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Comes… THE CHALLENGER! – Chapter 4

The next day…

“This morning, on Breakfast America, the big question on everyone’s lips – just what happened in the sky last night? The Government is staying tight-lipped, the scientific community are refusing to comment, but according to sources, the Air Force appear to be about to make some kind of statement on the matter, here at Nellis Air Force Base, just outside Las Vegas…”

Lee shivered inside his armour as he watched the television broadcast on the screen lining the inside of his helmet. Last night had been easy – the press was an entirely different matter; had they failed the night before, none of this would have mattered, or still existed, but today, the world wanted answers, and The Challenger was going to have to give them…

The previous night…

The first of the Air Force team to speak after the revelation was, as Lee had expected, Lieutenant Salieri. “So… you said… that had ‘plenty to do with our predicament’ – your own words”, she mumbled. “What, exactly, did you mean by ‘plenty’…?”

“Think of the cascade there as being like the plughole in your sink”, said The Challenger. “It draws in everything around it – the plughole draws in water, while the cascade draws in energy and matter, usually in the forms of dust and other particles, but in this case, its attraction has snared something big.”

“You seem to know a heck of a lot about this ‘cascade’”, remarked Brenner, “just as you seem to know a heck of a lot about stuff we’re only just starting to realise exists. Care to explain…?”

Lee had hoped to have a plausible story worked out in advance, but Brenner had caught him with his armoured pants down. “I have to be very careful with that kind of information”, he replied. “One wrong word, and the next thing I know, I have the Air Force, the Army, the CIA knocking on my door – if I’m lucky. I’m sorry, but humanity isn’t quite ‘grown-up’ enough for all the things I’ve discovered…”

“And you are?”, asked the Captain.

“I’m an individual, a private citizen”, The Challenger replied. “You answer to your generals, the President, Congress, a whole bunch of military contractors – you don’t have the luxury of deciding what’s right, or proper. No offence intended.”

“And none taken”, Brenner responded. “Yes, there are limits within which I’m forced to operate, and with good reason. One man in the United States Military can’t start a war by himself – but you could…”

It was a debate that could carry on, quite literally, until the end of the world. Brenner, yet again, had a point, but the final word, for now, came from outside, as the ship’s external scanning systems started to deliver information about the asteroid to Lee’s main screen; a slowly tumbling dark mass, with wisps of steam spilling from cracks and hollows in its surface, and green lines projected over its surface, forming a grid of squares. One square was filled with transparent yellow, blinking insistently…

“There we go”, announced The Challenger. “The computer has found us an access point – a crack leading to a sizeable internal space. Prefect for our needs.”

“We go in, and drop off the nukes, then run?”, asked Salieri, before Brenner could start his interrogation again.

“That’s the plan…”

“…there is much speculation about this unprecedented event, and its possible connection to strange sightings here at Nellis”, continued the news reporter, a young woman whose image bore the strapline Casey Armitage, and who stood next to a transmitter van at the base’s heavily-guarded gates. “Many have been watching the skies in the last few days, awaiting the latest batch of ‘shooting stars’, and sky-watchers in Las Vegas were alarmed to see something going up, rather than coming down last night…”

Lee smiled to himself. Several members of the public had seen the saucer-ship take off, recording the shining object leaping into the sky on anything from cheap camera-phones to professional video gear. Numerous video clips had been submitted to the news channels before the Air Force could even begin to try and stop them, and by the time of the detonation, the word was too wide-spread to silence…

Lee submitted completely to the vessel’s control matrix, allowing two beings to become one. It was the only way they could hope to manoeuvre down the great crevasse, into the heart of the great space-rock – he could have called upon Brenner to take over, the Captain being a battle-tested pilot, but Lee felt it was a chance too many. If they all survived this, the last thing he wanted was to leave the Air Force with one of their own able to fly a craft he had already decided to leave in their care, as a gesture of trust…

It was a thoroughly strange experience, becoming one with the vessel’s computers. Lee felt as though he had lost all physical substance, becoming like water, able to flow along the crack in the asteroid, deep down into its frigid heart. If there was an obstacle in the ship’s path, and sufficient room for the manoeuvre, Lee simply flowed around the object, and the craft pitched and spun in response…

“We-we should be blacking out about now”, spluttered Lieutenant Salieri, “but it’s almost like watching a movie… a video game…”

“If you had tried to fly this ship like I’ve been doing, you’d probably be in pieces all over the desert by now”, said The Challenger. “Pieces coated in Air Force pilot pulped by a thousand Gs of sudden acceleration…”

“We still could be”, added Brenner, suspiciously.

“What, and leave myself all that mess to clean up after?”, said the armoured man. “If I’d wanted to kill you, I’d have done it back on the ground, for your cleaning staff to deal with…”

Somebody next to Lee cleared their throat. It was Lieutenant Salieri. “They want us to head over to the press compound now”, she said. “They’ll be letting the media in shortly – the plan is to give a general overview of the situation, as we see it, then Captain Brenner will announce you. After that, it’s up to you – tell them as little or as much as you wish…”

“What a difference half a day makes”, said The Challenger. “I suspect there’ll be no threats to blow me up this time.”

“You certainly earned that stay of execution”, said the Lieutenant. “Just don’t give us reason to reinstate it.”

“Absolutely the last thing on my mind”, the armoured man replied. “And not just out of a desire for self-preservation…”

The disk-shaped ship glided to a stop, silent in the airlessness of the asteroid cavern. The chamber was big enough to provide a comfortable berth for an ocean liner, yet lined with rocks large and sharp enough to rip open even a battleship, shaped by forces none on Earth had, whilst languishing under Fortain’s influence, ever even considered existed…

The main view-screen projected another web of green, this time on top of the amplified image of the cave’s interior, and several sections flashed amber – four in all, pulsing in rapid succession. “There”, said The Challenger. “Our targets await.”…

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Nellis Air Force Base. I am Captain Christopher Brenner, United States Air Force; the senior military representative on Operation: Deliverance…”

The room was full, the TV and newspaper personnel seated, listening intently. The last few days had been crammed full of critical moments, Lee found himself thinking as he watched from the shadows at the side of the stage – powering up the super-laptop for the first time, putting on the Challenger armour, confronting the Air Force with the menace of the asteroid, placing the nukes… detonating them – but there was something particularly tension-laden about this moment. This was the time the world learned uncomfortable truths, and how they reacted to what Brenner, and The Challenger, had to say would, quite literally, decide the course of history.

“Just twenty four hours ago, an exchange of scientific information between the United States and the Russian Republics led to the discovery of a dire threat to human existence – a mass of space-borne rock, on a direct collision course with the Earth…”

The audience didn’t know how to react. Most sat in bewildered silence, one or two gasped in alarm – one man loudly muttered “Rubbish…!”

Unflustered, Brenner continued, after the several beats he allowed for his statement to sink in. “Faster-moving fragments of this sub-planetary body, which we code-named ‘Hades’, have been entering Earth’s atmosphere for several days, producing the ‘shooting stars’ that have been witnessed over the last few nights”, he told them, and there was a murmur of not entirely satisfied curiosity from the seated reporters. “It was this phenomenon that led us to examine the skies, and detect Hades. Once its course was confirmed, plans were set in motion to deal with the threat – but unfortunately, it was quickly determined that our existing technology was inadequate for the task…”

Brenner wasn’t just stretching the truth, he was tying it in knots, but The Challenger wasn’t going to step up and correct him. This was what the world had to hear…

There were more murmurs, this time more discontented than before, and two or more of the reporters tried to squeeze in questions, which Brenner calmly ignored. “However, additional resources were available, and to employ these, the Air Force was required to call upon the services of an exceptional individual”, he declared, more firmly than before. “Those resources, we codenamed ‘Deliverance’…”

This was the signal to release the plain blue backdrop that hung behind the stage. The cloth fell away, revealing the rest of the hangar, and the saucer-craft, silently hovering on the spot. The camera flashes that followed lit up the whole building.

“…and the person… and the person who piloted this craft…”, called out Brenner, struggling to be heard over the gasps of wonder, and the clicking of a hundred shutters. “That individual I present to you now, with further details of the mission. Ladies, and gentlemen, people of the Earth, I give you… The Challenger.”

It was the best introduction Lee could have hoped for. Bracing himself, he stepped out from behind the side curtain, and all eyes – and cameras – were on him at once. He had to turn up the glare filter inside his helmet a full three notches to block out the camera flashes as he approached the speaker’s podium, and took Brenner’s place at the microphone. “Well, here goes”, he sighed to himself, and switched on his helmet’s audio feed…

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am The Challenger – a citizen of Earth, blessed with knowledge the likes of which all the scientists in the world could not have devised. I have chosen to devote this knowledge to the protection of my fellow Earth-people…”

His voice had to be further amplified to be heard over the noise, the tsunami of questions that crashed over him, but still Lee wondered if anyone had actually heard him. Inside his helmet, he glanced at the audio controls, and with a blink of his left eye, he selected External sound dampening – and immediately, the room fell almost silent, the soundwaves generated by the press corps stifled by a subtle interference broadcast from Lee’s armour.

Lee repeated himself, adding “…knowledge you have just witnessed in action. This, however, is not the first time this technology has been employed – that you saw last night, in the sky.”

There were still reporters trying to ask questions: “Who are you?”, “Where are you from?”, “Why hide your face?” Lee had been expecting them, and had his answers already prepared – but they were going to have to wait, for there was still plenty of the story to be told.

“The craft you see behind me – codenamed ‘Deliverance’ – was recovered after the departure of the entities now referred to as ‘Zeta-Men’”, he continued. “It came into the possession of the United States Air Force, who were unable to access its interior, let alone operate it. Being aware of the danger Hades posed to mankind, and realising that this craft was the only vehicle on Earth capable of carrying the necessary payload to Hades, I offered my services and my knowledge, as part of a combined operation devoted to the salvation of humanity….”

The Challenger and his passengers moved swiftly, carefully extracting the nuclear devices from their storage bays, and carrying them to their precisely calculated detonation points. The Air Force pilot suits weren’t entirely up to the task of protecting Brenner, Salieri and Bradley from the intense cold and vicious radiation of space but, in addition, each of them now wore a portable force-field, covering them like a second skin.

Buoyed up by the almost gravity-free environment of the asteroid, the nuclear weapons drifted through the airless cavern, steered by subtle fluctuations of the force-fields that enclosed them, protecting them from accidental impacts – thankfully, the Air Force team were disciplined enough not to let even one collision with the jagged rocks around them…

As he spoke to a captivated press-room, Lee found himself recalling every moment of the mission as he described them – he’d been doing that ever since they returned to the comforting gravitational pull of the Earth. “…with the devices in place, we retreated to a safe distance, and carried out the detonation the world witnessed last night. Hades was split into several pieces that are now on courses that will take them safety past and away from the Earth, and on our way back to Earth, we took time to locate and destroy or divert any fragments likely to cause harm to the planet. Now, I’m thinking there are going to be plenty of questions…”

The response was explosive. Now that The Challenger’s noise-dampening field had expired, the clamour to be first was next to deafening, but Lee took his time to carefully pick the reporter to receive that honour: “Who are you?”, asked Casey Armitage, once the noise subsided. “Why hide your face?”

“What good would it do to know my name?”, The Challenger replied. “I have no interest in fame – I just want to do my best for the Earth, and I just don’t see how I could do that with thousands of fans camped on my doorstep, begging for autographs. And then there are all those who might want to take my knowledge for themselves, with far less altruistic intent. If humanity has achieved anything, it’s that we’ve proved, time and again, that we struggle to trust anyone, even when we do know their names – we really need to work on that, don’t you think? We just came out from under the thumb of the Zeta Men, and we still have planet-devastating weapons pointed at each other – I mean, come on people…!

Lee had slipped out of the calm, reserved mind-set he tried to maintain when playing the part of The Challenger, and for a moment, he feared he had unwittingly given the world the key to all his secrets. However, no-one jumped up, shouting “You’re Lee Croxley!” – in fact, there was an uplifting amount of clapping, and cheers.

If only you knew, he thought. You didn’t see what we saw up there…

“Hey, what’s this…?”

“There’s no time for sightseeing”, Brenner told Bradley. “Stay on task – we can’t afford to screw up.”

“Funny you should say that, Bradley”, said Salieri. “That was just what I was going to say. You find what look like… eggs, too…?”

“No”, said Bradley warily. “Not eggs – this… it looks like writing.

The finely-tuned force-field network in The Challenger’s armour propelled him across the cavern to where Bradley was overseeing the placing of the last of the nuclear warheads. There, he saw what the munitions expert had found: a section of the cave wall, perfectly level, and polished, inscribed with several columns of curious symbols that simply could not be naturally occurring.

“Computer, can you translate these symbols?”, Lee said to his suit’s onboard data-processing system, and the view-screen inside his helmet isolated and scanned in each carved “letter”. Half way through the scanning process, the computer flashed up a response. Symbology recognised: Taaskareen devotional runes. Translating…

The Challenger headed over to Salieri’s position while his computers deciphered the symbols, and what he saw there was just as unsettling as the otherworldly writing. The wall was indeed studded with strangely regular shapes – a cluster of raised ovals, covered in what looked like scales. They certainly lookedlike eggs. Huge eggs.

Translation complete, reported the suit’s computer. Symbols are of archaic origin. Translation accuracy based on most recent records: 84 per cent. Do you wish to view the results?

“Show me.”

Inscription reads: “Death or extinction be delivered to the /unclear – suggested match: abominations/ of the broken planet. We send the /unclear – suggested match: war-children/ to purge or cleanse the unnatural infestation or stain .”

“Well?”, asked Salieri. “What do you think?”

Lee didn’t want to scan the objects. He was afraid they would turn out to be real eggs… “I think we should be very glad we’re blowing this thing up”, he said, turning back to the saucer. “I only hope four nukes is enough…”

“They seemed to like you”, Lieutenant Salieri said to The Challenger. “You handled that well.”

“The feedback is certainly strongly positive”, he replied, as Lee read the reactions on several social networks on the internet on his helmet screen. The press conference had gone out to the whole world, and the word was reaching just about every corner of the world – and the word was Challenger.

“I just hope you don’t regret that ’1-800-CHALLENGER’ thing”, she said, smiling. “Every old lady with a cat up a tree…”

“Hopefully, people will get the message, Lieutenant”, The Challenger responded. “I also hope the United States military will get the message that I do not work for them. I am not ‘on call’ to fight your wars for you, or track down any terrorists in hiding.”

“We’ve managed to survive this far without you”, remarked Salieri. “Your help is welcome against those threats we can’t control, but we won’t be treating you like some kind of crutch. Now the Zeta-Men are gone, we have a chance to start again, and I’m hoping you inspire people to think in bigger terms. I know I’m convinced.”

“Convinced enough to maybe consider a change of career?”, asked the armoured man. “The Better Day Foundation could do with someone like you – now there’s vision.That’s the spirit that changes things.”

One of the reporters had asked him about the Foundation, and Lee had given the organisation verbal support, saying “Should they need me – like anyone else – I shall be there”. He could have given a glowing endorsement, offering himself as a figurehead for the charity, but that seemed a little too convenient – The Challenger and The Better Day Foundation could continue to move in their respective orbits for a while, and gravitate towards each other over time. Someone else had asked about what wonders The Challenger would be prepared to share directly with the people of Earth, and whilst he had been unwilling to commit to anything immediately, the Foundation could be the perfect conduit for releasing some small treasures…

“I don’t know”, sighed Salieri. “I’m from a military family – three generations of Air Force… but maybe…”

“I’m not doing all this to change people”, The Challenger assured her. “People need to change, that’s obvious, but for the change to mean anything, those people have to choose change for themselves, not have it imposed on them. There’s a thin line between hero and tyrant – a line I’d prefer not to walk.”

“I suppose…”, mused the Lieutenant, “…that the Foundation could use a military liaison. Best of both worlds…”

“That’s the spirit”, said The Challenger. “Small steps. Let me worry about the rest.”

“Does that include Reverend Gates?”

One of the reporters had in fact been a middle-aged priest, a grim-faced man who didn’t ask a question – he delivered a sermon. “We have been denied our destiny!”, he snarled. “Science has conspired with… unnatural forces to keep the faithful from their place at God’s Table! The Rapture has come and gone, and those who are God’s Children were left behind, as the atheists and heathens have been planning all along! You have not heard the last of this. The Unheard Voice will not be silenced…!”

“I could say I don’t think he’ll be a problem”, said the hero, “but the whole world heard him, and there are bound to be others who think the same. I don’t want to step on people’s beliefs, but if they become a threat to others… I may not have a choice. At least I have a whole array of non-lethal technology at my disposal.”

“That’s good to hear”, said Salieri. “And what about… you know… the things we found on the asteroid…?”

“Definitely my field”, said The Challenger, and inside his helmet, Lee grinned broadly. “An alien race wants to wipe us out? Now that’s what I’d call a challenge…”

Those words echoed around and around inside Lee’s head as he strode out into the sunlight, outside the hangar, for the final photo-call. He stood with Salieri, Brenner and Bradley, then posed on his own – then finally, he powered up the suit’s anti-gravity force-fields and gave the press corps something memorable to transmit around the world, over and over, as he launched himself into the sky. He’d survived his first test, and given the world something to believe in – it was what came next that was really going to test him…

…o O Epilogue O o…

In the vast crater where the real Earth had an ocean teeming with life, bordered by some of the world’s greatest civilisations, the machines continued their tireless task, gathering rumble and molten matter and plastering it around the inside of the pit, like a swarm of bees constructing their hive. Anything and everything that came their way was counted as raw materials for their task – except for the strange fragments of oddly-patterned rock that had just arrived, tumbling out of the skies. Pieces of rock that, when fitted together, appeared to form an oval structure…

Dispatch investigation unit, instructed the synthetic intelligence that served as “queen” for the “bees”. Analyse anomalous materials, and report.

One of the machines received the necessary instructions, and reconfigured its sensor equipment for intensive scientific study. Properly equipped for the task, it broke away from its group, and headed down towards the bottom of the crater…

Scanning. Atypical energy patterns registered. Biological traces regist-

Investigation unit terminated, declared the “queen-mind” as one tiny part of its unified consciousness blinked out of existence. Dispatch tactical investigation unit…

Another machine turned away from its work, enhanced sensors, layers of armour, and several clusters of weapons growing out of its dark metal carapace. Advancing, it reported. Weapons on stand-by. Disabled investigation unit detected. Unit inoperable – assign salvage detail. Biological traces registered. Life-form registered. Advancing in combat conf-

Tactical investigation unit terminated, the “queen-mind” announced, as transmissions from a second servitor ceased abruptly. Advisory: hostile entity detected in work area. Recommend emergency measures – isolate and remove anomalous entity. Its presence is declared a threat to The Primary Task…

…o O o…

“…these are live pictures from Central Siberia, where a fragment of the asteroid Hades has struck a mountain-top, instantly melting a glacier and sending millions of tons of melt water down into the valley below, threatening several towns. A call was made to The Challenger almost immediately, we’re told, and the mystery man is now on the scene, blocking the flow of water with some kind of invisible wall, and cutting drain-off channels with beams of energy from his hands…”

“My, that’s interesting”, purred The Lady In White, sweeping back her long, snow-white hair and crossing legs clad in long white boots as she sat down in her penthouse to watch events unfolding on her television screen, a drama taking place half a world away. “Very interesting – and somewhat annoying. This changes things…”

…o O o…

Backstage at the Boston gathering of The Unheard Voice, The Reverend Oscar Francis Gates ignored the call from the stage manager to go out and address the expectant, exuberant masses. There was a call he had to take – a text message from one of his secretive backers:

This is your time. Summon the faithful, and reclaim God’s Earth from the unbelievers. Nothing you do will be against His Will.

“This is our time”, the Reverend whispered to himself, and cloaked in the cast-iron certainty that The Lord was with him, he strode out onto the stage to pass on The Good Word.

And that word was “War”…

…to be continued – in The Further Adventures Of The Challenger!