Two of a Kind
mostly desert, whatever the television tells you. Any place that the miracle
of irrigation doesn't reach is primarily sand, rock, and scorpions, with
the occasional Joshua tree, cactus, or rattlesnake just for variety. And
in the modern day, the desert is cris-crossed with roads, two- and four-lane
stretches of blacktop running through the red, hot emptiness of the parched
On one of those roads, a red convertible was headed south, top open to the burning sun. Josh McGrath, relegated to the passenger seat of his own vehicle, shot a glance at his best friend.
"I still say I oughta be able to drive my own car," the blond grumbled. In the driver's seat, Pete grinned.
"McGrath, if YOU drove, we'd end up shot at, chased, or bombed by terrorists inside of fifteen minutes. Or we might just have an accident, considering you handle this thing like you think you're James Bond. If you want to get to the race in one piece, which I at least do, I drive."
"I think I liked it better when you didn't know about my day job." Josh stared out at the passing landscape for a moment, then turned back to his friend. "Pete? Thanks. For everything."
The brown-haired teen smiled. "Don't worry about it. I know how much you miss the extreme sports scene, and we haven't really had a chance to just hang out together in a while. Tickets to the Mastervision Air Extravaganza was the least I could do."
"I'd really been hoping to see this. Alex Mann's supposed to be there, so it ought to be a good show."
"And I got course-side tickets, so we shouldn't miss a minute of it," Pete finished. "There's the course, up ahead." Pulling into the parking lot, he shut off the car. As he got out, he noticed the somewhat disturbed expression on Josh's face.
"Something wrong?" he asked quietly.
Josh flashed his friend a weak smile. "Nothing much, Pete... I just haven't been in this world for a long time."
Pete nodded. He'd known how hard it was for his friend to walk away from the extreme sports world, even when he hadn't understood why Josh did it. Now, he had nothing but sympathy for his friend.
"Don't worry about it too much. This is pro-level competition, not amateur. I don't think anybody here's going to recognize you, if that helps."
That got a smile. "It does, Pete. Thanks."
"Come on, let's go get our seats. The race will be starting soon."
The seats weren't
just course-side, they were right up against the crew areas, from which
the support teams for the various athletes worked to keep things running
smoothly. As a matter of fact, from Josh and Pete's seats, someone looking
down could see directly down into the area set aside for Team Extreme,
Alex Mann's pit crew. "The Action Man," as he was dubbed, was currently
getting into his gear for the race.
Today's competition involved a new piece of equipment, one that had never been used in competition anywhere before. The Skyhawk, as it was called, was a new offering from the N-Tek Sports corporation, donated for the race as part of a promotion. Although Alex had spent almost a month practicing with the new vehicle, he was still wary about his first competition with it.
"Alex," Rikki finally burst out, "we have been over this thing with a fine-toothed comb. Twice. Even GRINDER thinks we've gone above and beyond the call of sanity checking this thing out. Give it a rest."
Alex regarded his business manager with worried blue eyes. "I don't know... are you sure the remote controls are responding well?"
Desmond Sinclair, known to his friends as "Grinder," rolled his eyes. "Alex. We've checked everything five times. What's got you so wound up, anyway? You're not usually this nervous, even about a new routine."
"I dunno," the younger man sighed. "I've just got this feeling things are about to take a turn for the worse."
As if to punctuate his statement, the band on his wrist chimed. Rikki raised an eyebrow.
"Never told me you were psychic," the other man commented.
Ignoring him, Alex answered the hail. "Coach, has anyone ever told you that you have the worst timing?"
"Sorry, Alex. The AMP computers are picking up something major headed your way. Unfortunately, they're a little fuzzy on what," Coach Gray replied. "Looks as though there are a number of new variables being introduced to the equation. All I can tell you is that it's big, and it's going to be soon. Watch your back." With that, the image on Alex's com-watch winked out.
Fidget, Alex's camerawoman, snorted. "Well, THAT was nice and vague," she grouched. "Can't he ever give us any details?"
Alex sighed. "Doesn't work that way, Fidge. I guess all we can do is wait and see what Dr. X has cooked up for us this time."
"Oh, I feel SO much better." Rikki threw his hands in the air. "And Alex, if you suggest we pass the time by checking over that Skyhawk again, I am going to hurt you."
"Fine! Help me check my gear one more time?"
Seeing Rikki reach for a wrench, Alex made a hasty escape from the pit.
Pete shot a sideways
glance at his best friend, who was settling in with a super-jumbo bucket
of popcorn and a large drink. "Got a tapeworm?" the brunet asked, looking
at the frightening amount of food that Josh had brought back to the stands.
"Worse," Josh replied, scooping up a handful of popcorn. "Nanotech. You wouldn't believe how much energy it takes to run this stuff, and it isn't all fueled by Berto's generators."
"Is that why you ate three quarters of the pizza the last time we had a party?"
Josh nodded. "And two cheeseburgers before I came."
Pete shook his head in distaste. "You scare me, Josh."
"Thank you. Now be quiet, I think the race is starting."
As with every other raceway and stadium built by the Mastervision Network, this track had a large television screen looming above it. On that screen, the "globe-eye" logo of Mastervision appeared, quickly dissolving to show Kent Masters, CEO and anchorman of the sponsoring network.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the white-haired commentator began, "welcome to the Mastervision Air Extravaganza! Today marks a milestone in the history of extreme sports. The first ever competitive use of N-Tek's new sport plane, the Skyhawk, will unfold today, right before your eyes."
Leaning over, Josh whispered in Pete's ear. "Then again, if I had gone pro, I would have had to listen to HIM all the time." Pete snickered.
"The pilots will make three circuits of the course in their Skyhawks, dodging and weaving their way through an obstacle course of treacherous design."
The screen showed an image of the small, single-man vehicles making their way through a maze of rings and pylons.
"After that, it's breakout time, as the Skyhawks shed their outer coverings and become street luges for the final leg of the race, a slalom run downhill to the finish."
Josh stifled a grin at the images. The Skyhawks N-Tek Sports was putting out were simply single-person, no-frills versions of the Hawk he often flew on missions. Of course, his had guns and lasers on it, but it was really about the same thing. In fact, Max Steel and Josh McGrath were both listed in the design notes as test pilots. He'd had a chance to fly one of the stripped-down models, but it just wasn't the same.
The sound of the starting gun drew him out of his reverie, as the planes roared out onto the course. As usual, Alex Mann took an early lead, weaving through the course with his trademark grace and precision. In the first lap, the Action Man had easily outdistanced his pursuers.
It was in the second lap that trouble struck. Josh had been taking advantage of his nanotech-enhanced vision to follow Alex's plane as it spun through the course. Suddenly a flash of energy raced along the outside of the plane, disappearing as quickly as it came.
"Did you see that?" Josh asked Pete, only to receive a withering look. "Oh, right."
The Skyhawk sped along the course, but when the time came for it to turn, it simply continued straight, shooting out over the desert.
Josh jumped to his feet. "I don't think that's supposed to happen!"
The pit below
was a mass of frantic activity, as Team Extreme attempted to figure out
what had gone wrong.
"Alex? ALEX!" Rikki was shouting into the radio, but to no avail. "He's not responding!
"Neither are the remote controls!" Grinder shot back, still wrestling with the set in front of him.
At her console, Fidget was attempting to keep her camera even with Alex's speeding Skyhawk. "He's getting further away every minute. We've got to do something! At the speed he's going, if that thing crashes..." She didn't need to finish the sentence.
Rikki snapped his fingers. "The spare Skyhawk, that we kept in case of mechanical failure! It can catch up!"
"No, Alex has too big a head start!" Grinder contradicted him. Whatever answer Rikki would have made was cut off as the sound of the second Skyhawk's engines roared. Team Extreme turned just in time to see a young blond man pull the cockpit shut and take off.
"HEY!" Rikki screeched, but his ire cooled slightly as he realized the second plane was headed after Alex. "What is going ON here?"
"I don't know," Grinder replied, "but I think we'd better get in Big Air and go after them, don't you?"
Martinez's voice suddenly crackled over Josh's biolink, "you have just
stolen a Skyhawk."
"Yeah," Josh agreed. "Hope they don't press charges."
"Josh, what do you think you're going to be able to do? That plane is going upwards of a hundred miles an hour! How do you even think you're going to catch it?"
The blond shook his head. "I was the test pilot for these things, bro. I know how to get a hundred and ten percent out of them." As if to punctuate his statement, Josh slammed the throttle down, causing the plane to zoom even faster. Flying fingers made a few adjustments to the systems, and very soon Josh's "borrowed" Skyhawk had caught up to Alex's. Gently, Josh eased the wing of his Skyhawk under Alex's, until the two planes were basically locked together.
"Okay, you've got him," Berto conceded. "Now what? There's no way you can force that thing to land!"
Josh grinned. "I wasn't planning to, bro." Reaching out, he popped the cockpit open. The force of the speeding wind instantly tore the Plexiglas shield away, sending it hurtling off into the distance. Gingerly, Josh crawled out of the cockpit and onto the wing. The wind pulled at him savagely, and only his enhanced strength kept him from being thrown off completely. Faintly, he could hear Berto yelling at him over the biolink, but he couldn't spare any attention for it. Slowly, he crept along the wing until he reached the cockpit of the other plane. Reaching forward, he hit the emergency release, popping the hatch open. Inside, Alex Mann lay still, eyes closed, only the faint motion of his chest showing that he still lived. Josh quickly checked the unconscious man's pulse, breathing a faint sigh of gratitude when he found it irregular, but strong. Quickly, Josh undid the straps holding Alex into the seat, hauling him up and out of the plane. The two of them were getting closer and closer to the mountains, and he knew it was time to bail. Tightening his grip on Alex, Josh jumped off the plane, pulling the cord on his borrowed parachute as he did so. The two of them floated lightly to Earth as the planes shot away overhead.
As Josh settled the unconscious athlete to the ground, he heard an explosion from over the rise of rocks, probably from at least one of the Skyhawks impacting the ground. It was quickly swallowed up in the sound of propellers, as Big Air, the Team Extreme transport plane, came in for a landing. As Alex's pit crew came boiling out of the plane, Josh relaxed. This adventure, at least, was over.
Alex really hated hospitals.
As an extreme athlete, of course, he'd spent more than his share of time
in them as it was. That didn't make him enjoy them any more. Especially
when he was in perfectly good condition, with no aftereffects of his accident
in the Skyhawk. Yes, he'd had an irregular heartbeat when they brought
him in, but that was no reason to confine him to a hospital bed!
These thoughts running through his mind, Alex tossed a glare at his business manager, the primary culprit in restricting him to the hospital for the time being. Rikki, seeing the poisonous glance directed at him, just grinned.
"You scared the living daylights out of us," the black-haired man replied cheerfully. "Consider this payback."
Alex looked pleadingly at Grinder and Fidget, both of whom backed away with raised hands.
"Don't even THINK about dragging us into this," the redheaded camerawoman instructed.
"Okay, fine." With bad grace, Alex decided to accept his confinement. For now, at least. "Grinder, did they ever find out what went wrong with the plane?"
The tech shook his head. "They haven't even found the plane. Search and Rescue found the wreckage of the backup, but the first one hasn't turned up yet. What happened to you?"
Alex shrugged. "I don't really know. There was this flash, and it felt like I got an electric shock. Next thing I know, I'm waking up on the desert floor with all of you gathered around me."
"Could be faulty wiring," Grinder offered, folding his arms across his chest.
Rikki snorted. "We checked that thing FIVE TIMES. My money's on everybody's favorite psychopath."
"I don't know," Alex replied. "Dr. X is generally interested in studying me, not killing me."
"Maybe he finally got practical," was Fidget's opinion.
The sound of approaching footsteps alerted the four of them, and the subject quickly changed to a more normal one. At the light rap on the doorframe, Alex looked up to see a young blond man standing in the doorway.
"Hey, if it isn't the hero of the hour!" Rikki greeted him. Any desire to press theft charges had evaporated once they'd seen Alex safe and sound. The kid smiled slightly.
"I hope I'm not interrupting anything," he began hesitantly.
Alex waved that off. "No way. These guys'll be here until the nurses kick 'em out. They've got time."
Grinder got to his feet. "I can take a hint," he chuckled. "Come on, guys, let's go see if the cafeteria's open, shall we?" He exited the room. Rikki was close behind him, hauling a protesting Fidget.
"Protective, aren't they?" the blond asked, settling into the visitor's chair.
"Comes with the territory," responded Alex. He scrutinized his visitor's features for a long second. "You're- Josh McGrath, aren't you?"
Josh startled visibly. "You know who I am?"
The older man chuckled. "Sure. I make it a point to keep tabs on all the amateur extreme sports competitors. Never know who you're going to wind up going up against. I really thought you were going to go pro, up until the Del Oro Extreme."
"Yeah..." Josh looked at his feet. "I had my reasons."
"Hey." Reaching out, Alex grasped Josh's shoulder gently, causing the younger man to look up in surprise. "Look, I saw that announcement, and I could tell it was killing you. I don't care what your competitors say, that took guts. Walking away from something you loved that much, whatever your reasons... I think that was one of the bravest things I've ever seen anyone do."
Brown eyes widened. "You mean it?"
"Yeah, I do," Alex confirmed. "And trust me, I know all about having 'reasons.'"
Josh smiled. "Thanks. So, did they ever find out what was wrong with your plane?"
The conversation continued in that line for a few more minutes, and Alex could have sworn that Josh was pumping him for information on the incident. Pretty skillful pumping, but pumping nonetheless. Finally, Josh left, pleading a previous engagement, and leaving a somewhat confused extreme athlete in his wake.
"Weekend over?" Pete
asked, as Josh returned to the car parked outside the hospital. Shaking
his head, Josh dropped into the passenger's seat.
"Dunno. There's something funny about that plane malfunction, though. Alex Mann and his team are known for being absolutely paranoid about their equipment checks. And for somebody who hasn't even found the plane yet, he seems to have some definite suspicions about what happened, though he wasn't sharing."
Starting the car, Pete sighed. "Ghyah. Secrets and more secrets. This stuff ever give you a headache?"
Josh laughed. "Yeah. Usually when that happens, I go start on my homework. After all the intrigue, Guerard's assignments seem easy."
"This is why you got a C on your term paper, right?" Berto broke in.
A rude noise was his answer.
"So what ARE we doing?" Pete wanted to know. "I know you well enough that you're not gonna let this thing go that easily. And I don't want to be stuck up here, since this is your car."
"Even if you are the one driving it," Josh grumbled. "Berto, you got a location on that plane of Alex's yet?"
The sound of typing echoed over the biolink. "Yeah, I managed to track it down with the satellites. It came to a stop about five miles from where you and Alex touched down, out in the desert. It's not a protected area or anything, so you should be able to get access to it."
With a grin, Josh turned to his friend. "So, Pete, up for a little dirt bike trip out into the desert?"
Cresting the last ridge
before the plane's landing site, Josh pulled his bike to a sudden stop.
Beside him, Pete did the same, flipping off the ignition. With the two
motorbikes quiet, the silence of the desert was suddenly extremely loud.
"You know," Pete observed, "it doesn't LOOK crashed."
It didn't. Given the speed at which the plane had been traveling, any impact with the ground should have turned the machine into so much expensive tinfoil. Instead, it was lying, quite intact, in the depression between two large rock formations.
Josh raised an eyebrow. "Mmm. I thought they said the remote controls were jammed."
"And there wasn't anybody in the cockpit to fly it," Pete agreed, lowering his kickstand. Josh followed suit, pulling his helmet off as he did so.
"Well, looks like somebody managed to set it down nice and easy. Which means we may not be looking at an attack."
He might not have been a secret agent, but Pete was pretty good at deductive reasoning. "An abduction? Alex Mann's Mastervision's top draw... he'd probably bring in a heck of a lot of ransom."
"Yeah, except Masters isn't the type to actually pay it. Come on, I want to get a closer look at that thing."
Removing his own helmet, Pete followed his friend as he approached the downed plane. "What exactly are we looking for, anyway?"
"Control devices, evidence of sabotage, anything that shouldn't be on a sport plane," Josh replied. "Check and see if any of the panels look like they've been tampered with."
"Shouldn't the pit crew have noticed that?" Pete asked, doing as he was bid.
"Sure. But it's always good to check, and besides, whoever took this thing might have wanted something that was on it for one reason or another."
Suddenly the biolink crackled to life. "Josh, I'm getting some funny energy readings from the engine compartment," Berto informed them. "It might be whatever caused the plane to go haywire."
Josh grimaced. "Or, it might be a bomb. Pete, you might wanna step back a bit." His friend hastily did as ordered, and Josh gingerly reached out and flipped the lid open.
It wasn't a bomb. Instead, a swarm of small green mechanical bugs came boiling out of the engine area, causing Josh to rapidly backpedal, cursing creatively as he went.
"What in the world?" Pete took several steps backwards as the flood of small machines began to spread towards him.
"Berto, what ARE these things?" Josh yelled, giving ground rapidly.
"I can't really tell, but they seem to be a very crude form of nanotechnology, similar to your probes."
The blond cursed softly. "And what'll they do if they get to me?"
"I don't know... but I don't think you'll like it."
Pete shot his friend a glance. "Think we can outrun 'em on the bikes?"
"Not a chance," Josh replied. "These things are way too fast. And judging by what they've done to that engine compartment, the bikes would be a light snack." The two boys were being backed towards their bikes as they talked, a flood of nanobugs surrounding them.
"I can't believe I'm going out like this... taken out by a bunch of overgrown circuit breakers," Pete grumped.
Josh's eyes lit up. "Circuit breakers-- that's IT! Berto, the Skyhawks have the same internal power set up as the Hawks, right? Generator forward of the engine?"
"Yeah," the tech replied, "and near as I can tell, it's still functioning. But what are you going to do with it?"
"Overload it. Trip all the breakers at once. It'll result in an EMP, which should fry their circuits."
Pete's jaw dropped. "Wait a minute, I don't know that much about nano-whatevers, but if those things are a version of what's in YOU, won't it fry you too?"
A shake of the head was his answer. "It'll just knock me out. My nanotech's more sophisticated, and partially shielded by my organic systems. It's happened before. Besides, it's better than getting eaten, isn't it?"
A sigh came over the biolink. "I'll have an ambulance standing by, hermano. Good luck."
"Thanks, bro. I'm going to need it." Reaching down, Josh tapped a button on the band that had appeared on his wrist. "Going TURBO!"
Backing up, he got a slight running start, and jumped over the flood of nanobugs, landing next to the plane. Realizing that their quarry had moved, the bugs reversed direction, flowing back towards him as Josh dug frantically in the open engine compartment.
"Come on, come on..." Just as the bugs reached him, his fingers found the appropriate wires, jamming them into places they weren't supposed to go. With a strangled hum, the generator overloaded, releasing a pulse of brilliant white energy. Josh felt himself being thrown backwards, then everything went dark.
There were times, Berto
Martinez reflected, that he regretted getting involved with Max Steel.
True, the other agent was quite probably the closest friend he had, not
to mention the only person who really seemed to believe he was capable
of fieldwork. But if being Max's friend was surprisingly rewarding, being
his monitor was more hazardous than any mission. It was the monitor, after
all, who had to tell Jefferson Smith whenever Max was injured or otherwise
Currently, the head of N-Tek was making excellent progress through the corridors of the city hospital, while Berto scrambled to keep up. The young scientist smiled wryly. If being Max's monitor was tough, he could only imagine what things were like for Smith, as both parent and boss. The older man had almost hit the roof when Berto told him about the hospital, calming down only when Berto explained the situation. No doubt about it... Josh McGrath was in for a serious chewing-out.
The sight of Josh sitting in the hospital bed, none the worse for wear and talking quietly with Pete, obviously cooled Smith's ire a bit more. Still, when Pete caught sight of Josh's dad's expression, he noticeably blanched. Quickly, he stood up, brushing himself off.
"I'm... gonna go get a soda," he announced. "You and your dad can have a nice chat."
"Traitor," Josh grumbled.
Berto suppressed a small snicker as Pete quickly brushed past him. He could understand the other teen's reluctance to hang around, though. As far as any of them knew, Smith still had no idea of Pete's part in the recent capture of John Dread, and they preferred to keep it that way. It had taken Max and Berto a great deal of tap-dancing, but they'd finally managed to spin a highly edited story of the adventure that Berto wasn't entirely sure Smith really believed. Still, he'd accepted it, and at the moment, that was all that mattered.
"Are you all right?" Smith asked, once Pete had left. His tone was concerned, with only a hint of exasperation.
Josh nodded, sitting up a little straighter. "Yeah, I'm fine. It was just a blackout. I told the nurses that I've been under a lot of stress at college, and that I missed lunch. Got a lecture on taking better care of myself, and they said they'd release me once you got here."
That got a nod from Smith. "Good. Now... I want a report on exactly what happened out there today."
The tone of the question made it clear that a senior agent was asking, rather than a father. Watching from the door, Berto noticed a change in his friend. He sat up straighter, the set of his shoulders changed, and his eyes took on a different glint.
"There was an incident at the Mastervision Air Extravaganza earlier today. One of the athletes' planes went out of control. I managed to chase it down and remove the pilot from the cockpit before he got hurt. Later, Pete and I went out into the desert on a bike trip, and found the plane intact, suggesting that the 'accident' may have been a deliberate attempt at abduction. We were then attacked by a swarm of what Berto believes may be crude nanotech bugs. I took them out by overloading the Skyhawk's generator, causing an EMP which fried them and knocked me unconscious."
Quickly, Berto covered up another snicker. Despite his usual smart-aleck demeanor, Max could be quite professional when necessary.
Max. Suddenly it hit Berto just what was different about his friend. The minute Smith had asked for a report, Josh's body language had shifted completely. If it weren't for the difference in coloring, Berto would have said it was Max Steel sitting in that bed, and not Josh McGrath. Frowning, he filed that away for future reference.
Smith sighed. "In the future, I'd prefer it if you'd inform me before going off to play Hardy Boys... and leave the civilians at home."
"Hey, I couldn't leave Pete stranded here, since we came in my car. And I really didn't think we'd find anything. It was just idle curiosity."
"I don't think you need me to tell you about curiosity and cats, Max," the older man said. Berto wondered if Smith was even aware of his slip.
With a nod, Smith closed that subject. "At any rate, the introduction of nanotechnology into this mess has made it an N-Tek matter. Since you're already involved, I've assigned you and Berto to the case. Cat's on assignment in Japan, so I'm afraid you two are on your own. Good luck, both of you. Now... you wait here, I'll go sign the release papers." With that, he walked out, leaving Berto and Josh together.
"There goes my weekend off," Josh sighed, posture shifting back to normal.
"Yeah," replied Berto, coming to sit in the chair next to the bed. "You lost me twenty bucks too, hermano."
Josh looked up as he pulled on his sneakers. "Yeah? Who won the pool?"
"Marshak, who else?" N-Tek agents had a running pool on the date and time that each of Max Steel's vacations would officially become an N-Tek mission. Chuck Marshak, one of the agents peripherally assigned to Team Steel, had won the pool three times running.
Tying his shoes, Josh rose to his feet. "Come on, we'd better go find Pete and reassure him that Dad hasn't killed me. Yet, anyway."
When Josh and Berto
stepped out of the hospital, they were only mildly surprised to find Pete
waiting for them. "Now the weekend's over, right?" the taller teen asked,
falling into step beside them.
"More than likely," Josh admitted, as the trio made for Josh's car. "This has just become official."
"Then you may wanna see these," Pete told him, reaching into his shirt pocket. "I noticed this guy hanging around the Air Extravaganza-- thought he was kind of strange-looking. Then I saw him hanging around the hospital, apparently keeping an eye on Team Extreme. So, I shot a couple photos. Recognize him?"
Josh accepted the pair of proffered photographs, handing one to Berto as he examined the other. Brown eyes widened, and Josh suddenly launched into a stream of curses that spanned at least three languages. Berto wasn't far behind him.
"I take it you know this guy," Pete stated flatly.
"Psycho," Josh spat. "Oh, this is just getting better and better."
Berto nodded. "And aside from Dread, Psycho is the only goon who knows that Max Steel and Josh McGrath are the same person."
That got a groan from Pete. "Just great," he complained. "I've been a target once already, and that was definitely more than enough."
"For me, too, buddy," Josh agreed. "I think it'd probably be a good idea if you stuck with us for the duration."
"And how are we going to explain THAT one to Smith?" Berto wanted to know.
"Very carefully," Josh replied, grinning. "Just like last time."
Pete rolled his eyes. "Maybe it's not too late for me to find a bomb shelter..."
at N-Tek headquarters involved files, photographs, coffee, and some half-stale
donuts if you were lucky. Strategy meetings with Max Steel, on the other
hand, usually had less information and a lot better food. Currently, the
three boys were seated at a rest-stop picnic table, the remains of several
fast food items littering the surface.
"So, this guy is a cyborg, works-- or rather, WORKED for the nutball that kidnapped me, knows who you are, and hates your guts," Pete summed up, gesturing at the picture lying in front of him.
"That's about the size of it," Josh replied, crumpling up the paper that had contained his cheeseburger. "Oh, and I should mention he's been presumed dead four times now."
Pete rolled his eyes. "Wonderful."
"On the marginally bright side," Berto interjected, "he seems to be focusing on Alex Mann and his crew, rather than you. Given the attention you drew to yourself at the race, though, I don't think that's going to last."
"You think he was involved with the Skyhawk going nuts?" Pete asked.
Josh sighed. "Could be. We can't afford to assume anything, but kidnapping is well within Psycho's MO. The nanotech, though, seems to suggest that we've got a second player in this game, whether he and Psycho are working together or not."
Absently, Berto pushed his glasses further up on his nose. "However many players we're up against, the center of this little game is almost certainly Alex Mann. The question is, WHY? Sure, he's a great athlete, and pretty famous, but what makes him so much more special than any of the hundred other famous athletes out there?"
"Don't forget those weird bugs," Josh reminded him. "Where do nanotech, an extreme athlete, and Psycho all come together?"
Pete raised an eyebrow. "What, you mean aside from you?" he joked. The other two stared at him in shock.
Josh smacked himself in the forehead. "I'm an IDIOT," he grumbled.
"Psycho WOULD be the closest thing to an expert on you and your abilities available outside N-Tek, hermano," Berto reminded his friend. "Invaluable to somebody trying to recreate the process."
"I know, I know. But Psycho always thought Dread's obsession with reproducing my systems was a waste of time."
"Maybe someone else is paying the bills?" Pete suggested. "He's obviously been willing to go along with plans like this before now."
The blond sighed. "Which brings us right back to the mysterious second player. And there's still the question of why Alex Mann. Just because he's the best of the best?"
Pete looked thoughtful. "You know, Mastervision has done so many fluff pieces on Alex Mann over the years, it's practically an in-depth biography. I have a com project due as it is... maybe I could use that to get access to the archives? They shouldn't be restricted."
"And after the craziness with that... terrorist woman a few months ago, Mastervision has tightened security on all its facilities," Josh mused. "You'd probably be safe from Psycho there."
"Which leaves us the job of keeping an eye on Mann until Psycho and company try again," Berto concluded. "Got any ideas on that, hermano?"
Josh grinned. "As a matter of fact, I do. Think Dad would mind donating another Skyhawk to this case?"
"He'll probably take it out of your allowance," was Pete's contribution.
Sticking his tongue out at his friend, Josh chuckled. "That's okay. Sometimes, being a rich boy comes in handy."
"Have we finished a
sporting event in the last six months?" Rikki asked, as he and Grinder
moved another piece of equipment on board Big Air.
"Sure," Fidget replied, pulling a dolly in after them. "There was that race out in Fresno. We managed to take care of everything in time for Alex to make the start, remember?"
Alex entered the cargo bay then, a couple of bags slung over his shoulders. "We've actually managed to finish about half of the sporting events we've entered since this craziness started," he informed them. "Just enough to keep our sponsors from deserting us completely."
"ALEX! You just got out of the hospital," Rikki scolded, moving to take the heavy bags from his friend. "Let us move this stuff in!"
"Cluck cluck cluck," Fidget whispered, causing Grinder to chuckle. She then had to duck as a bag came whizzing towards her.
Blue eyes twinkling, Alex laid a hand on Rikki's shoulder. "Look, I'm okay, Rikki. It was a brief instance of irregular heartbeat brought on by electrical shock. I'm not going to keel over, okay?"
"Easy for you to say," Rikki grumbled. "You weren't forced to wonder whether your best friend was going to wind up smeared across the California desert."
"Hey." Alex squeezed Rikki's shoulder gently. "It didn't happen. Let it go, Rikki."
The quiet moment was broken by the sound of a truck braking to a stop outside the plane. Alex cocked his head, shooting a glance at Grinder.
"Expecting a delivery?" he asked quietly.
Grinder shook his head. "No, not me. You?"
"Hey!" A voice called from outside. "Anybody there?"
Cautiously, Alex made his way out, to see Josh McGrath standing beside a large flatbed truck. On the back of the truck was a Skyhawk, painted in the Team Extreme colors.
Alex's jaw dropped. "Josh?" he blurted. The teen smiled somewhat shyly.
"Hi. Um, I was thinking, considering that it's sort of my fault that you don't have any Skyhawks right now, I should probably do something to make up for it. Anyway, I talked to my dad, and he agreed to give you this one." He made a face. "Of course, there goes Aspen this winter..."
"This is for US?" Rikki managed.
Josh nodded. "Consider it a 'thank-you' for not pressing charges,"
A shake of the head was Alex's response to that. "Josh, you saved my tail out there. That more than makes up for stealing the Skyhawk. You didn't have to do this."
"I didn't HAVE to... but I wanted to." The blond's voice dropped. "It's my way of saying... thanks for the support."
For a second, Alex saw a flash of something cold and lonely in the boy's eyes. He couldn't even imagine how hard it had been for Josh McGrath to walk away from the extreme sports arena. Whatever his "reasons" were, the scars still hurt. Alex smiled.
"Okay, then, I will." Looking over Josh's shoulder, he saw his team beginning to unload the sport plane from the flatbed. "Look, how would you like a tour of the plane?"
Josh smiled. "I'd like that a lot. Thanks."
As Berto drove away
in Josh's convertible, Pete shivered a little. He was ninety percent certain
that he wasn't going to be a target this time around, but that ten percent
was awfully unsettling. He tried not to run through the doors of the Mastervision
broadcasting station, and was not entirely successful.
Once through the security check, his next task was to convince the staff to give him unrestricted access to the tape archives. Fortunately, he'd played the "starving student" routine a number of times in the past to get things he needed. And the fact that he actually NEEDED to do this project gave it a certain ring of authenticity. That, combined with the sweetest smile he could muster, got the director to let him through.
The tape room, to Pete's lack of surprise, had almost an entire wall dedicated to Alex Mann. "I hope you appreciate this, Josh," he grumbled, pulling a notebook out of his backpack. "Hope my com teacher appreciates it, too."
Starting at the earliest tape on the rack, Pete began to wade through the morass of inspirational music and cheesy clichés that comprised a Mastervision fluff piece. After the tenth shot of Masters looking serious, Pete was seriously wondering why there hadn't been more attacks on HIM.
The first possible suspect on his list was Brandon Caine. Anyone who followed extreme sports knew that Brandon and Alex had been rivals for years, although it had been a friendly rivalry. For the most part, anyway. There were occasional flashes of hostility there, most of them on Brandon's part.
Somehow, though, Pete didn't think Brandon was the real culprit. First and most important, Brandon was currently hospitalized, for a condition that, Pete noticed, was never completely defined. While it was possible that Brandon had somehow hired it done, that still didn't explain the nanotech. Besides, the friendship between Brandon and Alex in the newest pictures seemed completely unfeigned.
As the tapes continued to play, Pete noticed with some interest that Alex Mann seemed to be almost as trouble-prone as Josh. The extreme athlete had managed to be present at several major mishaps that had occurred at Mastervision events. One such was the very public attack on Kent Masters by teenage genius Templeton Storm. Masters's broadcasts portrayed the young man as dangerously destabilized by the fame and fortune he received, but Pete had his doubts. Still, Alex had definitely been involved with the whole thing, and Storm was smart enough to be responsible for the nanotech angle. He scribbled the information down for Berto to check up on later.
Suddenly Pete's eyebrows shot up. This was the "Accelerate World Peace" broadcast, the one that had gone completely into the toilet fairly quickly. The tape itself didn't have much on it, but Pete could remember the strange broadcasts that had gone out instead of the show. The news channels had been giving conflicting reports of exactly what world leader had been assassinated when, and then some nutball calling himself Dr. X had been outed as having staged the whole thing. And, Pete recalled now, Alex Mann had been involved in the whole thing, right up to his ears. In fact, he'd received two medals for heroism.
Pete quickly jotted down Dr. X's name and pertinent information, his head spinning. Alex hadn't seemed surprised at any of this, and Josh felt like he was hiding something. Was it possible that Alex Mann was some type of secret agent as well?
This is giving me a headache, Pete grumped to himself. Which was why this was JOSH'S line of work, and not his. Sitting back in his chair, Pete began to go through the tapes again.
took a moment to be grateful he'd packed his sunglasses. Not only did the
lenses block the bright desert sun, but they shielded his eyes from the
wind that whipped past. He had to admit, Alex's motor skateboards could
go pretty darn fast.
Pulling up alongside him, Alex signaled for Josh to stop. "Not bad, huh?" the older man asked, once the engine noise had subsided.
"These things are GREAT," Josh replied. "Man, I would have given a lot to ride one of these in competition. Thanks for letting me try it out."
"You're welcome," Alex replied. "Actually, it's nice to have somebody to actually ride with. Grinder, Rikki and Fidget really only get into it when I need a partner for practice, and Brandon's still in the hospital. Not that there isn't a thrill taking the thing out for a spin by myself, but..."
"I know what you mean. There's competition, and then there's just going out and having a good time, and that's more fun with two people," Josh agreed.
Just then the radio crackled to life. "Alex?" Rikki hailed them.
Alex sighed. "Rikki, if you nag me about my 'condition' one more time..."
"Wouldn't dream of it," came the reply, a little too quickly. "I just want to make sure you two don't get too far away from Big Air. It's easy to get lost in the desert, and you guys are pushing the edge of our tracking range as it is."
"Rikki," Alex rolled his eyes. "I'm not going to get lost. I know exactly where we are in relation to the plane. Trust me."
A crackle of static in his ears told Josh that Berto had just activated the audio portion of the biolink. "Josh, we've got a problem. I'm scanning a helicopter coming towards you two, silent running. Ordinary radar probably couldn't even detect it. I don't like the way this looks."
Josh nodded slightly, even though he knew that Berto couldn't see him from the rise he was parked on. "Hey, listen, maybe we should get back to the plane," he broke in. "You may not be worried about getting lost, but my sense of direction really stinks."
"This isn't a conspiracy, is it?" Alex grumbled, but he turned his skateboard back in the direction of Big Air. Unfortunately, before he and Josh could get very far, a black helicopter shot over the horizon, banking around to hover directly over them.
Josh gritted his teeth. "This is not good..."
The copter suddenly dropped two canisters, both of which exploded upon hitting the ground. The resultant shockwave knocked both men off their boards. As Josh pushed himself laboriously to his hands and knees, he saw Alex lying still on the ground, obviously unconscious. Then his view was interrupted by a pair of very familiar steel-toed boots.
"Hey, Smiley," Josh puffed, looking up in resignation. His eyes fell on the shock staff that the cyborg held in one hand. "Aw, man, not again!"
Psycho chuckled. "Sweet dreams." Then he shoved the staff into Josh's side, and the world faded out.
"Ow..." The first
thing that caught Alex's attention was the pounding in his head. He hadn't
felt this bad since his twenty-first birthday, when a bunch of other athletes
had taken him out on a tour of the bars of... where had they BEEN, anyway?
He couldn't for the life of him remember. But the next morning, he'd woken
up on Big Air to Rikki's lectures, and the first and only hangover he'd
Eyes still closed, Alex took stock of his surroundings. He was lying on something cold and hard... and his wrists and ankles were held against it by cold metal. Okay, this was definitely not a good thing.
Alex reluctantly opened his eyes, already knowing he wouldn't like what he saw. Sure enough, he was clamped to a table, in the center of what was obviously a lab. Less than ten feet away, he could see Josh clamped to a similar table, this one raised into a standing position. Surprisingly, the younger man was already awake, and glaring daggers at the third occupant of the room. Alex glared as well, as the man turned in his direction.
"Ah, Mr. Mann, you're awake. So good of you to join us," Dr. X greeted him. "I do hope your trip was comfortable."
"Oh, marvelous," Alex spat, pulling ineffectually at his bonds. "You know, most people have the common courtesy to at least extend an invitation."
Dr. X looked hurt. "But Mr. Mann, I did. It's not my fault that your young friend here decided to interfere with your conveyance."
Josh growled. "You were behind the plane? So you're Smiley's mysterious employer."
"I am indeed, Mr. McGrath," Dr. X replied, turning to bow mockingly at the captive teen. "Or is that Steel? I must confess, I have problems keeping your identities straight."
"Call me what you like," Josh replied, eyes flashing dangerously. "I'm still gonna be the one to kick your butt into next week."
That got a laugh from Dr. X. "I seriously doubt that. Those clamps are a titanium alloy, far stronger than even you can manage to break, considering the lack of leverage in your current position. You're welcome to try, of course, but don't exhaust yourself too badly. We can't have you passing out before I get a chance to study you."
Dr. X moved over to one of the consoles, and began typing. Alex cocked an eyebrow at Josh.
"I'm guessing there's something you haven't told me," the older man observed dryly.
Josh snickered. "I'm guessing it's mutual," the blond replied.
"Oh, please, allow me to explain," Dr. X broke in. "After all, you're both very much a part of this experiment. You see, I have always been fascinated with human potential, pushing it to its limits, making mankind more than it was. Both of you are extreme athletes, you understand that drive."
"If I understood anything about you, I'd be crazy," Alex spat.
Dr. X waved that off. "The two of you represent quantum leaps in human potential, Mr. McGrath in the area of the physical, and Mr. Mann... in the area of the mind."
The scientist punched a few buttons on a console, and a hologram sprang into being. It was a featureless humanoid figure, only the brain and bloodstream marked.
"Imagine a subject imbued with both your Max Probes, Mr. McGrath, and the AMP factor. The nanotech would enhance his strength and speed to almost unimaginable levels. Imagine that strength and speed with the ability to instantly calculate the probabilities and outcomes of any event or problem."
Josh shot Alex a look. "You can do that? How?"
"Brain chemistry," the older man replied. "Not sure exactly how it works."
"We'll have to have a long talk when this is over," Josh mused.
Dr. X shook his head. "I doubt that will be feasible... Neither of you is likely to be rescued. Even should your friends track you to this airship, they're unlikely to get past my associates. And before you get your hopes up, Mr. McGrath, I've jammed your biolink with Dr. Martinez. I doubt very much that anyone is going to be able to find you."
Alex and Josh exchanged glances. Both of them sincerely hoped he was wrong.
"How could we
LOSE them?" Rikki demanded, his voice rising sharply. Hanging over Grinder's
shoulder, he glared at the screen as if he could make it produce the missing
signals by sheer force of will.
"Two tracking devices do NOT malfunction simultaneously," the dark-haired man continued. "And what was that explosion we heard over the com system right before everything cut out?"
Grinder didn't even look up from the computer he was typing on. "Calmness,
Rikki. Jumping to conclusions will only make us more desperate. There are a number of reasons we could have lost their signal, and most of them are perfectly innocent." Despite his light tone, however, the tech's rapidly flying fingers betrayed his worry.
"Eye in the sky reporting," Fidget reported from her station. Her remote-controlled helicam was currently out flying over the desert. "I'm almost to Alex and Josh's last recorded position now. No sign of them yet... no sign of trouble, either."
"Got it, Fidget," Grinder replied. "Keep looking."
"Will do," came the reply. Just then, a low tone rang through the cabin as another light flashed, signaling a visitor.
Rikki threw his hands in the air. "Aw, what NOW? We don't have time for this... Grinder, you and Fidget keep searching. I'll go get rid of whoever it is."
Leaving his teammates to the computers, Rikki stalked down to Big Air's entrance hatch, muttering imprecations under his breath. If it was Masters, he was going to feed the jerk his own microphone. And if Coach Grey had picked this time to drop in... well, Rikki wasn't sure WHAT he'd do, but it wouldn't be pleasant.
To Rikki's surprise, however, it wasn't either of those two. Instead, two teenage boys stood outside, their serious expressions a match for Rikki's own. The taller one, Rikki vaguely recognized as having been with Josh McGrath at the Air Extravaganza, but he didn't know the other one at all.
"Look... you two are looking for Josh, right? He's not here right now," the older man began. "He and Alex went out into the desert--"
"We know," the shorter boy interrupted. "We know what happened to Alex and Josh."
For a minute, Rikki was speechless. Then his eyes narrowed. "Exactly HOW do you know?" he demanded, suspicion creeping into his tone.
"It's hard to explain," the boy hedged. Beside him, his companion suddenly threw his hands into the air.
"Can we stop with the covert ops stuff?" he asked, exasperated. "Both of our friends are in trouble, and we're not going to be able to save them if we're standing out here playing 'I've got a secret.' My name's Pete Costas, he's Berto Martinez. Can we take this conversation inside so we can all spill our guts?"
Berto and Rikki both had the grace to look sheepish. Rikki nodded. "All right, come inside. I'd rather we only had to go over this once anyway."
Leading the two newcomers to the bridge, Rikki stopped dead upon seeing Fidget and Grinder's expressions.
"What is it?" Rikki asked, his tone full of dread.
"I... I found the motorboards." The camerawoman's voice quavered slightly. "No sign of Alex or Josh... but there's a big smoking crater out here, looks like it was made by an impact explosive."
"The explosion didn't get them," Berto interrupted, before Rikki could begin breaking down. "They were kidnapped."
Grinder raised an eyebrow at him. "And just what do you know about it?" the tech asked curiously.
The smaller teen sighed. "Well, I did say it was time to tell the truth," he muttered. "Josh McGrath isn't... normal. He's an operative for an anti-terrorist agency known as N-Tek. I'm his partner and his handler."
"Handler?" Fidget broke in. "What do you mean, his handler."
"Josh was accidentally dosed with an experimental nanotechnology that makes him stronger and faster than humanly possible," Berto explained. "It also allows me to see and hear what he does, through my computers. I witnessed the kidnapping, up until Josh passed out. Josh and Alex were grabbed by a terrorist known as Psycho, and hauled away to the west in a stealth helicopter."
Rikki shook his head. "I don't believe this." He turned to Pete. "And what about you? Are you a secret agent, too?"
"Nope," Pete replied. "Josh is just my best friend. I'm not abandoning him."
With a snort, Rikki folded his arms over his chest. "And just why should we believe any of this?"
Berto sighed. "We can't exactly show you ID... I guess you're just going to have to trust us."
The business manager opened his mouth for a scathing retort, but was cut off by Grinder before he could utter it.
"Why would this Psycho guy want Alex, though?" the tech asked.
"Good question," Berto replied. "Best guess is that he's working for somebody else... Psycho will do a lot as long as he gets paid."
Fidget made a face. "So somebody hired him to get Alex? Who would want both Alex and Josh?"
"Who's Dr. X?" Pete interjected suddenly, getting four gazes turned on him.
Berto blinked. "What?"
"The Mastervision archives had tape from that 'World Peace' exhibition, complete with that nutball who called himself Dr. X. It was pretty obvious he and Alex had crossed paths before," Pete explained. "Besides, I seem to remember a few of these crawling around, too." Reaching into his pocket, Pete flipped a fried trilobug at Grinder, who caught it neatly.
The older man examined the device carefully. "It's Dr. X's work, all right. Where'd you find this?"
"Alex's plane," the taller teen replied. "So who's Dr. X?"
"He's a psycho," Rikki replied, brown eyes flashing. "He's obsessed with pushing humankind up the evolutionary ladder, even if most people won't survive the jump." Suddenly, he realized he was absently rubbing the side of his neck and quickly drew his hand away.
Grinder nodded. "He's always trying to create the perfect human being. See, Alex has this... ability. I'm not even sure how he does it, but when he gets an adrenaline rush, he kicks in something called an AMP factor. Stands for Advanced Mathematical Probability, or so I'm told. Lets him instantly calculate the outcome of any and all events around him."
That got a whistle from Berto. "Pretty handy ability for, say, a soldier or a mercenary. Put that with Josh's enhanced strength, and you've got the perfect warrior."
"Which explains why he wants Alex and Josh," Fidget interjected. "We've gotta find them!"
"I've got an idea on how to do that, if you'll let me use your computers," Berto explained.
A sharp nod was Grinder's reply. "You tell me what you want, and I'll help you do it."
"Then let's get to work," Rikki exclaimed. "Because I've got the feeling that we're running out of time."
"What's his problem?"
Fidget asked, jerking her thumb over her shoulder at Pete. The taller teen
had retreated to the sitting area as soon as Big Air had taken off, following
the trace of Josh's transphasic energy signal.
Berto looked up from the computer he was typing at to see Pete looking a bit pale and attempting to lose himself in an issue of "Popular Mechanics." The techie shook his head.
"Him? He's afraid of flying. Problem is, he keeps winding up on planes."
A bloodcurdling screech from the back of the plane suddenly cut through the air.
Fidget frowned. "Come on, my flying isn't THAT bad," she complained.
Rikki looked back, wincing. "Actually, Fidget, looks like Pete's just been introduced to Vinnie."
"Vinnie?" Berto raised an eyebrow.
"Fidget's iguana. Nice to see somebody else shares my feelings about that walking handbag," the dark-haired man explained caustically.
The red-haired woman shook her head. "Honestly, Rikki, and he likes you too!" Her expression growing serious, she looked back over her shoulder at Grinder and Berto. "How much longer until we get into visual range?"
"According to this, a few minutes," Grinder replied. "Fascinating tracking system you've got here, Berto."
The younger tech grinned. "Thanks. This particular application of it is my own invention."
Rikki scrutinized the readouts. "You know, if we're this close, shouldn't Dr. X be picking us up on radar? He's got to be watching for visitors."
"Not a problem," Berto returned. "N-Tek radar jammer. Don't leave home without one. Should be effective against both air- and ground-based radar."
"Probably air-based," was Grinder's opinion. "The man has a fondness for airships. Harder to infiltrate, I suppose."
Fidget grinned. "Considering that we've crashed most of his ground-based hideouts, you can kind of understand his choice."
"There it is," Rikki broke in, pointing through the windshield as the large airship came slowly into view. Hearing that, Pete set aside his magazine (and his nausea,) and joined the others on the bridge.
"It's... big," was his contribution. He was, of course, ignored.
Exchanging glances, Berto and Grinder got up from their computers. Rikki stopped them before they got to the door. "I just want to go on record as saying that I really hate this plan," he informed them.
Grinder reached out and grasped his friend's shoulder gently. "Rikki, somebody's got to go get Alex and Josh. Berto's got the training in this sort of thing, and I'm better able to handle Dr. X's computer security systems than either of you two."
"I know that," the other man sighed, "but are you sure I can't go with you?"
The tech shook his head. "It's an in-and-out mission, hopefully. Fewer people the better in that case. No worries, Rikki, we'll be fine."
"Don't say that; it invites trouble," Rikki growled, but he stepped out of the doorway, accompanying Berto and Grinder down to the hold. Once there, the two of them quickly equipped themselves with utility packs, and then shrugged into a pair of Glider Packs.
"You ever used one of these?" Rikki asked, helping Berto check his straps. "It's like a parachute. You pull the cord and the wings expand. After that, it's like hang-gliding."
Berto gave him a smile. "Max is the adrenaline junkie, but he's talked me into a few crazy stunts in my time. I've got some idea of what I'm doing."
A crackle over the earpieces was followed by Fidget's voice. "We're over the airship now, guys. Opening the rear hatch. Good luck."
"Thanks, Fidge," Grinder replied. "I think we're gonna need it."
Behind them, the rear hatch ground open, showing the airship several meters below them. Exchanging one last glance, Grinder and Berto jumped. Rikki watched them, biting his lip nervously, until he saw both packs open. He didn't breathe again until both figures had landed on the airship, however.
Suddenly his eyes widened. "FIDGET! Our cover's just been blown! Dr. X just launched a pair of heat-seekers... and they're headed this way!"
Grinder mused, as he and Berto slowly crept through the black and purple
halls of Dr. X's airship. "Like being inside a bruise."
Berto nodded. "Or an eggplant," he added. His fingers twitched, and he found himself seriously wishing for the comfortable weight of a gun in his hand. Which just proves how nervous I am, he mused wryly. Like any other field-qualified agent, he'd had to pass a firearms proficiency test, but generally he despised guns. If anything's happened to Josh, though, I'll be willing to unload a few rounds into somebody.
"So, any idea where they might be?" the young agent asked, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. "This place is huge... we could look forever and not find them."
"Yeah, but they're more than likely in a lab of some sort, and there's only a two places on this ship a lab would be. Either back by the engines, or directly in the center of the ship. One's easily defensible; one's got more energy available to it. Which place he's got them depends on what he intends to do."
Whatever Berto would have responded was cut off when a bolt of lightning slammed into the floor between them. The two techies dove in opposite directions, ducking into the nearest convenient doorways. Another burst of lightning played across the walls, accompanied by a spate of mocking laughter.
"Party crashers, huh?" a young male voice rang out. "You should know better than to poke your noses in where you're not invited. I'm going to have to teach you an electrifying lesson!"
Grinder shook his head. "Tempest. Oh, now this day is a real beaut."
"Who the heck is Tempest?" Berto hissed, craning his head out of the door as far as he dared.
"Short version? He's a teenage genius who got his brain fried in an accident. Now he's sort of a living lightning bolt."
Berto rolled his eyes. "You know, I'm beginning to find some disturbing similarities between our two careers. Remind me later to tell you about Annabelle Barkowski."
"Will do, mate," Grinder replied. "Right now, I think we need to get moving before we fry. Split up; we'll meet up at the entry point later."
"Are you nuts?" yelped the younger man. "That's what gets people in the movies killed!"
The other tech shook his head. "Trust me on this one! Sometimes you use a cliché to your advantage. You take the engine area and find that lab! I'll catch up with you later. Now GO!"
Berto had always been better at taking orders than Max, not that that was saying much. Wrenching the door open, he hurried down the revealed hall. Footfalls behind him indicated that Tempest had decided to follow him, rather than Grinder. That made Berto a bit worried about what the older man was heading towards, but he could spare it little attention. Most of his concentration was consumed by dodging the lightning bolts Tempest was tossing his way.
Rounding a corner, Berto threw himself through the first open door he saw. The profusion of machinery and computer banks instantly identified it as the lab that Grinder had mentioned. He had only a second to register that there was no sign of Alex and Josh before he had to dive behind a console to escape another blast from Tempest.
"Welcome to my lab," the lightning bug called, scanning the room. Berto took the momentary lull as an opportunity to get a better look at his adversary. Tempest was about his height, but surprisingly muscular, especially considering his obvious youth. The blond also possessed what Max had dubbed the "Supervillain Fashion Sense," which had led him to don a bright yellow jacket and blue pants. A blue lightning bolt tattoo covered one eye, completing the ensemble.
Is it in the villain handbook somewhere that your outfit must look as ridiculous as possible? Berto wondered. Then he had to duck, as Tempest had glimpsed him peering over the top of the console.
"How do you like my little workshop?" the boy continued, as he began to stalk Berto. The older tech kept low, scuttling to try and keep the various machines between himself and his pursuer.
"I've seen better," Berto responded. "My lab back at N-Tek makes this look like a Radio Shack." He pulled his head down just in time to keep it from being taken off by a blast of electricity.
Tempest snarled. "Don't mock me!"
More than a year of backing up Max had taught Berto the quickest and easiest ways of aggravating people, especially lunatics. Keeping his breathing even with an effort, he snorted.
"Who's mocking? I admit, you've got some pretty interesting equipment here among all the dinosaurs, but it's hardly a state of the art research area. Of course, it's probably hard for a freak like you to get much funding anyway, right?"
As Berto had calculated, that was the final straw. He hadn't spent a year working on his doctorate without learning that the most sensitive place to hit a scientist's ego was in his grants. With an almost animalistic howl, Tempest began launching lightning bolts at random.
Congratulations, Martinez, his brain has shut down, he told himself wryly. Now's the time to start using YOURS. Grinder said he was a living battery... how are you going to take him down?
A cautious check on Tempest showed that the boy was still throwing energy around without rhyme or reason, but he seemed to be tiring now. The blasts were smaller, obviously containing less energy. Berto nodded to himself, hypothesis confirmed. He generates electricity biologically, like an electric eel, the scientist realized. But he generates it slowly, and only so much at a time. If I can get him to expend it all at once...
Suddenly Berto's gaze fell on a large sheet of very thin glass, left over from some type of experiment. A grin spread across his face as a plan started to unfold. A few more minutes of skulking allowed him to procure two large metal plates and a coil of wire.
"MacGyver, eat your heart out."
His work finished, Berto took a deep breath. This was going to take split-second timing if he was going to avoid becoming a crispy critter. He took another moment to steady himself, then stood up.
"Tempest! Over here!" he yelled. The other boy whirled, snarling, and launched a powerful dual lightning blast in Berto's direction. Berto threw himself to one side, allowing the lightning to strike the large electrode that had been standing behind him.
The lightning immediately flowed through the electrode, down the wire, and into the large capacitor that Berto had set up. Acting as a storage medium, the capacitor quickly absorbed all the charge Tempest was pouring into it, quickly draining the young scientist's body of voltage. Eyes rolling back in his head, Tempest collapsed.
Berto took a minute to wipe his forehead of the sweat that had collected there. "Consider yourself discharged, Tempest," he breathed.
I think I've been around Max a LITTLE too long, he thought, shaking his head. Then he ran out of the lab, hoping to catch up with Grinder before the other man got into too much trouble.
There was nothing
Psycho liked better than a hunt, especially when his prey provided him
a bit of a challenge. It was obvious that his current quarry knew something
about the game, because Psycho hadn't actually caught a glimpse of the
intruder since he'd begun stalking him.
Had Psycho actually possessed facial muscles, he might have raised an eyebrow upon seeing that the trail led into the galley. Dr. X had warned him that the members of Mann's crew could be annoyingly inventive and very difficult to deal with, especially the tech. After so long dealing with Max Steel, however, Psycho thought he could handle it. At the very least, it would be nice to have a break from being called "Smiley."
Warily, he pushed open the door to the galley, expecting an ambush. Instead, he was greeted by a sight that seemed straight out of Looney Toons. The layout of the galley had been completely redone, carts turned over in the aisles, and several somewhat precarious piles of equipment towering over the only clear path through the mess. Psycho shook his head in amusement. Honestly, how dumb did he look? If he tried to make his way through the obstacle course that the mechanic had set up, he'd find himself buried in a rain of toasters. That wouldn't be likely to stop him, of course, but it would slow him down, and he had no intention of letting his quarry get away from him now.
Instead of starting cautiously through the booby-trapped galley, Psycho simply walked up to the first table in his way and gave it a sharp shove. It skidded sideways, protesting as it went. He cut across the entire room in a similar fashion, avoiding the prescribed path entirely, and caught up with Grinder just as the other man reached the doors. The tech had to throw himself to the ground to avoid the laser blast that would have taken his head off.
"Nice try," Psycho chuckled, aiming his laser at the fallen man. Then he saw the length of rope in the mechanic's hand.
A sharp jerk on the rope was answered by a low groan from behind the two. Psycho whirled to face the noise, just in time to see one of the industrial-size refrigerators sway, then topple towards him. He dodged, but not fast enough, as the large steel box crashed down, trapping him from the shoulder blades to the ankles.
His laser cannon was still free, though, and Psycho aimed carefully at Grinder, determined that the other would not escape. Then he noticed, too late, the shadow of the second refrigerator-- this one aimed at his head. The cyborg had just enough time to cover his skull with his arms before the appliance hit.
It didn't help.
Dusting himself off, Grinder smiled at the unconscious terrorist. "I thought so," he agreed, dropping the rope. Then he hurried off to find his friend.
Up until five
minutes ago, Pete really hadn't thought his day could get any worse. Then
he heard Rikki yelling over the radio, and knew he'd been wrong. The cockpit
of Big Air shuddered as Fidget wrenched the thing into an impossible evasive
maneuver, causing Pete to yelp and grab for the back of the nearest seat.
"Heat-seekers?" the teenager demanded, bracing himself. "As in MISSILES?"
Fidget nodded curtly, her attention fixed on the readouts before her. "And it's not like this crate can dodge them very well, either. We've got a serious problem."
Just then, Rikki skidded into the cockpit, snagging one of the other seats with practiced ease. "It's gonna get real hot here, real quickly," he reported. "Either we leave and come back, or we come up with some way to get those missiles off our tail."
"We can't leave!" Fidget protested. "There's no telling when the guys will be needing a ride."
Rikki acknowledged that with a sharp nod. "Then we've got to find some way to decoy those missiles. We don't have enough people, or enough objects to throw, to do what we did last time. And I don't think just tossing flares out the back is gonna cut it."
"How about I take Little Air?" the redhead responded. "You can fly this crate, at least."
"Yeah, but I can't make it dodge, and there's no way to guarantee the missiles will all go after Little Air," Rikki shot back as the plane shuddered again.
Suddenly Pete's jaw dropped open as an idea hit him. "Wait a minute, you said you had flares?" he broke in. The other two looked at him.
"Sure," Rikki replied. "But they're not strong enough to distract a missile this close to Big Air."
The younger man shook his head. "They don't have to be. I have a plan... well, actually, it's one of Josh's, and I should have my head examined for trying it. But I think we're out of options. Rikki, you take over the controls of Big Air. Fidget, I'm gonna need you to get me a set of wing-walkers, a glider pack, and meet me by the Skyhawk. Oh, and I'll need a sack for some flares."
Fidget's eyes lit up as she realized what Pete was planning to do. "You ARE crazy," she said approvingly. "Let's do it!"
Less than ten
minutes later, the Skyhawk was blasting out of the back hatch of Big Air,
Fidget at the controls and Pete clinging desperately to the top. Only Alex's
"wing-walkers," a set of magnetic boots and gloves, allowed him to keep
his grip on the small sport plane.
"So what makes you think the missiles will go after us, and not Big Air?" Fidget demanded over the headset.
Pete pulled a flare out of the sack attached to his belt. "Skyhawks put out a LOT more heat than most aircraft," he explained. "I remember Josh complaining about that during the testing phase. Has something to do with the power source. Trust me, with us out here, those missiles won't even SEE the big plane."
"Roger," Fidget acknowledged. "Better get ready, 'cause here they come!"
Igniting the first flare, Pete waited until the missile was within visual range, then tossed the flare across its flight path. Veering, the missile connected with the flare and detonated, even as the Skyhawk dove out of the way.
The Skyhawk, designed for the type of aerobatics that even Little Air didn't handle, was easily able to handle the slower, clumsier missiles. And as Pete had thought, Big Air went completely unnoticed by the barrage of weaponry. With a wry grin, he reflected that he'd been so busy dealing with the flares, he'd completely forgotten to panic at crouching on the outside of a plane. Unfortunately, he was running out of flares... and when those went, he and Fidget would be the targets of choice.
As Pete hefted the last flare, an idea burst rudely into his mind. It was crazy, absolutely insane, a Max Steel original. It was also a lot better than being blown up. Tapping on the headset, he got Fidget's attention.
"Take her up by the airship," he yelled, "a little higher than the weapons platform!" She looked at him like he was crazy, but did as he ordered. The missiles currently in flight changed course to follow them.
With the Skyhawk hovering a little above Dr. X's air fortress, Pete ignited his last flare and took a deep breath. With a quick prayer to whatever might be listening, he checked to make sure the missiles were bearing down on him and jumped.
Josh had dragged him sky-diving once-- and ONLY once-- so Pete had a pretty good idea of what he was doing. Tucking his arms in next to his sides, he fell, speeding down past the airship. As he came level with the missile launchers, he tossed the flare at the gun ports. Behind him, he heard the missiles detonate, and he curled up into a ball to help ride out and outdistance the shockwave.
As the force of the explosion died away, he pulled the cord on his glide pack, snapping out of his power dive and coming in for a neat landing on the Skyhawk as Fidget moved to catch him. Above them, the airship sported a large smoking crater where the missile launchers had been.
"Nice work," Fidget congratulated him. "That takes care of that problem."
"Yeah," Pete nodded. "Now let's get back to Big Air so I can have hysterics and throw up. Not necessarily in that order."
It had taken
almost half an hour of repeated electric shocks before Josh had finally
started screaming. Even then, he was defiant, stating his opinion of X's
ancestry, personal habits, and probable destination in the afterlife, using
several terms that the scientist didn't think he'd ever encountered before.
Alex had added his own comments as well, exhausting his command of English
and Spanish before moving on to some choice Hindi phrases learned from
"X, damn it, what is this supposed to accomplish?" the older athlete growled, pulling fruitlessly on the cuffs that held him to the table.
"Why, Mr. Mann, I should think it would be obvious," Dr. X replied mockingly. "If I'm going to create the perfect soldier and operative, I need an understanding of the pain threshold the nanotechnology conveys upon its host. And besides... it keeps you in the high-adrenaline state I need to monitor your AMP factor. Relax, Mr. Mann... it will all be over shortly."
As if to punctuate that statement, the airship suddenly shook violently, as though it had been struck. Simultaneously, the hull damage alarms began to blare, red light flashing over the lab.
Dr. X growled. "What in the world? Psycho! Tempest!" No answer came over his radio. "Oh, must I do everything myself?" His gaze swept over Alex and Josh, and his mouth quirked.
"Don't go anywhere... I'll be right back." Then he dashed out the door.
"He's a... laugh riot, isn't he?" Josh said weakly, a small smile crossing his lips.
"Oh yeah, he's got the sense of humor of a rock. You okay?"
That got an actual laugh from Josh, weak and breathy though it was. "I've been better. But I've been worse, too. At least the shocks aren't high enough voltage to drain my batteries."
Alex sighed, trying to calm his still-racing pulse. "Just hang on, Josh. We'll get out of here... somehow."
"Perhaps we can help," a British-accented voice commented. Alex's head snapped up, and he saw Grinder dash through the door of the lab, followed by a younger, smaller man in glasses.
At the sight of the second man, Josh's smile grew broader. "Nice... timing, Berto."
"Team Steel trademark, hermano," the techie replied. "Hold still, I'll have you out of those cuffs in a jiffy." He pulled a small pen laser out of his pocket and went to work.
"I'll work on making sure Dr. X doesn't get any useable information out of these computers," Grinder announced. "And we'd better hurry, I think the ship is losing altitude."
Finishing the last of Josh's cuffs, Berto turned to release Alex, only to have Josh lay a hand on his shoulder. "No time for finesse, bro. Grinder's right, this crate is going down, and down hard." Tapping his fingers on his wristband, Josh shimmered and suddenly changed from a brown-eyed blond into a blue-eyed brunet.
"MAX!" Berto yelped. "What are you doing? Your energy levels aren't sufficient for this! You can barely stand up as it is!"
"And there's no way Alex is going to be able to walk to whatever jump-off point you've prepared," Max replied, crossing over to the other captive athlete. "And we need to get OUT of here before this whole place goes boom. Going Turbo!" Tapping another button on his wristband, he was suddenly enveloped in a haze of yellow light.
Much to Alex's surprise, Max reached out and easily ripped the cuffs away from his hands and feet, then swung him up and over his shoulder in a fireman's carry.
Grinder hit one more button on the computer and nodded sharply. "All right, that did it." He blinked slightly upon seeing Max, but shrugged it off. "Come on, let's go!"
The three of them dashed out of the lab, Grinder and Berto leading the way back to the hold which they had entered through. Rummaging behind a piece of equipment, Grinder pulled out the glide packs that he and Berto had tucked away upon entering the airship.
"We're going to have to jump tandem," the older tech reported. "Luckily, the packs all have a second harness, just in case."
"I'll take one and jump with Alex," Max decided. "You'd never be able to hold onto him, in his current state. Bro, you're going to have to go with Grinder."
Berto nodded. "Got it, hermano."
The four of them worked quickly and efficiently, although in Alex's case, that mainly consisted of holding onto the wall and trying not to fall over. As they worked, though, Berto continued to shoot glances at Max. While his friend looked perfectly strong and energetic, the tech knew that Max could easily hide his energy depletion right up until the moment he collapsed, completely drained. As far as Berto could tell, though, Max wasn't running a fever yet, and that was a positive sign.
"There's Big Air," Alex pointed, as the group edged closer to the door of the hold. "Think we can make it?"
"No worries," Grinder replied. "Rikki, we've got them and we're coming in for a landing! Tell Fidget to hold Big Air steady, because we're on our way."
Pete and Rikki
were waiting in Big Air's launch bay when the quartet came swooping in.
Seeing brown hair where he was expecting blond, Rikki squinted at Max for
The young agent looked up from the harness he was removing from Alex, grinning. "It's me, Rikki," Max confirmed. "All part of the secret agent package."
Rikki shook his head, but didn't have time to comment further. As soon as he was released from the harness that held him to Max, Alex wobbled and would have fallen had Rikki and Grinder not immediately lunged for him. One arm looped around each of his friends' necks, Alex smiled weakly.
"Thanks, guys. My knees feel like jelly."
"And YOU," Berto announced, pouncing on Max as the older boy shucked his harness, "drop the Turbo mode. You've run your energy levels down far enough as it is."
Sighing, Max shook his head. "Yes, Mother," he replied, tapping at his wristband. The yellow haze faded from around him even as he faded back into "Josh mode." Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he promptly collapsed. Only Pete's immediate lunge kept him from striking his head on the floor.
"Berto?" Pete demanded, shifting his friend's limp form into an easier gripping position. The lanky teen's voice sounded worried, but not unduly panicked. Josh pushing himself beyond the limits of sanity was not an unusual occurrence.
With a sigh, Berto knelt beside the unconscious Josh and grasped his left wrist, causing the biolink to appear. Quickly he checked the readouts, nodding in satisfaction at the numbers there.
"He'll be fine, Pete," the Hispanic teen reassured his friend. "I brought the portable generator along for just such an emergency. I just need someplace to make him comfortable while he recharges.
Making sure that Grinder's grip was secure, Rikki gently detached himself from Alex. "Come on, you can put him on the couch in the sitting area," the business manager informed them. "Need a hand?"
"Nah," Pete replied, shifting Josh into a fireman's carry. "I've got him. But thanks."
In the end, the entire group moved to the sitting area, with the exception of Grinder, who went up to help Fidget with the helm. Josh was placed on the couch, and Berto promptly plugged his friend into the generator. The chair closest to the couch was occupied by Pete, who was watching Josh with all the subtlety of a singing elephant. Berto, on the other hand, had preferred to claim a spot on the floor, where he could watch the readouts on the generator, just in case.
Alex, meanwhile, had been plopped in the overstuffed easy chair by Rikki, who had threatened all types of horrific bodily harm if he moved. Then the other man had headed off to the galley to prepare some soup. Sprawled in the chair, Alex let out a long, exhausted sigh of relief.
"Comfortable?" Berto asked, one side of his mouth quirking. Alex chuckled.
"Oh yeah. This thing was a pain in the butt to get riveted to the floor, but it's WORTH it." Raising his head, Alex aimed a glance at Josh. "Is he going to be all right?"
The tech nodded, pushing his glasses up on his nose. "Yeah, he'll be fine. This isn't the first time he's pushed himself beyond his limits."
"Yeah," Pete seconded, with a fond, if exasperated, glance at his friend. "He's drained himself a lot worse than this in the past, too."
Folding his hands behind his head, Alex stared at the ceiling. "Doesn't have a lot of regard for his own safety, does he?"
That got a snort in stereo, from both Berto and Pete. "I'm not sure he knows what the term 'self-preservation' means, to be honest," the younger agent admitted. "As far as Josh is concerned, friends always come first."
Alex just shook his head and said nothing. Companionable silence reigned as Rikki returned with the soup.
After much discussion
of possible courses of action, the group decided to head back to where
Josh's car was still parked. From there, Berto would take the Shadow and
drive Josh and Alex back to Del Oro Bay, where N-Tek headquarters was located.
At first, Rikki had been flatly opposed to the idea, not wanting to expose
any of Team Extreme to ANY pseudo-government agency, considering their
previous troubles with InterCEPT. In the end, however, it was Alex who
"Rikki, there's no way Josh and Berto could cover this up," his friend explained, "so we'd need to go to N-Tek for debriefing anyway."
"Besides," Josh added weakly, from the couch he still occupied, "Dr. X shot Alex full of some type of drugs that caused adrenaline rush. He needs to get checked out, and I figure N-Tek's doctors would be better able to do that than regular ones."
It took a little more haranguing, but Rikki was finally convinced, though he had laid down some conditions. First off, he and Grinder would accompany the other three down to N-Tek, since Josh's car would seat five people semi-comfortably. Pete and Fidget, meanwhile, would stay with the plane. No sense presenting Team Extreme in a nice neat package.
With that settled, the rest of the flight back was uneventful, save for Rikki nagging Alex and Josh about saving their strength. The two athletes rolled their eyes, but said nothing.
On landing, Alex and Josh found that they practically had to be carried out of the plane. With Grinder supporting Alex and Pete holding up Josh, the entire group headed out to the car. As they exited from the plane they were struck suddenly by two bright lights-- the California sun and the illumination of Nick Masters' camera crew.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm here with Alex Mann, the Action Man, recovering from his recent hospitalization after the Mastervision Air Extravaganza," the broadcaster informed the camera, as behind him Alex staggered, blinded by the brilliant light. Josh was surprised to hear Pete actually growl. Then the camera shifted in his direction and Josh immediately threw up a hand to protect his over-sensitive vision.
"And as an added bonus, we have amateur circuit legend Josh McGrath, who dropped out of sight more than a year ago, stating that 'the thrill was gone.' Some of his peers, however, have suggested other reasons."
Out of the blinding glare, Josh saw a microphone materialize as it was shoved in his face, Masters' unctuous voice behind it. "Tell me, Josh, care to comment on the allegations that you were banned from the circuit for use of illegal substances?"
Josh staggered, as much from the unexpected question as from his weakness. Yes, he'd heard the rumors about his "retirement," but he'd never thought anyone would have the gall to bring it up directly to his face.
"Lay off, you big jerk!" Fidget growled fiercely. "Can't you see the kid's sick?"
Masters pulled back, examining both Alex and Josh for a long moment. "Actually, you both look a little worn out," he agreed, smirking. "Or would that be strung out?"
CRACK! Sitting on the ground, holding his bleeding nose, Masters stared in astonishment at the man who had just hit him. Rikki stood over the fallen broadcaster, his hands clenched into fists, and his shoulders heaving. No doubt about it, Rikki was PISSED.
"Team Extreme does not use," the dark-haired man announced, in a voice like pure steel. "And neither does Josh McGrath. And if I hear you so much as BREATHE otherwise to ANYONE, I will hit you with a slander suit that'll make the OJ Simpson trial look like traffic court!"
The broadcaster growled, his tone more nasal than usual. "You-- I think you broke my nose you little--"
"Ah ah ah," Fidget interrupted, waving a finger warningly. "Watch what you say, this is ALL on camera. So before you start yelling about lawsuits, you'd better realize that if you mess with us, the whole world is going to see you harassing two exhausted athletes like a starving pirhanha."
Masters seemed to sink in on himself as he realized he was defeated. Without a second look, the group filed past him, headed to the cars. Last in line was Berto, who favored the white-haired man with a decidedly unfriendly smile.
"I'd say that's a wrap."
At first, Jefferson
Smith thought he'd come to the wrong room in the medbay. He'd reached the
open door just in time to hear Dr. Marx threaten sedation if her patient
didn't stay in his bed and rest. Jeff had automatically checked the card
on the door to make sure he hadn't gone back to Josh's room by mistake.
The card had, however, confirmed that the occupant of the room was indeed
Leaning against the doorjamb, Jeff watched silently as Alex argued with the doctor. The medical staff had descended the instant Berto had pulled _Shadow_ into the vehicle bay, alerted by the young scientist's call. Alex and Josh had been immediately rushed to the medical bay, while the other three had undergone a very thorough debriefing.
Berto was of the opinion that Team Extreme could definitely be trusted to protect N-Tek's secret, considering they had a fairly large one of their own. Jeff had seen enough during Rikki and Grinder's interviews that he was tempted to agree. They were certainly no ordinary civilians. But he wanted to have a talk with Alex Mann before him made his decision-- and he had a few other questions to ask the young man as well.
Finally managing to quell Alex by brandishing a suitably large syringe, Dr. Marx glanced at the door. She startled upon seeing Jeff, but quickly covered it. "Sir, I didn't see you there."
"Quite all right, Doctor," Jeff replied, coming fully into the room. "Mind if I have a few words with your patient?"
"Well," the dark-haired woman mused, throwing a look over her shoulder, "I suppose it won't be a problem. As long as he RESTS. He is not to get out of that bed and walk around, period. If you have to move him, use the wheelchair." She shook her head. "Wait a minute, why am I telling you all this? Basic Josh instructions will do."
Jeff laughed. "I understand, Annie. Don't worry, I'll take care of him."
"All right then," she nodded. "I've got other patients to see, so I'll leave you to your conversation." With that, she turned on her heel and walked out.
As soon as she left, Alex's eyes fixed on Jeff. "How's Josh?" he demanded.
That got a smile from Jeff. "Recharged and resting comfortably-- which in Josh's case means he's sedated to the gills," the older man responded, fond exasperation in his voice. "By the way, I'm Jefferson Smith."
"Josh's father." Alex took the outstretched hand, comprehension lighting his eyes. Seeing Jeff's surprise, he laughed. "Hey, everybody in the extreme sports world knows about Josh McGrath, N-Tek posterboy and son of the CEO. Your name's common knowledge."
"Berto warned me you were quick on the uptake," Jeff replied.
Alex laughed. "Yeah, well… I don't think you came in here just to update me on Josh's condition, much as I appreciate it. So what did you want to talk to me about?"
"I've got a few questions for you… like how an extreme athlete gets a US Government security clearance higher than that of some Pentagon officials."
"I'm a freelance consultant with an agency known as InterCEPT," Alex replied slowly. "They call me in when they've got a problem with Dr. X, usually… something they can't solve."
Jeff raised an eyebrow. "I wasn't aware InterCEPT employed consultants. Why weren't you made a full agent?"
That brought a sigh from Alex. "How much did Berto tell you about my AMP factor?"
"Not much. Just what it basically was, and that it was the reason Dr. X was interested in you."
Shifting uncomfortably, Alex ran his hands through his hair. "In high school, I was part of an experiment designed to produce… well, super-soldiers, basically. AMP-enhanced operatives, supposedly to protect the world from threats like terrorism." The younger man laughed humorlessly. "Well, that's what they told most of the techs, anyway."
He shook his head. "I'm the only one out of the test group that triggered. Everyone else is a failed experiment, and I hope it stays that way. But because I'm the only one who actually WORKED, Dr. X is after me.
"Dr. X found me first… but I got a little help controlling my abilities from one of the other scientists who worked on the project- Simon Gray. He's got some pull with InterCEPT, and I told him I had no intention of giving up my life… so he wrangled me the 'consultant thing.'"
"I see," Jeff responded. His face was blank, but inside he was fuming. He wasn't entirely surprised to hear Simon Gray's name come up, though; the two of them had crossed paths before, and this type of project was what he'd expected of the other man. That didn't keep him from being furious, however.
Surreptitiously, he studied Alex. Despite his exhaustion, Alex looked incredibly young, and Jeff was struck by the fact that the athlete was only a few years older than Josh. That only made his anger flare higher. At least what had happened to Josh was an accident, just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The idea that someone had done this to a child, deliberately… With an effort, Jeff stuffed the angry father back in his box. Alex wasn't his son, no matter how similar the two might be, and a father was not what he needed right now. Still… ten minutes alone with Simon Gray was definitely going to the top of Jeff's Christmas list.
"So," Alex continued, pulling himself together, "what's the verdict? I hope you come up with something fairly soon… I'm sure Fidget's got to be worried about us, since we left her back on Big Air."
Jeff quickly squashed his amusement. This was the third time he'd been reminded of Team Extreme's fourth member, waiting back on the plane. Grinder had mentioned her quite subtly; Rikki had told him in no uncertain terms that Fidget would be waiting to raise a stink should the three of them disappear. Now Alex had split the difference.
"You don't have to worry, Alex," the older man reassured him. "I'm familiar with InterCEPT's methods. N-Tek doesn't employ them.
"As to my verdict, I agree with Berto. You and your team are definitely not ordinary civilians. As a matter of fact, considering your training, I'm granting all four of you "Allied Agent" status. You'll have most of the rights and privileges associated with N-Tek agents. It'll require getting you UN security clearances… but with your current status that shouldn't be too hard." Briefly, Jeff dropped the professional façade to reach out and squeeze Alex's shoulder.
"I owe you," he said seriously. "If you ever need help that N-Tek can provide, just ask." Then he straightened up.
"Now… how would you like to go talk to Josh?"
Josh looked up
blearily as his father pushed a wheelchair into his hospital room. When
he saw who was in the chair, he pulled himself up a little farther in bed,
ignoring the look Dr. Marx shot his way. "Alex!"
"Can he have visitors, Doc?" Alex asked, smiling at the pretty woman. The doctor threw her hands in the air in mock exasperation.
"Can I stop you?" she asked rhetorically. "Fine, but you have fifteen minutes. Tops. You BOTH still need to get some rest." Then she stalked out, a grinning Jeff following in her wake.
Josh blinked, trying to focus on the man at his bedside. "Hey. You feeling okay?"
The older athlete nodded. "Yeah. Tired, but that'll pass. You?"
"Emergency recharging always makes me groggy, and the sedatives aren't helping. I should be up and around in a day or so, though." Josh chuckled. "Not what you expected when you got up yesterday, was it?"
Alex shook his head. "No, but I think it was worth it. Josh, I want to thank you, for everything."
"Hey… it's mutual. It's nice to have somebody-" Josh's face split with a yawn- "who really understands both sides of what I'm going through."
"Yeah, same here." Noticing that Josh was more than half-asleep, Alex reached out and patted his friend's hand.
"And Josh? For what it's worth… I think you made the right decision."
Josh smiled at that as his eyes slipped shut. Feeling his own yawn coming on, Alex settled down in his wheelchair and closed his eyes. A moment later, he too was fast asleep.