The Pretender – Act One

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Pencils by Steven H. Wilson, Inks by Ethan H. Wilson

Shout-out to Paul Balze for–as always–speedy and thorough proofreading!

ACT ONE

 In Medical Centre, Koenig and Bergman looked up as Helena Russell entered from the isolation ward. She’d insisted the boy be kept separate from other patients, due to his unknown origins.

“He’s alive,” said Helena, scratching her head. “But in a coma.”

“I swear he was dead, Helena,” said Koenig. “There was no pulse.”

“Electric shock can stop the heart,” said Victor, who knew too well the limits of a heart’s endurance.

“True,” said Helena, “but this wasn’t electricity.”

“It looked like a bolt of lightning,” said Koenig.

“It was… something else. I’m not sure what. I suppose it could have momentarily stopped the heart–”

“Is he human?” asked Koenig. “I mean, an Earth human?”

Helena shrugged. “He’s as human as you or I. What his planet of origin is, I can’t say. And he likely never will.”

“You mean he’s not going to wake up?” said Koenig.

“There’s cellular disruption, permanent brain damage. If he were to wake up, his motor skills would be impaired, there would be significant memory loss. The best functional level I’d hope for would be that of an infant.”

“You mean he’d be better off dead,” finished Koenig.

Helena looked sad. “It’s against my training to ever say that, but–”

From the open door of the doctors’ office, Bob Mathias’s voice called out, “Dr. Russell, you need to come quickly!”

Helena spun and headed back into the isolation ward, enforced, professional calm a mask on her face. She did not object when Koenig and Bergman followed her. It wasn’t, Koenig reflected, as though neither of them had ever seen death. Koenig felt a brief pang at the thought of a life ended so early in its course.

His sorrow turned to shock, however, when Helena stopped in her tracks, and his gaze followed to the sight that had given her pause. The boy was sitting up in bed, gazing around curiously, and picking at the adhesive tabs that held medical sensors to his skin. He looked at his three visitors and smiled in greeting.

* * *

“What is your name?” asked Koenig.

The boy reclined, arms folded, on the same bed in which he’d only too recently lain comatose. Helena had demanded privacy and time for at least a cursory examination. Soon enough, she’d declared him in perfect health. There was no evidence of brain damage, no tissue degeneration from radiation, no signs of shock, not even a strained muscle or bruise from his fall. Indeed, his cells seemed capable of repairing themselves at a rapid rate. There were also signs of enhanced brain function, beyond what a normal human brain was capable of generating.

To Koenig’s question, the boy looked baffled. “I don’t need a name. I know who I am.”

“What do others call you, when they want your attention?” asked Helena.

The boy regarded her patiently, but used the tone one might use with a congenital idiot. “When another wants my attention, he knows to whom he is speaking. There is never any confusion.”

“But what if–?” Helena began.

The boy interrupted her, holding up his hands in front of him and studying them as though he’d never seen their like. “Your forms are limiting. Confusing. No wonder you don’t know who you are. That must be why you need names.”

The implications of the comment intrigued him, but Koenig was not going to be distracted. Whoever this boy was, he represented a threat to Alpha on multiple levels. They needed to control the questions and answers. “How did you get here?”

“I stepped here,” the boy said simply.

“You materialized,” prompted Victor, “as if from thin air.”

“Yes,” the boy repeated, “I stepped here. One moment I was somewhere else, and then I was with you.”

“But the mechanism of these… steps… is something we don’t understand,” said Victor. “How do you do it?”

“I don’t know. I don’t care how it works, only that it does.”

“You could step from this room, right now?” asked Koenig.

As if in answer, the boy pulled back the sheet covering his legs and swung to a standing position.

“Wait,” said Helena, “what are you doing? I’m not sure you’re ready to–”

“You’re not sure I’m ready for the strenuous exercise of standing?” laughed the boy. “You said yourself, Dr. Russell, that I’m in perfect health.” He stopped and tilted his head in realization. “‘Doctor Russell.’ That is a name, isn’t it?”

“It’s my name,” said Helena.

“Did I use it correctly?”

She smiled, baffled. “Yes.”

“Good. I heard the other man call you that. And that’s really what you have to do, to get each other’s attention? Use these… names?”

“That’s really what we have to do,” said Helena.

“Extraordinary,” said the boy.

“What do your people do, when they want to speak to each other?” asked Victor.

“One thing at a time,” said the boy. “This one–” he nodded at Koenig expectantly.

“My name is Commander Koenig.”

“Commander Koenig asked if I can step from this room.”

The boy disappeared. Before Koenig could even think what to make of this development, he reappeared behind them.

“I can,” he said.

* * *

“It seems that the boy is able to travel between dimensions,” said Victor. The three of them were gathered in Helena’s private office, the boy having been left under the watchful eye of Bob Mathias.

“It’s theoretically possible,” said Koenig, “But it’s never been demonstrated.”

“Perhaps it has, John. We passed ‘through’ a black sun, something our own physics can’t explain. We traveled to an alternate future where Alphans re-colonized a dead earth. Perhaps those were extra-dimensional journeys.”

“But they were journeys made blindly,” said Helena. “If this boy can do what you propose–”

“He could appear anywhere, at anytime, with no warning,” finished Victor.

“And that’s not the only thing that disturbs me,” said Koenig. “If he possesses this power to travel between dimensions, between alternate realities beyond space as we understand it, then he represents a species with a power that’s beyond anything we’re prepared to cope with.”

“But does his power represent technological achievement,” asked Victor, “or a natural ability?”

“I’d like to find that out,” agreed Koenig, “but there’s more. He made reference to the limits of our forms, of our language. ”

“It’s as if he’s not actually human,” said Helena, “but some other kind of life that’s assumed our form.”

“Exactly,” said Koenig. “And if he has all those capabilities–inter-dimensional travel, fantastic powers of healing, metamorphosis–then, if he turns against us, he could be the greatest danger we’ve ever faced.”

“Or he could be what he appears to be, John,” said Victor. “A boy who needs help.”

“Our help against voices that appear from nowhere and blast him with energy weapons we can’t explain? No, Victor, call me paranoid if you like–”

“You have to weigh the risks, John, I understand that. But let’s look at our potential advantages. In human form, he was struck down, possibly even dead for a time.”

“And he recovered in minutes,” said Helena.

“Nonetheless,” said Victor, “he’s not invulnerable, nor unstoppable. In human form, he might be controlled. It might give us time to determine if we can help him–and if he might help us.”

***

“Aren’t you supposed to be confined to Medical?” asked Paul Morrow.

The boy had just entered Main Mission and was strolling amongst the workstations, observing.

“No one confined me. They left to talk about me, to try to decide what I am.”

Quietly, Paul keyed the alert for Security to report. They would be here in minutes. Meantime, this boy didn’t look like anything he couldn’t handle.

The boy was looking at him. “Who are you?”

“My name is Morrow. I’m the mission controller.”

“Is that an important job?”

“All our jobs are important.”

The boy gestured at another station. “Who is she?”

“That’s Tanya Alexander,” said Paul calmly. “She’s my centre administrator. She assists me and can work any position in Main Mission.”

“Did you see me die?” the boy asked Tanya.

Tanya pulled one of those patented, enigmatic smiles she did so well. If her youth hadn’t made it impossible, Paul would have sworn she’d studied feminine wiles under Greta Garbo. “I saw you hit by some sort of lightning,” she said. “That would stop anyone’s heart.”

“So you’re not afraid of me?”

“None of us are afraid of you,” said Paul.

“Good. Because I’m here to help you.”

“Help us in what way?” asked Tanya.

“What’s important to you?” asked the boy. “What do you need that you don’t have?”

Morrow considered this odd boy, wondered whether he were seriously interested in Alpha’s plight, or just playing games. Still, he answered honestly, “A new world.”

“What’s wrong with this world? I like it here.”

“It’s not really a world. It’s a piece of debris we cling to to survive. We–lost our home world. We’re not made to live in such a confining environment.”

He saw Tanya smiling and giving a gentle eye roll. She’d heard all this before on long nighttime shifts. Once, long ago, Paul had been a rabid outdoorsman. His tour of duty on Alpha was meant to be brief, just long enough to get a probe launched. He hated being indoors all the time.

“Hmm,” said the boy. “Should I remake this world? Or you?”

“What?” asked Tanya.

Ignoring her, the boy asked Paul, “What is it that this world lacks?”

“Resources, immediately.”

“Resources?”

“Nuclear fuel. Sooner or later we’re going to run out. Rare elements for our life support system, so that we can continue recycling oxygen and water.”

The boy stroked his chin, mirroring Paul’s own gesture. “Nuclear power? I’ll have to study it. It’s what powers stars, right?”

“A form of it,” said Paul, amused.

“You’re surprisingly uneducated,” said Tanya, “for someone who can travel through space at will.”

“I’m not interested in details,” said the boy dismissively. He walked to Tanya, sat, and looked over her shoulder. “What does all this tell you?” he asked.

“It shows us all the base’s automated systems. How much power they’re consuming, if there are any errors or warnings.”

Paul held up a hand. “Let’s not say too much, Tanya.” At the boy’s questioning gaze, he added, “Nothing personal, you understand. It’s just that you’re not cleared to know some of the things we do here.”

“Not cleared.” The boy seemed to roll the words around on his tongue. “You’re keeping secrets, so that I don’t find your weaknesses.”

“That’s right,” said Paul.

The boy gestured at Tanya’s workspace, and then at the big screen. “But the weaknesses are all too apparent. The slightest failure in one of your systems–recycling, temperature, electrical power–could kill all of you in an instant.”

Paul nodded. That was too true.

“I need to study all of this,” the boy said with determination. “This has got to be corrected immediately.” He glanced at the big screen, and images began to race across it. Side screens also lit up with data in a mad, dizzying flood of information.

“What are you doing?” Paul demanded.

“I need to know everything about you so I can help. Your secrecy doesn’t matter.”

Tanya’s eyes flew over the readouts in front of her. “He’s driving Computer to feed data at an unprecedented speed. The power drain is staggering. I’m not sure the processors can handle the sustained load.”

“Stop,” said Paul, taking the boy’s arm.

“Just another few moments.”

“Stop now,” Paul insisted. He seized the boy’s shoulders and spun him so that they were facing each other. “You’re endangering us.”

The boy coughed out a sarcastic laugh. “You just don’t understand, I’m trying to help you.”

From the front entrance, two purple-sleeved figures strode in, stun guns drawn. “Some trouble, Mr. Morrow?”

“Yes, Verdeschi. This intruder–”

“I’m not an intruder, I’m your friend!”

Seeing the boy, Verdeschi frowned in recognition. “You again. You’re just popping up everywhere, aren’t you?” He came forward to press his gun against the boy’s spine. “Stop what you’re doing, or–”

“Did you say that I’m using too much power?” asked the boy suddenly.

“And endangering our computer’s hardware,” said Paul.

“The problem is power,” said the boy to himself, then, almost absently to Verdeschi, “Get that thing out of my back, it hurts.”

The security officer wrapped an arm around the boy’s throat, placing him in a hold. “I can be a lot less gentle if you don’t start cooperating.”

“Oh, this is silly,” said the boy. Then, thinking out loud, he muttered, “The first problem is power,” and vanished.

Verdeschi stumbled as he was suddenly applying leverage to a captive who wasn’t there. “What the hell?” he demanded.

“Go,” said Morrow. “Start with the generating area.” He turned away as Verdeschi and his cohort broke into a run. “Tanya, raise the Commander.”

* * *

Koenig rounded a corner and found Tony Verdeschi, a security officer he’d recently promoted to a supervisory role, standing outside the generating area entrance. He and his fellow guard had their weapons drawn.

“Is he inside?” Koenig asked.

Verdeschi nodded. “He’s ‘observing operations.’ I was holding off, waiting for reinforcements. As if they’ll do any good.”

“Where has he been?”

Verdeschi looked sour. “Everywhere. There aren’t many areas of the base he hasn’t visited and disrupted. A few minutes after you left Medical, he just popped out–”

“And started popping in elsewhere?” finished Koenig.

“He’s monkeying with equipment, entering secured areas, frightening personnel–the kid’s an interstellar juvenile delinquent.”

Helena and Victor caught up, she having stayed with the elder scientist to force him to walk slowly.

Victor, catching this last, said, “I’m not sure that’s an accurate description, Mr. Verdeschi. We think the boy is not actually human, that he’s taken our form. If that’s true, it’s natural that he’d be curious about us, as any child is curious about his new environment.”

Helena smiled, seemingly unable to stop herself. “For someone who’s never been a father, Victor, you have quite an affinity for children.”

Victor waved her off. “Simple psychology, Helena. A young mind in an unfamiliar place is programmed to learn. He wants to know how we live, what our technology is–”

“What our offensive capabilities are, where the weaknesses in our defense systems are,” added Verdeschi.

Bergman’s simple nod of concession was so gentle, so free of recrimination, that it seemed to immediately disarm the young Italian. He eased his expression. “I didn’t mean any disrespect, Professor. It’s just my job.”

“So it is,” said Victor. “And they’re points well-taken.” He looked to Koenig. “John, we should take care how much the boy sees.”

Koenig grimaced. “If it’s possible to control anything at all with someone that powerful. Never mind the reinforcements, Tony. Let’s go in. Our best chance is to reason with him, but–”

“I’ve got your back, Commander,” said Verdeschi.

* * *

Joan Conway, administrator of the base’s nuclear power plant, greeted them nervously when they entered. “He’s been in here for half an hour, Commander,” she told Koenig. “I’ve tried to get him out, but–”

She pointed to the banks of monitoring systems for the massive power plants, where the boy stood in the sort of parade-rest position that Victor Bergman often assumed when thoughtful, arms behind him, watching all that occurred. “He’s just standing there. But it’s as if he’s…absorbing knowledge.”

“If he’s vulnerable in this form,” said Tony Verdeschi, “I recommend we take him down now. Render him helpless, at least.”

“That could simply provoke him, John,” said Victor.

Koenig was thoughtful for a moment, then strode forward to within a few feet of the boy. “You’re in a restricted area.”

The boy looked at him and nodded. “That’s what she told me.” He jerked his chin at Conway. “But it seemed silly to me. I’m not going to harm anything.”

“You’ve already harmed things,” said Koenig, “by upsetting my people and tampering with our systems. If you’re going to be among us, you’ve got to follow our rules.”

“But I want to help you,” said the boy. “That’s why I’m learning as much as I can about you.” He looked Koenig in the eye and said firmly, “I can make your world better, make your ships travel farther, or even power your moon, give you control of it. That’s worth a lot more than obeying your silly rules.”

Helena came up behind Koenig. He wished she wouldn’t, but arguing in front of the boy was not something he wanted to do. Koenig kept his peace while she asked, “Why? Why would you do those things for us?”

The boy answered without thought. “It’s what we do.”

Koenig noted that he didn’t bother to explain to whom he referred by saying “we.”

Returning his gaze to the monitors, their young interloper said dismissively, “Please leave me alone to study and decide what’s best for you.”

Behind him, Koenig heard two aggressive steps, and, before he could object, Tony Verdeschi had raised and fired his stun gun at the boy, declaring, “You’re not studying anyone.”

Koenig’s cry of reproach was lost in a burst of sizzling static as the beam struck short of its target, diffusing in a semi-spherical pattern a few feet from the boy’s body. After a split-second’s hesitation, the energy coalesced and reformed as a beam again, this time striking back at its source.

Helena called out Tony’s name as the blast caught him square in the chest, and Victor rushed to catch the security guard as he collapsed, unconscious.

A smug laugh came from the other side of the now-fading sphere of light that had protected Tony’s intended victim. “That wasn’t a very good idea.”

John Koenig was not a violent man, especially with children. He had always found limitless patience for young people, and imagined, as a father, he would never find the need to employ physical punishment. At this moment, though, he felt an overwhelming urge to slap the grin off the face of this cocky man-child who had invaded his base.

But John Koenig was apparently not the ultimate authority figure in this particular scene. Again, as it had in Main Mission an hour ago, the thunderous voice rang out in his ears, in his head, in his very bones.

“Enough!”

The boy’s face went white as all arrogance and confidence drained away. Whoever owned the stentorian voice, he was terrified of it.

“You cannot escape the consequences of your crimes any longer,” said the voice.

The glowing sphere appeared again around the boy, intensifying to a blinding glare, radiating light and heat in all directions.

“He’s trying to defend himself,” whispered Victor at Koenig’s ear.

“Against what?” wondered Koenig.

Whatever the attack was, it was successful. The light of the sphere faded, and, when it was gone, so was the boy.

“What the hell just happened?” asked Koenig out loud.

His commlock bleeped. When he activated it, he saw Tanya Alexander, her face written in fear. “Commander, come at once. They are in Main Mission.”

No one needed to ask who “they” were.

* * *

The first thing Koenig noted when they entered Main Mission was that someone was sitting in his chair. It was the boy again, in Alphan uniform–Koenig’s uniform, the black-sleeved regalia of command.

“What do you think you’re doing?” snapped Koenig.

“Merely working my post, Commander,” said the boy.

To his right, previously unseen, was a new figure. He was tall, imposing, a veritable giant of a man with flowing, black hair tied at the nape of his neck and a neat, bearded face. He wore a simple, black, jumpsuit that clung and flowed as he moved, as though it were made of living darkness, rather than fabric.

“You are the senior here?” he asked. The voice was just a human voice from a human body. It did not resonate in Koenig’s bones, but it was clearly the voice he’d heard minutes ago in the generating area, the bodiless voice of authority.

“I am,” said Koenig.

“Then I have come to speak to you. Do not waste my time bickering with your people.” He glared at the boy seated at Koenig’s desk.

Koenig realized that, for some reason, this new arrival believed the boy was just another Alphan. The boy’s eyes pleaded silently with Koenig not to reveal anything about him.

“What is it you want?” asked Koenig carefully.

“There has been a visitor among you, a stranger.” Quickly he added, “Do not deny it. I deal harshly with dishonesty.”

“I won’t deny it,” said Koenig. “We’ve had a visitor. I take it he’s one of your people.”

The commanding figure nodded, stepped forward, leaned in to Koenig. He had several inches’ height advantage over Alpha’s commander. “Where is he?”

Koenig was surprised, but managed to look neither right nor left, lest he give away too much. He wasn’t necessarily interested in protecting the boy, but he wanted to learn all that he could before he revealed anything. “Don’t you know?” Koenig asked.

“I know that he escaped. I tried to reclaim him just now, but he stepped away.”

“Then perhaps he’s gone,” said Koenig.

The man shook his massive head. “No. I can sense him. He is here.” He looked around him, surveying the faces of the Main Mission staff. “He has taken the form of one of your people. He may be within this very chamber. I would not know it.”

“Why not?” asked Helena. “If you can feel his presence–”

“My people are not beings of matter. We are pure, creative thought. We do not know the particulars of primitive physical form.” He spread his arms. “What you see before you is merely a reflection, an illusion cast for your convenience so that we may communicate. I will not expose myself to harm by becoming fully one of you, as the pretender has.”

“The pretender?” asked Koenig.

“A perverse creature. It derives pleasure from becoming physically incarnate. In any of these forms, it could die forever, its energies are so bound up in physical manifestation. Consequently, its energy signature is so obscured that I cannot distinguish between it and any one of your number.”

Alan Carter smirked. “We all look alike to you?”

The big man regarded the pilot with disdain. “That is what I said. But you,” he looked back at Koenig, “can recognize him. You know the stranger among you. Find him. Give him to me, and I will leave you in peace.”

“And what will you do with him?” asked Victor.

“Which are you?”

“I am Bergman.”

“I don’t care about the meaningless symbols you use to refer to each other. Why are you speaking? Why does any other than the senior speak?”

Koenig said, “These are all my advisors. They speak because I want them to. And I want an answer to Victor’s–to Bergman’s question. What will you do with the boy if we give him to you?”

“I will end his existence.”

“You’ll kill him?” said Helena.

The stranger did not seem at all perturbed by this paraphrasing of his words. “I believe that is your term for it, yes.”

Koenig chanced a look at the boy seated in his chair. There was fear in his eyes. He had already died once, and come back. Reading his face, Koenig knew that the dark man’s threat was real. The decision he had to make was life and death for the alien in the boy’s body.

“Look,” said Koenig, training his eyes upward on the taller man’s. “We don’t know anything about your people or your laws–”

“You are too primitive to begin to understand.”

“–But you can’t expect us to hand over a child to be killed.”

The dark man raised an eyebrow. “A child? You do not understand, Bergman–”

“I’m Koenig.”

“Koenig, then. It doesn’t matter, you’re all alike. I take it the pretender has told you of his relative youth, but he is not a child. He is older than any of you. You don’t understand what he can do. He will reshape your entire reality. Your past will be gone, your future radically altered. At his last port of call, he wiped a million souls from existence.”

A shaky voice to the side said, “He killed?” It was Sandra Benes, a look of astonishment coming to her face. Koenig hoped she wouldn’t betray the boy’s secret. They might very well hand him over to his own people’s justice, but they needed time to deliberate.

“He did worse than kill. He made it so his victims never lived at all.”

“You’ll have to let us discuss it,” said Koenig. He looked to Victor and Helena as he said it. He did not vet all his decisions with them, but here he felt on shaky ground.

The dark man sighed heavily and muttered, “Primitives.” He crossed his arms and gazed at Koenig. “I shall indulge you. How do you reckon time?” Before Koenig could answer, he said impatiently, “Not you, you’re useless. I’m asking a real intellect.”

Behind Koenig, a cold female voice said, “Absolute reckoning of human time increments may be determined by isolating the length of 30,000 processing cycles in my core processor. That is one second. Additional data being relayed.”

Koenig looked to Kano, still seated at his station. Computer never spoke unless directly authorized to do so.

Kano looked mortified. He said to the console before him, “Who asked you?”

Computer answered quickly and as conversationally as its stilted tones allowed, “My guest.”

The godlike being in front of Koenig almost smiled. “It is the most rational of you,” he said, nodding at Kano’s console. “You should respect it.” The man’s dark form began to glow subtly, and he dropped his arms to his side, drawing up to full height. “I shall return in one hour. You will surrender the ‘child,’ as you call him to me, or I shall erase you.”

“Erase us?” echoed Bergman.

The question seemed to annoy the being. He glared daggers at Victor. “Do not doubt my power.” Koenig, thinking his friend was in mortal danger, prepared to throw himself in the way of the blast that was surely coming. Alpha could find another commander, but without Bergman, she’d be lost. He was Alpha’s father figure, her heart.

But the dark man looked away, gazing at the big screen, which displayed a view of the stars ahead of them. Casually, he waved his hand.

The stars changed.

Alan Carter was the first to react. “Oh my God. The stars!”

Sandra Benes was at work immediately. Around her, the Main Mission team mobilized. “Our position in space has changed,” said Sandra.

“Where are we?” asked Koenig.

The diminutive analyst’s brow furrowed and she shook her head in frustration as she reviewed star charts. “No way of knowing. I can match not even a single star.”

“We may not even be in the same galaxy,” speculated Victor.

There were times Koenig wished Victor would keep his genius to himself.

“You are not in the same galaxy,” said their visitor. He looked meaningfully at Koenig. “That was the slightest fraction of my power. Surrender the fugitive, or your history ends today.”

END ACT ONE

 

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