The Only Thing to Fear
For soldiers, boring is good. A mission to invade Castle Phobos and capture Doctor Fear is not in the category of “boring.”
We leave the ship at Baumgartner’s Altitude, ejected at something like Mach 2 in sabot capsules. I can see the whole squad spread out in a loose ring of dots on my helmet’s screen. I’m at the southeastern point of the circle; an arrow over the dots points up and left, indicating the target. We have countermeasures for Doctor Fear’s known weapons: the terror beam, Phobia Phog(tm), and his holonauts. But I keep wondering what he’s kept for himself, never using it in public.
The sabot peels off at 3000 meters, and I pop the first parachute. It barely slows me down before I cut it loose and free-fall to 1800 meters, where I pop the second one. I can see holonauts on the castle walls and towers. They blink from one fearsome shape to another, trying to latch onto our fears, but the brain shields hold — so far.
I cut the second chute at 700 meters and fall to the red zone before hitting the button to pop my last chute. It doesn’t pop. I lose margin I don’t have getting the chute deployed manually, and hit hard. I feel the left ankle of my suit bend as I hit, falling onto my face in the dirt. I have a minute to decide my ankle’s probably broken while my suit tries to right itself and inject pain meds at the same time.
With holonauts approaching, I override the suit’s recovery routine and drag myself into underbrush, hoping they don’t have IR visors.
Ten minutes later they still haven’t found me, but the temperature in my armor is rising. Status says a coolant tube is damaged. My environmental system will fail completely in another five minutes, then I’ll suffocate in the middle of a forest. I decide to ventilate heat manually — I open my helmet. I smell pine and moss on the cooler air that wafts in.
I’m still doing my best impression of a rock and waiting for the temperature to fall far enough to close the lid when I see what looks like a three-inch golden bee fly past. I wonder why a giant robot bee — it’s not like I’m afraid of them — before I feel it land on my neck. There’s a sharp sting.
I’m cold. I open my eyes; I’m in my tee and boxers on a metal bunk in a barred cell. I remember the jump, and the bad landing. I check my ankle. It’s sore, but not bad.
I hear someone coming down the stone hall toward me, so I turn to face them — and wish I hadn’t. The guard is taller than me, but not much. It’s the beard of tentacles that freak me out. That “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie scared me to death as a kid, and Doctor Fear seems to have latched onto that for my guard. I force myself to ignore the hologram.
“Can I have a blanket or something? It’s freezing in here.”
He grins a shark-toothed grin at me, then turns and walks back the way he came. That’s when I notice the screen across the hall. Heart rate, respiration rate, half a dozen lines that slowly zig up and down. I’m obviously being monitored somehow, but can’t see how he’s doing it. I don’t even have a bracelet.
While I’m watching the display, Doctor Fear shows up in an old-fashioned lab coat, slacks, and wingtips, with a Predator on either side of him. I wonder why he keeps picking up on childhood fears.
“So, Mister Barns,” he says. “You are awake. Let me see that ankle.” I turn on the bunk so he can see my left ankle, not daring to get any closer.
He tilts his head like he’s a bird deciding how tasty a beetle might be. “Good, good.” He clasps his hands behind his back. “No one is coming for you.”
The shift is sudden, and I don’t follow him. Then it dawns.
“That bee,” I say.
“Yes, ‘that bee.’ The nanobots it injected killed you for just long enough that your armor reported it.” He shrugged, and smiled a smile that I desperately want to punch. “How else was I to get you out of that can? They’ve worked on that ankle of yours for the last two weeks; you should feel lucky I’m not billing you.” I glance past him to the screen on the wall.
“Yes, that’s what’s continuing to monitor you. They’re really quite efficient. You’ve made an excellent patient.”
“Why me?” I ask.
He laughs, loud. “Because you were there, Mister Barns. No one else opened their armor. If not for you, my guest suites” — he gestured back the way he came — “would be empty. Thanks to you, I’ll have plenty to do in the coming weeks. You’ll provide me with a lot of information I would never have obtained otherwise.”
I’m up off the bunk before he sees me move, and land my fist on his smug face. One of the Predators jabs me with his stick, and an electric jolt throws me to the floor.
“Ill-mannered oaf,” Doctor Fear says, and he leaves, blood from his nose staining his coat.
I lay on the floor, waiting for my muscles to stop spasming. Either the jolt was a lot stronger than it felt like, or the nanobots are affected somehow. Then I see something scratched into the stone under the bunk. I shuffle a little closer and can make out an arrow, pointing up under the cross-brace of the bunk. If the bunk were folded against wall, it would cover this mark. I feel around under the cross-brace and find a shard of metal. It’s thin as a toothpick, and a little longer.
Using the bunk and the bars, I pull myself upright. The zap seems to have made my ankle worse; I can’t put my weight on it. I lean against the bars for support, glad that I can also see further down the hall this way. I get to work on the door.
It takes me almost twenty minutes, but I manage to pick the lock with the metal shard. Bracing for the alarm, I ease the door toward me. Nothing. I pull the door open further and look left down the corridor. I’m in the last cell on a row of what looks like four. The “guest suites.”
Around the corner the other way is a sight so normal that I have to suppress a laugh. A gray steel door, complete with panic bar, and a green sign above it that reads “EXIT.”
A broom in the stairwell makes a passable cane once I snap the head off, and I leave the castle through a ground floor fire exit. There are no guards in sight. A stone bridge crosses the moat not ten meters away. The whole thing stinks of a setup. I start to turn and go back to the cell, ready to wait until I can create my own opportunity. Then I hear someone shout, and bells start going off inside the castle. I run for it, ignoring the pain in my ankle until I’m over the bridge and out of sight.
In the woods, I keep to a well-worn trail, not wanting to leave obvious signs of my passage. The broom handle is starting to raise a blister on my palm when the path opens onto a clearing, with a HOME tent — HOsptial/MEdevac — on the far side of it.
My armored squad-mates leap the clearing in one bound. Their systems identify me from my bio-signs before I can speak, and they take me to the Commander in the tent.
I salute as best I can while balancing on one foot. He leans back and looks me over. “At ease, Barns. What happened to you? Your armor reported you dead five hours ago.”
“Hours, sir?” I ask. “I thought Doctor Fear had me for days. We lost.”
His brows knit together. “Lost? No, although the fighting is worse than we expected. Give me your report. We’ll have Doctor Simons look at that ankle of yours and see if we can get you in the field. We need every man we have.”
I feel relief grow, replacing my confusion. I wonder briefly about Doctor Fear’s nanobots, but shake it off. If I didn’t break my ankle, and hadn’t been there two weeks, he surely lied about those, too. The monitor on the wall was just an animation. I picture being filled with tiny robots monitoring everything I do, and shudder at the thought.
Nothing scares me more.