There was, Ven felt, a certain amount of déjà vu to this situation. It wasn't identical to the day before. For one thing, the welcoming committee was down to just one person: her. Still, it was similar enough to send a chill down her spine as the transport came in to land. This time, though, there was nothing to go wrong when the transport touched down.
No, that gets saved for when everyone gets out. Ven grimaced. This was the side of being a doctor that really sucked. Having to convey bad news.
First out of the transport was Lucas, with Rob, closely followed by Rick and Alice, who were arm in arm and laughing. Oh, damn... Ven grimaced again. Definitely not good to be the bearer of bad tidings. Behind them, Wes, then Namir and Katie, then finally Al. Even the normally dour Al looked happy. Wes and Rick both looked a little banged up -- but nothing serious -- and Katie didn't seem to have a scratch on her.
Ven sighed. This wasn't going to be fun.
"Where's mom?" Alice asked. "Or are she and dad...?" she trailed off with a slightly lascivious roll of her eyes.
Ven smiled faintly, wishing that was what Eric and Kimberly were doing. "I have good news, and I have bad news." Alice looked as if she'd suddenly been sucker punched. So did Wes. "The good news is that Eric will recover. A couple of days resting and he should be just about fully fit."
"Ven, what's the bad news?" Wes asked.
Ven sighed. "Something...happened to Eric in the TOI. I don't know what...I don't think he knows what. His...subconscious...'decided' he was better off...not seeing."
"What do you mean he's blind?" Kimberly had been stunned when Ven had first told her.
"It's not blindness per se," Ven had responded. "It's hysterical blindness. Psychological." Ven had sighed. "Whatever it was that happened to him left a very, very deep wound."
"But...he'll be OK?"
Ven had sighed again. "The mind heals at a different pace to the rest of the body. Eric will get his sight back. But it's going to take time and patience."
Kimberly sighed, returning to the present. She'd been sitting beside the bio-bed for more than an hour -- talking at first, but at the lack of a response, she'd gradually drifted into silence -- and Eric had yet to say a word to her. He was just 'staring' into space. The only comforting thing to his silence was that his eyes were back to their proper, deep brown/black colour rather than that disconcerting white.
And after over an hour of unresponsive silence, even that wasn't truly comforting.
This isn't fair.
"So you're saying I'm stuck like this."
Zordon winced at the sound of the voice coming from the time warp tube. It wasn't his voice, but an artificial construct that enabled him to communicate, albeit imperfectly. The Doctor and Ben had somehow interfaced the matrix of the warp with his mind and the matrix 'spoke' for him, usually just a few seconds after Zordon had finished speaking, creating the illusion that Zordon's mouth wasn't synchronized with the rest of reality. And the voice itself was nothing like Zordon's own: deep, booming, it sounded much more authoritative than Zordon had ever felt.
But it was better than dead. At least he thought it was. And maybe he'd grow into the voice in time.
Ben sighed and nodded. "I'm sorry, 'Don. The type of disruptor Rita used -- "
"Who did you say?" Zordon interrupted.
"The assassin has identified herself as Rita, no surname." Ben consulted a readout. "Most inconvenient for the database."
Zordon shrugged, even though he knew Ben could only see his head. "So make one up. What was it Wes called her?"
"A repulsive... well, that's good enough, isn't it?" Ben grinned and added the surname to the file. He glanced up at the huge tube. "Anyway, what I started to say is, the disruptor Rita used on you is a progressive type, actually breaking up the electrical signals given off by your individual cells, destroying your cellular structure one cell at a time. The warp tube you're in has effectively stopped time for you, halting the damage. Unfortunately, well..."
Zordon finished for him. "I'm stuck like this. Indefinitely."
"I'm afraid so." Ben nodded sadly. "However, we've interfaced your matrix to these computer systems, which gives you access to a lot of information. Plus you've got this Viewing Globe, which is connected to a cloaked network of satellites. You can essentially see anything anywhere on the planet if you choose."
"Why?" It wasn't that he wasn't grateful for all the tech keeping him alive and functional, but if there was one thing Zordon had learned, it was that nobody got to ride for free.
Ben scratched his beard. "The Alliance has appointed you Keeper of this world."
"Whoa! Hold up, bub. Keeper? Of the whole damn planet?" Zordon shook his head.
"No way! I don't want that kind of responsibility! I'm not ready for that!"
Ben smiled. "You will be. You've got time."
After a while, during which he concluded that he wasn't getting out of it, Zordon made a face and changed the subject. "So what about what's her name, then?"
"Rita?" Ben shrugged. "Up to you, really. What do you want done with her?"
The grin that decorated Zordon's face wasn't evil. Not completely, anyway. "How 'bout you fix up that waste drum with another little time warp thingie and stick her somewhere safe, somewhere far away. Really far away. Like the moon." It was not an entirely serious suggestion.
Ben thought about it. "Okay."
Zordon blinked. That was easy, and pretty satisfying, actually. Maybe this Keeper thing wouldn't be such a bad gig after all. "Ben... you said Wes was from the future, didn't you?"
Ben was busy at the computer. "Mmmhm," he said absently.
"Will I see him again, you think?"
Ben froze in place for a moment, then went on with what he was doing. "It's possible."
Meaning no, Zordon thought to himself. Oh well. It was a lot to ask for. "Could you give him something for me, then?"
Ben glanced up at him. "I ought to say no, you know. There are rules about this sort of thing."
Ben chuckled. "I know. Okay, I'll do it if I can."
"You're the best, George." Zordon looked around for his 'bot. "Alpha, can you put a disc in?"
"I'll leave you to it, shall I?" Ben folded his hands inside his sleeves and left the control room. Alpha 'ai-yi-yi'ed around a bit, and then he left too, and it was just Zordon.
He took a deep breath. "Hey, Wes, thought you might want to know how things turned out..."
Wes had barely waited for Ven to finish explaining the basics before heading straight for the medi-centre. Alice would have followed suit, he knew, except that as he left, he'd heard Ven stopping her -- telling her that Kimberly had asked for Alice to wait.
He wished she'd said the same thing to him, now.
He felt physically sick as he stood in the doorway of the medi-centre. He'd thought the last twenty-four hours had robbed him of what little capacity he had left for being shocked, but the occupant of the bio-bed proved him wrong.
When Wes had first met Eric, the other man -- boy -- had been a shy newcomer. But even then, shy as he'd been, there had still been an air of inward confidence. Over time, that confidence had changed from something inward to something very outward -- to something used to keep people at arms' length -- and even when Eric had finally made peace with himself and with the world in general, just prior to the Rancho Diablo fiasco, it had remained.
Wes found himself looking at someone pushed beyond his limits. At someone who'd finally had the confidence beaten out of him. At an Eric Myers too broken to even be angry.
It was a sight that left Wes feeling a sense of complete helplessness and guilt. Helplessness was easy to quantify: This wasn't something he could wish away with money or fix with influence borrowed from his father. But the guilt. That went deeper.
If Wes was being honest about it -- and this situation demanded honesty if nothing else -- Eric wasn't a friend. The relationship ran far deeper than that. They were brothers in just about every way barring blood. They fought like siblings, squabbled like any pair of brothers, yet when it counted, each was there when the other needed him.
Except this time, Wes hadn't been.
And though Wes knew full well it hadn't been his fault -- it had been The Master who'd abducted him and sent him back ten thousand years -- that didn't stop him from feeling guilty. Silently, he promised himself that he was going to find The Master and make sure that what was left was fit only for putting into a very, very, very small box.
He must have made a small sound, because the other occupant of the room, Kimberly, suddenly looked round. She offered him a faint smile in welcome, then uncurled herself from her seat and moved away from the bio-bed.
Eric didn't so much as twitch.
"You're back," she said softly. "OK?"
Wes smiled wryly. "Well, no broken bones and no real loss to my sanity."
"Good." Kimberly sighed. "If you're back, that must mean so is Alice -- I need to speak to her...explain..." Kimberly closed her eyes. "How do you explain this?"
Wes had no answer. Instead he gently drew her out into the hallway proper and asked, "What's actually wrong?"
Kimberly opened her eyes again, shrugging. "We don't know."
Taylor reached Ben's office just as Ben appeared out of it, presumably looking for her.
"Sorry -- got caught by the phone," she said before he could open his mouth.
He offered a tight smile. "No worries. C'mon in."
Taylor followed Ben into the office. Already waiting were Jen, Zaskin, Gina and Mr Collins. His attendance was something of a surprise to Taylor. She took it to be an indicator of just how bad the situation was.
"OK," said Ben, as Taylor sat down, "the reason for this meeting is to bring you guys up to date on the official situation. And I guess I don't need to say things ain't looking good. As of midnight last night, Silverhills County was placed in full quarantine. San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Kings, Kern and Western Fresno counties are all under severe travel restrictions. In those, the National Guard are being mobilised to help with that, as are the Guardians in Mariner Bay and Angel Grove. As far as the situation here in Silverhills County goes, we, SPD and the guys from the CDC, who're arriving first thing tomorrow morning from Atlanta, are it -- they were going to deploy the National Guard here too," Ben paused to grimace, "but they're all sick."
"Wow," said Zaskin, stunned. "It's that bad?"
"It's worse," said Taylor. "Reason I'm late is I just had a call from Jason over in Angel Grove."
"Uh-oh," murmured Jen.
Taylor nodded. "Angel Grove itself isn't in quarantine, but a full half of his roster of Guardians live in Silverhills County."
"Ouch." Zaskin winced.
"Hold up, though," said Ben thoughtfully. "If they're in Silverhills County..."
"Jason was going to call them and tell them to report here tomorrow -- which gives me the rest of today to work up new shift rosters," Taylor finished. "It's not bad as far as we're concerned -- but it leaves Jase a bit stuck."
Ben shrugged. "Not a heap we can do about it -- though Jason's a resourceful guy. He'll probably figure something." He sighed. "How many Guardians are we down by?"
Taylor looked down at the list she'd grabbed on her way out of her office. "Today's count is fifty one out of ninety."
Jen winced. "That's over half."
"And even assuming all of Jason's guys are fit, that only bolsters our roster by thirty."
"And the chances of all the AG guys being fit are zip," said Ben.
"Right." Taylor nodded.
"Michael, how does the R&D department stand?" Ben asked.
"Fairly healthy as of yet," Zaskin answered. "Every available member of the team is looking into finding out what this virus is -- and working on someway to neutralise it -- but it's slow going. We can't even figure out if it's airborne, or..." The frustrated scientist shrugged.
"Which," put in Mr Collins, who had so far simply listened to the conversation, "is about as successful as the R&D department over at Biolab's main facility." He paused and looked at Jen. "Are we on our own for this?"
"The last time I spoke to Lucas, which was yesterday, when he confirmed Eric was safe and well, he didn't say anything about this," Jen answered. "That could mean this is nothing to do with anything..."
"And passing the window right about now will be squadron 316, porcine division," Gina murmured, prompting a couple of snickers.
"Or that they don't yet know anything about it," Jen finished.
"Is that likely?" Taylor queried.
"Flat out not knowing, probably not," said Jen. "But knowing anything that would be remotely helpful, probably. Lucas won't want to tell us anything until he can actually help the situation."
"Any word on when they're likely to be back?" Gina asked.
Jen shook her head. "Probably sometime next week."
"The sooner the better," said Ben. "Something tells me all hell is going to be breaking loose here."
"Ven explained the diagnosis...he asked for some time to think... It's like he's just..." Kimberly shrugged again, the hurt more and more palpable in her bearing. "It's like he's just shut down. Nothing I've said...or Ven's said's got through..." She swallowed. "He's given up." That last was said with surprising bitterness.
"Given up?" Wes echoed.
"All he cares about is himself. His situation. It doesn't matter to him that there's me, and Alice and John involved in this too...that we're a family...it's like the last ten years don't count for anything," Kimberly stated, her voice soft but no less bitter for the lack of volume.
Wes winced. "I'm sure that's not true, Kim."
Kimberly jabbed a hand in the direction of the medi-centre and its sole occupant. "Then explain this, Wes. Damnit -- he nearly fucking died today. For real. No second chances. And he's not dead...not in danger of it...Ven's cured him...he can go home in just a few days...so why the hell is he like this? Why the hell does his sight matter so much more than whether he's breathing? Doesn't he get it? Doesn't he realise the choice between having him, even sight-impaired -- and Ven swears that's temporary anyway -- and not having him at all isn't a choice?"
Wes winced again. In Kimberly's words, he could hear the strain the last three weeks had been. Eric wasn't the only one who'd been pushed beyond their limits.
"You know...I could have dealt with it if...if he had died today," Kimberly continued. "I...I could have coped. But this..." And Kimberly seemed to sag inwards, as the anger bled away into complete despair. "I can't take this."
"Oh, Kim..." Wes drew her into an embrace as she started to cry. "Kim -- it's going to be OK."
"Is it?" she asked.
"Yes, it is." He stroked her head as it rested against his shoulder. "Kim -- it's been a hell of a three weeks...no...scratch that. It's been a hell of a three month period. It's been one thing after another -- you and Eric have both been through a lot...and it's come on top of other trouble, with Alice... You both need time. Time to adjust. Time to recover...it doesn't happen overnight."
Kimberly's only response was something incoherent.
"Look," Wes continued, gently. "How about you take a break. You said you wanted to speak to Alice -- so go see her." He paused to smile. "Ask her about what she's gotten to do."
"Gotten to do?" Kimberly echoed, slightly bemused.
Wes chuckled despite the situation. "She'll tell it better than me."
Kimberly pulled away, looking up at him with confusion. "Just where have you been?"
Wes shot her a grin. "Let Alice tell you." He inclined his head in the direction of the medi-centre. "I'll sit with Eric for a while."
Rick neared the top of the stairs that led up to the roof. Once Ven had finished speaking to her, Alice had vanished. He had wanted to find her there and then, but Ven had suggested he give her a little time. He had waited precisely ten minutes. Whatever was going on, the last thing Alice needed was time alone.
She broods enough as it is, he decided pushing open the door and stepping out onto the roof. Someone had clearly tried to make the roof into some sort of garden, to judge by the rather weedy looking potted shrubs. Whoever it was hadn't put enough effort into it.
Alice was on the far side of the roof, silhouetted against the dusk sky as she looked out across the transport landing pad. She had to have heard the door bang shut, but she didn't move.
"Hey," said Rick softly as he neared her.
Alice shifted fractionally, glancing round. "Hey."
"Thought you could use some company."
Rick leaned on the railing and gave her an appraising look. Even in the gathering gloom, he could see the marks of her tears. "Are you?"
"You know he's not my biological father?" Alice asked, avoiding Rick's question and returning her gaze to the far horizon. "He's 'only' my step father."
"Does it make a difference?"
"No." Alice sighed. "Maybe it should."
"It would be easier." Rick said nothing, and Alice suddenly snorted. "Who the heck am I kidding?" Her shoulders sagged. "Without him, mom and I would be dead."
Rick had no response to that.
Alice sighed. "Dirk Cunningham...my biological father is...was a sack of shit. When I was a real little kid...he and mom were married. He used to beat her. She didn't used to fight back...in case I got hurt. The one time he laid a finger on me, mom kicked his butt good...I don't really remember it -- was only three or four -- I just remember suddenly everything was different. We left Florida...came to Silverhills. Huge change. No Dirk. No night time screaming fits...no drunken rages...it was nice.
"Then this guy moved in to the house next door. Didn't used to see him much. Used to hear him though. From time to time. Thin walls." Alice smiled faintly. "Mostly just used to hear his music. Liked it." She smiled a little more. "He never did figure out how I knew all the words to one of his obscure albums on first play."
At that, Rick smiled in return.
"Just after my sixth birthday, I caught him out in his yard. He had a bird cage with two birds in -- he was feeding them -- and he just looked so lonely...and the birds looked so pretty. Mom about roasted my butt for hopping the fence to go talk to him...but I had to, y'know?" Rick nodded. "He was the nicest guy about it. 'Fact, I think he was the only reason mom didn't completely roast me. She and I both fell right there and then.
"And just when everything seemed to be going great...that sack of shit Dirk Cunningham showed up again. He beat mom up so bad and grabbed me...I don't know what he was gonna do with me...to me...didn't ever need to find out. Dad found me. Saved me. I think he wanted to kill Dirk for daring to touch mom and me, but he didn't -- at least, I guess he didn't. I don't know what he did to that sack of shit after Rocky took me out of that room...I figure not much, cos I know SPD showed up not long after...but... Can you imagine how good it was to see Eric come through that door?
"If I hadn't been in love before, I was then. I know I was only six, but I know he saved my life then. And then again, a bit later...'bout six weeks, I guess...around about his birthday...I figure I'm not supposed to know about Zafar bel Abis, but I do. Bits anyway. I know he got shot...I know Foster was gonna go back for him and he told him to go...guess it's not everyone who can tell you that by the time they hit seven they've been involved in a fire fight like that one was. Mom kept me down in the car...but I could hear all the bullets and I knew he wasn't OK...knew that he wasn't going to get to the car...knew that if we didn't go 'they' would get to the car." Alice wrapped her arms around herself, as if trying to ward off the memories. "Scary."
"And you fell harder."
"Dumb, isn't it?"
Rick shook his head. "No." He gently reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder. "It's not dumb at all, Ali."
"He's supposed to be the hero." Alice gave a great, shuddering sigh. "He's supposed to be OK." Rick felt a tremor run through her body. "He promised he'd be OK." Rick wrapped his arms around her as she started to cry again. "Why isn't he OK?"
Wes waited until he was sure that Kimberly was well and truly out of earshot before sitting down beside the bio-bed. Eric still hadn't moved. Wes shook his head.
"You're so full of shit," he murmured.
Not so much a flicker, not that Wes had expected any reaction. Eric had withdrawn so deeply into himself that just basic speech wasn't going to reach him. Whatever Wes was going to say had to be pretty startling before it would penetrate.
Wes smiled faintly. And if discovering Star Wars was real isn't enough, nothing is.
And so he started talking. About what had happened to him, what he'd seen, learned, done...who he'd met. Every single detail he could think of, he mentioned. From Zordon trying to steal Ben's whosis, to Dimi's constant questions, from Rick and Namir's sudden appearance, to the way Alice had made her entrance. Every single, little thing. Like the Tatooine tavern with the weird music. Like the bar fight and the expression on the guys' faces when they saw how strong Katie was. Like how uncomfortable the Storm Trooper armour was. Even down to the smell in the garbage compactor, Alpha's virus problem and how he'd imprisoned 'Boba Fett'.
And, for a start, nothing changed -- as if Eric wasn't there, never mind listening. But gradually, as Wes slowly talked himself hoarse, Eric's expression began to change. Soften. There was even the faintest of smiles when Wes reached the part about the womp rat. As the monologue ran down, though, a great swell of overwhelming sadness crossed Eric's face.
"I'm probably never going to see those films again."
Just a few simple words that unleashed a torrent of grief, pain and fear. Wes had never seen Eric cry -- it seemed so out of character and wrong, and yet it was possibly the only avenue for the emotional release that Eric needed. For a second, Wes hesitated, unsure of what to do. Ah, to hell with it! He reached over and pulled the other man into an embrace. It felt awkward -- and yet it was what brothers did. And they were brothers. He hadn't been here for Eric when this had begun, but he was here now and he was damn well going to be there for Eric for as long as Eric needed and wanted him to be.
"It's going to be OK," Wes murmured. "It'll be OK."
Lucas let out a low whistle as Namir finished explaining what he'd found at the TOI. "And you're sure of this?"
Namir nodded. "It's all there for you to look at." So saying, he proffered the datapad he'd been consulting with.
Al growled. "What the hell can he stand to gain from doing this?"
"Revenge," said Rob with a shake of his head. "Whoever this guy is, he's desperate to wipe out this time period and he doesn't care how he does it."
Lucas glanced over the data Namir had handed him. "One thing's clear," he said thoughtfully, "I think we have time on our side."
"What makes you say that?" Al asked.
Lucas handed over the datapad. "We're a full week up on the schedule he'd pegged for us. That explains why Wes and Katie were abducted -- his agents still here realised we were too far ahead."
"So what do we do?" Namir asked.
"Well, we can't do anything for another two days -- Eric needs to finish recuperating. After that, he and I need to meet with Kerin and the judgement panel for Eric's court case and get that wrapped up -- with a bit of luck, and thanks to The Master's agents tipping their hand with Ransik's escape, that won't take long. After that..." Lucas spread his hands. "We go to 2013 and we stop this."
The late afternoon sun shone brightly on Silverhills as people went about their business.
No-one paid any heed to smartly dressed businessman walking along the sidewalk immediately in front of the SGHQ. He looked like anyone else, with his briefcase tucked under one arm and what looked to be a copy of the New York Times' business pages under the other.
Directly opposite the entry to the SGHQ there was a trashcan. As he passed it, the businessman neatly disposed of the newspaper into it. If his pace quickened at all, no-one noticed it, or if they did, they assumed he had just realised he was running late for his next appointment.
As he vanished into the parkland area -- presumably to take a short cut to the heart of downtown Silverhills -- the trashcan made a quiet 'ping' sound.
The next moment, it and the SGHQ, were engulfed in a huge explosion.
TO BE CONTINUED IN FIVE BY FIVE...