Oriel struggled to shake off the blackness, but her head ached, and there was this constant whine.
“She’s awake.” It was a strange voice, yet familiar.
“Mes maux de tête. Que continue ici?”
“Speak English. We know you can.”
A woman was leaning over the back of the seats in front of her. Je suis dans un avion. Why was she in an airplane?
“Who are you?”
The woman let her pistol show in her hand. “You don’t recognize me?”
The voice was familiar. “Mrs. Hilbert?” This was no old lady. No older than her mother at least.
“Not really. We’ve got the real Hilbert on ice. I’m just the substitute you rescued instead. Oh, but its good to be out of those wrinkles!”
Oriel tried to raise her arm, but she was shackled. Chains connected her wrists to an iron ring in the floor.
Ma montre-bracelet est allée.
The faux-Hilbert said, “Missing your wrist-watch? We have it. With luck, our man is already in your base, and shutting down your short-lived empire.
“We knew it had to be the wrist-watch. My lovely gold pendant was just a ruse, we know that.
“That Kurt Sommer was an idiot. Our organization is a bit more sophisticated. You never knew we had the pendant x-rayed and checked out, did you? It had to be the watch, that lovely Lady’s Rolex Oyster quartz your people handed out like party favors at the rescue.”
She displayed it proudly on her wrist. “The lab boys couldn’t keep it long, not when you were using it to keep tabs on me. They didn’t think it did anything.
“Ah, but your watch! I saw what you did. Press a few buttons and blip across the continent. What a lovely way to get out of a dull meeting.” She showed her teeth.
Oriel let her babble. Just wait until James pulled her out of here! Then this dull person would see who was stupid.
“Oh, in case you are expecting to be rescued, don’t hold your breath. We know what your weakness is. We studied hundreds of reported teleportation events. Every one was stationary location to stationary location. You can’t teleport from a moving location.
“And this,” she tapped the wall. “This is a C-141B Starlifter, with in-flight refueling already scheduled. We can keep you moving forever. Your Emperor can do nothing to save you.”
Oriel scowled. My James will come for me.
They’re right. James looked at the monitor window locked to the quartz oscillator in the fancy watch. Oriel was moving at nearly 400 miles per hour. If he stuck his hand through a portal to her, it would be ripped off. If they pulled her out, she would still be traveling at jet aircraft speeds.
Nothing but sound and light could get through.
Bob muttered, “She is talking to us.”
His father shook his head. “She’s not really talking to Oriel. Why would she tell her all that detail?”
“To scare her. She’s a nasty mean lady and likes to scare people.”
“No. If they wanted to scare her, a vulnerable little French girl, they would get one of those big goons to do it, not a woman.
“And the details. Some of it means nothing to Oriel. Why did they tell her the exact type and model of plane? It’s so we will know they aren’t bluffing.
“They’ve got her trapped, and we can’t get her free. When they find out their assassin failed, they will tell us their ransom demands.”
James nodded. Dad was right. They would attempt to trade Oriel for access to the teleportation controls.
It was unthinkable. These were the same people who poisoned Dad, and were ready to destroy his mind. It would be evil of the worst kind to give them this power.
But he couldn’t leave Oriel in their hands. What kind of backup plan did they have for her? Torture her on the plane while they could do nothing but watch?
I could kill them all, except for the pilot. It would be easy. There were a dozen ways. But to what extent are they willing to go? That assassin trying to get into the base knew he was a human bomb. Would this group just crash the plane for spite? Until the plane was stopped, they could do nothing, and the black-suits would put a bullet through Oriel’s head before they lost that edge.
He looked at his father. The man’s face was drawn. For just a few hours, up on the mountain in the sunlight, he had looked good. Now the stress had all come back.
Dad won’t trade for Oriel. He can’t. It would kill him, but he probably couldn’t even trade for me if I were in her place. One life in exchange for the safety of the world—it was an impossible burden.
“I’ll just have to rescue her.”
The Emperor asked, “How?”
“I don’t know yet. But I will, or die trying.”
Diana called from her computer terminal, “The real Mrs. Hilbert is in Philadelphia.”
James walked over to look.
She was searching through records. “Here it is. They put her in the psychiatric wing under the name ‘Ruth Lamby’. She supposedly has delusions that she is an Imperial agent.”
James nodded, “We’ll get her out.”
Bob said, “Wait until I check for bombs! And we can’t bring her here. Not now. It’s too risky.”
James headed for his terminal. “I’ll call Archer.”
“It is all my fault,” May Hilbert wept, once they transferred her to one of Archer’s seaside houses.
Empress Diana poured her a cup of tea. “Nonsense. Evil people don’t need you taking responsibility for their actions.”
She sniffed. “But it is. When the Emperor stopped taking my reports, I was afraid. They were talking about arresting people on the television and I was afraid it would destroy my daughter to see me arrested. I called the police, and those men in black suits came and got me.
“If I hadn’t weakened....”
Diana said, “They would still have come for you. They were very efficient at locating our agents.”
She looked at the elderly lady with sadness. “We should not have put you in this position, and I hope you will believe we would never have left you trapped like you were if we had known about it.”
She sniffed again. “That hard woman. She visited me and mocked the way I talk. She pretended to be me?”
“Yes. We just now discovered the truth.
“Don’t worry. First Agent Archer here will get you a safe place to live and contact your family.”
Diana made her goodbye and whispered to Archer, “Take care of her, but make sure she sees nothing. As of now, she’s retired. I’m sure she’s innocent, but she weakened once. We can’t afford it again.”
James moved his flying eye all through the plane, locating the crew and the black-suits. The cargo/troop transport wasn’t outfitted with elaborate spy cameras or anything like that. From everything he could tell it was just a plane somehow borrowed from a National Guard unit.
Oriel was crying. It wrenched his heart inside. He moved his viewport directly in front of her face. She gave a gasp, and he moved it.
One of the guards got up and checked on her.
Oriel blinked the tears from her eyes and glared at him.
James looked the situation over. I could get the shackles off of her, just like I removed Mom’s handcuffs. As long as both sides of the portal were in the plane, flying at the same speed, there would be no problem.
“No!” cried Oriel as the guard injected her with something. “No.” Her voice drifted off. They had drugged her again.
“Dad! Can we get a jet plane of our own, and fly beside this one? We could pull her across.”
His father sighed, “In a perfect world, yes. But we don’t have a plane. I thought of that. We would have to hijack a plane and a crew. They would have to be in the same part of the world as the C-141, because of the curvature of the earth. We would have to trust that the pilot wouldn’t try something crazy, and we can’t, because we would be the hijackers.
“If only we had a friendly country, with an airforce, we might be able to try it.”
James said, “We’re running out of time.”
Bob snarled, “I know!”
“Dad. I know how to do it!”
“The curvature of the earth!”