough to lunchtime that she could look up her husband. Michael was usually in one of the other buildings, and that meant she had to walk outside in the heat. She hung up her lab coat and made her excuses to her companion before stepping outside into the glaring sun.

Blinking in the dimmer light of the interior with eyes that had already adjusted to the furnace glare outside, Lynn saw her husband’s shiny reddened pate bent close to the dark head of the other new assistant. Although Martin Berger’s pale skin seemed as impervious to the sun as his fellow student, that was clearly not the case for Michael Breckinridge. His wife smiled fondly. She often warned him to wear a hat, and when he forgot, as he often did, the fiery shade of his bald crown was unmistakable. Michael was only thirty-four himself, but he had been nearly hairless since his future wife had met him in her own graduate program.

They were so absorbed Lynn was able to walk up without notice. As she had expected, she could scarcely follow the conversation. Their initial target was an Earth-type world they had identified from orbital telescopes in the Demeter star system. Little was known of it except that it was roughly analogous to Earth in climate and atmosphere; they could only hope it would prove suitable for human settlement.

It was Berger who noticed her first, in spite of the somewhat intense conversation that was underway. He touched Michael lightly on the sleeve, and Lynn’s husband woke out of their incomprehensible argument with a jolt.

He had made, she saw, some breakthrough, for his thin cheeks were flushed with excitement. “Lynn,” he greeted her, “we’re getting close.” He smiled happily, turning to his silent assistant. “Martin, take a long lunch yourself. I’m very happy with the progress we made this morning.”

“Thank you, sir, I will.” He glanced at Lynn. “Is Dorn still back in Building G, Mrs. Breckinridge?”

“That’s where I left him,” she confirmed.

Martin Berger nodded in thanks, and left them together. Lynn turned to stare after his slim figure as it walked quickly away with a frown that she was not immediately aware of herself.

Her husband followed her gaze. “Something troubling you?” he said after a moment.

“In a way,” she said slowly. “We’ll talk about it at lunch. I hope you’re ready.”

They both brought box lunches that were kept in the small locker in Michael’s building. It was too hot to enjoy the outside, even in the shade, so typically, at least in the summer, they made their way up to the small room built above the cavernous floor of Building C. Fetching their lunches, the couple trudged up the steep stairs to that cluttered room.

They always had it to themselves, and today, Lynn was especially glad of that. She sat down opposite her husband, pouring each of them a cup of ice tea from their shared thermos. “How is Martin working out?” she said after a moment.

“Very well,” her husband said approvingly. “Quiet, hard-working lad. Very sharp.” He shook his head. “Uncanny facility for numbers. Seems to have a built-in computer in his own head.”

“Interesting,” Lynn said. “I’ve noticed the same quality with my assistant, although he will use a computer if he sees me looking. Notice anything else unusual about them?”

Michael, about to bite into his turkey sandwich, paused. He looked sharply at his wife. “Not really,” he said at last. “Polite. Martin seems to get along well with Emory.”

“Michael,” his wife said, “you burned your head again this morning. Forgot to wear a hat, didn’t you? For that matter, Dorn didn’t wear one either. I think you two walked to work together this morning. Very blonde, isn’t he. I’d have expected him to burn worse than you, or at least a little bit. Not even a flush.”

Michael Breckinridge finally took his belated bite of turkey. He chewed and swallowed thoughtfully; Lynn saw her husband’s brown eyes turn that comment over.

“It is a little interesting,” he said. “Neither one of them seems to ever get hot. It was over 123 degrees when we walked home last night. Dorn wasn’t even sweating.”

“And he certainly didn’t burn,” his wife said. “I wish I had skin that pretty and pink. I just find it a little odd, somehow.”

Michael Breckinridge reached for his second sandwich. “OK, it is a little odd. What are you suggesting? Maybe he just wears good sunscreen, who knows.”

“I don’t know.” Lynn played with her own cheese sandwich for a moment. “I pulled their records this morning. Everything seems fine. They were both quiet, fairly brilliant students; went to MIT together. Perfect health, nothing out of the ordinary there. It’s... almost too pat.”

“What you’re suggesting doesn’t scream spy to me,” her husband said, lowering his voice. “I mean, they’re obviously not Sinoasians. Maybe you’re just getting paranoid.”

But his face had tightened. “OK,” he said after a pause. “It does seem a little odd that they don’t seem affected by heat or sun. This is Death Valley. And we both have noticed those two can do calculations in their head as easily as a computer.”

“And they have both been at pains to hide that particular talent, wouldn’t you say?” Lynn shook her head. “It’s just a few times I knew that when I handed Dorn a problem, I saw him look at it and somehow I knew he had already comprehended the answer, though he went through the motions of figuring it out. It’s not mentioned in their records, by the way, though you’d think such a mathematical aptitude would be.”

Michael poured himself more tea. “Martin too,” he said slowly. “What do you suggest, Lynn? If there’s a hint, even a hint, of trouble, you know what will happen to them. They’ll be glad when they are finally allowed to die. And we’ll be out two assistants that we both find valuable. We need them desperately right now.”

“I simply want to satisfy my own curiosity at the moment,” his wife said. “I find them just a little troubling.” She paused. “Might not be a bad idea to get a blood sampling somehow and run it through. Or a hair sample, if nothing else.”

“If you’re thinking aliens among us,” her husband said ironically, “Lynn, this is getting more than a little far-fetched.”

“Maybe.” His wife did not smile back. “There’s always genetic tampering, too. Remember the Sinoasians have gone a lot further down that road than we have. Think you might find a way of scratching your Martin by accident this afternoon, Michael? I’d rather not try it with Dorn; somehow I don’t think I’d get away with it. But,” she smiled, “you’re naturally clumsy. You might be able to carry it off without ringing alarm bells.”

Her husband was silent a moment. “Alright,” he said. “Supposing I do. Then what? It won’t be a large sample, and I’m not a biologist and neither are you.”

“I think I can handle it,” his wife said. “There’s Dr. Swenson’s lab. If you get me that sample, I’ll go by tonight and do some basic checking on their DNA sequences, at least. That lab is pretty well equipped, since it was supposed to be used for Demeter Five, assuming we ever get there.”

She wadded up her sandwich wrapper. “I’ll meet you back here tonight,” she said. “Let Dorn and Berger walk home by themselves. We’ll go over together. I can pick a hair off his pillow to check out Dorn, if it comes to that. Not as good as a blood sample, but it might do something for us.”

“If I didn’t implicitly trust you,” her husband said, “I’d think the desert sun had really addled you.” He smiled, but it was strained. “I’ll do the dirty deed somehow and meet you at five.”

“I’ll ask Dorn to take care of Sammy tonight, since we’ll be a little late.” His wife snorted. “Strange, but somehow that doesn’t worry me, even with the little hairs on the back of my neck tingling when I get around him. He really does like Sammy.”

Her husband smiled. “Sammy’s developing a pretty heavy crush, though. I suppose it’s good for her. She has so little.” He shook his head over an old and bitter hurt. “The price she’s paying for what we do, Lynn...”

His wife put her hand over his. “I just hope,” she said, “that somehow it’s worth it. Somehow we get out of here, Michael, before the end comes. I’d like to see Sammy grown up and going down the aisle on the arm of some nice young man.” She got to her feet. “I’d better get back to work.”

She kissed her husband soundly at the door and walked slowly across the hot black paving. She was soaked in sweat, in spite of the dryness of the air, before she reached the shade of her own building.

She found the two students together. Dorn, a glass of ice tea in his hand, leaned against the lab counter, his blue eyes on the face of his companion. Whatever they were discussing, Martin Berger broke off in mid-word as she opened the door, and his face turned sharply toward her.

But there was nothing of particular interest to be seen in either face. There were times, like now, when Lynn Breckinridge found Dorn’s placid friendliness almost a mask. The chalcedony blue eyes, so remarkably bright and intense a color, fixed on her face . He said easily, “I’ll walk out with you, Martin. Just like to get outside a bit before I get back to work. Hello, Mrs. Breckinridge.” With a nod, he held open the door for his companion.

Lynn Breckinridge walked over to the computer her assistant had been using. A glance at it showed her the orderly analysis that was already under way. No doubt Emory would have his answer within a few days, if not earlier. She turned back to her own tasks and, at least for now, put the puzzling question of the two young men out of her mind.

The afternoon, with her polite and competent companion attending to his own work, passed fruitfully and almost silently, and her assistant showed no surprise when she suggested he leave without her at the end of the day.

“I’ll take care of Sammy’s supper tonight then,” he said. There was no edge of irony in his voice, but Lynn, looking up, met a surprisingly cool evaluation from those beautiful eyes. Young Dorn got to his feet, hung up his own lab coat, and without further word, took his leave.

She found her husband awaiting her, holding a nail wrapped in a sterile bandage. He grimaced. “I hope young Martin doesn’t think I’m a homicidal maniac,” he told her. “It was definitely awkward. He gave me a strange look when I accidentally on purpose scratched him with this nail.”

“It should be enough,” his wife said, looking at the tiny spot of blood soaking the cloth. “It’s contaminated, but it’ll have to do. Let’s go.”

Michael Breckinridge had an almost enjoyable wait in the cool darkness of the lab. He was tired, although pleased with the unusual success of his day. He propped his feet up on another chair while his wife silently busied herself with her tasks. He was almost dozing, in fact, when his wife’s low voice at last roused him.

“One thing I can tell you for sure,” she said. “This isn’t a blood type that has ever been seen in a human on this planet.” She looked up with a grimace. “I suppose we’ll call it Type X, because it isn’t,” and her gaze was grim as she looked at him, “Type O, A, B, or AB. I didn’t even have to run a DNA check on it to see something was off. I think I’ll skip that tonight, in fact, because it takes a little time, and Dr. Swenson might notice we used his equipment.”

While her husband, a little white of face, watched, she sealed the sample in a plastic bag and put it in her pocket. “Michael,” she said, “let’s go home. I think we need some straight answers from young Dorn Predensky and Martin Berger. For now... let’s keep this quiet, but I don’t know if we can do that long. I’m worried.”

Proceed to Chapter 6, part 1...

Copyright © 2006 by Danielle L. Parker

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