The corner room on the fourth floor of the Pioneer Hotel was comfortable and anonymous. It was a fairly new building and thus bland. It lacked the character which came with age.
Nick spread his notes over the bed and lay down to study them. Terry Fitzconnor had let them roam at will thru the passenger cabin until the light failed and the sleet started to fall. What had struck Nick, Rachel and Alex the most was how neat and tidy everything was. Even the ragged metal where the main cabin had sheared away from the cockpit section wasn’t that ragged.
Nick had made notes. Random observations. Things he’d remembered from Park, Sciavelli, Adley and Fitzconnor.
A deliberate act. Not sabotage. Whole scene is wrong. Should be dead. Nothing alien to systems or wiring frame. Should have been an explosion. Held in a giant hand. No explosive residue. Tanks hadn’t ruptured. Coma – shouldn’t be. No pilot error. It’s a miracle. Never cursed, didn’t even pray. Fireball never happened. Neat as you like. Everything checks out fine now. Looked asleep. Pilot had no control. Black box – total power failure. Someone was watching over that plane. Coffee hadn’t spilled. Cabin lights were on. Some force held it and eased it down. Nav lights were flashing.
He paused there to consider what he’d read. Terry Fitzconnor was experienced, yes, but he saw only what was in front of him. He worked with what he had. To him, a lack of evidence of sabotage yet a deliberate act despite no pilot error was a paradox which couldn’t be explained. Nick considered it from his own experience. He hadn’t investigated any crashed planes before, that was true, but he’d seen more unbelievable things than most people could begin to imagine.
Telekinesis. A strong enough mind could have stretched out and killed the power then guided the jet down. A deliberate act which would have left no clues as to how it was done.
When Adley had climbed in to look for survivors and render first aid, Merlin and Derek had been shaken up but unhurt and they looked as if they were asleep. Much as they did now in the hospital .. which suggested to Nick that they had slipped into a coma before the plane hit. And, if the same thing had happened to the crew .. who had glided the jet to a safe crash landing in a field? Whose hand had held the Lear on its descent? Whose mind had done this?
Nick frowned. Yes, it could be the work of the Darkside. That he could not deny. Derek was a big figure in the Legacy. He had input into strategy, access to the very top echelons. The leader worldwide asked Derek’s advice. Taking him out would be a major coup for the enemy – they’d tried it at least once before and failed. And with Derek had been Merlin, the ‘leader’ of the Legacy Enforcers. Their number one. Two big birds with one relatively small stone. It made sense on a lot of levels. However. Derek wasn’t dead. Merlin was still alive. If the objective had been to kill them, the Darkside had failed. The explosion hadn’t happened. But maybe there was another objective – to remove them temporarily from the scene. And that had definitely succeeded.
He picked up his cell phone from the nightstand and pressed out a number. “C’mon .. pick up .. Profelis?”
“Nick. How is she?”
“Alive. Looks like she’s asleep,” Nick replied quickly. “This is a heads up, okay? There’s a lot involved with this crash that isn’t making sense. Could be Darkside. I want you alert and on the ball. Be ready for anything.”
“If you need reinforcements, don’t hesitate. Call ’em in.”
“Speak to you later.” Nick cut the call short. He didn’t want any questions he would have to answer with a lie. Profelis would know.
He turned back to his notes. Looked at one way – Rachel’s way – it did seem promising. No one had been killed. The injuries were more inconveniences than anything. There was no reason to think that they wouldn’t be fine when they eventually woke up. That could still be Darkside, sure. The Darkside didn’t know Profelis was in the house. Looked at another way .. it seemed hopeless. The brainwave activity was that of someone in a persistent vegetative state. People like that never woke up.
His frown deepened again and he shuffled thru the notes. She was breathing on her own. She was alive .. on her own. There was no machine to turn off and then sit and watch her die. It couldn’t be a persistent vegetative state. Therefore .. there was a chance.
Nick saw one piece of paper sticking out from beneath another and pulled it clear.
He paused, letting his mind go blank, refusing to let the despair overwhelm him. Aquila was missing. What did it mean?
If Merlin was brain dead, a hopeless case, Aquila would be in the forest or over the river. She would have been back by now to tell him what had happened, what to do with her remains. She hadn’t done that. She wasn’t in the forest or over the river. Profelis had looked. He hadn’t found. She was missing. Someplace else.
There was a knock on his door. “Nick?” Alex called.
Sighing, he got up and went to open it. “Yeah.”
“We’re going down to dinner. You wanna come with us?”
“Not right now. Half hour?”
Rachel peered past his shoulder. “What’s that?”
“Notes. I’m trying to make sense of this,” Nick replied.
“Maybe three heads would be better than one,” Alex suggested. “You’re not the only one who wants to understand. I think we’d all sleep better if we knew we were making some kind of progress.”
He hesitated then stepped aside. “Sure, come on in.”
“How far had you gotten?” Rachel asked.
“Aquila missing. What does it mean? How does that fit with everything else?”
Rachel looked uneasy. “It may not. It could be a natural result of what Peri’s gone thru.”
Nick shook his head. “If her brain was dying, Aquila would’ve come back to tell us to let her go. She hasn’t. Peri isn’t dying, Rachel. Okay, the brainwave activity isn’t much, but she isn’t being kept alive by machines. Neither’s Derek. Mike Adley said he found them like that – looking like they were asleep. I think they were in comas before the plane crashed. It could be Darkside an’ I’ve called Profelis to warn him. They may want Derek an’ Peri outta the picture for a while .. but why? It’d be easier to kill ’em but they haven’t done that. An’ Aquila is missing. I keep coming back to that. She isn’t here an’ she isn’t in the other places she should be. She has to be someplace else .. an’ Derek’s there too.”
“Nick .. I really think you’re stretching imagination,” Rachel murmured, concerned.
“Maybe I am,” he agreed. “I just want you to think about it. Nothing about this crash makes any sense. There should’ve been wreckage over miles – there isn’t. There should’ve been an explosion an’ a fireball – there wasn’t. The pilots didn’t panic or do anything wrong yet the Lear lost all power, fell from thirty thousand feet an’ glided to a safe landing so no one was hurt or killed. That’s impossible. Y’know Adley said the pilot had no control except the angle? Without hydraulics .. he couldn’t even do that. He had no control, period. Yet that jet came down with no fatalities? We have to be looking at it the wrong way.”
“Those are the facts. What other way is there?” Alex frowned.
“This.” Suddenly, to him, it was obvious. “Aquila’s on a mission an’ Derek’s with her. The boss protected them.”
“The hand of God,” Rachel recalled.
“Maybe. The boss is a pretty powerful guy. The boss’s boss even more so.”
“It seems very elaborate,” Alex remarked. “If it is a mission, why go thru all this? Why not just .. go on a mission? She’s done that before, Nick.”
He shook his head. “I don’t have all the answers, Alex. I’m just looking at the facts from a different angle. It makes as much sense as an attack by the Darkside.” He shuffled thru the notes again. “A cup of coffee, not spilled. C’mon. A total power loss, yet the nav lights were working and the cabin lights were on when Mike Adley stepped inside and everything checks out fine now. How is that? Very convenient. The crew an’ the passengers had minor injuries because they didn’t tense up. The crew never cursed, didn’t even pray. They said nothing. They were already gone. The plane didn’t disintegrate. It came apart. You saw how neat it all was. Adley said it too – neat as you like. Mike Stannis might be a great pilot but no one’s that good, not from that height an’ with no controls. An’, if it is the Darkside, why bother with doing this? Why not kill ’em an’ have done with it? I keep seeing Peri on that bed an’ the way she’s doing it for herself.” He looked to Rachel. “That level of brainwave activity .. is that right?”
Rachel slowly shook her head.
“Someone was watching over that plane,” Nick quoted. “An’ someone is still watching over Derek an’ Peri in the hospital.”
He watched them, trying to gage the reaction. Alex was carefully neutral. Rachel had her fingers to her lips, frowning as she thought it over.
“You think I’m pushing the bounds of credibility,” Nick commented. “I could be. I could be totally wrong. On the other hand, I could have it right. It covers the bases, doesn’t it?”
“Sure, but – ” Rachel began.
“But it means going on faith.” Nick half smiled. “You were the one who said I shouldn’t give up.”
“I know but … ” Rachel shook her head. “It’s tough for me.”
“When we lost you and Derek on that ship,” Alex remarked, “we had a very similar conference to this. Going over the established facts, working with what we had learned for ourselves. We had to take a leap of faith, Rachel. Who would have said, otherwise, that they’d been swept back in time a hundred years? All we knew was that they’d disappeared. Faith took us the rest of the way.”
“All right,” Rachel agreed, drawing in a deep breath. “Let’s assume Nick has gotten the right angle – ”
“He knows the Enforcers better than us,” Alex pointed out. “He knows Peri.”
“Okay, let’s explore that,” Rachel suggested. “Did Peri tell you about a mission coming up?”
“No, but she wouldn’t,” Nick answered. “But .. just before she left to go to Haystone, there was something on her mind.”
“That could’ve been me,” Alex confessed. “I was giving her a hard time.”
“We all kept journals – ” Rachel began.
He headed that one off at the pass. “She burned hers the day after we got back. It could be she was expecting to be called into action.”
“Why Derek?” Rachel asked. “He isn’t an Enforcer. He wouldn’t go on a mission with Peri. He’d be a liability.”
Nick shrugged. “You’re asking me questions I can’t answer.”
“Then we put it aside for now,” Alex decided. “Let’s go eat, have an early night. Maybe something will occur to us. If I remember correctly, we didn’t get the answer to the Santa Theresa mystery until the next day either.”
“Now that is something I can go along with,” Rachel agreed.
Rachel stepped out of the shower and toweled dry. She combed her wet hair then paused to look at her face in the mirror. There was no doubt – Legacy work meant strain. Her jaw was tight. Her eyes looked tense. She tried smiling but it was more a grimace.
During dinner, Nick had been relaxed. He’d found his hope. His hope had fed Alex. Rachel was the outsider, the outcast. She could only see the facts. Before, when they had been searching for Nick and Derek, Kat had believed they were alive somewhere. She’d argued with Rachel about it. All Rachel had been able to do was warn her to expect the worst.
If Derek and Merlin had been missing, Rachel might have found it easier. They weren’t. They were a couple of blocks away in the Chadron Community Hospital. She pulled on her robe and trailed into the bedroom. It was only nine thirty but she felt exhausted. Nervous tension had kept her together since two fifteen that morning. Rachel put on some face cream, towel dried her hair then lay on the bed. Outside, the night was curiously muted. Snow. She closed her eyes.
There hadn’t been that much to investigate in Mike Adley’s field. The cockpit section was tipped forward, plowed into the dirt. The tail section was tipped up, as if the Lear had sat down before breaking apart. The wings, intact, lay about two hundred yards behind. The main cabin was just .. sitting there, slightly buried. It had skidded, digging itself in. But it was all extremely neat. Unnaturally neat.
Rachel tried to put herself in Derek’s place. Sitting comfortably, maybe sleeping a little or maybe talking with Merlin about the conference, a cup of coffee on the table. Cloudy and turbulent. The jet starts to climb. It breaks thru the cloud. The turbulence fades off. And .. the lights go out.
Would he have called to the crew? Panicked ever so slightly? But Merlin was there. Aquila was there too. Rachel had seen Merlin do some amazing things. Lifting a Range Rover over trees. Could she have guided a plane to the ground? Was the strain of doing that the reason why Aquila wasn’t around? Maybe it was. The hand of God could well be right. Another name for the Enforcers was God’s Hand.
Okay, so the lights go off. Why? Why did the power fail? Why did it come back on? There was no timer attached to the wiring or any of the control systems. A glitch? They happened. A short in the wiring. That was an obvious possibility, one they hadn’t found so far but, once the Lear was in the hangar at the airport, they’d strip it down. Planes these days were all fly by wire. Everything worked from the computer and the electrical system. For it to have hit the backups as well could just be bad luck.
Rachel suspected Derek wouldn’t have panicked. He might have felt a thrill of alarm but he wouldn’t have panicked. They’d been strapped in.
She blinked. Strapped in. Not in crash positions but just .. sitting there. Apparently asleep. And they were still .. asleep. They were missing. Their bodies were here but they were missing. Whereabouts .. currently unknown.
Maybe Nick had gotten the right spin on it after all.
Alex frowned at herself in the mirror. With the others, she’d felt encouraged. The more she’d thought about Nick’s idea, the more it had made sense to her. Now, alone, she felt the hope start to shrink. She tried to hold onto it, to tell herself it was good to believe. They may not have all the answers, but they were on the right track. It would just take a little time but they would solve it. They had to. Somehow, Derek and Merlin had to wake up and be okay.
A mission, that’s all it was. When Aquila was working for an extended period, Merlin’s body went into low maintenance, a virtual shutdown. The best place for her was in the hospital. She could be fed there, kept alive. Why Derek was involved as well, Alex couldn’t begin to guess but she had the comfort of knowing he wasn’t alone. He was with Aquila. Or she hoped he was.
So she’d returned to her room to shower and prepare gratefully for bed. And then it had occurred to her. A question which Nick’s scenario couldn’t account for. The crew. They were in comas too. Alex couldn’t believe they were on the mission as well. That made no sense. Yes, they’d had more injuries but they’d been in the cockpit section. It had broken away from the main cabin and been flung forward, tipping over a little to dig nose first into the soil. A black eye and a gash to the temple .. and two sprained ankles and a dislocated shoulder .. enough to induce coma? Alex didn’t think so. Concussion, yes. Coma .. unlikely. Nick’s idea said the reason they hadn’t been killed or more seriously injured was that they’d already gone. They hadn’t tensed up. That was fine, Alex had no problem with that. But why involve the crew?
The only reason Alex could think was that it was a Darkside attack after all. They wouldn’t care about involving innocent people. They’d relish the chance to strike at two other lives as well as a Legacy Precept and an Enforcer. Innocent people .. meant nothing. The trauma caused to their families would be like a fine wine.
Despite the exhaustion, Alex suddenly wanted to get home. If the Darkside did plan to move against the San Francisco house, she wanted to be there to fight them. With the conference coming up in six weeks or so, they could get in by any number of ways. The contractors refitting the wing. The caterers. People just delivering goods. Nick was here, not there doing the checks. This was all a delaying tactic. The plane crash kept them in Chadron, Nebraska. Loyalty kept them close to Derek. It was a mistake. He wouldn’t be impressed by their loyalty if the Legacy foundered under a broadside from the enemy.
Alex crawled into bed and switched off the light. She didn’t think she’d sleep at all but, to her surprise, she slept quickly.
Nick carefully stacked all his notes and left them on the table. It had been a brutally long day and not just in the length of time he’d been awake. He’d gone thru a wringer. Fear, anger, relief, helplessness, hopelessness, then hope again. He’d ridden a roller coaster of emotions. Now that he felt he had a handle on what was happening, he confronted the one thing he could not discuss with the others. It was simply too private and too devastating. Merlin had been pregnant.
He had refused to think about it all day. It was in the past and couldn’t be changed, and he’d had other, more pressing responsibilities to deal with. So he’d shut it away until such time as he could examine it alone. That time had come.
First, there was the confusing question of how had it even been possible? Merlin had undergone surgery long before she ever met Nick. She’d been honest about it, right at the start. I can’t have kids, she’d told him. Vasectomies could be reversed. Sterilization couldn’t. Not when everything necessary had been taken out. Nick didn’t believe for a moment that she’d lied to him about this. She’d explained her reasons. She wouldn’t have a child so it could be raised like she’d been raised. She wouldn’t do that to a kid. She’d told him the truth. So how could it be possible that she was pregnant? He couldn’t begin to answer that one with any degree of certainty and there was no one he could ask.
The one, very slight possibility which had occurred to him was that she’d changed her mind when he’d asked her. Maybe .. just maybe, somehow, the boss could have made it happen. People were cured by miracles. Maybe Merlin had .. grown a new set of ovaries and a womb. Nick couldn’t quite believe she’d do that though, that she’d change her mind. She had always been so sure on this one question.
Then, there was the agonizing question of whether she had, in fact, known she was pregnant. Eight to ten weeks. It was in its very early stages. Merlin didn’t have monthly periods – she had nothing there to bleed. So maybe she hadn’t realized. But .. if she had .. was that why she’d suddenly distanced herself? Had she been considering abortion of his baby?
She’d lost it now, whether she’d been thinking about it or not. She didn’t know because she was way under. Nick, on the other hand, did know and he mourned the loss of his child as if it had been born only to die in his arms. His child. He would have been a father. Suddenly, he felt such a twist of longing to experience fatherhood that he felt choked. Tears burned his eyes. The chance to see a son or a daughter running around, to play catch, to do all the things he’d never done with his own father .. it was gone. He’d never know it. Never. It made him hurt so profoundly that he wondered if he’d ever get over it.
Finally, he thought about what she had intended to say to him when she’d gotten home. There had been remoteness these past few weeks, he couldn’t deny it. But, when he’d spoken with her only yesterday evening, she’d sounded different. When she got back, they’d talk. Now he might never know.
No, Nick refused to even consider that. Merlin was in a coma because Aquila was on a mission. One day, when the mission was over, Merlin would wake up again. That was not in question. He believed that. And he would have to tell her about the baby, that it had been there when she’d taken off from New York but, despite what he’d said to Alex and Rachel, there had been one fatality as a result of the crash. He wondered what her reaction would be. Would she cry? Would she be relieved? Or would she distance herself from his grief and longing?
Nick really hoped she would cry so he wouldn’t have to cry alone.
Over breakfast the following morning, they discussed what the day should hold for them. Rachel wanted to go to the hospital to see if there had been any improvement or if they were at least ready to be moved. Nick wanted to go back to the field or to the hangar. Maybe Alex could get some kind of vision. Alex wanted to go home.
“Why? We’ve got too much to do here,” Nick pointed out.
“Because .. I just feel I should be there. If the Darkside – ”
“They’re not involved in this,” he cut in brusquely. “I thought we’d agreed on that.”
“It’s still open,” Rachel interceded. “Profelis is there, Alex. He can smell the Darkside at .. fifty yards. We need you here. Like Nick says, you could see something. You did on the Shamrock.”
Nick leaned forward and stretched out a hand. “Alex, you trust Peri, don’t you?”
“Sure,” Alex replied at once.
“Because she’s what she is, an’ not who she is, right?”
Alex shook her head. “Both. What an’ who.”
“Then you can trust Profelis in exactly the same way,” he said, squeezing her fingers.
Alex yielded. “Okay.”
“What’s brought this on?” Rachel inquired, frowning slightly. “You were fine last night. In good spirits. I felt left out because I had doubts whereas you two didn’t.”
“I know. I just .. got to thinking,” Alex confessed. “Nick, your scenario does work but .. where do the crew fit in? They can’t be on the mission too .. can they?”
He sat back. “Let’s add it to our list of questions. Alex, all I have is a gut feeling that I’m on the right lines here. Doesn’t mean I am right. I’m no substitute for Peri. You had her on the Shamrock. You had Aquila. We don’t. We gotta figure this for ourselves.”
Rachel sipped her coffee. “Don’t write yourself off so fast, Nick. Have you thought about a candle in the window? It worked before. Aquila didn’t know where Peri was so she couldn’t get back. A mission is a mission but it could be here. In this town, even. It doesn’t mean .. downstairs.”
He nodded. “Yeah, I have thought about it but it’s different this time. I can’t go into details because I’m sworn to secrecy. This time, if she was anywhere, Profelis could find her. He can’t.”
“You could at least try. If she’d come back for anyone, it’d be you,” Alex remarked.
“Okay,” he agreed.
“Well .. I say we should check in with the hospital first, then go back to the crash site,” Rachel declared. “The sooner we get Derek an’ Peri back home, the more we’ll be in control of all this.”
The nurse waved them on past her station while she talked on the phone. As the doors swung shut behind them, Silas Park stepped into the corridor.
“Oh! Good morning! Great news!”
Rachel felt her heart lift and her eyes light. “Are they – ?”
“Oh .. no. I’m sorry. There’s been no change overall in the condition of Dr Rayne and Mrs Boyle. But the crew woke up.”
“When?” Nick frowned.
“It was around .. eleven forty five yesterday morning. Wonderful news for their families who’d only just started a vigil by their bedsides. We’re monitoring them, of course, but there appears to be no ill effects or residual damage. We hope to be able to release them this afternoon.” Dr Park beamed at them. “Of course, this is hopeful news for Mrs Boyle and Dr Rayne. It could just be a question of time.”
“You said no change overall in their condition,” Alex recalled.
He nodded quickly. “There was an increase in brainwave activity around one yesterday afternoon. Not to anywhere near normal standards but an improvement. It’s dropped back again but not to the same level as it was. So no change overall but definitely looking up. We’ve moved them to their own rooms. This way.”
They followed him down the passageway and into a side corridor.
“I have an air ambulance on standby,” Rachel told him. “How soon can they be flown home?”
Silas Park slowed as he thought. “They’re stable now. I could release them today into your care.”
“Are you sure?” Nick asked rather quickly.
“Dr Rayne’s in here,” Dr Park gestured. “Yes, I’m sure. If you’re ready to go home, there’s no medical reason why they can’t leave with you.”
“We’re not ready,” Nick stated. “Maybe in twenty four hours.”
Alex and Rachel nodded their agreement to this and went into Derek’s room.
“Are you sure?” Nick asked again. “She had major surgery yesterday.”
“I know but .. I can’t explain it. She is healing remarkably fast,” Silas Park replied. “Perhaps it’s her age. Usually, with a procedure like this, it’s .. ten days before we can remove the sutures and six months to gain full health. Your wife has astonishing recuperative powers, Mr Boyle. Sutures in .. five days and very probably full health in three to four months.”
It’d be less than that, Nick thought as he nodded. “Okay. We’ll let you know what time the air ambulance will get here tomorrow.”
“Mrs Boyle is in the next room,” Dr Park said. “I’ll look forward to your call.”
Nick went down the corridor to the room next door. As he opened the door, he pulled up sharply. “What are you doing here?”
“Are you kidding around with me?” Joe asked on a sigh. “She’s my daughter. Where else would I be?”
Nick breathed out. “I’m sorry, Joe. I just wasn’t expecting anyone to be here.”
“Like you, you mean? Last I heard, you were married to Peri.” Joe’s eyes hardened. “Yet .. she’s in a plane crash and I turn up to find no one sitting at her bedside. She’s all alone in here. Don’t you care anymore, Nick? All gotten too much for you, has it?”
Nick’s hands curled into fists. “I was investigating the crash that put her in here – ”
“That’s what the FAA crash team is for,” Joe retaliated.
“They can’t explain it. Best I’ve come up with is that Peri’s here because Aquila isn’t. How’d you find out about this? Have you seen Aquila?” Nick asked, holding on to his temper.
“No, not recently,” Joe replied. “I found out because Profelis told me.”
“He’s supposed to be guarding the house, not taking timeout!” Nick flared.
“Relax, kid. He’s doing his job. He called Alopex an’ Alopex came to pass on Profelis’ message,” Joe returned, then frowned. “What’s all this about Aquila?”
“Oh, he didn’t tell you about that?” Nick sounded sarcastic but he was mad.
Shauna emerged from nothing. “Shut up, the both of you! Peri doesn’t need to hear you fighting. Nick, Joe, sit down. Talk like the adults you are. C’mon,” she added, her voice softening, “I know this is all down to worry. You’re not really mad at each other.”
They sank onto the chairs, the bed between them.
“What’s going on, Nick?” Shauna asked.
Nick started with the phone call and related everything up to and including the conversation with Dr Park just before he’d come in but he didn’t say a word about the baby. That was between him and Merlin, and no one else.
“Why couldn’t Profelis find Aquila?” he asked.
“It’s puzzling,” Joe agreed. “But it could be time for his test. We don’t know an’ we won’t ask. You know the test is unique and personal.”
Nick frowned. “Will it affect his ability to guard the house against attack?”
“He’ll be okay. You’ll be flying home tomorrow. He can last that long,” Joe declared firmly. “An’, anyway, it may not be the test.”
Nick accepted that then hesitated. “Did Peri visit with you recently?”
“Yes, a few weeks back,” Shauna replied. “She asked if we’d noticed anything. Joe hadn’t but I had. Something was building.”
“You think maybe it’s built enough for her to be on a mission?” Nick ventured.
Shauna thought about it, her eyes narrowed. “We asked her at the time and she couldn’t tell us. But I sensed she knew something more than she was saying. I’ve noticed the .. whatever it is .. has picked up. Whether it’s enough for Aquila to be activated .. that I don’t know.”
“Derek’s in the same situation,” Nick said. “He’s in the room next door. Would he go on a mission with Aquila?”
Joe let out a breath. “Anything’s possible, Nick. It’s unlikely, I have to say, but possible. You got any idea who brought down the plane?”
“None,” Nick admitted. “I don’t think it’s the Darkside. It sounds reasonable but .. it’s too easy. I got Profelis on standby, just in case I’m wrong. But, if it isn’t the Darkside, who’s left? Who’s that powerful?”
“If it isn’t the bad guys … ” Joe mused. “Has to be the good guys.”
Nick nodded slowly. “That’s what I thought too.”
Joe and Shauna agreed to stay at the hospital to keep watch over Derek and Merlin. Nick had asked if they could heal them but they said they couldn’t. They weren’t sick. They were just .. absent. Trying to force a return might jeopardize any mission they were on. But they’d keep watch and, if there was any change, good or bad, one of them would come to find Nick and tell him.
His next stop was with the crew. Nick wanted to make sure he’d covered all the bases and, if they were being released this afternoon, he only had now to do it.
William Osborn looked like he’d been in a bar fight. One eye was swollen shut but the other was just badly bruised and his head was bandaged. His girlfriend and his mother glanced round as Nick warily entered.
“Hi. I’m with the Luna Foundation in San Francisco,” he began. “Are you up to answering some questions?”
“Sure,” Osborn nodded carefully. “Come on in. Mom, would you take Cindy for some coffee?”
Nick stood aside to let them out. “I’ll be five minutes, max,” he told them as they passed then closed the door behind them. He turned toward the bed. “How you feeling?”
“Grateful. I should be dead. I know it. This is a small price to pay,” he replied, gesturing at the bandage.
“Can you tell me what happened?” Nick asked.
“Not really,” Osborn admitted. “We’d just finished our climb to get thru the turbulence. An off wind stream, y’know? Then the lights went out. Mike started to react and an alarm sounded. Next thing, everything died on us. We radioed the tower to report it an’ request an emergency landing but we were sure we’d crash before that. We had no controls, no way to affect our pitch. We were descending pretty fast, plunged back into the cloud and then .. I’m not sure. There was a bright light, like the moon on cloud, y’know? Then we hit the turbulence again and I must’ve smacked my head because the next thing I remember is waking up here with the mother of all headaches and a face like I’d gone ten rounds with Tyson.” He shifted. “I heard Mike woke up too but not Dr Rayne or Mrs Boyle. I’m sorry. I don’t know what went wrong.”
“Well, thanks for your time,” Nick nodded, “an’ take it easy, okay?”
“Are they gonna blame us?” Osborn asked.
“Not if I have any say in it,” Nick promised.
Mike Stannis told much the same story. He didn’t remember passing out and had no idea how he came by his injuries but thought he must have suffered them in the impact. He was baffled and apologetic, grateful to be alive, but swore categorically that there’d been no warning of an imminent power failure. The systems had been fine at Des Moines. Like Osborn, he wanted to know if they’d be blamed because, if they were, he’d fight them the whole way down the line. Nick told him the same thing – not if he had any say in it.
Finally, Nick went to see how Derek was doing. It was almost obscene to see such a vibrant, colorful man so inert and inactive. Nick felt uncomfortable, like he was spying.
“How’s Peri?” Alex asked, gently putting Derek’s hand back on the covers.
“Fine,” he said shortly.
“Nick, c’mon,” Rachel sighed.
“I mean it. I’ve just spoken with her parents. I asked them to heal Peri an’ Derek – they can’t. An’ the reason they can’t is, in their words, because they’re not sick. They’re just absent. So Peri is fine. So is Derek. It kinda bears out what I’ve said since last night.”
“Do they know where Derek an’ Peri are?” Alex asked.
Nick shook his head. “But Peri did go visit with them to ask if anything was going on that she should know about. Only time she does that is when she’s prepping. It’s a mission. Has to be.”
“So .. why did the plane come down?” Rachel asked. “Look, you an’ Derek have ‘been on a mission’ with Peri. You were at the house. You didn’t get in an accident, you just .. lay down on a bed. This whole crash thing is .. too much.”
“Maybe it had to be,” Alex said quietly and they looked at her. “Maybe there was no choice. The time was then and .. it had to be. If they could’ve gotten back to the city in time, maybe they would’ve just .. lay down on a bed. But the time was yesterday in the early hours and they had to leave.”
She rose. “The only way we’ll know for sure is when they wake up an’ tell us. But, for now, let’s go see if I can pick something up from the wreck.”
Terry Fitzconnor waved a hand as Nick trudged thru the snow. “Hi, how you doing?” he called.
“Making about as much progress as you,” Nick called back.
Fitzconnor laughed briefly. “It’s a puzzle. We have to put something in the report.”
“At this rate, it’s gonna have to be ‘act of God’,” Nick remarked. He was speaking the truth, Fitzconnor just didn’t realize it.
“Tanks have been drained of avgas so we’ve moved the wings and tail section over to the airport so we can work in relatively more comfort. Nose section is being loaded now. Then we’ll take the main cabin.”
“Okay if we take another look?” Rachel asked, shivering.
“Sure. We’ve been thru it with a fine toothed comb. Nothing there. Beat yourself up,” he invited, waved, and trudged away.
They paused to watch the nose section being winched onto a low loader then carefully climbed thru the gaping hole into the cabin. Snow had blown in during the night and dusted the beige carpet.
“They’re gone,” Rachel reported as she turned to face them. Alex removed her gloves and clenched her hands into fists before flexing her fingers.
“Wish me luck,” she whispered and put her hands on one of the leather upholstered seats.
For a moment, all she felt was the cold. She closed her eyes and forced herself to relax. Nick watched her carefully, seeing the tension seep from her shoulders, her face. Rachel found she was holding her breath.
Alex flinched, very slightly. She was there.
There was a faint drone in the air. A slight vibration under her feet. The engines. Derek closed his attaché case and put it on the carpet. Merlin was looking out the window.
“The conference should go well,” Derek said. “I’m sorry you had to be dragged along. You could have concluded your discussions with Paul over the phone.”
Alex felt her heart twist. He looked so .. normal. So alive.
“It’s okay,” Merlin replied. “You never really know what’s important to you until you get some miles between you an’ it.” She turned from the window. “Seem to be thru that turbulence.”
“The seatbelt light is still on,” Derek remarked mildly and Merlin grinned. “Soon, you’ll be able to have that vodka martini you’ve promised yourself.”
“While you stick with coffee,” she accused. “You’ll never sleep.”
Alex felt no tension in the atmosphere at all. It was relaxed. Banter back and forth. Suddenly, with no warning, Derek slumped. Merlin started to stiffen as she reacted, but then she, too, sagged. The lights went out and Alex was plunged into darkness. Somewhere ahead, a warning siren began to shrill and the plane began a sharp descent.
She gasped and opened her eyes.
“Well?” Rachel asked anxiously.
“Nick was right,” Alex said on a breath. “They were gone before the power failed. There’s only one correction to the idea.”
She looked up. “Derek was unconscious before Peri.”