“The World Council wants the QT to be of practical use. They decreed that General Mungo needed to land, near human activity,” Bazel said. “For this first experiment, only one human being is in the immediate vicinity of Mungo’s landing site. This Native, was an airsurfer, then a Flay user, and now is a scavenger so poor and desperate that he is willing to put up with the fumes from the toxic swamp,” Bazel said. “The topography, a swamp, is not ideal, but we at Chronos know that we make our own Flade.”
“When’s General Mungo coming?” Liberty asked.
“Liberty,” Gleer scolded. “Be patient.” She smoothed her hair with her fingers as she gazed at the stage.
Bazel shot a glance at the flat screen.
But the screen was still a solid gray. Mungo hadn’t landed yet.
“As I mentioned earlier, no dangerous species inhabit the area,” Bazel said.
“Bazel is repeating himself,” Gleer whispered.
“Stalling,” Liberty murmured.
The picture on the flat screen was blurred like the picture shows old-timey people used to watch in ancient movie theatres, but Shama could make it out.
General Mungo stood in the middle of a clearing. Abandoned cans, machine parts, computers, lifters, bots of all kinds, colors and sizes, were stacked into a densely packed circular wall about the height of a man; a few twisted paths covered in mud headed off from the clearing and disappeared into nowhere.
The lower corner of the flat screen displayed a digital clock.
While Shama watched, 178 seconds, changed to 177…. The clock marked the countdown for Mungo’s return.
Gleer squeezed Shama’s arm. “That mud. Those cans,” she whispered. “This looks like the last game in the Sim.”
Shama studied the greenish brown mud on the path, the wall made out of smushed junk, and the circular clearing. “You’re right.”
“It’s got to be a coincidence,” Gleer said.
Liberty shot a quick glance at Shama. “You know what they say in Time theory.”
“There are no coincidences?” Gleer said.
Bazel’s voice-over droned on. “The plan for this first Probe is simple. General Mungo will merely observe the earth as it was fifty-two years ago.”
“Can Mungo hear Bazel?” Liberty asked.
“No,” Deza said.
“Just a little over a minute remaining,” Bazel said. “Then General Mungo will return.”
But Mungo, who until that moment hadn’t moved, shook his head. He took a few steps forward, then tripped.
A wet splat sounded as he hit the mud, and his gasp reverberated around the auditorium. He landed on his butt next to a stunted Cypress tree, his legs splayed out and his cap off. His neck was limp, and his reddish hair clung to his skull in a clammy mess.
“Normal disorientation,” Bazel said. His voice sounded upbeat. But in the background, Shama heard a woman shouting, “Medical.”
The clock said: 68 seconds.
Mungo opened his mouth, a silent groan.
The auditorium grew so quiet that Shama could hear the gentle shoosh of the parked Flairs.
Gleer dropped her head into her hands.
Tres’ back had gone rigid.
Kardo sat motionless, staring at the stage.
“We’re bringing him back now,” Bazel said. Although he spoke in a flat tone, the Earbone Speakers magnified his rapid breathing which now filled the auditorium.
The clock: 47seconds left until Mungo’s return.
A burst of wind swept through the forest of old-fashioned trees, and yellow leaves gusted. Lighter and more beautiful than the cybratom leaves in the Sim, they swirled around Mungo, then floated to the ground.
The zoom’s focus shifted away from Mungo and onto Mungo’s shiny TTD. The thin chip lay on top of the mud.
Tres’s hands gripped the arms of her Flair.
“That can’t be,” Liberty said.
“Mungo’s TTD was ionized to his DNA,” Gleer murmured.
“Code 12,” Bazel said in a normal voice. Then, he shouted, “Code 12.”
Code 12. That was what the actor, Klite Muloons, yelled into his communicator during the Antarctica Wars—when hundreds of thousands of Rebels swarmed the last W.C. base.
On the stage, Perbile shot up from his stool and started pacing.
Bazel’s mouth formed a grim line, while Pinkie’s hung slack. The rest of the team in the Control Center held back, already starting to distance themselves.
On the flat screen, Mungo’s head bent forward.
Tres was pale, and the tiny tears that formed in the corners of her pale eyes, were perfect, clear jewels.
The Zone in the Future
Barb heard a splash as Xt doused his coffee with a vita-spike for energy.
A ping sounded.
Barb gazed down at the screen of his O-brain and tried to clear his thoughts in order to
focus on the text: Private Channel 2, 987,613 lit up.
Zi smiled out at him.
Barb waited for his O-Brain to authenticate the communication.
A moment later, some text appeared on the screen, It’s just as we feared.
The power outage was staged? Sabotage! Barb confirmed that his thought
had been correctly translated into text, and then blinked to send it.
Lies. Zi’s answer appeared almost immediately. Ha is clueless. Which means the cloud
malfunction could happen again, any time. And for any length of time. To deflect attention from her department, Ha is hounding all the typicals with tales of you and Ka 2 E.
Barb sighed.Ha implied that she was taking Radical Rest.
What I wouldn’t give to live in a world without her?
Trust me. There aren’t any such worlds. Progress there?
We’re onto something.
Move quickly. FYI. Ha will get a subpoena. She’ll block our private channel.
Buy me time. We’ve got a real chance to stop the Time Bomb and …
Thoughtpolice sensor. Signing off.