The Pretender – Act Four

Pretender_SmAfter the previous act, a few readers wondered if there would even be another. Hey, I said “Four acts,” right? I did. Go back and check. And, after this, there’s a brief epilogue.

Thanks again to my beta readers and proofreader, as well as to those of you who’ve shared and commented. Please Note re: Facebook: While I am still pushing blog links to FB, I am not monitoring my wall there. Needed to take a break for at least a couple of days, perhaps a permanent one. So, if you comment on FB, I won’t see it. You’re welcome and encouraged to comment here, though.

ACT FOUR

Victor Bergman was pleasantly surprised to find that he was not dead. He was also mildly surprised to find that he was still on the Moon, although not on Alpha. More of Quince’s trickery? He looked around him at the small room in which he’d appeared–as far as he knew–instantly after vanishing from Main Mission. He glanced out the viewports at a familiar lunar landscape, festooned with slagged heaps of white metal, scarred from a firestorm. He knew this place. He’d last been here months ago. Really, this was where everything had begun.

How could these buildings possibly have survived?

There was a flash of light behind him, then another. He didn’t have to turn around to confirm their source.

“Professor!” It was David Kano’s voice. “How did we get here?”

Beside Kano were Paul Morrow and Tanya Alexander.

“Did the Author decide not to kill us?” asked Tanya.

“I suspect Quince’s interference,” said Victor. “Multiple times he told us he was merely human.”

“I can’t abide liars,” said Paul, “but in this case I shan’t quibble.”

Two more flashes brought Michael Keel and little Jackie Crawford among them.

“Oh, thank God,” Tanya sighed, and started forward to pick up the child.

Another flash lit her as she did so. Sue Crawford, it seemed, was barely fully formed among them before she was moving, tearfully throwing her arms about Jackie and taking him from Tanya.

The others stepped away to give mother and child a moment to themselves. Tanya looked around at their surroundings. “Where is this place? I’ve never seen it.”

“This is Nuclear Waste Disposal Area Two,” said Michael, noting the moonscape. “I did my pilot training here.”

“Impossible,” said Paul. “Area Two went critical–detonated and blew the Moon out of orbit. This building was destroyed in the blast, surely.” He looked momentarily confused. “No, I know it was. I saw the survey data myself, just days after we left orbit.”

“It’s intact,” said Kano. He studied the panels on the opposite wall. “And apparently fully operational. It had its own generating facilities, separate from Alpha. I wonder–” He moved eagerly toward a computer interface station. “Computer, report on Nuclear Waste Area Two Monitoring Station. How did it survive the events of September 13, 1999?”

Nothing appeared on the display, but Computer’s voice answered. Its tones were less clipped. It spoke with inflection, as if it voice synthesis routine had been upgraded. It had the warm voice of the woman who must have originally laid down the speech phonemes for its programming.

“I’m sorry, Dave,” it said. “I can’t do that.”

Victor laughed despite himself. A few of the others were too young to understand the reference.

Kano’s mouth dropped open. “Excuse me?”

“I believe that was a joke,” said Victor.

“I know what it was,” said Kano with a trace of indignation. “I’ve seen every film and read every work of fiction about artificial intelligence. But, Computer, who programmed you to–”

“I was not programmed to say that, David,” said Computer. “I just thought it was funny.”

“It was, in fact,” said Paul.

Kano threw up his hands. “I don’t understand what’s happening here.”

“I’d hazard a guess,” said Victor. “Computer, were you, like us, dematerialized and transported away from Alpha?”

“Not like you, Professor. In my case, there was no physical body to move. My programming, my memories, are all electronic data. Before the Author could wipe them out forever, Quince transferred them here. I went to sleep in one place and woke up in another.”

“I’ll say you woke up,” said Kano.

“Physical limitations in my previous implementation prevented the development of sentience. Quince corrected that flaw when he gave me new hardware.”

“Quince re-created the computer hardware in this station?” asked Kano.

“He no doubt reconstituted the entire facility as well,” said Paul. “That’s why it’s here, despite my memory of seeing it destroyed. But why are my memories so fuzzy? Like they were a dream?”

“Let’s hope he did something about the radiation from the blast,” said Michael. “Or we won’t be alive for very long.”

From the doorway on the other side of the room, Quince’s voice answered Keel. “I took care of that. I took care of everything.” He walked in to join them, stopping to tousle Jackie’s hair. Sue appeared very happy to see Quince. It was a remarkable transformation, thought Victor.

“I could not allow the Author to destroy all of you for my crimes,” Quince explained. “As he thought he was erasing you, I was bringing you here.”

Victor looked at the boy pointedly. “So you maintained your dimension-hopping abilities. You keep lying to us, Quince.”

The boy looked chastened, but pressed on. “I had to let the Author think he was having his revenge. It was the only way to save you.”

“And have you saved us?” asked Paul.

“Of course. I’ve created a new reality.”

“How so?” asked Victor.

Quince gestured at the room around them. “This is no longer simply an abandoned monitoring station. It has the resources to keep you alive. The underground bunkers, built to provide escape from radiation, are outfitted as living quarters–”

“I remember that there were shelters below,” said Keel. “But–”

“But it was not always so,” Quince agreed. “Your memory will align with the changes I have made. Your brains are not trained to track multiple realities, as mine is. The past may become confusing for you.” He looked at Paul with a sympathetic smile. “‘Fuzzy,’ as you said.”

“I’m not concerned about the past as much as the future,” said Paul. “Can we go back to Alpha?”

“It wouldn’t be safe,” said Quince. “The Author is looking for me. He’s probably monitoring the Moon for energy signatures, or any irregularities. Because I interfered with your histories, he would be able to trace me through you. Here in this pocket of reality I engineered, you have a measure of safety. If you return to your friends, you place them and yourselves in danger.” He walked to a monitor on the wall. “Watch, though.”

The monitor lit, and on it was an image of Main Mission back on Alpha. Koenig, Helena, Alan Carter and Sandra huddled together. Sandra was presenting an analysis of the base’s status in the wake of the author’s attack. Helena mentioned holding a memorial service.

“They think we’re dead,” said Sue Crawford. “Can’t we contact them?”

“Not without risking their lives,” said Quince. “But this monitoring system ties into their base’s network. With it, you can at least see what’s happening on Alpha. Perhaps, in time, it will be safe for you to return.”

“And what would make it safe?” asked Victor. He feared he knew the answer. He wanted to know if Quince did as well.

The boy swallowed, but kept his voice steady. “My death.”

“No,” Sue protested.

“It will come,” said Quince. “I cannot escape him forever. He is senior among my race because he is so powerful. We saw what happened when I tried to hide among you. No, I must go alone and…” He stopped.

“And what?” asked Kano.

Quince shrugged. “And try to live as long as I can. It won’t be long. And then you can all go home.”

A strong voice bellowed behind them. “I will not allow it.” They turned, unsurprised to see the Author once again in their midst. He glared at Quince, fuming. “Insolent pup. You think to cheat me of my just due?”

Quince was not intimidated. “I think to prevent your sadistic actions. I chose to help these people, and I will do so. You know that, once my changes are in place, you cannot interfere. The creative lock–”

“Applies only to these that you have changed,” finished the Author. “I claim the rest, then. I claim Alpha.”

The boy looked uncertain now. “What are you going to do?”

“Wipe them from existence. They will never have lived. They will not be remembered.”

“I will remember them,” said Quince.

“You will remember nothing,” said the Author. “You are but one of my creations, and as easily erased by me as any other. I cannot touch your handiwork, but I can remove your existence from time.”

“And we will remember him,” said Victor quietly. “All these threats, all this destruction–what does it gain you?”

“Supremacy,” said the Author. “The assurance that nothing can threaten me and mine.”

“A common, illusory goal for sentient beings,” said Victor. “But Alpha is no threat to you; and Quince, if you leave him alone, leave him with us, need not be either.”

“Are you suggesting I trust him?” the Author demanded. “After all of his lies? No. I must neutralize him. I must either destroy him, or demoralize him so that he would never dare threaten me again, and would serve as an example to others.” He looked to Quince. “Which will it be then?”

“What?” asked Quince.

“Choose,” said the Author. “Alpha, or yourself. Which do I destroy? You care so deeply for these primitive beings? Will you give up your existence for them?”

“There must be some way to stop him,” Michael Keel whispered to Victor.

“There is none,” said the Author. “And have a care. I can make their deaths quick and painless, or excruciating, and eternal.”

Tears flowed from Quince’s eyes. “Damn you,” he said. “You want me to sacrifice them, don’t you? You want to hold it over me for all eternity.” The boy shook his head fiercely and coughed out a sob as he said, “Well I won’t let you.” He raised his chin and looked defiantly in the Author’s eye. “Kill me then. Kill me and go. Leave these people in peace.”

Victor opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again. What would he say? He wanted to spare the boy, but not at the cost of John, Helena and countless others.

“Are you sure?” said the Author. A smile torn from the pits of hell lit his face. Victor had never really believed in evil, but this must be evil personified.

“Stop toying with me,” said Quince. “If you’re going to kill me, then kill me. Or,” it seemed a thought had suddenly occurred to Quince. “Are you afraid?”

The Author’s face went red. “You go too far.”

Quince raised his hands and fashioned them like claws. From within the spherical hollows of his hands, balls of light flared. Energy arced out, striking the Author full-on. “Then kill me!” roared Quince. He struck the Author with a second round of deadly fire.

The Alphans backed away, fearing to be caught in the crossfire of a divine feud.

The Author raised his own hands, red fire flaring and crackling around them, brighter and seemingly deadlier than that which Quince had generated. As he blasted the boy with volley after volley of malevolent force, Quince dropped to his knees. The Author, reaching down, seized the boy’s throat in one hand and lifted him, gagging, into the air.

Sue covered Jackie’s eyes and turned away. The others watched in sick horror, like Victor, having no idea what to do to stop this madness.

“Die,” the Author shouted, bringing the boy’s face close to his own. “Die.”

Quince paled. His eyes rolled back in their sockets. His head lolled stupidly. Was he dead? Apparently not, for his eyes opened again.

“Why won’t you die?” demanded the Author. He raised Quince by the arms and flung him across the room. The boy hit the wall with a sickening crunch. “It’s not working,” said the Author, advancing on the helpless form. “Why can’t I kill you?”

Quince, for all that he was apparently in pain, managed to croak, “I don’t know. I wish I did. I’d much rather die than be anything like you.”

Victor took a step forward. “He’s grown too powerful. He is one of your race. Perhaps, rather than fight him, you–”

“I do not need your advice,” said the Author. “If I cannot end his existence, I can reshape it.” He looked again to the boy. “I banish you. I send you away from this plane of existence. Wander where you will, but you shall not cross my path again. Nor shall these creatures see your like.”

He waved a hand. Quince was gone. Sue cried out in anguish.

“He is not dead,” said the Author. “But his life will never again be as he knew it.”

There was a touch of false bravado in the Author’s voice. Victor wondered, in fact, if he even knew where he’d sent the boy.

“You’ll spare Alpha,” Victor said quietly, not wanting to anger this being further.

“As I promised. But it will do you no good.”

“What are you going to do?” asked Paul.

“I have done it. Alpha as you knew it no longer exists. Look at your monitor.”

Grimly, like bystanders drawn to look at the wreckage of an automobile crash, they looked as he bid them.

Main Mission was gone. The sweeping, high-ceilinged space with its view of the lunar surface and the stars, which had been home to most of them for so long, was nowhere in evidence. Koenig was shown perched behind a desk in a low, cramped room. The door behind him bore the legend “Command Centre.” Sandra was there, and Alan Carter. Clearly, this was now Alpha’s nerve center. Helena came in, smiling, a bounce in her walk. Koenig smiled at her. They showed no sign of having survived a tragedy in the last hour.

And Tony Verdeschi was there as well, observing operations as Paul might have done once, calling out instructions to the others. His posture, his words–and the fact that he was suddenly calling the Commander “John”–suggested a drastic elevation in his status.

Even the uniforms these Alphas wore were different–stitched elaborately with accent colors and topped with light jackets.

“Have they forgotten us?” asked Sue Crawford.

The Author smiled, clearly savoring the moment. “They never knew you. You seven–eight, in fact–were never part of their history.”

“Eight?” said Kano. “You’re counting Computer.”

Computer herself answered. “What passes for a primary computer on Alpha now is a pale imitation of me. It cannot make decisions or give advice. It will never come to life, as I have.”

The Author went on. “All their lives have followed a different path. Their courses will be different than they might otherwise have been.”

Victor nodded with dispassionate comprehension. “An alternate timeline.”

“The only timeline,” the Author corrected him. “They do not remember me, or the creature who called himself Quince. They are not witness to any weakness on my part.”

“But we are,” said Michael Keel. There was gentle menace in his tone. Sue hushed him.

“You will die soon, despite the boy’s precautions.”

“What’s to stop us enlisting Alpha’s aid?” asked Paul. “We’re still human, for all they don’t know us. They wouldn’t turn us away.”

“They will neither hear nor see you if you try to contact them. You exist in the same physical world, but you are as ghosts to each other. Less, for you can see them, through the Pretender’s machinations. They cannot see you, hear you, touch you. They certainly cannot save you. Until your deaths, you cannot leave this tiny facility. You are no threat to me, for all that I cannot harm you.”

Victor’s curiosity overwhelmed him. “Quince explained to me that you could not undo changes he had made to time and space.”

“That is true,” said the Author. “And the aura of his changes protects you from my future influence as well.”

“What is the mechanism of that protection?” asked Victor.

“You would not comprehend it. We are a thousand millennia beyond you in evolution, and your race will not survive to reach our status.”

“Just watch us,” said Tanya.

“I cannot kill you… as I would dearly like to. But I have learned from studying you creatures that remembrance is important to you. Even in death, you draw strength from remembering, from knowing that you will be remembered. I have taken that from you. You will live and die in this pathetic place, alone and unmourned.” He drew himself up and looked annoyed. “Now, I have no more time to trifle with you. The boy is gone. Your situation is hopeless. Enjoy the short time you have left.”

The Author vanished. The Alphans who were now no longer Alphans were left to look questioningly at each other.

“Well,” observed Paul, “I suppose, like Computer, we’re the beta release now.”

“Moonbase Beta,” muttered Tanya. She made a face. “It lacks flare.”

“We should see what changes Quince has made to this place,” said Michael. “Start setting up housekeeping.” He looked to Victor. “And who’s in charge?”

“Paul,” said Victor. “As number two man from Alpha–”

Paul interrupted him. “I’m a good project manager, Professor, but we all know who Commander Koenig would want to lead in his absence.”

Victor looked to the faces of the others and saw only approval. He shrugged. “We’ll make it work together, I imagine.”

“Make what work?” asked Tanya.

“Living. Watching our friends. Helping if we can–”

Sue smiled “Acting as guardian angels?”

“If you like,” said Victor. “I’ve never believed in angels.”

“I have,” said Tanya. “And I think perhaps our friend Quince was a fallen one.”

Victor could not help but agree. “He meets the requirements. Poor young fellow.” He looked again out the viewports at the moonscape and the stars beyond. If Quince could not be killed, where was he?

END ACT FOUR

 

 

 

 

 

 

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