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Comes… THE CHALLENGER! – Chapter 2

By the time Salieri’s Hummer deposited Lee at the door of The Olympus Springs Hotel, the signs were already going up:

Acquired by The Better Day Foundation

Now hiring – electrical, plumbing and construction workers for immediate deployment on local charitable projects

Now available – hardship respite accommodation – apply at the front desk.

“Seems like I’m not the only one wanting to reward you”, observed the Lieutenant. “The gods are smiling.”

Damn“, gasped Lee, trying his best to seem truly overawed, even though the purchase of the hotel had been all his own work. “S’enough to make ya believe in those gods – almost…”

Lee waved goodbye to Salieri, then as she pulled away, he took a deep breath, and stepped through the doors. The change from hotel to hostel-cum-office building had barely begun – there were one or two workmen around, and a freshly-crafted company logo the size of a modest dinner table was propped up against a wall, next to the reception desk, enclosed in dusty shrink-wrap; the reaching hand “window”, through which the rising sun shone over a calm blue sea… Not bad for five minutes with Photopaint, he thought, smiling inside. This is all pretty good for a couple of hour’s work last night.

Even without the changes Lee had set in motion in his suite just before he started packing, the hotel still felt so very different in the stark light of day, and it felt oddly… empty, as though the building sensed the absence of the hooded philanthropist known only as “Bert”, and missed him…

A large black man appeared from inside one of the offices behind the front desk, and came over to greet Lee. “Sorry, but you caught us kinda by surprise”, he said, adjusting the collar and cuffs of the suit jacket he had plainly just thrown on – a dark blue jacket with the Better Day logo embroidered on the pocket, which also bore a gold name-badge that read “TROY BARROWS”. “As you can see, they – ah, we’re only just starting to set up in here. I only just found out this place had been bought up when I arrived…”

…and the jacket was there, waiting for you, Lee continued, in his mind. Yeah, I know – I arranged it all.

“…so what brings you here?”, continued Troy. “Dunno how you found out so soon… hey, I know you, don’t I?”

“I was here a few days back”, said Lee. “I spoke with Bert, when the Zeta-Men showed up, and then I came back – after… what happened…”

“Yeah, that’s right”, said the big man, a light of realisation went on behind his eyes. “I remember now…”

The light then dimmed. “I gotta ask you something”, said the security guard. “Bert – what really happened to him? His name got carved into the Rocky Mountains – I’m thinkin’ you know somethin’ about that, and there’s a whole lot more to it than what you told us.”

“Probably too much”, answered Croxley, carefully choosing his words. “I’m not even sure I understand a fraction of it, but one thing’s for certain: that inscription? He earned that with his life – and that’s why I’m here; to make sure none of that was in vain.”

“Then you’re more than welcome here”, said Troy, extending a brawny hand, which Lee grasped with enthusiasm that didn’t come close to withstanding the security man’s strength. “Troy Barrows”, the powerful man then said. “Went to bed a security guard for hire, woke up… well, whatever kinda employee these guys want me to be.”

“Lee Croxley”, grunted the young man. “Looking for a place to stay, and some way to earn it.”

“Whatcha good at?”, asked Troy.

“Computers mostly”, Lee replied, patting the satchel containing his precious hyper-computer laptop. “Dunno how much good I can do just yet, with all the work they’ll need to do around here.”

“Guess they’ll be movin’ all the gear they need in soon enough”, said Troy. “There’s a few computers already set up – Bert used one a’them – an’ I guess it’d help to get some of that gear squared away so the tech guys can get at whatever they need to get at. Suppose you could start with that.”

“I’ll see what I can do”, said Croxley. “That seems t’be the ‘earning it’ part sorted – now, what about the ‘place to stay’ bit…?”

Lee glanced down at the bags by his feet, and Troy at once got the message. The big man went behind the reception desk, and grabbed a room key from the wall-rack. “Room Six-Eighteen”, he said, throwing the key to Lee. “Not exactly luxury, but we want t’keep the bigger suites for families.”

“I’ll take what I can get”, Croxley told him. “S’more than a lotta people have right now.”

Lee went up to his room – it wasn’t much different from the room he’d just left – but he stopped there only long enough to drop off his bags, then he went back down to the ground floor, laptop in hand, looking for a “plant room” containing the hotel’s computer servers. His search didn’t take long, and it didn’t take much longer, with the aid of his super-advanced laptop, to get the building’s wireless network up and running – another five minutes, and the whole hotel’s network was not only functioning, it was upgraded to previously unheard-of speeds and rendered entirely immune to outside intrusion and attack from any technology less advanced than his own.

“And now”, he whispered, “the magic can really begin…”

Lee sat down at the desk on which he had set up the laptop, leaned back in his chair, and gazed at the ceiling for a moment before giving his first command. “Computer, do you have the ability to locate all Fortain’s equipment dumps?”

“Affirmative.”

“Show me their locations.”

A rotating globe appeared on Lee’s screen, and several pulsing points of light popped into being across its surface – Canada, Norway, the Mediterranean, Siberia, the Himalayas, Egypt, an island in the Indian Ocean, Antarctica… twenty-two sites in all.

“Give me a rundown of the equipment stored at each location”, murmured Croxley, then he held his breath as page after page of information, liberally interspersed with images, flashed past his eyes. Weapons, robots, several space-craft – damaged and functional – and even “matter reconfiguration processors”; effectively great underground factories in Canada and Antarctica that siphoned waste matter from the energy “fountain” and could convert it into almost anything a man who treated the planet as a personal work of art could possibly need – or want.

The technology was astounding – similar devices were at that very moment building the world, clambering around the inside of the great crater to the west, where The Traveller had said the real Earth had its biggest ocean; the crater into which the “fountain” from beyond space deposited energy, matter – and all the incredible flotsam and jetsam Fortain had had the foresight to collect and store…

Lee leaned forward, elbows on the desk, pushing his unruly hair back out of his eyes. The Better Day Foundation was small fry – with all these resources, he really could change the world. He only had to accept the challenge…

“Oooh-kay”, sighed the awestruck young man. “No need to rush into this. Small steps, Lee – small steps…

For a while, the ceiling became the sum total of Lee’s world. Minutes, hours… none of that seemed to matter as he lost himself in every mundane detail of the suspended panels – and then Lee spoke to the computer again. “Right – now, I know there are, like, ‘shortcuts’ to some of these places – Vegas has one to that UFO hangar. What other shortcuts are there, where are they, and where do they lead to…?”

Several multicoloured “spider-webs” appeared over the surface of the globe on Lee’s screen; for a time, the young man expected the “web-threads” to completely obscure the planet’s surface. Each “base” had dozens of connections to other parts of the world, including the other bases, and despite all the artist had inflicted on the planet, Lee had to admire what Durash Fortain had accomplished – admire, and dread the Herculean task of keeping all that work, that huge collection of alien technology, out of the hands of those who were sure to abuse it…

Lee was wondering just how he much make that task more manageable – automated defences, closing down all but the most essential connections between the bases, even seeking out trustworthy assistants to keep an eye on the majority of the facilities while he focussed on a more “hands-on” approach – when there was a cautious knock at the door; the kind of knock one might expect from a naughty child who had come seeking forgiveness. “Go to cover-up mode”, Croxley told the computer, and the laptop slipped on its disguise in an instant, appearing to the unenlightened observer to be just one every-day computer amongst so many. Satisfied that he’d covered his tracks more than adequately, Lee asked his visitor to come in.

An anxious young face, younger than Lee, peered around the door. “Hey”, murmured Candice Harper, one of the residents of The Olympus Springs Hotel who had unexpectedly found herself caught up in the last days of the rule of Fortain and the “bio-probes” more and more were calling “Zeta-Men”. “Troy said you were back.”

“Couldn’t stay away”, Lee said, trying to sound reassuring. “Looks like there’s a heck of a lot of work to do around here.”

“I just got up”, said Candice, “and the whole place is goin’ crazy. What’s all this ‘Better Day’ stuff about?”

“A charity’s taking over here”, he explained, and panic quickly overflowed from Candice’s eyes. “Don’t worry – you’re all getting stay. The Foundation just needs a couple of floors of office space; the rest is for anyone who needs it.”

“That’s a relief”, sighed the girl. “I… I guess Bert would’ve liked it that way.”

“You knew him better than me”, said Lee, “but from what I knew of the man, I wouldn’t disagree.”

Lee wondered whether Candice could be one of those people he could someday trust with Fortain’s secrets, but he quickly decided that it was far too early in the whole business, and far too early in the girl’s life, for that. Instead, he tried to convince Candice that The Better Day Foundation “sounded like something worth getting in on the ground floor of” – “Now that’s something Bert would’ve wanted”, he added – and, inspired, the young woman hurried away to find out more.

Left in peace, Lee sat deep in thought, carefully considering his next move – the first move. Fully understanding the scope of what he intended to achieve seemed the most logical step; he need to see what he was taking on, and perhaps draw some inspiration form what he saw…

Before that, and before it got “snowed under” by the task ahead, there was the matter of “looking the part” – appearing to the rest of the world to be nothing out of the ordinary. Everything had to be right – a water-tight chain of official paperwork, all signed and filed – and to ensure that, “someone in authority” had to arrange for Human Resources to pay a certain Mister Lee Croxley a visit. Within the hour, a woman in a business suit, carrying a laptop and wearing a gold badge that read “Claire Baines – Human Resources” came calling, just as Lee had instructed the “smart” program he had set up to handle Foundation business, and after a brief interview – the first Lee had ever attended – the blonde woman smiled, shook his hand, and presented him with a combination ID badge and security pass, a company credit card already loaded with a more than modest expenses allowance, and a “state of the market” smart-phone.

“We’ll have a uniform sent out to you”, she said finally, “but you’re not ‘front-desk’ staff, so you’ll only need to wear it for publicity purposes – we don’t want to see you on TV without the Foundation’s colours on, you see…”

“Anything to help out”, Lee assured her. “I’m glad to have the chance to do my bit.”

“There’s a lot of people needing our help”, she told him. “That’s the least any of us can do.”

Note to self: introduce “team” t-shirts for support staff, acceptable as formal uniform, Lee thought as Ms Baines left him to his work, and went to bother someone else with formalities. The way things were shaping up, there was a very definite chance his routine wouldn’t exactly leave him much time to swap clothes every time a camera crew came round.

It was an effortless procedure to “upgrade” his new phone to a level comparable to his hyper-computer laptop, far outstripping the phone’s design specifications, and in mere minutes, Lee had a “baby computer” capable of remaining connected to its “mother” anywhere in the world, and able to access the laptop’s greater processing power at a moment’s notice. “Maintain constant watch for any attempts at outside surveillance”, he told the phone. “If any monitoring of my activities is detected, call me, using the ‘Ironside’ theme as a ring-tone…”

The last thing Lee needed was the military snooping on him, but the last thing he wanted was to make them suspicious by evading their every attempt to watch or follow him. He was going to need to be elusive a lot of the time, from now on, but not entirely invisible…

…and talking of the military, there’s that little matter of a flying saucer in a hangar somewhere, he thought as he pocketed the phone, and got ready to go out for “some fresh air”. If anyone asked him, he was out looking for some piece of equipment or other, but in truth, he was heading for the nearest “shortcut”, and the start of the biggest adventure anyone could imagine…

…o O o…

A secret hangar, concealed within the Dinaric Alps…

“Invisibility… invisibility…”

Before the awful truth of the world had been laid out before him, Lee had borne a very personal, single-minded grudge, stemming from a single teenage indiscretion. Like millions of young people before, and since, he’d experimented with drugs, and like them managed to fall foul of the law, all in one night, but whilst the hardened, experienced users and dealers evaded punishment, the police, frustrated by such a poor catch for all their hard work, had decided to “make a statement” – meaning make an example of the unfortunate Mr Croxley. Their tactics didn’t help them in court, and Lee got off with a minor penalty, but it still left him deeply resentful of the police, and he even began an online campaign to unearth “irregularities” in their activities, through the website he set up: “Eye On The Pigsty”…

Lee thought – and hoped – he’d grown out of such things, now that he had a true purpose to his life, but as he’d made his way through the streets of a semi-deserted Las Vegas, events had transpired to instill a new brand of resentment. Resentment towards the seemingly ever-present military was starting to grow, fuelled by the three separate occasions he’d been stopped in the street by armed members of the National Guard, the three times his newly-minted Better Day Foundation credentials had been brought into question – the three times he’d had to call the office and get Ms Baines to confirm that, yes, he was a legitimate, paid employee.

His first day in his first ever proper job wasn’t going at all well – if he wasn’t technically employing himself, the odds would have been pretty good that his first day would probably be the last. At least I stand a good chance of finishing the day alive, he thought as he looked around the hidden hangar, half the world away, that had housed the “flying saucer” he and Bert had flown to Greenland to spring Durash Fortain from imprisonment at the hands of the Zeta-Men, and which was now in the hands of the Air Force at Nellis. Now, does this place have any invisibility devices…?

Despite the best efforts of a well-meaning military, Lee had eventually found his way to the phone–booth that contained a “shortcut” to the cavern in Northern Albania, but that relatively small base wasn’t quite the overflowing warehouse Lee had envisioned. It was, to all intents and purposes, merely a place to house several aircraft, and apart from the now-absent saucer, there were now only a huge suit of armour – a hollowed-out robot designed to carry a single person into battle – and a couple of what Lee could only describe as wheelless motorcycles. They were listed in the inventory database as Airborne Rapid Personal Transports – employing a little imagination, Lee found he could rework the name into something vaguely cool: “RAPTors” – and in the description of their installed equipment, the young man found something close to what he was seeking…

…full-spectrum detection evasion suite: visual, audio, electromagnetic…

“A hypersonic stealth flying motorcycle…”, murmured Lee, swinging a leg over one of the slightly dusty machines. “I think we can now quite safely redefine cool.”

It took Lee a good hour to read up on how to fly a RAPTor, and build up the confidence to actually fire up the anti-gravity unit, causing the sleek machine to rise a couple of inches off the ground, and after another half hour, he felt ready to actually try and fly the craft, gingerly steering the machine around the hangar in cautious circles…

“You’re not gonna save the world tip-toeing around like this”, Lee told himself, out loud. “Let’s go…!

Stowing his smart-phone away in an inside pocket, Lee zipped up his jacket and climbed aboard his RAPTor once again. Lifting off the ground again, he swung the machine round, toward where he remembered the opening to the outside world had been. All you had to do was steer directly towards it, and the stone wall would become like air, and you could pass through without a worry…

It was still almost too scary to launch oneself at a solid wall, trusting one’s life to alien technology. Last time, he’d been inside a flying saucer, not perched on a machine that could, very easily, have a quite fatal accident, smashing both of them to flesh-and-metal scrap against the rock-face. There was, however, no bloody impact – just a curious, and somewhat alarming experience of flowing through a solid wall, and being simultaneously flowed through by that very wall…

…but the sensation, and its attendant emotions, were short-lived. Moments later, Lee and his ultra-high technology steed were falling, plummeting down a mountain-side, and breathless wonder was unseated by a surge of sheer terror – but somewhere in the panic, a small island of Lee Croxley managed to remain completely unflustered. Anti-gravity to flight configuration it told the rest of his mind, and his hands responded, twisting the craft’s “anti-gravity throttle”, and causing the machine to leap into the sky. Set auto-path to Facility Sixteen – Egypt, maximum speed…

“Auto-path… Facility Sixteen…!”, Lee shouted into the Bluetooth “headset” plugged into his ear. Lee’s phone connected with the RAPTor’s onboard computer, and the machine received all the data it needed to set a course for the Egyptian desert. When it asked for additional flight parameters, Lee responded with instructions for the best possible balance between stealth and speed – and the machine wheeled round, and almost immediately went supersonic.

If Lee had been scared previously, hurtling down past a jagged mountain-side, the first ten of the next twenty two minutes caused that fear to pale into insignificance. The Albanian countryside sped past like a horizontal waterfall of pastoral and earthy hues, hills, fields and buildings blending into each other before Lee’s mind could properly determine which was which, and before he could get used to that, it vanished as he crossed the coast, and shot out across the smooth blue of the Mediterranean Sea, darkening as the sun began to set…

“And… and I don’t even have a helmet”, the young man spluttered to himself, something of his confidence returning as the chaos around him subsided. “I need some kinda protection – query: what kind of personal protective equipment is there at Facility Sixteen?”

The curved view-screen situated between the “handlebars” and flowing down onto the “petrol tank” that served as the RAPTor’s combined data display and control panel started to flash up a variety of items, many of them ungainly “robot-suits” like the one at the hangar, and some clearly not designed for anything approaching a human body, but something in that gallery caught his eye – a fairly simple body-suit, made of some material coloured and textured to look like metallic blue scales, complete with a one-piece helmet that completely covered and obscured the entire face…

“Give more details”, he ordered the combined computers. “Gimme information on everything that suit can do…”

Personal Defence And Enhancement Package…
Impact, thermal, radiation and energy protection…
Enhanced strength and agility…
Multi-directional force field projection matrix, providing limited flight and telekinetic capabilities…
Light and energy deflection concealment matrix…
Enhanced sensory interface – gloves and helmet…
Direct audio and eye-line computer interface – helmet…
Touch-active computer interface – gloves…
Eyes-forward enhanced reality display – helmet…

“Damn, I just won the lottery”, gasped Croxley. “All my Christmases at once, in a shiny blue gift package…”

Fear met its match in the form of near child-like excitement. There was nothing to do but surrender to Croxley’s glee, as all his dreams come true awaited him, just over the Mediterranean horizon. This, he told himself, over and over, was going to be fun.

…to be continued…

CHAL101-02

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