Joshua Tree National Monument was even more beautiful at night, Jeff Boeing thought as he eased up a bit from his sedan's accelerator. The twisted silhouettes of trees against the mountainous horizon, the unlimited stars whose brightest ranks could barely pierce the veil of light-pollution back in Los Angeles; after all he'd done for everyone in the hard-pressed social world, this vacation was well-deserved. He was on this trip alone — a rare thing — to relax and forget about everyone but himself. He couldn't have been more unprepared for its arrival.
A meteor-like object plummeted Earthward, burning its yellow-white trail through the star-specked vista. It screamed so close that Jeff instinctively jerked his foot off of the gas pedal. If it was a meteor, atmospheric friction must have worn it awfully small (and hot) by now. The object struck the ground and shook his car just meters away.
For only a split-second, he still thought it was a meteor; but he banished that idea when he saw the object bounce, like something living striking a soft bed of sand. Startled, he slammed on his brakes, waited impatiently as the car skidded to a halt, stumbled out, and rushed toward the impact site.
Even against the pounding of his car engine, Jeff heard a definite hissing as he approached the thing. When he reached it, the first thing he noticed was that the object — some type of body — was covered with moving, glowing streaks of light-energy, a possible source for the hissing sounds. Without even a thought, he asked, "Are you all right?"
And the second thing he noticed was that the body wasn't human. One of its six boneless arms still moved, the multitude of foot-long tentacles at its end slithering in calmed waves.
Then it stopped. The arm fell silently to the creature's side, and the flowing patterns of light on its body ebbed and vanished. A box clamped to the middle of its body, which Jeff just noticed, was now being pushed up by the eight metal fingers that used to hold it in place.
"This has to be some perverted dream," Jeff said to himself. He reached out his hand and felt the body of the creature carefully. It was definitely there, and was still warm, despite the aura of death surrounding it. "No," he realized, "I'm not dreaming."
Along with the box, Jeff noticed the alien was wearing a loaded belt (around what was presumably its waist) containing two removable items. One of the items was a foot-long rod with a rectangular handle at one end; the other a disk with a grill on one side. It was obvious to him: the rod was its ray gun, and the disk was its walkie-talkie!
Well, maybe he had it backwards, or maybe those weren't what they were at all. But he was sure now that the alien creature he was marvelling over came from a technology at least as advanced as his own.
The box still intrigued him, especially since it bore a pale pink button and a small metal protector hood. But what was he thinking?! He had to do something with this alien; if this was the first contact between the human race and an extraterrestrial intelligence, he had to make someone stand up and take notice. This wasn't the most dramatic first contact he'd dreamed of, but it was the first contact, and that at least counted for something.
"This alien belongs to science," he told himself as he dragged it into his back seat, "But I kind of want to hold on to the devices. Well, maybe not the rod or the disk — I don't think I could fathom their purposes — but I like the box."
He slammed the doors shut, popped the parking brake, cranked the steering wheel, stamped down on the accelerator, and banked down the road in the direction he had come. Things like this, as far as he was concerned, took first consideration over vacationing in Joshua Tree. Soon, he was up to a good sixty-five miles per hour.
He'd been travelling toward Los Angeles for about half an hour by the time his curiosity toward the box became overwhelming. Deciding that he couldn't wait any longer, he pulled his car off to the roadside, switched on the interior lights, and took the box from the dead alien's body as it lay in the back seat. He put his finger under the hole in the bottom of the protruding hump, and felt the plastic smoothness of a touch-sensor panel on the underside of the little hood. Taking the risk, he pushed it; the box did nothing whatsoever.
"This is silly," he said to himself. "This overcautiousness is getting me nowhere. Even aliens have to have built-in safety features!" Committedly, he positioned his finger above the pink button and stabbed down on it. For an instant, he heard a humming-hissing sound, like an electrical short, and glimpsed a faint shimmer beside each of the eight body clamps. After the instant was over, the shimmer ceased along with the sound.
"Interesting," he winced as he tossed the box into the back seat and got going again. He was more afraid now than before. The box did something, and could probably do more than just hum and glow; it had popped off the alien when the light patterns around its body ceased. And being only about thirty by twenty centimeters, the box would easily fit atop his own chest. That was a concept he didn't care to think about.
Dawn had cut through the darkness by the time he reached downtown Los Angeles. There were cities closer to Joshua Tree National Monument, but there were far more people here. His eyes burnt from the long return trip, but his spirits brightened when he drove up to the police station. He wondered if anyone on the local force was trained to handle this type of situation.
He parked his car with all the grace of a nervous elephant, stepped out onto the sidewalk, and flung the dead alien over his right shoulder. He could tuck the alien's devices neatly in its belt, but the box refused to fasten itself around its midsection, almost as though it knew its owner had died. Since he had to support the body with both hands, there was no way he could carry the alien into the station with its full arsenal of equipment; unless . . . no, he wouldn't clamp the box to his own chest.
He looked again at the alien, at the box, and at his own torso. Finally: "Well, I'll never know unless I try it." He put the alien back down, brought the box up to his chest, and pushed on the clamps with the backs of his arms. With a decisive snap, the clamps shrank their diameters to match his. Relieved but still worried, he picked up the alien once more and headed up the front steps.
The people inside knew something was wrong as soon as he came through the front door. He looked like a cave man bringing in his prey, except for the sparse instrument block fixed to his chest. As all eyes riveted on Jeff Boeing and his seven-foot-high burden, he planted his feet and asked, "Gentlemen, would you mind telling me where I can report a dead alien?"
He let the body fall to the floor in time with a chorus of gasps. The dull thud that followed made Jeff wonder whether or not his last move had been all that well-chosen. Regardless, a man behind a desk broke the petrified mood by calling someone on the phone. Jeff had a feeling, though he couldn't tell, that the man was calling the proper authorities and not the little white wagon.
The FBI loaded the body into a gray van. A diplomat approached Jeff. "We appreciate your consideration in this matter, Mr. . . ."
"Boeing. Jeff Boeing."
"Mr. Jeff Boeing. But we'd like to have the alien's devices as well; they may tell us something just as important as its body will."
'Like new ways to kill people,' Jeff thought. "Okay," he acquiesced, "I'll let you keep its — uh — belt. The rod and the disk I re-attached to it may have some uses, though I haven't figured them out. As for the box, um . . . I'd rather keep it."
"I'm afraid we can't let you do that. Not without some reason."
Jeff thought quickly. "Well, it doesn't seem to want to come off my chest."
"That's good enough for me," said the FBI man, winking at him. "You keep it as a souvenir or whatever. Just be sure that if you ever find out what it does, you don't use it against me — or anyone."
"Believe me, that's the last thing I'd do. So-long!"
The entire squadron of FBI personnel boarded the van and left the scene. Now the only thing standing between Jeff and relaxation was the monstrous crowd of reporters all wanting to cover the "story of the century."
"How did you find that alien?"
"What planet does it come from?"
"Are there any others like it?"
"What does the box do?"
"Hold it, hold it!" yelled Jeff. "One at a time! Okay, here's the story as I know it. I was driving down into Joshua Tree National Monument last night, when I saw this yellow-white streak coming down from the sky."
He paused momentarily for the few reporters who still used notepads to scribble down what he'd said. It was amazing how much the portable tape recorder had changed their profession. Then: "At first I thought it was a meteor, but it was too close and too small for that, especially considering how hot it would have to be to glow that color. It also didn't look heavy enough."
"How's that?" asked one of the reporters.
"It bounced when it hit the ground. Anyway, I stopped my car and rushed over to it just in time to watch it die. The pattern of lights faded from its body, and the box around its midsection — the one I'm wearing now — unclamped itself and arched up."
"What did you mean by 'Pattern of lights?'"
"There were little swirls, or streaks, or something, of bright yellow light going all over its body, which I'm guessing came from this box."
"How does that box work? Could you give us a demonstration?"
"Okay," he decided.
'I might as well,' he thought, 'But I have a feeling I'm going to regret this!'
He pressed the pale-pink button with his left index finger. Instead of mildly humming and glowing this time, though, the body clamps sent out one shimmering tracer of light apiece, and kept sending them out as the old tracers followed the shape of his body and died away, completely covering him in yellow streaks. Jeff gasped, then meekly whimpered, frozen in place by his fear that the lights might vaporize him if they ran into him.
And then, cautiously, s-l-o-w-l-y, he moved his left arm. The patterns of light instantly altered their course to compensate for the arm's new position, leaving it covered with the same ever-changing light bands. He moved his right arm, with increasing speed, and then began to walk forward. He let out a triumphant laugh of joy as he leapt straight up, moving every little part of himself in unison.
Happily, he balled his left hand into a fist and struck himself on the belly right below the box. There was a dull "clack," and his hand stopped dead against the energy curtain. Puzzled, he hit harder, this time over the box itself. His fist didn't even reach it.
"Gentlemen," he announced at last, "What we have here is the futuristic equivalent of a suit of armor."
Some of the reporters vigorously scribbled down every detail they saw; the rest simply stared in awed silence. Here, they realized, was something just as important as the dead alien.
"How do you work that 'armor' again?" one of them asked.
"I just push the button, and it turns on. That's simple enough. To turn it off . . . let's see. . . ." He pushed the button a second time, but nothing seemed to happen. "Nope. Maybe this'll do it. . . ."
He reached his left index finger up inside the hood, and firmly pressed the soft panel on its underside. The clamp-nodes stopped producing light streaks, and the remaining shimmers traced out the rest of their paths and dissipated completely. "To turn it off, you just press this little do-hickey in here," he finished as he indicated the hood.
Aside, he breathed a heavy sigh of relief and wiped the sweat from his forehead; he was grateful that the thing could be turned off.
More scribbling, more awed looks.
"Does it do anything else besides give you a protective energy coating?"
Jeff thought for a moment before admitting, "Well, there's only one way to find out." He pushed the button again and watched incredulously as the energy field enveloped him once again. Turning back to the reporters, he asked, "Now then, what else could it do?"
"Does it give you super strength, X-ray vision, and can it make you fly?"
The other reporters scowled at their amateurish contemporary. Jeff Boeing, on the other hand, took kindly to the question.
"Let's find out, shall we?" he asked as he grabbed the reporter who'd made the comment by the collar and lifted him off the ground single-handedly. He could hold him there, but not without some effort.
"It about triples or quadruples my strength," he said, lowering the startled reporter to the ground, "But nothing I would really call 'Super.'"
He swished his now-free hand through the air, and followed up by taking a few frolicking skips. "It also gives me extra maneuverability; cuts through the air, takes away some inertia, stuff like that. As for the X-ray vision, I don't think so. Unless you're all wearing lead underwear."
That line caught some of the reporters where they least expected it. "Anything else?"
"Oh yes, you wanted to know if it makes me fly. We'll see about that." He gestured for everyone to clear out of his way. He was joking about the whole flying business, but for all the reporters knew, maybe he actually could fly. He stepped back onto his left foot, then did the "flying leap" maneuver he had learned during the few months of his life he had studied dance.
What happened next served to only increase the level of awe in the reporters, but took Jeff completely by surprise. His leap didn't follow the parabolic path it was supposed to, but thrust him directly into the air and continued moving him upward at a 30-degree angle from the ground.
He was too frightened to move, save to instinctively stretch his arms out in front of him. For at least a quarter of a minute his petrification continued, but then he shook off the initial shock and began to tabulate his feelings. He had imagined flying as a sort of effortless, gliding experience, from which what he was doing now differed. It was as if his energy-armor was pulling him along in front, and pushing him up from below to keep from falling. He wasn't a glider, he was an engine-powered aircraft.
'And if I'm being pulled forward,' he thought, 'Then maybe if I re-aim my body . . .'
He moved his outstretched hands a nearly imperceptible amount to the right. Sure enough, he successfully curved his path and headed in a new direction. Now that he had control over his movement, the full elation hit him: "Wahoo!" he shouted. "This is great! Fantastic!"
'Now then,' he thought after pulling through a few more excited test turns, 'Let's see what this energy generator can do in the way of speed!'
He wasn't quite sure how to make the contraption accelerate him, but he tried the most logical courses. He pushed his arms out farther, lowered his head, and generally streamlined his body through strain. He could begin to feel his speed pick up even as he thought about it, as though all his little tricks of straining himself were only hindering his acceleration.
"Wow," he declared. "Whoever designed this sure put in a lot of nice features!"
Now he was ready to test the limits of the box's flight power. He set his arms off at a sharp angle, banked in a tight curve, and dove straight back toward the reporters at an angle that would frighten the best of jet fighter pilots.
In the eyes of the reporters, he was only a yellowish streak dashing toward them; a streak whose seemingly endless contrail was not a trick of the eye. The scene glared with blue-white flashes as the photographers took a myriad of snapshots of what was, to them, a once-in-a-life happening.
Jeff swooped down as close as he dared, and at the last possible instant yanked up into a 45-degree climb. The world flashed by below him in a multicolored blur, giving him an awesome idea of how fast he was moving. He was going faster than a Daytona racer, over a hundred-and-fifty miles per hour. And at that speed, he realized, he had turned in a radius that would have ripped even the smallest airplane to pieces; yet he had hardly noticed the forces involved.
'That wasn't bad,' he thought as the sensation of speed ebbed to something near gliding, 'But I don't think that was the best it could do. I'm going to see what the ceiling is on this baby.'
He shot straight up, still wondering about exactly how to accelerate, but streamlining himself anyway. He easily felt his speed increasing in direct violation of terrestrial gravity.
He pierced the cloud layer and looked back at the uneven layers of water vapor stretched out beneath him. His ears rang from the rumbling air around him as he continued to accelerate and pushed the atmosphere out of his way. The whooshing sound was louder than it had been a half minute ago, as well as hollower; he figured he must have been going at least twice as fast as what he'd formerly deemed his "top speed."
The bright blue air began to darken as the Earth fell away beneath him. Soon, stars which only shone in the daytime were casting their light on Jeff Boeing for the first time. And before another minute had passed, the atmosphere was only the vacuum that held the label, "space."
Jeff stopped when he realized he was no longer climbing, but floating. Abruptly, he locked out any spin he may have had and faced the Earth as viewed from space. The cloud-enshrouded globe had the physical appearance of all the NASA photos, but no light pattern on film could capture the majesty that filled Jeff Boeing at that moment. The bright blue fringe of nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere scintillated like a living halo, dwarfing the continents' significance.
It took a few seconds for the achievement he had just made to overcome the glorious scene. The alien box had just flown him completely into space, and he wouldn't have been surprised if it could traverse interplanetary distances. And what was more, it not only got him up to orbit, it kept him alive and maintained a separate environment while in space. He definitely felt the vacuum tugging at him from outside the box's energy field, but felt comfortable within it, if only a little bit chilly.
"The aliens who designed this," he said to himself, "thought of everything. They also breathe oxygen and live in the room-temperature heat range. Here's parallel evolution and parallel biology at work — life's probably similar all over."
Jeff gazed out through the cloud layer and just barely made out the continent of North America. Following the western coast line, he focused his attention on what he presumed was Southern California. He commanded the energy-armor's flight power to come to life once more, and hurtled down through the gradually thickening outer atmosphere, now without his glowing contrail. By all rights he was super-human, capable of flying and withstanding much more than an unaided human could, including space. And since he was known, his powers would probably be called for again and again.
"I could really help people now," he said out loud inside his armor. "I think it's time I got out of my vice-presidency at the non-profit organization and into the crime fighting business."
With all of California fast approaching, he would never locate the group of reporters that had been questioning him; but wherever he came down, he'd find people asking questions, staring in disbelief, and requesting favors from the man in yellow.
"So, how did you come upon the name 'Tracer'?" asked the aging professor of cryptography after he was introduced.
"Well," Jeff Boeing began, deactivating his energy field because he was inside, "Whenever I fly I leave behind a glowing contrail that looks like a streak or 'trace,' but the name 'Streaker' would've sounded like something it shouldn't. Besides, when I was being interviewed after stopping a bank robbery once, the reporter described the armor as a 'layer of glowing tracer patterns.' I liked that description, and since then I've been set."
"Hmmm. . . . Uh, could you give me a quick run-down of all the advantages your alien 'armor' gives you?"
"Okay, not that I haven't done that before: some physical strength and agility, flying power, the ability to survive in space, and extremely good protection."
The professor put his hand to his chin and pondered for a brief moment. "I think something's missing. Are you sure you didn't skip anything?"
Jeff hesitated momentarily, not so much to recall his powers as because of the question. Finally: "Well . . . there is one other thing. I found this out the hard way, when I was fighting a brick."
"A brick; a heavy body builder that's all muscle. Anyway, the man had just single-handedly mugged someone and for some reason felt up to challenging me when I intercepted him. I knew he couldn't hurt me through the armor — it completely deflected a shotgun blast once — but the little bit of strength the energy field gave me wouldn't be enough to either faze him or hold onto him. The only thing I could do when he rushed me was give him my best punch, and hope I got lucky.
"When I hit him, I heard a loud 'pop' and thought I saw a yellow flash where my fist hit. Whatever it was knocked him ten feet back into a wall, unconscious. It was my fist that did that, but it packed a lot more than even my augmented strength could account for. I think the armor also gives me a kind of 'blast power'."
The cryptographer made a few quick mental comparisons, and said, "Yes, you might call it that. Mr. Boeing —"
"Call me Jeff."
"All right; Jeff, I have something to show you. Come over here."
He led the headlined super-hero across the room to a metal desk, on top of which lay three items. Jeff recognized two of the objects instantly.
"That's the stuff I picked up from the alien! Did you find out anything about the disk? That's hung in my mind more than the rod-and-rectangle for some reason."
"I'll get to the disk later. What I discovered first — with a lot of help from my colleagues in the Electronics division — was that the 'rod-and-rectangle' gizmo is both a communicator and a personal log."
"A log . . . naturally! Why else would I be talking with a cryptographer right now?"
"Exactly," the cryptographer pointed out, raising one eyebrow.
During the silence that followed, Jeff inspected the comlog more closely. "How does it work?"
"Push this little panel to transmit, and this one to receive. The signals are sent over some hyper-spatial form of 'radio' so they can cover interstellar distances in negligible amounts of time." The cryptographer's voice took on a more sullen tone. "It's dead now; it's not relaying a single transmission."
"It's broken then —" suggested Jeff, "Non-functional."
"Oh no, it works all right. There's just nothing — or should I say no one — out there transmitting on it's frequency."
Jeff puzzled. "How's that?"
The graying cryptologist grinned and complicated his expression with an unhappy sigh. He retrieved the third object from the desk, a yellow sheet from a legal pad covered in poor handwriting. "This," he said emphatically, "Is the last message left on the log, translated into English. The actual message was not in the alien's native language, but in a binary code made specifically easy to decipher. Here's what it says, word-for-word."
He cleared his throat for dramatic effect, and read: "'Here and now, I make my final entry into this log. If anyone should hear this message and can translate it into their language, then let it be known that I am the last of the Armored Warriors.'"
He stopped reading. "Now right here it gives a large number of ionizing-deionizing periods of a cesium crystal. They use this same scheme whenever they want to give a universal time constant. The number of vibrations it gives here is an even binary number which comes out to about twenty years.
"'Twenty years ago, a great many traitors of our own race banded together to form a vast dictatorship large enough to crush any non-military groups who didn't confide in them. The homeworld of our race, populated by about seven billion of us at the time, couldn't let such a terrible empire take over. But the empire was huge, and had ships in greater number than we could hope to manufacture. So, instead of mass-producing costly space warships, we equipped each of the billion of our own warriors with an armor box charged with energy that only living matter could use, one unusual weapon, and a hyperspatial communicator which also served as a log and an entryway into the various stargates connecting the explored star systems.
"'We left our homeworld then to defend ourselves and our way of life. At first, our attacks came unexpectedly, and several of the empire's ships were smashed. But because of the lack of sufficient stargates and our simple tactics, our surprises against them soon became few and far between.
"'They knew the location of every existing stargate, and all too often destroyed us just as we re-entered normal space. We fought bravely and our armor was nearly impenetrable; but with their great numbers our gigantic army was soon overwhelmed.
"'I have travelled through star systems that are at the outskirts of charted boundaries. Sometimes I track the empire's ships, but usually they track me, and then I have to run away through a stargate to a system I know they aren't occupying.
"'Now, I'm among the inner planets of an unknown yellow star system, with none of my comrades or our outposts around. I've tried several times to contact other Armored Warriors, but none have responded, and considering the several light-centuries of range the communicator has, I am led to the inescapable conclusion that the rest of our army has been destroyed, and that I'm the last of the Armored Warriors.
"'Even as this message is being encoded, one of the empire's ships is closing in on me. If any of my equipment is recovered, and if by the slimmest chance the race that recovers it doesn't have technology equal to ours yet has translated this message, then use my items for the good of your race, and if necessary, for the destruction of the empire that once had our aims. Farewell, my people.'"
Jeff didn't speak; his expression displayed his every concern and astonishment.
"And that," the cryptographer finished, "Is the last chapter in the life story of our alien friend."
Slowly, Jeff began to speak. "Then . . . then . . . I'm supposed to protect humanity from destruction, and destroy an alien empire at the same time."
"You're not obliged to do anything. You found the alien completely by accident; you don't have to risk your life or crush any empires or save any worlds just because of that. You've done more than enough good already, fighting crime on your own and all; but if you think someone else should serve the greater good with that box of yours, you're free to hand it on."
Jeff pondered this. Giving it all up had never occurred to him before, and some far-off part of him seriously considered it. He could just forget everything and relax to a life of leisure and safety, knowing that someone else was doing the dangerous work.
But oh, how he ached for the action he'd never seen! He was a swashbuckling super-hero, saving all of humanity and having a good time doing it. He'd always liked helping people out, and this had been his best opportunity to do just that.
"Doc," he said, "I don't think I want to give any of this up. I'll keep the box and use it for what it was intended for."
The cryptographer smiled. "That's what I hoped you'd say."
"I was wondering," Jeff said matter-of-factly, "How'd you figure out all the powers of the box without seeing it or studying it?"
"Well, I really didn't figure them out. You see, there were two parts to the log: the entry-and-update section, which contained the message I read you; and a rather extensive data table that probably gave the alien all he needed to know to start service as an armored warrior. Upon entry of a special command, the log plays how-to instructions for the box, followed by some vague rules of diplomacy and dozens of various combat tactics, including the use of some ranged weapon. In fact," he pointed to the disk, "This is supposed to be an energy gun."
"Supposed to be one?" Jeff was thoroughly confused.
"That's right. There's some mention of it in the main part of the log, but the instructional section doesn't even recognize its existence. What I gather is that it was invented and given to our alien friend after the war was underway, and the homeworlders had a rule about not telling anybody how it worked for fear that the Empire might figure it out. I don't think he'll have to worry about that now."
"Yeah. The empire won't even bother with him now that he's dead. They mortally wounded the guy when he was orbiting Earth, and the fall finished him off. I don't think the human race'll have any trouble from the empire for a good long time."
Jeff couldn't have been more wrong. . . .
"Have you detected any hint of him?" the Emperor asked in a language almost too high for a human to hear.
"No, there's no sign of him," the second-in-command replied. Two of his six arms made fine adjustments to one of the instruments. "We put him out of action and knocked him down from orbit at the same time; if that didn't kill him, the fall must have. Not even homeworld energy-armor could protect anything from that much re-entry heat, not to mention hitting the ground at over twice that atmosphere's speed of sound!"
"Hmmm . . . maybe. But an extreme range sensing ship picked up high-speed, singular life energy emissions — the type characteristic of personal armor fields — coming from here after the guy was destroyed. If that's the last armored warrior that was shot down, we'd better make sure nothing went wrong."
"Well, I still don't think —"
A scanner reading cut him short. The concentration of life energy at a particular point had just tripled; energy-armor was in use near the planet's surface. Two of his arms momentarily forgot to be tense, and flopped down by his sides; but he spurted back into action and engaged the pinpointing equipment.
"There he is, sir! I don't believe it, but he's still alive. He's below the cloud level, and cruising rather slowly considering the atmospheric and gravitational conditions."
"Then we've found him. But why didn't he leave, since he knew this would be the first place we'd look?"
"There is highly evolved intelligent life down there. They even appear to have an electric-level technology."
Several features around the Emperor's eyes hardened: he was deeply angered. "Why wasn't I informed of this?!" he demanded.
The second-in-command withdrew. "It just . . . didn't seem important at the time."
"It is important, you insubordinate fool!" the Emperor snapped. "If he's met a technological race, he could probably teach them how to build a space armada. Now, we have to destroy not only an armored warrior, but an entire intelligent species! This would never have happened if I'd been informed of the armored warrior's precise condition and what kind of planet he was orbiting."
"Sorry, sir; but I can't take the responsibility. I wasn't the one who decided not to inform you."
"No, no, I'm not blaming you. It's just too late now; we might have let them grow, but now we have to commit genocide, just to protect ourselves from their potential threat.
"It looks like such a nice world, too. I see his strategy in choosing which planet to orbit, but it doesn't make any difference now. At least he'll die seeing how the empire is in its full fury."
The first officer punched in a few commands on his console, and watched his display show their orbit of the blue-green world slowly tightening.
Tracer thundered over the sand-covered landscape, turning miles into moments. He'd stopped bank robberies in progress. He'd broken up gang riots and stopped chief thugs dead in their tracks. Just seeing the glowing yellow armor was enough to make criminals freeze in terror. Now, Jeff Boeing was about to put his powers to their best, and most difficult, use.
Before him, the midday sun blazed down on Nevada's desert wasteland, as desolate and peaceful as anything he'd ever known; yet this peace would shatter in a few minutes. Most knew nothing about it, and most of those who did know thought they were nuclear demonstrators. But there were a few high officials, Jeff included, who knew the terrorists' true purpose: they were sent on a suicide mission from behind the iron curtain, bent on destroying one of Nevada's largest nuclear testing grounds.
He neared the mountain the terrorists had set their bomb in. A cave led to the mountain's heart; it would take hours for skilled spelunkers or demolitionists to go through it that far. The terrorists held the bomb at the farthest end of the cave, and had announced twenty minutes ago that it would go off in half an hour. Tracer was the only one around who could fly to the cave's center and disarm the nuclear warhead in ten minutes flat.
He found the entrance and dove in. Though there was no outside light, the glow of his armor illuminated the twisting corridors for about three meters in all directions. He made progress at freeway speed by using this three-meter warning and his heightened reflexes to maneuver through the tunnels. Occasionally he miscalculated, but his armor invariably sent him rebounding off the wall and back on course. It was less than a four-minute journey to the cave's core.
The two occupants of the cavern started when they saw the entering streak of hissing, yellow light. Instinctively, they fumbled for their automatic rifles and tried desperately to aim. "Impossible," one exclaimed in startled Russian. "No one is supposed to be able to make it in here before the bomb explodes!" Their superiors were wrong.
The other pulled the trigger on his machine gun, and the first followed his example. Tiny arcs of flame leapt from the guns as Tracer's hissing was drowned out by the rat-tat-tat of .38 calibre bullets.
Tracer stopped in midair and just hovered. Helplessly, the suicide agents watched their rain of bullets deflect off the intruder's flowing yellow surface, leaving behind only instantaneous blips of yellow light where they struck. Tracer smiled; he'd always wanted to take machine gun fire in stride.
Easing forward once again, Tracer landed in front of the man who'd started firing and yanked the rifle out of his hands. He directed his armor's energy into the gun barrel, which to the amazement of the Russian heated the barrel up to incandescence. At this point, Tracer casually bent the heat-softened gun into a horseshoe shape.
Throwing the rifle to the Russian's feet, he turned to face the other man. This one had already thrown his rifle away and stretched up his hands as high as they would reach. Tracer ignored him and turned his attention to the armed bomb in the center of the cavern.
The illumination the spies had brought in gave off hardly more light than Tracer's energy-armor, but Jeff's eyes had already adjusted to the near-darkness. Tracer approached the warhead and stopped less than a meter away to examine it. The casing was unpainted metal with one welded seam down the middle. The bomb was not made to get back into once it was assembled. This didn't bother him; he drew back his right fist and pounded the skin of the bomb with highly charged kinetic force.
The shell fell away completely on impact, exposing the complex circuitry of the bomb underneath; and then Jeff Boeing's courage faltered. He used to be vice president of a publicly owned non-profit organization, with college work in economics and management under his belt; he'd never received any formal education in electronics. He'd been given a quick run-down on the structure of an atomic bomb before he left, but this wiry mess looked a lot more complicated than the descriptions he'd gotten. What did he know about disarming a time bomb, let alone a nuclear one? A good whack with his powered armor might defuse it, or it might detonate it. Pull out all the wires, or the wrong wire, and the pieces of plutonium might all slam together and harmoniously achieve critical mass.
Well, he'd been lucky in the past, and now it seemed his luck was going to be his only salvation. The big sphere with all the wires going into it, that was probably the core of the bomb. That's where the lead-separated plutonium fragments were encased in a thick layer of explosives, surrounded by the spherical explosive lens. About twenty wires led through the metal lens, any one of which could do any number of things.
As Jeff nervously studied the bomb's interior, one of the Russians surreptitiously retrieved his rifle and snuk up behind him. He swung the rifle in both hands, smashing into the back of Tracer's neck with the butt. The gun bounced off and vibrated for a few seconds, shaking up the man considerably.
"You guys just don't give up," Tracer said as he turned around and punched the Russian, using his right fist unenergized but strengthened. He landed three meters back on the cavern floor. Anxious again, Jeff Boeing turned his attention back to the bomb.
He found the timing device — it displayed a digital countdown — and traced its wires back to the spherical core. This wasn't getting him anywhere; he was still afraid that if he pulled the timing wire, it might set off the bomb instead of disarming it.
The number on the timer changed from 1:24 to 1:23 to 1:22. He had less time than he'd figured on. Somehow, he had to keep the plutonium from getting together; he had to stop the explosives inside the lens from imploding the segments. . . . The lens! Without the explosive lens to guide the force of the explosion, the bomb wouldn't go off.
He hesitated, then stepped back. Shielding his eyes, Tracer charged his right fist to full power and jabbed the metal sphere head-on.
A yellow flash, and the explosive lens shattered; but not without its booby trap. The instant Tracer hit the lens, the explosives went off, just as he'd prepared himself for. Their force alone slammed him against the far cavern wall. But instead of uniting the plutonium, the explosion only blew the explosive lens apart. Metal and ceramic fragments rained down on the cavern floor, pelting the last armored warrior and the two Russians. But a second-and-a-half later, it was all over, and the nuclear bomb was disarmed.
Tracer shut his eyes and smiled, exhaling in relief. As he got up and approached the remains of the bomb, he whooped with joy: "All right! Did it!" The bomb's core was still cased in lead despite the explosion; he picked it up under his left arm as a souvenir. Returning to the cavern wall, he retrieved both exhausted men and flung them over his shoulder. Then, executing a ballet leap and becoming airborne, he wafted back down the tunnel he had come through.
He arrived at the test site on top of the mountain fifteen minutes later and set the two spies and the nuclear bomb core down gently. The staff at the grounds, returning from the evacuation, cheered for the man who'd saved their base. Cameras flashed blue-white all around in the hands of people who had never before seen the glowing marvel in person. The entire world would soon hear about his deed, but Tracer knew the best was yet to come.
"Sorry to save you guys and run, but I have a date with the Las Vegas news!" Tracer pushed off the ground and accelerated away toward the closest major population center, Las Vegas.
Jeff landed on the edge of the crystal city, and touched the off-panel under his charge box's protective hood. His conscience had intruded on the scene, giving him a twinge of reluctance.
'They don't want to see Jeff Boeing in there,' he thought. 'They want to see Tracer. Jeff Boeing just doesn't make any difference anymore.
'Oh well, if they want Tracer, that's what I'll give them. It just seems a shame to sacrifice my identity this way.'
He reactivated his energy armor and took to the air once more. Within the space of a minute, he descended into the heart of the city and the midst of five gigantic television news teams.
The cheering was so thick that it sounded more like an amplified whisper. Before five TV cameras, newsmen and newswomen were all giving their version of an introduction: "We're here today in Las Vegas where Tracer has just returned from disarming a nuclear bomb set by terrorists (spies, Russians, etc.). . . ."
The instant Tracer's foot touched the ground, a newswoman thrust a microphone in his face and asked, "Tracer, will you tell the viewing audience precisely what went on down there?"
"All right," he replied. "The trip into the cave took me all of three minutes, and went smoothly barring a few rebounds off the walls. When I reached the cavern with the bomb in it, there were only two people standing guard — and they weren't doing a very good job, either. Their superiors probably told them that —" he switched to a Russian accent, "— no one could possibly get to you before ze bomb goes off."
Jeff Boeing stopped. 'I don't sound like that,' he worried. 'I've never mocked a Russian in my life.'
But Tracer let it pass. "The agents were practically unarmed; they only had machine guns. They weren't expecting to see anyone, let alone the Last Armored Warrior."
"Who?" asked one of the reporters. The rest of the people there looked equally puzzled.
"The Last Armored Warrior; uh, that's me. Or rather, it's me right now, but it wasn't me about a month or so ago. Er, look, you can get the whole story from the cryptographer the government appointed to look into the case."
The cheering had long ago lapsed into reverent silence. Even in the hot Nevada sun, Tracer's body glowed with an awesome presence. In the back of Jeff's mind, this seemed like the perfect time for something of colossal proportions to happen. He pushed that thought aside as a reporter asked him another question.
"Do you know what the purpose of this terrorist threat was?"
"Well, I understand it was an attempt by —"
A shadow appeared above his head and cut him short. He looked up to find its source, and saw something rectangular eclipse the sun almost completely. Blinded by the glare, he couldn't get any idea of the object's scale.
Then, the object began to lower itself, to draw closer, and Jeff began hearing a low rumble originating from it. Its corners started resolving into square-shaped protrusions; harsh lines on its underside became visible; and as the object came as low as it dared, it shocked Jeff into realizing its true size. The slab had to be at least a fourth of a kilometer long.
The crowd had turned their attention to what Tracer was looking at. Even the hard-pressed reporters were speechless. Jeff Boeing was the only one present who had an inkling of what the object was, and what it all meant. His lips formed four silent words: "They've discovered my presence."
Then, as suddenly as the object had appeared, the air boomed into life with a sound as loud and high as it was incomprehensible. Thousands of fluctuating tones shook the air at frequencies just barely within the range of human hearing. The dogs of the city wailed in fear.
After twenty seconds the sound cut off, followed by an Earth-shattering silence that lasted only five seconds. Every eye and camera in the vicinity was trained on the bulky object as it hung motionless in the sky. The watching world knew of what true peril it may very well be in.
The air came alive once more, this time with an unseating low rumble. Above the ominous hum, a voice as loud as the former high tones made itself heard. Though it was mechanical and excruciatingly tinny, the voice spoke the first sentences to homo sapiens from an alien race.
"I have just informed your armored warrior ally, in his own language, that the war is over and he has lost. Whether he forfeits to us will not concern your race, for we cannot trust him to have not spread the knowledge of his technology to you. In order to ensure the survival of the empire, your race must be annihilated."
Tracer, now both stunned and angered, floated upward ten meters.
The voice continued. "We've taken a few hours to analyze your language under cloak of radar-invisibility; we wished for you to know the reason for our committing genocide on you. It would have been nice if you could have joined us, but now we can't take any chances. Just be proud that you were privileged enough to have the emperor himself destroy you."
One of the short sides of the rectangle began shining blue-white, mounting in intensity until, two seconds later, it matched the sun's brightness. From somewhere on the structure came a mechanical whir, and two brilliant red bolts leapt from the whir's source toward Tracer. Startled, the armored warrior tried to swerve around the shining pulses as best he could. He avoided the first shot, which impacted violently against the asphalt; but his dodge put him right in the path of the second. The energy clashed with his armor and forced him to the ground.
Then the monolith, as though its mass was unimportant, sprang away from its own bluish glow and disappeared over the horizon.
Tracer propped himself up on his hands; he'd felt the energy bolt, but it hadn't given him more than a bruise. For the first time since hearing the last armored warrior's log, Jeff Boeing was totally speechless over a story told by an alien. By finding the alien and in turn wearing its armor, he had signed humanity's death warrant. At least, that was what he thought at first, but soon cool logic retained control. As the words of the emperor's speech flooded back to him, he figured that the empire would have eventually come around and asked us to "join" them anyway. Then, when we refused, they'd still have probably decimated us.
The line that Jeff hated the most was the last one; there could be no honor in being killed by some emperor. But the line that stuck out the most was the first one, where it seemed the empire thought that he was the original armored warrior and not just some obscure human using the energy box. With all their super-sophisticated technology, they must have had some device that could tell if the guy under the armor was one of their kind or not; even the outline of his body should've given that away! Yet they never bothered to use whatever devices they posessed — out of arrogance, perhaps — and had held fast to their theory that the armored warrior wasn't human, even down to the first alien-language sentence spoken in front of all humanity.
Tracer knew what he had to do. Frantically, he turned to one of the reporters and demanded, "Where did that craft go?!"
"Huh? I don't know, don't ask me!"
Now more nervous, Tracer glanced quickly around and shouted, "Does anyone know where that ship went?"
"Yeah!" came a barely audible yell from somewhere in the crowd. Tracer leapt over to where the reply originated, and was cut off before he got the chance to ask his obvious question.
"Emergency alerts just came in from every radio station in the city. They say the ship was last seen heading due west and — oh, wait a minute!"
The radio blurted out the latest report. The space ship, or aircraft, or whatever it was, had just stopped over the Los Angeles area. Without a word, Tracer leapt from the ground in a smeared blur of yellow and was on his way.
'I must stay low,' he thought, Las Vegas dwindling behind him. 'No matter how advanced they are, it'll be harder to spot me if I'm hugging the ground than if I'm flying high. The curvature of the Earth's surface'll help me a little there, too, even though they're only a few hundred kilometers away.'
He descended until he was less than fifty meters above the ground. Over flat desert, a fast pace would be easy to maintain. He stretched his arms out in front, and concentrated entirely on accelerating to his very limit. Then, imperceptibly at first, but soon with mounting visibility, his speed increased to flickering proportions. The rumble of the air around him steadily loudened until he travelled at just below the speed of sound.
After a few minutes, the sandy, level ground of the desert gave way to the Sierras. Now, unlike the smooth acceleration he put himself through before, his flight would be fraught with rocky obstacles; he'd have to dodge the mountains at angles and speeds he preferred not to think about.
The first mountain-obstacle leapt into his path. He jogged to the left just barely in time to miss the mountain, putting him on a head-on course with a second hill. Side-slipping to the right, he slalomed around that rock as well. Each swerve was accompanied by an instantaneous roaring of air as the energy-armor field surrounding him cut past what little resistance the air gave.
Flying less than fifty meters above the surface of the ground was too dangerous in the mountains, he realized. Tracer gave himself a little leeway and ascended to a hundred meters, still too close to the ground to avoid hitting the hills without swerving, but not quite as lethal as fifty meters. As soon as he completed the climb, another hill popped into being that was so close he had to call on the super-human agility of the alien armor to move him to one side.
He was glad now that he'd once thought of being a dancer. When he was still young, he had taken a few courses over a couple of months, but thereafter lost interest. Yet the lessons had done one thing to him: they'd molded his muscles into lean, agile coordinators of his body, giving him a degree of physical control he had never before posessed. Now, those seldom-used muscles were again called into action.
He jerked left around another obstacle, then right, then came to a bulge so large he couldn't move to one side of it. Ignoring the risk of being spotted, Tracer angled upward and soared over the minor peak. The solitary observer below experienced something like a jet fighter flying low and fast overhead, leaving behind an eerie, glowing contrail. The observer waved a vain hello to the armored super human; Tracer probably wouldn't see it, but at least he was there.
Within a minute, all but the low, hilly, western region of the Sierras was behind him. The only thing between himself and the space ship now was about two hundred miles of sand and cities. The sandy areas passed quickly, and he was upon the towns of mankind's construction. He was unnerved a bit when he saw the high buildings approaching at just below the speed of sound, but he quickly overcame his fear. The only thing on his mind now was stopping the Empire's craft from destroying humanity.
He skimmed above the building tops until he found a major east-west thoroughfare, then followed it for ten seconds until he was completely across the town. Everyone present watched the yellow and listened to the roar and hiss as his energy field cut through the atmosphere. These people knew his intention, for ten minutes earlier the Empire's flag ship had passed swiftly and silently above their heads. And although the backgrounds of those present differed immensely from individual to individual, nearly all of them had the same thought: "Go get 'em!"
He was well beyond the one city, past another, and through a third before he knew it. But now his determination began to falter by the slightest twinge of doubt in the back of his subconscious. He quickly banished this, though, as he weaved ever-closer to the California coast.
Finally, less than three minutes later, the coast sprang up before him, and he realized that his navigation had been slightly off. He hadn't flown far enough south, and had hit the ocean closer to Santa Barbara than Los Angeles. As he rotated southward, still fifty meters off the ground, the doubt surfaced again in his conscious mind; but this time he accepted it. Slowly, he descended to the beach.
His body lost the smeared nature that meant he was flying and gave way to the calm swirling of energies. He was between two large, rust colored rocks that reflected the midday sun with a kind of late-afternoon light. Staring at the ground, he briefly went over all that had happened to him recently. He'd gone from being vice president of a non-profit organization to being a super-powered hero because of a rebel alien and its technology. Now, he had to stop an empire he'd never even seen before. And even though the empire was currently man's enemy, how could he hope to destroy a warship hundreds of times his own size?
And there was one more problem. 'Jeff Boeing,' he thought, 'Is supposed to be me. But if I appear in front of anybody when my energy-armor is turned on, the "me" gets lost in Tracer, the trans-human armored wonder who saves the world and flies off into the sunset.'
"Double personality"; the words resounded in his mind. Though his powers had been exposed to the world even before he chose his pseudonym, Jeff Boeing was rapidly losing his identity. The headlines were all crammed with "Tracer," but hardly a hint of Jeff remained.
But the fact that he'd always liked humanity and had always liked helping humanity as best he could still stuck out behind him. That was why he'd been vice-president of a nonprofit organization, and that was why he decided to keep the energy armor and use it to stop crime, save the world, and even crush an empire. And now he was obliged to carry out the two most demanding of those three duties.
No, obliged wasn't the word; he had to carry them out, and he wanted to carry them out! He couldn't afford to reminisce any longer. With determination on his hidden face, he called the flight power of the box back into action. The yellow energy patterns smeared, his weight became meaningless, and with a shove from his right leg he took off.
After climbing about two hundred meters, he stopped to get his bearings. He needed to follow the coast, which he was facing, southeast to reach Los Angeles. He pivoted left and once more brought himself up to full speed while dropping back down to fifty meters altitude. A myriad of people and a string of lifeguard towers flickered by, almost invisible with speed. Hundreds of strangers waved their greeting, and hundreds more worried because they knew what was soon to happen.
And at last, Jeff glimpsed it. It first appeared as a black speck against a blue-gray sky, which any airplane would have looked like, but from its distance and shape Jeff could tell that it was what he'd come to get. He altered his course, still hugging the ground at fifty meters, and threaded among the boulevards toward the ship. Keeping low kept up his hope that his presence had not yet been detected, yet he knew that if they could single him out over the entire planet they should be able to pick him up at this close a range.
In the distance, Jeff could finally see what the ship was doing to Los Angeles. This couldn't have been the way the empire "destroyed the world," what with firing only a few weak weapons at a gigantic city; they couldn't have been giving more than a sample of their power. They were firing the same red energy weapons at the city that they'd fired at him when they first met, and these caused only moderate devastation at best.
Soon, very soon, the hovering space craft was so close he could make out its contours. It was time to strike. Without slowing, he tensed his entire body and angled straight toward the ominous rectangular slab, charging his fists with the might of his energy field.
The next instant, Tracer rammed into the ship with the full force of his near-sonic momentum and his armor's channeled energy. He rebounded from the hull considerably. His armor would have absorbed most of the impact had he not directed its energy into the blow along with his velocity. Jeff was stunned, but only for a couple of seconds, afterwhich he inspected his space-faring adversary.
His blow had done considerable damage, but not as much as he'd hoped for. Where he'd struck, he'd left a crater that plowed through nearly a meter of hardened and reinforced metal; but it wasn't deep enough to penetrate this armor to the delicate interior of the ship.
"Well," the emperor said. "Our first little attack didn't finish him. Oh well, at least now he's gotten a taste of our hull."
Three or four of the guns on the ship pivoted and began firing on Tracer's yellow form. Startled, Tracer began dodging, evading most of the shots that came near him as he edged his way closer to the big ship. Once, a single shot hit him, but that only hammered him back a few meters and reflected off his armor with a yellow flash and a loud "Ktang!"
The emperor stared at the scene in disbelief. "Impossible!" he stammered. "Nobody can be that agile, even aided by one of the homeworld's charge boxes!"
"Or at least," interjected his second-in-command, "None of us can move like that. Have you seen the agility of this planet's inhabitants? We're only sloths next to them!"
"Are you suggesting that this isn't the last armored warrior?"
"Precisely," the second-in-command replied as he smoothly punched a string of commands into a computer terminal. When the display returned a fraction of a second later, it revealed that there was definitely a human inside the glowing armor. "It's confirmed — the original armored warrior is gone. I thought the fall must have killed him!"
A dull thud sounded against the hull of the ship, the effect of Tracer whacking the ship's armor while channeling energy into the blow. The emperor took casual note of it, then turned back to his second-in-command.
"So all that's fighting us is a human who found the box and figured out how it worked. The last armored warrior died before he could spread any of his technology to these bipeds."
"That's right. And that means . . ." A look of happiness swept over his form. ". . . That means we have nothing to fear from these people! We don't have to destroy them!"
The emperor hesitated, but then his voice boomed back: "NO! These people already know about the armor, and if we leave them alone they'll probably discover how to duplicate it!"
"But sir —"
"And with any luck, the armored warrior's weapon and stargate-opener probably survived the impact too. But most importantly, we've already begun the attack on these people. We can't back out now; the empire would never hear the end of it! And think what an effect a miscalculation like this would have on me! They'd take me out of the seat of power in an instant! Stop that armored biped, I command you!"
Silently, the second-in-command turned and instructed the tactical computer to concentrate all the ship's firepower on the human armored warrior. He felt that the emperor was slowly approaching insanity by continuing the attack, despite the fact that this was the only way for him to stay in power. There was even the possibility of mutiny if the crew ever found out exactly what was going on. But whatever would happen, the second-in-command was going to stick by the not-quite-stable emperor's side; he'd been sworn to serve him to the death, and he still preferred that duty.
Tracer zoomed in on one of the turrets and disabled it with a half-strength blast. Backing off, he inspected his opponent. The armor on the outside was impenetrable; the only real damage he could do was against the the ship's weaponry. Yet the ship bristled with gunning turrets everywhere, all of which looked approximately equal in strength and several of which were still firing at him. There were a few turrets, though, that didn't look like the others.
A distant whistling noise caught his attention. He looked to its origin, and saw a squadron of four F-15 Eagles fast approaching. A cheer crossed his face as he raised one fist in triumph. The F-15 was the most advanced fighter plane the Air Force had; if they couldn't stop the empire, then presumably nothing could.
The fighters split off their formation and almost immediately fired missiles at the ship. Jeff's smile grew as the missiles rocketed from their under-the-wing housings toward the motionless rectangular craft, but shock replaced that smile when every last missile was struck down by jolts from the ship's turrets. And once the turrets finished off the missiles, they turned to face the fighters.
Only one fighter managed to get off a couple seconds of vulcan cannon fire before it was blown apart, and these bullets merely bounced off the stubborn armor casing. Jeff froze for a few seconds, both from shock and despair. If that floating hulk wiped out the best fighters of human technology without even getting scratched, how could he hope to do better?
This shock waned after a few seconds, though, when he remembered that he was using the product of a technology far greater than humans'. He could take hits from their guns without any personal injury, and could incur real damage on their ship without being stopped. "Now," he told himself, "I'm going to knock out every bit of firepower this thing has, piece by piece!"
Accelerating to a higher battle speed, he closed in on the ship and downed his second turret. Three seconds later, he downed his third. Studying his foe for one lethal moment, he glimpsed some motion off to one side. He turned just in time to see a spotlight-shaped object aim directly at him and activate, capturing him in a greenish shaft of gravitation that froze him in place.
"I got here as soon as I could," the cryptographer said above the din of the crowd. "What's the situation?"
"Not too good," an FBI agent replied. "He looks like he's caught in some kind of tractor beam, or something, that keeps him from moving."
"I thought those things were only around in space operas," the cryptographer mumbled to himself as he pulled a 12-centimeter disk from his car. He then took a piece of yellow note paper out of his back pocket.
"What is THAT?" wondered the FBI man.
"That," the cryptographer replied, opening the piece of paper, "Is the access code to this thing." He began punching buttons on the grid of the disk according to the paper's specifications. "I finally figured out how this energy gun works. Only problem is that if it hasn't been used for more than about 38 hours, or if it changes owners, the access code has to be re-entered."
He tapped the last key with a gallant finger. "There. The energy bolt generator is now armed and operable."
'I can't move' was the pressing thought running through Jeff's mind. Though he pulled with his every muscle, he couldn't unfix himself. Suddenly, he forgot to strain when he saw what was turning in his direction. A huge object, shaped like a searchlight and three times as big as the thing which immobilized him, rotated until he was looking straight into it. Jeff tried to swallow, but even that was nearly impossible against the petrifying beam he was locked in.
He knew what would happen next, and his courage left him. Energies would generate at the thing's focus, bounce off the parabolic dish, and leap right at him with hundreds of times the power of the ship's main-battery turrets. His armor would cave in, and his body would instantly fry. Then elusive death would surround his form, and spread to the whole human race. And none of that would have happened had he not found the fallen alien that fateful night a month ago.
The emperor smirked in his own alien way. At last, the armored warrior — or at least his human counterpart — would be destroyed beyond any doubt, and the energy field generator would probably go with him. He looked casually at his private compu-display to check on how well the charging process was going; the display registered a time equivalent to ten seconds before the Devastator would be fully charged and ready to fire. He began to count down with the display, waiting in anticipation for the moment when he would shout, "Fire!"
The cryptologist lowered his binoculars, and made his decision. He had to do something to help the man in yellow, even if it was only distracting the empire for a few seconds. Determinedly, he raised the disk with its flat side facing the bottom of the ship, aimed for the spotlight that was holding Tracer still, and put his thumb over the right-hand button on the disk's top. "This one's for you, Jeff Boeing," he said to himself, and pressed the button.
A white-hot ball of energy sprang from the front of the disk and thundered into the craft's underside. He'd missed the green beam generator by only meters.
"What!?!" yelled the emperor when the report reached him a second later. "Who's doing this? Who has a homeworld energy gun?"
Each second the disk fired another bolt, and each time the shots impacted nearer and nearer to the suspension-beam projector. Finally, on the fifth hit, the bolt hit its mark, and the green projector flew apart in a shower of sparks. Tracer seized the opportunity, shot straight up, and cheered, "I'm free!"
He looked down to where his salvation had originated. There was the unmistakable form of the cryptographer wielding the disk like a weapon he'd known about for years. Jeff flipped his thumb up on his left fist in a modern salute.
"Nooooooo!" screamed the agonized emperor. "Get the Devastator on whoever did that! Wipe out every trace of that . . . primitive's . . . existence!"
The searchlight-shaped Devastator traversed to face its new target, still fully charged and ready to fire. The cryptographer, now panicking, tried to take aim at the weapon, but was cut short. A meter-and-a-half wide shaft of blinding blue light bridged the gap between the Devastator and the ground, enveloping the cryptographer and the FBI agent standing next to him in an opaque cloak of energy.
For three endless seconds, Jeff stared open-mouthed at the scene below; then when the Devastator shut off, he needed only a fraction of an instant to see the destruction before he shut his eyes and gritted his teeth in anguish. Nothing remained within the blue shaft's area of effect, and the street's asphault was melted to a depth of half a meter and glowing red-hot.
Tracer maintained his rationality through his confused rage, but just barely. He hardly knew the cryptographer, yet he'd just sacrificed his own life for him. His belly cringed in emotional pain. Seething, he zoomed up to the searchlight that had killed the cryptographer, and punched it with not only the full energy of his armor field, but with every dram of strength in both his fists as well. In a violent flash of yellow, the Devastator turned to dust.
And when that was done, he began punching out the armor around the Devastator's housing, making wide dents in the ship's surface. The thought of killing another man to avenge the death of someone he knew would have made him sick to the solar plexis, but he could feel no mercy for these sub-living, spiteful imperial aliens.
But inside the motionless, battle-damaged craft, the emperor felt the same way about Tracer.
"In this thick nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere our main batteries can't even penetrate his armor. Our Devastator and our tractor beam are destroyed. There must be some way we can stop him!"
"Well," suggested the second-in-command, "There's always the slicers, sir."
"Which are the latest and most effective anti-armored-warrior weapons we have! We use them in desperate situations when surrounded by armored warriors. Against one? Never!"
His compu-display lit up with the updated damage report. The numbers didn't look good.
"Oh, all right," the emperor acquiesced. "Switch on the two forward slicer beams. Take him out with whichever."
Several nods came from the high-ranking weapons officers in the emperor's dimly lit chamber. The computer lights against the dark walls hid their features, but the nods were easily seen.
"Ah," reminisced the emperor, "For the battles when we gunned them down with our main batteries. A few blasts in the right places, and their armor generators would fall — or they would. Now, we have to use the slicer beams against a single, agile local in a later model of armor. I hope the empire won't look down on this, considering how much I've botched it already."
Tracer twisted out of the Devastator's housing in a small arc, his rage relieved. Now, he could plot how to destroy the flagship. Yet while one part of his mind plotted, another part was trying to warn him that something was wrong. The ship's main battery had been firing at him constantly during the battle, but now the guns had stopped, and the ship had taken on a deadly silence.
Tracer caught a motion on the ship's surface, and jumped to the left just in time to avoid a white plane of energy aimed at him. Another similar blast followed the first, coming from the far side of the ship; Tracer had to curl clockwise around this one to avoid it.
It was only out of arrogance and overconfidence that he made his next move. Believing his armor to be invincible against an attack such as a plane of energy, he came about and flew head-long toward the source of the beam. As he approached, the source resolved into a long rectangular box with a flat nozzle on the front, housed in a setting similar to the main turrets'. Just as he came up to deliver the disabling blow, the weapon fired again, and its beam intersected his left side before he could evade it.
He fell from the air, vainly trying to put his hand on his injured waist through two layers of energy-armor. Slowly, he managed to straighten out and come to a hovering stop, his will for survival outweighing the pain in his side. For the first time ever, he was genuinely wounded while in his Tracer armor. He looked up to the adamant monolith once more, seeing its new weapon in a new light.
The weapon itself wasn't all that powerful. It was deadly because it was designed specifically to cut through an armored warrior's energy field. It simply matched the armor's energy, the armor ignored it, and the beam went right on through to injure Tracer's left side.
He scanned the craft with a keen eye, looking for more possible origin points for the armor-penetrating weapons. He knew there were at least two, but from this distance he couldn't discern any more. All he could see was a myriad of unremarkable housings, the place where the Devastator and tractor beam used to be, the first dent he had made when he rammed into the ship, and the dim blue-white glow of the engines.
The . . . engines? Of course! Why hadn't it occurred to him sooner? The engines were the sole places on the craft that couldn't be covered with indestructable armor. If he could fly into the ship through the engines . . . and maybe cause them to explode . . .
He made up his mind. He looked over at the blue-white glow that was his target, and said to himself, "Energy armor, I hope you can hold out against what I'm gonna put you through."
He sped off.
A single slicer beam tried to hit him, but Tracer evaded it skillfully.
"There are rumors of mutiny, sir," the emperor's first officer had been saying. "The crew doesn't like the idea of us committing genocide for no reason."
The emperor was preoccupied with something much more pressing. "He's going for the engines!" he shouted. He bit the fourth finger of his fifth hand for a fraction of a second, then said, "That's just where we can get him. Our rear slicer has twice the power of either of our forward ones. Weapons officer, fire the rear slicer beam!"
"Yes sir!" replied the weapons officer at his computer terminal. He leaned over the input board, examined the display above it, and was about to enter the command to fire when he was knocked out by a makeshift club.
"No!" came the lower-pitched shout from the female mutineer who'd hit him. She and several others had breached the bridge. "You're not going to kill someone who was never your enemy in the first place! You knew that he wasn't a homeworlder, and that these people couldn't learn anything of military importance from a dead alien, but you still attacked them! We're not going to let you stop him!"
"Are you suicidal?!" the second-in-command bellowed as he grabbed her and threw her away from the weapons terminal. Ignoring the other mutineers, he pulled the unconscious weapons officer from the terminal.
Panicking as he saw the armored form close in on the engines and leave the rear slicer's zone of control, he typed in the aiming command with shaking tendrils. Without hesitation, he entered the well-remembered command to fire the weapon, but by then the delay had become too great. There was nothing to stop Tracer from reaching the engines now.
Straining to see through the electric-blue glare, his senses gripped by the stench of ozone, Tracer could just make out the three huge nozzles that directed the ship's ion thrust. Each was the same size and circular. He picked the center engine to enter, since that would probably have the most devastating effect on the whole ship.
He plunged into the ionic inferno.
The flowing patterns of light were gone from his armor now, replaced by hundreds of spark-flashes that represented the stress the armor was under from all sides. Jeff was beginning to worry that his armor wouldn't hold the load, but he clung to his faith in the aliens who'd built the box he wore on his chest. But the energies outside were increasing. . . .
The sea of bystanders gasped as they cleared the area beneath the spacecraft. Hope for Tracer's survival was in the back of their minds, but more prominent now was the fear of failure. If this trick didn't work, humanity most likely would be doomed.
Agonizing seconds passed, and then the once-motionless ship started to shake. Whatever Tracer was doing in there, it was working. The glow of the engines rapidly grew dimmer as tiny, imperceptible faults began to emerge in the armor plating.
The lethal vehicle heaved and erupted, throwing hundreds of tonnes of scrap metal outward with its last breath. The people below cowered from the rain of space ship parts, most of which glowed an incandescent red.
As the explosion subsided, the smoke and the light lingered, along with everyone's last remaining fear. Was this finally Tracer's last battle? Could his energy armor deflect the full power of the explosion?
But as the scene resolved, the outcome was plain for anyone to see. There was no mistaking the yellow, humanoid form descending from where the ship used to be with his fists raised in triumph. Since he caused the explosion, he had been at its very center — the eye of the storm. What little power had confronted him, his armor had absorbed. He had survived.
The crowd cheered as loudly as before, only now it was the whole world that was cheering and not just Las Vegas. But once again, he told himself, they were cheering for Tracer, with Jeff Boeing left completely out of the picture. That didn't seem to matter as much right now, though.
He started to worry about the empire again, but only for an instant. Most likely, they realized their error in attacking the human race. And even more likely, there late emperor was slightly insane. The emperor must have known that the armored warrior they were fighting was a human, yet the attack on humanity continued. The empire wouldn't be back for a long time, and maybe by then it would have disbanded.
As he descended to visible and audible range, he saw a general of the Air Force arrive and leave his staff car. The general meant to congratulate him, but Tracer had another thing in mind. He flew up to the general and his escorting lieutennant, and said, "Sorry I have to save the world and run, but I have to go find a sunset to fly off into."
And with that, he leisurely departed.
"There goes a fine American," the general said, saluting him.
But Tracer heard that remark, even over the din of cheers. He doubled back and ground to a halt less than a meter from the general.
"I am not your 'Fine American.' I am a living being first, above any nationality. This country is a good one — the best in the world, in fact — but it's far from perfect. Or else . . . why would I be here?"
Once more, the glowing yellow figure turned and left. In the background, he heard the general finally say what he wanted him to: "There goes a fine human being."
He was content with that reply, and even happier about his last statement, simply because that declaration of humanity was Jeff Boeing, all the way.
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