TB1'S LAUNCHPAD TB2'S HANGAR TB3'S SILO TB4'S POD TB5'S COMCENTER BRAINS' LAB MANSION NTBS NEWSROOM CONTACT
 
 
RAZER
by POLLYWANTSA
RATED FR
M



Secrets. We all have them. But as Brains is soon to learn, nothing stays secret foreverů TV-verse.


* * * * *

Part One

* * * * *

Scott Tracy never dreamed that flying could bore him. But somehow, today, the monotonous grey of sky and land, and the sedate pace at which Tracy 2 was coasting above the southern reaches of Russia, had lulled him almost to somnolence.

He cranked the air-conditioning up a notch and inhaled the cool stream of air that funnelled into the cabin, roved his eyes across the landscape that passed below. The tundra was pockmarked with the scars of rocket strikes and mortar holes, the visible remains of how close the war had come to taking out the territories of Russia. Scott stifled a twinge of remorse. It was probable he'd made some of those scars himself, during his time patrolling the Russian borderzone - the exact same zone the Tracy 2 was now skirting uncomfortably along. He and Brains had one more stop before they could turn for home, in Kemerovo, just a bit too close to the Berezhni border for Scott's liking. And, despite the ceasefire, it hadn't escaped his notice that the Russians were just as wary as he was. They might not have mentioned the elephant in the room, but they'd requisitioned eight of Tracy Corps' armoured air-transport carriers, which indicated to Scott that they could at least smell the beast.

Scott shook his head, tried to clear the fog from a brain that was dulled through lack of caffeine. He'd have killed for a coffee right now. Would have happily sucked back a pack of No-Doze if it meant he'd be less bleary-eyed when he and Brains landed to inspect the manufacturing plant. He blinked through eyes gritted from not enough sleep, shuddered at the thought of spending another cold night in another two-star hotel that reeked of cabbage and crawled with what passed for cockroaches in this part of the world.

'Brains,' he said out loud. 'Did Tin-Tin manage to book a hotel in Kemerovo?'

Brains roused drowsily from his contemplation of the monotonous scenery below. 'She, ah, said she did.' He rifled around the cabin for the paper he'd written the name of the hotel on. 'But you know Tin-Tin doesn't speak, ah, Russian, very well.'

Scott smiled at the memory of their previous night in Kiev, and the expression on Brains' face when he'd glimpsed the only bed in what was supposed to be a twin suite.

'Here it is.' Brains smoothed the paper against his thigh and squinted down at his untidy scrawl. 'The, ah, O- Ogorod.'

'Even the name smells like cabbage.'

'What?'

'Nothing.' Scott nodded towards note. 'What else did she say?'

Brains brought his scribbling closer to his face. 'She said that, ah, that a driver would be waiting for us at the, a-airport.'

'Let's hope that this time he knows where he's going.'

'W-what makes you think that he's, ah, that he's a he?'

Scott snorted lightly. 'Don't get my hopes up.' His lips quirked at his memories of Russian women. 'It would be - hold on.'

The comms system activated with a burst of static, followed by a woman speaking English with a heavy Russian accent.

'Speak of the devil.' Scott grinned wolfishly as a surge of adrenaline lifted the fog from his brain. Amazing what the sound of a Russian accent could still do to him. And the thicker, his toes curled inside his boots, the better.

'Omsk airfield calling aircraft ident tango zero nine two,' the voice said dispassionately. 'You have entered restricted air space. Request you alter heading zero eight four.'

'Restricted airspace?' The grin fell from Scott's face as he entered the new coordinates into the nav computer.

Brains turned to stare at the featureless terrain below. 'I thought we were still over, ah, Russia?'

'We are.' Scott sat back as the computer plotted the new course, frowning as the display refreshed. 'That can't be right. They're asking us to divert in to a restricted zone, not out of one.'

The voice burst through the comms again, dull and robotic. 'This is Omsk field calling aircraft ident tango zero - '

'Tango zero nine two to Omsk airfield,' Scott cut in. 'Request confirm new coordinates zero eight four from this position.'

A burst of static entered the cockpit, followed by the announcer's thick accent. 'Confirm. Zero eight four from current position.'

'Omsk airfield,' Scott said, 'we cannot divert into Berezhni territory. Request alternate heading.'

'Omsk airfield repeating header zero eight four. Please divert.'

Scott's eyebrows knit together as he scanned the sky ahead of them. Visibility outside the cockpit was poor, a flat band of cumulus stretching from horizon to horizon, haze bunched up sullenly beneath the unmoving cloud. Below them the ground was equally sullen, a flat patchwork dotted with stretches of brown grass and unmelted snow. Signs of habitation were rare, and more than once Brains had commented how isolated life must be for the occupants of the dwellings that occasionally passed below. But now Scott could see nothing. No houses. No signs of human occupation. An endless, monotonous, no-man's land.

Brains leaned forward to examine the nav display. 'W-what are you going to do?'

Scott's focus returned to the far horizon. 'What I'm not going to do is divert onto that heading. I'm going to - shit!' He broke off as a Sukho 43 broke out of the featureless band of cloud and shot past the Tracy 2, close enough for the fighter plane's backwash to buffet the small craft violently.

'Shit,' Scott said again as he fought to keep the plane steady. 'Brains, are you buckled in?'

'Of course.' Brains' hands grasped reflexively for a hold against the inside of the fuselage. 'What's ha-happening?'

'I have no idea.' Scott twisted in his seat, unable to maintain a visual of the fast-moving Sukho as it tracked against the glare of the cloud. He twisted back in the other direction, craning his neck to see if the fighter was returning to their position.

'Scott!' Brains pointed towards 12 o'clock.

Scott turned to see two more Sukhos descending from the cloud and barrelling directly towards them. 'What the hell is going on?' He toggled the comms channel open. 'Omsk airfield, this is tango zero nine two. We are under attack. Repeat: we are under attack.'

The oncoming Sukhos split formation and roared around the Tracy 2 at high speed, the dual backwash buffeting the plane violently. 'Repeat,' Scott broadcast as he struggled to keep the aircraft level. 'We are under attack. Mayday. Mayday!'

A male voice issued calmly from the comms. 'Please divert to header zero eight four.'

Scott looked up to see the Sukhos regrouping against the glare of the sky. 'This is tango zero nine two repeating mayday. Please acknowledge.'

The voice returned, methodic and dull. 'Please divert to header zero eight four.'

Brains leant forward at the unfamiliar voice and tapped the comms panel. 'Scott,' he said after a few seconds. 'Frequency shift. We-we're no longer talking to Omsk field.'

Scott glanced sideways at Brains as he banked the Tracy 2 sharply and aimed her back towards the heart of Russia. 'Then hold on. This could get rough.'

Brains tightened his grip and shrank deeper into his seat.

Scott came out of the steep bank, looked back to see the three Sukhos had entered combat formation and were now tailing him.

'Now what,' he muttered as they once again broke formation, two of them splitting up and circling around him. They passed at high speed across the Tracy 2's nose, forcing the aircraft to abruptly drop altitude. Scott spun the craft out of the dive, dimly aware of Brains struggling with the extra G's in the seat beside him. No sooner had he levelled out than the third Sukho came up on the starboard wing, forcing Scott to bank again and sending the Tracy 2 in the opposite direction, straight back towards Berezhni territory.

'Brains,' Scott said. 'Get Father on the comms. Now.'

Tracy 2 was a civilian aircraft, a means of getting from point A to point B. She was not equipped with anti-aircraft defences, and not suited to high-speed manoeuvring. The Sukho 43s might be well over a decade old, but Scott knew he had no hope of outrunning three of them, let alone evading any weaponry they might send his way.

'Father,' he said as soon as Brains signalled he had a connection. 'We're under attack.'

As if to illustrate the point, a missile hit them from behind, grazed across the wing of Tracy 2 and sent a plume of black smoke out to stain the white sky.

* * * * *

'Say again, Scott.' Jeff Tracy stared at the metal speaker grill, willed anything else to come out of it other than what he'd just heard. Anything. Just not…

'Repeating: we are under attack.'

…not that.

'Father? Are you reading me?'

'Yes. I'm reading you.' The pen fell from Jeff's fingers and rolled beneath the contracts that lay unsigned across his desk. 'Tell me what's happening.'

'We have been engaged by three Sukho 43s, Berezhni colours.' There was no hint of panic in Scott's disembodied voice. Only cool, calm efficiency - five years of front-line service reasserting itself in the blink of an eye. 'We've sustained damage to the port wing and are being forced into Berezhni territory.'

Jeff opened a connection to Thunderbird Five. 'Alan, get a fix on Tracy 2's transponder.' Jeff watched from the corner of his eye as Virgil rose from his seat at the piano. 'Scott, have you tried evasive?'

'They're one step ahead of us. I can't see any way out of this.'

'I have it, Father.' Alan's face appeared on the portrait feed from Thunderbird Five. 'Seven kilometres from the restricted territories. Any minute now and communications will be lost.'

'Alan, use what you've got to plot all possible trajectories.' Jeff glanced up as Gordon and John entered the lounge, looked away from the apprehension in their eyes. 'Scott… how long?'

'At the rate we're bleeding fuel…I estimate ten minutes. Less.'

Jeff stared at his desk, at the paperwork draped untidily across the polished timber, the print on the pages merging into a meaningless black and white blur.

'Father,' Scott said, his voice laden with meaning. 'We're going down.'

'Son.' The blood drained from Jeff's face. 'I'll do whatever it takes to find you.'

The console cut off, a blinking red light signalling the connection had been lost.

'Whatever it takes,' Jeff said into the dead air.

* * * * *

Scott brought the Tracy 2 down hard, bumped her across the uneven field and powered down his only remaining engine. He watched as the first of the Sukhos taxied across the snow-powdered grass and came to a slow stop, nose-to-nose with the Tracy 2. Close enough that Scott could see paint flaking from the scrapes on the pilot's helmet.

'What now?' Brains watched as a second Sukho descended towards the field.

'I don't know,' Scott said as the pilot that had forced them down slid from his cockpit and walked the short distance between the two aircraft, hefted a pistol in his hand and aimed it directly at them. 'But my guess is they're going to want us to get out.'

'A-and then what?'

The second Sukho taxied across the empty field to box them in. The canopy slid open and the pilot clambered out, aimed another weapon in their direction. Both pilots' faces remained concealed by their helmet visors, their bodies clad in the distinctive gunmetal grey flying suits of the Berezhni Air Force. The suits were the same colour as the Sukhos, the only difference being the blood-red flag of Berezhnia that adorned the flanks of the aircraft, and the number of kills proudly displayed beneath the cockpits.

Scott twisted in his seat to study the damage to Tracy 2s wing, knew he'd been in the hands of experts.

The third Sukho buzzed the perimeter of the field then shot off deeper into Berezhni territory. Scott spared a brief glance as it arced overhead and disappeared into the distance.

'I guess it's time to get out,' he said as the first pilot indicated with his weapon that the occupants of the Tracy 2 needed to disembark.

'No,' Brains said, fear rising in his voice. 'W-we can't!'

'We always knew this day was going to come.' Scott turned and looked Brains in the eye. 'We couldn't get away with it forever.'

* * * * *

Part Two

* * * * *

Jeff gritted his teeth, felt the muscle behind his eye twitch. 'I don't care what it takes, Corporal. You get me Strategic Air Command on the line, now!'

He kept the phone close to his ear, his eyes glued to the Thunderbird Five feed that showed where the transponder of Tracy 2 had passed over the border to Berezhnia and disappeared into the Blind Zone. Jeff glanced up, caught the look in Gordon's eyes.

Shit.

He returned his attention to Tracy 2's last known fix. Over the connection he heard a series of clicks as his call was transferred several levels through the Pentagon.

I swear, Jeff thought as his blood pressure climbed its way towards the roof, if I hear that whiney Corporal's voice on the line one more time, I am going to explode!

* * * * *

Scott slid from the cockpit, landed sure-footed on the surface of the ice-hardened field.

'I demand,' he said as Brains landed heavily on the earth beside him, 'to know under what authority you have diverted a civilian aircraft into military airspace.'

The was no response from the heavily-suited pilots. No change in posture. No indication that Scott's words had been heard at all.

'I repeat,' he said, taking a step towards the nearest pilot, eyes fixed firmly on the reflective visor of the battered helmet, 'under what authority - '

'Stop.'

Scott froze at the word, risked a glance back at Brains.

'Sit.'

'Sit?' Scott returned his gaze to the visor, saw only his own face reflected there.

'Sit!' the order came again, the accent thick.

Scott shook his head. 'I don't know what you mean - Christ!' The second pilot circled around behind him, aimed the sole of his boot at the back of Scott's thigh and brought him crashing to his knees on the frozen earth.

'Sit,' repeated the officer, aiming his weapon towards Brains.

Brains lowered himself carefully to his knees as the second pilot walked back around to face them. The pilot slipped a hand into his flight suit, took out a mobile device and snapped their photographs, one by one.

'Scott,' Brains said.

'I know.' Scott watched as the pilot busied himself transmitting the images.

The minute those photographs were received, they were dead men.

* * * * *

'I understand, General, but my son has been unlawfully diverted from civilian airspace into a military zone in an act of what can only be termed aggression, and - '

'What do you want us to do, Mr Tracy?' It was the third time General Martin Foster had asked this question.

Jeff removed his glasses and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. 'Let me explain again, General.'

'No. Let me explain, one more time. We have been in contact with the Russian Air Transport Authority and there is no record of your son or his aircraft ever having been in Russia - '

'Not true. Flight plans were logged and - '

' - and there are no records with the Air Transport Authority of any such flight plans, nor of a mayday being transmitted or received.'

'General.' Jeff fought to keep his voice level. 'Despite what the authorities are telling you, my son, my chief research associate and my damned aircraft have disappeared into Berezhni territory, and I want to know what you are going to do about it!'

'Sir. You are asking me to end a hard-won ceasefire to find one man.' Foster made no attempt to hide the irritation in his voice.

'Two men, General,' Jeff reminded. 'United States citizens. One of whom happens to be my son.'

'Mr Tracy.' The general paused, made sure that Jeff was paying careful attention. 'I understand how distressing this must be for you, but in the absence of anything more concrete, the Government is not in a position to assist you at this time.'

'I see. Is that your final word?'

'It is.'

Jeff lowered his eyes, listened as Foster rustled paper on the other end of the line.

'Goodbye, General.'

'Tracy, listen,' Foster added as Jeff leant in to cut the connection. 'We'll contact you if - '

* * * * *

Scott knelt on the packed earth, hands resting uncomfortably on his head. His shoulders had cramped twenty minutes ago, the blood long since drained from his frozen hands and fingers. He shifted on his knees as mud and water wicked its way into his jeans, the wind from the tundra lifting the shirt from his body and running ice-cold fingers over his exposed skin.

He looked sideways, saw that Brains' lips had turned blue. 'Brains,' he hissed, his own lips cold and numb.

'Stop.' One of the pilots took a threatening step towards him.

Scott turned back and stared into the reflective visor. 'Look,' he said with all the authority he could muster, despite the tremor that the wind raked intermittently through his body. 'How long is this going to go on?' He shifted again on his knees, made as if to stand.

'Stop.' A weapon aimed towards his head and Scott sank back onto the freezing earth. He blinked in the wind, cocked his head as the drumbeat hum of rotors sounded on the air. Scott squinted into the glare, eyes drawn to the black speck of a helicarrier as it streaked directly towards them.

* * * * *

'What did he say?' Gordon was the first to break the silence.

Jeff stared unseeing at the paperwork piled on his desk. The Berezhni conflict had been going on for so long that the world barely remembered what it was about. Old news that rarely hit the vidcasts anymore, despite the fact that lives were being lost on the borderzones daily, and that billions of dollars better spent elsewhere were still being thrown into a pointless offensive. And now here the war was, right in his face.

Thrown right into Jeff Tracy's lap.

'Father?'

Jeff slammed his hands to the desk and wiped every item from its surface in one fell swoop. Paperwork crumpled to the parquetry, pens shot spinning across the floor, a half-empty cup exploded into shards of coffee-stained ceramic.

Gordon calmly dodged the splintering cup and took a step towards the desk. 'Dad. What did the General say?'

Jeff raised his head, steadied his breathing, tamped his anger down, hard. 'He said that Berezhnia and Russia have been observing a ceasefire for the last eight months and that any kind of action on behalf of the United States would be considered an act of war.'

'The government doesn't consider the kidnap of United States citizens to be an act of war?' Virgil's voice rose, his temper ignited by frustration. And fear.

'He says there's no evidence Scott and Brains have been unlawfully diverted, or that they have passed over the border, or that they were even in Russia to begin with.'

One by one Jeff met the eyes of his sons. He inhaled a steadying breath, delivered the most distressing element of his conversation with Foster. 'The General suggested that if we were certain they had been in the area, that we concentrate our efforts on looking for wreckage on the Russian side of the border.'

'You're joking.'

Jeff shook his head.

'They can't just leave it like that.' Gordon stepped closer to his father, shards of ceramic splintering beneath his feet.

'This was a planned attack.' Jeff looked down at the contents of his desk, spilled across the floor. 'The Berezhnis knew what exactly what they were doing. All we can do now is wait for their demands.'

'We can't just wait to hear.' Virgil looked ready to snap. He stepped into the morass of paperwork, uncaring of the contracts that crushed beneath his feet, slammed his hands down hard on the bare timber of Jeff's desk. 'We have to do something. Anything!'

Jeff flinched as Virgil's hands thumped against the woodwork, looked up and met his son's eyes. 'Let me try a couple more calls.'

* * * * *

The helicarrier was huge. Third generation, double rotors backed up by turbine engines that screamed above the wind, the sound piercing Scott's brain and making him duck, instinctively, as the giant machine touched down metres away from them. The downdraft tore through the frozen grass, whipped through his shirt and his hair, lifted debris from the cracks in the cold ground and hurtled it into his face. Scott observed through slitted eyes as a half-dozen soldiers spilled from the carrier doors, hunched into position beneath the spinning rotors and crabwalked carefully towards them. Weapons aimed. Weapons locked.

'Scott…' Brains said, the word torn away on the ice-cold wind.

Scott glanced at Brains, then back at the helicarrier as an officer exited the vehicle, jumping lightly from the platform onto the hard-packed earth, head turned down to avoid the backwash from the still-turning rotors. The officer moved easily, deliberately, leisurely followed the soldiers towards them, waited patiently as Scott and Brains were hoisted to their feet. Only then, when Scott and Brains stood wavering in the wind, with the muscles burning in their thighs and shoulders and their nerves screaming with the effort of remaining upright after so long cramped down on the hard cold ground, did the officer lift his head, revealed a moustachioed face, heavy features, skin that hadn't seen the sun for a very long time.

'Let me introduce myself.' The moustachioed man shoved his hands into the pockets of his greatcoat, pulled the garment close around him as his boots dug into the icy ground. 'I am General Goran Tereshchenko.'

'Tereshchenko?' Scott stared, eyes searching the big man's face. 'You're supposed to be - '

Tereshchenko's lips twitched as a soldier stepped forward and cracked Scott in the face with the butt of his machine gun, sent him reeling backwards, stumbling, as another blow caught him from behind and collapsed him onto the frozen earth.

'Well, well,' said Tereshchenko when the commotion had subsided. 'The mad scientist and the billionaire's son.' He looked down to where Scott lay sprawled on the ground. 'An interesting, and somewhat unexpected, combination.'

Brains followed Tereshchenko's gaze. 'W-what have you done?' he asked, hoped his stutter didn't betray his terror.

Tereshchenko shrugged. 'His welfare is not important,' he replied in thickly accented English. 'Not nearly as important as yours.'

'I… I-I…' Brains swallowed thickly. Looked up and met Tereshchenko's unwavering gaze. 'I-I'm not who you think I a-am.'

'We shall see.' Tereshchenko raised a finger into the air.

Immediately a soldier clamped Brains' head between two huge, hot hands, while a second operative manhandled his left eye painfully open. A laser beam hit his eye, streamed a blue line across the surface of his retina. For a moment Brains was blinded, his whole world bathed ice-cold in blue. He flinched at the beam, jerked his head back against the ham-fists that held it steady. 'I-I'm not,' he repeated futilely as the scanner fell away and the soldier presented the readout for the General's scrutiny.

'Hmm.' Tereshchenko studied the display. 'Unless you are in the possession of a black market retina, then you are indeed who I think you are. The infamous Gary Ross. Scientific prodigy. Secret weapon of the United States Government. Developer of Project Razer.'

Tereshchenko stepped closer and stroked his moustache thoughtfully. 'Tell me, Dr Ross, where have you been hiding? Don't you know the entire world has been looking for you? And most especially,' he added dangerously, 'for Project Razer?'

* * * * *

Part Three

* * * * *

'What have you got for me, Tim?'

Jeff sat forward in his chair as the face of his old Air Force buddy appeared on the screen. He'd been sweating on this call for thirty minutes, knowing that every second that ticked away while he sat on his ass was another second that Scott and Brains had lost forever… if Scott and Brains were even still… Jeff's brain closed on the thought, a wall coming down, a speculative path he was not yet willing to take.

'Unofficially, Jeff,' Casey leaned in close to the vid screen, 'we heard rumblings that three Berezhni Sukhos had been tracked inside the Russian no-fly zone at eleven hundred local time. By the time forces had scrambled to intercept, the bogies were gone.'

'Along with my son.'

Casey looked morosely at Jeff through the connection. 'As long as the Russian authorities maintain their story, you can't prove a thing.'

'Jesus, Tim. I'm being stonewalled at every turn. It's like Scott and Brains have disappeared off the face of the planet.'

'If they've gone over that border, Jeff, they may as well be on Mars.'

Jeff's heart sank in his chest. He glanced up and met the searching eyes of his sons, then looked back at Tim Casey, his friend's face lined with age. Knew his own face must have been just as lined. Just as aged. When did we both get so old?

'So there's nothing you can do?'

'Sorry, Jeff. My hands are tied.'

Jeff stared at the screen, at the apologetic face of his friend. 'I understand, Tim. We're on our own.'

Tim Casey blinked through the screen, watched as something dark rose in Jeff's eyes. 'Just don't do anything stupid.'

* * * * *

'…hey…'

Scott slumped back against the cell wall, in the exact same place they'd dumped him when they dragged him in. He saw nothing in the darkness. Heard nothing. Felt only cold stone at his back and the dampness of the floor beneath his jeans. He pressed a hand against his swollen mouth, fingered the crusted cut to his lip.

'Brains?' he croaked into the darkness, waited thirty seconds for a reply that didn't come.

'Hey,' he said again, louder, heard nothing but the sound of insects scuttling across the cement floor.

They'd left him.

Dumped him there and left him.

He groped for his wristcom, found nothing but bare skin. Scott dropped his hand to the ground, felt water slicking cold beneath his fingers.

'Hey!' he bellowed, the cry catching in his throat as pain tore unexpectedly through his head.

Damn.

Scott calmed his breathing, mentally assayed his body. Arms. Legs. Back. Head. Head. Headache. He explored his mouth with his tongue, relieved to find his teeth still intact.

Scott leaned his head against the stone and closed his eyes against the impenetrable blackness, tried to remember what had happened.

A machine gun had hit him in the face.

Split lip.

Something had hit him hard from behind.

Headache.

He'd fallen, the air knocked out of him, gasping.

And then what?

Dirt in his mouth. Voices, guttural and angry. His body limp and unresponsive. A bag slipped rough over his head.

He was suffocating.

Choking.

And then what?

Nothing.

Nothing.

* * * * *

Brains' eyes darted panicked around the room, bounced off the stone walls, the concrete floor, everything filthy and stained with streaks of black. Puddles of water had collected in patches on the floor, and the room stank, as though something had recently died there.

Or maybe it had died here.

Right where he was sitting.

Right in this very chair…

Brains licked his lips, glanced up at the single bulb in the ceiling, a tiny yellow sun that threw garish shadows across the room and haloed the top of Tereshchenko's head as he removed his coat and handed it to a waiting officer. Brains watched as the officer turned away with the coat, craned his neck to follow, glimpsed only a single closed door at his back.

Tereshchenko dragged a chair across the room, the wooden legs scraping noisily on the uneven cement. Brains flinched at the sound, turned his eyes to follow Tereshchenko's movements as the chair came to rest close beside him. Too close.

Brains swallowed thickly.

Far too close.

Free of his coat, unburdened of the wool and the silk and the medals of honour that adorned the garment's surface, Tereshchenko sat down smoothly in the chair opposite Brains, knee to knee, the odour of sweat and smoke and something sickly and sweet wafting from his hair and his body and his big yellow teeth. Brains flexed himself in a last minute panic. Tried to twist his wrists free of the bindings that held them firmly to the arms of the chair, stifled a groan as the cord cut sharp into his skin.

Tereshchenko watched as Brains floundered in his chair, waited patiently until the fight had left him, pale and gasping. He loosened his tie and leaned forward, lifted a hand and removed Brains' glasses carefully from his face.

'There is no longer any need for such a clumsy disguise. Is there,' Tereshchenko leaned in close, lips quirking in a disarming smile, 'Dr Ross?'

'I-I don't know what, w-what you're talking about.' Brains recoiled from the scent of stale tobacco that laced the general's heavy breath.

'And still you deny it.' Tereshchenko continued to study him, the dark eyes roving across his face, lingering on his eyes, his mouth, the pores of his skin. 'You do not seem like a strong man, Dr Ross. My lieutenant believes you will soon be crying like a baby.' Tereshchenko leaned in closer and said, conspiratorially, 'he has made a wager that you will last only five minutes. So I am asking you, as a personal favour, to give me ten.'

Brains tried to swallow, his mouth dry, throat closing painfully on his words. 'I-I don't…' he stammered. 'P-please…'

Tereshchenko turned as the lieutenant pulled a small cloth-covered table across the room towards them, the wooden legs vibrating loudly with the movement, the sound accompanied by the unexpected clatter of metal beneath the cloth. The officer took an age to work the table across the small room, as if he understood the screech of the timber on the cement were torture enough, the noise working its way beneath Brains' skin and setting his nerves on edge. Brains observed the table's slow progress, watched as the cloth slid unexpectedly to the ground and revealed an assortment of blades, some rusted and stained, some glinting clean in the yellow light. He diverted his gaze from the gleaming metal, stared at the walls, realised abruptly that the dark streaks were old blood.

'Do you think this method old-fashioned?' Tereshchenko asked as the table came to rest inches from where Brains' hand was tied firmly to the arm of the chair. He raised the smallest blade from the table and checked its sharpness with his finger. 'Clichéd, perhaps?'

'Please…' Brains said again, closing his eyes.

Tereshchenko grasped hold of Brains' hand and inspected the nails, brought the knife in close. 'There is a reason this technique has remained so popular for so many hundreds of years. Now,' he brought the blade to Brains' thumb, slid it just beneath the nail. 'Let us see if I will win my wager.'

* * * * *

Part Four

* * * * *

'Father,' Alan said through the feed from Thunderbird Five, 'I've been using Five's sensors to try and find a way through the Blind Zone.'

'And?' Jeff turned his full attention towards his youngest son, not daring to hope there could be a chink in Berezhnia's impermeable armour. That the legendary Blind Zone - an interference field that curtained the entire country - could somehow be penetrated.

'We can't get through,' Alan conceded. 'There's no way. But I think I've pinpointed the field generators.' Alan's face faded from the portrait-feed, replaced by a satellite image of Berezhnia overlaid with a thermographic gradient map. 'There are seven hotspots on the thermograph,' Alan's disembodied voice accompanied the image, 'and I suspect they could be generators. Huge generators.'

The image dissolved and Alan's face once more filled the screen. 'There's also an intense electromagnetic field situated exactly over each of these hotspots, indicating a high output of electrical energy. These have to be the source of the Blind Zone, and taking out one of these generators might be enough to shift the power phase out of sync and give us a sensor window in.'

John shook his head. 'The Berezhni's aren't stupid, not with technology like that at their fingertips. They'll have back-up systems online instantly to re-establish the field.'

'No question,' Alan acknowledged, 'but I figure the phase will be out of sync long enough for Thunderbird Five to get a reading and pinpoint Scott and Brains' wristcoms.' Alan's eyes moved to his father. 'I'd only need a few seconds, Dad.'

John folded his arms across his chest. 'Exactly how do you propose to take out one of these generators?'

Alan's eyes slid from Jeff to John and back again. 'Brains has been working on a thorium device.'

'You're kidding.' Gordon looked up from the maps he'd been studying. 'You all know thorium is…' His voice trailed into silence.

'What?' Virgil asked.

'A restricted substance.' John glanced at Alan, surprised his youngest brother had known about Brains' latest side-project.

'And no doubt illegal.' Gordon swivelled in his chair to look at his father.

Jeff ignored Gordon's gaze, focussed his attention intently on Alan. 'Explain.'

'Thorium in a super-conductive state has been demonstrated to achieve magnetic field separation,' Alan supplied. 'Brains has been developing an EM disruptor, basically.'

Jeff's eyes narrowed as the implications became clear.

'Dad,' John said, intuiting the intent in his father's eyes. 'The device is untested. There is only one of them. And thorium is radioactive, for Christ's sake.'

Jeff ignored John's words. 'I want that device incorporated into a missile and loaded onto Thunderbird One.'

'And then what?' John's hands flew exasperated into the air. 'Just barge into Berezhnia and fire a missile? What if we kill people? Jesus Christ, we probably will!'

'John,' Virgil said. 'We have to do this.'

John turned to look at Virgil, said very carefully, 'have all of you gone fucking insane?'

'We have to do this,' Virgil said again, quietly, pleadingly.

John shook his head, turned away from the desperation in his brother's eyes. Looked up and met his father's unwavering gaze.

'I'm sorry son, but you're the only one on the ground with enough hours in One to pull this off.'

'No.' John shook his head again, felt his limbs weaken at the thought of what his father was asking him to do. 'No. No way. Are any of you listening to yourselves? Berezhnia might be at war, but we aren't!'

'We are at war.' Jeff's mouth set, hard. 'I am at war. And I will do whatever it takes to end it.' He looked at John, cursed his middle son's moral conscience. 'At top speed you can be in and out before Berezhnia knows you're even there. They won't know who the aggressor is. They won't have a clue who or what hit them.'

'They will make assumptions,' John said, coldly, clearly, 'and that might be just enough to restart the conflict.'

Jeff stared into John's blue, blue eyes, wondered what twist of genetic heritage had brought this strange, pale man into his life. 'This could be our only chance of finding your brother and Brains and getting them out of there alive. John…' Jeff's voice caught, hitched on something akin to doubt. 'We have to try.'

* * * * *

Brains stared down at his ruined hands, pulled feebly at the ties that held his wrists to the chair, tried to move his torn fingers. He hissed in pain as the broken flesh refused to move and blood pulsed thickly to the floor.

In the early days Scott had prepared him for this. Taught him how to deal with torture. But what he had really needed, Brains thought as a fist caught him in the face and sent another rush of blood across his tongue, had been for Scott to hit him once or twice. Really hit him. Maybe tear a fingernail out of its bed to give him a taste, just a taste, of the agony that could be inflicted on the human body. To show him how it burned along your nerve endings. How it became focussed, pinpoint sharp, until all of your existence became a constellation of bright, burning pain.

Another fist caught him full on the jaw, and Brains felt something inside him break.

'Stop.' Brains hung his head, felt blood pool beneath his tongue. 'Razer is gone. It's gone. I d-destroyed it.'

Tereshchenko dropped his cigarette to the floor and crushed it carefully beneath his boot. He shook his head slowly, as if debating with himself. 'I don't think so.'

'Yes.' Brains watched as a stream of blood drooled from his mouth and dripped thickly into his lap. 'I-it's true.'

'Oh, my little one.' Tereshchenko slid a hand gently into Brains' hair and held it there, comforting and warm. 'You lie. A god would never destroy his most prized creation.'

* * * * *

60,000 feet and climbing.

The pressure suit was tight, but then it wasn't his. John had squeezed himself into one of Scott's old ones, the reinforced fabric restricting him around the shoulders and digging hard into his crotch. He squirmed on the seat as he rechecked his readings, silently cursed the helmet that was interfering with his field of view.

'Remember,' Jeff's voice droned into Thunderbird One's cockpit, was repeated in stereo through John's helmet comms half a second out of sync, made him feel like he was trapped in a bad movie where the picture and the sound were never going to match up. Two voices, none of which he wanted to hear. A nightmare place where sanity had diverged from reality.

'The Berezhni Sukho 43 has an absolute ceiling of 64,000 feet,' Jeff continued. 'Thunderbird One is radar-invisible so you will be able to avoid radar detection, but if they should locate you by other means and scramble aircraft to intercept, you'll need to maintain a minimum 80,000 feet altitude to avoid a visual ID.'

70,000 feet and climbing.

John licked his lips, lifted a hand from the control stick to run a finger across the helmet seal. Thunderbird One had never sustained this kind of altitude or this kind of speed for any length of time. If there was a loss of pressure, or if he had to eject…

'Remember, John,' his father continued, 'if they see you, it's all over.'

75,000 feet and climbing.

John peered out of the tiny viewport, watched as the edge of the earth curved away beneath him. Thunderbird One hovered, weightless, at the thinnest edge of the atmosphere.

'John,' Alan's voice filtered into his helmet. 'Check altitude. You're entering Berezhni airspace.'

'Almost there.' John watched as the altimeter climbed into the red, felt the cabin pressure cycle into overdrive as the external sensors strained against the extreme conditions. 'Check tracking.'

'Surface chatter indicates you're still clear. Target in sixty seconds.'

80,000 feet.

John locked the targeting system, poised his thumb over the firing button. 'Cross-check coordinates.'

'Coordinates confirmed.'

'Thunderbird One.' Jeff's voice returned through the airwaves. 'Radio silence from my mark.'

The comms died, left John with only himself and his thoughts and the laboured hiss of oxygen as it struggled through the cyclers.

His thumb twitched over the launch button as he considered how many times his eldest brother had been in exactly this situation. How many lives Scott must have taken in the course of his Air Force duties. Knew if their positions were reversed, that if Scott were up here and John were down there, that Scott would not hesitate to fire. Not for one second.

John's thumb stabbed down on the launch button. He felt the thud through One's fuselage as the missile separated from the launch bay, followed its trajectory on the scanner as it arced earthward. John switched the monitor to high res magnification as the missile reached its target, fifty metres above the facility that Alan had pinpointed from Thunderbird Five, watched as a shockwave of debris billowed silently out from the detonation point. A perfect sphere of disruption that engulfed and encapsulated the generator below.

'Okay, Alan,' John said to himself as he rolled Thunderbird One on her side and made for the border. 'You've got your few seconds. Find them.'

* * * * *

Tereshchenko waited until Scott was secured in the chair, smiled when Scott didn't struggle, didn't test the bonds that held him. He nodded, satisfied. 'I can see you are a sensible man, Captain Tracy.' Tereshchenko rolled the word Captain leisurely off his tongue, gratified to see Scott flinch at the title. 'That will make things very much easier.'

Scott stared at the big man, at the dark eyes hooded beneath the heavy brow. The globe in the ceiling highlighted the harsh angles of Tereshchenko's face, cast the general's features into grim planes of shadow and light.

'I am in a good mood today,' Tereshchenko continued when Scott didn't respond. 'A very good mood. I have won a wager. So, to celebrate,' he turned to the officer and waved him forward, 'it will be only blunt instruments for you.'

The lieutenant moved in close to Scott, slid a set of knuckledusters onto his already blood-stained hand. Flexed his fingers into a fist.

The bitter taste of adrenaline flooded Scott's mouth, sent his pulse-rate quickening, a thin sheen of sweat breaking out across his brow. He drew back as the officer moved closer, the knuckleduster glinting in the light from the single yellow bulb. The officer's fingers flexed again, live things desperate for the hot taste of pain.

'What do you want,' Scott asked, pointlessly, pulse thumping loud in his ears.

'It is simple,' Tereshchenko replied. 'I want Dr Ross to watch.'

Scott risked a glance beyond the circle of yellow light, where Brains hunkered brokenly in the shadows, then turned to eye Tereshchenko squarely. He wanted to say something, anything, wanted to show these bastards that he wasn't afraid. But his body failed him, his throat closing on the impulse, the spit drying in his mouth and leaving him staring at the big man silently as the lieutenant stepped between them.

Tereshchenko pushed his chair back, allowed the officer some room.

* * * * *

'John.' Alan's voice sounded loud in the cockpit. 'You're being tracked.'

John stabbed a finger at the comms. 'What happened to radio silence?'

'Too late for that. They know you're there.'

Shit.

John stared at the radar, lips tightening at the seven targets identified at its farthest margins and closing. 'I thought this thing was radar-invisible.'

'It is. They must have locked onto your exhaust.'

John rechecked the radar, cross-checked the location of the Sukho's on his tail. 'Increasing speed,' he said, gratified to see the seven blips fall away on the radar.

Alan's voice pierced the space inside John's helmet. 'Two more targets attempting intercept.'

What?

John refocussed his radar, identified the two blips closing in ahead and below him. 'What's their range? Surely they can't reach this high.'

'They can't,' Alan said. 'But a missile might if they get a lock on your heat source.'

Which means, Johnny-boy, it's just a matter of time before a missile is targeted right for your stupid ass.

Shit. John angled the control column, arced Thunderbird One off the intercept trajectory.

'Son,' Jeff's voice cut into the cockpit. 'You can't risk a missile lock. Take her up to 90,000.'

John glanced at the control panel. 'The altimeter doesn't even go that high!'

'Then push it!'

Christ! John's fingers curled tight on the control stick as he forced Thunderbird One's engine past the safety margin and sent her barrelling into the upper atmosphere. The hull creaked and groaned around him, followed by a sharp pop and the sudden loss of pressure as the life-support system crashed, the external sensors no longer able to relay accurate data to the processors.

Alan,' John said, skin crawling as the gravity failed, his stomach churning with the unexpected change in equilibrium as his senses struggled to demarcate up from down. 'Eyes open for me.' He slammed the faceplate of his helmet down, activated the regulator and flooded the pressure suit with oxygen.

'Missiles locked.' Alan's voice was leaden as he relayed the inevitable. 'Launched.'

John armed the escape hatch as a precaution, felt sweat break out slick across his skin. Altitude suit or not, if One's engines flamed out and he had to bail at 90,000 feet, it was going to kill him.

'John,' Jeff said, his voice tinged with urgency. 'Top speed, now!'

John gritted his teeth and aimed Thunderbird One towards the dark space above. Screamed her protesting beyond the farthest edges of the atmosphere.

* * * * *

'Stop!'

The lieutenant halted mid-strike, dropped his balled fist to his side. Tereshchenko turned away from Scott, fixed his gaze on Brains.

'I'll t-tell you.' Brains dropped his head, stared at the patchwork of blood and water on the floor.

'Brains,' Scott slurred through bloodied lips as his head fell limply back against the chair. 'Don't.'

'I'll tell you e-everything.' Brains looked at Tereshchenko, carefully avoided Scott's eyes. 'What Razer is, a-and where you can find it.'

* * * * *

Part Five

* * * * *

John strode into the lounge and dropped his helmet to the couch. 'We shouldn't have done it.'

'John - '

'It was a stupid idea. Pointless. We found nothing!' John stood in the centre of the room, shaking, muscles trembling from an overload of adrenaline, the residue of the fight or flight that had so recently flooded his body.

'More importantly,' he said as he met his father's eyes, 'Thunderbird One was tracked. What if they figure out who it was? What if International Rescue is identified?'

'That won't happen,' Jeff said.

'But what if it does?'

'It won't!' Jeff shot back. 'John.' He took a steadying breath. 'It was worth a shot. We're running out of options.'

'Worth a shot? I barely made it out of there alive! We have,' John's jaw clamped down, forced his words grinding through his teeth, 'no…more…options!' He inhaled a steadying breath through his nostrils and fought against the tremor that reached deep into his bones, ignored the looks Gordon and Virgil were giving him, wound far too tight to meet their eyes. He stared at his father, at the blue-grey gaze filled with unwavering determination. And desperation. Realised there was no longer any point arguing. Shit.

'Dad.' The defeat in Alan's voice dissipated the last of John's anger. 'During the few minutes that the field was out of phase, I found no sign of Scott or Brains' wristcoms. Either they're not in Berezhnia or their comms have been destroyed. Or both.'

Jeff turned to stare at Alan's face through the feed, clamped down tight on his frustration.

'So we're right back where we started,' Virgil said when his father didn't respond, 'with no idea which side of the border we should be looking.'

Gordon turned back to the map he had been studying. 'Alan has verified there are no signs of wreckage of any kind on the Russian side of the border. It's pretty clear Scott and Brains must have been forced into Berezhnia.'

'Is it clear?' Virgil turned on Gordon. 'Is it?'

'Virgil.' Gordon looked up, met his brother's gaze squarely. 'You're not the only one missing a brother,' he said before turning back to his maps. 'Whoever has them,' he continued, not waiting for a response, 'they're smart. They know exactly what they're doing.'

'So we're back to waiting.' John unzipped his pressure suit and flopped wearily onto the nearest chair, ran a still-trembling hand through his sweat-dampened hair. 'Shit,' he said into the silence. 'Dad - '

The vidphone chimed, its shrill tone slicing through the air.

Jeff turned to the screen, visibly relaxed when he saw the caller ident. 'It's the office,' he said as he leaned in to accept the call. 'Just give me a minute.'

'Mr Tracy.' The face of Jeff's PA appeared on the screen. 'I have an incoming video call for you. Can I transfer - '

'Not now, Marta,' Jeff cut in. 'Hold everything until you hear from me.'

'I understand Mr Tracy, but…'

Jeff paused. It wasn't like his longstanding PA to persist against his wishes - she knew him a hell of a lot better than that. 'What is it, Marta?'

'It sounded important, Mr Tracy. The caller says it's about your interests in Berezhnia. I thought you should - '

Jeff froze. 'Who is the caller?'

'A Mr Tereshchenko.'

* * * * *

Scott stumbled down the first few steps, smacked roughly against the wall.

'Hey,' he said as he was shoved again and forced the rest of the way down the short flight of stairs. He fell tripping into the narrow corridor, feet catching on the damp cement, off-balance with his hands still cuffed in front of him. He collided limply with the wall, leaned against it for balance and tried to fill his lungs with air, tasted blood at the back of his throat. He coughed, glanced back to find the two guards closing in behind him.

It was now… or never.

Scott turned on his toes and lunged for one of the guards, span away from the surprised officer with a pistol clutched tight between his shackled hands. He fired wildly towards the guards, bullets thunking uselessly into the wall and sending splinters of stone spinning through the air. The recoil sent him staggering backward, fumbling at the weapon as the second officer pulled out his pistol and let off a round.

There was a sharp crack, the crunch of metal hitting bone as the bullet caught Scott and sent him spinning, the impact slamming him into the wall as the gun clattered noisily from his grip. He blinked through the haze that rose swimming in his eyes, slid limp to the ground, grinned through bloodied teeth at the two officers as they towered over him.

The first officer grinned back, aimed a boot into his stomach.

Scott curled around the pain, coughing, choking on blood that rose thick in his lungs. He spat, felt another smile break across his face, a hint of hysteria rising in his throat.

It had been worth a shot.

* * * * *

'You are a clever man, Jeff Tracy. I am impressed. The combined military might of three countries has not been enough to expose us so thoroughly. Of course,' the words were heavy and thick, weighed down by the hard consonants of the tundra, 'these days they wouldn't even try. They would be far more concerned about the political implications of such an action.'

Jeff leaned forward in his chair, enunciated his words very carefully. 'Fortunately I am not a man to let politics get in my way.'

Tereshchenko smiled, displayed his square yellow teeth. 'Did you find what you were looking for?'

Jeff's face steeled, his silence speaking volumes.

'No matter. I have what you want, Jeff Tracy. And you have something that I want, very much.'

'What could you possibly have,' Jeff leaned back in his chair, 'that I want?'

Tereshchenko leaned back in his own chair, mirrored Jeff's movements in careful parody. For a moment he studied his opponent, then reached for a sheet of paper. 'Captain Scott Tracy,' he read aloud. 'United States Air Force. Service number AF17282310. Retired.' He leaned forward suddenly, flipping the paper so that Jeff could see. A perfect facsimile of Scott's service record, replete with colour ID.

'That's just a piece of paper,' Jeff shrugged, tamping down hard on his fear. 'I'm going to need something more.'

'Hmm.' Tereshchenko flipped the paper again, studied it thoughtfully. 'During the war,' he said, slowly, thickly, 'Captain Tracy was quite active along the Russian border. The destruction of a number of our Sukho 43s have been attributed directly to his actions.' He dropped the paper and leaned in close to the monitor. 'Those planes are very expensive.'

'What,' Jeff asked evenly, 'do you want?'

Tereshchenko smiled, the thick lips barely visible beneath the heavy moustache. 'I will be willing to forego compensation for my aircraft if you hand over all material pertaining to Project Razer.'

'Razer? What's that?'

Tereshchenko's mouth twisted. 'Do you really want to play this game?'

Jeff studied the larger man's features, considered carefully. 'You promised me,' he finally said, 'something that I want.'

A smirk of satisfaction passed across Tereshchenko's face. 'Your son will be returned to you.'

'And Dr Ross?'

'There is no such person.'

Now it was Jeff's turn to smile, tight, and hard. 'I see.' He leaned in close to the monitor. 'Unfortunately neither of us can provide something that doesn't exist.'

Tereshchenko's smirk disappeared. There was the sound of scuffling, a barked order in Berezhni, and Brains' face appeared, grainy on the monitor.

Jeff stared at the screen, at Brains' swollen face, the slash of red that sliced vertically through both lips, the gouge that crusted deep across his cheek. Another order was barked, and there was the sound of something heavy thumping dully against flesh. Brains flinched, blinked his bruised eyes.

'M-Mr Tracy,' he said, swallowing. 'I'm sorry…'

Jeff said nothing. Didn't trust himself.

'They want… they want…' The words croaked painfully from Brain's torn mouth, the split in his lip reopening and loosening a thin flow of blood.

'I know what they want,' Jeff said, calmly, levelly, afraid his voice might break.

Brains nodded, a nervous tremor as his eyes focussed on something beyond the screen. Jeff studied his friend on the monitor, watched as the battered face turned once more in his direction.

'They're going to kill us, Mr Tracy.'

The words were whispered, but they were the loudest that Jeff had ever heard. 'Then I know what I need to do.'

Their eyes met, unspoken words passing across a thousand miles of despair.

'No,' Brains said, a hint of panic rising in his voice. 'You can't.'

* * * * *

Part Six

* * * * *

The hangar lift was the fastest on the island, but today it seemed to take an age to drop from the villa to the hangar deck. Virgil pressed himself against the rear of the lift, mentally counted off each floor as it clicked by, stared unseeing at the back of his father's head. Beside Jeff, John stood skewed at an angle, still clad in the flight suit, his expression blank and inscrutable. Virgil opened his mouth, filled the uneasy silence with words.

'Who was that, Father?'

'General Goran Tereshchenko,' Jeff stated matter-of-factly. 'The architect of the war.'

'Tereshchenko?' Virgil's mind arced back to an old newsfeed, recalled now very vaguely. 'Isn't he dead?'

'Gone to ground, more like.' Jeff looked sideways at his son. 'Until something big enough to get him out of his foxhole came along.'

Virgil glanced at John as the elevator settled onto the deck of the hangar complex. If John was as disturbed as Virgil was at this turn of events, there was no sign of it in his posture or the unflinching line of his jaw. Virgil tensed as the doors swished softly apart, the warm air of the elevator swirling out into the cool air of the darkened cavern beyond.

'Right,' Jeff said as he stepped out of the lift. 'Virgil. Where did you last see it?'

* * * * *

Brains fell stumbling into the cell as the metal door clanged shut behind him, collapsed to his knees on the damp cement.

'Brains?'

'Scott?' Brains rose shakily, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the dim light of the cell, a tiny window high in the wall letting in a leaden stream of light and a waft of ice-cold air. Brains looked up at the rectangular slit, saw a patch of featureless grey cloud, the kind that presaged snow.

'Are you okay?' The words were dull, slurred through Scott's swollen lips.

Brains turned from his contemplation of the world outside the window, stood shivering in the cold air.

'Sit down, Brains, before you fall down.'

'I should… I-I should…'

Scott straightened against the wall, wincing at the movement. He indicated the patch of damp ground beside him with his eyes. Sit.

Brains shuffled the few steps towards him, leaned defeated against the stonework. 'Scott,' he said as he slid down the wall to sit beside him. 'I'm sorry.'

Scott said nothing, shifted uncomfortably on the damp cement. 'Brains,' he said at last. 'I need your help.'

Brains turned to look at him.

Scott's cuffed hands fell from his midriff and exposed his bloodied shirt. 'Bullet,' he said, grimacing. 'It's impacted on a rib. You might be able to dig it out.'

'S-Scott…' Brains lifted his bloodied hands, fingers swollen and torn.

'Shit. Brains - '

'I'm sorry, Scott.' Brains rested his hands on his thighs, palms up, swallowed hard on the moan that threatened at the back of his throat. 'I n-never meant for this to h-happen.'

Scott returned his hands to his stomach, felt the jagged edge of the bullet rising through his flesh. He cradled the wound beneath his shirt, cushioned the hurt with his fingers. 'What I don't get is how they tracked you down.'

Brains sat silent in the half-light.

'We thought of everything, Brains. Everything. There's no way - '

'Vasek,' Brains said, afraid to admit to Scott that his stupidity had probably killed them.

'What?' Scott's wound throbbed beneath his fingertips.

'Last year, w-when we were in Houston.'

'Houston.' Scott leaned his head against the damp wall, grunted softly as the bullet shifted beneath his skin.

'I was waiting, for you, i-in the foyer of Boeing, when I bumped into Professor Vasek. We worked together a-a few times, when I was with the WDF.' Brains turned to study Scott's face, his eyes dropping to the blood that stained Scott's shirt. 'I, ah, didn't think he recognised me. You know, with my glasses and, the, ah, haircut.'

Scott coughed, braced himself against the pain that shot pulsing from his wound.

Brains lifted the back of his hand, rubbed at the blood that had crusted on his face. He blinked his swollen eyelids, remembered the professor blinking at him in Houston, the look of confusion that had passed across the old man's face, and then the blankness of expression that followed. Brains dropped his head. 'He must have recognised who, who I was, and then p-passed on the information.'

'Vasek,' Scott repeated. 'I know him. He tried to sell us a patent for zero point energy that could be used for space travel.' Scott's hands shifted beneath his shirt, blood congealing warm around his fingers. 'He was persistent, from what I remember.' He slid a finger into the tear in his flesh, groped for the blunt end of the bullet amongst the jagged shards of bone.

'He was a-always persistent. A-and he was always desperate. I didn't have much to do with him, but, ah, I didn't like him.' Brains fell silent, remembering the stink of madness that seemed to follow Vasek like an invisible cloud.

Scott sucked air through his teeth as his fingers closed on metal. 'Why didn't you say anything when we were in Houston?' He scraped the bullet from the bone, said, gasping, 'why didn't you tell me?'

'It's been nine years, Scott.' Brains stared down at the palms of his hands, at the blood crusted black in the creases. 'I was so different then, I was just a-a kid. I, I didn't think anybody w-would recognise me... didn't think anybody was still, still looking.'

Scott raised the bullet in the feeble light, dropped it listlessly to the floor. Brains started at the sound, watched as the bullet fell ringing to the cement.

Scott closed his eyes, said wearily, 'somebody will always be looking.'

Brains looked away from the bullet in its tiny puddle of blood. 'I'm so thirsty.' He glanced towards the bolted door. 'Do you think…'

Scott shook his head and bunched his shirt to staunch the bleeding. 'I've been in this hotel a while now, and the room service is lousy.'

* * * * *

'So,' Virgil said as they walked towards the storage bays, unable to keep his silence any longer. 'Since when did Brains go by the name Gary Ross? I always thought his name was Hackenbacker.'

'No,' Jeff replied. 'Hackenbacker is an alias. An alias on top of an alias.'

Virgil glanced at John, questioning. Did you know?

John responded with a shake of his head. 'Dad, are you telling us that Brains is Gary Ross? The Gary Ross?'

Jeff halted at the far end of a series of containment bays. 'Which one, Virgil.'

'Bay Two,' Virgil replied, then added, 'Who is Gary Ross?'

'C'mon, Virg,' John said as Jeff keyed the bay door open. 'Remember? In 2019 at the height of the Berezhni conflict, all sorts of rumours came out that the US had developed a new weapon. One that would end the war as decisively as Little Boy ended World War Two.'

'But that never happened,' Virgil pointed the way towards the far end of the containment area. 'There was no such weapon, and the conflict never ended.'

'That's because the weapon and its designer disappeared. The designer was supposed to be Gary Ross.'

'And the weapon,' Jeff added, 'was codenamed Project Razer.'

John and Virgil came to an abrupt halt.

'There really was such a weapon?' John asked, his words tinged with surprise.

Jeff nodded. 'And the only surviving piece of it is stored somewhere down here.'

John walked forward to match his father's stride. 'You're kidding.'

'I wish I was, son.' Jeff paused as Virgil moved past them and seized the handle of a large metal case, pulled it bodily from the shelf to the floor. Virgil unlatched the container and opened the lid wide on its hinges. Inside, Braman lay swaddled in foam padding, his copper body inert and flimsy, a contraption hardly capable of bringing a country to its knees.

'Are you sure, Dad?' Virgil shook his head. 'Braman always seemed so…'

'What?' said Jeff.

'Stupid,' John supplied.

'Pointless.' Virgil looked at his father. 'And what about Brains... Gary Ross?' he corrected, the name sounding foreign on his tongue.

'What about him?' Jeff knelt on the concrete floor and wrestled at Braman's heavy bulk. 'Give me a hand. We need to turn this thing over.'

'Well, he's - ' Virgil closed his mouth, slid his hands between the foam and Braman's cool metal body.

'He's a fugitive,' John filled in. 'From the United States Government. And this,' he continued as he helped heave Braman out of the case, 'is government property. A secret weapon. A stolen weapon. Dad,' John said soberly, pausing all three men in their labour. 'For the last nine years you've been harbouring a fugitive. We've been harbouring a fugitive. Not to mention this,' he pointed at Braman sprawled awkwardly half-in and half-out of his box. His voice lowered, became urgent. 'Do you know what the penalty is for - '

'Of course I know.' Jeff continued to tug at Braman. 'Help me turn him over.' All three heaved awkwardly at the robot until Braman spilled suddenly out of his box. 'What the hell was I supposed to do? Brains came to me for help. And I needed…' He paused as they rolled Braman onto his stomach.

'You needed him,' John completed the statement as Braman settled face down on the floor.

'No. International Rescue needed him.' Jeff knelt on one knee and carefully removed Braman's back panel. 'It's complicated. I'd approached Brains numerous times to work for the corporation, but then the military got to him. Not even I could match the money they were throwing at him.'

Virgil squatted close by his father. 'Brains never seemed the sort to care about money.'

'He doesn't.' Jeff reached into his back pocket. 'But military money comes with resources. And a man like that needs a lot of resources.'

Jeff carefully unfolded a sheet of lined notepaper and handed it to John. 'Brains left instructions in case anything like this… well. In case.' He worked free one of Braman's inner circuit boards, paused and looked up at John. 'I'm going to need your help.'

* * * * *

Tereshchenko waited patiently as his officers hustled Scott and Brains to their feet and backed them up against the wall, annoyed that there was always the struggle, the necessity for violence. Pissed that in all his years of entertaining guests, none of them had ever felt inclined towards cooperation. Tracy, in particular, seemed uncommonly recalcitrant, despite his recent beating. Unlike his friend Ross, who staggered himself brokenly to his feet and turned his hollow eyes toward the ground.

Tereshchenko stifled a smirk as guns were drawn, the butt of one colliding with Tracy's already bruised face. His lips closed around his cigarette as Tracy sagged back against the wall with the argument knocked out of him, sucked hard on the tobacco as his eyes drifted from Tracy's face to his chest, lingered on the butterfly of blood that spread its wings wet across the captain's shirt. He frowned, not remembering that dark blot from the interrogation. Tereshchenko's eyes slid to the grinning guards. He would have to talk to somebody about that.

The general waved the guards away and stepped closer to the Americans, saw now that Tracy's face was grey beneath the bruising, all the life in him drained out to stain his clothes. No matter.

'Your father is a very cooperative man,' Tereshchenko said to Tracy as he removed the cigarette from his lips, dropped it sizzling into the thin puddle at his feet. 'He has agreed to hand over Project Razer.'

'No…' Ross murmured as he leant shakily against the wall, fumbled with his torn fingers for support against the stone.

'You seem surprised, Dr Ross.' Tereshchenko turned his attention towards the scientist. 'But you must remember, Jeff Tracy is a business man. He well understands the nature of supply and demand.'

'And after my father supplies your demands,' Tracy attempted to step forward, fell weakly back against the wall for support. 'Then what?'

The smile faded from Tereshchenko's face. He glanced at the captain's bloodied shirt, then moved towards to the door.

'Then what?'

Tereshchenko stopped, but didn't turn around. 'I won't need you anymore.'

'And Dr Ross?'

'Unfortunately for Dr Ross,' Tereshchenko inclined his head and displayed his Slavic profile, bared his teeth in a wolf-like grin, 'I will be needing him for a little bit longer.'

* * * * *

Part Seven

* * * * *

'And this is what Tereschenko wants?' Gordon popped the catches on the case and flipped the lid open. The aluminium clanged noisily as it slammed against the floor of the pod and echoed ringing from the curved dome of the ceiling.

'Jesus, Gordon.' John clamped a hand around Gordon's arm and yanked him away from the case. 'Careful!'

Gordon pulled his arm from his brother's grip. 'Braman?' he queried, too surprised to be pissed by John's rough handling. 'I don't get it. Braman is Project Razer?'

Jeff pushed his fingers through his hair, brushed back the strands that clung to the sweat on his forehead. 'It's not what it seems, son.'

Gordon quirked an eyebrow speculatively and looked down at the robot in its box. 'How's it supposed to seem, Dad?'

Jeff's hand fell, his fingers damp with sweat. 'While Brains was with the WDF,' he began, staring down at the inert mound of copper and wire and plexiglass plating that was laid out carefully on the foam rubber, 'Brains was working on…' He stopped, wiped his hand absently against the faded denim of his jeans.

'Working on what,' Gordon prodded.

'A robot army,' Jeff said, simply.

'So what?' Gordon shrugged his shoulders. 'It's been done before. They're doing it right now.'

'Not like this.'

Gordon's eyes narrowed. 'What do you mean?'

Jeff's lips clamped together as he considered how far he could go. How much deeper into this hole he should drag the rest of his family.

'Dad?'

Hell. They were already at the bottom.

'Two reasons.' Jeff released a long-pent breath, hadn't realised he had stopped breathing. 'Razer Force robots were capable of thinking on their own, anticipating enemy manoeuvres, capable of thought-association and logical sequencing.'

'How is that possible?' Virgil tramped heavily up the ramp to join them and dumped an armful of cold-weather gear at their feet.

'Brains had written an algorithm that predicted human behaviour.' Jeff looked at each of his sons, met their eyes one by one. Made sure they understood the meaning behind his words. 'He had literally reduced humanity to a series of zeros and ones. It was the algorithms that made the robots so unique. Their ability to understand human nature and predict our actions was so uncanny it seemed as though they were psychic.'

'I still don't get it.' Virgil squatted beside the box, stared hard at the plexiglass plate of Braman's face as if seeing it for the first time. 'This thing couldn't even win at chess.'

'Brains had been trying to teach Braman to be more… human. Humanistic Reasoning, he called it. He was trying to ensure his robots could never be used the way the governments of the world wanted to use them. That's what the chess was about. He was trying to introduce a margin of error. Trying to find a flaw in his own design that he could exploit.'

'Then why the hell did Brains make this thing in the first place?'

Jeff shook his head. 'You know what Brains is like. He thought he was doing it for the greater good. Saving lives by sending robots to fight wars instead of people. When Brains realised what the WDF planned to do with them, when he envisaged a world overrun by robot armies…'

John moved closer to Braman's box. 'I just don't see how - '

Jeff looked up sharply. 'Imagine fighting an army that has every probability calculated. Every contingency accounted for. Every possible action and reaction prepared for. There's no fighting a force like that. There is no attack and counter-attack. There is no defence, there is no negotiation. There is only running and hiding. And with an army of Bramans, even that has been calculated in advance.'

Jeff inhaled a deep and shuddering breath, looked at each of his sons in turn. 'An army of Bramans doesn't know compassion, doesn't understand pain and fear and surrender. Such an army would hunt down the fleeing, find them in whatever hole they had crawled inside and destroy them. If that capability got into the wrong hands…'

'But it isn't in the wrong hands,' John said. 'And we need to keep it that way. We need to destroy it.'

'Destroying it isn't an option.'

'Why isn't it an option? You can't seriously be thinking of giving this thing to the Berezhnis.'

'John - '

'We can't just hand it over!'

'We have to!'

* * * * *

Scott jolted from the half-sleep he had fallen into, an uncomfortable doze punctuated by moments of wakefulness as pain seeped steadily from his wound and the cold shook his body with random fits of shivering. He cracked an eye open to the darkness of the cell, closed it again. Night had fallen outside the tiny window, the same long and arctic darkness that had greeted him when they first threw him in here. He shivered again, winced at the movement, coughed unexpectedly.

Christ.

Scott hunched forward, a gasp breaking from his lips. Christ, he thought again as another cough rattled through his lungs and something thick and warm and wet filled his mouth. He spat into the darkness, tasted the familiar salt-sweet tang of blood on his tongue.

'What…?' Brains murmured in the dark beside him, and Scott felt a hand brush against his thigh. 'Scott?'

Scott inhaled a shallow breath, wondered when had it become so hard to breathe.

Brains shifted in the dark. 'What's happening?'

'Nothing.' Scott leaned back against the wall, forced his labouring lungs into motion. Forced his fear back into its box.

He knew exactly what was happening. Could feel it, there in the dark, as the splinters of his rib worked their way into his lung.

* * * * *

'Dad.' Gordon's voice echoed through the Pod, broke Jeff and John out of their stalemate. 'You said Braman did two things. What else does it do?'

Jeff looked down at Braman in his box, at the plexiglass faceplate that stared unseeing towards him. 'Molecular disruption,' he said, softly.

The brothers exchanged looks. Identical expressions mirrored in three very different faces.

'What?' John's voice rose an octave.

'Did you say molecular disruption?' Gordon's voice came out in a whisper, tinged with something akin to disbelief.

'You mean we had a molecular disruptor,' Virgil said, 'and we never used it?'

'You have got to be kidding!' John turned on Virgil. 'What the hell for?'

'Think of the possibilities,' Virgil replied, envisaging the practicalities for the briefest of moments and looking at his brother as though it were John that had lost his mind. 'Rock walls, metal structures… With a molecular disruptor, there's no place we couldn't go. Nobody we couldn't rescue.'

'You're right,' John agreed angrily. 'Nothing would stand in our way.' His eyes locked on his father's. 'And nobody.'

Jeff turned away from his son's steady gaze. 'We tried to find a safe way to use it, but we never could. It was too dangerous. Too easy to misuse… Too easy to make mistakes.' He exhaled a heavy breath as he unloaded his burden of guilt. The secrets of a decade exposed, at last, to the light. 'Brains demonstrated it, once. Not even dust was left behind.'

There was silence in the pod, the faint sounds of the hangar and the constant tick of machinery dissolving away into nothing.

'Has it been functional,' Gordon asked quietly, 'all this time?'

'Not completely.' Jeff didn't look up. 'Not until now.'

'It should have been destroyed,' John said.

'He's right.' Gordon agreed. 'You can't seriously be thinking of giving Braman to Tereshchenko. Not like this. Not functioning.'

'What choice do we have?' Anger rose in Virgil's voice. 'We're talking about Scott and Brains' lives!'

'Except it isn't just two people's lives we're talking about, is it?' An equal anger rose in John, coloured his cheeks a patchwork of red. 'There's a lot more at stake here than just Scott and Brains!'

Virgil's mouth fell open. 'I can't believe you said that.' He looked searchingly towards his father, at Gordon, and then back at John. 'You think we should, what? Just leave them?'

John stared hard at his brother. 'Think of what we're about to do, Virgil. Braman is the sole surviving Razer robot. Tereshchenko could use him as a template to make an entire fucking army!'

'Except Tereshchenko doesn't need Braman,' Jeff cut in. 'This is just a game he's playing, to screw me over and to save himself some time. Why does he need Braman when he has - '

'Brains.' Virgil looked desperately at his father. At his two brothers. 'If we don't make this easy for Tereshchenko… then who knows what he'll do to Brains… or to…' The blood drained from his face as the occupants of the pod fell silent once more.

Jeff stared at the pressed metal of the pod floor, bit down hard on the inside of his lip and tasted blood.

'Dad?'

'Virgil.' Jeff didn't look up. 'Load the tractor-truck.' He slid his fingers beneath the lid of Braman's case and slammed it shut. 'And put the snow-treads on her. We have a rendezvous to keep.'

Gordon raised an eyebrow. 'What, exactly, are we walking into?'

'I have no damned idea.' Jeff straightened and came eye to eye with Gordon. 'We'll need to weapon up. Sniper rifles, and I want you on point.' His eyes slid to Virgil and John and back to Gordon again. 'And if you have to shoot,' he said pointedly, his expression unclouded and clear, 'shoot to kill.'

* * * * *

Scott startled to alertness as the cell door slammed open and flooded the room with a shaft of yellow light. He blinked into the glare as a half-dozen soldiers poured into the room, their silhouettes dark against the light. Scott blinked again, squinted blindly as the shadows crowded around him, gloved hands reaching out and dragging him bodily into standing.

What now?

He leaned against the wall as Brains was dragged up beside him, lowered his head against the glare as a gun was prodded into his chest. Scott looked down at the polished barrel, lips twisting as the scent of machine oil drifted up from the weapon. He risked a glance sideways at the soldier's face, the heavy features set implacably in stone. He looked hard into the guard's dark eyes and issued an unspoken challenge, saw the guard's fist rise slowly in response.

Tereshchenko's voice echoed from the doorway, a barked order in Berezhni that caused the guard's raised fist to drop like a stone. Scott smirked, lifted an eyebrow fleetingly in further challenge, watched as the blood rose in the guard's face and an epithet was issued in quiet Berezhni.

'Be careful with your games,' Tereshchenko said to Scott. 'I cannot always protect you.'

'Protect us?' Scott said, his body still burning from the cuts and the bruises and the bullet wound that sparked at him with relentless stabs of pain. He would have laughed at the ludicrousness of the statement, but his lungs wouldn't let him.

'Yes,' Tereshchenko hissed, stepping closer. 'If it were not for me, you would already be buried and forgotten.' He exhaled softly, the stale scent of cigarette smoke washing into Scott's face.

Scott returned his gaze, unflinching, and inhaled the big man's breath into his burning lungs. 'So what now?' he rasped, tasted metal at the back of his throat.

'Now,' Tereshchenko said, surveying his captive with a critical eye, 'we go to Siberia.'

'Siberia?' Scott blinked in confusion. 'That's Russian territory.'

The General shook his head indulgently. 'Do you not watch CNN? Russia has a new government. One that is sympathetic to Berezhnia's cause.' Tereshchenko smiled, showed his big teeth. 'Things are at last changing in this part of the world.'

A hand twisted into the collar of Scott's shirt and heaved him away from the wall, hustled him towards the open door. The soldiers surrounded him, unsmiling, efficient, primed for assault. Scott raised his shackled hands, inclined his head to indicate he would come along quietly.

He had no fight left in him anyway, not after half the blood had drained from his body and been left congealing on the dungeon floor.

* * * * *

'This isn't going to work,' John said to Jeff as they waited for Virgil to secure the tractor-truck in the pod. 'These things never work!'

'What choice do we have?'

'There must be some other way. The government…'

'John, you heard Foster. The government isn't going to help us, and if they knew what was really happening, if they realised we'd been sitting on Gary Ross and Project Razer all this time...'

John shook his head. 'This thing is big, Dad. Too big.'

'We can contain it.' Jeff keyed his wristcom. 'Virgil, are you ready?'

'Couple more minutes, Father,' came the reply.

John's jaw locked down in frustration. 'And what happens if we can't contain it? What happens when everything goes to shit?'

Because it was going to go to shit, he wanted to say, and then we'll all be dead.

'Then we use Braman,' Jeff said. 'We use him the way he was meant to be used.'

'You're joking.'

'I've never been more serious in my life.'

* * * * *

Part Eight

* * * * *

The Berezhni helicarrier settled lightly on the frozen tundra, delicate despite the wind that buffeted wildly through the open cargo door, and more than once threatened to send the huge craft careening sideways.

Scott had to admire the pilot's skill in the unfavourable conditions. The helicarrier's contents of commandos and hostages had barely budged during the journey, and despite the swaying of the carrier in the high winds, and the semi-automatics that rested on the knees of the men hemming him in, Scott had felt strangely safe. Cozy. Warm for the first time in days.

The soldiers shifted as the rotors powered down, their elbows prodding into his sides as the weapons on their laps were lifted. Scott watched through lowered eyes as the barrels were primed, the hard click of ammunition sliding into chambers carrying clear above the wind that whistled in through the open door. Scott felt his eyes sliding shut. His lip curled wryly at the realisation that it was the blood-loss lulling him. That the contented settling of his bones into the jump seat was encouraged by the light-headedness that fogged his brain - that familiar fuzzy sensation, as though he was skirting along the edge of comfortably drunk.

Scott leaned back against the bulkhead. Turned his bemused face upwards to find Tereshchenko towering over him, smiling bemusedly in return.

'I am pleased to see you are enjoying yourself.' Tereshchenko nodded at the guards.

Fingers curled hard into Scott's biceps and hoisted him unprotesting into standing. He stood, unmoving despite the activity that carried on in the dimly lit transport bay around him, eye to eye with Tereshchenko.

'Enjoyment,' Scott said with all the flippancy he could muster, 'is entirely relative.'

The smile fell from Tereshchenko's face. He took a step back as Brains was hustled along the deck between them and propelled unprotesting towards the cargo door.

'Then let us see,' Tereshchenko said, with the red light of menace rising in his eyes, 'how much you enjoy what is coming next.'

* * * * *

'I can't see him.'

'If the plan works, then we'll never see him.' John shifted gears with a curse as the tractor-truck heaved its way up a short incline of snowdrift. He flicked his gaze sideways at Virgil in the passenger seat, his brother's eyes glued to a pair of digital binoculars as he scanned the featureless terrain ahead. 'If the plan works,' John muttered, flipping the wipers into high speed to combat a renewed flurry of snow.

'It'll work,' Jeff said from behind him, where he sat hunched in parka and gloves.

John glanced at his father in the rear-vision mirror. The super-hearing Jeff had been renowned and feared for in their childhood still showed no signs of infirmity. A bit like the old man himself... John shifted the transmission into higher gear as the truck rolled down the incline and settled with a jolt onto flatter ground.

Ahead of them, somewhere, Gordon should have hunkered in. He'd taken off on a snowmobile the moment they'd touched down, helmeted and masked and looking like the Michelin Man puffed-up in white. Invisible against the snow except for the dark silhouette of the sniper rifle that clung to his back. He'd said nothing as John had wedged a tracker into his gloved hand, their silence hot between them and hanging like clouds in the air.

One hour across the tundra behind them, Thunderbird Two rested in the lee of a small hill, trusting in the steady drift of snow and the deteriorating visibility to keep her hidden. Not that there were any people in this part of the world to stumble upon her - John had seen nothing during their hour travelling north. Not a tree, not a house, not even a clump of dead grass poking up through the snow. To his right the sun rested wanly on the horizon, a pale irritation in his peripheral vision when the flurries lifted, a dim recollection when the snowdrifts gathered their strength and obliterated the sky.

'Al.' John took one hand from the wheel and raised his wristcom to his mouth. 'What can you see?'

'Nothing.' Alan's response didn't miss a beat, his voice far away and punctuated by bursts of interference. 'Intelsat 9 just passed over your position, but the weather's too bad to get a visual. Geosat 5 will pass over in seventeen minutes, but as long as this weather holds up - '

'Can you get a fix on Gordon's tracker?' John glanced at Virgil, still scouring the snowdrifts for a sign of their brother.

Static filled the cab.

'Al?'

'Negative. The unit is dead.'

'The cold?' Jeff ventured from the rear compartment.

'Doubt it.' John turned in his seat to glance briefly at his father. 'I think the idiot's turned it off.'

'Your brother isn't an idiot, John.'

John turned back in his seat, clenched his fingers tight around the wheel.

'Makes sense,' Alan said over the connection, his voice competing with the wind that gusted against the cabin. 'It's possible someone else could have used it to track his location.'

'Great,' John muttered. 'So now nobody can track him.'

Virgil lowered the binoculars and raised a GPS-locator into the air, as if holding it twelve inches closer to the satellite would give a better signal.

'I can't see him,' Virgil said again, as though he hadn't heard a word that John and Alan had said.

John stared into the snow and spared Gordon some grudging admiration. If the idiot did this right, then nobody would see him.

* * * * *

The ramp bounced stiffly beneath Scott's feet as the soldiers hustled him out of the helicarrier, his knees flexing automatically to offset the spring of metal beneath a multitude of moving men. The company seemed to be in a hurry, and he noted Tereshchenko looking more than once at his timepiece and then raising his eyes to scan the white horizon. Scott spared the big man a scant glance. He had gone beyond envying the general his greatcoat and the furred military cap that nested on the faded oak of Tereshchenko's hair. He was even beyond shivering, now. The warmth and false comfort of the helicarrier seemed to have settled into his bones, taken away the cold and the trembling.

Which was a good thing , Scott decided as he sucked a shallow draft of freezing air into his lungs, because he needed to focus all his attention on breathing. Inhale. Don't cough. Exhale. Try not to throw up.

Scott reached the end of the ramp, his feet hitting the ground at a trot as the business-end of a rifle caught him in the back and moved him along. Brains was prodded along a few steps ahead of him, unprotesting, bone-weary. Broken. Scott's jaw tightened as the memory of Tereshchenko's torture chamber flooded unexpectedly through his mind's eye, and the moment when his friend had shattered.

Scott's feet moved through the shifting snow beneath his feet. He'd tried to buy the both of them time in that shithole. Hoped to hell that he was up to Tereshchenko's treatment, and that Brains would be able to ride it out. That Brains had enough faith in Scott not to break. Only -

A hand landed on Scott's shoulder and stopped him in his tracks. His toes shifted, numb in his shoes, and his frozen hands chafed in their bindings as the soldiers arranged themselves across the open ground and turned to face the tundra.

* * * * *

'This is it.' Virgil dropped the GPS to the dash as the tractor-truck rolled to a slow halt. He lifted the binoculars and scanned the near horizon.

Behind him Jeff straightened into alertness. He leaned forward in the rear seat and peered between the gusting rains of snow. 'Do you see them?'

'I can't see anything through this fucking mess.'

'Doesn't matter. They're there,' Jeff said with resigned finality. He unbuckled his restraints and zippered his jacket all the way to his throat.

'Wait.' Virgil continued to survey the scene. 'I can't see anything. Maybe the coordinates are…' The words died on his lips as the wind fell, permitted a brief moment of crystal clarity.

'Shit.'

Virgil lowered the binoculars. Handed them to his father.

* * * * *

Tereshchenko turned towards Scott and Brains. 'Let us display our items of trade.'

Brains was bundled through the broken line of soldiers, stumbling awkwardly as a rifle butt caught him from behind. He glanced sideways to see Scott standing his ground, implacable, immovable, and up to his ankles in snow. Scott shook his head, lips set in a grim line, the blue eyes blazing one final challenge.

Scott Tracy was going no further.

Tereshchenko permitted a touch of indulgence to crease the corners of his eyes as he barked a guttural command. Almost immediately a soldier's fist was raised and driven square into Scott's shattered rib.

'Now,' Tereshchenko smiled with amusement as the bone drove home and pierced Scott on its jagged edge, brought forth a dark eruption of blood from Scott's lips. 'No more games,' he said slowly, thickly. 'Not when we are so close to the end.'

Brains watched a grimace pass fleetingly across Scott's face as he sagged slowly to his knees and another order was barked in Berezhni. Scott's features smoothed angelically as a hand clamped down on his shoulder and prevented him from collapsing completely to the ground.

Didn't hurt, Scott's expression said as the guard hauled him upright and prepared for another strike.

Brains looked away before the guard's blow struck home, glanced back as Scott spat blood. His eyes searched Scott's pale face, and found that he was looking at him.

Brains' eyebrows came together. What?

Scott inclined his head, turned his eyes towards the horizon. There.

Brains squinted into the white air, felt his heart skip a beat as a smile threatened to break across his face.

Twin beams of yellow pierced the snow, and he would recognise the outline of the tractor-truck anywhere.

After all, he had built it.

* * * * *

Jeff handed back the binoculars as John and Virgil turned in their seats to face him. He positioned a ski visor over his eyes and opened the door of the cab, stepped out into a swirl of wind and snow and slammed the door shut.

Virgil hunkered back down in his seat, pulled the fleece of his jacket closer around his neck as Jeff opened the cargo bay and extracted Braman, and another blast of cold and ice flooded the interior of the truck. Virgil shivered as the cargo door banged shut. He turned to look at John, at his brother's unmoving profile bleached white by the glare that bled through the windscreen. 'I can't believe Scott knew about this and never told us.'

John exhaled through his nose. A deep sigh as his lips pressed tight together and the wind whistled through the rubber seals around the doors. He watched as his father trudged slowly through the snow, Braman two steps ahead of him and unsteady in the wind.

John aimed the binoculars towards the exchange point ahead, acutely aware of Virgil studying him from the passenger seat.

Did it surprise John that Scott could keep a secret of such magnitude from them?

No.

Their father had always kept secrets from them, was doubtless sitting on a myriad more that would never see the light of day. Whatever else, Scott and Jeff were the results of the same genetics, the same training. The same personalities pushed through the Air Force machine and expelled out the other side with the imprints of discipline and duty and death etched onto them in stone.

Secrets? You bet. Scott would be sitting on a million of them.

John lowered the binoculars and turned to look at Virgil, said softly, 'you know he did it to protect us.'

Pain moved across Virgil's face, a deep despair that pulled at John with its own force of gravity.

'John.' Virgil's voice was calm. The same calm that always heralded the storm. 'Do you really believe they're going to let anybody walk out of this alive?'

John shifted in the driver's seat, refocused the binoculars as his father and Braman moved ever nearer to the exchange point. He repositioned his gaze, picked out Scott and Brains amongst the phalanx of commandos that were ranged in a dark, straight line across the tundra.

'We need to do something,' Virgil said when John didn't respond. His fingers curled around the laser rifle that rested upright between his knees.

John increased the magnification on the binoculars, watched as Scott received a blow to the stomach and a spray of dark blood erupted from his brother's mouth.

John's lips moved.

'Shit,' he said as the image burned through the digital optics and impaled itself on his retina. He turned to look at Virgil, pupils constricted to pinpoints in the glare.

Virgil cracked the door open and let in a flurry of frigid air.

* * * * *

Jeff trudged steadily forward, one gloved hand curled tight around Braman's control unit, the other gloved hand working hard to maintain balance as his feet slid awkwardly through the shifting powder of snow.

Christ, he thought as he neared the phalanx of soldiers, Tereshchenko's unofficial insurance policy ranged neatly with their weapons drawn and aimed directly towards him. He stopped Braman cold in the snow, deposited the control box into the pocket of his coat and raised both arms into the air in the universal language of don't shoot.

Seconds ticked by. Moments elongated into eternity by the freezing air, the howling wind, the unmoving faces of the soldiers that watched his every move, fingers itching against the triggers of their guns.

Jeff ignored the watchful eyes, the tensing fingers. He looked at Scott, the defiance in his son's face at odds with the pallor of his skin, the tinge of blue around his lips, the blood frozen midway through its cascade down his chin. His eyes slid to Brains, unsteady on his feet, hope shining bright through the bruises around his eyes.

His stomach lurched, and Jeff realised he was closer to failure than he had ever been in his life. Too many variables. Too much that was out of his control. He resisted glancing back towards the tractor-truck, stared straight ahead as the world deteriorated into a peripheral blur of white.

Shit.

The commanding officer stepped forward.

'Mr Jeff Tracy!' The moustachioed face beamed, the teeth yellow against the cold-pinked face.

Jeff removed his visor, studied his nemesis with watchful grey eyes.

'I am General Goran Tereshchenko.' The big arms lifted in happy expansiveness. 'Welcome to Siberia!'

* * * * *

Part Nine

* * * * *

'Virgil!'

John's hand lashed out to catch the back of Virgil's jacket, too late as his brother slipped out of the tractor-truck and slammed the cabin door in his face.

Shit. John slid a gloved hand around the barrel of his rifle and swung his own door open, leapt blindly into the freezing snow.

* * * * *

Jeff's feet shifted, cold in his boots, as Tereshchenko's voice carried once more on the wind.

'You will now hand over Project Razer,' the General's booming voice demanded, the dark gaze focussed wholly on his opponent.

Jeff's eyes moved to Scott, to Brains, to the commandos with their weapons trained unerringly towards him, then back to Tereshchenko's unsmiling face.

'You're forgetting something,' Jeff said across the thin divide.

Tereshchenko stepped forward, oblivious to the wind that howled into his face and whipped at the folds of his coat.

'Mr Tracy,' he said when he was close enough for Jeff to see the blood-shot whites of his eyes. 'I have forgotten nothing.' He angled his huge body to appraise Braman. Reached out a gloved hand to touch him. Ran an affectionate finger along the burnished copper of his skin. 'Hand over Project Razer and your son will be returned to you.'

'And Dr Ross?'

'And Dr Ross.' The gloved finger fell away as the dark eyes turned towards him. 'Of course.'

'Of course.' Jeff blinked. Once. The movement concealing only briefly the tempered steel that hardened the grey eyes. 'You first.'

* * * * *

'Virgil.' Jesus Christ Goddamn son-of-a-bitch. 'Virgil!'

The word was whispered more than shouted, an angry hiss that rushed whistling through John's teeth as he hurtled out of the cabin, legs pumping through the snow as though he were sprinting on pistons of iron. He caught up to Virgil and leapt bodily onto him, smashed him face-first into the ground. John felt the air rush out of Virgil's lungs, a violent oof erupting from his brother as he was crushed beneath John's compact weight.

For a moment Virgil lay stunned beneath him, the rifle fallen from his grip. And then he moved, sucked in a shuddering lungful of air. 'Jesus!' The word ground out of him as he struggled face down in the snow, John spread-eagled over the top of him.

John adjusted his position, clamped his fingers around his brother's wrists and pinned him to the ground. 'You fucking imbecile,' he breathed hot into Virgil's ear. 'This isn't a game we're playing. Dad's out there gambling with his life, and you want to, what? Run blindly in and get everybody killed?'

'Get the fuck off me.'

Virgil inhaled another lungful of air and gathered his strength. John felt the muscles tense beneath him, banded steel palpable even through the layers of cold-weather clothing. Any second now Virgil would move, and then John would be on the ground with the breath knocked out of him.

'Virgil,' he said as his brother's body twisted suddenly beneath him. 'Don't do anything stupid.' John's words spilled out desperately as the world spun abruptly around him and he landed hard on his back. 'Virgil!'

* * * * *

'Mr Tracy.' Tereshchenko smiled, showed Jeff his big teeth. 'Let me make things a little clearer.'

The general turned to his troops and barked an order. Immediately Scott was dragged stumbling forward.

'Hand over Project Razer,' Tereshchenko said, the warmth of his smile at odds with the ice in his voice, 'or your son will die.'

Jeff's eyes widened imperceptibly, then narrowed again.

Tereshchenko studied those eyes, and the smile fell from his lips. He clasped his hands behind his back with an air of disappointment, turned and walked tiredly back towards Scott. 'I can see we will have to do this the most hardest of ways.'

'Wait.' Jeff slid his hand into his pocket and curled his fingers around Braman's control unit.

Tereshchenko paused in his stride, tilted his head to hear Jeff's words, but didn't turn around. 'Yes, Mr Jeff Tracy?'

* * * * *

John landed heavily on his back, closed his eyes and angled his head sideways as he waited for the blow to connect with his face. C'mon already...he clamped his lips tight together, made sure his tongue was well away from his teeth…get it over with! Instead, the wind flurried snow across his cheek, the gentlest of opposites from the resounding thump he'd been expecting.

John unscrewed an eye and looked up to find his brother standing over him, lungs heaving, cheeks flushed, hair standing on end and powdered with snow. Virgil leaned down and extended a hand towards him. John flinched.

'Jesus, John.' Virgil's fingers found John's wrist and heaved him into standing, brought them abruptly face to face. 'You ever try a stunt like that again…' The fingers tightened on John's wrist, then loosened again, but didn't let him go.

'I know.' John looked into Virgil's eyes, vaguely reassured by the grip of the fingers still clamped around his wrist. The anger seemed to have leached out of his brother, replaced by resignation. 'Virgil,' John said, as the fingers fell away and Virgil leaned down to retrieve their weapons.

'I get it.' Virgil straightened. 'We wait.' He handed John his rifle, hefted his own and turned to scan the horizon. 'But at the first sign of trouble…' Virgil hefted the weapon and raised the sight to his eye, '… we move.'

* * * * *

'Wait,' Jeff said again, like a drowning man crying for air.

Tereshchenko's lips pursed together. 'I am waiting, Mr Tracy.'

Jeff's eyes met Scott's, saw in them doubt, and defiance. And above it all, over it all, written in the tilt of Scott's head and the hard, tight line of his mouth, the unsaid imperative: do it. Jeff's fingers tightened reflexively around Braman's control unit, dragged it unwilling from his pocket.

'Here.' Jeff proffered the unit towards Tereshchenko. 'This is it. This is everything.'

Tereshchenko inhaled deeply, a hint of satisfaction glinting in his dark eyes. 'Throw it,' he said, unwilling to get too close now that the means of destruction was resting in his opponent's hand.

Jeff's thumb slid across the control panel. 'Release my son,' he said, intuiting the apprehension in the big man's voice.

'Throw it,' repeated Tereshchenko with a tilt of his chin.

'My son,' Jeff said again.

Tereshchenko raised his hand, signalled his men with the flick of a wrist, and immediately Scott was forced to his knees in the snow. Fingers slid into Scott's hair, bunched tight into a fist and pulled Scott's head back, hard.

'Throw it,' Tereshchenko said one last time, slowly and surely and with thirty years of unquestioned power and authority in his voice.

Jeff raised his hand and threw.

* * * * *

John swung the cabin door open and leaned in for the binoculars. He would have preferred returning to the shelter of the interior, but something about Virgil's posture as he sighted the rifle into the middle distance made him think twice about the suggestion.

John raised the binoculars to his eyes. There was movement among the soldiers ahead, a shuffling rearrangement, and then Scott was hauled forward and forced down to his knees. For a moment John's vision wavered, or maybe it was Scott himself that wavered as John centred him in his field of view.

John dropped the binoculars to the snow. 'Move,' he said, even though Virgil was already ten steps ahead of him, feet pounding through the snow.

John bolted after him, raised his wristcom to his lips and broke radio silence. 'Gordon, if you're out there, you'd better fucking do something!'

* * * * *

Tereshchenko reached a gloved hand skyward and plucked the control unit effortlessly out of the air. He laughed. Short and low and filled with long-awaited glee. A burst of Berezhni escaped his lips as he aimed the control panel towards Braman and stabbed a gloved finger at it. First one button, then another. Tereshchenko looked squinting at Braman, then turned his gaze balefully towards Jeff.

Jeff chafed beneath the stare, watched as Tereshchenko's upper lip curled in disappointment.

'What have you done?' the general asked.

Jeff shook his head, felt his resolve wilt beneath the solid gaze. 'I don't know what you mean,' he said, his hands splayed uselessly at his sides.

Anger transformed the big man's face, a brief glimpse of childish petulance that vanished as quickly as it came.

'You wish to play a game,' Tereshchenko said, his voice pitched to carry above the wind. 'Then let us play a game.' The lips disappeared beneath the heavy moustache as he turned and waved Brains forward.

'Here,' Tereshchenko said as he forced the control unit between Brains's frozen fingers. 'Bring your creation to life.'

* * * * *

Brains stared at his hands as Tereshchenko settled Braman's control unit roughly between his fingers. It was the first solid object he'd held for days, the first time his fingers had closed around something other than split skin and dried blood. It felt as though civilisation was once more in his grasp, and despite the incessant throbbing of his torn nails and the stiffness in his fingers from the strangulation of blood at his wrists, his hands closed reflexively around the unit, around that little piece of home that had landed so unexpectedly in his grasp.

'Bring your creation to life,' he heard Tereshchenko say, the words fracturing crazily inside his overworked mind so that he had to shake his head, shake the hard, sharp edges of Tereshchenko's voice into some vague semblance of meaning.

My creation...

Brains stared down at the unit. Passed a splintered thumb across the activator.

Tereshchenko stepped closer, brought his lips to Brains's ear. 'Make it move,' he said, his breath hot and damp and laced with old tobacco. 'Make it kill.'

What?

Brains looked up, his cracked lips giving voice to the word. 'W-what?'

'A demonstration is required. Make it kill.' Tereshchenko smiled. Bared his yellow teeth. 'Make it kill Jeff Tracy.'

* * * * *

Part Ten

* * * * *

The control unit fell from Brain's frozen fingers, landed half-buried in the snow at his feet.

Tereshchenko carefully retrieved the unit and pushed it firmly back into Brains' hands. 'Now, then,' he said, calmly, patiently, 'if our relationship is to progress as it must, you will use Project Razer to kill Jeff Tracy.'

'I…' Brains stared at the big man. 'I-I can't…'

The general raised a single finger towards Scott, still down on his knees in the snow. Brains turned, watched as the soldier at Scott's side tightened his fingers in Scott's hair, released a pistol from the holster at his hip and pushed the muzzle hard against Scott's temple.

'You can,' Tereshchenko said to Brains. 'And you will.'

* * * * *

Scott flinched as the pistol was pressed tight against the pulse-point of his temple. The weapon was cold, colder even than the air around it, so cold it seared like flame into his skin. He twisted against the grip in his hair as his eyes sought his father, watched as flakes of snow caught briefly in Jeff's hair and were swept away on the wind.

Dad…

Scott licked his lips. He felt sick. He felt as though he were falling. A slow-motion drift as he floated on the air, face down towards the ground. He must have faltered, jolted, betrayed his fall with a sudden jerk of the head as he fought against the ebbing tide of his strength. The hand in his hair pulled him roughly backwards, upright, straightened him once more on his knees.

* * * * *

Brains looked at Scott, watched as the blood drained from his friend's face. The guard's fingers coiled tight in Scott's hair and pulled his head back. Scott gasped, the muscles of his neck straining against the assault, the veins standing out corded and blue.

This wasn't right. Brains swallowed. Shook the cold, arctic cobwebs from the corners of his brain. This wasn't how Braman was meant to be used. This wasn't how everything was meant to…

End.

Scott had risked his life for Brains. And Jeff had risked everything for him. Brains couldn't let them die. Not here.

Not like this.

'Dr Ross?'

Brains flinched at the words, turned and aimed the controller towards Braman.

* * * * *

Jeff felt his blood run cold as all his careful planning unravelled itself, all at once. He watched as Brains raised the controller and pointed it towards Braman.

There was a click. A high-pitched whine. A hum that vibrated through the ground and entered Jeff's body, faintly, through the soles of his boots. Slowly, surely, Braman's cold metal face turned towards him. Jeff took a step away, suddenly realising he was way too close.

Sound emanated from Braman, as though something old, something buried deep inside him and long forgotten, was having trouble powering up. And then, just as slowly and surely, Braman's head turned back the other way. Came to face Tereshchenko.

'What trick is this?' Tereshchenko's lips twisted into a snarl.

'N-no trick.' Brains lowered the controller.

Tereshchenko withdrew his pistol and aimed it at Brains' stomach. Brains took a step back, away from Tereshchenko, away from the unwavering weapon.

'It, it m-must be the c-cold,' Brains said. 'I-it's not, ah, functioning.'

Tereshchenko aimed the gun a little higher, towards Brains' heart. 'Make it kill Jeff Tracy.'

Brains took another step back, his eyes locked on Tereshchenko's gun. 'Braman,' Brains said, his voice carrying high across the frigid air. 'Protect.'

* * * * *

To Scott, down on his knees, it was as though a tiny sun had risen on the tundra.

To Jeff, unprepared and far too close, it was an explosion of heat and light that flared for the briefest of instants.

The soldiers, ranged across the snow, saw only a star come to ground. A supernova that left them blinking and blinded.

In the flash of light, a shadow bloomed. An afterimage of Tereshchenko burned itself simultaneously on a multitude of retinas as his coat exploded outwards and his body followed, in a silent, soundless, powder of black snow.

Silence moved across the tundra.

Even the wind died, as though the earth itself held her breath.

* * * * *

From somewhere far away a crack rang out and shattered the sudden stillness.

The sound was faint. A single shot that was barely audible over the hot, rushing clamour that had filled Scott's head from the moment the cold nose of the pistol had pressed against his temple.

Crack!

It was just one shot, one single shot, but it echoed round and round in Scott's mind with a fearful and awful finality.

Was it me?

Scott flinched as a spray of blood spattered hot across his face.

Have I been shot?

The hand that grasped his hair slipped away as the guard beside him toppled backwards. There was a glimpse of blood and bone as the officer crumpled silently to the snow.

Scott struggled to heave himself to his feet, staggered, fell back to his knees in a pool of the soldier's blood. Realised he was covered in it.

* * * * *

Virgil faltered in his stride and turned his head away from the light that flared ahead. 'What the hell?'

'Braman,' said John, blinking the afterimage out of his eyes. For a moment he was blinded, by light, by snow, by the rising of fear in the pit of his stomach.

Almost immediately a shot rang out, small and faint and far away, the sound echoing almost instantly into silence.

'What was that?'

'What the hell was that?'

John's eyes ranged across the group of soldiers, closer now, as another faint crack echoed across the open plain. A spray of red puffed into the air and another figure crumpled to the snow.

'Who's down?' Confusion cracked Virgil's voice.

'I don't know.'

'Dad?'

'I don't know!'

'Who the hell is shooting?'

'I don't know!'

* * * * *

There was a moment of guilt. Pain, even. An indefinable feeling that he'd crossed over a line… and that he couldn't ever cross back.

Gordon's face betrayed nothing as he sighted along the barrel of his weapon and pulled again on the trigger in one short, fluid motion. He watched, stony-eyed, through the sights as a third soldier disappeared behind a curtain of red and fell twitching to the snow.

The gun moved. Millimetres. More than enough to line up another head, to catch another pale face unsuspecting in the crosshairs. Gordon's finger tightened, and there was another explosion of red.

* * * * *

There was screaming.

Shouting.

Guns firing.

Chaos erupted, surrounded Jeff with a cacophony of noise and movement as the soldiers scattered in panic.

Jeff stared at the dark patch of snow where Tereshchenko had so recently been standing. His face collapsed momentarily, crumpled in what might have been sadness, might have been remorse, as what was left of the general fluttered away on the remains of the wind. He turned to look at Braman, immobile again, but no longer quite so innocent. Or safe. Light flickered and moved behind the robot's faceplate. A spark of something Jeff had once believed was harmless, but which now he thought was terrifying.

A bullet parted the air beside him, sent him spinning back on his heels and down to the ground as the soldiers brought their weapons to bear on Braman. A hail of lead peppered the snow around him, one lucky shot thudding into his leg, tearing a furrow through the padding of his cold-weather gear and ripping a hole into his thigh. Jeff clamped a hand down on the wound. Shit.

* * * * *

Gordon ducked down behind a snowdrift as a bullet slammed into the ground twenty feet to his left. The Berezhnis couldn't see him, but they'd figured out where he was, and now, with chaos reigning, weapons were turning in every direction.

He counted to ten, emerged from his cover and aimed his sights at Tereshchenko's lieutenant, at the sliver of bare skin between the cap and the eyebrows. His finger tightened on the trigger, then loosened again as he let the target pass out of the crosshairs.

Gordon dropped back behind cover and released his grip on the rifle.

It was enough.

It was up to Brains, and Braman, now.

* * * * *

Virgil dove face-first to the ground as the first of the pot-shots exploded the snow at his feet.

Another bullet sent a spray of snow and dirt splintering into the air, sent John sprawling to the ground beside him.

Had they been seen? Or were Tereshchenko's men just going crazy?

'John,' Virgil grated out as the ground exploded in a rain of bullets around them. He brought his weapon to bear, sighted it along the broad expanse of ground ahead of him and tightened his finger on the trigger. 'They're in range.'

'And so are we,' John hissed back at him. They were too exposed. Too close. He flinched as Virgil's rifled cracked off a short, sharp round that precipitated a hail of fire from the soldiers ahead. The bullets seemed to be coming from every direction, excavating divots of dark earth from beneath the powdered snow. John closed his eyes as an explosion of metal slammed into the ground near his head.

'We need to get them out of there.' Virgil screwed his eyes shut as a burst of snow and dirt splashed into his face.

'How?'

They lifted their heads to look at their father, at Brains, at Scott, trapped behind the line of fire, still down on his knees in the snow. Between them lay two hundred metres of obstacles - the open plain, Braman's deadly ray, and Tereshchenko's diminishing troops. Two hundred metres… two hundred kilometres… it was all the same.

Virgil's voice sounded unnaturally loud in John's ear. 'We go in there and get them.'

* * * * *

Tereshchenko's lieutenant lifted his weapon, aimed it for Braman's face and released a burst of automatic fire that ricocheted uselessly from the copper head.

The bullets rebounded deafeningly from the metal body, passed close by Jeff and thudded into the snow. Jeff scrambled for cover behind the robot's legs, glancing up as Braman's head grated mechanically towards the source of the gunfire. There was another burst from the lieutenant's weapon, a deafening explosion of metal on metal as sparks flew noisily into the air and illuminated the soldier's face with splashes of orange and blue.

Jeff tensed as the robot powered up. This time it wasn't Braman who clanked unwillingly to alertness - it was Project Razer that flared to life, bronze and copper and terrifying.

There was a moment of silence. A clear sense of impending something that even the soldiers seemed to feel. They faltered, lowered their weapons, watched mesmerised as a Christmas tinkle of lights glittered behind Braman's faceplate.

The lieutenant cursed angrily at what remained of his troop in Berezhni, raised his semi-automatic and fired again at Braman's head. Again the explosion of sparks, and then the beam flared from Braman's antenna and reduced the lieutenant to a burst of black ash.

The soldiers blinked in the still air, raised their hands to brush the drifting remnants of their commanding officer out of their faces. Their expressions held horror, and fear, and the visible stirrings of self-preservation.

Braman's head turned menacingly, made the soldiers raise their weapons and let off another round of panicked gunfire. The beam fired again, an explosion of noiseless light followed by another soldier vanishing - a silent dissolution as the man expanded outwards, the molecular bonds that had once held him together evaporating and disintegrating him into nothing.

* * * * *

It was terrible to watch, the complete lack of sound adding to the awful horror of it. Just the heat and the light and the men, their bodies expanding outwards as their mouths opened wide in their ghastly, silent screams.

The callousness of it, the ruthlessness of it, frightened him. Jeff saw at last what Brains had been so afraid of all these years, and knew, then, that they should have destroyed Braman while they had the chance.

He flinched as Braman released another of his ghostly rays, the light silently illuminating the immediate surrounds. He found he was gasping, breathing hard, the rapidly heating air burning his lungs and blistering the skin from his lips, from his eyeballs. He had to get out of there. The bullets were fewer. Tereshchenko's soldiers were fewer, too, as they fell one by one to Braman.

Jeff peered around Braman's legs, looked across to see Scott attempting to heave himself to his feet. His son was so close, but Jeff knew he had little chance of making it alive across that tiny patch of littered snow. If Tereshchenko's soldiers didn't take him out, there was every chance that Braman would. Jeff cursed beneath his breath. He couldn't move forward, he couldn't stay where he was, and he sure as hell could not - would not - turn back.

And then he heard his name, shouted on the air.

* * * * *

'Jeff!'

Brains tottered a few steps towards him across the open plain.

Jeff pressed his hand against the breach in his thigh and stood hesitantly behind the robot, ducked back as a bullet passed close by his ear, the passage of it parting his hair and singeing his skin. He glanced around Braman's body and locked his eyes on Brains.

'Go back!' Brains shouted.

Jeff's gaze darted towards Scott. He shook his head.

'Dad…' Scott fell back to his knees in the snow. 'Go,' he said, his voice broken by the cold, by the blood that rose in his throat. He crouched further down, hunched around his pain. All he wanted was to lie down, to sink into dark oblivion where he could sleep peacefully, warm and without pain.

Jeff staggered a few steps, bent and pressed his hand harder against his thigh. 'I'm not leaving,' he shouted above the sound of gunfire, and the sound of men, screaming.

'Go!' Brains gestured with his bound hands for Jeff to turn away.

Jeff shook his head again. No.

Brains looked down at the soot-stained snow, at the splashes of black powder where men had once stood. He turned to look at Braman, fingered the control unit in his hands, then opened his numb fingers and let it drop to the snow. He didn't need it. Had never needed it. Braman's complex functions were responsive to Brains' voice only - his one failsafe. The only thing that could have, would have, kept the world safe from annihilation.

'Braman,' Brains said, waited an eternity as the robot's blank face ticked its way slowly in his direction. And then Brains said one word. One unexpected word. And his voice carried both hope, and no hope, at all.

'Home.'

Jeff stopped in his tracks at the directive, felt his blood run cold.

Brains turned to Jeff, his face stricken. 'Run!'

That single word, filled with absolute and incontrovertible meaning, blasted past Jeff, took with it any uncertainty he may have had. He staggered back, away from Braman, away from Brains. Away from Scott, unbelieving he had come so far only to fail.

A faint whine whispered from Braman. Heat pulsed from the robot's copper body, a recurrent wave as though Braman's heart had abruptly ignited and now thudded methodically in slow, hot waves. It evaporated the moisture from Jeff's face, set a trickle of sweat loose beneath the collar of his coat, scattered what remained of Tereshchenko's troops to the four winds. Jeff looked down as the snow began to melt at Braman's feet.

* * * * *

Brains' shackled hands clamped around Scott's bicep, heaved at him bodily. 'Move!'

Scott struggled upright, shook his head as he wavered unsteady in the snow. 'You go,' he rasped through numb lips. 'I'll be right behind you.'

'We can't s-stay here,' Brains urged as the hum from Braman increased perceptibly, set up a faint ringing inside his head.

Scott sagged down on one knee, his hands curled protectively against his abdomen. 'Go,' he said around the blood that was rising in his throat.

Brains' fingers clamped hard around Scott's arm, fingers digging into flesh with a strength born of urgency, a strength he didn't know he had. He heaved Scott upright, hauled him all the way to his feet. 'Move!'

Scott lurched to his feet, was dragged stumbling towards the low dunes of snow beyond the helicarrier. The whine from Braman increased, and he glanced back over his shoulder, glimpsed his father limping away from Braman and back across the snow. Dad, he thought. Felt the familiar clutch of his heart. He willed his father to move, to make it, and then Jeff was lost to sight as Scott stumbled and fell against Brains, found his feet again as Brains dragged him forward.

They rounded the rear of the chopper and Brains tumbled them over a hillock of snow and down behind it. He put his hands on Scott's head and pushed his face down towards his chest. 'Close your eyes.'

* * * * *

Jeff struggled back across the tundra, painfully aware that he wasn't moving fast enough, that he wasn't going to get away in time. He glanced back at Braman, counted the distance between them in metres. It wasn't enough. Jeff gritted his teeth, dragged his numbed leg across the powdered snow. He cursed beneath his breath, cursed all the gods that had brought him here. To this place. To this moment.

To this failure.

He felt blood trickle into the warm spaces between his leg and his clothing, paused to press his hand against the wound in his thigh. He glanced back again at Braman, counted again the metres that stretched short between them. It was no good. He couldn't move fast enough.

Again the gritted teeth. Again the painful struggle through the snow. Behind him the sound of gunfire had ceased - any soldiers that hadn't been swept away on Braman's black tide had now scattered back across the snow. There was only the sound of Braman, now. A high, thin whine that dogged at Jeff's back as he dragged himself away.

Another wave of heat pulsed from Braman. A gentle breeze, the warmth palpable across the distance Jeff had put between them. He felt it brush across his back, made him realise he was never going to make it. Jeff faltered, fell to his knees in the snow, curled his fingers into fists and pounded once at the unyielding earth. He was so goddamned stupid! He'd never thought… he'd never thought…

'Dad!'

The voice sounded out of the void, the echo of something he'd last heard a lifetime ago and never thought he'd hear again.

'Dad!'

He lifted a hand, his fingers grasping as a drowning man grasps for the surface of the sea. 'Go back!'

The warning came too late. Abruptly they were upon him, hands reaching for him and hauling him to his feet.

'Dad!' John grabbed hold of his father, held him, supported him with one arm.

'Where are - ' Virgil's eyes searched the scene ahead, tried to pick his brother and Brains out from the remnants of Tereshchenko's dispersing men.

'We have to get out of here.' Jeff leant against John. 'We need to get away from Braman.'

'But Dad!'

Jeff shook his head, glanced away from Virgil's accusing gaze and back towards the helicarrier. 'Brains has him…'

'The hell? Brains has him where?'

'Virg, there's no time.' John laid a hand on his brother's arm. 'We have to go!'

Virgil shook the hand away, incredulous fury in the dark eyes.

'Virgil, listen!'

Braman's hum increased, pulsed in an unearthly whine across the plain. John tightened his grip on his father. 'That thing is going to blow.'

'And there's no stopping it.' Jeff looked up, met blue eyes dark in the ash of John's face, read there the choice he had to make. The choice all of them had to make. To leave and live, or to stay and die.

'We have to go,' John said, the choice already made.

Another wave of heat pulsed from Braman, a soft wind completely alien to the tundra. It reached them, passed over them, gently lifted the strands of their hair.

'Virgil, we need to move!' John bundled Jeff back across the snow, back away from Braman.

Virgil ignored John's words, ignored the heat that pulsed against him, over him, a tropical heat that softened the surface of the snow, wilted the tiny blades of grass that poked in random tufts above it. His eyes searched for Scott, for Brains, saw nothing but the soot-stained snow, the abandoned helicarrier, the retreating backs of a handful of Tereshchenko's men. His gaze turned to Braman, and it seemed to him that the robot glowed.

Shit.

Virgil turned, grabbed his father bodily by one arm and propelled him forward out of John's grip.

'Move,' he said, knowing as he said it that it was all too late. Light exploded across the tundra, erased the landscape, his father, his running feet as they pounded beneath him. A wave of force rumbled out from behind them, thundered unchecked across the earth and slammed them face-first into the snow.

* * * * *

Scott did as Brains said, closed his eyes and hunkered into the drift of snow at his back. He kept his head forward, down, and curled into himself. He could feel Brains beside him, their bodies tight together, and he could hear Brains' breathing, loud and laboured and hot against his ear.

'Stay down,' Brains said. 'The radius is small, and, ah, the wave is linear.'

Scott fought back an urge towards hysterical laughter. They could be dead any minute, and Brains' last words were going to be 'radius' and 'linear'? Instead he hacked a painful cough and reached a hand blindly for Brains' arm. 'Brains,' he said, because the hell he was leaving this earth with that shit sentence ringing in his ears. 'Brains - '

'S-stay down,' Brains said.

Light bloomed around them, so bright it burned through the closed lids of Scott's eyes and turned the whole world red. Thunder rumbled over the earth and he felt Brains clutch at him, heard a voice shouting over the noise as the grasping hands pulled him down, down, down into the snow. He could feel heat, a rushing wind that passed high above them, then settled down upon them in their hollow. It reminded him of summer nights, of home, and he felt the blood rush to his skin, to his face, to the cold spaces that had formed around his heart.

In the deep crimson of his blindness, Scott smiled. If this was the end, it was going to be warm. And to be warm would be beautiful.

* * * * *

Epilogue

* * * * *

It was getting harder to sleep, not easier, as though each passing day brought the nightmare closer to him instead of taking it away.

Scott rolled onto his back and kicked the sheets away from his legs, lay naked in the soft humidity with his scars and his scabs exposed to the air, and brought up a hand to rub at his tired eyes.

Post-traumatic stress disorder. Yeah. He'd heard that one before.

His first tour of duty, his very first, he'd shot down an enemy aircraft. Watched as the pilot ejected and his parachute had failed to deploy. Scott had watched as the flailing man had dwindled out of sight. Had felt guilt, and sadness, and an indefinable something that had marked him, scarred him, and changed his DNA forever.

It was hard to sleep, after that. He would lie awake in his bunk, sweating with something heavier than the humid air that filled the barracks around him, because every time he closed his eyes he saw men, falling, from the sky. And sometimes he was the one who was falling, with his arms and legs windmilling helpless through the air, and nothing, nothing but oblivion waiting for him.

In time, the killing had come easier, after enough of his squad were dead and unburied - after enough of his friends had been evaporated into balls of flame or scattered in pieces over enemy lines. And once the killing came easier, sleep had come easier too.

But not now. Not anymore. Not when he'd come closer to death than he'd ever been during the war, down in that cold dark dungeon with the life bleeding out of him and surrounded by smiling, leering monsters.

Ah… Christ.

Scott lurched uncomfortably into sitting, sat for a while with his feet planted against the floor and his hand against his side as he waited for the pain to subside.

The sounds of the household floated through the crack beneath the door, and he eyed that dark space with annoyance. He knew they were hovering. Waiting. Wanting to look at him and needing to reassure themselves he was alright. That everything was alright. But there were days when Scott couldn't bear the looks. Didn't want them to see the marks still on his face, the hollows beneath his eyes, the gauntness that had begun to play about his cheeks. Didn't want to see the unasked questions in their eyes… what happened out there? What aren't you telling us?

Scott groped for the cigarettes on the nightstand, jammed one into his mouth and flicked the lighter into life. He inhaled as deeply as his healing body would allow, exhaled, sat with the cigarette between his lips and let the smoke curl past his face and feather towards the ceiling. He inhaled again, sucked the smoke carefully into his lungs, coughed as the smell of the tobacco, the taste of it, triggered a memory of Tereshchenko's stale breath. Yellow teeth bared behind a cruel smile. Pain.

Bile rose into Scott's throat and made him drop the cigarette into the ashtray on the stand. He lurched for the bathroom, fell to his knees and heaved wretchedly into the toilet.

There were no two ways about it.

Scott rested his face against the toilet seat and closed his eyes.

He was going to have to give up smoking.

* * * * *

Thirty minutes later, showered and shaved and with the taste of tobacco scrubbed clean from his mouth, Scott slipped out onto the terrace, noted the direction of the wind, and made his way down the long curving stairs towards the patio.

Brains had also been hiding, in his own way, behind his stammer and his introversion. And on days like today, when the breeze swept gently up from the shore beneath the villa, he hid successfully in plain sight, on a lounger by the pool, trying to leach the insatiable Siberian cold from his bones.

Scott moved barefoot along the flagstones, came to stand beside him. 'Brains,' he said.

Brains slitted one eye open.

'Mind?' Scott indicated the adjacent lounger.

Brains slitted the other eye open and shook his head. No.

Scott lowered himself stiffly onto the lounger. He grunted as he settled into the cushions, his rib protesting at the unexpected affront, the stitches in his abdomen pulling tight at his skin. He laid a hand over the wound, reassured himself that he still was whole. 'How you doing?' he said at last, when the screaming of his body finally allowed him to breathe.

Brains smiled cautiously through the cut healing on his lip. 'I'm doing, ah, well, Scott.'

Scott settled his head back against the pillow, fixed his eyes on the palm fronds that rustled in the light breeze overhead and the blue sky beyond. 'Tereshchenko might be gone, but there are others still out there.'

'I-including our own g-government,' Brains said soberly. He sighed. Lifted a finger to stroke the scar on his lip. 'But at least th-there's no, no Braman anymore.' He turned to look at Scott. 'There's only m…m….' He stopped, inhaled a deep and shuddering breath. 'Me.'

Scott reached out a hand, laid it on Brains' arm. Everything that needed to be said was held in that one single touch, light as a feather, yet weighed down with all the pain of the world.

Scott's hand fell away, unable to contend with all that weight. 'Life with us hasn't been so bad, has it?'

Brains shook his head, let out a soft exhalation of breath. He looked up and met Scott's eyes.

'No,' he smiled crookedly. 'Not so bad.'

Scott smiled in return. Looked at him. Studied him hard, his eyes peeling away the cuts and the bruises and the years that had passed since the day they had first met. 'We've come a long way since then.'

'Since when?' asked Brains, missing the turn in the conversation.

'Since Nevada.'

Scott returned his gaze to the blue expanse of Pacific sky and squinted up at the sun. It had been a day like this too, back then, only the Nevada sky was paler, the sun brighter, and he remembered how the air burned outside the air-conditioned coolness of his rental as he pulled up outside Hank's Bar and Grill. Scott had sat for a while with the aircon blasting cold in his face, surveying the deserted street and the time-worn façade of Hank's, pissed he had to waste his furlough in a nowhere town like this. But his father didn't ask many favours these days... besides which, when the old man said jump, you jumped. And Scott couldn't help but be curious: collect an asset for Tracy Corp and ferry that asset, and whatever that asset had with him, to Tracy Island. And, his father had iterated in as low a tone as was possible with that great booming basso profundo of his, don't tell anybody. Not even your brothers.

Scott switched off the ignition, and in the silence of the rapidly heating interior he slid a pair of sunglasses over his eyes. This wasn't going to be easy. Scott screamed military and he knew it. There was no hiding the buzz-cut, the super-clean shave, the parade-ground posture. Even the line of his jaw and the sharp blue gaze of his eyes advertised him well in advance. But he was used to the stares and the wary looks, and the women who would sidle up close to him whenever he stood still for just a moment too long.

Scott hauled himself out of the car and hoped that Hank's was as deserted as the street.

* * * * *

Not as deserted as he had hoped. A scattering of men at the bar turned as the door opened, swallowed their beer in unison and fixed him with a variety of doleful expressions.

Scott's eyes remained hidden behind the dark glasses as his gaze roved from man to man, until it fell finally upon his target - a lone youth, long-haired, hunched, fingers curled around a glass of something orange as his elbows rested on a grubby table. A t-shirt hung loose from his scrawny frame, his hair hanging just as loosely in his eyes.

Scott strode the short distance to the table, spun the opposing chair around and straddled it. He removed his sunglasses and turned to the audience of curious faces that had followed him across the room, his gaze not wavering until the faces returned one by one to their drinks. Satisfied, Scott turned his attention back to the man at the table.

'Gary Ross?' he queried, voice low, eyes moving to the oversize metal suitcase close by the young man's feet. 'That your stuff?'

Gary Ross looked up, blinked, nodded.

Scott slipped his sunglasses back on. 'Let's get the hell out of here.'

He collected the case and shunted Ross out onto the street, annoyed when the man pulled up short on the pavement and surveyed the road with rapidly darting glances.

'C'mon,' Scott said, steering his charge towards the car parked up against the curb. He swung the passenger door open and used his free hand to guide the young man in.

Move, he wanted to say as Ross hesitated before sliding in, but he bit down on his tongue and carried the case around to the back of the car instead. He heaved it bodily into the trunk, was startled when an unsteady voice called out 'c-careful' from the interior of the car. It speaks! Scott glanced through the rear window at the back of Ross's head, surprised at the unexpectedly tremulous voice.

A gust of wind puffed down the road, dried the sweat on the back of Scott's neck as he slammed the trunk down hard and turned to survey the still-deserted street. How Ross had got there carting that lump of lead, and why his father had chosen this godforsaken place… Scott wiped a hand against the back of his jeans and slid into the driver's seat.

'You must be in some shitload of trouble,' he said by way of introduction as he depressed the starter button. He shifted the car into drive and lowered his foot down lightly on the accelerator. 'I'm Scott,' he continued as he eased the car out from the curb, 'and my orders are to take you to the Lucky Star Motel and keep you there until I'm told otherwise.' He glanced sideways at the silent Ross, the sallow profile concealed by a curtain of stringy hair. 'I was also told to tell you that if you are going to change your mind, now's the time.'

Ross stared mutely at the dash.

'Well?' C'mon, kid. I know you can speak.

'N-no,' Ross said, his voice barely audible above the hum of the aircon. 'I, ah, won't… won't change my, ah, m-mind.'

* * * * *

Scott settled Ross into one of the room's typical motel-issue chairs, sat down opposite and surveyed his father's latest acquisition.

Now that he had time to look at Ross properly, Scott could see he was grubbier than the dingy barroom lighting had initially revealed, the t-shirt and jeans scuffed with dirt and torn in tiny patches as though Ross had recently crawled through a barb-wire fence. In the bright light of the motel room he studied the downturned eyes, the hair that fell unkempt across the pimpled face, the smattering of stubble that formed the vaguest outlines of a beard across the shallow chin.

Scott leaned back in his chair, one thumb beating a silent staccato against his thigh. This was his first experience of the dark side - his first bona fide glimpse into the black ops. The first time he'd come up against what he now realised was a wall of fear and terror.

'Dr Ross,' Scott said, the words eliciting a flinch from the pale youth. 'Gary,' he started again, eyes wandering towards the bar fridge. 'Want something to drink?'

'N…n…' The word stuttered out and then faded into nothing.

Scott's thumb ceased to beat against this thigh. Jesus. The guy could barely speak, he was so afraid. Not afraid of him, surely?

'Well, you need to drink. And you need to eat.' Scott rose from the chair and made his way to the tiny fridge. 'And I need to eat.' There was silence as he contemplated the innards of the fridge, followed by the clatter of cans as he retrieved some soda from the sterile depths. He closed the fridge door with one foot and eyed the candy bars ranged across its top. Nothing wholesome. Nothing that was going to fill the hole that was burning its way through his stomach.

Scott's mouth quirked in disappointment as he dropped a can of cola into Gary's lap and sat heavily back in his chair, watched as the young man ran a slow finger through the condensation that was already gathering on the can. 'I guess it's take-out for a few days,' he said, unexpectedly cheered by the prospect.

There was no response from the man opposite.

'You like hamburgers?' Scott asked, hoping to find some kind of common ground.

The finger halted in its slow transit across the can.

'What's got you so scared,' Scott asked on impulse, popping the top of his can with a loud crack.

Again the flinch. And this time the eyes looked up and darted fearfully around the room.

Scott tipped the soft drink into his mouth, his swallow audible in the tiny space. He said nothing when he received no answer, listened instead to the sounds of the world outside. Car doors slamming, children squealing, the drawn-out whine of a semi-trailer barrelling down the freeway just beyond the car park. He stared at Gary's hands, motionless on the can.

'I-I'm scared,' Gary said, suddenly, his fingers white where they pressed against the bright logo of the soda.

Scott said nothing, afraid any interruption might scare the rabbit back into its hole.

'They… they're going to f-find me.' Ross looked up then, abruptly met Scott's gaze. 'They're going to, going to find us.'

'No,' Scott said. 'They won't.' He said it, and he believed it. His father never left anything to chance, and if there were even the slightest doubt, then he, Scott, wouldn't be here. And Gary Ross would still be in the bowels of the Pentagon, or buried beneath Groom Lake, or Area 51, or wherever the hell his old man had dug him up from.

'Y...you…you d-don't u-understand...'

Scott tilted another mouthful down his throat. Jesus. This stutter was going to kill him. He wondered how long it was going to take for Ross to relax enough to speak without repeating every second syllable.

'They c-can do a-anything.'

Scott lowered the can, leaned forward in his chair and carefully met the wide blue eyes. 'So can we.'

* * * * *

The blade of the clipper stung as it sliced through the loose waves of Gary's hair, made him wince and hiss sharply through his teeth.

'Sorry,' Scott said, one hand splayed firm against the side of the young man's head, the other forcing the clippers through the tangle of dark hair.

'I-it's okay,' Ross said as another lock of hair fell curling into his lap. He poked it with a finger, pushed it off his leg and onto the floor. He'd been here only one day and already he was being changed, his identity stolen from him by the best of intentions. He sighed and closed his eyes, vaguely comforted by the warmth of Scott's hand at his temple.

'Sorry,' Scott said again at the sigh and loosened the pressure of his fingers.

'It wasn't… I-I wasn't…' Never mind. Gary shut his mouth as the clippers whined across his scalp and concentrated on keeping himself to himself. It was best that way.

'Done,' Scott said with a last flourish of the clippers across the top of Ross's head. 'What do you think? Don't give up my day job?'

Gary Ross stared hard at himself in the mirror. Without the long hair and the pathetic beard he'd been trying so hard to cultivate for so long, he looked like a kid. Again.

'How old did you say you were?' Scott came up behind him in the mirror, the surprise evident in his voice - because how the hell did a kid like that get himself into this much trouble?

Gary ran a hand through the stubble that peppered his skull. 'M-my head's c-cold,' he said. It was a matter of fact statement, without a hint of petulance or regret.

Scott surveyed the uneven buzz cut. He was pretty sure Gary regretted it. 'Here,' he said, holding out a plastic shopping bag, the result of his morning's expedition.

Gary eyed the bag suspiciously. The last thing to come out of it was a set of blunt electric clippers. 'I'm twenty-four,' he said, as if he had only just heard the question.

Scott's eyes opened a fraction wider at the statement. Twenty-four? Not a kid. Not even close. Just a year younger than himself. Hell.

'You look a lot younger,' he said, to fill the awkward space. 'Here.' He proffered the bag again. 'My brother tells me this is the height of fashion. He said, and I quote, it was minty.' The word minty came out as though Scott were trying to push a spider out of his mouth with his tongue - it was ugly and foul and it shouldn't have ever been in there.

Gary took the bag. Peered into it gingerly. Scrunched it closed it again.

* * * * *

The nights of waiting were the worst. The days at least were filled with television and magazines and the odd peek through the curtains at the world outside. And Scott, eating.

Scott, Dr Gary Ross had observed, loved to eat. And he loved to eat the greasiest kinds of take-out imaginable. This was because, Scott had told him on their first night at the Lucky Star, there was no take-out where he lived. And there would be no take-out where he, Gary Ross, was going. Which made Gary Ross wonder where the hell Scott was going to take him, and how long he would have to stay there.

His eyes flickered to the metal suitcase shoved crookedly under the single bed, and then back to Scott, caught mid-flight with a folded slice of pizza pushed halfway into his mouth, and he realised with an almost psychic certainty that he and his suitcase were going somewhere without pizza for a very long time.

'Y-you have a-a brother?' Gary asked as Scott's comment from the day before filtered unexpectedly into his brain.

Scott dropped what was left of his slice back into the box. He was getting used to Ross's mannerisms. And the time-lag in their conversations. And the stutter. 'A brother?' he grimaced around a mouthful of food. 'I have four of them.'

Four, thought Gary Ross, and his eyes must have betrayed his surprise.

'At last count, anyway.' Scott swallowed. 'You?'

Ross shook his head, lifted a finger and pulled hard at the collar of his new shirt. 'N-no.'

'Parents?' Scott asked, guilty that he hadn't asked before. 'Family? Anybody who's going to wonder where you've gone?'

Gary shook his head again.

Something dark passed across Scott's face and he turned to the tiny TV, stared at the tiny figures on the tiny screen and downed a slug of bourbon. And then he grunted, leaned back in his chair and stared wistfully towards the ceiling. 'I used to dream I was an only child. Imagine,' he said, 'never having to share.' He looked sideways at Gary, seated beside him at the tiny table. 'Sometimes I think that's the real reason I joined the Force. To get away from them all. From all that responsibility.' He belched. 'Sorry.'

Ross's eyes sidled to the bottle of bourbon Scott had somehow managed to order with the pizza, and the glass from the bathroom he'd been drinking it from. 'R-responsibility?' he asked.

Scott shook his head and drained the glass. 'Forget I said that.'

'Ah…' Gary watched Scott's face, tried to read the expression centred there. 'A-are they, ah, all the same as, ah, y-you?'

'What do you mean?' Scott's eyes sobered, not so drunk after all.

'I-I mean… ah…' Gary didn't know what he meant. Idle conversation had never been his strong point.

'Well, I hope not,' Scott said, his mouth full of pizza again. 'My father has enough things to worry about.' He proffered the box towards Gary, dropped it back to the coffee table when he didn't take a slice. 'At any rate, you'll be meeting them all soon enough, and then you can tell me.'

* * * * *

Scott slid his cell phone back into his pocket and stretched the kinks out of his back. 'C'mon,' he said, relieved that the days of waiting were finally over. 'There's a plane waiting for us at the aerodrome, and we need to get there fast.'

Gary dragged the metal case out from under the bed. He stood it on its edge, adjusted his clothes and rubbed a hand across the stubble of his scalp, unused, still, to this new skin he was in.

'Wait a minute,' Scott said. 'You'll need these.' He produced a pair of oversize glasses and held them out in his outstretched hand. 'They were Dad's idea…' Scott trailed off at the expression on Ross's face, and he placed the glasses on the small table between them. 'I'm sorry, Gary, but we can't afford to take any chances.'

Gary reached for the glasses, contemplated them for a moment, then slid them solemnly onto his clean-shaven face.

'Brains,' he said, the first word he'd said with any conviction for the last three days.

Scott eyebrows came together. 'What?'

'My friends call me, ah, Brains,' Gary said.

Scott studied him quizzically.

'W-well, one friend did. She helped me, ah, she…' His voice faltered, lowered. 'She's, ah, she's dead, n-now.'

I'm sorry, Scott's expression said, but he didn't say it out loud. He knew from experience how useless those words were. How they did nothing to heal the hurt and served only to widen the chasm between those who knew death, and those who did not.

Scott fished a hand into his pocket for his keys, nodded, said, 'okay,' and was satisfied with that. 'Brains.' He smiled. 'You ready to catch that plane?'

 
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