by Dan Swanson, based on a concept by Tynnechris
The spacer wanted to party hard. He had a wad of Amgov money from the transaction he’d just made, and Amgov money was worthless outside of the Utopian States, so he might as well spend it on a bender. He wandered into a bar on the outskirts of Chesapeake Spaceport and made some instant friends when he bought several rounds on the house. There was a lot of curiosity — what kind of business was he doing that made him so much money? His new friends were all wondering how they could get in on it.
He really wasn’t much good at keeping secrets — and the prodigious amount he’d had to drink didn’t help, either. Even so, it took a while before his new friends realized he had probably just done some highly illegal trading in off-world technology. Seconds after they twigged, he was alone at his table, and the bar was empty. His former companions knew that lightning was about to strike — hard. The Port Authority would give a big reward to the snitch who first reported this technology smuggler. Everyone wanted that reward — and no one wanted to be around when Port Security arrived.
Even in his wasted condition, the sudden exodus around him worried the spacer. He dumped his travel bag on the table, spilling out a lot of small gadgets, and quickly fumbled through them, looking for some specific items — a gun and a device that looked like a 1960s transistor radio. He flicked a switch on the radio, and he was surrounded with a golden glow; he then fastened the device to his belt. He raised the gun toward the door.
Two Port Authority Security officers wearing powered combat armor smashed through the doors. The spacer fired before they could attack. A cone of pale blue flashed out of the gun, and the Security combat armor stopped working, freezing the two Port Authority officers in place. This was unfortunate for them, as three more armored officers smashed them aside and fired their weapons before the spacer could react. When their energy beams hit the golden glow, the spacer was smashed backward against the far wall of the bar. Then his force-field failed, and there was a violent explosion. The explosion blasted a hole in the wall and floor, and the collapse of his force-field totally vaporized the spacer.
“No matter how many times we warn them, they never listen,” the commanding officer commented. “Too bad we couldn’t bring him in, but we got his toys.” He swept the gear from the table back into the spacer’s abandoned carryall bag. “Give the boys in the lab something to do, too!”
Hourboy dived into the past with a great sigh of relief. He had known all along that Teleteen’s telekinetic field stopped blaster fire. He’s seen it often enough in Legion training exercises; heck, Tommy Tamare had even saved him from some blaster burns in real firefights. But nothing he had ever done had prepared him to look drunkenly into the barrels of three blasters and do nothing while their owners pulled the triggers.
When Rand Tyler vanished, Tommy dropped his shield, and the explosive device Rand had been holding was blasted backward until it struck the wall of the bar and then exploded. The explosion should have been violent enough that the Port Authority Security goons would believe that Rand had been vaporized — but his bag of dangerous, off-world hi-tech gadgets was left behind. That was the theory, at least. He wouldn’t know for sure if it worked until he returned to the present a few subjective minutes from now.
Hourboy had only dived backward a few minutes rather than his normal hour — just long enough to spy on his earlier party in his phantom form and see if he could figure out who had first ratted him out. He wasn’t actually pleased to see that it was the bartender. He’d felt a little guilty about the damage he was going to do — but he’d just spent enough to let the bartender take a week off, and still the greedy brotch-face had called Security and reported him. He’d been planning to send the bar an anonymous donation to cover the repairs — now he hoped the damn place caught on fire and burned to the ground.
He slipped through the ceiling of the bar up to the roof where his teammates were waiting for him in the present. He perched on one arm of Rex Tyler’s chair and waited. At exactly the same instant that he vanished from the bar below, he surfaced in the present. In less than a blink, Rex pulled the whole team a few nanos uptime, and they spent a minute cheering their success.
“I was never so scared in my entire life!” Rand yelled at the top of his lungs. Rex smiled and did a quick loop-the-loop so fast they didn’t have time to fall while they were upside down.
“What a smooth operation!” Tommy crowed. “What a great plan, Miqui!” He gave her a high-five.
“And you guys — your timing was superb!” she said, praising her team and feeling a glow of pride. Maybe she could lead the Stealth Squad.
It had been a good plan, and they’d pulled it off perfectly. Rex had carried them here undetectable a few nanos uptime, then she’d used her powers on the bar’s alarm system, turning a few semi-conductors into insulators. Tommy had used his powers to open a window on the second floor, and she and Tommy had slipped inside. Rex couldn’t fit through the window, so he’d had to wait on the roof, hiding uptime.
They had used their powers to help Rand look like he was drinking a lot — but Tommy had been able to teleport most of Rand’s drinks into the glasses of the other revelers, and she’d sped up the metabolic process in Rand’s body that broke the remaining alcohol down to harmless sugars. At the critical time, Rand had fired a flashlight at the first two Security troops, and she’d done the semiconductor to insulator trick on their armor — and then Tommy had blocked the blaster beams of the next three agents. And then Rand had used his own powers to disappear and a bomb of his own design to disguise his escape.
A big charade — and carried out perfectly. The question was, would it convince the Security agents that the gadgets in Rand’s discarded travel bag were dangerous, off-world technology? Would they carry the bag back to the hypothetical center for technological suppression, as Rex liked to call it? Would the homing beacons in the phony hi-tech gadgets allow them to locate the center for the next phase of their plan? Well, they’d know in an hour or so.
Several of the gadgets in Rand Tyler’s discarded space-bag emitted subspace static, and the Stealth Squad hoped that tracking the bag until it stopped would give them their next target. They gathered to watch a computer screen that showed a flashing icon representing the bag moving across the map of the Gunderson, D.C., area. Originally, the icon moved somewhat erratically to the Southwest and came to a stop in an area labeled Springfield. Then it started moving again back toward the northeast at a constant velocity of about one-hundred and fifty miles per hour.
Rex Tyler noted something unusual. “It’s about four-hundred feet underground. And,” he gloated, “it’s moving directly towards the Smithsonian. I’d sure like to bump up my wager a little!” Rex had picked the Smithsonian in the where in the world is the secret technology center? pool.
“No way, Rexie!” Tommy Tamare complained sadly. “The pool closed just before Rand left on his mission, and you know it. Besides…” His face lit up. “…it looks like maybe they fooled you, too!” The monitor showed that whatever was carrying the bag had passed the Smithsonian and was still headed to the northeast. Rex groaned as he realized he’d lost. The bag was headed somewhere other than the Smithsonian.
“There must be some kind of secret government underground transport system,” Chemique guessed. “At that heading, it could easily connect D.C., Baltimore, Philly, Newark, Gotham, and New York. I’ll bet it goes all up and down the whole East Coast!” She wondered what other secrets Amgov kept.
“The Smithsonian was just too obvious, anyway.” Tommy wouldn’t let Rex off the hook, and he had to plug his own guess. “I still think it’s in Newark!”
Rand replied, a little scornfully, “Why would Amgov put a secret technology center in Newark? I think it’s near the Citadel of Justice.” The Legion’s old headquarters was located near Gotham City. “General Urbane spends most of his time at the Citadel of Justice, and you know this is just the kind of thing he’d want to keep a close eye on! What do you think, Miqui?”
“I think we’ll know soon enough — and all you guys will owe me money!” she said smugly. She had picked none of the above.
About halfway between Gunderson, D.C., and Baltimore, the bag stopped moving. “Still down four-hundred feet,” said Rex. “Got a good read on its location. Looks like we’re up, little brother!” Rex and Rand were scheduled to make the first scouting trip. Rex would fly the two of them to the precise location indicated by their tracking system, undetectable a nanosecond in the future, and then Rand would scout the site.
“No sense waiting,” Rand agreed. “Let’s go!”
Hidden from spying eyes in the abandoned boathouse sheltering the Hot Rod, Rand sat on the arm of Rex’s float chair, and Rex moved them uptime. He then applied maximum power to the chair’s flight system, and away they went. It was almost fifty miles to their target, and they had to find a temporary place to hide midway through while Rex rested — he couldn’t hold both of them uptime that long.
When they reached the target area, Rex landed directly above the signal. “Target four-hundred feet straight down. Ready?”
Rand was more than a little nervous, but he couldn’t let Rex see it. “Sure, let’s do it!”
“OK, countdown to real-time — five seconds on my mark. Four… three… two… one… mark!”
Rand’s position flickered slightly. “Go! I’ve got what we need!” he said. He’d been gone for an hour by his own subjective time — and no time at all, from Rex’s point of view.
“Seems like a waste of time, me flying for an hour out and then an hour back, and we’re only here for less than a split instant!” Rex grumbled as he returned them to uptime, and they headed back to the Hot Rod.
He knew better, though. When he was in his phantom form, Rand couldn’t use mechanical or electrical navigation systems, so the only way he could be sure of his precise location was by using a global positioning system in real time. And Rex was the only one who could carry him here and be sure that they remained undetected. It seemed like a lot of extra work, but given the tools and powers they had available to them, it was the best plan they had come up with.
Still, complaining helped Rex release some of his own nervousness. What could he have done if his brother hadn’t returned on schedule? Even with the capabilities of his chair, there was little he could do in the way of a rescue operation. He hated being helpless — and he swore to himself that he wouldn’t be confined to this damn chair forever.
Though he couldn’t use recording instruments while in his phantom form, Rand had trained extensively in the Legion Academy to be a very careful observer, and he had a memory that was almost photographically precise. He immediately started describing what he had seen during the past hour, and the computer in Rex’s chair — a remote fragment of Gernsback — began building a holographic image based on his description. The two headed back to the Hot Rod, undetectable a nanosecond in the future, with Rand dictating as they flew — and a holographic image of the secret technology center growing in the air between them.
An hour in the past:
Rand Tyler’s phantom form appeared an hour in his past at the surface location where his brother would soon land the two of them. He didn’t move at all for several seconds, committing his position to memory. He would need to be in exactly this same position in exactly one hour so Rex could pick him up and they could return to their temporary base. He then moved around and spent a few more minutes memorizing landmarks. As a phantom, he couldn’t make any helpful marks in the soil, so he had to make doubly sure of this location in his memory.
Descending four-hundred feet into the solid Earth was as scary as anything Rand had ever done before. Rand could not force himself to remain in the past as a phantom longer than an hour — at the end of that hour, he would return to the present and rematerialize into his solid form, regardless of where he happened to be. And he was pretty sure that if he were to rematerialize inside something solid, the career of Hourboy would end with a bang, not a whimper.
In his phantom form, Rand was unaffected by gravity, so his sense of up and down depended on sight. And when he passed through solid matter, he couldn’t see. If he somehow became disoriented while blindly moving through bedrock four-hundred feet underground, the direction he thought of as up might actually be taking him toward the center of the Earth rather than the surface. And at a top speed of six-hundred miles an hour, there was no way could he pass through the entire planet before his hour was up.
Scuba divers in deep water and total darkness sometimes experience a similar problem, becoming disoriented and not knowing which way was up. But the analogy failed — there was a solution for divers; all you had to do was blow a bubble and follow it up, if you had a flashlight. In his phantom form, Rand had neither the flashlight nor the capability to blow bubbles. Somehow his Legion training had failed to prepare him for this situation, and he would have to address it in the future. For now, he would have to be very careful not to lose track of up.
And how would he know if he’d missed his target? Unless he came out into an open space, he wouldn’t be able to see anything. This whole operation should have been planned more carefully. Damn, he’d been sure he knew everything there was to know about using his powers. And now he was finding out all kinds of new limits he’d never been aware of before.
One of the aspects of his powers that he did know well was moving about — flying, as it were — in his phantom form. Holding himself stiffly upright, Rand descended into the ground at a constant rate that he estimated was about five feet per second. If he didn’t find anything in two minutes, he would return to the surface, pick a new spot, and try again. But he didn’t have to; Rex’s tracking system had brought him to the right place.
Just over a minute after he began his descent, he passed through the ceiling of a gigantic room — the largest room he had ever seen — with walls so distant he wasn’t sure he could really see them. It looked like a tremendous warehouse with stacks of identical wooden crates piled high as far as he could see. Directly below him, two workers were just sealing his space bag into another crate. Except for the bag and some packing material, the crate was empty, and except for a small label stenciled on the side, the crate was identical to every other crate Rand could see. The sealed crate was loaded onto a forklift that trundled off on a seemingly random path.
Rand was no longer interested in that particular crate; he already knew what was in it. What interested him was what was in the other hundred-thousand or so other crates that he could see.