Chapter 11: Hamartia
Once again, the brilliant and wonderful Soleil-Lumiere did her usual beta, for which I am always grateful.
My apologies for the lateness of this chapter; it was a difficult one.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There was no percussion bomb.
John was not at all like Scott. He knew that his older brother had a noble but sometimes narrowly focused mind, so that when Scott encountered the venal or corrupt he was as much affronted as angry. Deep inside Scott there still existed a ten year old with balled fists crying "It's not fair!", as if that accusation was enough to give the universe pause.
John didn't think in terms of fairness, or chance. When people bewailed their fate in becoming trapped in a swaying cable car, a hundred feet above the ground, John didn't see bad luck; he saw the iron-clad, irrefutable laws of physics, those that bound the entire universe, and so the situation became one of tired machinery, stressed metal, sub-zero temperatures. John's mind was ordered but capable of encompassing vastness, and that well-disciplined thinking kept him functioning when the data before him was chaotic and rushed.
But the woman's brazen mendacity, her unthinking readiness to throw lives into the hazard without a shred of honour- well, that offended John's need for order and accuracy in a way he found difficult to define. It wasn't as though he consciously expected people like The Hood or The Mechanic to follow any kind of moral code. And yet, he supposed, on some level he did. He had a sense that what had transpired on the plains of Nazca would not happen with either of them; that if they said that there was a thirty second window of safety, they would not lie about it. He wasn't sure where this belief came from. It seemed to him that both fought furiously with whatever they had at hand, and both employed subterfuge when they could. And yet, deep on some juvenile level next to Scott's claim to fairness, John believed that if either one ever gave his word, he would keep it.
Everything that happened to Kayo and Virgil and Gordon was predicated on the idea of taking what International Rescue did and subverting it, using their own honour and courage against them, and it left John feeling uneasy, unmoored.
In space, no one can hear you complain.
Well, that used to be true on Five, and a comforting aspect of John's solitary existence as well. Generally, John kept his self-talk brief and his external chatter to the point, and even when the vastness of his isolation beckoned towards rambling soliloquies, his comments to EOS were usually disciplined and short.
For the last few days, however, he had been prone to sudden outbursts of irritated conjecture. And his unsettled utterances were met and received by his crewmate, an AI of almost infinite accessibility but undeniably finite wisdom.
"You need to stop floating," she said.
It was true that he had adjusted the gravity on-board so that he could grab each portal edge and throw himself forward in a faster circumnavigation than usually possible. And that he was doing these circumnavigations almost compulsively, swinging around his home like a trapped firefly in a jar.
"I can't pace." Since John had long since stopped thinking of EOS as anything but a sentient being, the need to justify himself to a conscious machine he thought of as female was real for him. "Unless I turn the gravity up and start stomping. And I don't think the headache would be worth it. I've got enough headaches already."
"Probably because you're not sleeping enough," EOS said, sounding exactly like an annoyingly percipient eight year old.
"Are you watching me while I sleep?" Not even John could pretend that wasn't a whine.
"Of course." How did an artificial program manage to build itself the capacity for smugness? "And you do it far too little for maximum mental alertness and physiological renewal."
"I need more zeds. Got it." John pulled himself through the food preparation area and into the next arc of Five. "I would love to have more sleep. But while this fiasco is still playing 24-7 in my head, I doubt I'll get it."
"I don't understand why thinking about the same data set repeatedly is an advisable course of action."
"It's not," and a wry acknowledgement coloured his words. "But humans do this. We replay events trying to figure out where we could have done better. And sometimes, just to re-imagine them with a better outcome. Or worse."
"And has any of this helped? Have you found a different response that would work more effectively?"
"So you have lost sleep which is inarguably beneficial in exchange for speculation and reminiscence which is evidentially useless?"
"What can I say? I never claimed humans were renowned for design efficiency."
"Obviously not." Sniffiness now. "It's a wonder you evolved enough to create me."
"You know, I can remember Gordon saying the exact same thing to my father during one teen fight."
"You are not comparing me to Gordon!"
"No, no. Perish the thought. I doubt you'd think it a good idea to TP the front hall of the Coniston County middle school."
It made him smile, and the fact of it brought a quiet internal acknowledgement. If he had been free to complain to nothingness in the past without fear of rebuttal, that loss of freedom was more than compensated by the way his crewmate and friend could bring a new perspective and healing moment of humour as circuit breakers to his punishing thoughts.
Because punishing they certainly were. A carousel of what ifs, why nots, how comes, and, spectacularly, what the fucks?
This woman, the one Virgil called Her and She with a venom John could not recall ever hearing from him before, was still at large. The fact of it curdled in his gut whenever he acknowledged it. International Rescue had been soundly beaten, whipped, and if it was a game they were neither designed for nor disposed towards, the defeat still stung.
"How did she know so much?" It was not the first time he'd voiced that question. "She knew Virgil had attended Penelope's flat after the Luddite attack. Is Lady Penelope the leak?"
"Obviously, your enemy has an effective source of information." EOS skirted the concept of a 'superior' intelligence source; he couldn't swear to it, but John was largely convinced he'd somehow programmed a creature capable of developing its own form of vanity. "But it is not likely to be Lady Penelope."
"I'd bet my bottom dollar against it," John agreed. "But we need to keep an open mind. Parker, then?"
"A higher level of possibility."
"Someone at Creighton Ward Manor?" He gave a light shudder. "I can just imagine Lady Penelope's response to any of this."
Not to mention Gordon's.
"I just wish we had a visual of her."
"With Two suffering so much damage it's only to be expected that the on-board cameras failed."
"Yes, but…" He was aware that his tone matched the eight year old voice surrounding him. "It's so darn frustrating. The Estrella was destroyed, the magnetic blowout at the Quantum Research Centre in Switzerland wiped all their recordings. Even Fischler's weather plants were wrecked. If we just had an image of her face, maybe we could track her down."
"I am receiving vision from Tracy Island again, John."
"About time." The omni-scope unit, a small cube that sent clear 180 degree images and full audio was apparently now freed from the towel carelessly thrown onto it by someone (starts with G, rhymes with 'gnawed on'), thus until this moment negating the entire point of it being along for the ride with the inhabitants of Tracy Island. Said inhabitants were away from the house, and Virgil had kindly suggested bringing the unit into action in order for a thoroughly rattled John to keep tabs on them all.
Instantly, the space before him was filled with the colours and sounds of his family at play in a setting so ridiculously beautiful it looked like a travel agent's manufactured ad spot. It should have been idyllic. That the scene vibrated with a tension even John could see from thousands of kilometres away was entirely due to the reason why it was happening.
IR was offline, out of action. In part it was a simple physical practicality; two of its members were unable to get out of bed without swearing, and the other couldn't hear. Gordon could work with visual messages, of course, and John knew Scott had briefly considered okaying that; but Two was in the process of being recommissioned, so any rescue would only be useful within a relatively close proximity to Tracy Island, given Thunderbird Four's optimal speed of 500 kilometres per hour. And in the end his reluctance to put anyone in the field who wasn't a hundred percent settled it for him. If the visual comms failed, Gordon could be at risk. A person long used to a lack of hearing would know how to function expertly in those circumstances and could do the job well – but Gordon was only just beginning to adapt to the condition he was currently in. A shadow appearing in the corner of his eye still caused him to jump. No way would Scott allow Gordon to risk himself in that state.
He explained all this to John as if asking permission, even when John agreed immediately with his reasoning. It was a sign of how badly this woman had unnerved them all that Scott Tracy was second-guessing a straightforward decision like that, and it was why John scanned everyone before him now with an eye more anxious than benevolent.
Even from space, John could see Scott was trying very hard to relax. But when 'trying hard' and 'relax' were in common vicinity there was generally little hope of that happening.
Especially when someone as downright frightening as a woman who had outwitted the GDF, Interpol, WASP and International Rescue was still out there, a woman so unscrupulous she had offered a deal designed to kill as casually as if playing a particularly charming game.
John's family had a perfect place for their doomed attempt at relaxation. Beside the larger of the two ocean pools on the far side of Tracy Island, in the shade of the untidy group of ylang ylang trees that overhung the smaller. Gordon had loudly vetoed the notion of anyone swimming in the rock pool he so carefully husbanded until it was a magnificent microenvironment full of life and colour. So it was to the neighbouring pool that everyone had trekked when Gordon said, repeatedly, that he would go seriously crazy unless he got out of the god-damned villa and its god-damned air-conditioning and into some real god-damned sunlight.
Of course, the thing is that Gordon loudly told everyone everything these days.
It seemed that the silence of the underwater world was the only silence Gordon could embrace. The imposed silence of his current existence was not one that he could tolerate to any extent whatsoever, and so, being Gordon, he began filling his days with the vocalised gems of his own internal monologues. This was a development equally alarming, annoying, and amusing. After catching the tail end of Gordon's unconscious ruminations about Lady Penelope, Scott proposed cancelling her visit as an act of brotherly charity. A slapped face would do his healing eardrums no good at all. But Lady Penelope insisted, as Lady Penelope was inclined to do, and so now everyone but Gordon spent their time acting as loud and instant overrides whenever Gordon's comments became too revealing, and Penelope spent her time pretending she didn't hear most of what he said.
John tracked around the site using the omni-cube. It was a beautiful spot, no doubt about it. The ocean today was calm, a slow, low mass of brilliant blue, and based on the readings coming through on the screen beside the images, the heat was softened by a breeze John could see riding over the water. Even if going there was Gordon's idea, it was a good one. And yet…
"EOS, give me a bio-scan of the area."
"There are eight humanoids and one dog within the vicinity," EOS said.
"And an electronic scan?"
"No devices other than IR issued ones within a two kilometre radius."
The same answer he'd received that morning, and the redundancy of the effort was both obvious and pointless and likely to be repeated, again and again, until the essential breach of trust was somehow mended in his isolated heart.
"Yes, John." And somehow now she sounded softer, compassionate, a wise child giving him a verbal hug. "Insofar as isolation and surveillance can make them, and notwithstanding the possibilities of human frailty in the natural world, they are safe."
"I know how irrational this is. Some of this. On the other hand, this woman has technology we can't figure out and intel we can't track down. It's not irrational to worry about that."
"Except for the fact that worrying itself does no good and actively works to debilitate the worrier."
"Yeah." He swung around on the spot before bracing against one wall. "I think we've had this conversation. And I agree. Humans could benefit from an off-switch some days."
"John." Something different in her voice, a kind of alarm. "I have received a message."
He pushed off from the wall, alert.
"A distress call? They might not know we're offline. We can forward it to the GDF through the – "
"No, John. I've received notification of an automated message. It is not from any official channel. Or from any radio frequency. It has just appeared in my memory unit as a data file."
"What? No. That's not possible."
"It manifestly is possible if it has occurred. Should I open it?"
"You've scanned it?"
"It is only a data file, no harmful spyware detected."
Strange, how the notion of actual present threat calmed him in some way, cleared his thinking.
"Isolate it. Completely. We need a contained environment. I'll reconfigure a handheld so it is quarantined from the network. Give me five minutes."
Five minutes, with his heart thumping and his mind scouring the probabilities, the possibilities, the reality.
"Alright, EOS, it's ready."
"Transferring now, John."
"Right. Got it."
It was odd, and alarming, to hear that kind of uncertainty in EOS's voice.
"There is a call. On that same frequency I picked up from the Habomai Islands."
That name would forever signal failure to John, and his first instinct was to close it down. His deep instincts told him that nothing good would ever come from that place, and the temptation to shut it down, turn it off, step away was strong.
But his deepest ones prompted courage. For John, to turn away from knowledge was to turn away from life. Whatever the message was, whoever was calling, they brought with them intelligence that he and IR might need, even if it lay in how it was delivered, what was omitted.
"Alright, EOS. Put it through. If it's them, I want to hear what she has to say."
And as the woman's acerate voice filled his little bubble of existence in the cold emptiness of space, as he overlooked the world beneath his feet and monitored the passage of a billion electronic signals each second, John listened and realised and felt the kind of terror that comes with the true helplessness of blindness in the face of deadly threat.
There had been no percussion bomb.
Not on Two.
Scott shifted on the small patch of sand that held his butt and thought of C4 and fake distress calls and devices that made scanners read human presence when there was none. It was a particularly cruel maze his mind was running, one that remained full of dead-ends no matter how many times he tried it.
"No! Come on, Brains, just stick your head under. It's awesome, I swear."
"It's not that I d-don't trust you, Gordon."
"So why won't you?"
"Well, I j-just don't trust you."
But of deeper concern was the freefalling notion of fallibility. Scott was, of course, thoroughly aware of his limitations – at least, those he'd encountered and mapped to date. He was also aware of science's limitations, as a statement of profound essentiality. And yet, somewhere along his path he had come to have a faith in the combined abilities of his family that produced a level of belief closer to certainty than their activities warranted. Scott just fundamentally knew that International Rescue would overcome the forces arrayed against them, be they natural or human. To be proven spectacularly wrong was humbling – no bad thing in itself – but also destabilizing. And it showed in the little tableau before him, beneath the ylang ylang trees, beside and in the beautiful Pacific Ocean.
His eyes travelled from one member of the family to another in an unceasing circuit.
"Grandma! Tell Brains to trust me!"
"I can't hear you, Gordon."
"Hey, that's my line, Grandma. And – wait."
He spent too much time, these days, taking an endless inventory of the people he loved, and it was nothing he could stop, even with the use of mind techniques he'd relied on for years to help him find equanimity. It should be enough, to have all his earthbound family here, in his eyesight and safe, if not necessarily well. It never would be, not with International Rescue out of action, not with that woman somewhere out there, free to continue doing whatever it was she intended on doing.
"S-stop pulling my l-leg!"
"I'm not, I swear, Brains, you gotta trust me."
"Uh – Gordie, I think he means Lady Penelope."
"Oh. Hey, Penny, why aren't you pulling on my leg? I could handle that."
Part one of the mission to seduce Brains into the joys of snorkelling. Okay, even in the midst of his worry for three members of his family in particular, and the state of the world in general (because Scott could worry at a galactic level), he could manage to find this a little funny. He gave a genuine snort of amusement, and was secretly delighted to hear Kayo join in from where she lay nearby.
A be-masked Brains was clinging with one hand to Gordon's shoulder, a Gordon who effortlessly trod water in the centre of the rock-pool, wearing water-polo type guards to protect his ears. With the other hand Brains was trying to wrangle both the boogie board he was half-lying on and the snorkel, which swung in and out of his mouth as the water kicked and splashed against him. On the other side of him Alan, on another boogie board, sat and translated everything Brains was saying into uni-sign for Gordon's benefit, a task regularly interrupted by the need to steady the board.
And somewhere underneath them all Lady Penelope, an expert diver, was wreaking mischief.
"Just let go of the board and get down there. Seriously, Brains. You'll love it."
"Gordon, I am trying but the waves make it impossible!"
"Not impossible, Brains. You gotta loosen up, buddy. You're stiffer than Scott's upper lip here. Just go with the flow. Be one with the water. You'll just rock along on top and see all kinds of good shit. Er, I mean, stunning environmental displays of coral efflorescence."
"Even if I can't hear you, Gordon, I heard that." Grandma's voice, delivered horizontally.
On the far edge of the pool, where the inrush of water provided the most turbulence, she lay spreadeagled on the surface in a perfect reverse dead-man's float, picnic things forgotten in mid-packing. He wouldn't begrudge her the relaxation he couldn't find himself. More than any of them it had been Grandma and her ineffable patience and sense and faith in positivity that had brought them through the last ten days.
Although how she could hear anything with her ears underwater… that was just one of those kind of cool, kind of creepy superpowers Grandmas had.
"Scott, if you grind your teeth any harder you're going to frighten the parrots."
Scott gave a self-conscious chuckle and glanced over to where Kayo was lying, careful in her healing but calmer than he'd seen her in a while.
"I know. Can't seem to shut things down."
"Hmmm." She sat up, slowly but without wincing. That was something Scott could take comfort in. The thought of her as she had been, lying on the lift, the cold empty air of the Nazca plateau chilling him less than the sight of the black slashes on her body, in her helmet. "International Rescue's offline, you know. It's okay for you to be, too."
All of it was superficial, the doctors said. Superficial meant that no organs were impacted, no bones broken. It made her injuries sound trivial, mere grazes, when in harsh reality they were twenty punctures of her suit, twenty jags of metal into her body, twenty half-inch deep tears of her flesh. Without the protection of the IR suit, she would be shredded, dead as no doubt intended.
Virgil had been luckier. In one of those acts of chance alignment that Scott couldn't bear to dwell on too long, the pilot's seat of Two had taken the brunt of the explosive force directly in Virgil's path. His 'bird protected him, he said afterwards, and no one could argue the point or wanted to. Kayo's body, exposed to the left of it, was not so fortunate.
"Doing my best. Hard to, with this bunch of – "
A squawk and a flurry of water, as Brains came off the board.
"Sorry, sorry! Here, grab my hand – there you go. Thought you had the balance there, big guy."
"I thought I did too, but it's like I told you, Gordon – water as a medium lacks the kind of d-density I prefer."
"Gordon's got plenty of density for both of you."
"Al? What was that?"
"Nothing, you're doing great."
Scott looked over to where Virgil was immersed in the pool, his arms supporting him, his body floating in the gentle push and pull of the ocean as it softly surged and receded through the broken sea wall. Sombre, but uncomplaining. Only Virgil knew the depth of his ongoing discomfort, and he wasn't telling. His body did, though; the way he gathered himself before getting out of a seat, the way he paused whenever he adjusted the line of his torso to pick something up, even at so gentle an angle as off the piano stool. He described it as being like the flu, a constant ache but nothing he couldn't deal with. Funny how, like the flu, the ache was contagious; Scott felt it every time he watched his strong, active brother shuffle like an old man around the villa.
"P-promise me you won't hold me down?"
"You want me to hold you under?"
"What? N-no, no, don't do that!"
"Alan! I saw that." Scott managed a glare, and Alan quickly corrected his signing, but not before giving an unrepentant giggle. Gordon caught the meaning the second time, and his voice grew less exasperated, his essential kindness showing through the chaotic cheer.
"Oh. No, I promise. I really, really do. I will make sure you're okay. Cross my heart and hope to die. Hmmm. I wonder where I would hope to die? Hope to die on a yacht in the South Pacific after a threesome with Penelope and – "
Alan splashed him, hard, and Gordon's befuddled outrage made Scott and Kayo laugh. It even made Sherbet open one eye blearily before huffing to himself in disgust and settling back into sleep, sharing the shade with them.
"Alright." Brains nodded to himself several times, took a deep breath, and pushed the snorkel into his mouth and his head into the water.
"No, Brains, just breathe normally! Just – Alan, can he hear me?"
"It's like watching a slow-motion car crash. I can't look away, but I know it's going to end in tears." Kayo closed her eyes and let the sunlight, dappled through the ylang ylang leaves, shift across her face. "Hey, you didn't tell me how the meeting with Colonel Casey went?"
"Ah." Scott sent her a rueful grin, even though she wasn't looking. "You heard the term 'carpeted'? I've still got the burns. I was definitely not her favourite blue-eyed boy."
"Aw. Poor you."
"Poor me is right. Sliced and diced by Admiral Pang, then chargrilled by Colonel Casey."
Kayo opened one eye to look at him.
"But we're okay, right? I mean – "
"Yeah. I didn't destroy the goodwill completely. International Rescue will be okay, once we get operational again." He watched as Gordon swam beside Brains, helping him to stay steady as he ventured his head below the surface. His voice grew lower. "And I wouldn't change anything I did, anyway."
"So did you say that to the powers that be?"
Scott chuckled, softly. "Really? No, I had my cap fully in hand. I know no-one believes it, but I can be diplomatic, when I have to. I totally saw the error of my ways, repented of my sins, and promised to behave forever and beyond."
They both laughed again, and Sherbet whuffed his displeasure at the disturbance where he lay between them.
Then John's voice came through the tiny speaker, one of fifty embedded around the island and in the villa to ensure that everyone could be reached wherever they were, at a second's notice, and Scott's belly tightened automatically.
"Scott, I need everyone back in the command area. It's urgent."
"Understood, John. I'll round them up." He gave Kayo a rueful look. "So much for relaxing."
She was frowning at the omni-cube.
"We're not online at the moment – what do you think it is?"
"Don't know, but we better get this lot moving. Alright, everyone. Alan! Get your brother. And tell Lady Penelope. We're going back. Grandma!"
A wave from Grandma signified acknowledgement, and Alan's whine of "Awww, how come, Chief Brody?" let him know that the other group in the lagoon heard. Virgil's nod and careful rolling over told him that he was preparing to drag himself out of the water, painful and slow as it would be.
Scott got to his feet and brushed the sand off his shorts. He bent down and picked up the omni-cube, grabbed the towel behind him, and then offered a hand to Kayo to help her fight her way to her feet. He hid his wince as he saw her mouth tighten, her jaw clench. Too much damage in this family. Too much pain. It brought a helpless kind of rage to go with the pinging sonar of fear John's command had summoned.
Whatever it was, he promised himself, he'd make sure it didn't hurt any of his people. Whatever it was, whatever it took.
It was kind of funny that the one place Gordon could find his feet these days was the place where his feet didn't need to be found.
Gordon understood water and its moods; the messiness and muscularity of it. The world shifted beneath and around him constantly in water, and somehow his body adjusted to it, so that a boogie board became a leaf, waterskis became roller blades. There was a natural sway and swirl that he joined, and he could never quite empathise with people like Brains when they interposed their bodies on it with such lack of grace. Made no sense to him, when the water was so kind.
Treachery was found on land.
It was also kind of funny, (if you thought about it), that Brains didn't trust him on the water, because Gordon trusted him on land where everything was so wrong these days. His arm was across Brain's shoulders and he tried as hard as he could to convince himself and everyone else that this was simply an act of camaraderie after their water escapades, instead of being the one thing that guaranteed he wouldn't stagger from prop to prop as they made their way through the hangar beneath the mountain. His hip was in close against Brains' and his weight was slewing in that direction and he hated the way he was relying on someone else, again, for basic walking. It reminded him all too much of a time when walking meant swinging between rehab bars, and that was a time he had resolutely put behind him for years now. Ruptured eardrums and vertigo and ongoing headaches – a natural triple act that Gordon was beginning to hate almost as much as he hated not being able to hear just what the hell was going on around him.
Now, for example. Scott had ordered them all back to the house, just when Brains was getting his confidence happening. That part he got, thanks to Alan; but uni-sign couldn't convey tone of voice, it didn't tell you if anger bubbled under the words, or exasperation. Or fear. He could read something in Scott's body language, a tension for sure, but he didn't know if they were going back because there'd been some kind of argument, or because Scott had something planned, or because Scott had shit on liver and decided to share it with everyone 'cos he was good like that.
He couldn't hear the echo of their footsteps in the hangar, which somehow looked lonesome now that all their 'birds were grounded and felt even weirder in utter silence. He liked coming down here ordinarily; it was a place of potential, a place where at any moment their craft could roar into life in order to save another. Well, maybe not roar in Four's case. She was quiet and deadly, like Grandma's farts, but usually when he passed by her in the hangar she looked like she wanted to get out there, zooming through the deeps, going where no one else could go. Now? Hanging in the water, still, abandoned, she looked like she was embalmed, not waiting. An insect in amber.
They made their way up into the living area, and Gordon wasn't surprised to see John's avatar already in place at the centre of it. John was online more often than not these days, checking in to see if they'd brushed their teeth and gone to the bathroom. Not that he called it that, of course, John was too cool to be caught out fussing. Or so he thought. Gordon would roll his eyes if he thought he wouldn't immediately face plant. Eye-rolling was just vertigo's open invitation to roll the whole world with it. He'd learned that the hard way.
"Thanks, Brains," he said, as he slid into his seat and waited for the world to realise it could stop moving around him. He hoped he hadn't said it too loudly, but chances were he had, because Scott was grimacing, which he tended to do a lot lately whenever Gordon opened his mouth. That was another of the weird things. There was more than his own stupid feet out of balance in the Tracy world, and he was counting the days until his stupid eardrums got better and his hearing came back.
The one good thing about John being a perpetual Great and Powerful Oz in the middle of the living room was that EOS was fast and smart enough to render everything said by and to him onscreen. That made life immensely easier. He suspected Alan's translation service was as dodgy as he would have made it had the tables been turned.
-Thanks everyone. Sorry to ruin the beach party but we've had a message from the pair who gave us so much grief recently.
Well, he really didn't need to use a qualifier there. 'The pair' would do. Who else would he be talking about, with that kind of expression on his face?
"Hey, EOS?" There might be a gap in conversation, who knew, but if he didn't just jump in there he'd be waiting forever. He took off the ear guards and sat back carefully against the seat. "Could you please colour code the transcription line? Help me keep track of who's saying what?"
-Certainly Gordon. What colours do you suggest?
"IR colours, I guess. Pink for Penelope. A really nice one. Blue for Scott, teal for Kayo, green for Virgil, red for Alan. Purple for Grandma, orange for John. Brains can be black, 'cos he's the only one who says anything that makes sense most days."
Uh-oh. There was that filter thing Scott had been jabbering on about last night.
The invisible screen below John's avatar shifted to become more opaque, and the text of John's opening line was suddenly orange against the tinted background. But a jagged line of italics crossed it, heavily bolded.
-Am I to presume, Gordon Tracy, that I should not have a part in this conversation?
"Oh. Uh. Right, yeah. Sorry, EOS. I - er, I just thought you should choose your own colour. Since you're doing the words and everything. Heh. Nice save, Gordo."
At once, brilliant gold writing appeared.
-This colour is satisfactory.
"Thanks, EOS, that's great. Now if you could tone down John's hair a little, we could take these sunglasses off."
Someone snatched his sunglasses from his face from behind, and gave him a flick on the head at the same time. Ah. That would be Grandma then. Probably deserved that one.
And now Penelope was sitting down beside him, putting a hand on his arm, and maybe she was telling him to shush or maybe it was to tell him she was here for him, but either way the fact of it instantly calmed the unspoken agitation that underscored his existence these days. She was just good like that.
-Right John. Go ahead. What is this message?
Dark blue and serious. Gordon could almost hear it in his head, the way Scott would be bracing himself through his tone of voice, all no-nonsense, tell-it-to-me-straight.
-This is exactly how the message appeared in EOS's memory unit.
-To International Rescue; you have proven yourselves surprisingly resilient. Or perhaps supremely lucky. In either case we doubt if you wish to take us on again. We now have all of Thunderbird Two's specifications, we have access to your internal servers and we have complete knowledge of your entire organisation. Should we wish to do so, we could render you utterly inoperative at any given time. However, we have no interest in pursuing you. We only trust that, now you are completely aware of the exact situation, you will equally have no interest in pursuing us. Both parties can reasonably continue doing what they intend without interference from the other. The term is entente. The more educated amongst you could explain the meaning of this to the less able. There is
-Brains is this right? Can she get into our servers?
EOS didn't use exclamation points. Gordon mentally supplied at least two on Scott's behalf.
-No not at all. The Bo Kata protocol initiates an immediate isolation of the core system and the activation of a dozen firewalls. She's undoubtedly brilliant and has some significantly advanced technology but nothing she did indicated the level of advancement required to bypass the protection John and I have put in place. To the best of my knowledge this claim is a bluff.
Huh, Scotty. What colour is bowel-loosening relief?
A green cursor meant Virgil.
-But she was able to fool our systems. WASP's too. That device on Four that made us think there were extra bodies on-board. That's pretty impressive stuff. How do you know she can't hack into our servers given what she got from Two?
Colour me bitter, Virgil. He sent a sympathetic glance his brother's way, but Virgil was too busy glaring at nothing to notice.
Red, and just looking at Alan told Gordon how worried his youngest brother was, how the fear would be finding its way through into a tremulous edge at the end of whatever he had to say.
-And she knew so much about Two. She knew how to fly it you said so Virgil. She had everything figured out.
-Uh wait a sec. John held up his hands. There's more of the message. It finishes with: There is much to be gained in agreeing to keep within our own spheres of influence, and much, for you, to be lost. Signed H. A. Martia.
-Is that 'martia' as in martial, or
-Mar- tee-a. It might be Spanish?
-H. A. Hayley Anne?
-Spanish remember. Maybe Hernandez something.
He didn't need the colour to know that was Kayo.
"Huh. How about Horrendous Asshole?" Gordon raised a hand in pre-emptive protection. "And don't thwap me again, Grandma, I've got a bitch of a headache."
Now everyone was looking at him, with that expression he couldn't name but had grown to hate. He ran a quick review of what he'd just said, and winced. It was the swearing. Ever since he'd been back near people who resembled his old comrades the bad language endemic in the service had resurfaced. "Uh, sorry Grandma. Sorry everyone."
But Penelope was squeezing his arm, and Alan had jumped up to disappear somewhere and Virgil was putting a hand on his forehead. Gordon swatted it away. And then Alan was back, and offering him a cool gel pack, and okay, that was something that looked a bit of heaven just now.
"Thanks, Al. Sorry for the interruption. Yeah, so, moving on. Everyone stop looking at me. So do you think H.A. is the guy or the gal? Sounds like her to me."
-Don't they teach you kids anything at school these days? Grandma could bring the sting even when she was in purple print. Hamartia. From the Greek. Ignore the initials business it should be one word. Well I guess a Humanities major has its uses after all.
Immediately beneath John a line of gold appeared.
-Hamartia. From the Greek word hamartano. It means to miss the shot or to make an error. To fall short in gaining an objective. Some authorities claim it means the failure of a hero thanks to an essential fatal flaw in his nature. Others argue that it refers more to an accidental injury or omission that brings the hero down.
-Is she suggesting that we have – what an internal flaw? Outrage in blue, but Gordon was watching, and he saw Scott get to his feet, braced again. That was his big brother, seeing a threat and facing it.
-I'd say she's suggesting that she used us against ourselves.
-What do you mean Grandma? Alan was getting creeped out, Gordon could tell by the way he was starting to hunch his shoulders, the way he looked around at everyone just to make sure they were all there.
-Well I wasn't there. But going by your incident reports I'd say she relied on your own natures in order to plan her scheme. She knew she would separate Gordon from Virgil if she suggested someone else needed rescuing. That meant that Gordon could be used to decoy WASP.
"Wait, so this is my fault? I couldn't just – "
-Sweetheart it's not your fault. She was counting on you being too kind and too thorough not to check out the possibility of someone else being hurt.
-You're saying Virgil's thought, left unfinished as his face grew horrified.
Scott threw out a hand, dismissive. This is pure arrogance. She knows our reputation is all.
-No. She knows us. John, and now the fear Gordon sensed earlier was pretty much out there.
-Bullshit John. Scott put his hands on his hips, in fighting mode. That's exactly the kind of thinking she wants us to do. This is classic mindfu er fudging that's all it is.
-No. No it's not. Virgil looked as distressed as Gordon had ever seen him, and a kind of icy shiver rolled down his own spine, because Virgil was generally as unflappable as they come, and now?
"He's all kinds of flapped," and that must have been a muttered out-loud thought, because Penny was shushing him, finger to his lips.
-I forgot. I don't know how but I … there's so much that is hazy from my time on Two and I'm sorry I'm so sorry Scott.
-It's okay Virgil. Just tell us. What did you forget?
-I should have Virgil's head was in his hands, and the iciness was everywhere in Gordon now. Alan was putting his hand on Virgil's shoulder. A kind of shudder, and then Virgil raised his face again. I'm sorry. Gordon Penelope I'm sorry. I forgot. Until now.
"Me?" Okay, he couldn't hear it, but he bet that was a squeak, because seriously? Whatever was happening to Virgil it was freaking them both the hell out.
-She knew things she couldn't possibly know. Yes about Two and about IR but worse. She said when she thought she'd killed you she said that you
He was saying something with his eyes that Gordon couldn't read, and didn't want to, anyway.
-Gordo she said that at least you would stop mooning over Lady Penelope.
-Virgil. Grandma, because he saw her say it, and he knew by her expression that she was upset.
"It's okay, Grandma. I mean, Penelope knows how I feel about her. She knows that I …" And then Penny was gripping his arm, hard, and he turned puzzled eyes towards her a half second before the reality of what he was saying came over him.
This was something private. This was something only the people in this room could conceivably know.
The woman had been at half a dozen rescues that they knew of. She could have taken notes about International Rescue at each one. She could have observed and recorded and spied.
But she couldn't know something so personal, so intimate.
-That's why I called you all back.
-It wasn't the message?
-That was part of it, but she followed it up with a direct line. The same frequency she used to contact us that first time from the Habomai Islands.
And distress was flowing out of John, vibrating at a frequency that Gordon could hear after all.
-This is what she had to say to me ten minutes ago. I'll play it for you.
The format of the words on the screen changed to something boxed, neat, fully punctuated and contained in a single, deadly message.
'International Rescue. John. You'll pass on a message for me, like the good little messenger boy you are. Tell my informant that I'll need an update sooner than we planned. Send it to the usual. They'll know what I mean. Oh, and by the way, I do hope Alan put on plenty of sunscreen. You've all been cooped up so long, I'd hate to see the child burn. It's why I stay in the shade so much myself, of course. Well, must dash. HA, signing off.'
Was that silence? That blank screen. That look in John's eyes.
Deafness was sometimes an all-purpose Faraday cage, one that protected the inmate by blocking out the world. Sometimes not hearing the conversation that wasn't happening was a blessing.
Of course Scott would be the first to break the moment. Of course.
-She's trying to psych us out. That's a classic psych move.
-But that thing about Alan.
-That's a guess, Virgil. That's just a good guess.
-I agree. I c-can assure you that there is no electronic surveillance on Tracy Island. I would s-surmise that she is guessing.
Grandma. I guess there's no way to know for sure.
-No Grandma we're not going down that rabbit hole. I'd stake my life on every single person in this room and if Brains says there's no electronic spying that's good enough for me.
-But how did she know Scott? About everything? We can't ignore this. One thing is a guess two things is good research but three?
Gordon knew that Virgil was hurting, every day, but this was a different kind of hurt, and by the way he was on his feet, arms across his ribs as though hugging himself, it was a hurt that went beyond the bone.
Scott was staring at him. His jaw was forward, his chest out, but there was nothing behind the posture. Alan's feet were drawn up onto the seat, and his chin was on his knees. He looked deeply unhappy.
Brains was pushing his glasses back, then taking them off, his face troubled. Grandma had her hand to her mouth, and that always made Gordon's sense of security collapse in a heap.
He turned to Penelope. Her classical profile, her pure skin, her deep blue eyes, and he needed her to smile, needed her to squeeze his arm and say, "Well, this is all rather tiresome," in that way she had that made it seem as though it was all the merest inconvenience, the flimsiest of nuisances.
But she didn't meet his eyes. Her gaze was travelling the room, and this wasn't the diplomat full of sangfroid that met so many of the challenges they shared. This was the look of a woman measuring those around her, hard, judging, cool. She was questioning each of them, as a good agent would, because this wasn't adding up and unthinking trust no longer applied.
The look passed over each one of the Tracys, over Kayo, over Brains, over Gordon himself, and the iciness turned to nausea and a deep, deep unease.
Suddenly, nothing in Gordon's world was pure.
Nothing at all.
My beta says this is an awful cliffhanger. I hope you can trust me. I am taking them on a tricky journey, but I love the Tracys. There is uncertainty and danger and heartbreak ahead, but I'm someone who lives for the happy ending.
I hope you've enjoyed part one of the Hamartia series. The next is titled FIRE AND BRIMSTONE.
Thanks again to everyone who has read it and to all those who have commented. I appreciate it enormously.
Special thanks to the lovely PreludeInZ, for our early morning chats during the Southern Hemisphere insomnia hours.