Two mortal fighters, with hypergenius-enhanced fighting skills, versus one nanotech monster.
Oh, there are moments of hope. Once Jason notices that Pyrrhus regenerates by absorbing matter from the conversation pit simulacrum, the grenades quickly get used up in blasting apart whatever object he’s trying to feed off of at the moment. The shock gloves give Alycia an advantage, and she uses the grappling system to evade Pyrrhus’ attacks. He’ll synthesize weapons out of matter in turn, only to find Jason expertly disarming him to use them himself.
Tactics and gambits and plays, honed over four lifetimes of conflict, exhaust themselves one by one. The rest is just the application of force against one’s opponent.
The hypnotic rhythm of it all gives Alycia time to reflect.
Pyrrhus is right, in one sense. Despite her talk about communication as a solution to conflict, they didn’t have an answer for him after all.
What other solutions exist? Perhaps Leo Snow’s heart factory might be used to rewire Pyrrhus’ mind, neutralize his fractured nature, realign his synapses into a more benign configuration. But Alycia knows that nobody has the wisdom to use that power properly, and knows that even Leo knows that. The world isn’t mature enough to wield control over the soul.
What of the Concordance? They prize Virtue, use it as a source of power even, but when it comes time to take responsibility, they fail catastrophically. Adam Amari, a callow youth, shows more maturity and wisdom than the Rainbow Warriors who supposedly replaced him as the Concordance’s chosen emissaries on Earth. They, too, perhaps possess the power to change people. But Alycia cannot imagine ever asking them to use it, on anyone, for any reason.
Earth’s superheroes were equally a disappointment. The HHL covered up its own failures, and then sent half of their number into space on a quixotic mission, equal parts revenge for their planet and rehabilitation for their image. In a way, it’s comforting. Mythological culture heroes always seem to fall to their failings in the end, and so the old stories prepare us when it happens again.
What did Leo say, about her past, about how AEGIS treated her?
“You have a disease”.
Doug Lindsay, bedridden for 11 years, invented the surgical procedure that cured himself. Other people have found cures for themselves or their loved ones. Not all were successful, of course. Not all tried. But every last one of them was motivated.
Those who are inflicted with this disease of destruction must be the ones to find the cure.
That’s what she’s doing here. That’s what she’s fighting for. She may not know how to save Pyrrhus. But maybe she can learn from him to save someone else. Nobody else will ever be so motivated as her. Nobody else knows so exquisitely what’s at stake.
“You got five minutes,” comes Alex’s call, via the Vyortovian hovercycle’s radio.
Pyrrhus, busy throwing Jason across the room, wheels and grins at Alycia. “I know your plan. The bombs. Leave now and live, and I’ve got time to disarm them. Or stay and die.”
She looks at Jason, and remembers what he said about traveling the world. About having all the time in the world.
Part of her whispers mission first. The Mission before everything.
No. Not anymore.
She’s already on the bike by the time Jason is on his feet, and she beckons urgently. He leaps aboard, and the two roar away from the half-destroyed conversation pit and its mocking master.
“We’re on our way,” Alycia calls over the radio. The Phoenix is hovering outside of the base’s vehicle access bay, over a crowd of Pyrrhus’ soldiers standing on the hard rock of Antarctica’s surface. Here in the lee of the plateau, and with heating equipment found in the bay, nobody’s in danger of freezing to death at the moment.
“Soldiers are safe. He already ordered them out,” Alex responds. “Like he knew.”
“He’ll always know,” Alycia calls back, and Alex can hear pent-up emotion in her voice with even that short phrase. “Pyrrhus - he’s going to disarm the bombs once we’re out. All we can do is get to safety.”
“And he’s just gonna keep doing his thing, forever?” John asks.
“We’ll keep on his trail. When he rebuilds, we’ll just have to find and stop him then.”
John shakes his head. “No. That’s not good enough. Hey, Alycia. Do you know the meaning of Rocket Car?”
“Yes, Otto told me. About how–”
John leaps off the Phoenix, and uses his grappling hooks to swing his way back into the base.
“John, wait!” calls Alex nervously. “What the fuck are you doing, man?”
“He’s going to set off the bombs manually.” Alycia’s voice is drained.
“He can survive the EMP. Maybe there’s a chance he’ll survive the base collapse. Shit. Shit. Maybe not.” Alex is panicky. “We gotta stop him.”
“He knows what he’s doing,” Alycia says, so softly the radio almost doesn’t carry it. “He’s accepting a risk only he can take. It’s not fair to him, but… he’s doing it anyway.”
The Vyortovian cycle emerges, and Alycia and Jason operate the controls on the vehicle access bay to shut the door. Given its massive size and sturdy construction, it should contain the effects of the EMP. But they won’t know until it happens.
A few minutes pass. There’s a violent tremor in the earth.
“Monitoring a sudden drop in all electromagnetic activity and thermal emission,” reports Alex. “Alright you wacky kids, I think we can say that Pyrrus’ place is closed for business.”
Emma, in the cockpit, is being cradled by a worried Nono. Amir is silent and watchful. Alycia and Jason on the bike are melancholy. Nobody’s cheering.
“Also monitoring a big-ass airplane,” Alex announces out of the blue.
Big Bill, in his jetliner configuration, sets down on the ice shelf near the huddled soldiers. His loading door opens and Inspector Lee Yan steps out.
“Sorry we couldn’t call ahead, but the brass insisted on secrecy!” she yells. “Got some people to load up for evacuation?”
“Lee Yan!” yells Jason excitedly. When Alycia looks at him, he grins. “My father consulted with her a few times. She’s one of the intelligence world’s experts on Achilles Chin.”
“Huh. Never heard of her,” Alycia muses, thoughtfully.
The Vyortovian bike pulls over to Big Bill, and the Phoenix lands as well. Amir takes charge of directing the dazed soldiers onto the plane.
“They’ll be taken to hospital ships being escorted by an Australian ice-breaker,” the Inspector explains. “We’ve been watching via satellite surveillance. When everyone started coming out, we gave Big Bill here the go-ahead to take off.”
“How did you become part of this?” Alycia demands.
“Your friend here invited me to collaborate on intelligence analysis on this base,” the Inspector shrugs innocently, gesturing at Alex.
Alycia turns, eyes burning, and Alex holds their hands up. “I’ll explain everything later! I promise.”
She returns her attention to the Inspector, and looks her over closely. “I feel like I’ve seen you before,” she says at last.
Lee Yan shrugs. “It’s possible. I have one of those faces. Good for infiltration missions.”
“Did you infiltrate my father’s organization?”
“Dr. Chin? Oh yes. He made me pretty quickly, though. Not the high point of my career.”
Alycia nods, and starts to turn away. She feels a hand on her arm, and looks back to see Lee’s earnest face.
“You want some good advice, Alycia?”
Alycia raises an eyebrow. “Go ahead.”
“There’s life after Achilles Chin. He’s powerful and persuasive, even when he’s not here any more. Don’t let him consume you. I get the feeling there’s loose threads here, and that you’re going to keep chasing them. I’ll back you up on that, if you ever need me. But go live your own life, as much as you can. Think you can do that?”
Alycia spares a glance back at Jason, and remembers his words in the cell. She turns to the Inspector once again, and lets herself show the most honest smile she’s revealed in a long time. “Yes. I think I can do that.”
Emma is riding back in Big Bill, to be seen on the hospital ship. Nono and Alex volunteered to go with her. Amir is riding with the soldiers. John is gone.
That leaves Alycia and Jason in the cockpit of the Phoenix, hovering over the remnants of the Antarctic base.
“This isn’t over,” she says at last.
“Not with the Mirror Alycia in my head, clones of us growing somewhere in a tank ready for Pyrrhus to re-manifest, maybe other bases, digging John Black out of the rubble there, stopping Sidorov–” Jason ticks off item after item.
“All those things, yes, but… the Pandora’s box Pyrrhus has opened. Self-aware nanotechnology. This ‘Poppet system’. The drug Cháwǎn. All these new technological dangers, and all based, one way or another, on things our families have done.”
Jason hums. “Maybe. But the last thing out of Pandora’s box was hope. You and I are the products of those families too, and we’re going to keep the world safe from the worst of our legacy.”
“Together.” Alycia sighs. “But right now there’s something I have to do. Something only I can do.”
The stack of paperwork lands on Agent Parker’s desk. Alycia and Parker stare at each other eye to eye.
“My report. I’m filing it personally,” Alycia announces. “I trust you’ll offer the usual criticisms of my performance and approach. I’ll take those in writing when you’re ready.”
“I’ll review your report immediately, Agent Chin,” Parker responds dryly. But her eyes are smiling. “We have chosen to overlook your accidental fall out of Ozma-9 on its flight back to the United States, and the circumstances surrounding your refusal to check in after that, in light of what is no doubt a successful mission.”
“Yes ma’am. The mission was a success.”
Parker takes hold of the paperwork, upends it, and taps it against the desk to even out the sheets. “Very well. I believe you’ve earned yourself a furlough. Please spend it getting some relaxation.”
Alycia departs the office, a pair of finger-guns her last gesture on the way out.