For a second, Rick was rooted to the spot. He just couldn't take in the scene; couldn't comprehend that Alice was the source of this destruction.
"I did this?" she whispered.
Something about the simple sentence provided him with a warning and he was moving forwards to catch her, even as her knees buckled. She demorphed in his arms, already out cold.
"Holy..." Namir breathed. "Is...is she OK?"
"I don't know," Rick snapped. "We need to get out of here."
The desperate, almost nervous, query pulled a fragment of Rick's attention away from Alice who was already starting to come round. He looked up at Eric and felt his guts turn to ice water as he saw the milky-white eyes. He's blind -- they've blinded him! Fresh anger boiled up. Justice is too good for these bastards. Over the comm. he said, "Nam -- grab Eric. We're getting out of here, now." Aloud, he called, "It's Rick Collins."
"Rick?! What...where's Alice? Is she OK?"
Rick glanced down in time to see Alice's eyes flutter open although exhaustion and confusion filled them. "She will be." I think...hope... He gathered her gently into his arms and stood up just as the Blue Ranger reached Eric. "We're getting out now."
Namir took hold of Eric's forearm. "Watch your step, sir."
"Namir Drake," Namir replied.
"Proper introductions later," Rick cut in. "Let's get the hell out of here first."
Al heard the sirens start up and judged that was probably the 'kids' making their escape. Moments later, the sound of feet pounding against the sun-baked hillside suggested that the searchers were being recalled, which meant the kids would be making their escape under fire. A glance in Rob's direction told him the same thought had occurred to him.
"Think we're clear?"Rob mouthed.
Al nodded. "C'mon."
They started to move just as the sounds of blaster fire erupted into the late afternoon air from the other side of the hill.
That settled the matter. Al raced to the top of the hill, drawing his chronoblaster as he went. Sure enough, there was a lumbering transport making its way out of the TOI compound, and coming under heavy fire from all around.
It had been a long time since Al had been involved in a light-fight like this but it didn't mean he'd forgotten any of the tactics. Dropping flat to provide as small a target as possible, he started to rapidly fire on the guards who were firing on the transport. Many of them were actually out of range but the aim wasn't so much to shoot them as to give them somewhere else to think about.
Beside him, Rob cursed softly as return fire chewed up the earth inches in front of him. "Next time, Al, pick somewhere with more cover!"
"We're on an open hillside," Al retorted, flinching as a shot passed just above his head. "There is no cover."
The transport was picking up speed now and at least one person in it was managing to return fire.
"Any ideas on how they're going to pick us up?" Rob asked.
"They'll find a way," Al answered. I hope...
From the voluble cursing, Rick judged that the last shot had come rather too close.
"I need a gunner up here!" Namir yelled when he'd finished cursing.
Rick glanced in Alice's direction. She'd fainted again only moments after he'd gently set her down in the back of the transport and although she seemed to be coming round once more, she was still more or less out of it.
"We haven't got anyone else, Nam," Rick shot back.
"Yes you have."
"What?!" Rick stared at Eric, wondering if he'd heard the other man correctly. Over the noise of the battle and the complaints of the transport's armoured body shell, Eric's voice had been almost inaudible.
"Rick, give me your blaster," Eric stated, infusing a subtle air of command to his still quiet words. "I'm blind. I'm not deaf. You tell me which way to point the thing and I can fire here. Then you go forward and cover Nam."
"Rick, I really could use some help!" Namir yelped at that moment.
Damnit!"Here." Rick pressed his blaster into Eric's hand, then guided him into position. "You're firing back at the prison so you don't need to worry about hitting anything vital."
Eric nodded. "I can do it."
Rick watched for a second and was subsequently shocked to see two absolutely dead-on accurate shorts take out two of the guards firing on the rear of the transport.
"Get going!" Eric ordered -- and there was no mistaking it now, Commander Myers was in residence, full force.
Rick did as he was ordered and moved up to the front of the transport, taking Namir's blaster and starting to offer more suppression fire, this time, helping to clear a path before them.
"What the hell...?!" Namir exclaimed.
"Long story," Rick answered. "Tell you when we get out of this."
Rob cursed again and spat out a mouthful of earth. This was turning into a suicide mission. Even if the transport made it up the remaining two hundred yards of hill, there was almost no way it was going to get them to their own transport, which had been left about a mile away.
"C'mon Nam," Al muttered under his breath.
Rob saw a burst of fire suddenly triggered off from the front of the vehicle. A little tiny piece of the worry eased from the pit of his stomach. At least they'd now got suppression fire from both front and rear -- it gave them a fighting chance.
But was it enough?
Searing pain erupted in his shoulder as a blaster bolt finally tagged him. His left arm went numb almost instantly. Nerve damage, he found himself identifying absently, even as he continued to fire, albeit more clumsily for the lack of effective bracing. C'mon kids -- you can do this...
Alice was distantly aware of what was going on -- distantly aware that it had some importance to her -- but she couldn't bring herself to have the energy to care. It seemed like far too much effort.
She knew she was lying in the back of some sort of transport, but there was a confusing memory of being held by Rick. She'd felt safe then. Safer than she'd felt in a long time. Not since she'd been a really little kid when dad had rescued her from Dirk.
Was dad OK?
Rick would make sure he was. She could trust Rick. He wouldn't let her down. He'd take care of everything...
The transport gave a violent shudder as it set down which brought Alice a little closer to full consciousness. There was a rustling and a series of thumps that sounded confusing enough that she managed to force her eyes to open. She realised it was Al and Rob climbing in with her and...what was Dad doing with a blaster?!
But the energy of that one thought alone sent her sagging back against the metal floor, even as the transport started to lift off again.
"Nam get us going!"
"I'm goin', Dad, you gimme some more cover!"
"On it, Nam...Geeze Rob why didn't you say you'd been hit!"
"I'm all right..."
The transport gave a lurch at that point, before anyone had a chance to respond to Eric's query. There was at least one bitten off curse and Alice found herself being flung into the side of the transport.
"Nam what the fuck was that?"
Rick's observation allowed her to relax and consciousness started to slip away from her again. She was dimly aware of the transport setting down again. Of someone -- a Rick-shaped someone, she suspected -- picking her up and carrying her to another, more comfortable transport. Then of a quicker and far less rocky journey beginning. And then the darkness overtook her once more.
There was nothing else she could do, so she paced.
The room was exactly thirteen and a half paces long.
Waiting had never been her strongest suit, and given what was resting on this particular batch of waiting -- it was currently killing her.
At Lucas' behest, Carmen had managed to get an adjournment until the following Monday. After a brief discussion, Lucas had opted to go to the task force's base to await results, taking Wes, Carmen and Kimberly with him. Marissa would -- and could -- hold the fort as far as Covert Operations was concerned and Lucas felt -- and Kimberly certainly hadn't disagreed -- it might be better for everyone if they were there when the rescue party returned.
Even if it's bad news,Kimberly reflected as she racked up another trip across the work room, I want to be here. Have to be here.
Carmen's eyes were wide as he finally took a seat in Ops.
"Quite some set up, Major Kendall," he commented.
"It's quite some conspiracy," Lucas answered. "As you're finding out."
"Ye-es." Carmen shook his head. "How long before anything's heard from the rescue team?"
Katie, who was eyeing Carmen with some suspicion, said, "We'll hear when they get back to their shuttle bay." She glanced at the chronometer on the wall just behind Carmen's head. "And that," she added, "should be soon."
Ven waited in the shuttle, anxiety weighing heavily on her nerves. Their departure slot was at twenty-two hundred hours. It was twenty-one thirty now. If they didn't get back soon, they were going to miss their slot. And missing their slot... Ven shivered. In theory it would mean little more than an extended stay on this side of the Atlantic, but considering that the chances were they would have staged a jail break, the longer they remained here, the better the chances of them being found.
A steady warning tone indicated someone was approaching the shuttle. Ven moved swiftly to look at the monitor, heart in her mouth. Was it them? Or was it someone else?
Relief was strong when she identified Al and Rob, the leaders of the little party. But relief faded to concern as she saw the way Rob's arm was hanging useless at his side and the field compression bandage on his shoulder.
Turning, Ven punched the door release and hurried to the entry port.
Rob gave her a jaundiced look. "I got shot."
"But obviously not in the sense of humour," Ven retorted. "Al -- am I going to get any better sense from you? Rob, sit," she added, directing Rob to one of the couches.
"How about we fill you in once we get going?" Al suggested.
Before Ven could say anything, Namir arrived. He looked exhausted and he was leading a man who could only be Eric Myers. Ven felt her heart sink lower in her chest as he stepped into the lighted passenger compartment of the shuttle. Eric's eyes were milky-white. It wasn't so much the obvious blindness that made the bile rise, but the cause. For his eyes to have gone milky it meant that Hordak had to have been feeding him a steady diet of various drugs for the last two weeks. Damn he's lucky not to be dead...
"Ven?" Namir prompted.
"Sorry." Ven shook her head. "Over there, please, Nam -- Eric; glad to have you safe."
A faint smile passed over Eric's face. "Good to be safe."
As Namir led Eric over to the other couch, the final two members of the party entered and Ven felt her heart hit her boots at the sight of Alice, unconscious in Rick's arms.
"What the hell happened?" Ven asked.
The sound of the comm. terminal making its new message ding was incredibly loud. Katie, who was nearest, looked at the message that had come in.
"It's them," she said. "Do we call Kim?"
"Let's see if it's good news first," Lucas suggested.
"Let's not," said Kimberly from the doorway, her expression unreadable. "I'm a big girl, Lucas."
"I could have told you that," Wes murmured sotto voce.
"OK -- we're all here." Lucas sighed. "Katie -- do the honours."
Katie opened the message. "It's text only," she announced. "From Rob. He says: Mission accomplished. Seven returning. Most no worse for wear. Details on arrival. ETA nineteen hundred."
Kimberly made a funny sort of noise and would have fallen but for Wes' sudden intervention.
"It's OK, Kim -- he's OK..." Wes murmured, gently leading her to an empty seat. "It's all going to be OK."
Kimberly knew it was good news. Knew it was perhaps the best news they could have received. She'd been so tense, so concerned, so wound up...and now it was over. Less than an hour and it would all be over.
And she found herself crying.
He was OK.
Eric was OK.
Eric would be home soon.
This nightmare was over.
Rick watched on as Alice slept on one of the couches in the shuttle's passenger compartment. Simple exhaustion was all it was -- according to Ven, at any rate. Alice's blood sugar level had been fractionally low, which Ven had corrected, but beyond that, the best medicine was sleep.
What the hell had she done?
His mind kept drifting back to the carnage in that hallway. There had to have been the remains of at least twenty cyclobots. How on earth had she taken out that many robots on her own? At first, Rick had assumed Eric had helped, but he hadn't. He'd said as much. The massacre had to be Alice's doing. And while Rick knew Alice had been receiving training from Taylor Earhardt, he also knew that the level of destruction wasn't something that she should have been capable of. He doubted that even John and Eric fighting in tandem would have managed it.
So what had Alice done?
Rick jumped. He'd completely forgotten about the occupant of the other couch. Looking up, he realised Eric was 'looking' straight at him. "What is?" he managed to answer.
The expression on Eric's face clearly said 'give me a break'. "Rick, you're not exactly subtle. You're in love with Alice."
Rick stared at Eric, trying to work out whether to be embarrassed or whether to fear for his life. "How..."
"Short memory -- you all but told me that two weeks ago," Eric cut in.
"Look." Eric sighed. "If you really care about her -- and I think you do -- then I'm not going to pull the over-protective dad shit I pulled on some of her high school boyfriends. I'm not gonna need to."
There was no response Rick could make to that statement.
"But one thing you are gonna need to do is learn that you can't protect her. You can't stop her from being who she is -- even when being who she is lands her up in trouble." Eric sighed. "It'll just give you ulcers and heartache if you try."
"I guess." Rick sighed and looked down at Alice once more. "It's..."
"Tough," Eric finished. "I know."
Rob quietly moved away from the door into the passenger cabin of the shuttle. From the little snatch of the conversation he'd caught, it was a private one -- and he had no desire to interrupt. Instead, he returned to the cockpit and sank down on the uncomfortable jump seat he'd intended to leave.
Ven lifted an eyebrow.
"Didn't want to intrude on a family moment," Rob said.
There was an awkward silence.
Rob glanced at Namir and Al, seated at the controls of the shuttle. Namir was fast asleep in the co-pilot's seat completely exhausted by the trials and tribulations of his first stint as the Blue Vengeance Ranger, while Al was concentrating on what he was doing. Like that, he was all but deaf and blind to the rest of the world.
"No, I haven't told him yet," said Ven softly. "It's been too crazy. He's had enough problems...he doesn't need mine too."
Rob shook his head. "You'll have to tell him, sooner or later."
"Make it later." Ven's expression closed and Rob took the hint.
John nodded good morning to the temporary receptionist as he entered SGHQ. Gina was now the only officially signed on member of the SG administration team to not be sick. At least half of the over all Guardian roster was also affected, and John knew that it wasn't just them.
All around Silverhills, and in neighbouring counties too, businesses were being forced to close because numbers of their staff were ill with this mysterious virus.
And the frightening thing is,John mused as he headed up to the admin office, no-one's getting better.
The voice pulled him from his thoughts. Looking up, he saw Lexia and JJ both waiting for him at the top of the stairs. Oh damn.
"Can we talk to you?" JJ asked.
John sighed. Just the conversation he didn't want to have... "Guess I don't have too much choice."
As he brought the shuttle in to land, Al wasn't terribly surprised to see a small welcoming committee waiting for them. It looked like everyone barring Trip and Nadira was present -- which was understandable. He just hoped that Wes would be too focussed on Eric to pay much attention to him.
He snorted softly. Would it matter? Eric had figured it out in thirty seconds flat; only Namir's attempts at avoiding a rocky outcrop and the last of the guards had spared him from having to think up a lie. Which would have done me so much good. He snorted again.
"Keep that up, you'll burst a blood vessel," said Ven severely.
"What's up?" Rob asked.
"Tell you later," Al answered. "We're back." So saying, the shuttle gently touched down on the ferrocrete landing pad. "Last stop -- everybody out."
Kimberly waited at the edge of the landing pad, breathless anticipation and a nameless fear filling her stomach. She knew that there were other people present, but her whole attention was trained on the slowly landing shuttle. Her eyes were fixed on the exit hatch, almost willing it to open. Finally, with a muted thud, the shuttle touched down, and even as the turbines shut down, the exit hatch slid open and the ramp extended.
First out of the shuttle came Rick and Alice, Alice obviously leaning heavily on Rick. Kimberly felt a pang as she saw how tired Alice was and how much of a struggle it was for her to walk down the exit ramp. She had a suspicion that if she hadn't been present, Alice might have permitted Rick to carry her.
But then Alice's condition -- and Rick's reaction to it -- dropped from Kimberly's mind completely at the sight of the next two people out of the shuttle.
She was peripherally aware of the fact that someone -- Namir, was it? -- leading Eric out of the shuttle, but it couldn't hold her back. She was across the landing pad and up the ramp, flinging her arms around him.
His arms tentatively wrapped themselves around her, returning her embrace. "Kim, God..."
"You're back." She kissed him. "That's what counts."
Ven watched the reunion with a pang of regret. Partly for herself, but mostly for what was still to come. Somewhat to her surprise, she found an arm being draped around her shoulders. Looking round, she realised Rob was standing beside her.
"It'll be OK," he said, gently squeezing her shoulders.
"Hope so," Ven replied. "C'mon. There's stuff to do."
She and Rob started to make their own way off the shuttle, but as she reached the foot of the ramp, her eyes fell on one of the members of the welcoming committee. One who was standing well to the back of the party. One who even as she watched, was pulling a small controller device out of his pocket.
"No! Stop him!"
But there was a brilliant flash of light, and it was too late.
TO BE CONTINUED IN TIME LOST...