Cpt. Power characters belong to their own creators. No originals I can claim for myself. Please don't sue, I don't even have enough money for postage, much less a lawyer.

Takes place during the 24 hours in 2132 that followed the death of Dr. Stuart Gordon Power. Rated PG-13 for some bad language, violence and intense situations. The swearing is in place because I couldn't imagine a soldier not using the words, and I hope it's found appropriate for the situations.


"Jon? Jon, are you okay? Jon...your dad...where is he?"

"He...he was inside..."

32-6, Mark 14, 11:30 p.m.

Matt Masterson took one sip at his current cup of coffee and winced. Raw sewage would taste better at this point. He wasn't sure which was worse: lack of sleep with coffee, or lack of sleep without it.

Either way you looked at it, it was going to boil his stomach raw by morning.

Sooner or later, he was going to have to sleep. He knew that. He also acknowledged that some time in the near future, he was going to have to deal with his own grief.

God, Stuart...why'd you have to go and do this NOW?

There were a lot of questions Matt wanted to ask'd, but that one was the most important. Stuart Gordon Power had been on this Earth for 40 years - the last year of which he'd been Matt's coworker … and friend. Now he was gone, leaving behind a half-finished base, a war, creations that utterly boggled Matt's imagination...

And a 15-year-old son. Matt looked across the room and shivered. Jon hadn't so much as made a sound since they'd gotten back to the base. Matt had gotten him down to the infirmary and wrapped the burns on his hands as best he could. Then he just sat and watched as Jon curled up in a corner of one of the medbunks without saying a word.

After a few aborted attempts at conversation, Matt gave up. Let the kid come to him, even if it did take all night or longer. The only thing Matt wasn't going to do was let him out of his sight. He'd been down this road with his wife, and Katie and Mitch. He knew what crazy thoughts a grief-struck mind would think up.

Matt stretched his legs out on the bunk opposite him and tried to swallow back his own emotions. There were enough of them to eat his stomach to a raw pulp without the thrice-boiled coffee. Grief, pain, frustration ... they were all eating at him.

Forty-eight hours earlier, he'd been sitting in the pilot's chair of what Stuart had dubbed "the Jumpship," looking at schematics and harboring some private hope they could win this war. Win it, for all of Stuart's carefully guarded neutrality. If they could get everything to work, they could end this.

And then it had all gone straight to hell. First, the ... what had Stuart called it? A biodread. He'd rattled off some explanation about DNA and self-replication that had made Matt's head spin. Story made short, it was a living machine and there didn't look like there was any way to kill it. Matt's mind just couldn't digest it all fast enough.

After that, everything had just flown by. Matt had shown up after clearing out the rest of the base staff to find the place deserted. The ghostly image of Stuart that was now part of the system was now the only thing they had left of him.

Matt wanted to cry. There wasn't really any question. Jon had said his father was inside. Inside had been blown to hell and gone. Stuart was dead. End of story.

Except that it wasn't. When that computer program ... Mentor, had played the message Stuart had left for him, he'd never let it sink in that his friend had spoken the truth. "If you hear this, I don't expect to be coming back." Like hell he was going to let that happen. He'd gotten through the basics of the program in bare minutes, and then rushed into a suit without as much as a second thought.

Yeah, and it almost got me killed. Matt shuddered to think of what would happen to someone else on activation. Had he been lucky? Had his age saved him? What exactly had Stuart intended for these suits? Matt didn't know, and he didn't expect to find detailed battle plans hidden somewhere in the main computer.

Matt ran his hand through his hair and closed his eyes. There was so much to be done - quickly. He had to tell Jon about all of this. Introduce him to Mentor - whatever Jon's response to it might be. Go through the entire list of official channels and tell them what had happened. Find out just what the hell had happened at Taggart's little teepee.

Right now, he couldn't do any of it. The base was empty and locked off. No one else knew its location. He and Jon would be safe there until they both had a chance to get a grip on the situation. He couldn't do anything until Jon finally decided to talk … IF he decided to talk.

Matt took another sip of the coffee, leaned his head back against the wall, and let out a sigh. It was going to be a long, long night.


Jonathan Power wanted only one thing right now.

He wanted to be left alone. He kept listening for some telltale sign that Matt had left, but there wasn't one. He had no doubt that if he got up and left, Matt would follow him. Matt was many things - the military representative to his dad's project, Dad's closest friend, a mentor and a confidant.

Right now, Jon didn't want any of that. He kept ignoring him in the hopes he'd go away. He hadn't - yet.

Of course, he also wanted his dad back. That wasn't going to happen, either. His throat swelled up at the thought, bringing him to the brink of tears yet again. Then he swallowed it back, like he had all night, and returned to his coldly logical analysis of the events.

It's all my fault. He knew what Matt would say about that, and Jon knew he would be wrong. It wasn't guilt, it wasn't grief, it was just the plain honest truth. Jon had screwed up, and it had cost people their lives.

If he had been checking the details of their last supply run, he would have caught the cancellation. No question there. His father had taught him to look at the details, and see them in the larger picture. He would have known immediately that the order hadn't come through the right channels, and he could've gotten everyone out and safe.

Instead, he'd waited out the delay, more worried about the weather than the time. How many people had died there because of him? He wasn't sure. Most of the technicians and supply people had scattered so quickly, he hadn't even caught a glimpse of them when the firefight begun.

From there, everything cascaded out. His father came in hopes of rescuing Jon. He was responsible for his dad being at Taggart's base. Therefore, he was responsible for putting himself in the position to be ransomed.

And forcing his father to make the decision to put him first and get him out of there. He didn't know what had happened down there. He'd done exactly what his father had asked him to. He ran and called for help, trusting that whatever Dad had in mind, it would work.

Now he was dead, and Jon had almost followed him. The blast had nearly blown Jon off the platform, and there was a split-second worth of cold precision when he knew his grip wouldn't hold. He had known he was going to die.

Then Matt had shown up, caught him just as his hands slipped off the railing, and brought him back here to be treated like some child with a skinned knee.

Logically, Jon could categorize everything. First and second degree burns, a sprained shoulder that got wrenched when he went over the side of the balcony. He should probably worry about fluids eventually, and food, but that would mean getting up. That would mean Matt sticking his nose in and asking questions. He didn't want to have the older man justifying Jon's mistake. He didn't want sympathy, and he didn't want to "share his grief" or anything else. He just wanted to keep emotions shut off for the moment.

Across the room, he heard Matt sigh and stretch out. Maybe he'd doze off and Jon could leave. He wasn't sure where he'd go, but there were lots of places in the base he knew Matt had never even gotten curious about. He could find a quiet corner and just be alone.

For as long as he wanted.


32-6, Mark 15, 2:31 a.m.

A loud, unbelievably annoying buzzing shot through Matt's ears and ricocheted off his eardrums, chasing away every last shred of sleep. He threw himself upwards and out, reaching for his gun and dropping into firing stance in the space of a few seconds - only to come awake enough to realize the loud buzzing was the fire alarm in the room … reacting to the smoke pouring out of the coffee pot.

The acrid, stench-soaked brown smoke that came only from coffee scorched dry in the bottom of a pot. Dammit. He swore loudly and dove for the coffee pot, grabbing it with a towel and plunging it in the medical sink in one smooth motion.

The smoke dissipated and the alarm cut off abruptly. Now, though, the smell of broiled coffee mingled unabashedly with antiseptic wash and hydrogen peroxide. Matt's stomach, already at the point of boiling, now edged into near upheaval. How damned long was I asleep, anyhow? He looked at his chronometer and swore again.

2:30 a.m. Great. He only could hope the alarm hadn't woken Jon up. Maybe it hadn't been that noisy, maybe it had only buzzed for a few seconds...

... and maybe the kid took off the moment I went to sleep. Matt stared at the empty medbunk and finally ran out of curses. This was exactly what he needed. One kid in God only knew what kind of emotional state somewhere in an enormous base that Matt had only seen the half of.

Belatedly, he took the pot out of the sink and shut off the burner. Just where was he supposed to start looking? If Jon didn't want to be found, Matt wasn't harboring any illusions. He wouldn't be able to find him. Hell, if Jon wanted to, he could hide in the hangar alone and keep three steps ahead of Matt without really trying. Finding him would be like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Of course, Stuart would know where to look. In fact, he probably…

And then Matt had it. Kicking himself as hard as he could, he grabbed the cold cup of coffee and took off for the main control area.

As soon as he walked into the room, a billow of smoke rushed into the bottom of the holo-tube, and Stuart's image appeared. Matt stood there, gaping. As many times as he might end up seeing this, he would probably never lose that sense of unreality.

It looks so much like him. If Stuart's stated purpose was to make sure that Jon would never be without him, he'd succeeded on a grand scale.

There would be time for admiration later. Now was the time to find out exactly what this program could do.

"Stu…Mentor." This was going to take some getting used to. "Are you programmed to think analytically, solve problems?"

The image - transparent enough so that Matt could see the staircase to the next level bleeding through from behind - nodded.

"Yes. What do you need, Major?"

"Matt. Just call me Matt." He ran his fingers through his hair, and thought quickly. "I need a map of this base, broken down by area. Do you have the ability to show what rooms are completed, and have been in use recently?"

"Certainly. One moment…"

Matt ran through a couple of ideas in his head, wracking his brain for the quickest way of compiling the data. His mind just didn't want to work right now, and he gulped a large, bitter mouthful of cold coffee. Sleep would be best, caffeine would have to do.

"Major, there are three rooms that have been in use in the last four hours. You are currently in the control room. The medlab is currently empty, and Jonathan Power is in storage room 3-C. If you'd like, I can show you its location on the map and the quickest way to that location."

Matt just stood there and stared. "Wait a minute…" Matt tried to force his brain to wrap around the facts. "Are you trying to tell me you can track anyone through the entire base, tell me who they are and where?"

"Yes, if given proper parameters." Which Matt assumed he must have done. "I can also appear at a handful of remote locations throughout the base. Is there something else you require?

Matt just shook his head. Of all the … Stuart had created a computer that could show him up.

"Just show me where Jon is."


Jon heard the footsteps, and had to force himself to remain calm.

Matt couldn't know exactly where he was. Maybe he had some ideas where to look, but Jon didn't think Matt had ever gotten as far as this corner of the hangar, and definitely not in this supply room.

The footsteps came to a stop outside the door. Jon edged a little further back into the shadows as the door opened and someone stepped inside. A moment later, the room was flooded with light.

"Jon?" Matt's voice was low, gentle. Just what Jon didn't want to hear. He wasn't going to be coaxed out of his hiding spot by kind words. He didn't deserve them. And he didn't want pity.

Matt wasn't just going to leave, though. Jon heard the light footsteps coming further into the room, and then stop. It wouldn't take Matt very long to find him in here. There just weren't enough supplies. Jon had been banking on the fact that Matt wouldn't know where to look.

He didn't want to be found. Matt had to know this. Why didn't he just leave?

"I'm not going anywhere, Jon. And I know you're in here. So you might as well come out."

He sounded so reasonable that Jon wanted to throw something at him. What did Matt think, he was some kind of baby? Without even really thinking about it, Jon stepped suddenly out from behind the stack of boxes.

"Go away. Just go away and leave me alone. I don't need you."

Matt just stood there and stared at the teenager for a long minute. He's quieter than a snake.

And he obviously wasn't happy about being found. Matt could hear the frustration in Jon's voice. And there's no way I'm leaving, kid. Not you. Not tonight.

"I'm not going anywhere, Jon. You may as well get used to it."

Jon rolled his eyes. "Oh, you're going to play dad with me? You're not my father...MAJOR."

Matt felt like he'd been slapped in the face. He wasn't expecting to be Stuart. Jon had to know that...

"I just want to talk." Matt kept his voice as neutral as he could. "I want you to know you can talk to me."

Jon turned away, slapping at one of the supply boxes and muttering something under his breath that Matt didn't quite catch.

"What did you say?"

Jon spun back around. "I said, my father's dead and it's all my fault! Are you happy now?"

As if that explained everything. Matt groped for something to say. Anything, really. All he could come up with was the obvious.

"This wasn't your fault."

The teenager scowled, and turned away from him again.

Well, this is going just great...

"Jon, turn around."

The teenager looked as if he was going to ignore him for a moment, and then finally obeyed. There was a mix of emotions on his face, some guilt, some pain...and fear. The last shocked the hell out of Matt. What did he have to be afraid of?

"You can't know." Jon's hand were slowly tightening into fists now, and every muscle in this body looked taunt. "You can't know this wasn't my fault."

Matt swallowed hard.

"All right. You know, I don't know." Matt tried to keep his voice calm. "Why don't you tell me what happened?"

"Tell you what?" Jon's voice was low and hoarse. "Tell you how I didn't pay attention to the delay on the supply run? That gave that ... thing enough time to hit us, and hit us hard. You want me to tell you about being captured, and being told I was bait to bring my father in?"

Oh, God. That was why Stuart had left. Matt suspected something had happened, but he hadn't ... his mind hadn't gotten around to figuring out why both Jon and Stuart had ended up in Volcania.

"Oh, there's more." There was a bitter edge that Matt had never heard in Jon's voice before. It scared the hell out of him. "My dad fought Taggart. He bought time for me to leave. So I could run and call for help. That's how I got away. My dad fought Taggart, and ..."

Jon's voice trailed off. Matt felt lost. What the hell was he supposed to say? It wasn't Jon's fault, but there wasn't any way to convince him right now. Out of desperation, Matt reached for the boy, but Jon shied away and then glared at Matt.

"Don't touch me!" Jon's voice was rising now, an edge of hysteria in it. "He fought him, for me. He bought time. For me. He came, Matt. FOR ME. Don't you see? He was bargaining with Taggart, trying to buy my escape. That's why it's my fault. He's dead because I made a mistake, and now I've got to fix this. If I fix it, it can't happen again."

Fix it? How was he going to do that? You couldn't fix a situation like this. All you could do is live with it.

And I've got 20 more years experience behind me. Jon just stood there, glaring at him, practically daring him to try and say anything.

"Dammit, Jon. This isn't your fault." Not the most original reply, but the truth. "You couldn't have stopped this. Taggart was going to get a chance, sooner or later. And Stu ... your dad would've done anything to help you. Anything. Even if it meant his own life."

Jon flew at him so suddenly Matt didn't even have a chance to raise his hands in defense. Matt stutter-stepped backwards, but not quick enough and definitely not far enough. Oh, hell...

"Don't you say that!" Jon hands were balled into tight fists, pushing him, pummeling his upper body. "Don't you ever say that! Dad wouldn't have ... he wouldn't have done this if it weren't for me! He didn't have to!"

Matt raised his arms to try and catch Jon's hands. He had to stop this before it got out of control. But instead of Matt getting a grip on Jon's flailing fists, he didn't get any grip at all. And as Matt lost his balance, he dropped forward enough so Jon's other fist connected.

Directly with Matt's jaw. There was a burst of sudden light, and then Matt's vision went a dingy shade of grey. Everything swam for a moment out of focus, and then fled away, a black curtain dropping over all of his senses.

Jon looked on in horror as Matt dropped heavily to the floor. Oh, God...no.

He was on his knees a second later, shaking Matt by both shoulders.

"Matt? Matt, please ... wake up, Matt." He needed Matt, and he knew it, and now he'd just hurt him and what had he done? He shook him harder, his his own body starting to shake.

"Matt, please. Please ... Matt, c'mon." Tears started to slide down Jon's face. He swiped them away angrily. "Matt!"

Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, there was a groan. Matt rolled away from Jon's hands and onto his back, cradling his head in his hands.

"Matt?" Jon almost shook with fear. He hadn't meant it, not to hurt. "Please, Matt, don't leave me ... please."


Matt's head felt like it had splintered into a million pieces. Never in a thousand years did he think Jon could've packed that much of a wallop.

Teach me not to underestimate him. He groaned again and tried opening his eyes. Bad choice. The overhead fluorescents burned and gouged at Matt's eyes until he gave up and shut them again.

"Matt?" Jon's voice sounded like it was echoing inside his head. "Please, Matt, don't leave me...please."

Leave him? What the hell did the kid take him for? Matt forced his eyes open and pulled himself into a rough sitting position. His head felt double its normal size and his stomach protested, but he ignored both. This wasn't the time and place to go passing out.

"Jon, look at me." This time, there wasn't any fight. As Matt reached for Jon's shoulders, the teenager looked up, his face painted with horror and tears. "Jon, I'm not going anywhere."

That was all it took. Tears streaming down his face, Jon collapsed against him, sobbing. Matt wrapped his arms gently around the teenager, and fought back his own tears. "Easy, Jon, easy..."

Jon shook his head against Matt's chest. "My fault, Matt. Didn't listen…forgot they were good…all my fault."

Matt remembered the warning he'd given Jon yesterday, and tightened the embrace as best he could. He'd meant it as a warning, not as a condemnation.

"Oh, Jon..." His voice cracked, and Matt prayed fervently that Jon hadn't noticed it. The sobbing turned into harsh, gasping crying as Jon finally ran out of words. Matt rocked him softly, unable to do or say anything else. There isn't anything to say. And Matt damned well wasn't going to tell him everything was going to be okay. Because he wasn't sure it was going to be.

God, Stuart, what am I going to do?


32-6, Mark 15, 11:25 a.m.

Jon woke up groggy and overtired. He went to bury his head back in the pillow when he realized that he wasn't in his own bed. When he sat up, he felt every muscle in his body groan and his right shoulder scream in protest. Then the events of last night came racing back, and he had to fight to keep his emotions under control.

It's real, then.

The last thing he remembered was breaking down and crying. He'd let Matt hold him like his father used to. He didn't remember stopping, nor moving from the storage room in the hangar to the medbunk he was sitting in now. Matt must've brought him back and pulled off his flack vest and shirt. The insulated blanket that had been covering him was now on the floor.

I haven't cried like that since...since mom left. Maybe even before that. And the tears were still close, now that he'd let them out for the first time. He wasn't sure he could keep it all under control like he wanted to. He didn't want Matt thinking...

That I'm some grieving kid who just lost his father. Jon felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. Just the start of one, but a smile. That was exactly what he was, and he felt an odd sense of relief when he realized it. That as bad as it felt, it was normal. And he really didn't think Matt was going to fault him for it.

Doesn't mean I have to give into it like last night, though. Jon made a promise that he was going to try and lock down his emotions as much as possible. There was too much to be taken care of now. He knew he'd have to let it out eventually, but for the moment, there were things to be done.

Jon swung his legs over the side of the bunk, carefully testing them to see if they'd hold his weight. They protested, and his head spun a little, but he kept his balance. As he looked around the room, he realized two things: Matt wasn't here, and a small instrument table had been pushed next to the bunk. On it were a clean shirt, some supplies, and a note.

Jon -

Eat and wash up. Then come down to the control room. Holler if you need anything.

-Matt

There was a bottle of water and what looked like a thermos of coffee sitting on the table next to where he'd found the note. Figures Matt would leave coffee. Jon wasn't as addicted to the stuff as his father and Matt were, but right now, it sounded great. So did the dried fruit bars Matt had left out for him. As he unwrapped one, he realized just how long it had been since he'd eaten anything.

When Jon walked into the control room 15 minutes later, Matt was sitting with his feet up on the desk. A cup of half-finished coffee was sitting next to the keyboard, and Matt was reclining in the chair with his eyes closed.

Jon peered over Matt's shoulder at the computer screen. A standard tight-beam transmission connection was in progress. Matt must've decided to get hold of the Washington higher-ups. Jon was about to turn away when he saw the connection attempt time flashing in the bottom right corner.

One hour, 15 minutes.

Jon had just reached for the control panel to bring up the details when Matt woke up. The older man pushed up and away from the desk, slamming the chair into Jon's stomach. He went sprawling on the floor, all the wind knocked out of him.

Matt's hands settled on his shoulders as Jon tried to force some air past the sudden knot in his chest. His chest finally loosened up and he gratefully drew in a breath. He looked up at Matt and tried to smile. "I'm fine."

Matt gave him a rueful grin and offered him a hand up, which Jon took carefully with his left hand. Both hands were on the underdone side of crispy, but his left shoulder didn't hurt as much as his right.

"Sorry. Not exactly how you say good morning." Matt pulled a chair over and gestured for Jon to have a seat. He sank quickly down in the padded seat, happy to be back off his feet. "How're you feeling?"

Jon had just opened his mouth to say "fine" when Matt shot him a knowing look.

"The truth. I've been around the block too many times for you to fool me with a one-word answer." Matt wore a slightly amused smile, and Jon scowled.

"And you'll probably haul me back down to the medlab if I don't tell you." Matt didn't say anything, but the smile grew a little wider. Jon leaned back in the chair and grimaced a little.

"Sore. I don't think I'm going to be doing much with my right shoulder for a couple of days." Jon flexed the muscles, and winced. "My hands don't hurt as bad as I thought they would, though."

"I was pretty sure they were mostly first-degree burns. You're just lucky the explosion didn't superheat any of the metal up there." Matt looked away awkwardly, and then back at Jon. "How're you…well, you know, holding up?"

Jon thought about that for a minute, and shrugged with his one good arm. "Okay, I guess." He didn't feel like saying more; at least, not right now and not to Matt. What was he supposed to say? "Look, Matt, I…"

The older man waved him off. "I'll take your word for it for now."

Jon relaxed slightly, knowing he wasn't going to get pressed for answers he didn't have right now. Matt must've seen his reaction, because his shoulders came down just a little bit, too.

"Look, let's lay a couple of ground rules here, okay?" When Jon didn't say anything, Matt went on. "First of all, I won't ask you if you're all right every five minutes. But you've got to tell me if something's wrong, physically or otherwise. You would've done it with your dad, you can do it for me."

Jon nodded. Sounded fair so far.

"Second, promise me right now you won't go flying off on some suicide mission." Matt looked at him knowingly. "I've been where you are, Jon. With Joanna and the kids. I know what this can feel like. I don't think you're going to try anything, but…"

Jon waved him off.

"Don't worry. I promise." At least for the moment, Jon was telling the truth. He wasn't intending to go off doing something with the intention of killing himself in any case.

Matt appeared to take him at his word, and relaxed a little more. He gave Jon a little bit of a smile.

"Good." Matt spread his hands in front of him. "The rest, we'll kind of make up as we go along. I wasn't … I didn't think this would happen, Jon. At least, not now and not like this. I'm sorry."

Jon swallowed hard, and took a deep breath. He wasn't going to break down and cry again. He finally nodded. "What're you working on, anyway?"

Matt groaned a little bit, his face souring.

"Trying to sort through what systems still need to be connected. Your dad and the technicians had gotten about two-thirds of the way through the mess, and the essential stuff's online. I just want to know what might go wrong before it actually does."

Jon pointed at the computer screen with the connection attempt on it. Matt shook his head and grimaced.

"That's my attempt to get through to Washington. I've tried about ten times, and the connection keeps timing out." Matt stopped, apparently waiting for Jon to comment.

"But that shouldn't be happening." Jon reached over and tapped a few keys, bringing up the screen he'd been going for when Matt woke up. "If the system were down, we'd see it here. And the connection's designed to give Dad priority, even in a…" Jon's voice trailed off.

Matt nodded, and finished for him.

"Even in an emergency. I don't know what's going on out there, if anything's going on, but either it's not going out on the broadband channels or it's being jammed." Matt shrugged. "Mentor doesn't have an opinion one way or another."

Jon nodded, and then sharply turned his head towards Matt. "Mentor?"

Matt cracked a smile and leaned back in his chair.

"That's something else we've got to introduce you to." The smile slipped off Matt's face an instant later. "When I got here yesterday, your dad had left a few … surprises for me. You know that suit I was wearing?"

Jon nodded. He'd forgotten about it until now, but…

"Well, that's one thing. Mentor's the other." Matt gave Jon a searching look. "Look … I don't know how you're going to react to this, but I figure you've got a right to see it. So … keep an open mind, okay?"

Jon just kept nodding, his stomach tightening up on him. Whatever Matt had to show him, it couldn't be that bad.

Matt turned back towards the computer console. "Mentor, introduce yourself."

Jon looked at Matt, wondering who the hell he was talking to. Then with a soft whine, the holo-tube lit up, the figure of a man gradually forming out of the billow of smoke from the bottom. When that figure became clear, all Jon could do was stare.

"Dad…"


Matt could only stand and watch as Jon looked at the machine with an expression he couldn't read. He debated all morning on how much to tell Jon and whether to introduce him to Mentor right away. He just didn't know how the teenager would react.

"What are you? You're not my father, but he must've created you." Jon finally found his voice, although it shook with emotion. Matt saw Jon's hands clenching the console, his knuckles almost white. "What is your purpose?"

"Voice print: Jonathan Power. Recognized." Mentor's words were almost identical to what he'd told Matt 24 hours earlier. "Your father created me, stating he wanted to ensure you were never without him."

Jon sat back down in the chair, hard. His face was a mix of awe and stunned disbelief. He shook his head, and then looked up at Matt.

"I didn't … he never …" Jon stopped and took a moment to compose himself. "My dad never said anything about this program. I knew he was working on a master control program, but …"

Matt nodded. He knew what Jon was feeling. Or maybe not. After all, it wasn't an image of his dead father staring at him. Matt walked over and put a hand on Jon's shoulder.

"Like I said, there were a couple surprises. There's a few more …" He was going to start the rest of the explanation when Mentor interrupted without any prelude.

"Major, I have a file in my database for Jonathan. Dr. Power programmed me to play it in the event of his demise."

Matt nodded. After all, Stuart had left him a message, and he was just a friend. It made perfect sense that there would be one for Jon.

"I can leave, if you want." The last thing Matt wanted to do was intrude on a private moment. There were precious few things left that Jon could share with his father, but this was one of them.

Jon shook his head, though.

Matt shrugged and sat back down in his chair. Whatever Stuart had to say, he only hoped Jon was ready to hear it.

"Jon, I ... I don't quite know how to begin. I can only hope that you never have to hear this message. And I know that if you are listening, something terrible has happened. Please ... whatever you do, know that I'm sorry. Sorry in so many ways that I can't begin to describe them all.

"I know that none of this has been easy for you, and if you're listening to this, it will get harder still. I'm hoping Matt will be there to help you through this all. He's probably standing there right now, shaking his head and wondering why I'd ever doubt that. The truth is, he's been a good and loyal friend to both of us, and I doubt he'll walk away now.

"There's so much you need to know, Jon. Mentor will walk you through most of it, if you have the courage to follow. I've never questioned your dedication to this cause of mine, but if you want to walk away, I understand. I'm hoping you won't. We need all the good people left for this battle ahead, and I know without a doubt that you are one of them.

"The tools are here for you to make a stand, the most important one humanity will ever make. But it will take more than just that for you to be successful. You will need patience, and good humor, intelligence, and probably just a little bit of luck. Hopefully, good fortune will bless you with all of that.

"Mentor will tell you the rest, but this last can come only from me. Remember that I loved you, Jon, with all of my heart. Remember that in the times that lay ahead. Take it with you, and remember that is what you have that the machines do not.

"I love you. Take great care. Goodbye."

A long interminable silence followed the message. Jon sat with his face in his hands, not moving a muscle. All Matt could do was watch and wait, knowing that there was nothing he could say or do.

When Jon finally raised his head 20 minutes later, his eyes were clear and focused. Matt watched as he set his shoulders and turned right to him.

"Show me everything. All of it."


32-6, Mark 15, 1:35 p.m.

An hour and a half later, Jon's head felt like it was ready to explode. There was just too much information here to swallow in one sitting. His father had left a detailed explanation of what he had dubbed the "powersuits." That had explained what he'd seen Matt wearing yesterday, but there was so much more in his father's files. Project files, schematics, battle plans … everything they could use to fight a war.

Dad must have been insane to have all this going at once.

"Jon?" He turned to see Matt smiling at him. "Why don't you take a break? Your eyes passed glazed over about 20 minutes ago."

Jon sighed and rubbed wearily at his eyes. He really didn't need to know everything right now. But somewhere in the back of his mind, he felt pressure, as if time was rapidly getting too short.

He looked over to see Matt about ready to climb through the computer console he'd been at for the last hour. When Mentor had started into the files that he'd had already listened to, Matt had gone back to reset the tight-beam transmission yet again.

Now, he was just frowning. Matt shoved himself away from the console and gave Jon a harried look.

"Now it's just refusing the connection entirely. I keep getting an 'all circuits busy' answer out of the damned thing." He ran his hands through his hair. "I don't like this. At all. Even if that biobird of Taggart's blew up half the communications net, something should still be getting through."

Jon shut his eyes. "Don't. Please. I don't want to even think about that one yet. It's got to be a power glitch, a bug in the system."

Matt reached over to switch off the terminal. Just as his hand reached the switch, there was a brief burst of static. A high-pitched whine immediately followed, rising rapidly to a unrelenting squeal. The lights flickered and dimmed very low, and then as abruptly as it had begun, the noise ended and the lights came back up.

Jon stared at Matt in confusion, and Matt in turn looked to Mentor.

"Analyze, Mentor. Fast." The computer-generated holographic nodded once, and after a minute, spilled out an explanation.

"Data would indicate a high-level electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. However, it was broadcast rather than exploded. All communications lines are down, and unless they were shielded - like those here - they are likely destroyed."

Matt's mind locked up completely. Oh my God … His brain couldn't think fast enough, and as he looked over at Jon, he could see the slightest hint of panic. Whatever the hell just happened, it's big. For just a minute, Matt's vision hazed at the thought of an instigator.

Just as Matt's mind began to work again, there was another burst of static, and an image beginning to come clear: the familiar face of Lyman Taggart. Familiar, yet changed and altered in ways Matt couldn't begin to describe.

Jon let out a choked sob of recognition as sound began to come through over the communications terminal. It was tinny and muffled, as if coming from some great distance.

"Mentor, whatever comm circuit he's on, find it. And amplify." Jon's voice was hollow and stressed. As the teenager leaned forward to stare at the image, the sound suddenly came clear over the intercom.

"Greetings to humanity. Today is the beginning of a new age. As you will have just witnessed, all land, sea and air military communications have been destroyed. To those who oppose the machine, let this be a lesson. Opposition will no longer be tolerated."

Jon jumped to his feet and spoke before Taggart had even finished a sentence. "Mentor, begin scanning all possible landlines, anything that isn't military or government related. Sub-lines, ham channels, anything. If anything's being broadcast, we need it."

Matt reached out a hand to steady Jon. "And isolate whatever channel Taggart's on. He has to have kept something going for this broadcast. Isolate it and keep it from going offline."

Mentor nodded as the grand speech continued.

"Today, you will witness what the world shall become, even as I join it as its new leader. I am now one with the machine, both human and cyborg. No longer will I be known as Lyman Taggart. That personality died yesterday, along with two of those who opposed the will of the machine. In my rebirth, the opposition of Stuart Power and his son was eliminated."

Matt's stomach locked up as Jon sat back down without a sound. For a moment, maybe, Jon had hoped - or prayed - that his father had been spared. Now they were both being assumed dead.

"I will now be known as Lord Dread. Those who oppose me will fear what I offer. I will proceed with the destruction of those others who oppose my regime. Civilian, military and police agencies have been offered the chance to surrender, and refused. Today will mark the end of their age and the beginning of mine. Accept this, or be destroyed."

The image disappeared without another sound. As soon as it ended, Mentor was speaking.

"Major, I have several ground communication lines that were not affected online at once. I have distress calls coming in from several locations."

Matt closed his eyes. "Put them on in sequence. Register their locations, and note the time."

An insane babble of voices began, each voice cascading into the next.

"This is South Red One, South Red One. We are under attack, we are under attack…some kind of flying … machine!"

"Green Four, Green Four? Do you copy? We have reports of a massive plasma storm over your position … Dammit, Green Four, answer me!"

"This is Alpha Charlie Foxtrot, we are being overrun. Repeat, we cannot hold our position. Sorry, lads, you're on your own. Godspeed."

"This is North Route Five … we are cut off, repeat, cut off … can anyone hear us? This is North Route Five …"

Over and over it went. All they could do was listen. There was no way to get to any of the sites in time, with any kind of help in hand. Jon stared at Matt, his eyes horrified at the inability to do anything to help.

"Matt … we've got to do something. Please…"

All Matt could do was shake his head in response. He knew the situation, so did Jon. It sounded like every last biomech - plus that insane biodread - had been sent after humanity. Matt listened as the pleas became frantic, once-composed military men throwing protocol out the window in last desparate pleas for help.

In the space of ten minutes, the voices were gone. Matt stared the computer console in disbelief.

"Mentor…" Matt could hear the hoarseness in his voice, couldn't find the will to force it out. "Are you still scanning?"

Mentor nodded, but didn't put anything on the speakers. Oh, God…after all these years of fighting this war, everything had changed in the space of 18 hours. People had to be left, somewhere in all of this destruction, but where? How could they pick up the pieces and move on?

"Major, I am receiving a tight-beam transmission. It was sent as a single burst, so I cannot pinpoint the location. Shall I put it on speakers?"

Matt was about to answer when Jon cut him off.

"Could it be a trap? If we open it, could we be found?"

Mentor shook his head.

"Negative. The base is shielded against any tracking on communications coming in or going out." Jon looked at Matt, who nodded.

"Decode it and play on main speakers."

There was a second's worth of silence, a brief spattering of static, and then a quiet, calm voice echoed through the control room.

"This is Eagle's Nest. We have been receiving comm traffic for the past 15 minutes, pinpointing several areas of attack. We believe that we will be targeted soon, if Taggart has not done so already.

"If there is anyone who can lend assistance, we are moving the birds. I repeat, we are moving the birds." The speaker's voice, until now a model of military calm, broke at the next words. "Please … we think we can pull them out. Help us if you can. Code Niner Alpha Fargo Niner, out."

Matt sat back, stunned. Across from him, Jon was giving him a look of total confusion.

"Matt…what was…"

He waved off Jon's question as his mind spun through several options at the same time. This, they could do something about. With the Jumpship and Stuart's transit gates, they could be at the site in under 30 minutes. Matt's Powersuit would allow him to patrol the air, and Jon could … he swallowed hard. Jon would need a powersuit to do this.

Hang on, kid. I hope you wanted to be part of this war…

"Mentor, open the vault containing the powersuits." Matt was on his feet and moving before Mentor obeyed the command. Finally having something to do was all Matt needed. Not everyone was going to die today, not if he could help it.

"Grab one of your dad's suits. You wanted to do something, this is the chance." Behind them, the door to the Phoenix project vault opened. Matt gave Jon a thin, grim smile. "This isn't over yet, not by a long shot. So grab the gear and let's go."

Jon looked at the vault, then looked at Mentor, and finally back at Matt.

"Okay, but …" Jon looked at him plaintively. "What's Eagle's Nest and where are we going?"

Matt rocked back on his heels for a minute, realizing in an instant there were so many things Jon just didn't know. Well, he's going to get one hell of a quick education.

"C'mon, I'll explain on the way."


Fifteen minutes later, Matt was piloting the Jumpship while trying to explain some of the situation to Jon.

"Well, Eagle's Nest is essentially a hidey hole." Matt gave a bit more power to the ship's engine, and leveled out the flight plane. "Basically, when Dread first started marching the biomechs into every major city, the president and his cabinet knew they'd be better off having their families someplace else. So, while the staff remained in the White House," Or more often than not, the bunkers below, Matt thought, "they decided to find a different home for the women and children."

"Okay, then where are we going?" Jon tugged at the collar of his suit, trying to find some level of comfort in the suit. Jon's suit charging had happened more or less without incident, though the teenager described the experience as a "cross between sticking your fingers in the wall socket and getting hit by a sledgehammer." Knowing what it'd felt like, Matt could sympathize.

"A remote area in the Appalachians." Matt tapped a few controls, trying to pull up a map he knew Stuart had in the system. When it came up, he linked it to the console behind him. Jon was monitoring the communications channels from there, and saw immediately where the marked area was displayed.

"Dad had talked about that area being a perfect place as a refuge." Matt could here the approval in Jon's voice, but also some frustration. "How did they find it so quickly?"

Matt just shrugged.

"Someone could've talked. Tag ... Dread could've stumbled onto it." Matt had to work to keep his voice even. "Could be anything, really.

Matt was tired, Jon was tired, and there were too many other things shot to hell and gone to have to do this today. All this with weaponry he'd had less than 24 hours. Of course, that was about 23 and a half more hours than the 15-year-old behind him had. Matt's mind wouldn't let go of the worries running through his head.

He's gonna shoot me for this… "Jon, are you sure you're…"

"MATT." Jon's voice sounded slightly exasperated. "I'm fine. I've been running rescue missions and supply runs for the last two years. Trust me, I know enough to stay out of trouble."

Matt grumbled a little to himself, and shut his mouth. He really was being a pain in the rear end, but he couldn't help himself. Something about this situation just begged itself towards making him a condescending adult.

Finally, he forced himself to shoot a grin over his shoulder at Jon.

"All right…I get the point. You'll run ground diversion, I'll run things from up top." Matt tapped a switch on the computer panel in front of him, pulling up a display and sending it to the communications station where Jon was sitting.

"So, tell me where we can set this bird down and not get shot at right off the bat."


32-6, Mark 15, 2:20 p.m.

Jon stepped off of the Jumpship and right into the middle of marginally controlled chaos.

They'd been cleared to land as soon as they'd identified themselves, by someone sounding so harried that Jon thought they could've called themselves the priests of Zeus and been given permission to land.

Then again, we're not trying to organize this. Jon looked at the people milling about, the military personnel running between two different posts with orders being shouted back and forth at an increasing volume. Four small transports were in a secluded landing area about 20 yards away from the buildings.

"Two words for this: SNAFU and FUBAR," Matt muttered under his breath behind him. Jon snapped his head around and gave Matt a sharp glare, but the major only chuckled humorlessly.

"C'mon, kid, let's find out who's in charge. With any luck, someone'll know."

Before they got more than a few steps, what looked to be an army colonel in fatigues grabbed Hawk by the arm.

"Major Masterson?" When Matt nodded his assent, the man grabbed his hand and shook it vigorously.

"Major, am I ever glad to see you." The man's face still looked worried, but a fraction less frazzled. "We've got everything well under control at the moment, but we're going to need whatever help you and your counterpart can offer in about 15 minutes."

Jon stepped forward and offered his hand to the man.

"We'll be glad to help you wherever you need us." Jon nodded at the mayhem behind them. "Why don't you tell us exactly what's going on?"

The colonel wiped at his brow and nodded.

"We've got all but one group of the…" He stopped for a moment. "You do know who we have here, right?" When both Matt and Jon had nodded their agreement, the man continued.

"The children have all been evacuated, alone with all but two of the mothers." The man grimaced slightly, his face turning a whiter shade of pale. "The first lady and the vice-president's wife are still here. We lost contact with the White House about 20 minutes ago."

Jon looked at Matt, whose jaw had dropped a little. The White House … gone? He couldn't believe it. Just yesterday he'd been commenting about the president verifying his orders, and now … he might be dead. Or digitized. All of his father's hard work had gone into stopping this, and less than 24 hours after he was killed, they would have to start over from scratch.

The colonel gauged the look on both their faces, and swallowed hard.

"There's a slight chance that the communications lines went with the rest of the broadband lines, but…" His shoulders slumped. "It's not very likely. That combined with the news of losing Dr. Power and his son … if that thing finds whatever Stuart was working on, we're lost."

Jon could only stare at Matt. He was at a loss for words on this one. Matt shot him a look back, something between sympathy and regret.

"Colonel, the news on Stuart Power is true, but this is his son, Jonathan." Jon got a little bit of absurd pleasure from watching the man's jaw drop. "And Powerbase is still intact, along with a number of other items were hope we'll make use of eventually. In the meantime, just tell us what you want us to do."

Given a moment to recover, the colonel nodded and pushed forward into the crowd, trusting for Matt and Jon to follow.

"Like I said, we've only got one group left to go." He gestured towards the transports. "We're flying one actual transport and three decoys. If by some chance Dread forces pick up on the actual refugee ship, we've left enough of a safety margin to allow the others to track back … well, we hope we have."

Jon nodded. A pretty good plan. Pretty good, huh? Jon guessed the president's military staff had long since planned for an evacuation of this place. In fact, he wasn't even sure why the base had put out the request for help. Unless, of course, all they wanted was backup.

Matt must have been thinking along the same lines. "Colonel, what would you like us to do? Obviously, you've got plans here that you're already carrying out."

The colonel took a deep breath, and then let out a sigh.

"We're setting up a series of booby traps for anyone that tries to get in here afterwards. The main control area, the bunks and the munitions depot are all being set to blow. Then the ground troops are going to hike it out on foot." He paused to catch his breath. "We need someone in the sky to watch for that damned biobird that's been making everyone's life miserable, and we need someone to cover our retreat on the ground."

Jon digested the information and nodded before Matt had a chance to say a word. Sorry, Matt, I know you're not gonna like this…

"I can take the ground cover. And I think Major Masterson can cover the skies." Jon tried to ignore the unhappy glare Matt was now giving him. "If that's all right with him, that is."

Matt shot Jon an exasperated look, but nodded in the colonel's general direction.

"Just a minute alone, please. We need to finalize a few plans." And before the colonel could even agree, Matt had Jon by the shoulder and out of ear shot. Which was just as well, because Jon could tell he was going to get an earful.

But when Matt opened his mouth, he was surprised at just how calm Matt sounded.

"If you think I'm going to argue with you, you're wrong. And if you think I'm going to give you some kind of worthless lecture on watching your back, think again." Matt stopped, and the expression on his face changed. "You've been ready for this for months, Jon, or your Dad wouldn't have had you running what you did. Now I'm going to have to trust you to keep your head down and your butt outta trouble. You hear?"

Jon felt the beginnings of pride stirring in his stomach. Of all the things he'd expected him to say, this wasn't even close. But all he did was nod. It was all that had to be done.

"Let's go then, kid. Just do me a favor and watch your back anyhow."


Fifteen minutes. Matt hadn't thought much about it when the colonel had asked him for that small amount. A quarter of an hour, really.

But now, practically flying around with no other purpose than to be a target if the biodread showed up, Matt felt about as naked as the day he was born. Well, Joanna always said I didn't have the common sense to come down out of the rain. All he could do up here was watch, and wait. There was some light fire along the route where the ground retreat was progressing, but Jon had taken rear flank and hadn't reported anything out of the ordinary yet.

Yet being the operative word…

Matt had a second's worth of warning, nothing really more than premonition. He dove instinctively, and the shots Soaron fired floated past the intended target of his wing stablizers and slammed into the ground.

Several screams came from the ground, but the only thing he really heard was Jon's frantic voice come over the comm.

"Matt, we're taking fire from ground troops." Jon was fighting to keep his voice as calm as he could, but Matt picked up immediately on the fear that was there. "The transports are away. Repeat, the birds are gone. I'm separated from the ground troops. No cover, repeat, no cover."

Matt swore and arched back into the sky, firing a volley of shots intended to keep Soaron interested in the prey. C'mon, you overgrown skybird, come to papa…

Soaron obliged with a roar of indignation. Matt opened up his comm and broadcast along all the immediate military frequencies.

"All troops in the area, final retreat is ordered. Retreat, I repeat, retreat. Your cover is blown. Get out, now!"

The comm crackled for a moment, and then a startled voice came across.

"Y…yessir, major." He heard the retreat calls scatter among the ground troops, and within seconds, the immediate area was clear. He only hoped they'd gotten all of their people out.

"Jon, can you hear me?" There was some crackling on the line, and then Jon's voice echoed clear.

"I'm here. I'm making for the ship. But you've got to get that …"

A series of shots floated over Matt's head. Soaron had apparently had enough of being picked at, and had sped to close the distant. As Matt spun to try and knock his opponent off balance, he realized just how close he'd come back to the original position of the retreat.

Oh, shit… Matt didn't even have a chance to yell a warning. Soaron put all his effort into a continuous stream of heavy fire, forcing Matt to dive down and away as the fire just missed his backside.

The shots slammed into the abandoned shelter house as Matt pulled out of the dive and safely back into the air. The structure, already weakened past the point of safety, leaned perilously backwards. Then it toppled top over bottom, seemingly bending over at an impossible crease in the middle.

There was a sharp, aborted scream over the intercom. Matt knew instantly it was Jon, and with the way their luck was holding today, he was under that rubble.

"Jon? Jon, answer me!" There was no answer.

Time to go. The suit would probably protect Jon from any real harm. Probably. Matt wasn't about to take chances. He twisted his shoulders around and dove hard for the building.

This time, Soaron's shots didn't miss their target. At least, not by much. The volley of fire caught Matt in the midsection, and spun him into a sideways fall. It took every ounce of experience he had flying to get control back and keep from crashing headfirst into the ground.

"I don't have time to deal with you!" Matt followed up his words with a flurry of shots in Soaron's general direction. All of which took them back towards the troop withdrawal and giving the biodread another shot at wiping out the ground troops.

And as Matt climbed a little higher into the sky, he could see more Dread biomechs coming in from the west.

That was it. The fight with Soaron had to end, NOW. Even as he was broadcasting, Matt was flying loops, in increasingly tight turns. Soaron kept firing solely on him, ignoring the troops now for what he saw as the larger prize: Matt.

Just keep taking the bait. Matt dove again for the ground, but this time aimed for the depot that was, by now, over half a klick away. He only hoped Soaron wouldn't figure out where their path was taking them.

Matt kept the dive steady, keeping the illusion of driving for speed and cover, closing on the base faster with each second. Within a minute, he was within range of the weapons cache.

Just a few more seconds… Soaron obliged, lighting up the sky around him as Matt closed within a hundred meters of the building. Then seventy-five. Fifty. Twenty-five.

Matt pulled up hard, skimming along the top of the building with just inches to spare. Behind him, Soaron screamed out in agony as first his volley of shots - and then the biodread himself - crashed at full speed into the depot.

Matt strained every last bit of speed out of the suit to escape the following explosion. The fire leapt out from behind him, but did no more than nip at his heels.

And finally, the sky behind him was clear. He pulled up just long enough to assure himself that Soaron had indeed been caught in the blast. Then he turned and made for the outlying buildings.

Hang on, Jon, I'm coming. With the battle over, Matt's stomach twisted into a knot. Jon hadn't said anything over the comm since Matt had heard him scream. There hadn't even been as much as a groan or a whisper.

He came into a landing at full speed, which forced him to sprint out of the maneuver and tumble head first into the ground. As he caught his bearings, he got a good look at the rubble.

And the unsuited, unprotected legs sticking out from one end of it. Matt's stomach froze.

"Jon! Jon, can you hear me?" He made no pretense of calm. If the suit hadn't been on when the wall had collapsed, Jon could be crushed. As close to panic as he'd ever been in his life, Matt started digging desparately at the pile of debris, uncovering the rest of Jon's legs.

Oh, Jesus. Let him be alive. Matt got Jon's legs clear only to find the teenager's body pinned between two long, six-inch thick boards. Jon was effectively caught in a body lock, his arms and head buried somewhere further in.

Matt strained as hard as he could, pushing his shoulder into the wood. He gained a scant few inches of leverage.

"Jon! Pull yourself out! NOW!" No response. Not so much as a twitch. Either Jon was unconscious, or... Matt's mind slipped into automatic, his actions becoming as simple as breathing. A second push gave him a few more inches of space. His lower back screamed in protest as he took the weight, reaching for Jon's legs at the same time.

No time for pain now. He would deal with it later. Nothing mattered but pulling Jon loose, which he did - inch by precious inch, receiving absolutely no help from the teenager.

And then, finally, Jon's head slid out from under the rubble. His face registered nothing - no pain, no emotion. It was as still as death.

No. It's not ending this way. Matt yanked Jon clear another foot, then used the leverage to push himself and the boy clear of the rubble as it crashed behind them. An instant later, he powered off his suit and dropped to his knees beside Jon.

"Jon? Jon, can you hear me?" He shook Jon's shoulder as gently as he could, praying if there were any broken bones he wouldn't make things worse. God, please don't let his neck be broken.

No response. Training took over. Matt leaned over and lifted Jon's chin, clearing the airway. Listened for five seconds. Nothing.

Two slow breaths. Both went in cleanly, and exited with no resistance. At the very least, the airway was clear. As he listened for any response, he checked for a pulse. Weak, thready, but still there.

God...please. Stuart...not now. Not like this.

A breath. Slow in, slow out. Pause. Another breath.

In.

Out.

Pause.

Again.

And as Matt reached for the fifth breath, he felt rather than heard a reaction. Jon's entire body convulsed, and then shook with a heaving, shaking cough. Bracing Jon's neck, Matt turned him over on his side, and just listened.

The sound of air going in and out. Choked, uneven, but breathing.

I don't know where you are, Stuart, but thank you. The teenager's breathing began to even out, and Matt practically shook.

There was a little more coughing, then Matt felt Jon resist ever so slightly against the pressure he was exerting to keep Jon's neck still.

"Matt?" A question. A voice. He rolled the boy over flat on his back, and was rewarded with Jon's eyes blinking in the light. Matt's muscles went slack with relief.

"Yeah." Matt's own breath was ragged now. "Yeah, it's me."

And slowly, without saying a word, Jon reached up with a hand, and locked his fingers with Matt's.

The simple gesture undid him completely. Matt lowered his head, and began to cry.


32-7, Mark 1, 11:30 p.m.

Matt took a sip of his coffee, and frowned. It hadn't tasted good to start with. Now it was cold, bitter and about eight hours old.

He really needed to lay off the lousy stuff.

Especially at 11:30 at night. Matt tried to stifle a yawn, and went back to the tedious work of test-checking the various electrical connections in the base. The majority of what Stuart had planned was up and connected now, thanks to Mentor's direction and a little help from Jon.

Just a little. He'd stood firm on that, and the way Jon was still feeling, he hadn't really argued too much. Two weeks removed from a moderate concussion and badly bruised ribs, Jon was still creaking around a little bit.

Damned lucky he's creaking around at all. By the time Jon had recovered enough to be somewhat coherent, Matt had already had him back on the ship and heading for home. Then he'd confined him to the medlab until Matt felt reasonably convinced there wasn't anything life-threatening.

When he'd asked Jon what had happened, the teenager only shook his head and said he couldn't remember. Just the last thing he knew, he'd had the suit powered up.

Which meant that either it had gone off when the wall collapsed, or sometime between when the wall had collapsed and Matt was able to pull him out. By rights, the rubble should have crushed him, causing all sorts of internal injuries. Instead, it had just pinned Jon and made it impossible for him to breathe. Even then, Jon had been trapped no more than a minute or two without air.

Only a few minutes, and no serious injuries. What was it you said about thanking Stuart, Matt? Divine intervention? Maybe. Matt wasn't in the mood to question it. He just thanked the powers that be that Jon was still here.

Matt leaned back in the chair, letting out a soft sigh. They were both coping. While Matt managed his own grief, he'd been trying to keep an eye on Jon's. There wasn't much. The quiet, reticent teenager hadn't changed much; he'd just quietly dealt with everything the two weeks had thrown at him.

There were times he'd disappear for two, even three hours at a time, but he always told Matt when he was going, and the system could find him in an emergency. Even now, Matt could sense Jon starting to gain control of this massive behemoth his father had left him.

Which is fine by me. Matt could handle the military stuff just fine, but ever since he'd started training the kid, he knew Jon would eventually lead. Whether he'd feel comfortable leading Matt or not remained to be seen.

And we'll deal with it when we get …

The monitor beeped loudly, drawing his attention back to the screen. He'd ordered Jon to get some sleep about two hours ago. It was relatively quiet out there, there weren't any pressing issues and they didn't need to work themselves to the bone.

But now there were fresh connections being laid out in one of the supply rooms on the northwest side of the base. He wouldn't have even noticed the work being done if he hadn't been checking the files to begin with.

Matt grabbed his cup of coffee and headed for the door. Jon may be tired, he may be hurt, but he's still getting into trouble. He was willing to bet it wasn't an intruder fiddling with those wires.

When the door to the supply room opened, Matt wasn't surprised to see Jon at a control panel across the room. His back was to the door, and he showed no signs at having heard Matt come in.

"Hi, Matt." Jon greeted him without turning around. Matt couldn't see his face, but he heard the grin in Jon's voice. Smartass kid…

"Don't 'hi, Matt' me. I told you get to bed two hours ago."

Jon shrugged, still playing with the wires in front of him. "And you told me you weren't going to stay up all night."

This was getting infuriating. Jon's voice was level, like he was the adult and Matt was a child. And he knows he's got a leg to stand on somewhere…

"It's only 11:30."

Jon started teasing a wire into a delicate connection.

"I'm 15 years old, Matt." Jon's voice was completely reasonable. "My father never had to send me to bed. Is there a reason?"

"Because you've been getting up at 5 in the …" Belatedly, Matt realized the trap he'd walked himself into. Nice one, Masterson. He shut his mouth, but not before Jon turned around with a broad smile on his face.

"So have you. I knew I'd win this one." Jon turned back to the panel after picking up a new tool off the packing crate beside him. Matt grumbled, and pulled another box over for himself.

"I'll admit, you have a point." Matt watched as Jon began soddering one of the connections into place. "In fact, if I didn't know better, I'd say you did this on purpose."

"I did." Jon shrugged slightly. "If you hadn't been running the systems check that you said you'd do in the morning, you wouldn't have caught me."

Matt was stuck between being annoyed and amused. There was something about walking into a trap set by a 15-year-old that left him with both a sense of appreciation and frustration at the exact same moment.

"All right. I admit it. I want to get this place operational as fast as possible." He sipped at the coffee, trying to organize his thoughts. "I don't think we're going to catch a break. Most of the military's on the run, which is going to leave everything wide open for Lyman … Dread to attack. The sooner we get this place going…"

"The sooner we'll be able to do something." Jon finished with the connection, then sat down across from Matt. "I've got some ideas, Matt. Things we might be able to do with this place, with everything my dad left us."

Matt leaned back against the pile of crates behind him. "I kinda figured you would. What's on your mind?"

"A special ops force. A small group. We're going to have to go looking for people to join, and I don't want to add anyone unless we're sure we can trust him. Or her. We can use this place like my dad wanted to, as a base. And then…" Jon's voice trailed off for a moment.

"Then what?" Matt watched as Jon's face hardened. There was determination, and pain. It scared him just a bit.

"Then we strike back." Jon's voice was cool, composed, but Matt could hear him reigning in his temper. "As hard as we can, saving as many people as we can. I want every last one of his machines gone, Matt. All of them. I made a promise to my father, and I'm going to keep it."

Matt nodded, once, thinking over everything the teenager had said. It was an adult's plan, full of maturity and strength of purpose. He was damned proud of the kid for coming up with it. At the same time, he wasn't surprised. Stuart wanted this to be a fight, and we're going to make it one.

"What about me?" Matt fought back a chuckle. "Do I fit into your plans, or do you want to demote me now and claim a dictatorship?"

Jon's face froze, and then he smiled.

"You know I want you here, Matt." Jon leaned back against the wall, the smile slipping from his face. "My dad would've wanted it this way, I think."

"What do you mean?"

"He left us seven suits, Matt. Not just one or two. And a base full of supplies and weaponry. We're going to fight this war, and we're going to win it. I promise you that."

As serious as Jon looked, he punctuated the statement with a slow, weary yawn.

"Not at 11:30 at night." Matt nodded at the door. "How about we call it a night? We'll plan on taking over the world in the morning."

Jon nodded.

"Go ahead. I'll be along in a minute." Matt was already up, and he gave Jon an amused smile. The teenager returned it. "I promise. I … I just wanted to finish things up here."

Matt fought not to laugh. Jon was probably telling the truth about following him, but there was obviously something he needed to do that he didn't want Matt around for.

Some things you just need to leave to trust. And faith. He shrugged and yawned himself.

"Just don't let me find you asleep in here in the morning."


Jon watched Matt walk out the door, and then reached into his pocket. The small recorder he'd been using all night was almost out of tape, but he needed to finish what he'd started.

"I'm going to keep my promise, Dad. When I look back over these recordings 15, 20 years down the line, I want to know that I didn't fail you. Matt and I will make this work. Taggart won't have this world. I pledge you that.

"I love you, Dad. I hope I'll make you proud. Goodbye."