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Mad World Band

by Danielle L. Parker

Table of Contents
Chapter 5
Chapter 6, part 1
Chapter 6, part 2
Chapter 7
appeared in issue 195.
Chapter 8, part 1 of 2

“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.”

It was moving slowly toward Death Valley’s cooler season, but Michael and Lynn Breckinridge, staring upwards into the darkness, could hear the chugging whine of the overworked air conditioning all the same. They had long ago tossed off the thin sheet, and Michael, wearing only his cotton nightshirt, was thinking of ridding himself of even that. It was just too hot. Until the air cooled down, as it usually did with surprising rapidity after sunset, they would not be able to sleep.

Not that either felt like rest at the moment. Michael could see his wife’s profile out of the corner of his eye, and she did not look sleepy. He said at last, “I wish we knew for sure. That’s what’s tormenting me. We’ve handed Sammy’s life over to almost total strangers, probably forever.”

“It’ll be okay.” Lynn Breckinridge’s arms were behind her head. “Sammy will be just fine, at least. I honestly trust Dorn for that.” She paused. “At the moment I’m more worried for us. Did Emory say anything unusual today, Michael?”

“No.” Her husband frowned. “There’s a news blackout, a bad sign in itself, so I’m not sure how much we are at risk yet. Emory would know; I’ll see if I can get him aside privately tomorrow. From what this Dorn said, it won’t be long.”

His wife rolled over to lean on her elbow and look down on him seriously. “Dorn,” she said quietly, “was a little tense today. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but I could tell. I suspect he likely knows a lot more about what’s really going on than even Dr. Black. I don’t like it, Michael.”

Michael sighed. “I couldn’t tell anything by Martin. He’s cooler than your Dorn in his own way.” He shrugged; Lynn felt the movement of his shoulders shake the bed slightly. “So what do we do about it anyway, Lynn? If the base is threatened, you know what’s going to happen to us. Not only can the Union not allow this equipment to fall to the Sinoasians, it can’t allow us tom either.” He grimaced. “The orders didn’t say all the scientists should swallow a suicide pill, but I have a very good suspicion that we’d be shot if it looked like we were trying to escape or fall into enemy hands. Those bio-construct soldiers we’ve seen more of around lately aren’t just for show.”

His wife lay back down slowly. “I know,” she said at last. “It’s so frustrating. The means of escape is so close, Michael... so close. I’m pretty sure you could get the wormhole functional in a matter of hours now. They may not be able to evacuate us in time, and I’m not entirely sure they’d even try, if there was a risk we’d be captured.”

“Yes.” Her husband scowled. “But we made a decision and a promise, Lynn. It made no sense to entrust Sammy to them if we doubted. We have to go the whole road now.”

“I suppose so.” His wife smiled bitterly. “It’s too bad they wouldn’t entirely trust us. Still, I don’t suppose I blame them.”

Both were silent for long minutes, until Michael sat up suddenly. Muttering angrily under his breath, he ripped the sweat-soaked nightshirt over his head and flung it aside. “I’ll look at that air conditioning unit in the morning. It doesn’t seem to be doing its job tonight.”

But he did not lie back yet. His wife, lying back against the pillow, smiled a little wryly up at him as he turned to look down at her. It always amused her how much hair her husband had on his chest when she looked at his smoothly bald head.

“Might be the last night for both of us,” Michael Breckinridge said after a moment. “And I can’t sleep.” He smiled. “We can find something more entertaining to do while it’s so hot. Do you really need that stuffy old nightgown?

Dorn, his shoes in his hand as he tiptoed past the half-closed door, paused. But there was no more talking on the other side of that door, and for a moment he felt a great sadness. Still it was, he supposed, as good a way for them to go as any, and at least husband and wife had momentarily forgotten their troubles in their engrossing marital affections. Silent in his stocking feet, he moved softly past.

Outside it was far cooler than in, especially compared to his perpetually stuffy attic hovel. Dorn sat down on the step to put his shoes on, and then stood to look down the empty street. There was no moon tonight, but the desert stars were so bright and close he needed no other lighting. And he had, after all, other senses. As he looked toward that house across the street, he could easily locate the other hidden figure. Martin was already waiting for him.

A few of their neighbors still had lights on, peeping out from beneath the closed shades, and Dorn, walking softly down the middle of the dusty street, tried to stay out of those small glimmers. Martin, also fully dressed, joined him silently. His fellow Soltrian looked unusually pale and sober. Neither spoke. It took them almost eight minutes to walk beyond those plain block homes, and as the light of the last house faded behind them, Dorn glanced at his companion questioningly.

“No trouble,” Martin Berger said finally. “Dr. Black is still back at his office. He’s been working almost around the clock this last week.” He shook his head.

Dorn only nodded. “Something’s wrong,” he said in a low voice. “It has to be tonight, Martin. I’ve tried to reach someone on our team, but everyone’s out of range.” He paused. “Obviously something’s changed. I managed, I think, to make some kind of faint contact with RISH, so I am pretty sure the Golem at least knows we’re going to make a run for it tonight. I’m certain we have to get out of here in the next few hours or die. I think the Sinoasians are coming, even though Terhune estimated another three weeks. They may be making a special push for this base.”

The scientist did not argue. Martin Berger had some limited precognitive talents himself, and Dorn could tell, looking at his fellow Soltrian’s tense face, he shared the same fears.

“We’ll have to be sure of the wormhole first,” the scientist said at last. “We can’t risk leaving the equipment functional behind us. I don’t entirely trust Michael Breckinridge, and he’s not the only one who could get it going in a few hours anyway. That equipment has to be destroyed.”

And that requirement was, almost certainly, a death sentence for both of them. But Dorn only nodded. Already they could see ahead of them the distant cluster of buildings, dark in the enforced blackout but still faintly reflecting starlight from their starkly geometrical shapes, which formed the working center of the base.

“We’ll have to pick up the sled and the splat guns first,” he said. “Terhune said he left two of the high-powered rifle models. A few good bursts and I don’t think they’ll be starting up anything again soon.”

He paused, adding soberly, “Then we’ll be in a running fight; those rifles aren’t completely silent. The sled won’t outrun one of the airborne fighters or even one of the ground-based tanks they have on site. If I’m not pressed too hard, I can confuse or disable human operators, but they mostly operate via an embedded machine linkage much like we do. That protects the operators almost as well as a Soltrian psionic barrier. And I have no idea whether I can handle these bio-constructs or not. I don’t think we’ll elude any serious pursuit long.”

This too they had already discussed. Martin Berger said only, “I’ll pilot the sled, and try to leave you free to do what you can.” He grimaced. “Trust Terhune to manage to be away. I see why your boss has survived his dangerous job for so long, damn him.” He managed a thin smile, which Dorn returned wryly.

“At least Sammy’s safe,” the tall young man said. His smile faded. “I wish we could have saved little Peter Rasmussen too. That poor kid’s had it bad.”

Martin Berger made no response to that. There was nothing that could be said; they would not be able to return to those grim block homes to save anyone. He said bitterly, “I just hope we don’t have to shoot anyone ourselves.

“Logically,” he scowled, “we shouldn’t risk leaving either Michael Breckinridge or Dr. Black alive behind us. They have enough information in their heads to restart this project if they wanted to.”

That, Dorn suspected, would not be a problem long, and he saw by Martin’s grim expression he had the same thought. It was, Dorn supposed, a little like being a time traveler in the San Francisco of Soltri’s own past, knowing the bombs would fall in a few hours as one walked among the oblivious crowd. It was not a comfortable thought, and he was momentarily glad Martin Berger could not share his fear. He looked up at the incandescent glory of the desert stars as he walked, a chill sense of doom slowly growing in him.

But at least their operation began smoothly enough. This world’s lack of psionic powers made some things ridiculously easy. There were people about, for work went on unceasingly at the base at all hours, but Dorn was able to either avoid or, in a few cases, to silently suggest another direction to his unsuspecting targets.

Their only bad moment came when they came too near one of the bio-construct soldiers who manned, if that was the correct term, the base perimeter and key defenses. Dorn did not want to even try such manipulation on those beings until he was forced to, because he was not at all sure he could do so either successfully or without detection. Too little of them remained human.

Proceed to Chapter 8, part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by Danielle L. Parker

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