Automan and all character names therein are owned by the American Broadcasting Company. All characters are fictional and resemblance to any persons living or dead is coincidental. No copyright infringement is intended.
Written by Sailor Chronos
Based on a screenplay by D.C. Fontana and Richard Fontana.
Half the base soon became organized chaos. As military police vehicles converged on Hangar 12, air traffic controllers and computer operators alike crowded into the control tower, and flight crews were scrambling to their jets.
A breathless Roxanne displayed her police badge and I.D. to the head ATC at the tower and attempted to explain what was happening. Around them, operators were bent over scopes and other instruments, and one was staring out the window with infra-red glasses as he tried to visually track the departing plane.
The ATC had accepted Roxanne's story and allowed her to remain in the control room. "We'll try to track them until some fighters can scramble."
"Fighters..?" she gasped, horrified. Was the technology on that plane so important that they would sacrifice the lives of those aboard, including Lt. Curtis, just to keep it secret?
"We have them on the scope," called one of the controllers, who moved aside from the radar screen to show a blip moving across it. "They're on a heading of... they're gone!" The blip had vanished.
The atmosphere in the stealth plane's cockpit was one of tentative jubilation. Durrell briefly checked his readouts. "The program's working. Nobody can track us on radar now," he said with a smug look. "But what now? Where do we go? What do we do with this thing?"
Carnes grinned avariciously at him from the co-pilot's seat. "We are going to sell it to the highest bidder."
A jeep raced down the runway and transformed into the Autoplane, launching at full speed on the same course as the stealth plane had taken off moments before. It didn't take long to catch up to their quarry.
"We have to get them to turn back, or land," Walter said.
"I've been thinking about that." Automan was, as usual, one step ahead. "As you know, this aircraft occupies another dimension."
"Sure. They can see us, but we can't really do anything to them." Suddenly he realized what Automan was suggesting. "But if we make them believe we're a threat..."
"They might turn back," Automan finished. "Hang on!"
"Oh, no!" Walter grabbed his seat, expecting the worst, and he received it.
The Autoplane overtook the stealth plane, and commenced to buzz it in a series of impossible maneuvers including its characteristic ninety-degree turns and swift, darting sideswipes.
Carnes and Durrell were alternately awestruck and horrified as they watched the glowing plane maneuver around them. At one point it flew past and appeared to stop right in front of them, hovering there for a moment before shooting upwards and disappearing.
Durrell was sweating as he worked the aircraft controls, trying to avoid a collision with what to him seemed to be an ultra-high-tech stunt plane. "What kind of plane is that? That guy must be crazy!"
"How'd he track us?" Carnes asked, looking wildly out the windshield.
"Are you sure that computer's working?" Durrell demanded.
"This is the only plane it works on!" insisted Carnes, and then he gaped in terror. "He's coming straight for us!"
The Autoplane loomed large in the windshield, about to collide with them... then suddenly it dropped straight down and out of sight.
Walter was plastered on the ceiling of the plane for a moment, and then fell back into his seat with a groan as Automan resumed level flight. "Remind me to program in seat belts," he said as he checked himself over, and wondered why he had never gotten around to doing so after all this time.
"Just a little longer, Walter. I think we're getting to them."
"Good," he said, sighing. "I don't know how much longer I can take what we're putting them through."
Automan gave his customary amused smile.
By this time Durrell had become more composed. "Carnes... what if that's another experimental plane? Unarmed, or unwilling to shoot. Either way, he doesn't want to harm us, because even when he makes those weird passes he always breaks off."
"So?" Carnes was still scared.
"Next pass, we don't budge," he said resolutely. "I want to see what he does."
Carnes leaned back in his seat with a shaky breath. "Just so long as it isn't the last thing we see."
The stunt plane came at them again, drew near, and then broke at the last second, making a 90-degree turn off to their starboard.
Carnes let out a cheer, while Durrell just smiled.
"You're right," said Carnes with a wide grin. "Nobody can stop us now!"
"They didn't try to avoid us on that last pass," Automan noted.
Walter set his lips in a thin line and shook his head in disappointment. "They have us figured out."
"We can't let them get away," said Automan grimly. "If the technology on that plane falls into the wrong hands, no country will be safe."
"I have an idea. Let's merge." He waited a second for his partner to alter his density, and then slid over into the pilot's seat to merge with his form.
Once the merger was complete, Automan understood what Walter wanted him to do. The Autoplane cruised in level flight, then overtook the stealth plane and came down on top of it, phasing into it. Then the Autoplane de-rezzed, leaving Automan standing in the cargo hold of the Hercules with Cursor hovering at his shoulder.
"It's Jack!" Walter's voice issued from Automan's mouth as he spotted the prone form of his friend lying on the deck.
Automan crossed the hold and knelt at Jack's side, touching his wrist to read his vital signs. "He's unconscious but he's in no danger. With a little time, he'll come around."
"He must have tried to stop them by himself," Walter said. It wasn't like Jack to be so reckless, but perhaps he hadn't had a choice. "Let's get 'em, Auto."
Automan rose and moved toward the cockpit, passing through the door behind Carnes and Durrell and placing a hand on their shoulders. "The game is over, gentlemen, and you lose."
Durrell sent a panicked glance over his shoulder. "Where did you come from?"
Carnes started to draw a gun.
"Get the gun, Walter," Automan said smoothly.
Walter reached out. Carnes gaped as another hand emerged from the intruder's left arm and snatched the gun out of his slackened grip. He slumped back into his seat, wide-eyed.
Durrell was so aghast that he didn't struggle when Automan twisted him around in the pilot seat with his great strength.
In his commanding voice Automan said, "Set the autopilot on your current course and altitude."
Responding like a robot, the man did as ordered.
"Now step this way," said Walter.
They returned to the hold, where Walter separated from Automan and tied up the two would-be hijackers.
"Who are you?" Durrell asked shakily. "CIA? FBI?"
"Police," Walter replied.
Carnes was utterly surprised. "You mean we've been caught by some lousy cops?"
Walter smiled, allowing some smugness to show. "For lousy cops, I thought we did a pretty good job on you."
The conspirators glanced briefly at each other, defeated.
Unlike his creation, Walter had only average human strength, and it took all of his effort to struggle with Jack's barely-conscious weight and get him settled in the co-pilot's seat. Panting, he collapsed into the pilot's chair and looked around. "Auto?"
Automan appeared behind him, but he was no longer wearing his uniform and his blue starfield body wasn't as strongly visible as it normally should have been. "Right here, Walter." He started to grow dim as he spoke.
"Aren't we going to merge so you can land this plane?" Walter asked with some urgency.
"Actually, you're going to have to land it."
"Me?" Walter panicked.
Automan regarded him apologetically. "It's dawn, Walter. The power demand is already draining my ability to stay. And at this distance, I can't draw on the base generator."
As it had too-frequently happened in the past, Automan's timing was atrocious. "I don't know anything about planes, much less how to fly one! I don't even get on ladders over four feet high!"
"There's nothing to worry about, Walter," Automan assured him. This plane is equipped with an automatic landing system, just like the space shuttle."
"I still don't know how to operate it..." Playing flight simulation games certainly was no substitute.
The hologram gave one of his infuriatingly confident smiles. "I've made a trip through the control circuits. It's programmed to fly back to Edwards and land. I've even set the transponder so you're back on radar. Just key the microphone and you can talk with the tower." His body flickered.
Walter let out a nervous breath. "I don't want them to hear me screaming."
Hearing the conversation, Lt. Curtis slowly roused with a soft groan. He turned his head and caught a last glimpse of Automan as the hologram disappeared. Unsure of whether he was still dreaming, he blinked and shook his head before taking another look, but there was nothing there.
The radio crackled and an air traffic controller spoke. "Aircraft approaching Edwards, please identify yourself."
Walter cleared his throat before reaching forward to press the microphone button. "This is Walter Nebicher with Lieutenant Jack Curtis. We've got your stealth plane back."
Confusion reigned in the control room since none of the operators recognized the voice on the radio, but Roxanne was greatly relieved to hear that her colleagues were all right.
"Who are these guys?" the head ATC asked her.
"Police Department, on special assignment in cooperation with the Department of Defense," she explained.
"The automatic landing system is engaged," Walter reported.
In the cockpit of the plane Lt. Curtis was now more alert, and he quickly realized what was happening and scanned the instrument panel. "Tower, we're on a heading of zero-eight-five magnetic."
"Good," responded the ATC. "You're cleared for a straight-in approach. We have you over the outer marker. The automatic landing system will put you down, but you'll have to brake and reverse engines."
"Got it," said Jack crisply.
Walter shot an apprehensive look at him. "Can you do that? You haven't flown in years."
"Watch, kid," Jack said with a little smile. "Here we go."
The plane descended and landed smoothly on the runway, but continued forward without losing its speed. Uncertainly at first, then with increasing confidence, Jack leaned on the brakes and began to flip switches on the panel. The howl of the plane's engines changed pitch as they reversed, and the plane gradually slowed.
Jack toggled some more switches to shut the engines down, and they rolled to a stop. Soon the plane was surrounded by crash trucks and police vehicles. Both men leaned back in their seats, tired and drained.
Jack laughed, wiping his forehead with his arm. "Guess you never lose the old skills."
"I guess that's one thing even a computer can't say," Walter said with relief.