The original draft was written on an electric typewriter. It was the origin story for the Champions character of the same name, which was the 4th Champions character I ever created. All spellings, punctuation, capitalizations, comic book aliens, etc. are as in the original.
Joshua Tree National Monument was even more beautiful at night, Jeff Boeing told himself as he eased up slightly on the accelerator of his sedan. Jeff was the kind of person who liked to share everything with everyone, but this time he was on a trip alone. He liked to get away from the hard-pressed social world now and then, as does almost everyone, to relax and forget about everyone but himself.
It was when he was in this relaxed state, when he was the most likely to see anything bizarre, that he first saw it. Falling from the sky, leaving behind a trail of yellow-white fire, was what at first looked like a meteor. It was so close! Jeff took his foot completely off the gas pedal to watch the object fall to Earth. If it was a meteor, it had to be awfully small and awfully hot down this far through the atmosphere. A few seconds later, the object struck the ground just meters from his car.
For only a split-second, he still thought it was a meteor; but the thought was instantly banished when he saw the object bounce, like something living hitting against a soft bed of sand. Startled, he slammed on his brakes, waited the few seconds for his car to stop, got out, and ran toward the impact site.
Even against the pounding of his still-running car engine, Jeff could hear a definite hissing sound coming from the thing. When he reached it, the first thing he noticed was the fact that the object - obviously some type of bedy - was covered with moving, glowing streaks of light-energy, possibly the source for the hissing sounds. Without even thinking about it, Jeff asked, "Are you all right?"
And the second thing he noticed was that the body was not of a human being, nor probably of anything from Earth. One of its arms was still moving, the multitude of foot-long tendrils at its end still slithering back and forth. And then, suddenly, the arm fell silently to the creature's side. Within a few seconds, the flowing pattern of lights over its body vanished, and the eight clamps around its body released their grip, pushing a rectangular box up at their terminus.
Jeff slapped the side of his face quickly to make sure that this wasn't his imagination. He put out his hand and felt the body of the creature carefully. It was definitely there, and its body was still warm. And yet, he knew that there was no more life left in this creature, whatever it was.
That box that was clamped to its chest looked interesting; so did the loaded belt it wore around what was probably its waist. He examined the belt carefully, finding that it contained two removable items. One of the items was a one-foot rod with a handle attached at one end. The other was a disk with a grill on one side. It was so obvious, he thought: the rod was its ray gun, and the disk was its walkie-talkie!
Well, maybe he had it the wrong way around; or maybe those weren't what they were at all. But he was sure of one thing: the alien creature he was now observing came from a technology at least as advanced as his own.
That box still looked interesting. 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 alien intelligence, he had to make somebody stand up and take notice. This was not the most dramatic first contact he'd dreamed of, but it was a first contact, and that at least counted for something.
The alien belonged to science, he told himself as he dragged the creature into the back seat of his car, but the devices he wanted to keep for himself. Well, maybe not the rod and the disk, since he hadn't even figured out how to get either of them started, but the box was still as interesting as ever. What's more, it had a big, pale-red button on the front. What could be more obvious than that?
He closed the doors, turned the wheel, pushed the accelerator, and turned down the road back in the direction he had come from. Things like this, as far as he was concerned, take first consideration over vacationing in Joshua Tree. In no time at all, he had the car back up and running at a good sixty miles per hour.
He'd travelled about a half hour back to Los Angeles, and by that time his curiosity toward the box was begoming overwhelming. Finally, he decided that he couldn't bear waiting any longer. He pulled his car off to one side of the road, switched on the interior lights, reached into the back seat, and took the box from the dead alien's body. Sitting back down, he examined the eight-clamped wonder more carefully. In addition to the obvious light pink button, there was another protrusion; a hump with a hole on the bottom was sticking out on the left side of the device. Cautiously, he put his finger inside. On the outer edge of the protrusion, from the inside, he could feel the definite presence of a touch-sensor switch. Taking the risk, he pushed it. The box did nothing whatsoever.
At that point he realized that the caution he was using was getting him nowhere. After all, even aliens had to have built-in safety features! He pointed his finger at the pink button commitedly, and stabbed down on it. For a brief instant, he heard a combination of a humming and hissing sound, and saw a faint shimmer beside each one of the body clamps. After the instant was over, the shimmer subsided, along with the odd sound.
"Interesting," he said as he tossed the box back into the back seat and accelerated back onto the highway again. He was more scared now than he was peeved; that box did something, and he was pretty sure it did more than just glow and hum. After all, it was when the light patterns ceased on the alien's body that the box popped itself on. And what with it being only about a foot by nine inches, it would easily fit his chest as well. It was a thought he didn't really care to think about.
Dawn had already broken by the time he reached downtown Los Angeles. He was slightly bleary-eyed from the long return trip, but his spirits quickly lightened up when he drove into the police station. He wondered if any of the people on the force were trained to handle a situation quite like this one. He parked his car, and flung the alien over his shoulder. The aline's devices would still fit in its belt, but the box would never go back around its chest, even when he tried to force it back into position. The only thing left for him to do was clamp the box to his own chest. Putting the box on the surface of his chest and pushing the clamps down with his shoulder muscles, the box easily clamped around his torso. He headed off.
In the police station, the hustle and bustle had reached an almost unbearable frenzy for this time of day. The tension had mounted to a peak, and it was ready for something to break it. Sure enough, something did, as Jeff walked through the front door carrying a seven-foot creature flung over his back and wearing a clamped-on box on his chest. As all the eyes in the room eventually turned on him, he planted his feet in place, and said nonchalantly, "Gentlemen, would you mind telling me where I could report a dead alien?"
He let the alien fall to the floor in time with a chorus of sucked breaths. The dull thud the alien made as it flopped to the ground made Jeff think whether or not his last move had been all that well-chosen. Nevertheless, one of the people still behind a desk picked up the phone and began to call someone - although who he was calling, Jeff was not quite certain. Nevertheless, he had a feeling that he was calling the proper authorities and not the little white wagon.
The FBI had already begun to load the body of the alien into a large, gray van. "We'd like to have the equipment you found on the alien, if you don't mind," their head man said.
"Ok," Jeff responded, "Here's the alien's belt. It has a disk and a rod I re-attached to it, which may have some use. As for the box, I'm afraid I'd rather keep it."
"Well, we can't take anything you found on him from you; you found him, so technically, all the alien's posessions are yours. But thanks for the belt. I'm sure we can find out something useful about it."
"You're welcome. So-long."
The rest of the FBI men boarded the van and left the scene. Now the only thing remaining between Jeff and relaxation was the large crowd of reporters, all wanting to cover their own "story of the century."
"How did you find the 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 a yellow-white streak of light falling from the sky."
He paused momentarily to watch the few reporters who still used notepads scribble down what he had said. Then, "At first I thought it was a meteor, but it was too close and too small for that, especially if it was glowing as hot as it was. It also looked too light."
"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 see it die, watch the glowing pattern of lights fade from its body, and witness the box release its grip from its body and arch up on its clamps."
"You said something about 'glowing patterns of light.' What did you mean?"
"There were flowing light designs going all over its body, which probably emanated from the box."
"How does this box work? Could you give us a demonstration?"
"Okay," he said.
'I might as well,' he thought, 'But I have a feeling I'm going to regret this!'
He reached his left hand over to the pale-pink button and pressed it with his index finger. Suddenly, the tiny nodes by the body-clamps where the little shimmers had once been produced sent forth one glowing tracer of light apiece, and kept sending them out as the old tracers followed the shape of his body and died away. Jeff was at first terrified, but that eventually faded into just plain awe-struck. Nevertheless, he was frozen in pace by his own fear of the unknown as he let out a weak cry of panic.
And then, cautiously, slowly, he moved his left arm. The patterns of light altered their course to compensate for the movement, and the arm ended up still covered with the same everchanging light-streaks. Then, he moved his left arm, with increased speed, and then he began to walk forward. He let out a triumphant laugh of joy as he lept straight up, using his whole body in motion.
To the awe-struck reporters, they only saw a body engulfed in light quickly change to a blur as it moved even at a moderate speed. They weren't quite sure what to think, but they knew that here was something nearly as important as the alien itself.
Happily, he balled his left hand into a fist and struck himself on the belly right below the box. It hit with a dull "clack," and was stopped almost immediately. Puzzled, he hit harder, this time over the box itself. His fist didn't even reach the box.
"Gentlemen," Jeff said, proudly, "What we have here is the alien equivalent of a suit of armor."
The fascinated reporters began either scribbling down everything they had seen vigorously, or simply staring and letting out a few muffled sighs of awe. Here, they realized, was something just as interesting as the dead alien.
"How does that 'armor' work 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 pushed the touch-sensor button on the inside of the hood, and as he did so, the patterns of light ebbed from his body until they had traced their entire paths and had dissipated completely. "To turn it off," he finished, "You just press this little doo-hickey in here." Internally, 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 give you any other properties besides a protective coating of energy?"
"Well, there's only one way to find out...." Jeff pushed the button a second time to turn the armor on, and waited the few split-seconds it took for the energy to completely engulf his body. "Now then, what other properties could it have?"
"Does it give you super strength, X-ray vision, and can it make you fly?"
The other reporters scowled at the one who'd made the remark. There, they told themselves, was the mark of an obvious amateur.
Jeff Boeing, on the other hand, took kindly to the question. "Well, let's see...." He reached his arm over to the reporter who'd made the comment, and tried to pick him up single-handedly. He could do it, but not without some effort.
"It gives me a little extra strength," he said as he lowered the startled reporter to the ground. He swished his now-free hand through the air, and followed up by taking a few frolicking skips. "It also gives me a little extra maneuverability; cuts through the air, takes away some of my body's inertia - stuff like that. As for the X-ray vision, I don't think so. Unless you're all wearing lead underwear."
That last line caught some of the reporters where they least expected it. "Anything else?" one of them asked.
"Oh, yes, you wanted to know if it makes me fly. We'll see about that...." He gestured with his arms for everyone to clear out of the way. He knew he was joking, but for all the reporters knew, he probably could fly! He stepped back onto one of his feet, then did the famous "flying leap" maneuver that was used by most ballet dancers.
What happened next simply confirmed the awe of the reporters, but took Jeff himself totally by surprise. The ballet-type leap he executed did not follow the tiny, parabolic path it was supposed to. Instead, the leap thrusted him directly into the air, continuing upward at an angle of thirty degrees, more or less.
After Jeff shook off the initial shock, he could begin to calculate what he was feeling. It wasn't exactly as he'd imagined flying. Instead of gliding effortlessly through the air, it was as if the armor was pulling him along - and pushing him along - because the gravity of Earth was still there. He wasn't a glider; he was an engine-powered aircraft, being pulled forward and pushed upward to avoid falling onto the ground.
"And if I'm moving forward," he said to himself, "Then maybe if I aim my body...."
He moved his hands a small amount - no more than fifteen degrees - and stretched his arms out in front of himself. Sure enough, he successfully curved his path and began heading off in another direction. "Wahoo!" he shouted. "This is great! I feel like an airplane!"
'Now then,' he thought, 'Let's see what this energy generator can do!'
He wasn't quite sure how to make himself accelerate, but he used his own logical deduction to make him do the best he could. He strained his arms slightly more forward, lowered his head, and generally made his body longer, more streamlined, and harder pushing. He could feel the acceleration working even as he thought about it; it was as if he didn't even have to do any of the straining to move faster.
Now, he was ready to put the flight power of the box to the test. He set his arms off at a sharp right angle from his body, pulled around in a tight curve, and aimed himself straight back toward the group of reporters at an angle that would frighten any jet pilot.
In the eyes of the reporters, all they saw was a yellowish streak flying toward them; a streak whose contrail was not a trick of the eye. Flash bulbs went off all around the group as the photographers each took a myriad of snapshots of what was, to them, a once-in-a-life happening.
Jeff came swooping down, as close as he dared, and at the last possible instant pulled up into a fourty-five degree climb. It was then that he realized just how fast he was going, and how incredibly tight his turn-radius was when compared to even the smallest planes going at his speed. He was definitely moving at over a hundred-and-fifty miles per hour, and possibly over two hundred, as best as he could judge.
'That wasn't bad,' he thought as he glided slowly upward. 'But I don't think that was the very best I could do. I'm gonna see what the ceiling is on this baby.'
He brought his body to a vertical position, and shot straight up. He still wasn't quite certain how to push it so that he could go faster, but once more he gave it his best shot by putting his hands very close together above his head and stretching his body. Even as he did so, he could feel himself accelerate as he climbed.
In practically no time he had pierced the cloud layer and could look back to see the uneven layers of water-vapor stretched out below him. His ears rung with the force of the rumbling air around him as his body continued to accelerate and the atmosphere around him was pushed out of the way. He never recalled the rumbling of the air being this strong before; in fact, he was quite certain that he was going at least two or three times as fast as what he previously deemed his "top speed."
The bright blue air began to darken as the Earth fell away below him. In no time, stars which only shone in the daytime were beginning to cast their light upon Jeff Boeing for the first time. And within less than a full minute, the atmosphere was thin enough to achieve the label, "in space."
Jeff stopped climbing when he realized that he was no longer climbing against any gravity. Abruptly, he brought his flying body to a screeching halt, then turned to look at the Earth as viewed from space. The cloud-covered globe stood majestically before him, surrounded on all sides by a bright blue fringe of Nitrogen-Oxygen atmosphere. The alien box had flown him completely into space, and Jeff wouldn't have been surprised if it had been able to fly him over interplanetary distances.
It took a few seconds for the thought to reach him, since it just seemed so unimportant. He was living and breathing in outer space, and he didn't even notice the difference. The flowing layer of tracer-pattern armor that surrounded his body was keeping and creating a habitable environment just outside of his own skin, including enough oxygen to breathe comfortably. The aliens who designed this device had thought of every possibility.
Not only that, but it was relatively obvious that the six-armed aliens that used flying suits of armor also breathed Oxygen, in about the same concentration as human beings do. Well, it seemed obvious that parallel biology was obviously at work here, along with the fact that a similar atmosphere had evolved on the aliens' home planet. Life was probably similar all over.
Jeff gazed through the dense cloud layer and was just able to make out the continent of North America. He followed the western outline until his eye reached the approximate location of Southern California. Aiming his body downward, he commanded the flight-power of the energy-armor th streak into life once more, hurtling him downward through the ever-thickening upper atmosphere. By all rights, he was super-human, capable of withstanding much more than an unaided human being could. And now that he was known, his powers would probably be called for again and again.
"I think it's time I get into the crime fighting business," Jeff said out loud inside the armor.
With all of Southern California fast approaching, he would never be able to locate the group of reporters that had been questioning him. But there was no doubt in his mind that wherever he came down, there would be people asking him questions, requesting favors, and just staring in wonder and disbelief.
"So, how did you come upon the name 'Tracer?'" asked the aging professor of cryptography after he was introduced.
"Well," began Jeff Boeing, deactivating the armor field, "Every time I fly into an area I leave a glowing streak, or 'trace,' behind me. The name 'Streaker' would've sounded like something it shouldn't, so there was only one choice left. 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 ... interesting. Er, could you give me a quick run-down of all the advantages the alien armor gives you?"
"Okay, let's see ... some strength, a little extra maneuverability, extremely good protection (naturally), flying power, and I ... uh ... think that's it."
The professor put one hand to his chin and concentrated for a few seconds. "I think something's missing. You sure you didn't skip anything?"
Jeff hesitated momentarily, and said, "Well ... there is one other thing. I found this out the hard way, when I was fighting brick."
"A brick; a heavy bodybuilder that's all muscle. Anyway, I knew the guy couldn't possibly hurt me through armor that could withstand rifle fire, but the little bit of strength the box gave me wouldn't be nearly enough to do anything to him. The only thing I could do was concentrate on giving him my best punch, and hoping for the best.
"When I hit him, I heard a loud 'pop' and thought I saw a brief flash of yellow light come from where I hit him. But whatever had happened, he was thrown back about ten feet into a brick wall, unconscious. That one blow packed a lot more than my own strength could account for. I have a feeling that the armor also gives me some kind of 'blast power'."
The cryptologist thought about this for a moment, and then said, "Yes, you might call it that. Jeff, I have something to show you. Come over here."
Jeff followed the proffessor over to a metal desk, on top of which were lying three items, two of which he recognized instantly.
"That's the stuff I picked up from the alien! Did you find out anything about that disk? That's always hung in my mind for some reason."
"I'll get to the disk later. What I did find out was that the little rectangular thing here is actually a combination communicator and personal log."
Jeff thought about this for a few seconds, and then the idea reached him. "A log - naturally! That's why they gave the items to a cryptographer!"
During the silence that followed, Jeff looked at the item more closely. "How does this thing work?"
The communicator works by pushing this little panel to transmit, and this one to receive. The signals are transferred over hyper-spatial 'radio' so that it can cover interstellar distances in practically zero time." Then, his voice took on a different tone. "The receiver is dead now - there's not a single transmission being beamed over its frequency."
"It's dead then; non-functional."
"Oh no - it works, all right. There's just nothing - or should I say no one - out there transmitting on its frequency."
Jeff's face took on a puzzled look. "How's that?"
The cryptographer showed a grin that was complicated by a sigh which obviously didn't mean happiness. He reached down and pulled up the third object on the desk, a yellow piece of lined paper, covered with wording. "This," he said, "Is the message left on the log, translated into English. The actual message was, I believe, not in the native language of the alien, but rather in a binary code that was made to be easy to decipher. Here's what it says, from a word-for-word translation:
"'Here and now, I make my final entry into this log. If anyone should recover it, and is able to translate this into their own language, then let it be known that I am the last of the Armored Warriors.'
"Now, right there, it gives a very large number, which is supposed to be a specific number of ionizing-deionizing periods of cesium. The number comes out to about twenty years.
"'Twenty years ago, a great many traitors of our own race banded together to form a great dictatorship large enough to crush any non-military groups who didn't confide in them. The homeworld of our race, which was at the time populated by about seven billion of us, couldn't let such a terrible empire take us over. But the empire had size, and ships in greater numbers than we could possibly hope to manufacture. So, instead of mass-producing costly space warships, we equipped our own warriors with an armor box charged with energy, several different forms of high-powered weaponry, and a hyper-spatial communicator which also served as a log and an entryway into the various stargates connecting the systems.
"'We left our homeworld then, all one billion of us, 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 the simple strategy of our tactics, our surprises against them soon became few and far between.
"'They knew the position of every existing stargate, just as we did, and all too often we were destroyed just as we returned to normal space. We fought bravely, and our armor was virtually impenetrable; but with their great numbers, along with the new invention of the slicer weapon, our all-too-large army was soon overwhelmed.
"'I have travelled many a light-year around systems that are at the outskirts of charted boundaries. Sometimes I track the empire's ships, but usually they track me, and I run away through a stargate to a system where I know they are not.
"'Now, I am among the inner planets of an unknown nine planet system, with none of my comrades and no outposts of ours around. I have tried several times to contact my people, but none of the Armored Warriors have responded. Considering the several light-centuries of range the communicator has, I am led to the inescapable conclusion that the rest of the army has been destroyed, and that I am the last of the Armored Warriors.
"'Even as I speak, one of the empire's ships is closing in on me and this system. 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, then use the items you find for the good of your race, and if necessary, for the destruction of the empire that was once a fellow compatriot to our cause. Farewell, my people.'"
Nothing came from Jeff's mouth as the cryptographer slowly lowered the yellow sheet back down to the desk. Jeff felt no need to say anything, for he knew all there was he needed to know, for the time, and his expression displayed everything he was feeling.
"And that," the cryptographer finished, "Is the last chapter in the life story of our alien friend."
And then, slowly, Jeff began to speak. "Then ... then ... I'm supposed to protect humanity from destruction, while destroying an alien empire at the same time."
"Nobody's forcing you to do anything. You found this guy (and we're pretty sure it is a guy) completely by accident. You're not obliged to fulfill any quests or crush any empires, or even save the world. You've done more than enough good already, what with how well you fight crime on your own, and if you think someone else could serve the greater good with that box of yours, you're free to hand it on."
Slowly, Jeff turned the idea over in his mind a few times. The thought of giving it all up had never occurred to him until that very moment, and there was some faroff part of him that was seriously considering it. He could just forget everything, and relax to a life of leisure and perpetual safety, knowing that someone else was doing his dirty work for him.
But oh, how his mind and body ached for the action he had never seen! He was a swashbucking super-hero, saving all of humanity and having a good time doing it. There was nothing he liked better than helping others out, and now he really had an opportunity to do just that.
"Doc," he said dilligently, "I don't think I want to give any of this up. I want to help forward mankind, and I want to destroy that empire as well. I'm keeping the box."
The cryptographer smiled. "That's what I hoped you would say."
"I was wondering, Jeff said matter-of-factly, "How were you able to tabulate all the powers of this box without ever having seen it?"
"Well, you see, there were actually two parts to the log. What I read you was his final entry; but upon entry of a separate command, the log plays an entry which translates into how-to instructions for the box, and a description of what this weapon here does." He pointed to the disk.
"Uh-huh. So what does that weapon do, anyway?"
"It's supposed to be an energy-projecting weapon that fires energy bursts at about one-second intervals."
"Supposed to be an energy gun?"
"That's right. Our alien friend carefully neglected mentioning anything that would help us use the disk. According to what connotations I get, there were only a few of these disks made, and their design was conceived after the empire was formed. Evidently, he didn't want them to be able to figure out how it works, had he gotten captured. I don't think he'll have to worry about that now."
"Yeah. I don't even think the empire'll bother with him now that he's been killed. They mortally wounded him while he was in orbit, and the fall finished him off. I don't think the human race will have to worry about the empire for a good long time."
Jeff couldn't have been farther from the way it was....
"Have you detected any trace of him?" the Emperor asked in a language about five thousand cycles above human hearing.
"No, there's no sign of him. We had him mortally wounded before his orbit ever decayed; the fall must've finished him. Nothing can withstand that much re-entry heat, not to mention hitting the ground at above-terminal velocity, no matter how much energy-armor he was wearing!"
"Hmmm ... maybe. But our scanning ships reported armored-warrior emissions coming from here even after he was destroyed. It's about time we looked into it ourselves."
"Well, I don't think -"
He never completed the sentence. Two of his arms simply flopped down to his sides as his eyes opened as widely as they dared. The reading on the scanner had just tripled its strength; the emissions of armor were definitely present. Quickly, without saying a word, the Emperor's first officer engaged the secondary scanning equipment to pinpoint the source of the disturbance.
"There he is, sir! I don't believe it, but he's still alive down there. He's in the lower atmosphere, cruising at a moderately slow pace, even considering this planet's atmospere."
"Then we've found him. Hmmm ... I wonder why he didn't bother to leave this planet."
"Well, this place is inhabited by intelligent life forms. They even appear to have a technology."
Suddenly, the Emperor's "expression" changed to one of deep anger. "Why wasn't I informed of this?!" he demanded.
"It just didn't seem important at the time."
"Well, it is important, you insubordinate fool! If he's met a race with a technology, they could very well fashion a space armada with his knowledge! Now, we don't only have a single armored warrior to destroy, but also an entire technological race! This would never have happened if people in my standing were informed of the armored warrior's exact condition, and the planet he was orbiting!"
"Sorry, sir, but I can't take any responsibility for it."
"No, no, I'm not blaming you. It's just that it's too late now; we might have let them grow, but now we have to annihilate them, just for diplomatic purposes. Gee, and it looks like such a nice world, too. I see his strategy in choosing which planet to orbit around; but now it makes no difference. At least now he'll see how an Empire can be in its full fury."
The first officer punched in a few commands on his console, and watched on his screen as their orbit of the blue-green world slowly tightened.
Tracer came thundering down from the sky, and landed as softly as if he hadn't been moving at all. He had stopped bank robberies in progress. He had helped break up gang riots and stopped thugs dead in their tracks. The merest sight of him made his attackers freeze in terror. Now, his powers were to be put to the best, and hardest, use that Jeff Boeing had ever submitted them to.
Before him stretched mile after mile of desert wasteland, as desolate and peaceful as anything he'd ever known. However, he knew that within a few minutes the peace of this land would be shattered. Some thought they were just nuclear demonstrators, and most knew nothing about it. But there were a few high officials, Jeff included, who knew the terrorists' true origin and purpose; they were spies, sent on a suicide mission from behind the iron curtain, intent on destroying one of Nevada's largest nuclear testing grounds.
Quickly, Jeff located the mountain they had set their bomb in. It was widely known that a twisting cave led into the heart of the mountain; a cave that would take several hours for normal human beings to go through completely. The bomb was in the center of that cave, unused as it was, and was set to go off in ten minutes. It was up to Jeff Boeing alone to fly into the cave's core and disarm the nuclear warhead.
Taking to the air once more, Jeff quickly headed for the cave's entrance at the foot of the mountain. Within half a minute, he was there. He located the cave's entrance instantly, and dove in.
Although the cave was underground and no illumination had been installed, Tracer's own body-glow and quick reflexes brought him through the corridors as fast as an automobile would be driven on a freeway. Occasionally he miscalculated, but his armor invariably sent him rebounding off the wall and back on course. It was less than a three minute journey before he was at the cave's core.
The two lone occupants of the cave were suddenly startled by the streak of hissing, yellow light that came through the cavern's entrance. Instinctively, they made what feeble attempt they could by raising their automatic rifles and trying desperately to aim. They had been told that no one could possibly get in there that quickly, but now it seemed that their superiors were wrong.
One of them pulled the trigger on his machine-gun, and the other immediately followed his example. Tiny arcs of flame lept from the gun barrels as the tiny explosive charge within the rifles propelled the bullets with an acceleration of over fifty kilometers per second per second. The dull hissing in the air was instantly drowned out by the rat-tat-tatting of the Russian automatic rifles.
At this point, Tracer decided to just put on the brakes and hover in mid-air. The Russian suicide agents watched helplessly as their bullets were deflected off Tracer's flowing, yellow surface, leaving only an instantaneous blip of light behind where they struck. Tracer smiled; he had always wanted to do that.
Resuming his flight speed again, Tracer dove toward one of the men, came to a dead stop right in front of him and yanked the rifle out of his hand. He let the energy flow from his armor into the gun in the form of heat, which to the amazement of the already-paralyzed Russian caused the barrel to heat up to incandescence. At this point, Tracer casually bent the heat-softened barrel into the shape of a U with the added strength which the armor gave him.
Throwing the rifle to the ground at the Russian's feet, Tracer then turned to face the second man. He had already thrown his rifle away, and his hands were stretched up as high in the air as they would go. Tracer calmly ignored him, and turned his attention instead to the armed bomb in the center of the cavern.
The artificial illumination the Russians had brought into this cavern gave off hardly more light than Tracer's energy-armor, but Jeff's eyes had already adjusted to the near-darkness and were ready for however little illumination was given him. Tracer approached the large warhead, stopping only a meter away to examine it. The casing on the outside was of unpainted metal with a single, welded seam down the middle. Evidently this bomb wasn't made to get back into once it was assembled. This mattered very little to him, however, as he leaned over onto the assembly, drew back his right fist, and pounded the skin of the bomb with a highly charged kinetic force.
The shell fell away completely upon impact, exposing the simple circuitry of the bomb underneath. It was then that Jeff Boeing's courage faltered; he used to be a business associate for a publicly-owned company, but had only had a barely minimal amount of experience in electronics. What did he know about the workings of a time bomb, let alone a nuclear warhead? A good whack with his powered armor might disarm it completely, or it might detonate it. The wrong wire disconnected at the wrong time could send the segments of Plutonium all rushing towards each other with explosive intent.
Well, he'd been lucky in the past, and now it seemet that his luck was going to be his only salvation. He'd been given a briefing on the structure of an atomic bomb earlier in his life, but had never bothered to remember but a little of it. The big sphere with the wires coming out of it was obviously the core of the bomb, which contained a sphere of lead-separated plutonium fragments encased in a thick layer of explosives, which were in turn surrounded by an explosive lens. There were about twenty wires coming into the lens and continuing on into the explosives inside, but any one of the wires could do any number of things.
As he was nervously studying the interior of the bomb, one of the Russians had surreptitiously retrieved his rifle and had snuk up silently behind Tracer. Taking careful aim behind the back of his neck, the man let the butt of the rifle hit Tracer full-swing. The gun bounced off and vibrated for a few seconds, giving the man the sensation that his teeth were being rattled loose.
Tracer slowly turned around, and let the Russian have it with a half-strength energized punch. He was thrown completely back into the cavern wall. Slowly, a nervous Jeff Boeing turned back to study the bomb once more.
He quickly located what appeared to be the timing device, and traced its wires back to the structure of the lens. This showed him absolutely nothing. If he were to pull all of the wires out of the timer, that might defuse the bomb. Or it might set it off. Jeff didn't want to take chances.
And then, he remembered what he'd heard about the explosive lens. Without the lens to guide the force of the explosion, the bomb wouldn't go off. He thought about this hesitantly for a few seconds, and then made his fateful decision. Stepping back about a half meter and shielding his eyes, he charged his right fist at full force, and let the lens have it head-on.
The impact shattered the explosive lens instantly, but it was not without its booby traps. As soon as the lens was damaged, the explosives went off, just as Tracer had been prepared for. But instead of forcing the Plutonium pieces towards their deadly union, the force of the explosion finished the process which Tracer had started, and shattered the lens completely. Pieces of the lens were thrown about, the larger ceramic chunks separating first. Tracer was thrown back, and the two men were exposed to the rapidly expanding cloud of debris. But a second-and-a-half later, it was over, and the Plutonium was as separated as ever.
Getting up with a broad smile, a sigh of relief, and lastly a whoop of joy, Tracer went back over to the remnants of the bomb and picked up its core. Then, coming after the two exhausted men, he picked them both up and flung them over his left shoulder. Finally, with the bomb carried under one arm, he executed a ballet-leap, and was back out of the tunnel.
He arrived at the test site ten minutes later and unloaded his triple-burden ever so gently. The staff at the grounds cheered wildly at the man who had saved their base from destruction; the man they had so much faith in that they didn't even evacuate when they heard of the bomb threat. Cameras were flashing all over from the hands of people who had never before seen the glowing marvel first-hand. The entire world was soon informed of his deed, but Jeff knew that the best was yet to come.
"Sorry to save you guys and run, but I've got a date with Las Vegas news!" Tracer pushed lightly off the ground, and streaked away toward the closest major population center; Las Vegas.
Jeff landed just outside of the illuminated city, and reached his left index finger under the protective hood on his charge-box to turn it off. His mind suddenly intruded upon the scene with a twinge of reluctance.
'They don't want to see Jeff Boeing in there,' he thought. 'They want to see Tracer. And I intend to give them what they want. It just seems such a shame to sacrifice my identity this way.'
He removed his finger from the hood, and took to the air once more. Within the space of one minute, he was in the heart of the city and in the presence of a gigantic news team.
The cheering was so thick as he came down that it sounded more like an amplified whisper. In front of five TV cameras, newsmen and newswomen were all giving their version of the introduction: "We're here today in downtown Las Vegas where Tracer has just returned from saving a nuclear testing site from nuclear destruction by terrorists (Russians, etc.) ..."
The instant he came to the ground, a microphone was thrust at his face along with the question, "Tell us precisely what went on down there, will you?"
"Okay," he replied. "The trip into the heart of the cave took me all of three minutes, and was completely smooth barring a few rebounds off the wall. When I got to where the bomb was being kept, there were only two people guarding it, and they weren't doing a very good job of it, either. Their superiors had told them that it was impossible for anyone to get into the cave's center within the few minutes of warning time given to the testing grounds for evacuation purposes. They were only lightly armed, and expected to see no one; and they never would have dreamed that they'd meed interference from the Last Armored Warrior."
"Who?" asked one of the press agents.
"The Last Armored Warrior - that's me. Or rather, now it's me, but it wasn't about a month or so ago. If you want to get the whole story, go see the cryptographer the government appointed to look in on this case."
During the short pause that followed, the cheering lapsed into silence. Even in the hot, midday Nevada sun, Tracer's body glowed with almost awesome presence. In the back of Jeff Boeing's mind, this seemed like the perfect time for something of colossal proportions to happen. He put the thought aside as a reporter asked him another question.
"What was the purpose if this terrorist threat, do you know?"
"Well, I understand it was an attempt by -"
He was caught in mid-sentence by a shadow that suddenly appeared above his head. He looked up to find its source, and to his astonishment saw a large, rectangular object with four square-shaped protrusions on each of its corners that eclipsed the sun almost completely. Blinded by the glare, Jeff was completely unable to get any idea of the object's scale.
Then, the object began to lower itself, and Jeff became aware of a low rumbling noise originating from it. As the object came as close as it dared, Jeff became startlingly conscious of how large the object was. It had to be at least a fourth of a kilometer on a side.
By then the entire crowd was looking in the same direction as was Tracer. Even the hard-pressed reporters present were speechless. Jeff Boeing was the only mind present who had the slightest idea of what the object was, and what it meant. Out of his mouth game four single words that were barely audible: "They've discovered my presence."
Then, as suddenly as the object had appeared in the sky, the air boomed into life with a sound as loud as it was incomprehensible. Thousands of fluctuating tones shook the air at a frequency that was just barely within the range of human hearing. The few dogs in the city of Las Vegas nearly went deaf with the noise.
Within twenty seconds, the sound stopped, followed by an Earth-shattering silence that lasted only five seconds. Every TV camera in the vicinity was trained on the massive (or at least voluminous) object, letting the watching world know of what true peril it may very well be in.
The air came alive once more, this time with a rumble low enough to send its shaking through the bodies of everyone. Above the hum, a voice as loud as the first tones was heard. Though it was mechanical, monotone, and excruciatingly tinny, it represented the first sentence ever spoken from an alien race to humans.
"I have just informed your armored warrior ally, in his own language, that the war is over, and that he has lost. Whether he forfeits to us or not will not concern your race, for we cannot trust him to have not spread the knowledge of his super-technology to you. In order to insure the survival of the Empire, your race must be annihilated.
"We've taken a few hours to analyze your language under cloak of radar-invisibility. We wished for you to know the reason for your destruction before we wreak it upon you. It would've been nice to have you join us, but now we can take no unnecessary risks. But be secure in the knowledge that you were priviledged enough to have the emperor himself destroy you."
From the back of the object, even against the bright solar glare, there came an increasing shine of blue-white energy that lasted for about two seconds before reaching full intensity. Then, as though it had no inertia, the great air/space ship sprang forward and disappeared over the horizon.
For a second time in his life, Jeff was totally speechless from a story told by an alien. By finding the alien and in turn wearing its armor, he had signed the death warrant of his race. At least, that was his thinking at first, but soon cool logic began to regain control. As the words of the Emperor's speech came flooding back to him, he was aware that eventually the Empire would've come around and asked us to join them anyway. Then, if we refused, chances would have been that they would've decimated us anyway.
The line that brought the most hatred into Jeff's mind was the last one; there could be no honor in dying at the hands of some evil alien emperor. But the one fact that stuck out in his mind the most was that the Empire still thought him to be the original alien-warrior, and not just some obscure human wearing his armor. With all their hyper-sophisticated technology, they must've certainly had some device which could tell if the guy under the armor was one of their kind or not; even the outline of his body should've told them that! Yet whatever devices they had, they didn't bother to use - out of arrogance, per haps - and had held fast to the theory that the armored-warrior was not human, even down to the first alien-language sentence spoken to all of humanity.
Tracer knew what he had to do. Without a second thought, he turned to one of the reporters, and demanded, "Where did that ship go?!"
"Huh? I don't know! Don't ask me!"
Now more nervous, Jeff glanced quickly around before shouting, "Does anyone know where that ship went?"
"Yeah!" came the barely-audible yell from behind a mass of startled gasps and panickings. Tracer immediately lept over to where the reply had originated, and was cut off before he even got a chance to ask his obvious question.
"I just got an emergency alert on just about every radio station. It says that the ship was last seen heading due west and - oh, wait a minute! Here's the latest report! It says they've just stopped over -"
"The Los Angeles area. I heard. Thanks."
Without another word, Tracer executed a flying leap off the ground as his body motion became smeared in a blur of yellow, and he was on his way.
'I must stay low,' he thought to himself. 'No matter how far advanced their technology is, it's always harder to spot a guy hugging the ground than it is to spot one flying way up in the middle of the air. The curvature of the Earth'll help me a little there, too, even though he's only a couple hundred kilometers away.'
He pulled himself down so that he was less than fifty meters off the ground. Over open desert, this would be easy to maintain. Determinedly, he stretched his arms out in front of himself, and put his mind toward the single thought of accelerating to his very limit. Then, slowly at first, but soon with mounting visibility, his speed increased to monstrous amounts, and as it did so the rumble of the air steadily increased in volume. The acceleration process continued until he was travelling at only slightly below the speed of sound.
And then, as he knew it would, the sandy, level ground of the desert came to a stop and gave way to the rougher range of mountains. Now, unlike the smooth acceleration he underwent before, his passage would be frought with obstacles at every turn, and with mountains that he'd have to dodge at angles and velocities he preferred not to think about.
The first mountain-obstacle came into being almost without Tracer noticing it. Quickly, he swerved ever-so-slightly to the left, and then back on course, a maneuver which took him clear of the mountain completely even though it lasted only for a tiny part of a second. Then, the second hill came into being as Tracer side-slipped to the right of it. And with each swerve came an instantaneous roaring of air past his ears as the energy-armor field surrounding him cut past what little inertia the air had.
Again came another hill, and again another swerve. It was becoming a bit dangerous to fly as low as fifty meters above the ground, so he allowed himself a little leeway and ascended to about a hundred meters, which he was certain would still not be enough to avoid all the incoming dangers. Almost immediately after he made the climb, another hill quickly approached him, and he had to call on all the super-human agility granted to him through the alien-armor to move him to one site of it.
It was then that he started remembering what his old ambition in life was some time ago. When he was still young, he had thought about becoming a dancer. He had taken a few courses, but had soon lost interest after only a few months. But the lessons had done one thing to him; they had developed his body-muscles into lean, agile coordinators of his body, giving him a degree of control he had never before posessed. Now, those seldom-used muscles would have to be called back into life once more, as would the agility he had learned along with them.
He swerved right to avoid a mountain, then left, and then came to a mountain so high that he couldn't move around it. Taking the slight risk of being spotted, Tracer angled himself upward and soared high over the hill-peak. To the single observer below, the spectacle looked not unlike a jet fighter leaving behind a magically glowing contrail. The observer recognized him instantly, and waved a vain hello to the armored super-human who he knew wouldn't respond to his greeting.
Within no more than a minute, the large mountains were behind him, and the lower hilly regions were the only thing between him and the space ship, aside from the man-made cities. The sandy areas passed quickly, and soon the towns of humankind's construction were upon him. He was confident that he was now going maximum speed, which was just barely below the speed of sound, but that mattered little to him, even with the high-reaching buildings and skyscrapers fast approaching. The only thing that concerned him at that moment was reaching the Empire's craft and stopping it from destroying humanity any way that he could.
Quickly snapping back into the situation ahead of him, he headed for one of the major thoroughfares, and followed it completely through the town less than fifty meters above it. Everyone present could see the yellow and hear the roar/hiss as his armor-field cut through the atmosphere. Not only did these people know who he was, but they also knew his intention; five minutes ago, the Empire's battle ship had passed swiftly and silently above their heads. And all though the background of those present differed from individual to individual, nearly everyone there had a similar thought with almost exactly the same connotation: "Go get 'em!"
He was out of the city, through another, and through yet a third before he knew what had happened. But by then his determination was beginning to falter by the slightest twinge of doubt in the back of his subconscious mind. But the idea was quickly banished as he weaved his way ever-closer to the Califonia coast.
And finally, within only three minutes, the coast sprang up before him, and he suddenly realized that his aim had been a little off. He had flown too far north, and had hit the ocean closer to Bakersfield than it was to Los Angeles. As he spun around, still only fifty or so meters off the ground, the doubt came back, but this time he accepted it. Slowly, he lowered himself to the ground once more.
His body quickly lost the streaked nature that meant he was flying, and gave way to the calm swirling of energies. He had set himself down between two large and rusty-colored rocks, which reflected the midday sun with a kind of late-day light. Staring at the ground, his mind briefly went over all that had happened to him recently. He had gove from being a business assistant of a worthy company to being a super-powered hero that got everything he had from an alien rebel and its technology. Now, he had to stop an Empire he wasn't even sure whose side was on. And even though the Empire was currently man's enemy, how could he possibly hope to destroy a warship hundreds of times his own size?
And then, there was always the problem of his identity. Jeff Boeing was rapidly giving way to Tracer, a trans-human armored wonder who did nothing more than save the world and fly off into the sunset. Practically no one knew precisely who Jeff Boeing was, and he was becoming progressively more certain that someday that name would be forgotten.
But there was the constantly pressing fact behind him that he had always liked humanity, and had always liked helping humanity as best as he could. That was why he was associate leader of a public-service business, and that was why he had decided to keep the energy-armor and use it to stop crime, save the world, and even crush the Empire. And now he was almost completely obligated to do the two most gallant of the three obligations at once.
No, obligation wasn't the word - he had to do them, and he wanted to do them! There was no need to reminisce any longer; with determination on his hidden face, he told his body to spring him up into the air on command of his feet, and as he did his body became streaked as it cut through the air and resisted the force of gravity. And then, with a sudden shove from his right leg, he accelerated upward.
After ascending about two hundred meters, he stopped to get his bearings. He was facing the coast, and needed to follow it southward. Without another thought, he turned to his left and once more brought himself up to full speed while lowering himself to fifty meters altitude.
A myriad of people and lifeguard towers passed by him at speeds making them nearly invisible. Several hundred people waved in greeting, and several hundred more had the worried look on their face that told everyone that they knew what was soon to happen. And then, Jeff caught sight of it. It first appered as a black speck against a blue-gray sky, which could have been any airplane passing by, but Jeff could tell from the distance and shape involved that this was what he had come to get. He altered his course, still hugging the ground from fifty meters, and weaved through the large boulevards of the city between him and the ship.
The city was not so large as to have skyscrapers at every turn, and Tracer decided to use this to his advantage in eliminating the flying danger. Still keeping the fifty meters altitude, he skimmed over the top of buildings, still keeping the hope up that his presence had not yet been detected. Yet, in the back of his mind, he knew that if they could single him out over this entire planet, they should be able to detect him when he was within barely-visible range.
Soon, very soon, the space ship was so close that he could make out the finer details of its surface. Now, he told himself, was the time to strike. He tensed his entire body, readied for what was to come, and angled himself on an interception course with the square-shaped battle vehicle, charging his fists with the might of his energy field as he did so.
In the distance, Jeff could finally see exactly what the ship was doing to Los Angeles. This was not the way it "destroyed the world," what with firing only relatively weak weapons at a gigantic city. This was only a display of what a small sample of its power would be like. Small reddish and bluish pulses were being launched from the craft at areas on the ground, causing moderate devastation to whatever they touched.
A moment later - a very short moment later - Jeff was at last upon the space ship. Evidently, whatever scanning equipment should have been on and searching for him wasn't being used, and he had slipped past their defensive screens until he was much too close to matter. Before any of the ship's main battery could be brough up against him, Tracer had reached the ship, and had struck it with the full force of his near-sonic momentum, aided by the charge force in his armor.
The impact knocked him back considerably. The armor would have absorbed most of the damage had he not directed its energy into the blow along with his velocity. Jeff was temporarily stunned, but only for a couple of seconds, afterwhich he recovered and looked up at his space-faring adversary.
The blow he'd delivered had done considerable damage, but not as much as he'd hoped for. Where he had struck the ship, there was a crater set into its thick but inertialess armor, penetrating through nearly a meter of hardened and reinforced metal. And yet, even that meter-deep hole wasn't deep enough to penetrate the armor to the delicate interior of the ship.
If they hadn't been aware of his presence, before, they were aware of it now. Three or four of the guns suddenly pivoted in place and began firing upon Jeff's yellow form. Startled, Jeff immediately 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 it only reflected off his armor with a glow and a barely audible "Ktang!"
The Emperor stared at the scene in total disbelief. "Impossible!" he stated. "Nobody can bove with that much agility, even aided by that super-powered armor!"
"Or at least," interjected his first officer, "None of us can move like that. Have you seen with what agility the inhabitants of this planet move?! We're but sloths next to them!"
"Are you suggesting that this isn't the last armored warrior?"
"That's exactly what I'm suggesting," he said as he smoothly punched in a string of commands at a computer terminal. When the display returned a fraction of a second later, it revealed to him that this was definitely a human inside the suit of glowing armor. "The computer say so, sir - the original armored warrior is gone. I thought the fall must've killed him!"
A dull thud sounded against the hull of the ship, the effect of Tracer whacking against the armor of the ship while channeling energy into the blow. The Emperor took casual note of it, and then ignored it.
"So all this is is a human who found out how to use the armor on himself. The warrior spread none of his technology to these bipeds."
"That's right, and that means ..." A look of happiness passed over his form. "... That means, we have nothing to fear from these people! We need not destroy them!"
The Emperor hesitated for a brief moment, but then his voice came booming back: "No! These people already know about his armor, and it probably wouldn't be long before they can duplicate it!"
"But sir -"
"And with any luck, those other devices they carry around - their weapon and their communicator/stargate opener - survived the impact as well as the armor did! But most importantly, we've already commenced the attack on them. 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 warrior, I command you!"
Without another word, the first officer turned and commanded the combat computer in front of him to concentrate all the ship's firepower on the human armored warrior. Deep within his mind, he knew that the Emperor was slowly approaching insanity by continuing the attack this way, even though he knew it was the only way for him to stay in power. There was always the possibility of mutiny, once the crew found out exactly what was going on. But whatever was going to happen, the first officer was going to stick by the not-quite-stable Emperor's side, for he'd been sworn to serve him to the death, and it was a duty he still preferred.
Tracer zoomed in on one of the turrets and whacked it with charged fists; though his fists were only charged to half strength, the blast was still enough to disable the turret. He flew back a little ways to study his opponent. The armor on the outside was impenetrable; the only real damage he had any chance of doing was using the armor against the ship's weaponry. The exterior of the ship bristled with gunning turrets everywhere, all of which he assumed were of approximately equal strength. And yet, there were a few places on the outside which had the reduced armor of guns, but were definitely not shaped in the same way as the blast-firing matter/energy launchers.
Suddenly, his ears came alive with the sound of a distant whistle. He looked to where the sound originated, and saw a squadron of four F-15 Eagles fast approaching. A smile crossed his face as he raised one fist in triumph. The F-15 was the most advanced fighter plane the Air Force had at the time; if they couldn't stop the Empire, then presumably nothing could.
The squadron split off into battle formation, and almost immediately began firing its missiles at the ship. Jeff's smile grew as the missiles launched from their under-the-wing housings and flew towards the rectangular craft that sat practically motionless in the sky, but that smile was instantly replaced by shock when every last missile was struck down by blasts from the ship's turrets. And once the turrets had finished off the missiles, they turned their attention on the fighters themselves.
Only one fighter managed to get off a few seconds worth of vulcan cannon fire before it was wiped out, and these bullets merely bounced off the stubborn armor casing. Jeff was motionless for a few seconds, both from shock and bewilderment. If the greatest fighters of human technology were wiped out before they did anything to this floating hulk, then how could he possibly hope to do anything?
But this shock lasted only a few seconds, before he remembered that he was using the product of a technology far beyond that of humans'. He could take hits from their guns in stride, and incur real damage on their ship before they could stop it at its sounce or its terminus. Now, he told himself, I'm going to knock out every bit of firepower this thing has!
Accelerating to a moderately high battle speed, he proceeded to do just that. Within less than four seconds, he had downed his second turret, and within another three, his third. Suddenly, he caught a slow motion out of the corner of his eye. He turned just in time to see a large spotlight shaped object aim directly toward him and activate, capturing him in a shaft of greenish gravitation which left his form practically petrified.
"I got here as soon as I could," the cryptographer said above the din of the crowd. "How's the situation?"
"Not too good," an FBR man said to him. "Tracer seems to be caught in some sort of 'freeze-ray' that keeps him from moving."
"I thought those things were only around in space operas," he mumbled to himself as he pulled a disk-shaped object from the car beside him. He put the disk aside in his right hand, reached into his rear pocket, and pulled out a piece of yellow paper similar to the kind he had deciphered the log's message on.
"What's that?" the FBI agent asked.
"That's the access code to this thing," he replied as he punched the buttons on the disks grid according to the paper's specifications. "I've finally figured out how this thing works. The only problem is that if it hasn't been used for more than thirty-eight hours or so, or if it changes owners, the access code has to be re-entered.
He punched the last key with a gallant finger. "There. The energy bolt generator is now armed and operable."
'I can't move' was the only thought running through Jeff Boeing's mind. Though he pulled with every muscle on his body, he was completely unable to alter his position. Suddenly, he chanced relaxing his muscles when he saw what was turning in his direction. A huge object, twice the size of the thing which had immobilized him and shaped exactly like a searchlight, was slowly rotating so that it was facing him. Jeff tried to swallow, but found even that to be a difficult task against the petrifying beam he was now locked in.
He knew what would be coming up next, and he was fearless no longer. The energies would be generated in front of the thing's parabolic dish, and would spring forward with hundreds of times the power of the meagre turrets. His armor would cave in, and his body would be instantly fried. Then elusive death would surround his mind, a death that he probably never would have known had he not found the fallen alien that fateful night a month ago.
The equivalent of a smirk came across the Emperor's form. At least, the armored warrior, or at least his human counterpart, would be destroyed beyond any doubt, and hopefully the armor generator would go with him. He took a casual glance at his private compu-display to check on how well the charging process was going along. The display registered a time equivalent to ten seconds before the device would be fully charged and ready to fire. He began to count down the units of time on his "fingers," waiting in anticipation for the moment when he would shout, "Fire!"
The cryptologist lowered the binoculars he'd been using, and made his decision. He had to do something to help Jeff, even if it was only distracting the Empire for a few seconds. With determination, he raised the disk with the flat side facing outward, and aimed the whole thing at the holding-beam projector as best he could. Then, tensing his body, he pressed the button on the right-top of the disk.
Suddenly, a white-hot bolt of pure energy sprang from the front of the disk, and lept toward the craft. Before two seconds had elapsed, the high speed sphere intersected its target, striking only meters from the gravity beam's source.
"What?!" came the yell from the Emperor when the report reached him a second later. "Who's doing this? Who has their hands on a device of Rebel technology?"
Each second, another bold was produced, and each time the shots came nearer and nearer to the suspension-beam projector. Finally, on the fifth hit, the bolt connected, and the projector was destroyed in a shower of sparks. Tracer seized the opportunity, and shot straight upward. "I'm free!" he shouted in excitement and temporary elation.
He looked down to where the energy bolts were originating. There was the unmistakable form of the cryptographer wielding the gun like a weapon he'd known about for years.
"Noooooooo!" screamed the writhing Emperor. "Get the Devastator on whoever that is down there! Wipe out every trace of that ... human's ... existence!"
The searchlight-shaped Devastator slowly rotated down to face its new target, still fully charged and ready to fire. Before the cryptographer could take aim at the weapon, a shaft of blue light sprang from the parabolic weapon and struck the ground, enveloping the cryptographer and the FBI agent standing next to him in a cloak of energy so intense that it was impossible to see inside of it.
For a lethal moment, Jeff stared in open-mouthed horror at the scene below; and when the Devastator shut off three seconds later, he needed only a fraction of an instant to see the destruction before he closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, nearly crying. Everything within the blue shaft's meter-and-a-half diameter area of effect was gone, and the ground's asphault was melted down to a depth of half a meter.
Tracer managed to remain rational through his steaming rage, but just barely. Here was the classic case of one person sacrificing his own life for the life of someone else, and yet the process still made him feel the sick loss that comes when someone you know dies. There was no choice about this now; he was obligated to destroy the space ship utterly, for the cryptographer's sake.
But before he could make any long-term plans on how to destroy it, he had to get his rage out completely so that it wouldn't hinder him. He zoomed up to the searchlight shaped Devastator, and punched it not only with the full energy of the armor field, but with the full force of every ounce of strength in both of his fists as well. In a flash of yellow, the Devastator was but a crumpled heap sticking out of the space ship.
Still seeing through rage, he began to punch out the armor surrounding the Devastator's housing, making wide dents in the ship's surface. The thought of killing another man to avenge the death of one he knew would have made him sick to the stomach (or the solar plexis), but he could feel no mercy for these sub-living, spiteful imperial aliens.
But inside the hovering, battle-damaged craft, the Emperor was feeling the exact same way about Tracer.
"We have to stop him. There must be some way!"
"Well, there's always the slicer, sir, but it's still in the experimental stages."
"And it's also the best conventional anti-armored-warrior weapon we have! We use it in desperate situations when surrounded by armored warriors. Against one? Never!"
His compu-screen lit up with an update on the damage done to the ship. The numbers didn't look good.
"Oh, all right," the Emperor acquiesced. "Activate the two forward slicer beams. Take him out with whichever slicer is nearest to him."
Several nods came from the room, most of which came from the high-ranking weapons officers that were in the Emperor's dimly lit chamber. The computerized lights against the dark walls hid their features, but the nods were easily seen.
"Ah, for the time when we could gun them down with our main batteries," reminisced the Emperor. "A few blasts in the right places, and their armor generators would fail - or they would. Now, here in a thick Nitrogen-Oxygen atmosphere with a later model of armor, we have to use the slicer beams on a single armored warrior. I just hope the Empire won't look down on this, seeing how much I've botched it already."
Tracer came twisting out of the Devastator's housing in a moderately small arc, his rage almost completely relieved. Now, at least he could begin to plot how to destroy the thing. Yet, while his mind plotted, another part of it was trying to warn him that something was wrong. All the while during the battle, the ship's main battery had been firing at him full blaze, or at least frequently. Now, the firing of the other guns had stopped, and the ship had taken on a deadly silence.
Suddenly, Tracer became aware of a motion on the ship's surface, and instantly jumped off to the left just in time to avoid a white plane of energy aimed carefully at him. This was soon followed by another similar blast coming from the other side of the ship which Tracer had to curl around clockwise. Despite the fact that he was clad in nearly impenetrable armor and that he had no idea what that nearly two-dimensional beam of energy would do, he was still in the habit of evading whatever it was the Empire had to throw at him.
It was only out of arrogance and overconfidence, that he made his next move. Mistakeningly judging his armor to be invincible against such an attack as a plane of energy, he came about and flew towards the source of the beam, a long and rectangular box with a flat nozzle on the front housed in a setting similar to that of the main turrets. Just as he was coming up to it to deliver the disabling blow, the weapon fired again, this time intersecting him on his left side before he managed to evade the beam.
He fell from the air, vainly trying to put his hand on his injured waist through two layers of energy-armor. Slowly, he straightened out and came to a hovering stop, his will for survival outweighing the pain in his side. This was the first time he had been genuinely injured while fighting in his Tracer armor. He looked back up at the space ship once more, seeing its newly introduced weapon in a new light.
The weapon itself was not all that powerful. The deadly thing about it was that it was designed for the specific purpose of cutting through his alien-type armor. It simply matched the armor's energy, the armor ignored it, and the beam went right on through to injure his left side.
He scanned the craft with a keen eye, looking for any possible origin points for the armor-penetrating weapons. There were at least two, he knew that. From this distance, though, he couldn't tell; all he could see was a myriad of indiscernable housings, the place where the Devastator used to be, the first dent he had made in its armor when he flew at it at nearly the speed of sound, and the blue-white, dim glow of the engines.
The ... engines? Of course, the engines! Why hadn't that idea occurred to him sooner?! The engines were the sole place on the craft that weren't covered by over a meter of hardened, reinforced armor. If he could fly into the ship through the engines ... and maybe cause them to explode ...
He decided to try it. He looked up at the blue-white glow that was his target, and said, "Armor, baby, I hope you can hold out against what daddy's gonna put you through."
He sped off.
A single slicer beam attempted to hit him, but Tracer evaded it skillfully.
"There are rumors of mutiny, sir," the Emperor's first officer had been saying. "The lower ranking crew members don't like the idea of us attacking a race of people for no reason."
"He's going for the engines!" the Emperor shouted at the current time. "That's just where we can get him! Our rear slicer is at least twice as powerful as our two forward ones. Weapons officer, fire the rear slicer beam!"
"Yes sir!" came the response from the relatively non-muscular weapons officer at the computer terminal. He leaned over his keyboard, examined the display above it, and was just about to enter the command to fire the rear slicer when he was struck on the back of the head by a makeshift club.
"No!" came the lower-pitched shout from the female mutineer. "You're not going to kill someone who was never your enemy in the first place! You knew that this was not one of us, and that they couldn't have learned anything of military importance from a dead alien, but you still continued to attack them! I'm not going to let you stop him!"
"Are you suicidal?!" bellowed the first officer as he grabbed her and threw her away from the weapons terminal. 'How she managed to get up here to the bridge, I'll never know' he thought as he pulled the unconscious weapons officer from his "chair." 'Unless, of course, they've overcome security and made it this far....'
Panicking as he watched the armored form fly ever-closer to the engines and ever-further from the rear slicer's zone of control, he typed in the aiming command with the agility of someone who wasn't quite sure how to work the weapon. Without hesitation, he entered the well-remembered command to fire the weapon, but by then the delay had already been too great. There was nothing to stop Tracer from closing in on the engines now.
Straining to see through the blue-white glare, Tracer could just make out the nozzles which directed the large amounts of ion energy that was the ship's thrust. There were three of them, each the same size, and each circular. He quickly picked the center engine to be the one he would enter, since that would probably have the most devastating effect on the whole ship.
The flowing patterns of light were gone from his armor now, and in their place were hundreds of little spark flashes, the effect of the armor being put under strain from all sides. Jeff was beginning to get worried that his armor wouldn't hold the load, but deep down he had faith in the aliens who built the box he was wearing on his chest. But the energies outside were increasing....
The crowd below watched with amazement and horror as Tracer plunged himself into the ionic inferno. Hope for his survival was in the back of everyone's mind, but more prominent now was the hope for his success. If this trick didn't work, humanity may very well be doomed.
Suddenly, the once motionless ship began to shake and to tremble. Whatever Tracer was doing inside there, it was working. The thrust from the engines was rapidly growing dimmer as tiny, imperceptible faults in the armor began to emerge.
And then, as suddenly as the space ship had appeared, it was gone. Hundreds of tonnes of metal fragments exploded outward from where the ship used to be, most of them heated to incandescence. The people below who were too close to the explosion cowered away from the rain of space ship parts. Fortunately, no one was directly below the craft.
As the explosion subsided, the light and the energies lingered, as did everyone's last remaining fear. Here, at last, was this Tracer's last battle? Could what protection his armor gave him possibly deflect the full power of the explosion away from his body?
But as the energies finally dispersed, the outcome was plain for anyone to see. There was no mistaking the yellow, humanoid form that descended from the center of the explosion with his arms upstretched in triumph. Since he had been the sole cause of the explosion, he had been at its very center - the "eye of the storm," so to speak. What little power was put against him, his armor had absorbed. He had survived.
The crowd was cheering at least as loudly as before, only this time it was the whole world that was cheering for him, and not just the city of Las Vegas. But once again, he told himself, they were cheering for Tracer, while Jeff Boeing was being left completely out of the picture. But now, that at least didn't seem to matter as much; he knew that Tracer's personality and form were only an extension of Jeff Boeing himself, and that his identity would never really be lost.
He began to get worried about the Empire again, but only for a second. Most likely, they had learned the error of their ways in attacking them. And even more likely, their former Emperor was slightly insane. He knew that the armored warrior they were fighting was a human, and yet he continued the attack on him and on humanity. He had a feeling that the Empire wouldn't be back for a long time, and probably by then it would have disbanded.
As he lowered himself to visible and audible range, he could see a general of the Air Force arriving and leaving his staff car. He had 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 left.
"There goes a fine American," the general said, saluting him.
But Tracer heard that remark, even over the din of cheers. He stopped in mid-air, and came right back at the general, grinding to a halt less than a meter away from him.
"I am not your 'Fine American!' I am a human first, above any nation. This country is a great one - the best in the world, in fact - but it's certainly not as good as it could be. Or else - why would I be here?"
Once more, he turned and left. In the background, he heard the general finally say what he wanted him to say: "There goes a fine human being."
He was content with that remark, and he knew that he was happy about his last statement, simply because that statement of humanity was Jeff Boeing, all the way.