The Yellow Flower
Vikka felt her heart pounding heavy in her chest when she saw the tiny flower. "Jack," she whispered. "Where did you get this?"
He smiled at her, and she took the small silver tin from him. "It was growing in-"
Vikka turned sharply, stalked out of the house and stepped toward the edge of the platform. She held the little tin with its tiny patch of grass and its little yellow flower out over the clouds. What could Jack be thinking bringing something like this into the house?
She glanced back at their pristine dwelling, and saw Jack watching her. He hadn't moved from his place beside the counter. His jaw was clenched tight, like he might be angry, but the look in his eyes was far removed from rage. He was hurt incredibly so. He looked as if she'd wrapped up his very hopes and dreams and was about to toss them down to the surface, rather than just tossing an impermissible surface find.
Vikka turned away from him, biting her lip. That wasn't fair. How could he make her feel so guilty just for following regulations? And all over a silly little...
Vikka looked at the flower and sighed. Yellow was one of her favorite colors. She assumed as much, anyway. In her dreams, she usually had a yellow flower in her hair. That might even be why he'd chosen this one to bring to her.
Vikka tightened her grip on the little can and pulled it closer to her chest, shielding it from the wind. She sighed and shook her head. This was wrong. Her job was to make sure things ran smoothly until the mission was complete, and she was usually damn good at it. But that awful look in his eyes had broken her resolve, and she almost didn't care about the regulations. Almost. Then again, something growing in a safe area, away from the radiation zone, might be free from toxins after all. But, toxins or no, and whether she liked it or not, Vikka was a fool for Jack Harper.
She turned back to the house and walked slowly inside, head bowed, looking at the small yellow flower. She didn't look up again until she was back at the kitchen counter where she had started. She looked up at Jack, and there was a tiny smile on his face the barest hint of one and his eyes were shining. "Where did you say it was growing?" Vikka asked.
"Um... it was..." He cleared his throat. "Down in Grid 19. There was a little patch of them right next to one of the old ships."
She glanced down at it again and found herself smiling. "It's lovely, Jack," she said, setting it on the counter (well away from their food). "Thank you." She turned back to him, and the tears that had been shining in his eyes had actually begun to fall.
Jack suddenly grabbed her around the waist and yanked her to him, squeezing her and lifting her off her feet. She squeaked, but he didn't care. He hugged her tight and kissed the side of her face. "I love you."
Vikka laughed and squirmed. "I love you, too, now put me down, you'll ruin my dress."
"I just showered," he protested. But he set her carefully on her feet right away.
She straightened her dressed and looked back at the half-finished dinner plates. She could see the edge of the flower pot in the corner of her eye, and felt herself fighting a tiny wave of panic at the thought of its being there bold and obvious and completely against regulations. But then Jack stroked her arm and kissed her cheek again, and she realized (with no small amount of surprise) that she truly didn't care.
Earth. Before the war. London. Before she was born. She was in a cafι, drinking tea, and Jack was with her. They were happy. Laughing. He reached for her hand, and their fingers intertwined beside the small bouquet of fresh yellow flowers. Jack took one, dried the stem, and gently set the flower in her hair. Vikka glanced around, afraid the management would see.
She didn't see any angry waiters, but frowned at what she did see. Her. Dark hair, hazel eyes, full, pouty lips. The woman saw Jack and smiled. Vikka turned to Jack, and he was already standing up. He smiled at the dark haired woman and walked away with her, without even a backward glance. Vikka tried to grab his shirt, but he was out of reach in an instant. She called to him, but her voice made no sound. He hugged the dark-haired woman, kissed her tenderly, and together they walked out of the cafι hand in hand.
Vikka cried, tears streaming, but her sobs making no sound. She was forgotten.
Vikka opened her eyes. She felt wild, frantic, like she wanted to scream or cry or both. But the next second, Jack shifted beside her in the bed. She watched him sit up, then spend a few seconds just breathing, as he had done every morning for almost five years. She watched him keenly, studying the contours of his back and shoulders, looking at the early morning light glinting in his shiny hair.
She felt the wildness subside. Jack was hers. The dark-haired woman didn't exist. She couldn't, no matter how real the dreams felt. Reality was Jack, Vikka, and the mission. She was safe.
Jack turned to look at her, and smiled, warmth in his eyes.
Vikka smiled back.
"I'm going to miss this place."
Vikka laughed. "What?"
Jack nodded, giving her a small smile. "I am. Is that so strange? It's our home, after all."
"It's just that I never thought you'd say you miss being attacked almost every day."
Jack shook his head. "Not that part," he said. "But... Earth. Everything else about her." He looked at Vikka, and she stared blankly back. He sighed, and looked away from her. "It's hard for you to understand," he said. "You're up here above the clouds every day. You've never had the chance to see everything that's down there. Except on the Tet vision feed and the bubbleship feeds. But that isn't the same."
Vikka shook her head. "I think it's harder for you," she said. "Going down there day in and day out. Seeing the ruins."
"But there are... places. Things the Scavs haven't touched, and places that have grown back. You... we should-"
"Jack." She shook her head, finality in her voice. "There's no reason to get attached to anything down there. Once the hydro-rigs have done their job, nothing will be able to survive."
Jack sighed, lips pursed. He was a hydro-rig support technician, and he knew well how important the fusion energy was for the new colony. But why not use that energy to make Earth inhabitable again? It pained him to think of the few pockets of green he'd found being destroyed.
He sighed again. "We won this war," he said. "But it feels like a hollow victory to me."
Vikka frowned. She came over and stroked his arm gently. "Don't be upset, Jack. We're saving humanity every day. And when our mission is over, you'll find new places on Titan, right?" Jack shrugged. "Give it a chance, Jack," she whispered.
Jack gave her a smile. He didn't want to give Titan a chance, but there wasn't much he could do. He didn't want to upset her. "Okay," he said. "We'll give it a chance. But... you should give Earth a chance, too."
Vikka froze for a second before answering. "What do you mean?"
Jack smiled at her. "You should come down with me. Before we leave."
"What?" She was shocked. "Jack, you know that's against regulations."
"I know," he said. "But we have less than a month left of our mission, and then we'll never see this place again."
Vikka bit her lip, and Jack knew she was considering it, which was more than she would have done earlier in the mission or even a year ago. He put on his most charming smile. "We can go just after morning check-in with Mission control. Sally will never know."
"Jack," she whispered, looking around as if Sally might be listening to them right that very moment.
"Listen, don't answer yet," he said. "Just take a little time and think about it." She gave him a little nod and sighed, as if she was relieved he wasn't going to pressure her. "After all, Vikka," he said. "What will Mission really do to us if I take you down, even if they do find out? Put something on our record?"
"Wouldn't that bother you?" she asked, scandalized.
Jack shrugged, and she looked even more shocked. "Maybe it would if I planned on going on another mission. But how many drones will I be repairing on Titan anyway? When we leave..." He sighed. "When we leave, I plan on retiring and kidnapping you to some little hideaway where the only rules are the ones we make for ourselves."
Vikka laughed. "Jack, you're such a dreamer. I suppose we won't need any money in this fantasy hideaway of yours."
"That's what pensions are for," he answered. "Anyway, we'll make a garden and fend for ourselves."
She laughed again. "Where did Mission Control find you," she asked. But she was smiling, and there was warmth in her eyes. "C'mon," she said, pinching his leg playfully. "Let's take a swim."
"Jack, I... I don't think this is such a good idea."
"Don't be nervous," he said. "Everything will be okay."
Vikka took a hesitant step forward, her feet slipping awkwardly in Jack's oversized boots. She looked down and tightened the straps Jack had fashioned to keep them secure. She looked back at Jack worriedly, then up toward the control station. "What if she calls?"
"When has she ever called?" Jack asked, smiling at her. "I'll take care of the downed drone, we'll go on a little adventure, and then I'll bring you home for lunch. Mission will be none the wiser."
Vikka bit her lip and sighed. What was she doing? Was she insane? She'd felt like a complete fraud checking in with Sally that morning in her flawless gray dress, while Jack was downstairs cobbling together what he called "appropriate foot gear". She'd fed the beacon data for drone 117 to Jacks' ship, as it sat still on the landing pad, and Sally had given them their mission directive for the day. Repair 117 and perform regular maintenance scans on all other drones. Then Vikka had signed off from Mission and hurried downstairs.
Everything had gone exactly according to plan, except that now Vikka was practically petrified. She stood at the threshold of the house, clutching the collar of one of Jack's armored jackets to her throat, staring at Jack's ship as if it were a dragon waiting to eat her alive. Jack beckoned to her, his smile warm and inviting.
"Come on, Vikka," he said gently. "Everything's okay."
He reached for her, and she slowly followed him out of the house. He smiled happily, and took her hand in his. He was so excited and happy that he seemed to be shaking ever so slightly. The wind whipped Vikka's hair as they moved farther out past the swimming pool. She looked behind her. The house looked smaller than it should be, and she was now farther from it than she had ever been since Day 1 of their mission.
Jack wrapped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed, still smiling and clearly excited. "Okay? You warm enough?" She nodded slightly. She was shivering, but not from the cold. "Maybe we should have tried the pants," he said. "You're-"
"No, it's... it's okay, you know I'm too short." She gave him a smile, and he kept his arm around her the rest of the way to the ship.
The door on the pilot's side opened automatically, and Jack let Vikka go long enough to tap a button inside the ship, opening the passenger door. He helped Vikka inside, and she sat, shuddering and looking at the little yellow flower, thriving happily on the kitchen counter. The first step in breaking regulations, and now she was out here about to go down to the surface in direct defiance of a major Mission protocol. God, she must be insane.
"Isn't this great?" Jack planted himself happily into the pilot's seat, a broad grin on his face.
Vikka laughed, feeling slightly hysterical. "I think we're crazy."
Jack buckled his safety straps, then helped Vikka with hers, smiling all the while. "You'll be fine, you'll see. We'll have a little fun, see some sights, and I'll bring you home in no time. All we have today is one downed drone and maintenance checks. What could go wrong?"
Vikka looked at him, eyebrows raised. One downed drone was obvious evidence of Scav activity, which meant something had already gone wrong. But she knew there was no point saying as much to Jack. He was the more reckless of the two of them, and he was full of exuberance about this unauthorized excursion. She held onto the straps tightly while Jack performed his usual pre-flight checks, and tried her hardest not to think about the myriad things that could (and with her luck, would) go wrong.
Jack smiled at Vikka and patted her arm. "Hang on tight," he said. She clutched the belt strap extensions and Jack took them up and back, in his usual, perhaps somewhat self-indulgent manner of getting off of the platform. Vikka let out a little squeak of alarm, and he glanced at her as he righted the ship. She looked frightened at first, but when the ship steadied, she giggled and looked at him, her eyes bright.
"You just do that because it's fun, don't you?"
Jack shrugged, but there was a smile on his face. "Depending on what direction I need to go, the 180 can save me some time."
"Sure," she said, laughing again. "I've got butterflies now."
"Don't worry, Tower," he said. "I'm a well-trained expert."
He pulled up the beacon date for drone 117 and sighed. "Wish I could show you my surprise first," he said.
"No, Jack, we need to take care of business first."
"I know, I know, but-"
"Jack," she said sternly.
Jack raised his hands, defeated. "Okay, okay, you win. Business first."
She nodded, satisfied, and turned to look out through the side-panel of the ship. Jack decided against heading for drone 117 first, despite what he'd said. He wanted to show Vikka as much of their little zone as he could before he had to take her back to the tower.
"Let's do regular maintenance first," he said.
"Wouldn't you like to see the hydro-rigs?" Vikka stopped, mid-objection, and thought about it. After a second, she nodded. Jack smiled. "Wait 'til you see. I still remember the first time I saw one. It's breathtaking."
Vikka just smiled, then turned and peered through the side panel again.
Jack had been right about the hydro-rigs being breathtaking. She usually saw them as large graphics on the control board, with statistics about energy produced and the amount of migration they made into the ocean during the night as the water level receded. Seeing them up close was amazing. They were huge, and she could hear the rushing of the water as it moved up the suction tunnels. The drones buzzing around the rigs looked tiny by comparison like little bees working around a giant hive.
Jack flew in wide circles around the rigs, keeping (she assumed) outside the regulation max distance from them. As he passed the drones, the bubble ship monitor lit up with basic information about the drone its ID number, its current task (all of them came up as "patrol" in this area, of course), and its state of repair. Most came up "green", but drone 146 bleeped a warning, and the ring around it flashed yellow.
"Damn," Jack whispered.
"146 needs repair." He enlarged the data on the bubbleship monitor, pulling up a large schematic of the drone. "Hm. Gears on the right guns need replacing. Looks like one side is jammed shut."
Vikka sighed and bit her lip. "I cant ask Mission to re-task the drone for repair," she said worriedly.
"Its okay, Vikka," Jack said calmly. "I dont have parts for that on the ship anyway, so I'd have to go back to tower before I could start repairs." Vikka sighed, relieved, and Jack smiled at her. "Dont worry, I wont get us in trouble with Sally. No way shes canceling all those drinks she owes us."
Vikka laughed. "Damn right, shes not."
Jack ran checks on all the other ones doing sweeps throughout the rest of the area. It took time to catch up to them all, and make notes on which ones needed maintenance. While they tracked down the drones, Jack pointed out the different aspects of their zone almost like a tour guide. "If you look over to the right in about ten seconds, youll see what used to be Westminster Abbey. Look, let me take a little detour, and you can see the remains of Buckingham Palace. Its almost completely submerged, but you can still see some of it."
Vikka had caught glimpses of some of the ruins before, but Jack was right. Tet Vis and the bubbleship viewer could not compare to seeing them up close. The buildings were astoundingly beautiful, despite the fact that most of what remained was only a part of the full structure the rest covered in decades of shifted earth, moved by the massive waves and earthquakes caused when the Scavs had destroyed the moon. They were far bigger than shed expected, too. As he took her through their zone, and she saw the vast ruins, Vikka felt something stir within her. Something like pride or even patriotism feelings she usually got when she checked the hydro-rig energy read-outs.
When Jack took the bubbleship close in and flew around the great clock tower, Big Ben, Vikka felt a wave of vertigo, and suddenly, she was no longer in the bubbleship. She was standing at the foot of a huge building the clock tower itself. Jack was beside her, looking up. She smiled at him. "Not half as big as your favorite building," she said.
"But its still breathtaking," Jack said. "Can we go inside?"
She took his hand. "Not usually, but I made arrangements because I knew if I got you out here, youd want to see the top. Are you up for a climb?"
He smiled at her. "Vikka? Vikka?"
Vikka gasped and looked around. She was in the air, at the very top of the Clock Tower. Jacks hand was in her arm, and he shook her lightly. "You okay?"
Vikka turned toward him and nodded. "I... I felt..."
"I think I know," Jack said. She looked at him sharply and he nodded. "I felt that when I first came here. Like Id been here before. With you." Vikka was speechless. "Was it very vivid?" he asked. "Like you were really here?" She nodded. "Yeah. It happens sometimes, depending on where I am."
"But how can they seem so real? It's impossible, we werent even born then." Jack shook his head, turning the ship away from the tower. "Do... do you have vivid dreams, too?"
Jack nodded and glanced at her. "You?"
She nodded. "Sometimes they're nice, but... sometimes I have these... these awful nightmares. Someone takes you away from me. A... another woman with... with long dark hair and hazel eyes, and she-" Vikka stopped when she heard Jack gasp. She looked over. He was frowning at her, and there was something else. A tension that she didn't like. "Do... do you dream about her, Jack?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper. She knew she didn't really want the answer.
Jack looked away, staring straight ahead out of the bubbleship viewer. After a moment, he sighed. "Sometimes," he said. He gave her a sidelong glance. "I don't know who she is, or who she's supposed to be. I... try not to think about her."
"Do... do you..." She couldn't bring herself to finish the question. She felt the same sense of wild, near-panic she sometimes felt in her dreams, though she tried to maintain the appearance of calm at least.
Jack flipped an overhead switch and the monitor lit up briefly with the words "HOVER ENGAGED". Jack turned to her and took her hand in his. "She's a ghost," he said seriously, though without the slightest hint of anger. "I don't even know her name. You are the only woman I love."
Vikka smiled, and he felt the anxiety subside. She leaned close, and Jack kissed her deeply. "I love you," she whispered.
Jack smiled and ran a hand through her hair. "Come on. Let's get to the rest of these drones. I have something special to show you."
By the time they finished scanning all of the drones for maintenance, the sun was high and Jack announced that it was time for lunch. "Are we going back to the tower?" she asked, surprised by how reluctant she was to go back.
"Not yet," he said with a smile. "I know, I said we'd go back in time for lunch, but I also promised you a surprise." He leaned over and gave her a peck on the cheek. "We took care of some business, and now it's time for a break and a little fun."
Jack took the ship away from the water back toward the place where they'd found that drone 167 needed minor engine re-alignment. But this time, he kept going, getting so close to the Radiation Zone that his console lit up and urgent, nerve wracking red, and menacing warning bells sounded.
"Where are we going?" Vikka asked nervously.
"We're going to check out that special surprise I told you about. Don't worry, we're not going in there."
"Jack, we haven't repaired any of the-"
"Vikka, I take a lunch break every day, you know," he said, smiling at her.
She smiled sheepishly, and nodded. "I suppose you do."
"Right, and I take it wherever I feel like taking it. I've decided this is the perfect place. You'll love it! I hope."
Vikka didn't try to dissuade him, though she was worried about not checking in with Mission Control for a full half day. Then, suddenly, Jack warned her to "hold on", and he took a steep, sideways dive into a crevice that looked like it couldn't be big enough for a drone to get through, much less the bubbleship.
They navigated it, though, and came through to a broad, lush valley, full of trees, grass, and a lake that sparkled in the noon sun. "Wow," she breathed.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Jack whispered.
Vikka stared out the window, taking in all the greens bright yellow-greens, vibrant pure greens, and deep pines. As Jack taxied lower, Vikka began to pick out wild flowers dotted here and there in the grass. Then she saw a small structure, not far from the edge of the lake. "What's that?" she asked. "Could something have survived down here since the war?"
Jack just smiled and landed the plane near the structure. When they touched down, he unhooked his safety straps and trotted happily to her side of the ship. She unhooked herself and Jack reached for her to help her out like an old-world gentleman.
Vikka stepped down onto the grass and she laughed, testing her feet on the soft surface, pressing down on it as if she'd never felt it before. Of course, her memory of anything like this had been wiped, and she knew nothing but the hard, cold floors of the Sky Tower. She looked up at Jack, saw him smiling brightly at her.
"Why don't you take your shoes off?" he asked.
"Is it safe? What about contaminants?"
"There's no radiation damage here," he said. "It's all perfectly safe and natural." He reached for her hand. "Come on, let me show you the house."
What Jack called a "house" was actually a large, elaborate tent. He'd found some kind of tarp and pieced it together over sturdy wood and other materials to brace it. There was one large room with various items that he must have spent months collecting. There was a mattress about as large as their own but sitting directly on the floor. He'd found a baseball bat and ball, and an American football, half deflated. But outstripping the sports items by far were the books.
He had three book cases all full, and he had still more books stacked on the floor in neat piles near the filled book cases. He had a rocking chair in one corner, and there was a dining table with two dining chairs and a miss-matched "set" of china plates arranged neatly in front of each seat. In the center of the table was a vase filled with beautiful yellow flowers.
Vikka turned to Jack, a bright smile on her face. Jack's expression had been one of nervous anticipation, but when he saw her smile, he looked overjoyed. "Do you like it?" he asked.
"It's amazing," she said. Jack laughed and grabbed her up in a tight embrace. She giggled and squirmed a little, but didn't demand to be put down. "How long have you been working on this?"
"A little over a year," he said. "I'm so glad you like it!" He set her down and led her eagerly inside. "See the flowers? Those are fresh, I picked them yesterday."
"They're lovely," she said. "What are they called?"
"These little ones are daisies, and these are tulips."
Vikka smiled, trying out the names in her head. She took off Jack's boots and stepped down onto the wooden floor inside the little house. "This is really wonderful, Jack," she said.
"I'm so happy you like it," he said. "I thought I'd never get the chance to show it to you."
Vikka rubbed his arm and gingerly moved around the house, still feeling a little concerned about contaminants. But then, if Jack had been gathering things for a year, it must be okay he wasn't sick at all. It was odd to see a dwelling so full of colors. The only hints of color in the tower were the blue lights on the cabinets, and the blue furniture. Here, there were warm browns from the floor and walls, greens from the leaves that peeked through the tent, and the many varied colors of the things Jack had brought here.
Jack left her for a moment, and went back to the ship. He came back with a small, simple lunch, like what he usually ate: a protein bar for each of them, two of his little water bottles, and a little dried fruit. Normally, Vikka prepared all their meals, but he told her to just have a seat. He used the odd plates, cleaning them off first with his bottled water, and he arranged the meal as nicely as he could, then sat down across from her, smiling happily.
They ate together, Vikka quiet and smiling while Jack talked excitedly about some of the trips he'd made and some of the items he'd found that were dear to him. She was amazed by how much he'd managed to get here all by himself. She was also amazed by how calm she felt about it all. She half expected to feel angry that Jack had been spending time breaking regulations and intentionally going off comm. She also thought she would dislike the little house she expected to be upset by the less than pristine accommodations. The floor was clean, but leaves had drifted in from the lakeside. There was dust on some of the shelves, and the old books looked worn the place was the polar opposite of her clean and pristine tower home.
But somehow, Vikka loved it all. Every part of the house had been touched by Jack. It was filled with the things that he loved, and because of that, Vikka loved it. The room itself smelled like warm earth (a smell she'd grown to love) along with the fresh smell of the lake itself. It was like the culmination of everything Vikka's little yellow flower represented.
Jack was telling a story about how he'd found one of his favorite books in what had once been a book store, when he suddenly stopped. "What?" he asked, confused.
Vikka shook her head, realizing she must be getting obviously emotional. "Nothing. I just love you, that's all."
Jack smiled at her. He put his book down and simply gazed at her. "You're beautiful, Vikka." His smile brightened, as if he'd gotten a great idea. Then he took one of the daisies from his vase. He dried the stem, reached forward and placed it behind Vikka's ear.
Vikka felt tears come to her eyes, and she put her hands to her mouth and tried not to burst out in sobs. Jack looked alarmed, but she shook her head. "It's okay, it's okay," she said. "I'm just... happy, that's all."
Jack smiled again and came around the table. He took her in his arms and held her close. "Come on," he whispered after a moment. "Let's go for a swim."
Jack reluctantly pulled on his t-shirt and put his jacket on over it. Vikka shifted and sighed, slowly opening her eyes. She smiled when she saw Jack, then sat up quickly. "How long have we been asleep?"
"A few hours," Jack said.
"Oh my..." She looked around, putting a hand to her head. "How could we have slept so long? It'll be sundown soon!"
"We have some time," Jack said, zipping his jacket. "Don't worry, I'll take care of 117 and we'll be home before you know it."
Vikka didn't seem very convinced. She rushed to get dressed, and was fully clothed and coiffed by the time Jack shut off the lights inside the cabin. He was pleased to notice that she'd put the flower back in her hair.
They made their way back to the ship, and Jack powered her up. He sighed. "I'm going to miss this place."
Vikka nodded. "It is beautiful. Maybe... maybe we can visit again?"
Jack nodded. "I'd love that." He lifted off and few back out of the valley, then re-opened the beacon coordinates for drone 117.
Jack flew at a decent pace, since the day was nearly gone, but he went slower than usual, and flew low to the ground, so that Vikka could see more of the landscape. She pressed her hands to the side door, looking around, taking as much in as she could. "Amazing, isn't it?" he said softly.
"Mmm. I can't believe how different everything looks. The bubbleship cam doesn't come close. Tet vision, either."
Jack murmured his agreement. The few clips of Tet camera activity Vikka had shown him were scratchy and hardly worth anything except getting a very basic idea of what was down there. He was pleased that he'd been able to show here what the world really looked like outside the tower.
Before long, they neared the beacon coordinates, and Jack began to look for evidence of the downed drone. He frowned as he got closer to the signal, but saw no sign of the drone. There were no burn marks on the grass, no skids nothing disturbing the landscape. "This is weird," he said.
"What is it?"
"I don't see any sign of him."
Vikka looked around as well, and Jack made a pass lower down, sweeping the general area again. "I don't see anything either," Vikka said. "This is definitely the place?"
"Yup. Maybe it's below ground or something. Hold on, I'm going to set us down."
She clutched the straps again, and Jack landed the craft in a broad, shallow valley, surrounded by hills and mounds created by old buildings. A couple of the hills had dark openings that looked like they could lead to deeper caverns.
Jack scanned the area carefully, but saw no sign of Scav activity. Still, he was concerned that the drone was not out in the open. Going into a dark hole hardly an hour before sundown was not his idea of a good time, and he certainly couldn't take Vikka with him. He didn't want to worry her, so he smiled and unbuckled his straps. "What to stretch your legs while I scan for 117?"
The two of them stepped out, and Jack pulled out his rifle. He turned on the scanner sight, and moved it in a slow sweep across the valley. He heard Vikka moving around in her too-big shoes, eventually coming over to his side of the ship. Jack heard a blip on the scanner, and focused on the largest of the caverns. "There you are," he whispered.
"Mmhmm, down in that cave."
Vikka drew slightly closer to him. "You've got to go down in there so close to sundown?"
Jack kissed her and smiled. "It's no big deal, Vikka," he lied. "I'll be in and out of there in no time."
She smiled, and at the same moment, Jack heard the tell-tale sound of a drone engine. Vikka looked up sharply, worried at first, but the next second, looking relieved. "Look, a drone's coming."
"Nice timing," he said. He didn't want to worry Vikka, but he definitely hadn't relished the idea of going down into the cavern without backup. Drone 129's patrol sweep couldn't have come at a better time. Jack lowered his rifle, and watched drone 129 start its swift descent, the presence of movement in the valley (from Jack and Vikka) triggering a more detailed scan than the usual fly-over.
"They are fast, aren't they?" Vikka said, voice filled with awe.
Drone 129 dropped down a few feet in front of Jack and Vikka, guns at the ready. Vikka edged closer to Jack, but he smiled at her. "It's okay. She knows us." The drone pointed its guns at Jack. He made sure the rifle was out of sight, and said, "Jack Harper, Tech 97."
The drone made the "all clear" sound and turned to Vikka. She gasped and clutched Jack's arm, but announced herself. "V-victoria Olsen, Tower Control 97."
The drone processed the information, then made an entirely different sound a deep note. Then the guns pointed down at Vikka. Jack gasped and Vikka stepped back, terrified. "Jack?"
Jack yanked Vikka behind him, not willing to wait for her to try identifying herself again. The machine tried to scan them, but must have got a double-reading, because the sounds it made were indecisive. "Stay behind me," he said, raising his rifle.
"Jack, no, don't-"
"SHH!" But the drone had already heard her, and it powered its guns. Jack fired first, a quick blast. He felt Vikka clutch the waist of his pants tightly in trembling hands, but she didn't make a sound.
The drone started to scan him again. "Jack Harper, Tech 97," Jack snapped. His heart pounded, and he clutched the rifle tightly, ready to fire another blast if necessary. The scan completed, and the drone paused for a horrifying second. Then it bleeped acceptance and backed away. It scanned the nearest cavern, then rose back to standard patrol elevation and sped out of the valley.
Jack heaved a sigh of relief, bending forward, resting trembling hands on his knees and trying not to heave. "Oh my God," Vikka whispered, her voice sounding unsteady. "My God, Jack, what happened? Why, why did it-"
Jack stood up quickly at the sound of the rising panic in Vikka's voice. He took one look at her sheet-white face, her wide, wild blue eyes, and he instantly regretted bringing her down. He slung his rifle onto his back and pulled her close, holding her tight. "I don't know, honey," he said. "It's got to be some kind of malfunction. That's the only explanation."
"How c-could it not... recognize me?" She shuddered, clutching his jacket.
"It's just a crazy glitch," he said. "Sometimes they don't know me right away, either, and I have to say my name twice. That's probably all it was. I just didn't want to risk her not knowing you a second time. But it's just a glitch, Vikka, it's okay now."
He felt her nod, and he squeezed her once more. "C'mon. I'm going to move the plane closer to the cave where I saw 117's beacon."
Vikka brushed tears from her eyes, got into the ship, and strapped in again. She was already starting to calm down, and Jack felt his own nerves start to settle again. He touched her arm and she smiled at him. "I'm okay."
Jack nodded, then lifted off and moved the ship to about thirty yards from the mouth of the cavern. "Okay, Vikka," he said, voice serious. "I'm going to get started, but I want you to stay inside the ship."
"Okay," she said with a nod.
"See this button here?" He pointed to an overhead switch. "This is space mode, okay? If anything happens, throw the switch and it will seal you in. You should be safe already, but space mode is added protection, okay?"
"Okay, Jack," she said, looking at the switch. "But... what if a drone comes?"
"Hit the switch and stay still inside," he said. "I'm sure that was just a glitch with 129, but don't take any chances. Drones should ignore the ship as long as you don't start dancing around and yelling at it." He smiled, and she laughed.
"Just hurry back," she said.
"I will. I'll have 117 back on his feet in no time." Vikka laughed again and shook her head.
Jack got out of the ship and waited a moment, keeping her in sight until the door closed. Then he headed to the back of the ship and pulled out his kit. He wasn't sure how far the drone had gotten inside the cavern, so he didn't plan to carry the kit the whole time, but he decided to save a little time and put his supplies right near the entrance of the cave. He pulled out a fuel cell, a replacement aft-engine unit and an extra forward voice identifier module, and crowded them all into the kit. He kept his handgun in one hand while he made his way to the cavern entrance.
When he reached the cave, he glanced back at Vikka and gave her a little wave. He set the case down, switched to his rifle, and slowly moved inside, focusing on the sounds around him, and trying not to let himself be distracted by the fact that Vikka was out there, fairly unprotected, less than an hour before sundown. Maybe he should have shown her how to use the bubbleship lasers just in case. But the drone had already scanned the cave and found nothing. There was no reason to worry.
Jack followed the sound of the drone's distress trill, keeping his rifle at the ready and his light on as he walked. The cavern was not a true "cave". It was a sunken building one of many that had settled and been covered over with earth after the war. Jack carefully tested the dusty, marbled floor of the building as he walked, wondering what it had been before it had been destroyed by the quakes.
Slowly, the sound of the drone grew louder, and he knew he was close. It hadn't come too far, but the walk had taken several minutes due to the careful way he'd had to pick his way through the debris. Finally, Jack saw the large, round shape of the drone the white shielding shining in the light from his rifle scope. He was too far away to tell what repairs the drone needed yet, so he continued to advance toward it, even though he didn't like the surroundings in this particular area. There were several old shelves and cabinets nearby that could hide potential danger. But Jack scanned them slowly, encouraged when he noticed that all the dust seemed to be undisturbed, except where the drone lay, and a few tracks leading far down one hall.
Still cautious, Jack continued to move slowly toward the drone, his eyes darting from side to side, wishing he could penetrate all of the shadows in the room. Still, there was absolutely no sound beyond the sound of his own breathing and his soft footsteps, so he felt relatively safe. He reached the drone and did a quick evaluation. The front panel was open, fuel cell missing as always. He could see no other damage on the front of the drone. He kept his scope up and moved around to the other side. He saw the point where the drone had been downed its weakest spot, the rear engine.
Jack took one step back toward the cavern entrance, and heard a sudden rustling sound to his left. He swung his gun toward the sound. Less than a second later, he felt a sudden, harsh blow to the right side of his head.
Jack staggered to his knees with the force of the blow. Dazed as he was, he struggled to stay conscious. Vikka. He had to protect Vikka! He could hear the awful, squealing sounds of the Scavs, and he could see them scurrying and shifting around him, seeming to come from every side. Their fiery eyes flashed all around him now, even though there had been no sign of them just moments before.
Jack tried to aim his rifle, but he was knocked back by another blow, and the rifle was yanked forcefully from his hands. Jack didn't bother to go for his handgun. He reached for his wristband control, prepared to initiate the bubbleship's auto return function. He heard the Scavs' strange speech, loud and sharp, and one of them grabbed his left arm and jerked it up quickly. Jack reached for it, but another alien grabbed his right arm and pulled the other way.
No! How could they have known? Jack struggled, but he was too dazed and uncoordinated to be effective. One of the Scavs crouched over him and Jack felt its scratchy claws at his throat, yanking on the collar of his jacket. Jack kicked up as hard as he could, shoving the Scav off him, only to have it replaced by several more. Hands gripped his legs, keeping him immobile. They swarmed around him, countless Scavs grasping and pulling at him. The blows to his head made their raucous voices and bulging, glowing eyes seem all the more terrifying, and Jack found himself struggling against tears, even as he continued to struggle against his attackers. He didn't want to die this way ripped to pieces, gutted and stripped of useful material and left to die in the ruins. God, and why had he brought Vikka down here? Now she would suffer the same fate!
Jack struggled wildly, spurred by the thought of Vikka how terrified she would be if the Scavs got to her. A moment later, he felt another heavy blow to his head, and his vision went dark.
Vikka looked around at the barren valley the rich earth looking warm and vibrant compared to the clean and sterile Sky Tower. She had nothing against clean and sterile that was usually how she preferred things. But the smell of the air, and the sprigs of grass she could see here and there, reminded her of her yellow flower and of the lake house. It wasn't the same smell that was in the air at the lake no clean, bright smell of water, mingled with earth. It was just earth, warm and rugged. But this smell reminded her even more strongly of Jack. He usually smelled of earth (and a bit of muck and grime) when he got home. Normally, she wasn't even aware of it, because she insisted he go straight to the shower before setting foot in her clean living room. But in the last week or so, Vikka had been going out to meet him and give him his kiss immediately, rather than bustling him off to the shower first thing.
She smiled, remembering how pleased he'd been when she first came out to give him a hug pre-shower. He'd had a rough day, slid down a deep slope looking for a drone, and had to climb most of the way out on his own because the angle of the slope was too steep for the bubbleship to land. He'd been covered head to toe with dirt and sweat, and he'd been thoroughly frustrated. Normally, Vikka would have left him to clean up and cool down on his own. That evening, though, something had inspired her to go out onto the platform and embrace him. He'd been surprised, almost nervous, at first as if he might get into trouble for mussing her dress. But she'd kissed him, and he'd relaxed immediately, held her close, and kissed her, long and tender.
"Hmm, Tori must be having an effect on you," he'd murmured, smiling and referring to her flower by the name he'd given it. She could never understand why he felt compelled to name certain things, nor why he called the drones "he" and "she" depending on their "behavior". But (in the case of the little flower, especially), she thought the habit was cute.
Vikka sighed, wondering how far into the cavern the drone had got to. Jack still hadn't come back for the parts, and she wanted to talk to him for a bit before he went back down. It was nice to be out here with him, despite her earlier fears and the fiasco with drone 129, but she had no comm-link while she was out of the tower. Normally, they talked to each other for several hours out of the day, but now she couldnt even check in for a quick status update.
Several more minutes passed, and Vikka began to wonder if she should try to go in and check on Jack. She was nervous about leaving the security of the ship, but she was lonely and she was starting to get worried. The sun was starting to set.
She was on the verge of throwing caution to the wind and heading in after Jack when she saw movement near the mouth of the cave. She smiled, but her relief was almost immediately replaced with horror. The flash of gray she'd seen at the mouth of the cavern resolved itself into Jack's armored jacket, but he wasn't wearing it. It was being carried by a Scav.
Vikka froze her body rigid, fists clenched tight, eyes wide, staring at the creatures exiting the cave. There were five of them altogether oddly all walking upright, all moving quickly toward the ship. The one in front had Jack's coat in one hand, and his rifle in the other. He was flanked by two more Scavs, holding huge black rifles. They scanned the skies, large, fiery red eyes winking up at the twilight sky. She could see two more Scavs, bright eyes and antenna winking and shifting behind the first set. They seemed to be dragging something with them, but Vikka couldn't see what it was.
Seconds later, her attention was drawn away from whatever it was they were dragging. The rifle-Scavs stopped scanning the skies and pointed their guns at Vikka. She gasped, suddenly jolted out of her frozen panic, and quickly flipped the space mode switch as Jack had told her to do. She heard the hiss of air being compressed, and the ship doors beeped. Suddenly, she couldn't hear the ambient sounds from outside the rustle of wind, the footfalls of the aliens, nothing. All she could hear was her own quick, ragged breathing.
The Scavs were undaunted. They came on, moving fast and sure, pointing their guns at her. Vikka looked at the ship controls, frantically searching for some kind of instruction. She knew she couldn't hope to fly the ship, but it had guns. She could survive if she could only figure out how to use them.
She glanced at the overhead controls, but they were all for engine functions, except the red communication switch. She checked the center controller that Jack had used to steer and swivel the inner cabin, and she felt a plastic cap on the front end. She pulled at it, and the sight guide appeared on the bubbleship viewer. She still heard no sound, but the ship vibrated slightly, and the Scavs stopped moving. Vikka moved the center controller, and the sight adjusted, focusing on the first of the Scavs the one holding Jack's things.
The first Scav glanced at the others, and the ones holding the large rifles stepped aside, giving her a clear view of the last two Scavs, and what they were dragging between them. "Jack!" Vikka bit back a strangled cry. Even if the sound could have travelled between them, Jack couldn't have heard her. The Scavs each held one of his arms, and they dragged him forward. His head was down, and his legs trailed limp behind him. He was either unconscious or dead, and Vikka felt tears coming to her eyes at the very thought that they might have killed him.
The first Scav gestured, and one of the others gripped Jack's hair and pulled his head up so Vikka could see. She shuddered, and the tears came quickly then. The right side of his face was covered with blood, and his skin was sickly pale where she could see it through the blood and dirt. The second rifleman pointed his gun at Jack, shoving the barrel against his head.
The first Scav gestured with Jack's rifle, motioning for her to move away, or put her hands up, she wasn't sure. She edged away from the controls, and raised her hands, her chest heaving. She knew they could be bluffing maybe Jack was already dead. He was pale enough! But what if he was alive? Vikka couldn't take the chance.
The leader Scav came closer to the ship, and the others followed him, dragging Jack with them. They had one rifle pointed at Jack's head, and the other pointed at Vikka. She felt herself starting to shake. She felt an overwhelming sense of dread and helplessness, knowing that as soon as they got Jack close to the ship, the door would automatically open.
By the time they got within a few feet of the ship, Vikka was trembling visibly, and tears were streaming down her face. But when they dragged Jack closer still, the doors didn't open. The Scavs seemed confused by this, and the leader pushed a button on Jack's wrist controls. The consol beeped, and a red warning light flashed on the viewer: "SPACE MODE ENGAGED".
The Scavs stared at the ship, then pressed the band again. The same warning appeared, and this time the lead Scav looked at the screen from as close to Vikka's vantage point as he could. He banged on the door and pointed up at the overhead controls. Vikka shook her head, now in a full-blown panic. The Scav banged again and pointed up, but Vikka was beyond understanding. She was breathing rapid and shallow, terrified whimpers rasping out with each sharp breath.
It wasn't until they showed her Jack again, shoved hard against the door of the bubbleship, that she was able to process anything through the frenzied haze of panic. She saw his neck move a swallow, or some other involuntary movement. Alive! Then, they put the rifle to his head again.
The leader pointed up again, and Vikka looked up at the controls. She flipped the switch to take the ship out of space mode, and there was another hissing sound as the seals loosened. The Scavs pulled Jack away, and Vikka's door opened. Vikka instinctively backed away, but the Scav leader gripped her arm. She screamed, and before they could pull her out of the ship, she fainted.
Light. His eyes were closed, but he could see it behind his closed lids, pounding into his skull. His forehead hurt. His arms hurt. In fact, there wasn't much on his body that didn't hurt. Why? Had he fallen? What...?
Suddenly, Jack remembered. The cavern. The trap. Vikka! Jack struggled to open his eyes, still feeling groggy and disoriented. When he finally managed to get his eyes open, he still couldn't see anything. The light in the room was horribly bright, and he squinted, trying to force his eyes to adjust faster.
He shifted, and heard the clink of metal against metal. He moved his arms again, and felt a chill when he realized that his hands were chained behind him. He strained against the bonds to no avail. Soon, as the fog cleared, he became aware that he was seated, and his ankles were chained, too, bent back and attached to the legs of a heavy chair. The bonds were strong and sturdy, and he realized in a matter of seconds that there was no way he could get out of them.
Jack's limbs went slack immediately, once he made this realization. He focused on breathing and evaluating his surroundings. As his eyes began to adjust to the light, he could see that he was in a large room what might once have been a decent-sized conference room in a pre-war hotel. The light, which had seemed painfully bright when he'd first opened his eyes, had come from several strong lamps dotted around the room, illuminating the large hall. One of the lamps was pointed directly at Jack. It was a little behind and to one side of him, so he could still see around him, but the lamp acted as a spotlight, bathing Jack in bright light while the rest of the room was relatively dim.
Jack sat in the heavy chair, which actually seemed to be bolted to the floor in the center of the room. There was an empty chair across from him, only a few feet away, within the bright circle created by the spotlight. In the shadowy areas outside that circle, Jack could see several figures standing in a large group maybe thirty or forty shapes. They stood upright, which didn't make sense according to Mission data, and they were apparently staring directly at him. Jack couldn't see any glowing eyes, and he didn't hear the Scavs' strange "language", but he knew they were there stony, silent, perhaps hooded so he couldn't see the angry red-orange orbs they called eyes. The light was the only thing that seemed to delineate this make-shift stage. He was not on a platform, or in a depression in the floor (though he did feel, seated as he was, that he was at the bottom of a hole with dozens of Scavs staring down at him). But the Scavs stayed outside the bright circle as if it were an unspoken barrier to them.
Jack took a slow, deep breath, trying keep the panic he could feel rising in him at bay. He felt extremely vulnerable, sitting alone in the middle of the room. His armored jacket was gone, and with nothing but a black t-shirt between the enemy and most of his vital organs, the feeling of helplessness was overwhelming.
He had questions. Why was he here? Why was he even alive? Where was Vikka? But he didn't want to show any weakness by shouting out desperate questions to the anonymous crowd. Soon enough, he knew, someone would come and he would find out his answers. Or maybe he would be tortured, here in the middle of the room, in front of an audience. Maybe they would try to get information. Or maybe they wouldn't ask anything at all. Maybe they would just torture him until he died maybe that was a Scav's idea of entertainment.
Jack took another breath, trying to force his mind away from those thoughts. He waited, staring back at the shadowy crowd with an expression as impassive as he could manage.
Some time later, the crowd began to move shadows shifting, as a single shape made its way to the center of the room. Jack steeled himself, gritting his teeth and watching the creature approach. It walked on two legs like the others, and stepped boldly into the circle of light cast by Jack's spotlight.
Jack gasped, and he felt his jaw drop. Human! It was a man, about Jack's age or a few years older, with short blond hair and ice-blue eyes. His features were rugged sharp jaw, thin lips, and a slightly squared chin. He was dressed completely in a deep, warm brown, with green and brown feathers decorating his shoulders and his boots. The clothes looked armored, but he carried no weapon.
The man nodded at Jack and gave him a brief smile, as if they were just acquaintances meeting up for coffee. He sat in the chair across from Jack, comfortable and confident. "Good evening, Jack," the man said. He had an English accent, expressed through a rich, resonant tenor that might have had the potential to be comforting, except for the fact that Jack was chained to a chair, unarmed, helpless and confused. "My name is Michael," the other man continued. "I apologize for the way you've been treated so far, but we hope to atone for that eventually."
Jack frowned, and he glanced quickly at the shadows before looking at Michael again. "You're human." Michael nodded, a slight smile on his face. "Wh... what are you doing down here? Why haven't you gone to Titan?"
Michael shook his head. "That's what we brought you here to tell you, Jack. There-"
"What?" Jack snapped. "You brought..." He shook his head. "I was attacked by Scavs. You... are you saying you work for them? Is that why you haven't gone? Because they captured you and forced you to work for them?"
"No, Jack," Michael answered, sadness in his eyes. "But I think it's interesting that you mentioned the possibility, since that's exactly what's happened to you."
Jack stared at the man, stunned. He blinked and shook his head slightly, trying to understand what had just been said. "What?"
"Let me ask you something, Jack. Do you have strange dreams?" Jack frowned again. "Realistic ones? About pre-war New York? A dark-haired woman?"
Jack gasped and stared at the blond man, eyes wide, heart pounding. "H-how... what is this? Who are you?!"
"The question is, who are you, Jack," he answered calmly. "I want to help you understand that. I want to help free you as many of you as I can."
"Free us?" he whispered, feeling weak, almost light-headed. "As many..." What could he mean? Jack and Vikka were the only people left. At least, they were supposed to be.
"Yes, Jack. I'm going to tell you the truth, so that you can free yourself from the Tet."
Jack shut his eyes, shaking his head, suddenly overwhelmed. "I... you're... you're crazy," he said. He tried to fold his arms over his chest, but then remembered that he was chained to the chair. He struggled fiercely, suddenly absolutely desperate to get away. "Let me go." Michael shook his head. "Let me go!" Michael just looked at him, eyes sad. Jack strained and bucked against the chains, even though he knew it was useless. "Untie me, damn you," he hissed. "You want to free me, but you keep me chained to a chair in the middle of this..."
"I know, Jack, and I'm sorry," he said. "But I have the safety of this tribe to consider. You aren't convinced yet, and if I let you go now, you might hurt someone."
"I want you to hear me out, Jack," Michael said. "I know that the circumstances are less than ideal, but you don't have much time. Our records show your assignment will be over in less than two weeks."
"Your rec... you've been watching me all this time?"
"Yes, Jack. We've seen you grow to love Earth what she was, and what she is just as much as we do. This is our home, Jack. You have the right to know what happened here." Jack gritted his teeth and kept quiet, glaring at his captor. Michael's face remained friendly and open, his tone calm. "Hear me out, Jack," he said. "Please. Hear me out, and I'll give you my word I will let you go." Michael looked questioningly at him, as if to say, "Is that a deal?" as if Jack wasn't tied to a chair, being forced to listen.
Jack decided to play along. He sat up as comfortably as he could and pretended he had a choice. "Is Vikka okay?"
"Yes," Michael said immediately. "She's safe, and she wasn't harmed."
Jack nodded. He considered demanding to see her, but he was fairly certain that the man would say no. He didn't want to delay things anymore than he had to. The sooner he let this lunatic get his story out, the sooner he and Vikka could get back home. "Okay," he said at last. "I'll listen."
Michael nodded and began to speak. Jack expected an outrageous story, but what Michael told him was far wilder than he'd imagined. A captured spacecraft, an army of clones, the "Scavs" all humans in disguise, the Tet an advanced, destructive computer, not a man-made space station. Then he told Jack about the appearance of the drones and the hydro-rigs machines that were designed to power the Tet itself, not the Titan colony. There was no Titan colony, and no humans on the Tet. None, at least, except the clones that maintained the Tet's drones. And there were several pairs of those, apparently. The radiation zones were just ploys to keep them from discovering each other. It was nothing short of ridiculous!
"It took us a while to find the pattern," Michael said. "But through the years, we discovered that there was a changing of the guard at each tower every five years. We began to listen to communications between the tech and the tower control, and we could determine around how long they'd been here based on how they talked about the ‘mission'. Then, in the last few decades, we started to notice that the techs were starting to behave differently. Taking an interest in books. Nature. Getting nostalgic about the past. That's when I decided it was cruel to let them stay deluded. I wanted to help get you out set you free from your misguided devotion to ‘Mission Control'. From your slavery to the Tet."
Jack stared at the man, jaw set, eyes wide. Insane. Parts of the story were almost convincing. The disguises were real one of the others had brought Michael's helmet to show him. But Jack could hardly be expected to believe that the Tet was really some alien machine bent on their destruction. Vikka talked to Sally every day! There was an explanation for that too that the original mission control operator had been a woman named Sally, but that she was long dead her image now used by the Tet as part of the ruse. But Jack balked against it all. He shook his head slightly. "That's..."
"I know what you're thinking," Michael said. "I'm crazy. Maybe I just didn't want to evacuate, and I concocted this elaborate story to convince others to stay here with me."
Jack was surprised. "Wow... I hadn't thought of that, but it's an excellent theory."
Michael laughed. "You always have a great sense of humor. I like that about you." Jack frowned at Michael's choice of words. Michael grew serious, and he leaned forward in his chair. "Listen. I know this is a lot to take in, Jack. But-"
"There's nothing to take in," Jack snapped. "This is ridiculous! Impossible!"
"It's absolutely possible. And I have empirical proof."
"What proof could you have? It's not like we can all troop up to the Tet and see the colony together. Or not see it."
Michael gave him the barest hint of a smile, then glanced back to where the shadowy figures still stood. "Commander Harper. Come here, please."
The shadowy figures shifted again, and Jack let out a nervous chuckle as three of them moved forward from the crowd. This supposed clone needed two men to guard him? It's all bullshit. Despite himself, Jack felt his body tensing. His fists clenched so tightly behind him that he could feel his fingernails digging hard into his palms.
Moments later, the three men stepped into the light. Jack gasped sharply, eyes widening, and pressed himself back hard against the chair. Three men stood before him, all the same height, each with the exact same face. Jack's face.
There were differences, but they were completely superficial. The right-most man had collar-length hair and appeared to be older than the other two. The one in the center had short hair, cut like Jack's own, and was about Jack's age. The one on the left had let his hair grow very long. It hung over one shoulder, down to the center of his chest, in a long braid that had been tied at the end with a leather strap. He was older than Jack, but not as old as the right-most clone.
Jack's chest heaved, and his hands shook so hard that he could hear the rattle of the chains that still bound him. Three identical pairs of hazel eyes looked down at him with matching expressions of sympathy. The oldest of the three took a slow step forward. "I'm sorry, Jack," he said, speaking with Jack's own voice. "I know how difficult this must be for you."
Jack's mouth worked, but no sound came out. He looked at the three of them willing them to disappear. Change shape. Anything to make it so that the last five years of his life the only five years he remembered had not been a lie.
"Why don't you introduce yourselves, gentlemen," Michael said. "The names you were... born with."
The oldest one glanced at the blond man for a second, then nodded. "I'm Jack Harper, Tech 92," he said.
The one in the center, who looked most like Jack, said, "I'm Jack Harper, Tech 92."
Jack frowned at that. Then the last one, with the braid over his shoulder, said, "I'm Jack Harper, Tech 97."
Jack's body jerked back as if he'd been shoved, and this time he couldn't keep the startled shout from breaking forth. He shook his head, and the long-haired man nodded. "No," Jack breathed.
"Yes, Jack," the man said. "I was freed almost five years ago. When I disappeared, you were sent in my place." He turned to the short-haired Jack in the middle.
"I've been aware for six months," the young Tech 92 said. "The one before me didn't make it. He went back, and a month later, I was sent down."
"I was the first success," the oldest of them said. "I've been free for eleven years."
Jack felt his heart pounding his head swam, and he struggled to suck in heaving breaths. "Vikka," he said, voice shaking. He turned away from the clones and looked at Michael. "I want to see Vikka."
Michael nodded and look back at the group of shadows. "Lieutenant Ols-"
"NO!" Jack cried, a panicked shout. Michael turned back, surprised, and Jack shook his head vigorously. "N-not a... I... my Vikka," he said, his voice cracking. "Please."
Michael nodded, and the clones unhooked him from the chair, though they left his wrists bound together. Two of them helped him to stand, and he shrank away from them, disturbed by their touch as if feeling them as well has having seen and heard them, made them all the more real. He looked at Michael again. "Did you tell her?" he asked. "Did... did you tie her up and make her listen to this... this..." He felt rage growing inside him at the thought, so strong he could barely speak.
"No, Jack," Michael said. "We've found that we have more success when she hears it from you."
Jack nodded, relieved. He took a deep breath, then turned toward the other Jack Harpers forced himself to look at them. To solidify the truth. They looked grimly back at him, each of them marked by the same terrible knowledge that now haunted Jack. He could only imagine what it was like living with this every day living among the people they had once feared and killed out of ignorance. Of course, he would soon know exactly how it felt.
Jack shuddered, and turned away from them. He looked back at Michael, straining his wrists against the heavy cuffs. "Untie me, Michael," he said calmly.
The leader shook his head. "Jack, I-"
"Untie me," he said, forceful, but still quiet. "I don't want her to see me like this. It would upset her."
"Jack," Michael said, his voice stern, while still managing to seem sympathetic. "I told you, I have the safety of this tribe to think about."
Jack gritted his teeth and walked slowly toward his captor. He sensed the other people moving around maybe sending up a soldier but Michael held up a hand and the movement stopped. The tribe's leader just stood his ground. Jack stopped about a foot from the leader and looked up at him.
"Michael. For five years... for as long as I can remember, I have dedicated every day of my life to a single goal protecting humanity. Now, whatever lies were told to me about where or who humanity was, that fact has not changed."
Without further words, he turned his back on the leader and waited. The other three Jacks were looking at him with open pride on their faces. A few seconds passed, then Jack heard Michael's voice. "Ivan."
The oldest Jack looked up, over Jack's shoulder, then smiled slightly and tossed a set of keys toward them. Michael caught them, and unhooked the cuffs from Jack's wrists. Jack turned back to face him and nodded. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, Jack." He smiled. "Come on, I'll take you to Vikka."
Vikka sat on a chair in the small, strange room, shivering slightly and trying not to cry. She'd awoken alone, lying on the old bed in a room that might have appealed to Jack the walls and the blanket were covered in what had once been bright flowers, but had since dulled with age. Aside from the bed, there was the dining chair Vikka was seated in, a small table beside it where a working lamp and glass pitcher of clear water had been left. There was a cup beside the pitcher, but there was nothing else in the room.
As a prison, she supposed the room was not awful. She wasn't tied up, there were no aliens standing over her with guns. But there were no windows, and that fact set her on edge at least as much as the fact that she was imprisoned at all. She lived in an environment that was seventy-five percent windows, and being fully closed in was unnerving at a core level.
Vikka tried to ignore the fact that she was closed into a room with no outlet at all, and tried to pretend that she wasn't petrified of what would happen to her, and of what might have already happened to Jack.
Jack. She couldn't rid her of mind of the image of him, unconscious, face covered in blood, being dragged along the ground behind the Scavs. She was furious with herself for having fainted. Now she had no idea where they were, where they'd taken Jack, or if Jack was even still alive. She couldn't tell how long they'd been prisoners, because there were no windows to the outside.
Vikka waited in the dingy room for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, she heard footsteps outside her door. She tensed, gripping the arms of her chair tightly. She stared at the door, listening to the sound of keys rattling, watching the handle move with a mounting sense of dread. Long before she was ready, the door opened. She stared toward it, breathing hard, struggling to control the urge to scream. The door opened, and she held her breath.
Suddenly, someone looked in, and Vikka's started. It wasn't a Scav it was a human. A few inches taller than Jack, the man had short blond hair, a rugged but clean-shaven face, and bright blue eyes. He smiled slightly at her, and nodded, just as if he had every business being on Earth in a Scav stronghold. He turned to someone still outside the room. "She's awake."
The door opened fully, and Jack stepped in. Vikka jumped to her feet and ran toward him. Jack came further in to meet her, pressing her close, crushing her to him. She clutched him just as hard, sobbing with relief. "Jack, Jack, thank God you're here!"
"Are you okay?" he asked.
She nodded. "They didn't hurt me. But..." She glanced toward the door, where the blond man waited. "Why are there humans down here? Where did the Scavs go?"
Jack looked down at her touched her face with his hands and smiled, but there were tears in his eyes. "I love you," he said.
Vikka clutched his hand. "What... what's wrong, Jack?" she asked. "What have they... have they hurt you?"
He shook his head. "I'm fine."
"No," she whispered, feeling her own eyes begin to tear up. The blood had been cleaned from Jack's face, and the cut above his eye had been treated with a clear dermal sealant, but Vikka knew something was terribly wrong. "You're not fine, you... you look..." She shook her head, and took his face in both her hands. "They... they've done something awful to you. Haven't they? I can see it in your eyes." Jack closed his eyes, and took a shaky breath. "Oh, Jack, what have they done to you?"
Jack shook his head, and looked down at her again. "Let's sit down, Vikka," he said, his voice sounding heavy. "I need to... tell you something."
With a glance at the silent blonde man, Vikka nodded and led him into the room and sat on the bed with him. Jack stared down at the faded flower blanket, apparently working up the nerve to tell her whatever he had to tell her. She had never seen him like this, and she grew more and more nervous the longer he hesitated. She tried to hide it tried to be patient but the atmosphere was so surreal, with the strange human nearby and no mention of the Scavs, and Jack behaving so strangely.
Finally, when she was practically wild with suspense, Jack looked up at her, and proceeded to tell her that everything she had ever believed and everything she lived for was a lie. Vikka felt sick. She tried to deny it to convince Jack that the tribe of humans had lied to him. But then the others had come in strangers with the same name and face as the man he loved. And then came more two women with her face. Different hair cuts, different ages one her age, and one about ten years older than she but everything else exactly the same.
The sight of them made her lightheaded, and she felt herself starting to panic. They must have upset Jack, too, because he hardly glanced at them before turning away and focusing on her face again. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't want it to be true, either."
"What... what are we supposed to do now?"
"Well... I assume we'd be allowed to stay here?"
Jack glanced back, and the blond man nodded. "That's right, you're welcome to stay with us."
Vikka was already shaking her head. "No. No, I... I want to go home."
"Vikka... it's dangerous up there."
"How?" she asked. "It's dangerous here, not home! We've never been in danger at the tower."
Jack frowned. "But... Vikka, the Tet is-"
"I want to go home, I can't... I can't take... I-" She shook her head, unable to articulate why she couldn't stay. She was overwhelmed, frightened by what she had learned, and simply unable to cope with the unfamiliar place and these strange people and the unnerving Tower Control operators who shared her face.
"I want to go," she said again, her voice shaking. "Please, Jack, please take me out of here! Take me home, please, please!"
Jack nodded and stroked her hair. "Okay," he said softly. "Okay." He turned back to the blond man and stood up. "Michael, can you take us back to our ship?"
The other man frowned, and the three men who looked like Jack seemed to disapprove. "Jack," Michael said. "Please reconsider. What do you suppose will happen to you if you try to go back to the tower?"
Jack glanced back at Vikka, and she looked at him with a silent plea. She had no idea what would happen to them, either, but she simply couldn't stay in this dark, closed-in place. Jack turned back to Michael. "You told me that if I heard you out, you would let me go," he said seriously. "I heard you out. Now let me go."
"You gave me your word, Michael."
Michael pursed his lips, but nodded. "Very well," he said. "We'll take you back but you should know, this is what happened to Tech 92-J. The one who came after Ivan," he said in response to Jack's questioning look. "They went back, they didn't believe or they wouldn't. And less than a month later, there was a new technician and a new Tower Control."
"It happened to my Vikka, too," the Jack with the long braid said. "They couldn't convince her, and she's gone."
Jack looked from Michael to the other clones, and she could see his body tensing. She was afraid he might relent. Then he said, "I understand. But I'm going to take Vikka home. She's upset. She's tired. She needs rest, and she can't get that here. We want to go back to our ship."
Michael nodded grimly. "Understood." He beckoned to them. "Come on."
Jack turned back and reached for Vikka. She took his hand, giving him a grateful smile. He gave her the tiniest smile, though his eyes were troubled. He turned to Michael and they followed him down dimly lit halls, and presumably toward home.
Jack swayed and rocked to the rhythm of the odd transport the underground dwellers used. Besides the sensation of the wind on his face, and the small, soft hand clutched tightly in his own, there were no other stimuli during the trip. Jack and Vikka had been blindfolded and hooded, with apologies from Michael. Jack accepted without argument. Michael was protecting his people, and Jack could understand that. Besides, he truly didn't mind the blindfold.
The last few hours had been devastating for them both, and while he wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea of living with dozens of strangers in an unknown place, he was fairly certain that returning to the Sky Tower was tantamount to suicide. But with Vikka on the verge of hysteria and no time to think, he didn't feel he could do anything else. Having the blindfold on was almost calming. It gave him "permission" to sit and allow his mind to go blank to cleanse himself of the wild, frenzied thoughts that came along with the facts Michael had presented to him.
He did just that. He focused on the touch of Vikka's hand in his own, and the feel of the fabric over his eyes, and avoided everything else. After some time, the transport stopped, and one of the humans pulled the blindfold off.
They were back in the valley the bubbleship a few yards away. Michael himself had come with the group to see them off. They had come in their helmets, which was frightening for Jack and Vikka, even though they knew it was just a disguise.
Michael pulled off his helmet, as two of the tribe helped Jack and Vikka off the transport. Michael looked down at them. "I hope you will reconsider. Don't go back to the Tet. If you need help, come back to this place and we'll find you."
Jack nodded. "Thank you," he said. "We... we just need some time."
"I'm asking for your word both of you that you will not report us to Mission Control."
"You have it," Jack said. "Vikka?"
She nodded. "I promise."
"Thank you," Michael said. "Be careful."
Jack nodded, and they walked slowly back to the ship. They got in, silently, and Jack checked to be sure Vikka had strapped in. He powered up the ship, took one last glance at the tribe of humans, then lifted off.
They went the entire way home in silence. Jack had hardly ever flown in the dark he'd done a couple of pre-dawn flights, but never this long before sunrise. It was still truly dark now, so he felt the need to concentrate on what he was doing. That, and he was still overwhelmed by what he had learned.
He landed on the pad at Tower 97 and shut down the ship. Neither he nor Vikka moved at all. Jack stared at their empty home, lit faintly by the glow of the coming dawn. He heard a soft sound from Vikka and turned toward her. She was staring that the house as well, weeping softly.
"Vikka," he whispered. She didn't respond didn't even turn his way. "Vikka, I'm sorry," he said.
She turned to him, eyes wide, her lower lip trembling slightly. "Why?"
"I shouldn't have taken you down there."
"I could have said no, Jack," she said softly.
"But if I hadn't taken you-"
Vikka put a hand on his lips, silencing him. "If you hadn't taken me down there, we never would have learned the truth. I wouldn't have known. I might have ended up like the Vikka with the older... Jack."
Jack nodded slowly, though he still felt horrible for causing her pain, no matter how indirectly he had done it. Of course, how much worse to go blithely to the arms of the Tet, only to be destroyed and replaced by another pair of unwitting victims? His vision blurred as tears began to form, and Jack tried hard to keep them at bay.
"Jack," Vikka said, softly and tenderly. He pulled his focus back to her face, away from the internal turmoil that raged within. "If you hadn't taken me down, I never would have seen the lake house." Jack smiled at her, feeling the beginning of peace at the mention of his lake. She leaned forward and kissed him. Jack let his eyes drift shut, ignoring the warm tears that rolled down his cheek, thinking of nothing but Vikkas mouth on his. When their lips parted, Vikka smiled at him, her large blue eyes full of affection and warmth. "It was worth it."
Vikka and Jack sat still, neither of them crying anymore, but neither willing to get out of the bubbleship just yet. Dawn crept up over the horizon, and Vikka watched it light their home. She felt a sourness in her stomach as she realized that it wasn't really home. It was prison. A beautiful, crystal cage where they had spent years helping aliens oppress mankind. She looked at it with disgust bordering on hatred it was a place she had loved with all her heart the place where her love for Jack had blossomed, and where they had spent so many happy hours. And all the time, they had been pawns disposable units, easily replaced with a second set when the time came.
Vikka's gaze passed over her little yellow flower Tori. The tiny flower made her smile, despite everything. They had art. They had a place to play. They had each other. But the Tet could not give them what Jack had brought to their home. The tiny piece of their planet their true home stood like a beacon on top of the counter; a reminder that they could not be kept forever as the obedient drones of the Tet.
"Come on, Jack," she said. "Tet will be online before long."
Jack sighed. "You didn't get much rest, did you?"
She shook her head, but smiled at him. "I got what I needed, though."
"What are we going to do?" he asked. He sounded lost and frightened a tone Vikka had never heard from him.
She turned to face him. "Jack." She waited for him to look at her, then smiled. "It will be okay. We'll check in, we'll get through the day, and we'll decide what to do tonight. Okay?" He nodded.
They left the ship at last, and Vikka led them inside. They showered, but Vikka finished well before Jack. She told him to stay in as long as he needed to, then she dried her hair, dressed and went up to the control tower.
Vikka felt a moment of apprehension when she stepped into the tower. The room looked exactly as it always did early in the morning. The monitor board was black, reflecting the room, and the guilty regulation-breaking tower control specialist.
She sat down, put on her earpiece, and tapped the screen to activate the board. Her controls lit up, and she let go a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. There were no warning bells, no unusual alerts. Just the usual drone status reports, hydro-rig statistics and regional map. The sight was familiar and regular, but it didn't evoke the same emotions that it used to.
Reviewing their regional stats, looking at the amount of energy produced by the rigs and locating potential problems for Jack to address used to fill her with pride. Her duties were vital she was an integral part of the survival of her very species, and even though she couldn't be with the rest of humanity, at least she knew that her work each day made their lives possible, and secured her place among them when the mission was over. Now, the extent of the charade was brought home to her, and she again felt the sting of knowing that all she had worked for during the last five years had been a vile distortion of the truth, designed to make her feel good about destroying her own planet and killing her own people.
Before she was ready, the Tet came online. She was suddenly nervous again, and fought to get the disgusted look off of her face. A second later, "Sally" came on the screen.
"Tower 97, this is Mission Control, how y'all doin' this lovely morning?"
"Another day in paradise, Sally," Vikka said, with fake cheer. "Tower 97 mission log day 1816. Uploading data now."
She sent through Jack's information on the drones who needed minor repairs. "We read you, Tower," the Tet said. "We'll task the drones to repair posts in Grid 13."
"I see drone 117 is still offline. Why didn't Jack fix it yesterday?"
Vikka froze, searching for an appropriate answer. "The... drone was in a deep cavern," she said. "Jack needed extra line to reach it, and... by the time he'd brought it back it would have been past sunset."
Sally blinked and stared blankly at Vikka for a moment. Vikka had always taken that look as a sign of disapproval, but now she realized that it was the computer attempting to process what she'd said something irregular had happened and it was adjusting itself to the input. "I didn't notice an evening report from you, Tower 97," she said at last.
Vikka felt herself tensing again, but she kept the smile on her face. "That's right, Sally, sorry about that," she said, as if it were a minor oversight. "Actually, Jack got himself a bit scraped up trying to reach drone 117. I had to get him to infirmary right away when he got here, and by the time I got him squared away, Tet had gone offline." Sally stared at her again, and Vikka let out a self-deprecating laugh. "Sorry, Sally, but you know how things slip your mind when you're worried about something. I'll try not to let it happen again."
Sally smiled suddenly. "Okay, Vikka, we copy. Is Jack well enough to make repairs today? Are you still an effective team?"
"We certainly are," she replied, biting back the urge to ask if they would be replaced if Jack wasn't able to go out and work on the drones.
"Glad to hear that, Vikka. Your directive today is to complete minor repairs on drones 184, 137 and 146, and get drone 117 back online."
"Copy, relaying to tech now."
"Y'all have a productive day, now," Sally said with a smile. Then the mission control monitor went dark and Vikka heaved a sigh of relief. She waited for a few moments, watching the monitor, making sure Sally didn't come back. Then she hurried out of the control room and went to find Jack.
She could still hear the water running, and she went to the shower to check on him. Vikka found him standing in the shower, leaning forward against one wall, with his head lowered onto his arm, apparently staring down at the floor of the shower. Vikka reached for him slowly. "Jack?"
Jack turned toward her, and far from looking despondent as his posture had suggested, he appeared calm and resolute. "Everything okay?" he asked quietly.
She nodded. "No major problems."
Jack smiled, but his eyes were still serious. "I knew you could handle her."
"Are you alright?"
Jack sighed and turned away long enough to shut off the now-cold water. He turned back to her, his jaw set tightly. "I have a plan," he said.
"A plan for resistance. But it could be dangerous. I'll tell you what it is, and if you don't want to-"
"Let's do it," she said. Jack looked surprised. "I trust you, Jack. Whatever it is, we'll do it together. We're a team."
Jack smiled, and this time it reached his eyes. "Okay," he said. "C'mon, meet me downstairs."
Jack stepped down into the workshop, where Vikka waited for him. He handed her one of his armored jackets, and dressed in the full armor himself. Then he went to the repair dock and started work on a new programming file. Vikka watched him work, keeping quiet while he dealt with the new directives. Eventually, she could see what he was doing, and she smiled and put a hand on his shoulder.
"If it works," he said with a wry smile.
Jack kept working, checking and re-checking the program files again and again. Accuracy was paramount literally a matter of life and death. When he was finally satisfied, he plugged in the program interface and uploaded the new files. He glanced at Vikka. "Stand back."
When Vikka had moved out of range of the guns, Jack pulled the interface plug, and the drone powered on. Vikka jumped, and Jack took a deep, slow breath. He looked at Vikka. "Maybe you should go upstairs and check in with Mission."
"What are you going to do?" she asked sharply.
He hesitated, but she gave him a, "spit it out" look. "I... I need to test it," he said.
She frowned. "And you want me out of the room in case it kills you??" Jack opened his mouth to answer, but she stopped him. "No, Jack, I'm not leaving. In fact, you should be testing it on me!"
"It's meant to recognize you, Jack. I don't think that was a glitch down there, when 186 almost shot at me. I think all the drones are designed to spare Jack Harper and no one else. It makes sense to try it on me."
"It's not happening."
"No!" he snapped. "Now, I don't give a damn how much sense it makes, I won't allow it, and that's final. They'll fire if I don't identify myself, so it's still a good test."
"Vikka, I swear, if you come anywhere near this thing I'll tie you to a chair and give you a tranquilizer shot that'll keep you out for a week, you copy?"
Vikka's face reddened, but she nodded and kept away, staying off to the side of the room out of the drone's line of sight. Jack nodded, satisfied, then moved to stand in front of the drone. He struggled past his natural fear of the machine, steeled himself, and yelled.
"Hey!" The drone's laser sight widened and it became alert. It rose slightly, though it was still plugged into the dock. Jack gritted his teeth and forced himself to stand still. The drone aimed its weapons at Jack and made the "new threat" sound. Jack stared at it, breathing hard, but standing his ground.
The drone scanned him, the bright light passing over his body, making him squint. Normally, Jack would be panicked at this point, gut tight, legs loose, voice sharp with fear as he announced himself a second time to the temperamental drone. Now, he felt almost the same. His knees felt weak, and he was terrified that the drone would fire. But he told himself that the drone could only do what it was programmed to do. It was incapable of independent thought. That was, after all, the most likely reason the Tet needed humans. It was highly advanced enough to think for itself and secure its own survival but it needed help that could also think for itself. A force to match the wit of the remaining human survivors and keep them at bay.
Jack glared, feeling anger begin to mingle with his basic fear of death. He stared at the drone, gritting his teeth, taking deep, heavy breaths. The drone bleeped as it took in his information. It paused, and he could hear Vikka starting to make nervous sounds. Jack continued to wait silently, staring the machine directly in its fire red eye.
A moment later, it bleeped acceptance, and retracted its guns. Jack let out a breath and bent down slowly, hoping not to collapse.
He glanced at Vikka, but his reassuring smile died immediately when he saw her rushing toward him. "Vikka!"
The drone activated again at the sound of their voices, and it trained its sights on Vikka. She froze. "Jack," she whispered.
"Just stay still," he said softly, trying to stay calm himself. "Stay still, it'll be okay."
The drone bleeped at Vikka, then scanned her. Her body began to shake when the light ray moved over her. Jack edged toward her, ready to pull her out of the way if the program didn't work. The drone paused long enough to evaluate Vikka's data, then bleeped again a high note. Clear.
While the drone settled back into the dock, Jack grabbed Vikka and held her tight. "Dammit," he hissed, kissing the top of her head. "You trying to kill me?"
She laughed, but clutched him tightly, still trembling. "You going to tie me down and tranquilize me?" she asked.
Jack laughed in turn. "I would, but I need you wide awake today." He held her back and looked down. "I need you in that tower. I have a lot of work to do today."
Jack powered off the drone, and Vikka stayed near, waiting for him. "Can you really do that to all of the drones? What did you do?"
"I programmed it to clear anything it recognized as human," he said. "I can make it work in the field, but it is risky. The Tet has ultimate control of their programming, so if she notices something has changed, she can change them back. I'm just sort of hoping she won't notice too soon. If I can get them all de-programmed, at least I can make it safer for them until we can figure out how to defeat her."
Vikka nodded and smiled. "Better get out there, Technician," she said, then headed back upstairs.
Jack went to the ship and performed his pre-flight checks as he had always done (though never this late in the morning). Vikka cleared him for take-off, and he dropped down and began his duties for the day.
It was strange flying over the desolate landscape with his new knowledge. He'd always felt a sense of loss when he looked at the ruins a sense that what was could have been so fantastic. But now, knowing that the people he had fought against were really the remnant of this vast, great planet, seeing the ruins brought up a deep, stomach-wrenching feeling of bitterness and regret, even though he knew that he couldnt be blamed for acting within the framework of what he had literally been brainwashed to believe. Seeing the hydro-rigs, busy churning up the sea, stealing the very lifeblood of his planet, infuriated him, where before he had always looked at them with pride. They had been the symbol of the good work he and Vikka were doing, keeping humanity alive.
It was with a sense of vindictive joy that Jack landed at the off-site rendezvous for planned repair, and saw the three drones at rest, waiting for him. There were no supplies at the site it was just one of three pre-arranged locations where Jack handled minor repairs. They could leave no docks or supplies there because they would be vulnerable to the "Scavs".
Jack got out of the ship, checking his earpiece. "Drones are at rest," he said, reporting his actions as usual. "Starting repairs on 184.
"Copy that," Vikka said.
Jack pulled out the tools he needed and made his way to 184. The drone had already been powered off on its own, from one of Sally's directives. Jack worked on the directional system first (the actual required repair), then loaded his new instructions. He left the drone in "rest" mode until he could finish up the other two. He debated whether or not he should actually fix the weapons on drone 133, but he was nervous about the Tet. What if it checked up on what Jack had done, and noticed the weapons were still offline? Of course, what if the Tet checked up on what he'd done and noticed that Jack had made this one useless for hunting down "Scavs"?
In the end, Jack decided to fix the weapons, since a physical malfunction would stand out more than an odd directive. He completed his task, then headed back to the ship. He made sure he was airborne and well away from the repair area before reporting to Vikka that the three drones had been repaired, and he was on his way back to 117's location.
Jack felt a twinge of nervousness when he touched down in the shallow valley. Even though he knew he had nothing to fear from the Scavs, he still felt edgy. The last time he'd been here, he had been attacked and kidnapped, and his world view had been irrevocably altered. Not his most pleasant experience.
Still, the Tet would know something was wrong if he just ignored the drone. He had to go down into the cavern.
Jack took the extra fuel cell and the audio unit he knew he needed, then added a second fuel cell to his kit. He walked slowly back to the mouth of the cavern, took a deep breath and stepped inside. He made the journey through the old building slowly. He kept his rifle sight on, but otherwise the weapon was powered down, low to his side useless except as an elevated flashlight. Knowing what he knew, he couldn't keep his rifle at the ready, but he still felt vulnerable and exposed. After years of living in fear of dark areas, it was almost unnatural to travel through without his weapon gripped tightly in both hands, ready for action.
Jack smiled at the sound of Vikka's voice through his earpiece familiar and comforting. "Copy, Tower."
"You all right down there?"
"So far, so good, Vikka," he said. "How are things at the tower? Any reaction from..." He didn't finish the question wasn't sure how much of their conversation through the control board might be heard by the Tet.
"Everything looks good," she answered. "No issues so far."
"Good, good. I see no sign of... Scav activity down here, but I'll keep you informed."
"Copy, Tech 97," she said. "Hang in there, all right?"
"Will do," he said. "You okay, Vikka?"
"I'm fine," she said, speaking so quickly that Jack almost didn't believe her. Still, he didn't mention it just continued to make his way through the maze of old rooms until he reached his target.
In a few minutes, Jack located the drone. He scanned the area with his rifle sight, noting the signs of his struggle the day before, but no new tracks he could identify. Of course, that didn't mean someone wasn't nearby. He hadn't seen any tracks the day before, either. Still, he just reminded himself that there was nothing to fear, and he approached the drone to begin his repairs.
He repaired the rear-side audio processor, then put in his replacement fuel cell. He shut the front cover, and pulled out the programming unit. He plugged the connector in, glancing over his shoulder as if the Tet could see him inside the cave. Of course, there was nothing there, and Jack turned back to his work. He caught a flash of movement from the corner of his eye.
Jack stood suddenly, grasping his rifle, but keeping it lowered. One of the Scavs one of the humans stood a few yards away, holding a rifle of his own, also lowered. He took off his helmet, and Jack was shocked to see that the leader himself had come. He looked at Jack, a slight frown on his face. Jack nodded. "Hello, Michael."
"Jack," Michael said. "I don't understand what you're doing. You're still working for it?"
Jack shook his head. "I'm working against it," he said. "Reprogramming them to clear all humans instead of just me."
Michael looked surprised, then impressed. "You're sure it will work?"
"It worked for me and Vikka," he answered. "I wouldn't want to put you in harm's way, but I'm confident that the programming works."
Michael nodded, and smiled at him. "Are you going to stay at the tower?"
"For now," Jack answered.
"What about when your time is up?"
"Not sure," Jack replied. "I haven't thought that far ahead yet." He shook his head. "There's got to be a way to take her down."
Michael came closer and took a seat near the drone. Jack sat down, as well. "Are you commed in?"
Jack touched his earpiece. "Vikka?"
"I hear you, Jack," she replied.
Jack nodded, and Michael made a kill gesture. "Vikka, I need to go off comm. for a second."
"Just for five minutes," he said.
She sighed. "Okay."
Jack took off the earpiece and set it inside his tool kit, where the interference from the extra fuel cell would block any sound. "Okay."
"It isn't that I don't want Vikka to hear," Michael said. "But I'm pretty sure the Tet can access what you say when you're on the comm with her, and I can't risk that."
"Of course," Jack said. "So, what is it? Is there a way to destroy her?"
"We think so," Michael replied. "We're in communication with a few groups via Morse code through low-tech radio waves that are low enough to escape notice. There's a group on North America's east coast that's onto something big. In our last communication, we learned that they were planning to send a signal that could bring down the Odyssey."
Jack recognized the name of the space craft that the original Jack Harper was supposed to have manned. "I thought it was captured," he said.
"The command module was captured. We realized later that most of the crew must still be free, since we only ever saw you and Vikka."
"Okay, but how could decades old astronauts help?" he asked. "Assuming they're even still alive."
Michael shook his head. "It's not the people, Jack. Those ships were powered by nuclear reactors. If they manage to get that reactor down, they could destroy it if they can convince a technician to program their drone to fly back to it."
"They have a working drone?"
Michael nodded. "A drone and nearly a dozen fuel cells. We've worked out how to turn the fuel cells into weapons and shared that with the other groups. But we haven't been able to get near one of the hydro-rigs to try and destroy one. Even at night, those drones are active."
Jack glanced down at his programming unit. "Maybe I can help with that." He loaded the new directives, then glanced at Michael. "Maybe you should stand away from it. Just in case."
Michael stood up, but didn't move away. "I trust you, Jack," he said. "Go ahead, turn it on."
Jack glanced at him, then shook his head. "I don't trust a program with the leader of your group not when it's only been tested on cl... clones," he said, practically choking on the word.
Michael looked at him. "You're a human being, Jack, just like the rest of us."
"Not exactly like the rest of you. Are we?" Michael frowned, but didn't answer. Jack handed the programmer to Michael, then pulled his rifle up. "Hang onto that, and when I give the word, pull the cord. Let it scan you, but if anything happens, I'm putting it down."
"Got it," Michael said.
Jack moved behind the drone, and held the rifle at the ready, aiming at the rear processor. "Okay, Michael, go ahead."
Jack kept his eyes on his target, and listened carefully for any and all sounds from the drone. He heard the sound of the program plug come out. The drone came to life and lifted off. Jack followed the rear processor with his rifle, and continued to listen to the sounds from the drone.
Jack gripped the rifle, breathing deep and slow.
The drone bleeped target clear. It lifted further into the air, turned and flew toward the exit, revealing the dark-clad figure of the tribal leader, his face brightened by a huge smile. "Jack, you're a genius!"
Jack chuckled. "I'm just a technician," he said. Michael shook his head and handed the programmer back to Jack. "I'm going to try to get to all of them over the next few days," Jack said. "But so far, 137, 184, 146 and 117 are safe."
Michael nodded. "Thank you, Jack. I'll let the others know."
Jack took the extra fuel cell from his kit. "Present for you," he said.
Michael smiled. "Thank you," he said again. "We'll stay in touch."
Michael put his helmet back on and disappeared into the shadows. Jack put his earpiece back in. "Vikka?"
"Jack, what happened? Everything okay?"
"Everything's fine," he said. "I'm coming back in for extra parts."
"Okay," she said after a pause. "I... I'll see you when you get back."
"Okay, Vikka. Won't be long."
Jack returned to the tower, and Vikka rushed out to greet him. "Hey," he said, smiling and holding her tight. "Have I told you how much I love it when you do that?"
Vikka smiled. "Once or twice," she said. "So what happened? Why'd you go off comm?"
"You heard Michael?" She nodded. "He wanted to tell me there's another group of humans that may have a chance of destroying it."
"The Tet?" she breathed.
"So he said. Somewhere in North America. And Michael's group might have a way of destroying the hydro-rigs if they can get close to one."
Jack nodded. "I'm not sure what will happen if we do destroy one. It's our territory, so we may be held responsible."
"Leave it to me," Vikka said. "I can sweet talk her."
Jack smiled and gave her a kiss. "C'mon, I need a shower. Care to join me?"
For the next six days, Jack and Vikka maintained their post according to their new, self-made directives. Jack spent the day patrolling, scanning, and reporting minor maintenance requests on various drones. Vikka reported on the unusually high number of downed drones and lost fuel cells, and made sure to deflect blame away from Jack. Scavs were getting desperate because of how efficient they were at gathering water. The Scavs could see that they would soon be left with a dry, deadly world. The Tet seemed to accept this reasoning, and encouraged them to keep at it.
Jack received periodic messages from Michael's tribe, usually in the form of Morse code messages left on simple devices that Jack and Vikka decoded by hand. He learned that they were having a far less difficult time evading the drones, and that they might soon be able to destroy one of the rigs thanks to Jack and Vikka's efforts. As far as they could tell, the fear that the Tet would notice the adjusted programming on the drones had not come to pass.
Their next greatest problem was time. In two short days, Jack and Vikka were supposed to return to the Tet. They were certainly not going to do so, but once they openly defied their enemy, they assumed things would get much harder. They weren't sure if the bubble ship would operate properly without the Tet's cooperation, though Jack suspected it should. It worked whether the Tet was online or not. They couldn't be sure how long they would be safe from the drones, either. If they left and a new set of clones came down, they would certainly notice the program shift.
"But it's a possibility I don't even want to consider," Jack had said. "I don't want any more of... us to be brought down and used by the Tet."
"But how can we prevent it?" Vikka had asked.
"Stay. We have to figure out a way to stay in the tower until Michael, or one of his contacts figures a way to destroy it."
"How, Jack? I've been telling Sally how much I can't wait to get back for at least two years now. If I suddenly tell her we want to stay, she'll have to be suspicious."
Jack had frowned about it, and told her to hold off until he figured something out. In the meantime, he'd taken to making multiple trips to and from the lakeside home he'd built taking their remaining food supplies from the tower and storing them at the lake. He took nearly all of the medical supplies as well, and his extra armor, along with as many other supplies and parts as he thought he might need. By the time their departure date drew near, the tower looked practically gutted, with just the bare minimum amount of food and supplies left inside to carry them for a couple of days. Jack had even taken away the photograph of the two of them, and set it on the mantle at the lake house. Vikka longed to see it again. They'd felt it was too risky for her to leave the tower after Jack started reprogramming the drones, and she missed the feel of grass under her feet, and the smell of the lake in the air.
Late in the evening, on the night before they were meant to leave Earth, Vikka and Jack were startled by a blinding flash of light, followed swiftly by a rumbling so loud it shook the windows of the tower. They hadn't been able to sleep all night, and were seated on the couch when it happened.
Vikka gripped Jacks arm, and the two of them stood and looked toward the light. An explosion! A huge cloud of light and smoke could be seen in the distance, billowing out and sending waves through the sea of clouds around them.
"It's one of the rigs," Vikka said.
Jack turned toward her, a huge grin on his face. He grabbed her with a triumphant shout and lifted her up. He spun her in a quick circle and holding her tight. Vikka laughed, nearly as exuberant as Jack was. Ever since they had learned what the hydro-rigs were really used for, the sight of them even the little graphic shapes of them on her control panel had filled her with anger. Knowing that they could be destroyed was absolutely fantastic. There was no alcohol allowed on base, but Jack poured water into their glasses, and they toasted the destruction of Rig 143.
By the next morning, Vikka had managed to school her features into something like concern, tinged with contrition. Jack gave a report on what had happened, and Vikka relayed it to "Sally with the appropriate amount of tension in her voice.
Sally was extremely displeased. "Tower 97, you have put the whole operation at risk! I need to know exactly what happened."
"Jack believes the Scavs used one of the stolen fuel cells. They managed to weaponize it somehow."
Sally looked frustrated, and Vikka found herself scowling at the rather excellent imitation of human emotions. "Tower hold."
When it clocked off, Vikka switched to Jacks line. "You okay, Tech 97?"
"Okay," he said. She could hear the sound of the raging fires still crackling and roaring in the background. "What about you? Is she-"
"She's angry. I'm going to ask her about staying here. Extending our-"
"What? Now? She's pissed!"
"That's why, Jack. Because-" Her console pinged. "Stand by."
She clicked over couldn't keep Sally waiting. "Tower, our logs show that you are missing a total of seven fuel cells, can you confirm?"
"That's correct, Mission," Vikka answered. "Some groups of Scavs have gotten bolder. They're attacking the drones in the repair areas."
"During daylight?" Sally asked.
"Affirmative," Vikka replied.
Sally shook her head. "Tower, is everything all right with you and Jack? Are you an effective team?"
"Absolutely," she answered. "In... in fact, we... Jack and I would like to ask about extending our mission." Sally's face went completely blank, and she stared at Vikka, trying (literally) to process what she'd just heard. "With the rig destroyed and the Scavs getting bolder, we think keeping someone here could really help."
Sally blinked. "But... Vikka... you never liked it down there. I thought you were eager to come up to the Tet."
Vikka smiled. "You're right, Sally," she said. "And I really can't wait to finally see everyone again. But I'm willing to make a sacrifice, at least for a few more months, or even another year." Her smile widened. "It's our duty to protect the colony, and I'd feel just awful if the other rigs were endangered."
Sally blinked at her again this time staring for almost a full fifteen seconds. Then she smiled. "Okay, Vikka," she said warmly. "You're absolutely right. We need an effective team at Tower 97. As soon as Jack comes in, we'll finalize the orders."
Vikka nodded, though her smile had faltered. The command monitor blurred and winked, which was unusual, and there was something strange about Sally's sudden cooperation. "Copy, Command," she said aloud.
Sally winked out and in again, then smiled at Vikka again. "Have Jack report to the tower before we go offline," she said.
Vikka nodded. "Copy. Thanks, Sally."
Sally nodded, then went on standby. Vikka stared at the screen for a moment, and took a deep, slow breath. She sat still, listening, as if she could hear the sound of the Tet processing her request, pondering what to do with them. She was startled by the sound of the console bleeping again.
"Vikka!" He sounded strained worried. "Are you okay? Did you ask?"
"I'm alright," she answered. "I asked. She seemed confused, but then she said I was right, and she wanted an effective team down here."
"Hmm. That sounds kind of ambiguous."
"That's what I thought, too," Vikka said, feeling more nervous now that Jack had confirmed her fears. She relayed the rest of the conversation to him. "Do you think I made a mistake?"
"No," he said immediately. "No, if it goes south, it was going to happen whether you asked today or not. Don't worry about that, Vikka."
"Okay," she said, with a little sigh of relief.
"I'm coming in," he said. "Don't report yet. I'll be there as fast as I can."
"Alright," she said, nodding slightly, even though Jack couldn't see her. "Just be careful out there, Jack."
"I always am."
Jack flew back to the tower at the fastest possible speed. He'd started his return trip the moment Vikka had clicked off to talk to Sally and ask about staying. He was worried about how the Tet would react, and now that he'd heard what Vikka said, he was even more concerned. Wanting an effective team wasn't suspicious of itself, but why should Jack come home just so Sally could extend their assignment? Something wasn't right.
Things looked normal at the tower, despite his fears. He landed the bubble ship, and approached the doors. Vikka was already on her way down, and they met at the front of the house. Vikka let him in and hugged him. "You okay?" he asked.
She nodded. "Nothing's happened so far, but I'm nervous, Jack. Why would she agree so quickly? And why was the monitor winking in and out when we were nowhere near nightfall?"
"I have no idea. Did you notice anything strange around the tower? Any extra patrols from the drones?"
Vikka shook her head. "No, nothing so far. I just... I'm glad you're home, that's all."
Jack nodded. "I'll search around the house and keep watch. Why don't you get back up to the control room in case she checks in? I'll let you know if I find anything."
Vikka headed back upstairs, and Jack went through the barren house, looking around for anything unusual (other than the lack of stores and other items). Tori still sat in her place on the kitchen table - Vikka wanted to put her in the lake house herself whenever they finally had the chance to go. Everything on the main floor was normal. He checked the basement - everything was normal. Drone 165 was safely docked and powered down. His tools were in their proper areas. Everything looked completely normal.
Jack waited downstairs for Vikka to come back. He wasn't allowed inside the control room, just as Vikka wasn't allowed on the planet's surface. Their only shared domain was the main floor of the tower, and while they were in this odd limbo, with the Tet aware of their desire to stay, Jack didn't want to change any other part of their normal routines.
After a few minutes, Jack heard Vikka through his earpiece. "Jack, we have a drone down in Grid 14."
Jack sighed. "Okay, Tower, give me a minute." He headed to the ship and activated the systems. "Okay, Vikka, I'm ready for beacon coordinates."
Jack saw the beacon on his viewer. "Got it, Tower. I'm on my way. Will you... well, this shouldn't take long."
"I'll be fine, Jack. Try to make it in before Tet goes offline, okay?"
Jack reluctantly flew away from the tower and headed for Grid 14. The drone was easy to find it was right out in an open plain, a few hundred yards from a grouping of low hills. Jack was surprised to see three of the human tribe sitting near the drone, wearing their armored disguises.
They stood up when Jack began his approach. Jack landed a few yards away from the drone and got out, bringing the rifle, but leaving it slung on his back. He nodded to the three visitors, and they removed their helmets. Jack froze for a moment, then spoke softly. "Vikka, I have to go off comm for a few minutes."
Jack removed the earpiece, and closed the distance between himself and the other three men. The long-haired man on the left nodded. "Hi, Jack."
"Hi, Jack," Jack replied. He nodded to the short-haired man on the right and the older man in the center. "Jack," he said. "Ivan. What can I do for you?"
"Michael sent us," the long-haired Jack said. "He wanted us to ask you to reconsider joining us."
"I appreciate it," Jack said. "But we're okay. We aren't ready to leave the tower yet."
"Jack, today is your last day," the younger tech said. "You can't stay up there!"
"Vikka asked the Tet to extend our mission." The other men looked stunned. "We'll find out if she ok's it at the end of the day. If she tells us to come up to the Tet, we'll go with you."
"But, Jack," the oldest of them said. "What do you plan to do? What if she tries to terminate you?"
"Wouldn't it be safer to just come with us now?" the youngest man said.
Jack shook his head. "I don't think so. According to what your people have told us, the moment Vikka and I vacate the tower, another pair of clones will be sent down. The new Jack will either change the programming, or he'll notice the difference and he'll want Vikka to find out why the automatic setting for the drones is the way it is. The Tet will probably destroy the new Jack and Vikka and send yet another set of clones down, but not before reprogramming all of the drones herself. Then you'll be back to square one, hiding in the dark with every single drone in the sky out to kill you. Vikka and I don't want that to happen."
The other men nodded (bizarrely, in precise unison). "Okay, Jack," the oldest one Ivan said. "We understand. But please be careful."
"Of course. What's happening with the other movements?"
Ivan took a seat, and the other Jack clones followed suit. "We've had no word for a few days now," Ivan said. "But we know that Raven Rock has destroyed a hydro-rig successfully."
"That's wonderful," Jack said. "Congratulations on your success, too, by the way." The other men smiled. "Vikka and I toasted your tribe. To mineral water, of course." They laughed, the sounds eerily synced, like hearing his own laughter in stereo.
"That will amuse Michael," the youngest Jack said.
"In their last message to us, Beech's tribe had a plan for capturing their current local technician."
"Capture," Jack said.
The other man nodded. "Unfortunately, yes. You know none of us would ever have just willingly walked up to a Scav."
"I suppose not," Jack said, though the thought still made him uncomfortable.
"That was a couple of days ago, so hopefully we'll find out more soon."
Jack nodded. "Well, good luck to them. To all of us." The other men nodded their agreement. Jack looked at each of them, and spoke hesitantly, suddenly feeling nervous. "I... I've... I'm glad you're here. I've been wanting to ask you something... well... a few things, actually."
"Fire away," the oldest of them said.
"Well..." He decided to start with the simplest question first. "First of all, I wanted to ask about your names. You go by Ivan?"
The oldest clone nodded. "Yes. When I found out the truth, I decided to re-name myself." He smiled. "It's really just Jack, in a way." Jack frowned. "Jack is a nickname of John, and Ivan is John in Russian."
Jack felt himself shudder, and he got the ghost of the feeling he sometimes had when he dreamed of the mysterious dark-haired woman. Russian. Why did that make him feel strange? Was she...? He shook off the feeling, and glanced at the other two. "Do you go by different names, too?"
The one closest in age to Jack shook his head, but the long-haired one the other Tech 97 nodded. "I go by Sean," he said.
"Another version of John," Jack said. They nodded. "Are... are you treated well?" Jack asked. "By Michael's people?"
"You mean because of who we are? Or, who we used to be?" Ivan asked. Jack nodded. "Yes, we're treated well."
"Michael is a fair man," Jack, the youngest of them, said. "I think, if anything, we're handled with a bit of extra care."
The other two nodded, and Sean continued. "Finding out the truth was difficult for all of us. Coming to terms with the fact that we're not... unique is difficult at best. Michael and his people have a lot of patience with us. With Vikka and Vicky, too."
Jack nodded, noting that one of the Vikka clones apparently had taken on a new name as well. "That's good to hear," he said. He glanced away for a moment, then looked down to make sure his earpiece was still off and out of the way. "Michael talked about dreams," he said. "I... I was so shocked I forgot to ask him about it that day. But, you have dreams about a dark-haired woman, too?"
The three men nodded, moving again in unison, which unnerved Jack. "So... who is she? Do you know why we dream of her?"
"We think it's because she was someone known to the original Jack Harper," Sean answered.
"Who was she?"
They looked at one another, clearly uncomfortable. "We... we think..." The other Jack shook his head. "You may not like it. I mean, the answer may upset you."
"Tell me," Jack said. "Please, I have to know. It... it's driving me crazy."
Ivan nodded. "I understand," he said. "We think she was the original Commander Harper's wife."
Jack's eyes widened and he inhaled, a deep, forcibly slow breath. He looked down where he'd put the comm earpiece again, almost as if he expected that Vikka might have heard. "I... wi..." He stopped trying to speak and just continued breathing.
"I'm sorry, Jack," Sean said. "We pieced it together by talking about the dreams we've had, and from what Michael has been able to tell us about the Odyssey crew. One of the crew members was Julia Rusakova."
Jack gasped, and the image of the dream woman's face, smiling at him warmly, sprang immediately to his mind. Jack shut his eyes against the sight, as if closing them physically could make his mind stop producing the image. He felt sick suddenly nauseated by the realization that yet another integral part of his life had been stolen and twisted by the Tet.
He felt doubly hurt and doubly enraged. Julia, his wife, had been stolen from him, leaving him battling tortured dreams for five full years. Leaving him waking him up almost every morning with feelings of guilt for loving the ethereal woman of his dreams when he was also devoted to Vikka. He also felt a deep sense of anguish at the thought that his relationship with Vikka, which he valued as the most cherished and important part of his life had been engineered by the Tet to keep them both mollified, or was simply a fortunate byproduct of proximity and time.
"I'm sorry," Ivan said.
Jack looked up at them again. He nodded. One positive benefit of this whole situation (if it could be called a benefit) was that there were people who knew exactly what he was going through. "Thank you," he said. "Thanks for telling me."
"Not the easiest thing to hear," the other Jack said.
Jack shook his head. "No. It's not. But I'll survive. You say she was part of the Odyssey crew?" They nodded. "So... she would still be in the sleep pods?"
"We assume so, yes," Sean said.
"But... if the other tribe brings it down the ship-"
"The ships have fail-safes to keep the craft from being destroyed on re-entry," Ivan explained. "But the sleep pods were designed to get them as far as the Tet and back just a few months or a year at most. After fifty years without maintenance..."
Jack pursed his lips and nodded. He looked over toward the horizon, where the Tet hovered in the afternoon sky. He glared. "I hate her," he said. "If Raven Rock can't destroy her, we have to find a way."
"We will," Ivan said.
"Even if we have to destroy each and every one of the hydro-rigs," Sean said. "It will die without the power from the rigs."
"What about the clones?" Jack from Tower 92 asked. "It could launch another full scale attack."
They were silent for a moment, as the enormity of what that would really mean sunk in. "Don't worry, Jack," Ivan said, putting a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Beech's tribe will make their technician understand. They'll destroy it, and we can continue Michael's mission of finding the other techs and telling them the truth."
Jack saw Tech 92 nod and smile a little. "If they do destroy her," Jack said, "then Michael's mission will be needed more than ever. I'd hate to think how it would feel seeing the Tet destroyed, and still believing it was the only hope for the survival of humanity."
Jack–92 shuddered. "My God, that would be..."
"Yeah," Jack said. "But maybe we can get some messages out to them after it happens. We can try something with a longer range once the Tet is gone, and there won't be any fear of someone intercepting and tracking the source."
"That's a good idea," Sean said. "We'll talk to Michael about it."
"Alright," Jack said. He stood slowly and stretched. "I've got to get back to Vikka," he said, feeling a pang of sorrow mingled with anger at the reminder of the Tet's deceit.
The other men stood as well. "It was good to see you again, Jack," Ivan said. "Good luck with Sally."
The men shook hands and parted ways. Jack waited for the tribe to get under cover before he repaired the drone, checked its programming, and sent it back on patrol. He put his earpiece back on and headed for the ship. "Vikka?"
"Drone 121 is back online. I... I'm coming in."
There was a pause brief, but longer than usual. "Okay, Jack, I'll see you soon."
Jack lifted off and headed back to the tower. He looked toward the impending sunset the Tet was low in the sky, but would be online for about twenty minutes enough time for him to get home before it went offline, as instructed.
When he arrived home, Vikka was already downstairs, waiting for him. The moment he saw her, Jack felt the hurt rising up again. He landed the bubbleship and got out slowly. Vikka frowned slightly and came outside. "Everything alright?" she asked.
Jack nodded. He moved toward her, and hugged her tight. The feeling of her in his arms, real and warm and comforting, helped to rid him of the rage and the fear that what he had with her was somehow invalid because of the Tet's interference. Whatever the circumstances that had brought them together, the reality was that he and Vikka had grown to love each other over the last five years, and that was all that mattered. He squeezed her tight again. "I love you."
"I love you, too," she said, looking up at him. "You're sure everything is all right?"
He nodded. "I'm fine. Michael sent the... the former techs to check on us. Everything okay here?"
"So far. But itll be offline soon. I... I suppose we should go up."
Jack nodded. "We should. Come on, Vikka, it'll be okay. Who knows? Maybe she'll just say yes, and we'll have a whole year to figure out what to do."
"I hope you're right."
Vikka led the way upstairs. When she reached the tower entrance, she glanced back and saw that Jack had paused a few steps down. "You okay?"
He smiled nervously. "It's just strange," he said. "I've never been allowed in here before."
Vikka smiled and nodded. "I understand. It's not quite the same, but I felt a little like that when we went down to the surface together."
Jack smiled at her and gestured for her to continue. Vikka turned and entered the control tower, taking her seat at the control panel while Jack stood behind her. Moments later, Sally came off of standby and smiled. "Hello Vikka. I'm ready for your evening report." She turned her head slightly and smiled wider. "I see Jack is there with you. Hello, Jack. I don't believe we've had the pleasure."
"Hello, Sally," Jack said. "It's good to finally meet you."
Sally smiled, then looked back at Vikka. "I have our report ready," Vikka said. "Uploading data now. All minor repairs have been completed, and-"
"And I see Jack managed to get drone 121 back in the air again. That's good work."
"Thanks, Sally," Vikka said. "Have you had a chance to review our request to remain here?"
The screen winked out, but Sally never lost her smile. "Yes, we certainly have. We've decided that you're absolutely right, Vikka. We want dependable technicians out there, and the way things have been going, we definitely don't want to leave Tower 97 in inexperienced hands."
Vikka smiled and looked up at Jack. He was frowning slightly, though Vikka couldn't understand why. It sounded as if Sally was giving them their way. She turned back to the viewscreen. "That's great, Sally! How long will the extension be?"
The screen flickered, and Sally smiled again. "Let's revisit the issue in six months."
Vikka nodded. "Copy, Sally, thanks."
"Y'all have a good night, Vikka. Goodbye, Jack."
"Goodbye, Sally," Jack said.
"Good night, Sally, see you in the morning."
The control viewer winked off, and Tet was officially offline mere seconds later. Vikka reviewed the control board for a few seconds more, while Jack stood behind her, so pensive Vikka could practically feel the tension from proximity alone.
"Nothing," she said. "Drones are still on their regular patrol tasks."
"Good," Jack said. He looked around the room, frowning slightly, all the same. "Let's go down. We should eat, and work out what we're going to do tomorrow."
"Right. I'll start dinner then."
They headed downstairs, Jack still moving cautiously. His caution made Vikka feel edgy, although she wanted to believe that everything was okay. She moved slowly as well, straining to hear any potential sound.
When they reached the main living area, Jack stopped suddenly. Vikka frowned and looked around. "Wait, why are the doors open?" she asked.
"Don't know," Jack said softly. "You definitely locked them when we went up?"
"Absolutely," she said with a nod. "Everything was locked up tight. Why would-"
"Shh," Jack said suddenly. "You hear that?" His voice was barely above a whisper.
Vikka shook her head, listening hard. After a couple of seconds, she could hear what sounded like a soft humming sound. She frowned, wondering what it could be. The two of them edged further into the room, but after only a couple of steps, Jack froze so suddenly Vikka nearly bumped into him. "Jack, wh-"
He turned to face her, eyes wide. "Run."
"RUN!" he shouted, shoving her toward the door. She ran, not wasting another second. Her pace was hampered by the heels she wore to "work", but she was afraid to spare the time to kick them off. She'd barely made it to the door when she heard a terrifying sound the bleep of a drone acquiring its initial target.
Vikka froze for a split second, shocked, but Jack never stopped. He grabbed her arm and dragged her along with him. "Stay down!" he shouted, then propelled her forcefully toward the pool before she could completely register the words.
Vikka fell headlong into the water. She bobbed up automatically and saw Jack running for the bubbleship. The drone was near the doorway, and Vikka suddenly knew where it had come from. It had no siding, and no faceplate their workshop drone! Vikka felt sick. The drone's bright red eye sought to regain its target now that it had "split" into two. She saw it train weapons in Jack's direction. Jack was directly in line with it, clearly the easier of the two targets.
Vikka felt her stomach clench. By the time Jack got the bubbleship door open, the drone would fire. She could hear the low note that signified the drone planned to terminate its target. Heart pounding, she kicked off the single shoe that remained after Jack had shoved her into the water, and she swam back toward the path. "HEY!!"
"Vikka!" She heard Jack's terse shout.
"OVER HERE, you bastard!" Vikka splashed wildly. The drone turned, almost as if it knew to be offended by the insult. She allowed it to scan her, grateful that she could no longer hear any sound from Jack. The second she heard the "Terminate" sound, she dove swiftly down into the water, and away from the spot where she'd been.
Vikka felt the water near her grow warmer, and she kicked furiously, propelling herself away from the heat as quickly as she could. She swam to the far end of the pool and stayed low, looking back and up to see if she could distinguish anything. Between the displacement from the water, and the bridge to Jack's ship blocking her view, Vikka could hardly see anything at all. She could hear muffled sounds, but nothing that made any sense to her.
After a while, Vikka felt her lungs begin to burn, and she longed to resurface agitation speeding her heart and "wasting" precious oxygen. She forced herself to stay down just a little longer. Just a few more seconds. Finally, she couldn't take it any longer. She looked up, moving up toward the surface. She saw a gray figure moving on the bridge above the pool. Vikka moved up more quickly and rose to the surface, taking a huge breath as she emerged from the water.
"Vikka!" Jack had been calling her. "Vikka!" This time, he was relieved instead of anxious. He smiled at her, and she smiled back.
"Did you get it?" she asked, looking around.
"Yeah," he replied, sounding breathless. "Come on, we have to get out of here."
Vikka swam back to the other side of the pool. The water was still warm near where the drone had fired at her, and Vikka shuddered involuntarily at what had almost happened to them.
The drone was on the other side of the pool, still smoking from Jack's shot. Jack came around and helped Vikka out of the water. "Sorry about shoving you in like that," Jack said.
"Don't be ridiculous, you saved my life."
Jack smiled. "And you saved mine. Quick thinking, distracting it like that. Even though you nearly gave me a heart attack in the process."
Vikka laughed and gave him a quick kiss. "How much time do you think we have?" she asked. "I think I'd better change."
"We just have to make it quick," he said, walking with her into the house. "You didn't notice any drones mobilizing on the board, did you?"
She shook her head. "But I have no idea if she could block that information from us. She must have ultimate control of the panel."
"I'm sure she does. But either way, they'll take time to get here, just not much. We'd better hurry."
Jack headed down to his workroom, while Vikka quickly put on fresh clothes. They met in the main living area Vikka with her wet hair in a bun, and wearing a fresh gray dress, and Jack carrying extra armor and all of the rifles and handguns.
Vikka took some of the gear from him and they rushed back out to the ship. They stowed the weapons, and Vikka slipped on the armored jacket. The two of them boarded the ship and strapped in. Jack powered the ship on and announced himself. For a second, Vikka was gripped with a sudden fear that the ship wouldn't work now that the Tet was trying to kill them. But a moment later, she was relieved by the ship's confirmation of Jack's identity. Jack flipped switches above their heads, and Vikka looked toward their former home, knowing she would probably never see it again.
Vikka gasped. "Wait!"
"What is it?" Jack asked, worried.
"Wait, I need..." She unstrapped herself and tried to get the doors open. "Jack-"
Jack unlocked the door and it hissed open. "What's wrong?"
"It's okay, I just..." She ran back to the house, moving as quickly as she could, ever fearful that more drones would come after them before they got into the air. She raced to the kitchen and grabbed her potted flower from the counter. She tucked it under the armored jacket and raced back to the ship where Jack waited pensively for her. "Sorry," she said breathlessly, once she took her seat. "I couldn't leave her."
Jack looked confused, then understanding dawned when she pulled the flower out and set it in her lap so that she could pull her straps back on. He smiled at her and looked down at the little flower. "No, we certainly couldn't." He touched her leg gently. "She's where it all began, isn't she?"
Vikka smiled brightly, remembering those few short days ago when she'd broken her first regulation and allowed the tiny flower to remain in their house. "She is," Vikka said. "She really is."
Jack checked his readings again and gripped the ship's controller. "Hang on tight."
Jack lifted off the landing pad and turned away from the tower. He sped away from their former home, unsure where to go, but knowing he couldn't go back to Michael's people yet. He had no doubt that Sally could hide the activity of the drones from them if she wanted to. He couldn't risk leading any of the drones near the human colony. And he didn't want to go to the lake house until he knew for sure that the drones weren't following him.
Jack flew away from the tower in a random direction. He moved fairly slowly, flying low, looking for any sign that other drones might be following them. He saw nothing for the first few minutes. Then he heard a gasp from Vikka. "Jack!"
Jack turned toward her, and saw three drones coming toward them from their starboard side. He tensed and gripped the steering control. "Hold on tight."
Vikka gripped the belt strips with one hand and held Tori close to her with the other. Jack turned the ship fast and sped away from the drones. He looked back and caught them following they were definitely after him. Jack sped away, heart racing. He didn't want to upset Vikka, but it was nearly impossible for the bubbleship to outpace a drone on the attack. He could probably get one of them or even two, but he couldn't take down all three at once, and he'd need cover to do anything at all.
He raced on, but there were hardly any areas in his territory that afforded enough cover for Jack to hide the ship from the drones and come up behind them. There was a flash and the bubbleship shuddered. There was a small cry from Vikka, and Jack glanced at her. She was frightened, still gripping the little yellow flower. Jack swiveled the inner cabin and fired a volley of beams at the drones. He hit two before they split apart, but their shields held against his gunfire.
He spun back around, and swiveled the ship, speeding off in pursuit of one of the fleeing drones. Jack saw the other two fall in again behind him, but he kept his eyes focused on the drone heading away. He aimed the laser sight at the weak spot, the rear processor, and fired. The lasers hit, and Jack changed trajectory so quickly that there was another startled yelp from Vikka.
"Sorry," he said, checking the rear scope. The two remaining drones were in pursuit again, gaining fast. Before Jack could turn the full powerful weapons around again, there was another hit to the ship. He focused on evading the drones, using the aft-facing guns to fire potshots aiming was hardly feasible, but it was a minor distraction that made it possible for him to continue with his evasive maneuvers.
Jack headed for the closest cover, which wasn't much a few low hills with the spires of some of the ruined buildings jutting up from the earth. It was hardly cover at all, but it was better than the open air. Jack flew low, weaving between the buildings, hoping that one of the drones would make a mistake and strike against one of the pillars.
He was not to be so lucky. The drones came on fast, sticking each turn expertly, firing as they came. Jack struggled to keep the ship flying erratically while still firing backwards at the drones. He took a risky dive down into a narrow pass, barely wide enough for the bubbleship to fit. He continued his attack, noticing with satisfaction that the drones could not easily fly side by side. It seemed that they were in single file, which gave Jack just one target at a time to worry about.
Jack trusted the auto-pilot to warn him of imminent impact, and focused most of his attention on his rear guns. He fired a fierce volley at the pursuing drone, pleased when the drone "staggered" and slowed down its pursuit. He felt that with a few more rapid-fire shots, he might be able to take it down, then he'd have only one drone to deal with. For the first time since the fight began, Jack started to feel that he might actually be able to win.
Vikka's panicked shout shocked him, and the reason for it took Jack from hope to despair in an instant. Straight ahead, drone 117 was headed directly for them, weapons charging. It must have cut upwards and flown ahead while Jack had been focused on 184. "Shit!" Jack hissed.
"What can we do?"
Jack didn't answer. He had no idea what to do. He kept up laser fire from both directions, but he was rushing head-on toward 117, and 184 was close behind. He could pull up, but they would follow him immediately and the benefit of his cover would be lost. Not that there was much benefit now, with drones on either side and no apparent escape.
Jack gritted his teeth and gripped the throttle. "Hold on, Vikka," he said. Then, he accelerated, full speed, toward drone 117. He could hear Vikka's frightened breathing, but he couldn't hear his own. He was holding his breath. His engines roared, and the lasers shot out at such speed that it looked like a solid stream of light instead of individual shots. When he couldn't hold it anymore when it seemed certain that Jack would collide with 117, he shot the bubbleship upward in a sharp vertical move. He sped up until he'd cleared the pass. Then, still moving fast, he righted the ship and dared a look back where they had come. He could see the remnants of an explosion, and smiled.
His smile faltered again the very next moment. A small white orb rose out of the canyon one of them had survived. Jack flew towards it, lasers firing full speed again. The drone fired back, dodging and weaving at the same time. The survivor was 117. Jack glared. "Should have left you to rot in that cave, you bastard," he muttered.
The ship shuddered, and a warning light flashed on the screen. "Shit!"
"What?" Vikka cried.
Jack squeezed the trigger, but the ship did not respond. "Shit!" he hissed again.
"What happened?" Vikka's voice was tight with panic.
"Weapons offline," he said tersely. He swiveled the ship around and sped away, with 117 in pursuit. He was at a loss. He had no idea what to do now. With no weapons, they were completely helpless. He felt bitterness in his gut. He'd never expected to be able to pick off two of them, and now that he had, he was powerless to destroy the third. The threat was lowest now, but they were still going to die.
Jack raced on, away from the drone, dodging and dipping or lifting up erratically. The drone stayed hard on their tail. Jack's warning sensors began to chime the drone was closing in.
"We can't escape it," Vikka said breathlessly. "We can't, can we?"
Jack looked at her, forcing himself to face her wide, terrified eyes and ghostly pale face. "No," he said. "I'm sorry, Vikka."
She made a short, despondent sound, holding a hand to her lips. Then she gripped his arm tightly. "I love you, Jack."
Jack's eyes filled with tears, and he nodded, momentarily unable to speak. For a second, he wished he had taken Vikka down to live with Michael's people the moment they had made the offer. What had they been thinking, trying to hang on and fight their own battle against the Tet?
But there was no time for regret now. They had done what they thought was right, and Jack wouldn't spend his last moments alive worrying about what he should or shouldn't have done. He heard the warning bells, saw the tears in Vikka's eyes saw the little yellow flowers clutched tightly to her chest and he knew exactly what he had to do. He had to fight. As long as they were alive, he would not give up. Jack Harper would never go quietly into that dark night never.
He spun the bubbleship around, and hovered directly in line with the advancing drone. He looked at Vikka, her eyes now wide with shock and confusion rather than fear. "Take the controls," he said. "Hold her steady."
Without waiting for a response, Jack reached beside his seat and pulled up his laser rifle. He glanced down and saw Vikka's hand on the controls white-knuckled, but completely steady. Jack switched the override and the pilot side door opened. He double checked his restraints, then leaned as far as he could out the door, aimed his rifle at the drone, and fired.
It was hopeless of course. Head-on, a laser rifle had no real chance against a shielded drone. There was a real possibility that he would be shot clear of the bubbleship, and Vikka would have to see him die, just before she herself was killed. Jack shoved his fear of that prospect down and held onto the fury, firing volley after volley at the advancing drone.
The drone came on fast, and the bubbleship rocked and shuddered under the drone's hits. The open door provided Jack some shielding, but in only a few seconds, there would be no way that the drone could possibly miss. Jack gritted his teeth and fired again and again, hoping that some miracle would happen, and he would manage to hit the second-most vulnerable point on the drone the forward sound unit and knowing all the while that he would most likely die before he managed to get a shot in that perfect spot. It was difficult at best, and in the dark it would be almost impossible.
Then, suddenly, a miracle did happen. He didn't make the impossible shot the miracle was far more stunning than that. Suddenly, and for no discernible reason, the drone simply powered off and dropped out of the sky.
Jack stared at the air where the drone had been, then looked down. He could still see it falling seconds later a tiny white speck illuminated by the destroyed moon and the few stars that had begun to shine. He climbed carefully back into the ship and sat back, stunned.
"What happened?" Vikka whispered, staring in confusion.
"I don't know," he said. "It... it just... stopped."
Vikka frowned and looked around her, almost as if she expected the drone to come back, or another one to take its place. Jack felt edgy and uncertain as well. He looked down again at the space where the drone had fallen, but there was nothing to be seen below. "What the hell?" he whispered.
"Come on, Jack, shut the door."
Jack shook himself and shut the ship's door against the cold winds. His chest moved in and out, in and out but he felt as if he were separated from the mechanics of his body. He could hardly believe he was actually alive. He certainly hadn't expected to be so a few moments ago.
"I... don't..." Jack shook himself again. "Let's go."
"Where? To the lake?"
"Not yet," Jack said. "I want to check something first." He reached for the controls, but Vikka's hand still gripped them tightly. Jack touched her arm gently, and she looked down, seeming confused to see her own hand clutching the controls. Jack kissed her cheek and gently moved her hand away. "We're okay, Vikka," he said. "Hang onto Tori, okay?"
She nodded, and looked down at the little flower. "I'm okay."
Jack nodded, took the craft out of hover mode and headed for the hydro-rigs.
Vikka stared out of the bubbleship windows in complete shock. She had only been to the sea once, on her unauthorized trip to the surface, but she had seen it countless times through the bubbleship camera, and through Tet Vision. The sight that met her eyes was absolutely stunning, in the literal sense. She felt frozen in place rigid and barely able to process what she was seeing.
The hydro-rigs had fallen. Gone were the shining symbols of life-giving energy (once almost hallowed by her, and later reviled) floating in the air of their own power, drawing up sea water in an endless, rushing funnel toward the processing center. Gone, too, were the busy drones, zipping this way and that, protecting the Tet's energy gatherers.
Now, what remained were giant, hulking metal shapes, listing to one side, partially submerged in the water. No doubt, the drones had fallen, too, and dropped like round white rocks into the sea, never to be seen again. The constant rush and roar of the water being pulled up was replaced with the gentle shush of waves lapping against the shore, and against the sides of the giant machines.
Vikka looked at Jack. He was staring at the rigs, as shocked as she had been. "Do you think... could she really be gone?" Vikka whispered.
"I don't know," Jack said softly. "But... how else could this have happened? They're all down, all of them!"
"I wonder if they're down all over the world."
"We should visit the tribe," Jack said. "Michael may know. Maybe the plan from Beech's tribe worked."
Jack turned the ship around and headed back toward the shallow valley where they had first been captured by the "Scavs". This time, Vikka felt no fear when Jack landed the craft near the cavern's opening. She climbed out of the ship, setting Tori on her seat, and waited while Jack pulled out the small, simple device he used to contact the remnant humans a basic Morse code transmitter/receiver. He sent out a short message, and they waited. Jack sat down on the grass, his rifle beside him on the right, and Vikka sat beside him on the left. They were both shocked and exhausted, so they didn't speak just sat near each other and waited.
In about twenty minutes, Vikka saw lights bobbing toward them from the mouth of the cave. The valley was dark except for the bobbing lights. Vikka and Jack stood up, and Jack waved at them. The shadowy figures continued their approach, eventually resolving into four figures. They took off their helmets when they got closer. It was Michael and the three clones of Jack. Vikka drew closer to her own Jack seeing the others was unnerving, even though she'd lived with the truth for over a week now.
"Hello," Jack called.
"Hello," Michael called back. "What's happened?"
"That's what we wanted to ask you," Jack said. "The drones just fell out of the sky, and the hydro-rigs have stopped working, too. Have you heard anything from your North American friends?"
Michael shook his head, but there was a smile on his face. "We haven't heard anything so far," he said. He looked up, scanning the skies briefly. "When did it happen? When did they stop working?"
Jack glanced at Vikka. "About..."
"Maybe thirty minutes ago," she said. "A drone dropped out of the sky in the middle of combat, and when we checked the rigs, they'd all powered down."
The other men looked at one another, hope on their faces. "Could they have succeeded?" the youngest of the Jack clones asked.
"I hope so," Michael said. "I can't see any other explanation for it, though. Especially with the hydro-rigs going offline at the same time." Michael turned to Jack. "I'll send a message to Malcolm," he said. "Care to come down with us, or shall we call you?"
"We'll come down," Jack said with a questioning glance at Vikka. She nodded, and the pair joined the four men and headed back to the caverns. They made their way quickly back to another access point within the caves that Vikka hadn't seen before. The last time she'd come this way, she had been blindfolded and too upset to even pay attention to the changes of direction on the odd, cobbled-together transport.
They made it to that very transport in a few minutes, then rode through the rough terrain until they arrived at the tribe's headquarters. Michael took them to the communications room, where a large machine had been set up to send and receive messages at a much greater range than Jack's tiny transmitter.
Two engineers were in the room, apparently on "standby", or scanning for incoming messages. Vikka froze when the engineers turned to look at them. One was a young man of about twenty, but Vikka barely saw him. The other was her exact twin one of the women she'd met when they were first captured. This was Tower Control 92-K the one closest to her in age. Vikka tried not to shudder, but she found herself reaching for Jack. The other woman smiled briefly at her, then turned her attention to Michael as he approached her.
"Anything, Vicky?" he asked.
"No, nothing yet," the woman answered in Vikka's voice. "We havent received any incoming communications all day."
Michael nodded. "Send a query to Raven Rock. The drones and the hydro-rigs have fallen. Do they have any information?"
"Copy, will do," she answered.
She and the other technician began working, and Michael looked over at Jack and Vikka. "Usually, when we send messages at this time, we get answers in only a few minutes."
Jack nodded. Vikka looked at the machine, trying to see what the communication techs were doing. "Can... can I see how it works?"
Michael smiled at her. "Of course, Vikka. I know you're interested in these things." He gestured for her to approach the computer. "Vikka... our first Vikka from Tower 92, operates the communications board during the Alpha shift." Vikka managed a smile, even though the reality of the clones still bothered her. She tried to shove the odd feeling down when Michael led her to the one called "Vicky". "Mind showing our guest how this works?"
"Of course not," she answered. She smiled at Vikka, though her eyes seemed guarded. She'd only been here six months, if Vikka remembered correctly, so she hadn't been privy to the truth for very long herself. "Hi," the woman said, giving Vikka a hesitant smile.
"Hi." Michael left them, and they stared at one another, Vikka searching for some kind of difference in the other woman's face. She felt that the other woman was searching her face for the same thing. Vikka smiled. "It's unnerving, isn't it?" she said.
Vicky chuckled. "Very. The... the first one's visibly older, and I guess..." She shook her head, but Vikka nodded her understanding.
"Almost like you could believe it wasn't true," Vikka said. "Except..."
"Exactly." She shook herself, and gestured toward the large machine. "Here, I'll show you how it works. Nothing so advanced as the tower, but it's really amazing considering what they've had to work with down here."
Vikka watched the other woman press a few switches, and turn knobs, explaining as she went how she chose frequencies, and the strength of the transmission. Then she tapped Michael's message in Morse code from memory. They talked quietly for a few minutes, while Jack and Michael and the other Jacks (Ivan, Sean, and a second Jack, as her Jack had told her) spoke to one another.
As Michael had anticipated, the reply came back in only a few minutes. Vicky showed Vikka how they translated the message, and Vikka read the codes over the woman's shoulder on the small viewscreen. Vikka gasped and grinned.
"Jack!" She jumped up and ran to Jack. "It's dead!" she cried, flinging herself into his arms. Jack squeezed her and lifted her up, spinning her in a circle as he always did when he was excited. "They destroyed her!"
Jack laughed and squeezed her tight. Out of the corner of her eye, Vikka could see the younger Jack from Tower 92 spinning his own Vikka in a circle as well. A cheer rose up from the members of the tribe present. Jack set Vikka down and went to look at the message himself. It looked like more information was coming through Vicky asked to be set down and began working with the machine again.
Michael and the other clones joined him, and they read the new message as she translated it. The exuberant expressions on the men's faces faded suddenly, and they gasped. Michael staggered back from the comms board, and Vicky looked sadly back at him.
Ivan put a hand on Michael's shoulder and squeezed. "I'm sorry," he said. "Are... are you alright?"
Michael nodded, and turned away from them. "What happened?" Vikka whispered.
Jack turned to her. "Malcom Beech is dead."
"Oh no," she said softly. "What happened?"
"The drone they were going to send up with the bomb was destroyed," Vicky replied, glancing to where Michael stood, head bowed, with Ivan and Sean hovering near him. "Malcolm was badly hurt, and he and their local technician took the bomb up to the Tet themselves in a bubbleship. They..." Her voice trailed off - she didn't need to explain further.
Vikka looked at Jack, grabbing his arm reflexively. The room was quiet for a few moments, out of respect for the men who'd lost their lives. After a while, Michael turned to them. His eyes were red, but there was a smile on his face. "Malcolm Beech was a good man," Michael said. "And so was their Jack Harper. They made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could be free. I think it's time we spread the word."
He nodded to Vicky. "Get on the horn and let everyone know. And if Beech's... if Raven Rock isn't already sending a broad-span message, let's make one ourselves."
"And Vicky? Find us when you're finished." He smiled at her, and she nodded. Michael beckoned to the Jack clones and to Vikka. "Let's celebrate," he said.
"You're sure you're alright?" Sean asked. "Will you-"
"I'll be okay," Michael said. He let out a sad little chuckle. "We always said we'd get together and have a drink when the Tet was finally destroyed." He shook his head. "Well. We'll have one in his honor. I'm sure if he had to choose one way to go, this would have been it." He looked at them and smiled. "Come on."
The colony held a week-long celebration after the destruction of the Tet. The martyrs were memorialized, and then the celebration of their newfound freedom commenced. Jack and Vikka stayed with the tribe (although at Vikka's insistence, she and Jack slept outside in the open air).
Once the festivities had died down and radio messages had been sent to all of the communities Michael knew of, Michael began to talk about locating the remaining clones and telling them the truth. He enlisted the help of Jack and Vikka for his project. "With your ship, you can travel farther and faster than we ever could, trying to make the journey with our ground transports."
Jack talked it over with Vikka and the two of them agreed to help. "I'm not the most eloquent person," Jack said. "But I'll do what I can."
"I'd be grateful," Michael told him. "And remember, you won't have to say much. Just seeing your face will do most of the work." Jack had laughed at that. "It need only be temporary, too," Michael said. "I have engineers working on converting parts from the drones and hydro-rigs to create aircraft for us. Once we have something workable, we can continue searching on our own."
So, about three weeks after the Tet's destruction, Jack embarked on a new daily mission. He took long trips to various parts of the "Radiation Zone", seeking out other towers, and other clones. It was difficult work for him locating shell-shocked comms and technicians, and explaining the true nature of the Tet and why the destruction of the "space station" was actually not the end of humanity. He met with confusion, fear and disbelief, even though his presence was partial evidence of the truth.
At the end of each day, Jack reported to Michael as he had once reported to Sally. And the members of Michael's tribe created a two-way radio with long range capabilities that Jack and Vikka used to communicate with one another throughout the day. When his reports were finished, they usually stayed for a meal at the colony, then Jack would take Vikka home to their lakeside house.
Within a year, Jack had found and "liberated" (as Michael called it) over a dozen pairs of Jacks and Vikkas. They were all invited to come to Michael's region, but most chose to remain in their own areas. Jack was surprised by how many of them already had small dwellings built on the sides of tucked-away lakes.
Before long, Michael's people had built several scout ships, and joined Jack in his search for survivors. Each party included one of the Jack Harpers and/or one of the Vikka Olsens to help with the cause.
With the presence of so many other search parties, Jack no longer felt it necessary to leave every single day on scouting trips of his own. He continued to help when he could, but he spent most of his time at home with Vikka, enjoying the house that he had built and expanding it gradually as he saw fit.
Before long, it became a necessity to enlarge the house, and Jack did so happily. He took a complete break from any new missions when Vikka told him that they would soon need a nursery.
Vikka looked down at the reddened face of her first child the dark tuft of spiky hair atop her head, her green eyes wide and alert, staring up at her. Vikka smiled at Jack and he kissed her, and gently stroked his daughter's head. "What are we going to call her?" he asked.
Vikka looked back at the baby. "Well, I was all set with boys' names," she said. "But I though... well, I hope you'll agree with me."
"What is it?" he asked.
"I think I want to call her Julia."
She heard Jack gasp, and when she looked up at him again he was smiling brightly, and there were tears in his eyes. "I'd like that," he said softly.
Vikka smiled and kissed him again. "And I thought for her middle name... maybe..." She smiled and laughed at herself. "It's silly."
"Tell me," Jack said, still smiling.
Vikka looked out of the large window Jack had fashioned for her. She could see the edge of the large patch of yellow daisies that grew in front of their house, and she smiled. "Tori," she said. "Her middle name could be Tori."
Jack's smile grew even brighter, and he nodded. "I love it." Vikka smiled, and proceeded to ask Julia what she thought of her new name, while Jack put a message through to Michael to tell him the good news.