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Comes… THE CHALLENGER! – Chapter 3

Six days later.

“…after another night of spectacular ‘fireworks’, public concerns continue to increase – just what do these displays mean? It has been suggested that this is an overture to a renewed attack by the mysterious ‘Zeta-Men’ who plagued the whole planet earlier this month, and caused world-wide upheaval both during their reign of silent terror, and in the days following their sudden disappearance, which left the remaining two billion of Earth’s population struggling to come to terms with a drastically changed world…”

Lee watched the news reports with a mixture of amusement, and anxiety. This was what he had been preparing for – an incident that required the intervention of someone in command of technology and powers – and mankind’s seemingly in-bred aversion for the sky, the result of generations of Durash Fortain’s psychological engineering which he put in place to stop them questioning their existence, had blinded them to the ever-advancing menace from the stars. Only one person on the whole planet had any chance of stopping the devastation threatened by several thousand tons of rock hurtling towards the Earth, drawn onto a collision course by the energy fountain…

There it was, plain as anything – as direct a challenge as there could ever be. Lee had to make his choice, make the right choice, or millions of people, perhaps all of them, were going to die.

It wasn’t a hard choice to make.

…o O o…

Nellis Air Force Base, outside of Las Vegas…

Captain Brenner brought his own personal storm-cloud in with him as he marched into the control room of the secured hangar code-named “Bird-Cage”, and he was desperate to rain on someone for daring to disturb him. “This better be good, Lieutenant”, he growled at Salieri. “The kind of ‘good’ that it’s worth interrupting a conference call with two generals for…”

Salieri saluted, and gave her rather hesitant report. “Sir, we have a problem with the, ah, special aircraft.”

“What sort of ‘problem’?”, muttered Brenner.

“It’s best that you see for yourself”, said the Lieutenant, directing the Captain up to an observation balcony.

Brenner was in the midst of concocting a particularly barbed “tear-down” for Lieutenant Salieri when he stepped onto the balcony overlooking the main hangar area, but he quickly realised that the Lieutenant had been quite right to interrupt. Something that could quite easily be described as a “problem” was indeed taking place below – the mysterious craft that had played a vital part in saving the world, or so Lee Croxley’s interrogation had revealed, appeared to be waking up. Lights were gently pulsing underneath its circular hull, and every now and then, it would start to rise, only to float back down again as it felt the resistance of the tethers fastened around it.

“How long?”, asked the Captain.

“Minutes”, replied Salieri. “We called you as soon as it started.”

“Did anyone touch it, or make any kind of contact?”, enquired Brenner. He wasn’t exactly an expert on radical aircraft and their design, but the disk-like craft was “his baby”, and he was damned if he was going to sound like an idiot in the presence of the lower ranks.

“No sir”, replied the Lieutenant. “We’ve kept clear since it was locked down, and we’ve been maintaining complete electromagnetic silence in its vicinity. It just started up all on its own.”

“Any sign it’s going to try and break out?”

“Not so far, sir”, answered Salieri. “It just rises until it pulls the tethers taut, then it drops again. A minute or so later, it does it all over again. It… it just seems to be, well, fidgeting…”

“Salieri, it’s a machine“, muttered Brenner.

“So were those ‘Zeta-Men’, if Croxley’s to be believed”, the Lieutenant reminded him. “Organic machines. And we only knew the truth when they ‘woke up’.”

“And this thing might be ‘waking up’, too?”

Salieri shrugged. “As good a guess as any, sir.”

Brenner sighed, and leaned on the balcony railing. His orders had been quite explicit – maintain watch over the craft, gain access to its interior if at all possible… but if it appeared to be likely to pose a threat to the base, the city or the United States as a whole, he was to do all that was necessary to shut the machine down – even if that meant damaging or destroying it.

“Get ready to clear the area”, he instructed the Lieutenant. “Instruct the bomb disposal team to prepare their robot with the ‘surprise package’.”

The robot was the typical clunky device, cameras and articulated arms on a tracked base, but the “surprise package” was something altogether more exceptional. Rarely spoken of, its existence hardly ever acknowledged, the “package” was a small hydrogen “fusion” bomb, powerful enough to wipe out a small city – or an Air Force base – and Brenner hoped beyond all hope that they would not have detonate the weapon. Perhaps it would be better to let the vessel take off, and depart without hindrance, and hope it had not decided on some kind of cold, mechanical campaign of revenge against the world that had imprisoned it…

No-one was even remotely prepared for what happened next…

there was a knock at the hangar’s external doors.

The whole hangar froze – even the disk-craft seemed to pause in its “fidgeting”. There was another knock – four sharp raps that echoed around the interior of the structure – then, after several seconds, the hangar doors started to open.

“Seal those doors!”, ordered Brenner. “Security, front and centre…!”

A technician shouted up from the hangar floor. “We have no control over the door mechanism! Someone or something else is operating them!”

Members of the Air Force Infantry, fully decked out in desert camouflage, and sporting helmets, body-armour and automatic weapons, spilled out into the hangar, forming a semi-circle around the slowly opening hangar doors. Torches mounted under the muzzles of their weapons cast beams into the darkness of night outside, and something gleamed in that light; something polished, blue and metallic

Light from the hangar interior flooded out into the night, and in that light stood an incredible figure. It appeared to be a man, clad head to toe in anodised blue metal plating and scales, head fully enclosed in a seamless, featureless helmet of the same material. Over his chest was strapped a waistcoat of grey fabric covered in small pockets, apart from at its very centre, where an image of the Earth, crafted from enamelled metal was displayed for all to see.

“You are intruding on United States Air Force land”, barked Captain Brenner. “This is a maximum security facility – surrender, or these men will shoot to kill…!”

The man in blue metal took a step forward. The infantrymen cocked their weapons menacingly.

“Do not move, or we will fire!”, called out Brenner.

An amplified, and electronically distorted voice cut through the air, its point of origin not entirely clear. “We do not have time for this”, it boomed. “Captain, the world is in great peril. I need that ship. Now.”

“Looks like the owner just arrived to reclaim his property”, murmured Lieutenant Salieri, too awestruck to be scared.

Brenner wasn’t listening. “This craft is the property of the United States government…”

“I beg to differ”, said the voice – it seemed to be coming through the hangar’s own communications system, the words uttered by each and every public address loud-speaker in the building, “but that is hardly important right now. The danger is growing every moment, Captain Brenner, and we have to act swiftly.”

Brenner was unmoved. “Right now, the only danger I’m seeing is standing in this hangar; an uninvited intruder, hiding his face…”

Protecting his face”, corrected the voice. “You are, after all, about to try and shoot me.”

“Not unless you surrender immediately…”

“I can’t do that”, said the voice. “The fate of the world is at stake. I’m sorry, Captain…”

The armoured figure took another step forward, and another. The most senior of the infantrymen barked an order, and the fifteen soldiers opened fire.

With a curious sound, like a high-pitched musical chord played backwards, each and every bullet expended simply vanished before it could touch the intruder. The armoured man took another step, and all the bullets fired at him fell to the ground behind him, each one compressed into a tiny, perfect, copper-jacketed sphere.

“Are you quite finished?”, asked the voice. “If so, then maybe we can make a start on what needs to be done…”

Inside his helmet, Lee smiled to himself, congratulating himself on the impression he had effortlessly made on the Air Force personnel. That, however, was always going to be the least of his worries – now, he had to convince these people to give him everything he needed…

Brenner and Salieri climbed down from the balcony, and cautiously approached the armoured figure. “This is more your field, Lieutenant”, whispered the Captain. “Your impressions, please…”

“He – it certainly looks like a ‘he’ – appears human”, observed Salieri, “but that means nothing. The Zeta Men looked human, and were hardly alive, by the sound of things. Captain, this is truly unprecedented territory we’re moving into – all I can say is that this… man hasn’t raised a hand against us, and there doesn’t seem to be much we can do to harm him. It sounds as though he comes in peace, and we should at least try to respond in kind. We’re more likely to learn more that way.”

Taking Salieri’s advice, Brenner waved the infantrymen aside, and came close enough to the armoured man to shake his hand, although for now, he erred on the side of caution, and didn’t offer any opportunity for physical contact. “I’m Captain Brenner, United States Air Force”, he said, seeing only his own face reflected in the stranger’s curved face-plate. “Might I ask who you are…?”

This was the moment Lee had been preparing for – that fateful moment when his name – his new identity – would be set in stone for all eternity. He hoped he wasn’t going to get bored with the name he’d chosen…

“I am The Challenger”, declared the metal-clad man, the voice now emanating solely from behind the helmet. “I am a citizen of Earth, born and bred – a real human being, in case you’re wondering…”

The Challenger took off his right gauntlet, and indeed, there was what looked like a flesh and blood hand underneath the armour. He extended that hand towards the Captain, but Brenner was reluctant to respond – and all the while that reluctance was locked in battle with his curiosity, his eagerness to find out whether this man was indeed a man. “I can understand your unease”, said The Challenger, “but what you see is what you get, no surprises.”

“You’ve been The King of Surprises since you got here”, said Brenner. “Overriding our door mechanism, that stunt with the bullets – I’m guess the problems we’ve been having here are something to do with you as well.”

“I made contact with the craft”, admitted The Challenger, returning his hand to its place of armoured safety. “I can access its control systems from anywhere on the planet.”

“So why didn’t you just take it?”, interjected Lieutenant Salieri. “Why the big show?”

“This, Lieutenant, is hardy a ‘big show’”, said the armoured man. “We are, I hope, working up to that. There are, in fact, two answers to your question – firstly, I need to be seen, to be known, if I’m going to be able to protect the Earth; secondly, there is… equipment I do not possess, but you do, and only together can we avert the approaching disaster.”

“What kind of equipment, and what kind of disaster?”, enquired Brenner, shooting a frigid stare across at Salieri.

“‘Equipment’ as in four of your highest-yield nuclear weapons”, The Challenger replied. “‘Disaster’ as in a piece of space-rubble the size of a small city, weighing millions of tons. If that hits the Earth, and it still may, you can be sure the world’s population will take another steep, and possibly terminal dive.”

“Sounds bad”, accepted Brenner, “but that doesn’t mean we’re going to just hand over sufficient firepower to wipe out four major cities. – no matter what tricks you might have up your sleeve.”

“You have satellites in orbit, spying on your Earth-bound enemies”, said the armoured stranger. “Turn their cameras outward. Right now, the object I described is directly over the Himalayas, approaching at a speed of around two hundred thousand miles an hour. The public will very soon be able to see its approach, as the ice on its surface boils away under the sun’s heat – and they will be asking questions. Questions such as ‘is that where all the shooting stars are coming from?’”

“This could all be a trick, a ruse to weaken us, make us put ourselves in danger – or under your control”, growled Brenner. “You could have set all this in motion…”

“For which I would have needed a lot more than four nukes, Captain”, The Challenger said calmly. “Look, I understand your reluctance – the Zeta-Men caught us all by surprise, and we’re naturally all on our guard – but this is a far greater threat than any of that. We got lucky with the bio-probes, Captain, but this space-rock will kill a lot of people. Together we can stop that – or I can just turn around, and let you think I’m the bad guy, and you can sit back and watch that thing hit the Earth like a bullet hitting an apple. You may just live long enough to regret this day.”

“We can’t trust you”, murmured Brenner.

“Not yet, maybe”, said The Challenger. “But after this? Let’s at least make sure there’s an ‘after’, shall we? It’s your choice…”

Brenner didn’t look as though he was about to undergo a drastic change of heart. Of course, the Air Force Captain was right, Lee had to admit: who would trust a masked stranger who showed up from nowhere with an insane story about a killer rock from space? They didn’t have to be under Fortain’s influence to have doubts…

“I can’t make that kind of decision by myself”, Brenner told The Challenger. “Like it or not, I do have superiors, and I have no choice but to take this… story to them.”

“Do what you have to do”, said The Challenger. “Just tell them everything I told you. Retarget those satellites, see for yourselves. There isn’t much time.”

Brenner requested a radio from one of the infantrymen. “Control, this is Captain Brenner. I need to see General Maythorpe urgently…”

…o O o…

Lee wasn’t kept waiting long. Brenner’s request to see the base commander ran aground on procedure and schedules, and so the Captain stormed away to fetch the General in person. There were a few tense, silent minutes during which Salieri and the infantrymen were at a complete loss what to do, then Brenner returned, with a broad, sparse-haired man in a uniform with several stars on the shoulders close behind him, spluttering in rage. “This better be good, Brenner!”, snapped the General. “I am not accustomed to having men who will very shortly be busted down to Airman, if not kicked right out of my Air Force, burst in on my – meetings…?”

Lee’s gaze met the General’s, and the General’s met his own reflection in the face-plate of The Challenger. “General”, said the armoured man, extending a hand in greeting, which yet again did not receive the customary response. “I am The Challenger. We have a very serious situation…”

Croxley expected some speech about trespassing on government property, but the man wearing the name badge “General R. M. Maythorpe – Base Commander” said something entirely different, and it gave Lee hope. “We are well aware of that”, said the General. “We’ve been in direct communication with the Russians for over an hour now, and together we’ve been able to confirm that an object of sufficient size and mass to do possibly critical damage to the planet is on a direct collision course with the Earth. We don’t know what to do, but Captain Brenner says you have some kind of plan. Is it true that you possess technology and knowledge comparable with the… aircraft we have stored here?”

“I do”, replied The Challenger.

“Can you stop this space-rock?”

“If by ‘stop”, you mean ‘destroy’, then no”, Lee replied, with deadly honesty. “I can render it harmless to the Earth, with your assistance.”

“With our nuclear weapons, you mean”, said Maythorpe, bluntly.

“Four devices, enhanced by technology to which I have access”, said the armoured man, “and no, I will not be sharing this capability with anyone. I am not going to help this planet destroy itself, not when I have dedicated myself to protecting it, in its time of greatest need.”

“I consider myself a pretty good judge of other people”, said the General. “I never thought I’d be in a position where I had to trust the Russians, but here we are, doing just that – and whilst I can’t see your face, and your voice has been disguised… damn it, I feel the world would be a whole lot worse off if I didn’t place that same trust in you…”

“General, I…”, spluttered Salieri, but Maythorpe ignored her. “Brenner, you’re to supply this man with everything he needs – I’ll authorise the provision of the necessary munitions – but there is a condition, sir…”

“I will do my very best to accommodate you, General”, said the masked man. “However, my identity must remain secret – anything that can lead hostile forces to the knowledge and equipment I am sworn to guard could spell disaster for the entire planet.”

“Based on what the Captain has told me, you require this craft for this mission”, said the General, and The Challenger nodded. “It certainly looks like it can carry more than one man and four nukes – and in that case, I want some of our people to accompany you on the mission. I was thinking Brenner and Lieutenant Salieri here, and a nuclear technician…”

“Armed?”, enquired The Challenger.

“Of course”, said Maythorpe. “Any hint of deception, any attempt to misappropriate our weapons, and they will undertake whatever measures are necessary to prevent it. Even to the point of blowing you, that craft, those nukes and themselves out of the sky.”

It was that, or let the Earth take the astronomical equivalent of a shot to the head. “I see no reason to object”, The Challenger replied. “A gesture of trust I am all too happy to make.”

The officers seemed to relax, but they were always going to be suspicious. Let them, thought Lee – there was no time to make everyone comfortable, and even less reason, when every wasted minute brought disaster ever closer. The space-rock wasn’t going to wait for anyone, or anything…

The minutes of tension had felt like hours, and now, the hours of preparation passed like minutes. One moment, the infantrymen were clearing out of the hangar; the next, the four nuclear devices, in radiation-shielded drum-like cases, were being wheeled in, escorted by the munitions specialist, Lieutenant Bradley – the introduction went by so fast, Lee struggled at first to remember the man’s name. In no time at all, the fission enhancers were fitted to each of the warheads, Lee displaying an incredible grasp of the technology that left Bradley baffled…

It was, of course, an exercise in deception: Lee received every piece of information he needed from the “eyes-front” display lining his helmet, every step explained in animated outline graphics overlaid on top of reality, what he learned and what he understood dwarfed by the vast majority that he simply mimicked. It didn’t entirely sit well with Lee to prosper as a result of someone else’s efforts, but every time he felt pangs of guilt, he reminded himself that nothing mattered more than protecting the Earth.

Lee knew the moment was almost upon them when Brenner and Salieri returned to the hangar in full-body flight suits, carrying fully enclosed helmets. The Captain explained that completely contained suits were required when piloting high-altitude spy-planes, to which Lee replied “You won’t be needing those – the ship has its own fully-recyclable onboard atmosphere…”

“Maybe so”, said Salieri, “but you have your suit, and we thought we’d bring our own.”

Lee nodded slowly, hoping to indicate that he appreciated the wisdom of the decision. There was clearly a whole lot more to dealing with a suspicious military than he had anticipated, or had time to consider. I just hope the world is gonna give me time to breathe after this, he thought. Only so many things I can keep in the air at once – there’s just the one of me…

The warheads were loaded into cargo-bays on the underside of the “saucer”, which opened at The Challenger’s unspoken command, and the crew followed, taking up their positions in the heart of the unorthodox vessel, Lee at the controls, Brenner, Salieri and Bradley in three of the semi-circle of seats behind him. “All right”, said The Challenger. “Here we go…”

- and Croxley added, in the back of his mind, a single word: Again.

As he had done before, when he flew the saucer-craft to Greenland to liberate the artist Fortain from imprisonment at the hands of his rebellious servants, Lee allowed his mind to empty, giving way to the knowledge of how to fly the vessel. The tethers were released, the hangar doors opened, and slowly, carefully, Lee steered the craft out into the open air, all the time trying to make it look as though he knew precisely what he was doing…

“Base to Deliverance“, said General Maythorpe over the comm-link The Challenger had established between Nellis and the saucer. “I… I suppose this is one of those times when someone’s supposed to give one of those speeches no-one’s ever gonna forget, but I hardly had time to prepare one, did I? Instead, then, I’ll just say I hope we’re right about this – all of this – and that you people come back, safe and well, to a world that’s no longer in danger.”

“No longer in danger from this particular threat, certainly”, said The Challenger, “but there are sure to be other dangers ahead of us. That’s why I’m here, and why I do what I do.”

It was time, Lee felt, for an unmistakeable statement of intention – a statement that came in the form of sending a thought into the craft’s flight processors that sent it streaking directly upwards at a speed that should have crushed all the ship’s crew into their seats, causing them to black out… but the craft’s ascent was as smooth and relaxing as it was rapid.

“My god“, gasped Salieri as the land disappeared from the view afforded to her by the craft’s curious cockpit, a section of the hull only transparent from the inside. “No acceleration, no g-forces – imagine that in a fighter…”

“Carry on imagining”, The Challenger told her. “As long as I live, that is never going to happen. I am dedicated to protecting the Earth and her people from anything and everything – including ourselves.”

“Does that include protecting us from you?

That was a response Lee had not expected. It was, however, an entirely valid point – there were always going to be people who would view The Challenger as some kind of dictator, a self-imposed arbiter of what the people of the Earth could and could not do. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant proposition, but he knew such feelings were going to be inevitable – now that he was effectively the police, there were certain to be other Lee Croxleys waiting for him to slip up, and then they would pounce.

“If we handle this relationship properly, that should never be a problem”, he said eventually, not looking up from the craft’s glowing display panels. “Now, let’s get a better look at things – you might want to brace yourselves…”

The whole craft suddenly vanished, its hull and internal workings becoming transparent. Lee could feel his passengers tensing, sense Brenner reaching for the pistol holstered at his side – but then the sheer wonder of the moment took over, and Lieutenant Salieri was first to let that wonder take the form of words. “It… it’s beautiful”, she gasped, staring right down between her feet at continents and seas – the tops of the clouds – the whole planet, laid out beneath them. “Just so beautiful…

“Worth fighting and dying for”, declared The Challenger, “but that isn’t everything – look ahead…”

“We’re heading west”, observed Brenner. “We can’t do that – it’s not publicly known, but that area between us and Asia… it’s extremely dangerous, some kind of intense electromagnetic field just knocks planes and satellites out of the sky…”

“And have you ever wondered why?”, asked The Challenger.

“No-one ever got close enough”, replied Salieri. “It – it interferes with the brain… doesn’t it?”

“That’s what you were told to believe”, said the armoured man. “Nobody asks about it. Ever. You were both going to give different answers – weren’t you?”

“I fail to see what that has to do with anything we’re about to do”, responded Brenner – and he had never sounded so uneasy. Without uttering a word in direct answer to The Challenger’s query, Brenner has said it all.

“Oh, it has plenty to do with our predicament”, The Challenger assured the Captain. “Look – now that we’re outside the atmosphere, you can see the truth for yourself…”

The ship was moving in the wrong direction to see a sun-rise any time soon, but suddenly, the sky lit up bright as dawn, and the three Air Force personnel witnessed something only Croxley had ever seen before; the crater, thousands of miles across, into the depths of which poured a column of brilliant light from the sky…

“What the hell…?”, gasped Brenner. “W-what… is… that…?”

“The greatest secret on Earth, Captain”, answered The Challenger solemnly. “A truth hidden from the world for hundreds, thousands of years. Our Earth is not a naturally-occurring planet – long, long ago, someone set that cascade in motion, and ever since, it’s been drawing matter and energy to this very spot, forming a planet in a similar manner to someone casting a solid sphere of iron by pouring molten metal into a spherical mould.”

“This can’t be right”, whispered Technician Bradley. “It… it can’t be real…!”

“Oh, it is” said The Challenger. “Once again, I present to you the facts – unfortunately, I never promised you’d like, or could immediately accept, what you heard.”

There could have been a stronger reaction, a more vehement denial of what the Air Force officers were seeing, but instead, there was silence. By thrusting the truth into their faces, Lee had broken the spell Durash Fortain had cast over them, and after a moment’s shock and disbelief, Brenner, Salieri and Bradley were starting to realise at last that much of what they assumed was fact had been lies all along…

All right thought Lee, that’s the hard part out of the way. “Now you have a better idea of what this is all about”, said The Challenger, steering the saucer-ship away from the planet and into the ominous darkness of space, “how about we go and save the Earth…?”

…to be concluded…