by Dan Swanson
Lady Victory bent over Tom Atomic and gently touched his face. He was breathing. She wasn’t sure what to do, since she didn’t dare move him. “Tomas! Tomas, it’s Bonnie. Oh, Tomas, please open your eyes!”
Tom Atomic groaned, but didn’t open his eyes. He tried to talk, but could only croak. He tried to move, and Bonnie Drake almost screamed. “Tomas, I think your back is broken! Please don’t try to move!”
He worked his mouth for a few seconds, and finally tried to speak again, but could barely whisper, “Hi, Bonnie. Fancy meeting you… here…” He stopped talking, and lay there for so long that she was starting to think he had passed out when he continued, “I guess… I guess I’m alive, huh? I have to be alive…” He paused again.
Bonnie thought that was a strange thing to say. Reflexively, she replied, “Why do you say that?”
Tomas tried to smile; he’d set her up, and as usual, she’d fallen for it. “Because in Heaven… you’d be an angel…” He stopped and took some deep breaths. “…and in Hell, they couldn’t possibly… make me hurt this much!”
Bonnie took this as a good sign. “Are you saying I’m not an angel!?” she said with mock severity. “That’s worse than your usual bad jokes, but considering the conditions, not bad.” Her voice changed again; Tomas thought it sounded as if she needed to cry, but wouldn’t allow herself to. “Oh, Tomas! This has been so horrible. First I thought Todd was dead, and then I thought you were dead. And that hideous man was going to blow up New York!” She put her head down and sobbed. Tomas tried to raise his arm to comfort her, but quickly thought better of it.
“What about Todd?!” Tomas managed to gasp out.
“He’s alive. Probably in better shape than you are right now. But not much better.” She sobbed again.
“So,” he said in a much stronger voice, “what happened after that E.M. pulse?”
She didn’t waste time asking him how he’d figured that out. “Well, you crashed through the building, which distracted the villain long enough for me to knock him out. You ended up smashing through the roof, a couple of walls and floors, and finally bouncing off that gas tank behind you.” She was slowly recovering. There were people around her who needed her help, and help she would.
Tom smiled wanly. “Well, if you got him, I guess it was worth it, then. What about the bomb?”
Lady Victory pointed to it. “I think the E.M. pulse got it, too. It looks dead to me.”
Tom Atomic coughed, hacking up blood, and Lady Victory could hear how much pain it caused him. “Don’t move, Tomas! I’ll be back with an ambulance crew in a few minutes!” There had been several ambulances in the ring of emergency vehicles blockading the Meadowlands. She wished her helmet radio was still working, but she realized that the emergency teams’ radios were probably out, too. “Wonder if their cars will work.”
She was just turning to go find an emergency team, when all the lights on the bomb control panel flickered, and then flashed green. The nixie tubes in the display panel lit up and started changing. They showed what was clearly a countdown in minutes and seconds. It had started at twenty minutes and was already down to 19:55 when she looked at Tom Atomic, and he said, “Uh-oh! Remote-control arming circuit! Must have been shielded against the EMP.”
The two heard a motor starting, and a few seconds later what sounded like a small helicopter taking off, a very small helicopter. Gaia Prime must have had an escape planned in case of failure. Tom Atomic was quick to realize the implications. “Hey, if he thinks he can fly away in twenty minutes, this can’t be the super-nuke he said it was!”
“Even if it’s only a small nuke, Tomas, it’s going to kill a lot of people, including you and me, unless we can deactivate it!” She looked at the control panel and hollered in frustration. “Damn! There’s nothing here but the countdown display. No switches, no buttons, nothing but these damn lights.”
Tom tried to lever himself into a sitting position, and screamed in agony, then fell back to the ground. His face was ash white, almost totally drained of blood, and he was sweating; the pain in his back and legs was so intense that he was about to flash, but he knew he didn’t have the time.
And then, suddenly, the pain stopped. “Uh, Bonnie — I can’t feel my legs!” He thought about that for just a second, and once again, knew he didn’t have time. “Pull that chair over in front of the bomb and help me up, will you? I can worry about my legs later!” Bonnie was about to argue that he might do permanent damage to his spinal cord, when she realized it wouldn’t matter if they couldn’t deactivate the bomb.
Once again he levered himself to a sitting position, and then, assisted by Lady Victory, he pulled himself to the chair, dragging his useless legs behind him. To Lady Victory, it looked as if only his costume was keeping him from leaving his legs behind. She felt the urge to be sick as well. But she resisted, more for his sake than for hers. Between the two of them, they got him onto the chair with more than fourteen minutes left.
“Uh, Tomas? I don’t want to add any pressure, but do you smell gas? I think the propane tank is leaking.”
Gaia Prime was in bad shape. He figured he must either have a concussion or be in shock, because he couldn’t feel much pain, but he could sure see places where he ought to be hurting. His face was bleeding, there was a piece of his ear on the floor, he had several broken fingers, and his face was so swollen he could barely see. And all that was without turning his head, which he couldn’t. For the moment he was glad he couldn’t feel any pain, although somewhere in the back of his mind, a part of him was gibbering, terrified that he would forever be denied physical sensations again. What he knew for sure right now, though, was that he had to get away.
Although he had never expected such a disastrous and humiliating retreat, he had prepared several different escape methods. He started dragging himself toward the rear of the truck once again. It seemed to be a thousand miles away, and he had to fight to impose his will on his broken body, fight every inch of that thousand miles. Finally, he reached his goal. On the underside of the truck was a control panel that contained a single button. He desperately needed to press that button, but he couldn’t lift his arms that high.
However, he could reach an axle, so he used the axle to try to lever himself into a sitting position. He refused to look at the trail of slime that he had left, or think of anything but sitting upright. Next to crawling over a thousand miles just to reach this spot, it was the single most difficult feat of his life. And yet, when he finished, he faced an even harder task, which was raising his arm to reach the button, now only inches away from his head.
He couldn’t fail now. He was Gaia Prime, first minister of the sentient planet Terra. Maybe, a stray thought beckoned at him, maybe I’m just crazy. But he ignored it; if he wanted to live, he had to believe in himself and his cause, whether he was crazy or not.
Finding that it was easier to lift his arm now, he touched the button. For a second, nothing happened, and he was afraid that his own electromagnetic pulse must have fried the electronics he was depending on, that the shielding he had counted on had been inadequate. Then a section of the track bed detached itself and was hydraulically lowered to the ground. In the middle of the lowered section was a seat — a pilot’s seat — and if he could climb into that seat, it would be raised back into the cockpit of a small helicopter. But he had never expected that he would have trouble wriggling into this seat, even in the confined area under the truck.
It actually turned out to be easier than he had expected, and he pressed the panic button on the arm of the chair. His work was done for now; either he’d planned his escape well enough, or he hadn’t — there was nothing he could do now to affect the outcome. His iron will had pushed him well beyond any normal human limits, and he finally submitted to the darkness that was trying to envelop him.
His mechanisms did their work well. The platform was lifted into the hull of the chopper, and massive bolts slid home to lock it in place. Small shaped explosive charges broke the thick electromagnetic shielding along prescribed, inscribed planes, and it fell away. The folded arms of the main rotor unfolded and locked into place. The clamps holding the skids to the trailer bed were released, and the motor coughed to life.
After a short warm-up, the programmed process paused and waited for human intervention. When it didn’t happen, the program continued. The chopper rose slowly, hesitated at about five-hundred feet as the radio direction finder located a specific beacon, then swung around to the west and started moving forward, accelerating as it flew away. This part of the program was designed to get the bird and its occupant as far away from ground zero as possible before the bomb went off.
The down-blast of air from the rotor blasted Red Rocket’s face, and irritated him toward consciousness. He opened his eyes in time to see the small helicopter taking off. He thought he must be seeing things, since it looked almost exactly like a one-man chopper one of his friends had built with plans from the back of Popular Mechanics. Well, he couldn’t do anything about the chopper, but just before he’d passed out, he’d seen his wife, and he was now determined to find her.
But as he rolled over, Todd Drake decided then and there that if he lived through this, he was going to retire immediately. He didn’t seem to have any broken bones, but he had pains in places that hadn’t even been places when he was younger and trimmer. His attention returned to finding Bonnie. He tried to listen, but now that the chopper was out of range, all he could hear was his own breathing, which was really just gasping, moaning, and coughing. Taking a deep breath, he held it as long as he could and listened carefully. He heard Bonnie’s voice, but when he tried to call out to her, he made almost no noise. He started crawling in that direction.
Someone had bled heavily here, and he realized that this was where Bonnie had terribly beaten the bad guy. He smiled at the memory — how many bad guys had Bonnie trashed over the years? He noticed some kind of device with a pistol grip. It was highly advanced technology, so he picked it up and kept crawling. As he came to the hole in the floor, he looked through it to see Bonnie and Tomas. Tomas was slumped in a chair, and Bonnie was standing behind him, looking over his shoulder. She looked very concerned, almost frantic.
Pushing his head down through the hole, he surprised the hell out of them. “Guys! The bad guy just ran away — looks like we win again!”
It was lucky for Red Rocket that neither of his partners was in any shape to attack. Lady Victory jumped a few feet, but Tom Atomic barely turned his head. “Todd — this bomb is armed and counting down,” he said. “We’ve got twelve minutes left. Are your goggles working?”
“Nope… and not much else is, either. What’s wrong with your own?”
“EMP just about ten minutes ago. Fried all our systems. This bomb must have been shielded, because it started counting down just when that chopper motor started.”
Red Rocket slid his arm forward until it dropped through the hole, still holding the pistol grip. “Maybe this weird ray-gun can help.”
Lady Victory’s voice perked up, and she yelled, “That’s the EMP gun! I saw Gaia aim it at you, Tomas!” She was suddenly filled with new energy. Moving quickly to her husband, she took the gun from his hands, aimed it at the bomb, and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened; the nixie tubes kept counting down the seconds until their deaths. “Damn, I should have realized it was shielded!”
Now it was Tomas’ turn to be excited. “Bonnie, did you see any tools up above? Suppose I could get the gun inside the shielding?”
Lady Victory didn’t waste time talking. She leaped for the ceiling, and even though it was ten feet up, she got both hands onto the floor above, and pulled herself up through the floor. She ran to a workshop she had passed on her way in, and grabbed a tool roll. In a flash, she was back down the hole and unrolling it. He grunted his thanks, and pulled out a couple of screwdrivers and some vise-grips.
“Don’t go ‘way with the rest of the tools — I might need something else!” he said ironically as he turned back to the panel.
“And just…” Bonnie began with all the dignity she could muster, which wasn’t much, though given the circumstances, she did pretty well, “…just where do you think I would go?”
But Tomas didn’t hear her; he was already working on the screws that held the control panel together. Tom Atomic rarely did anything that pushed the envelope of his enhanced speed, but he had never worked faster in his life. Within seconds, he had removed a half-dozen screws, and was pulling the side panel away from the bomb mechanism. The countdown stood at eight minutes. He grabbed the electromagnetic pulse gun, stuck it inside the control mechanism, and pulled the trigger.
The countdown stopped. All the lights and the nixie tubes went dark. Lady Victory started to cheer exultantly. But then she remembered the propane leak.
“Tomas, can a regular explosion make that bomb go off?”
“Can’t see how, darlin’! Why?
“Gas leak — we gotta go!”
Red Rocket had recovered sufficiently to help her raise Tom Atomic through the hole in the floor. They didn’t have time to be gentle, and Tom couldn’t always bite back his screams. As soon as they were both out of the basement, Rocket and Lady Victory were putting together a makeshift stretcher. They manhandled Atomic onto the stretcher, and started toward the outside door, moving as quickly as possible. In the wreckage in front of the building, Bonnie found a two-wheeled handcart. They wedged Tomas in the cart, and took turns pulling it.
They had gone about a hundred yards when something, possibly a random spark, in the now-trashed building ignited the air-natural gas mixture, and the entire building collapsed like a deck of cards. They hardly even felt the shock wave.