Chapter 5

Chadron / San Francisco



          Alex’s vision had put a new and different slant on things.  Alex had tried again, and a third time, in an attempt to learn more, to put layers on the bare skeleton.  But she’d seen nothing.  The jet had passed on its secret knowledge and, now, it was just metal, wool, leather and plastic.

          They drove back to the hotel in silence and sat in the lounge area.  Nick ordered coffee while Rachel made her call to the air ambulance service.  She gave them Silas Park’s name and number so they could work out the fine details.  Rachel said she’d go back with Derek and Merlin.  Nick and Alex would either go domestic or charter a plane home.

          That was the practicalities dealt with.  There seemed nothing more the wreck could tell them.  The priority now was getting home and figuring out what in hell was happening.

          Hot coffee helped warm numb fingers and cold bodies.  They were at a table near the window which gave illumination yet not a bright, intrusive light.  It felt right.  Too much light just made the shadows blacker.  A gentle glow often helped reveal far more.

          For several long minutes, no one said a word.  Then Nick frowned and finally said it for everyone.

          “Derek went first?”

          Alex nodded.  “They were talking about the Forum.  Peri said about the turbulence being over, and Derek pointed out that the seatbelt light was still on so she couldn’t fix herself a drink.  Then he sagged.  There was no warning.  His speech wasn’t slurred.  He wasn’t acting in a strange way.  He just slumped down.”

          “What did Peri do?” Rachel frowned.

          “She started to tense, like she was going to go to him.  It was a split second before she sagged as well.”  Alex shrugged.  “A couple of seconds after that, the lights went out, there was a siren up front, and the jet started a steep descent.”

          “A siren ..?” Rachel echoed.  “Not a total power loss then.”

          “The crew told me much the same.  Lights went out, alarm sounded, then everything died,” Nick remarked.  “What were they saying, Derek an’ Peri?”

          “I told you, they were talking about the Forum,” Alex replied.

          Nick leaned forward.  The comment about Merlin fixing herself a drink suggested to him that she hadn’t known she was pregnant. 

          “Alex, I may not hear her voice for a long time,” he pointed out.  “Can’t you just tell me what she was saying?”

          “I’m sorry, Nick.  I never thought.  Of course, I’ll tell you.  Um … ”  Alex closed her eyes so she could better remember.  “Derek said .. he was sorry she had to be dragged along.  She could’ve concluded her discussion with Paul over the phone.  Peri was looking out the window.  She said .. it was okay, and you never really know what’s important to you until you get some miles between you and it.”

          Nick studied the table top.  Rachel gently squeezed his hand.

          “Then she said about being thru the turbulence – which bears out what we heard from Sciavelli – and Derek pointed out that the seatbelt light was still on.  Soon, she’d be able to fix herself the vodka martini she’d promised.  And she accused him of sticking with coffee and that he’d never sleep.  Then it happened.”

          “So they didn’t put on their seatbelts prior to the crash.  They were already strapped in from the turbulence,” Rachel commented.

          “And Derek went first …  What kinda mission could it be?  He isn’t with Aquila.  Aquila’s with him,” Nick added.  “Puts a different angle on it.”

          “Okay .. what kinda different angle?” Rachel wondered.

          Nick shook his head.  “If it had been the other way around, I would’ve said this was dangerous an’ Derek is just along for the ride because it’s safer for him.  This way … ”

          “Maybe – and I really don’t mean this to sound insulting, Nick – it’s a mission where brains count more than muscle.  I know Peri can think.  She’s very smart.  But maybe a different kind of smart is needed.  Someone a bit more .. devious,” Alex said with a tight shrug.  “We all know Derek has his moments of keeping things from us just as we know he has his reasons for doing it.  And sometimes those reasons don’t make sense to us.”

          “For sure,” Nick agreed with feeling.

          “So maybe it’s a situation like that.  Peri isn’t devious,” Alex commented.  “She lies, yes, but only to a direct question.  She isn’t devious in general terms.”

          “Which means .. she’s probably along as backup,” Rachel ventured.  “It’s a puzzle, a mystery, rather than a dangerous situation.”  She fell silent for a moment.  “If this is Derek’s call .. he may need us to be home.  I don’t know for a fact, but he may need our help to figure it out.  If he can, he’ll somehow get a message to us.  Being here isn’t helping anyone.”

          Alex nodded her agreement.  “I think I’ll go take a nap for a while.  Something tells me I won’t get much time once I’m home.  Meet you later for dinner.”

          When they were alone, Rachel cast a sideways glance at her remaining companion.  “You wanna talk about it?”

          “About what?” Nick asked casually but there was a guarded edge to his voice.

          “Whatever’s eating at you.  C’mon, Nick.  How long have I known you now?”  She shook her head.  “I know when something’s on your mind.  Am I right in thinking you an’ Peri had a fight all those weeks back?”

          “No.  You’d be way off base.”

          “You haven’t been getting along.”

          “There’s been a little distance but .. when I spoke with her last, she said we’d talk when she got home.  She never made it.  I got all these things locked away inside that I can’t tell her.  I just have to be patient.”

          “And is that all?”

          “What d’you mean?” he asked, his eyes narrowing.

          “When Dr Park said about releasing them, you were very quick to ask if now was all right.”  She watched him.  “I haven’t asked what he wanted to speak with you about, alone.  I was hoping you’d share it voluntarily.  And I couldn’t help noticing that, when you left the hospital the first time, you were upset.  Alex and I saw Derek and we were relieved, not upset.”

          Nick’s mouth opened, then closed.  His face was animated for a moment as he struggled with the need to talk and the urge to keep it private.

          “Rachel .. I can’t tell you.  I wish I could.  God knows, it is tearing me apart but I can’t talk about it with anyone except Peri.  Then it’s her decision.”  He looked up, his heart in his eyes.  “I know that, if you asked as one professional to another, Dr Park would let you see her notes.  I’m asking you as a friend not to look.”

          “Okay,” Rachel accepted, nodding.  “As she an’ Derek will be released into my care for the flight home, can I just ask .. what’s the nature of the problem?  If something happens in the air, I’ll need to know roughly what’s wrong.”

          He hesitated.  “She had surgery.”

          “All right.  I won’t look unless I have a medical need.  Deal?”  She watched him closely.  She wanted him to know she meant every word.

          “Deal,” Nick said.  “Thanks, Rachel.”




          Alex fell asleep quickly again and she dreamed.  It wasn’t exactly an image played out before her mind’s eye, it was more a cluster of sensations.  She could hear a faint, droning buzz, feel a very minor vibration, and she was surrounded by silvery gray light which pulsed and billowed in a very peculiar way. 

          For herself, Alex didn’t feel particularly threatened in this place .. if it actually existed.  She had no memory of ever seeing it before, although the light did remind her a little of the notorious San Francisco fog.  It was really rather restful.  When she woke, Alex put it down to wishful thinking.  The buzz and the vibration was a memory of her vision of being on the Lear.  The light was an indication that she wanted to go home.  She woke with the burning idea that getting home to the city was more than important, it was critical.  To what .. Alex couldn’t begin to guess.  She just felt it and, if there was one thing she’d learned from Derek, it was to trust her feelings.

          She went to pass on this information to Nick.  He was going thru his notes again, more to pass the time than learn anything new.

          “Hi, sleep well?” he asked, moving aside to let her in.  “You look better for it.”

          “Actually, yes, I feel better for it.  It all seems to have come together here.  I’m looking forward to getting home tomorrow.”  She sat on the end of his bed.  “We trust Rachel, don’t we?”

          Nick frowned and half smiled.  “Er .. yeah.  Strange question to ask, Alex.”

          “What I meant is,” she explained, “that we don’t have to wait around here for the air ambulance to arrive.  Rachel knows what she’s doing.  We can go earlier.”  She glanced up.  “Be there to meet her .. rather than following along behind.”

          Slowly, Nick sat beside her.  “What’s the reason?”

          She shrugged.

          “C’mon, Alex,” he coaxed.  “You got a feeling, is that it?  I know about going with your gut.  I won’t dismiss it outta hand.”

          Alex let out a breath.  “Okay, yeah.  I have a feeling.  I woke up with it.  We have to get back to the city.  For some weird reason, it’s crucial that we’re there an’ not here.  I can’t explain it any more than that.  I have no proof.”

          “Is the house in danger?  Is it going to be attacked?” he frowned.

          She shook her head.  “And I don’t have details, just .. a feeling.  Nick, I can go on alone if you want to wait here and see Rachel safely on her way.  I’d understand if you want to do that.  But I have to go.  I think I’m needed there.  Why ..?  Your guess would be as good as mine.”

          “Okay.  Call the airport, get us two seats on the first flight out in the morning.” Nick decided.

          “Thank you,” Alex said with a faint smile.  “I wish I knew where they were, and what they’re doing there.”

          “We’ll find out soon enough.”  He paused.  “Maybe this getting home in a hurry thing is just conscience.  The Forum.  Andrew on his own, having to deal alone.  He knows more than we do, right now.”

          “Maybe it is,” Alex agreed.  “There is plenty to get done, that’s for sure.”

          “You ready to go down to dinner?” he asked.

          “Yeah.  Let’s go find Rachel.”




          Dinner was another planning session.  Alex made a call to the airport and reserved two seats on the eight fifteen flight.  They had to be checked in by five fifteen.  Rachel had already received a call to say the air ambulance – another Lear – would be at the airport at ten forty five and would be ready for patient transfer at eleven fifteen.  Dr Park had confirmed Derek and Merlin would be there on time but Rachel had said she’d come to the hospital anyway.  He’d also reported that there had been no change at all in their condition that day which was rather disappointing but, really, to be expected.  The hospital in San Francisco had called as well to say they were ready for delivery.

          Conversation over dessert was minimal.  They were all thinking of the next day, what it involved, how it might end.

          “I’m looking forward to getting home,” Rachel said on a sigh.  “I can’t fault Dr Park for his diagnosis and his patient care, he’s done a wonderful job.  It’s just .. I know the city.  I know the staff.  They know me.  I feel closer there.  Here .. it’s asking permission all the time.  It’s proving myself.  I just .. wanna get back.  And it’s better for Derek an’ Peri.  To be in a place they know.  An’ Kat wants to visit the hospital, see them.  I don't think she really believes me when I tell her they’re as fine as they can be.  She has to see it for herself.”

          “Is that the only reason you wanna get home?” Nick asked, frowning.

          “As far as I’m aware, yes,” she replied.  “Why?  Should I have another reason?”

          Nick glanced at Alex who, smiling wryly, explained her own reasons for wanting to get home.  When she’d done, Rachel nodded.

          “Now you put it like that .. it’s strange.  There is a .. strong tendency to see it as more than important.  It’s strange because there’s no immediate medical need.”  They both looked to Nick.  “What about you?  You got any feelings one way or the other?” Rachel asked.

          He shook his head.  “Not beyond the bulk standard I feel better there, no.  Not that I’m aware of, anyway.  If the house is under threat, I should be there.  I got a ton of checking to do before we can let anyone in to work.”  He leaned back, one hand idly toying with his coffee cup.  “We may have to declare some rooms off limits.”

          “Of course .. the family rooms,” Alex suddenly realized.  “Derek has to be the one to go in there first.  If he isn’t here to do that .. we can’t do it for him.  It’d be wrong.”

          “Is there any way we could put some of the Precepts in Peri’s house?” Rachel suggested.  “That’s close enough to the island.  A lot closer than the city.”

          “I don’t see that as a problem,” Nick nodded.  “She did say we could use it as a guest lodge.  If they double up, we could put up .. twelve of ’em.  Take the strain off Andrew a little.  Profelis would jump at the chance to play host.  An’ I can ferry ’em over in the chopper.”

          Talking about the Forum was good, Alex felt, but, until Derek and Merlin were back in the city, she felt somehow it was wrong and she hunched forward.

          “It looks like this is a mission,” she began, returning to the subject rather than changing it, “but .. how long is it likely to last?”

          “That’s impossible to say, Alex,” Nick answered.  “Could be days, could be weeks.  It depends on the mission.”

          “Why’d you ask?” Rachel frowned.

          Alex sighed.  “I want Derek to host the Forum.  It was his idea an’ it’d be such a shame if he had to miss it.”




          There had been only one positive benefit from the phone call from the cops in Chadron – no one had been given the chance to pack a lot of bags.  Nick had only a duffel which he’d hastily crammed with underwear, a spare sweater, another pair of denim jeans, a few shirts and a wash bag.  Things he’d thrown in fast.  He wasn’t a fastidious dresser and didn’t give a damn if things got creased to hell.  After dinner, he returned to his room, threw his clothes back in the bag, shoved in his notes and, apart from packing the wash bag, was ready to leave at four thirty the next morning.  Then, because he wasn’t feeling tired but was feeling a little guilty that he hadn’t spent much time there, he went to the hospital.

          First, he looked in on Derek and, again, had the odd feeling that he was spying.  Derek didn’t look sick.  In fact, he looked like the biggest fake in the world.  Nick half expected him to open one eye, wink and admit he was taking some timeout.  But he didn’t.  He lay in his bed, neat, clean, and completely out of it.

          “Boss .. we’re taking you home in the morning,” Nick reported softly.  “I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do or not.  Maybe you won’t find your way back but there’s no reason for you to stay here.  And Alex thinks we should be in the city.  So does Rachel.  I’ll hold it together till you get back, okay?  But I’m not doing it permanently.”

          He patted Derek’s forearm and then retreated to the corridor.  In the next room, Shauna was sitting at Merlin’s bedside and she glanced up with a smile when Nick came in.

          “How she doing?” he asked.

          “No change.  She’s absolutely fine, Nick.  Don’t worry about her.”

          He hesitated.  “You do know that .. I wasn’t here because – ”

          “Nick, you hate hospitals.  I know that, so does Joe, an’ be honest here – what could you do?  Sit here, hold her hand, talk to her ..?  She can’t hear you.  It isn’t like she’s trapped somewhere inside her head.  Her body’s here but she’s a long way off.”

          She turned.  “Joe went to ask some people,” Shauna admitted.  “He didn’t like it that Aquila’s missing.  Aquila .. is very important to us, all of us.  It gives us, as her parents, certain rights to make demands.”

          “And?” Nick inquired, coming closer.

          “The boss put Aquila on standby several weeks ago.  Thinking back, it was around the time she came to visit with us.  A mission well within her capability.  The boss confirmed that’s what she’s doing now.  It’s important but she’s only doing security.  Yes, she may have to fight but it shouldn’t be too big a task for Aquila.  There’s another one of us here as backup on the same mission.  He’s on his way to San Francisco as we speak.  He may even be there already.  And,” Shauna said, “I can tell you where Aquila is right now.”

          Nick swallowed.  It couldn’t be downstairs.  Downstairs was dangerous.  Shauna had spoken matter of factly and what she had said so far hadn’t intimated that kind of danger.  “Where is she?”

          She looked up.  “In limbo.  Not this world, not the other side.  That’s why Profelis couldn’t find her.  Limbo is a place we can’t enter without help from above.”

          “Between life an’ death.”

          She nodded.  “I’ve been there.  Once.  It’s a strange place, Nick, but not scary.  It’s actually very restful.  It’s .. a holding area.  It’s a very safe place.  It’s protected.”

          “You say she couldn’t get in without help.”

          “We were never intended to go there.  Our purpose is to fight evil, as you know.  Evil has no place in limbo.  It isn’t the forest this side of the river.  The newly dead inhabit the forest.  Limbo is .. not death.  For Aquila to be there means she was put there and, by inference, Derek is there too.”

          “How about getting out again?” he frowned.

          “I found it no problem getting out.  When the time’s right, they’ll leave.”

          Nick nodded, watching Merlin on the bed.  “An’ come back.”

          “Possibly.  Possibly not.  I don’t want to raise your hopes, Nick.  It depends on the mission.  Limbo is … ”  Shauna thought.  “It’s like sanctuary.  It has no time.  It allows a breathing space to reflect and examine past decisions, make new choices.  It’s like the calm before the storm or the eye of a hurricane.  It’s a very flexible, fluid environment which can be made to work for you if you know how to work it.  Aquila does.  Right now, she is very safe.  So is Derek.”

          “You find out what the mission is?” Nick asked.

          At that, Shauna’s lips compressed and she shook her head.  “The boss wouldn’t tell us.  He only said that, if she prepared properly, this would be a stroll in the park for her.  That’s all we needed to know.”  She drew in a breath.  “Joe, of course, wasn’t going to accept that so he’s asking more questions of others.  I heard that Dr Park today saying you’re going home tomorrow.”

          “Yeah.  Alex an’ I are flying on ahead.  Peri an’ Derek are going with Rachel.  We feel there’s a need for us to be back in the city.  Alex has a feeling.  Her hunches are sound.  I trust ’em.”

          “Why did Peri have surgery?” Shauna asked, catching him off balance.

          Nick went cold.  “I .. I’d rather not answer that.  It isn’t .. that I don’t trust you, Shauna, it’s just that .. it’s private.  I need to speak with Peri first.  If she says I can tell you, I will, or she will.  Until then, I’m not telling anyone.  I haven’t even told Rachel an’ she’s a doctor.”  He hesitated, seeing the hurt on the woman’s face.  “Shauna, I wish I could.  I could really use talking it over with someone.  But I can’t.  It would be breaking a trust.  You understand, don’t you?”

          Reluctantly, Shauna nodded.  “Yes.  And I respect your decision.  I won’t ask again.”

          “Look, you an’ Joe have done a great job riding shotgun here.  I really appreciate it.  Is there any chance you can come back to the city an’ continue?”

          “Of course,” she smiled.  “We can’t put a candle in the window.  Someone has to be here to light the way home .. for her and for Derek.”




          When Nick was finished at the hospital, he drove out to the airport and the hangar where the Lear’s remains had been brought.  It was almost nine by that time but Terry Fitzconnor and his team were still there, crawling on and thru the wreckage in a vain attempt to find out answers.

          “Hey, man, how’s it going?” Nick called.

          “Well … ”  Fitzconnor’s face screwed up as he considered his options.  “Think I have to say .. it isn’t.  I have to put something in the report.  The crash isn’t due to pilot error, so I can’t put that.  It isn’t due to mechanical or electrical faults, so that’s out too.  Short answer is .. I don’t know what made this jet plane fall outta the sky .. an’ it’s really pissing me off.”

          Nick had the answer but Fitzconnor wouldn’t believe it and certainly couldn’t use it.  “Could the turbulence have loosened a connection which the impact set right?” he suggested, frowning to show he was obviously concerned.

          “I don’t think so,” the older man stated.

          Nick shrugged.  “Accidents sometimes just happen.  Combination of events at the wrong time.  Sometimes, there is no fault to be ascribed.”

          “This jet is .. six and one half months old, practically brand new.  It’s been excellently maintained.  Hasn’t been in the air long enough to suffer wear an’ tear.”

          “The turbulence theory covers the bases.  It’s something to put in your report.  If this was an inquest, you could have an open verdict.  It isn’t an inquest and you have to state a reason .. so, if Mike Stannis an’ his co pilot weren’t in the wrong, and the jet is as sound now as it was when it took off, albeit in more pieces, then it has to be an external factor such as the weather.  Why not put that?” Nick asked.

          Fitzconnor slowly nodded.  “Sure.  Thanks for the suggestion.  Y’know what I find tough to handle?”

          Nick shook his head.

          “Your wife’s in a coma in the hospital.  Her long term prognosis isn’t good.  You seem okay with that.  Any other guy would be all over me demanding answers.  If I said it was the weather, he’d say that isn’t good enough.  Find me a reason, goddammit, find me someone I can sue.”

          Nick shrugged.  “I’m not any other guy,” he remarked.  “Look, I just swung by to say I’m going home tomorrow.  We all are.”

          Fitzconnor held out a hand.  “Safe journey.”

          “Thanks,” Nick responded.

          “Hey, you took a look around.  Did you find anything?”

          “Not a thing,” Nick lied, “which is why I believe there isn’t any fault here.  It just happened.  But, hey, you keep on beating yourself up trying to find it.”

          “Thanks.  I will,” Fitzconnor sighed, and turned back to the task.




          Alex was asleep by the time Nick got back to the hotel but Rachel was still awake.  “Where’d you go?” she asked.

          “Hospital then out to the airport.  I wanted to give Fitzconnor as much as I could without giving him the truth.  I told him it had to be the weather as that’s the only external force he can accept.”  Nick grinned.  “Couldn’t tell him it was deliberate an’ that it was the good guys who did it.”

          “No,” she agreed wryly.  “We know it for sure?”

          “Yeah.  I spoke with Shauna at the hospital.  It’s definitely a mission.  Right now, Peri an’ Derek are in limbo.  Apparently, it’s a place Enforcers can’t get into without help and, as there’s no evil in there, it was the good guys who put ’em there.  It’s a safe area, Rachel.  Protected.”

          Rachel thought about it.  “If there’s no evil there .. what’s the mission?  Why are they in there?”

          “Shauna doesn’t know that,” he replied.  “Joe could only find out so much before the information flow dried up.  My take on it is that they’re there to figure out a strategy.  Sometime, they will leave an’ do the work, an’ then they’ll wake up again.”  He checked his watch.  “I have to be up early in the morning so … ”

          “Sure; I’m sorry.  I’ll .. see you back in San Francisco,” she smiled.  “Will you be at the airport?”

          He hesitated.  “I can’t do anything to help her, not where she is.  I can do more at the house.  Shauna will be on the plane with you an’ she’ll stay with them in the hospital.  They’re not alone, Rachel.”

          “That’s good to know.  Well, you’d better get going.”

          She watched him go along the hall and unlock his door, then wave and vanish inside.  She returned to her own room where she prepared for bed as if she were on invisible tracks, an automaton who did the usual routine while her mind thought over what she’d just learned.

          Rachel was more than pleased Shauna was at the hospital, she was relieved about it.  Those two bodies were precious.  Without them, Derek and Merlin had nothing to come back to.  Shauna might be sitting there as a worried mother but she could also fight if she had to.  She was their shield.

          As for the rest of it …  Limbo.  Rachel didn’t know much about it but, from her rather sparse recollection, it was the place between life and death.  Not the ‘between place’ which they’d visited before – that was between the light and the dark.  Limbo was another between place.  She imagined that, if a person went thru a dark tunnel toward the light when they were dying, limbo was the place outside the tunnel.  It was the something or the nothing the tunnel cut thru to get to the light.  And, if Derek and Merlin were there .. it didn’t sound promising.

          Oh, she’d heard Nick say there was no evil there, that it was safe, protected, but it was still between life and death.  There was something she’d read once, a piece of graffiti – it had made her laugh at the time but now she saw it from the other direction.  It had been on a poster somewhere and the print had declared ‘The first 3 minutes of life are the most dangerous’.  Someone had written beneath it ‘the last 3 are pretty dodgy too’.  It seemed to her that Derek and Merlin were stuck in those last three minutes .. and time could run out.

          What on earth could they be doing in there?  What kind of strategy could they be working on?  What was the mission?

          She lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, unable to even start to guess.  Yet she knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that going home was all part of it.




          Three hours was a long time to sit and wait in the airport and Alex went back to sleep.  Nick dozed as well, his head resting on a fist.  It was a way to pass the time.  They woke and ate a quick breakfast then, when the call came, boarded the aircraft.  The plane was half empty.  Nick took the seat by the aisle, letting Alex go by the window.  The flight time was over three hours but, with the time zones they’d cross, it meant they’d land about an hour or so after taking off.  That was fine with them.  They had the rest of the day to .. do something.  The feeling was still there and Alex really hoped that, when they did get back to the island, she’d have some idea of what she had to do next.  So far, it was a blank.  She tried to sleep again but she couldn’t.  She doubted if she ever would sleep again on an aircraft.  But, she reminded herself, Derek and Merlin had been awake .. and they’d simply been snatched away.

          She sat and stared out the window all the long way home.




          Rachel was at the hospital by ten, her bag packed ready for the trip, and waiting to supervise the transfer into the ambulance which would take Derek and Merlin to the airport.  She couldn’t see Shauna but she knew she was there.  Dr Park was preparing Derek first, disconnecting the monitors and giving him a final exam.

          “There’s been no change, Dr Corrigan,” he said as he worked.  “No improvement but no deterioration either which is, surely, more important.  They’re both as stable as we could hope.  We’ve been boosting their immune systems with antibiotics and vitamins.  If this goes on a long time, I’d advise physiotherapy to stop the muscles wasting.”

          Rachel recalled the last time Merlin had been like this – four weeks had left her physically very frail, for all of a few days.

          “Mrs Boyle, of course, has had surgery recently so the drain is still in.  You’ll have to watch that.  It’s a shame for someone so young.”

          “Dr Park,” Rachel began, “don’t tell me any more about Peri’s condition.  Nick has asked me not to look at her notes unless I have a medical need.  All he’s told me is that she had surgery and that he needed to speak with her about it when she wakes.  Then .. he may tell me what happened.  It’s a private matter between them an’ I won’t intrude.”

          Silas Park flushed.  “Of course.  I’m so sorry.  I forgot you’re a friend as well as a professional doctor.  It was unethical of me.”

          “No harm done,” Rachel commented.

          The transfer went well.  By eleven, they were at the airport where the Lear waited for them.  It was refueling for the flight back so they sat in the ambulance at the edge of the apron until they were signaled forward.  Rachel was in charge now.  A nurse was part of the crew but she’d do what Rachel said.  At eleven fifteen, Derek was taken on board and settled for the trip.  Then Merlin was brought on board.  Rachel sat in the back, the nurse beside her.  At eleven thirty, the Lear took off.  It was a strangely silent trip.  No one felt much like talking.

          Rachel had been in the air fifteen minutes when Nick and Alex landed in the city.  They collected their bags plus Derek’s and Merlin’s, then went to retrieve Nick’s Mustang from the parking lot.  It felt good to be home yet also an anti-climax.  They hadn’t really done anything in Chadron.  Derek and Merlin were still in comas.  The jet was still in pieces.  But at least, now, they knew why.

          The drive back to Angel Island was as quiet as the drive from it, but it was slower.  They had to negotiate the tail end of the morning rush hour and the start of the Christmas shopping traffic.  If the mission wasn’t resolved quickly, it would be a miserably unfestive holiday season for them.

          “Limbo … ” Alex mused as they neared Tiburon and the ferry point.  “Why there, do you think?”

          Nick shrugged tautly.  “I have no idea.  But, all the time they’re in there, they’re safe.  It’s what happens next which is the big question.”

          “Do you think we’ll have a part to play in it?” she asked.

          “We could.  It depends.”

          “On what the mission is.  And you say Peri is only security?  That means Derek’s taking the lead.”

          “That’s what I was told.”

          “And what we guessed.”  She shook her head, not in denial but in marvel.  “What’s going on, Nick?”

          “They’ll have some story to tell us when they get back,” he commented on a sigh.




          Andrew opened the door as they pulled up outside.  He looked relieved to see them. 

          “Welcome back, sir, madam.  How are Dr Rayne and Mrs Boyle?”

          Profelis emerged as well to listen to the answer.

          “No real change.  They’re on their way home in an air ambulance.  Rachel’s with them,” Nick replied as he went inside.

          “No change at all?” Profelis queried, frowning.

          “There was a slight improvement but they’re still way under.  You an’ I need to talk.  Andrew,” Nick went on, “did Paul Emery call you?”

          “Yes, sir, and I’ve been continuing the preparations for the conference.  Professor Ellis and I have surveyed the old wing and determined the wiring needs to be brought up to code but the plumbing is satisfactory.  A little noisy but we can live with that, bearing in mind the time we have available.”

          “Great.  I know a reliable contractor for electrical stuff.  I’ll call them,” Nick nodded as he headed for the stairs, signaling to Profelis to follow.

          “Thank you, sir.  Miss Alex, there is a gentleman here to see you.”

          Alex’s face fell.  She couldn’t help it.  She had a lot on her mind right now and a visitor was just not welcome.

          “I’ve put him in a guest room.  He said it was all right,” Andrew went on.

          She sighed.

          “Alex!” cried a voice from the gallery.

          She looked up.  “Jack ..?  What are you doing here?”

          Nick was almost at the top of the stairs and he halted.  “Canadian winter was too much for you, right?” he commented.  “Snow bird.”

          “No, no, actually, we’re fine.  I came back to do some Christmas shopping,” Jack replied cheerfully.  “I thought I could stay here for a few days.  Derek’s in the hospital?  Is that right?” he asked, his mood abruptly more somber.

          “Yeah,” Alex nodded sadly.  “Peri too.  I’ll tell you about it.”

          “I’ll bring some coffee and sandwiches to the lounge,” Andrew murmured.

          Nick and Profelis passed Jack and went on to the library.  “Professor Ellis?” Nick queried.

          “It’s close enough,” Profelis shrugged.

          “You’re a little young to be a professor.”

          “Nick, what’s going on?”

          He turned.  “You couldn’t find her cos she’s in limbo.  It’s a mission.  And another one of you is on the way as backup.  May be here already.  You got any idea who?”

          Profelis shook his head.  “I know it isn’t me.”

          “See if you can find out,” Nick ordered.




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