“All set to go, Alex?” Murphy pounds back the rest of his coffee. A few loose drops spill from his mug onto the feathery armchair where Mom used to sit. “Oops,” he shrugs, glancing up at Alex. “Bot will clean that up later. They’re waiting for us outside.”
Alex heaves her luggage to the front door. A fresh rinse of Platinum Nova glistens and gleams on her long, straightened hair. The pure white tunic her Mom gifted her sits loose on her shoulders. Women’s large. Still plenty of room to grow into.
“Those bags look heavy,” Murphy points out. “Need some help?”
“No,” Alex sneers. “Let’s go.”
Murphy grabs his black briefcase from the table and holds the door open for her. They step out into the old marbled halls. Their lonely footsteps quietly bounce off the high ceilings and sunlit walls. Every other family in the residential hall stays deep asleep as they spiral down the front staircase, march through the regal pillars of the front lobby, out the majestic front doors for the last time.
“You nervous?” Murphy asks as they step out into the courtyard.
Alex scowls up at him, turns away to look across the courtyard. Beyond the manicured hedges, stately statues, and cobblestone driveways, a strange black gunship hums and drones on its landing pad. Its giant black engines breathe soft ripples across the sprawling green lawn. Its sharp wings, black cannons, and hidden cameras glare at Alex menacingly.
“Hey Alex, I’m sorry this move had to be so sudden.” Alex refuses to acknowledge Murphy’s hollow apology. She marches ahead toward the grim black airship. “Your Dad will be happy to see you though.”
They patter across the cobblestone and onto the fresh-cut lawn, last night’s dew clinging to her ankles. The morning sun sparkles and flares between the distant snow-capped mountains. “Why would he be happy to see me?”
“He cares about you.” Murphy tugs at his white lapel, tightens up his white belt, straightens up his white sleeves, slicks back his pale red hair as they bound toward the ghostly black gunship. “Talks about you all the time.”
“I bet he does.” Alex rolls her eyes.
“Sergeant Singh!” Murphy salutes a giant warrior waiting outside the gunship’s cargo bay. “Been a while!”
Alex scans Singh. White camo jumpsuit. White body armor. Blue visor. Pocket-sized white defense drone hovering over his shoulder. One of Dad’s men.
“Agent Murphy,” Singh salutes back. “How’s life been down here in the Alps? Miss the lab yet?”
“Ach, hell no,” Murphy chuckles. “But I suppose all good things must come to end.”
“That Perseus in your custody?” Singh asks, pointing down at Alex.
“Aye, Object Perseus is here and accounted for,” Murphy nods down at Alex. “We ready to roll?”
“Yessir.” Singh waves them into the gunship’s dark cargo bay. “We’re right on time. The General’s expecting us.”
The cargo bay is tight, filled with black boxes and buzzing electronics. Alex plops her heavy bags down in a corner. Murphy keeps a firm hold on his black briefcase. They duck into a small alcove along the wall, wedge into one of the black iron seats, buckle their waists and shoulders in.
“Not exactly first class, is it?” Murphy smirks. “Get cozy if you can, cuz we’re gonna be here for a while.”
She looks out at the Palace one last time as the cargo door slowly slides itself shut. The tall mountains and forests tucked around the palace grounds nestle it away from the rest of the world. The pools and flowers of the garden shimmer in the sunrise. The soaring marble pillars, panels, windows, and trees of the academy, the residential hall, the security compounds all glow and yawn at the early birds flittering between them. Alex is all too awake, but somewhere in there, Carson is still asleep.
The gorgeous green courtyard smiles mockingly as the cargo door hisses shut. “Okay folks,” Singh chimes into their minds from the flight deck. “We are set for takeoff. Object Perseus is on the move.”
The gunship hums deeper, its engines purr and shake gently as the black cargo bay trembles, bounces, rises, smoothly slips away into the air. Alex remains numb. Numb to the darkness around her. Numb to the Palace behind her. Numb to the uncaring caretaker beside her.
“You gonna miss the Palace?” Murphy asks. “We had some good times there this past year, ya?”
Alex closes her eyes, blots out his words, stays perfectly numb.
“Good idea,” Murphy sighs. “A wee bit of shut eye.”
The gunship drones on and on across the sky. Hours pass as they stare into the dark, buzzing belly of the gunship. Once in a while, Murphy might whistle a cheery tune or drum a hurried beat on his black briefcase. But Alex stays numb, eyes shut in meditative darkness, purging her memory of all the Palace’s nostalgia and trauma. Big inhale. Big exhale. Big inhale. Big exhale.
“How you doin’ over there?” Murphy nudges her somewhere high above the Atlantic. “Awfully quiet.”
She snaps out of her brooding trance, bitterly scans Murphy’s two-faced smile. “I’m processing,” she scowls.
She turns back to the dark cargo bay, keeps staring into its big black boxes and its humming hardware. Not even a dim light shines through the black gunship’s underbelly.
“Doesn’t the Alliance have lightbulbs?” She sulks in her hard black seat. “Why is it so dark in here?”
“Stealth,” Murphy mutters. “We’re invisible to radar, sonar, satellite, infrared, x-ray. All kinds of invisibility right now.”
The large, sliding cargo door and all the walls are sealed airtight. The howling of the cold ocean wind is drowned out by soundproof panels, but if Alex tilts her ear at just the right angle, listens closely enough, she can hear the wind whispering outside. Other sounds hang in the wind, hovering alongside them. 2, 4 . . . no, maybe 6 other aircraft in formation around them? All making the same strange, muted humming and purring sounds as their black gunship.
“Why are there so many other gunships escorting us?” She asks.
Murphy sits up at attention, looks down at her with concern. “How do you know there’s other gunships escorting us?”
“I can hear them.”
Alex raises her brow. “You can’t hear them?”
“No . . . you can?”
“Maybe you need better hearing,” Alex shrugs. “Or better stealth toys.”
Murphy turns away, eyes possessed by paranoid thoughts as he looks back into the cargo bay.
For hours and hours, the gunships keep droning along through the freezing skies. Every once in a while, Murphy leers at her through the corner of his eye, keeping close watch for any signs of hostility, any sudden movements.
His nervous hand clutches his cryptic black briefcase.
He presses his fingertips firmly into its hidden locks and sensors, its top secret contents fully armed, his mind fully alert, ready to crack the briefcase open at any moment. But Alex stays calm and numb, fixated on the nothingness of the cargo bay as the time flies by.
“Okay folks,” Singh chimes into their minds again. “Brace for landing. We’ve got some choppy crosswinds on the Island today.”
The gunship shakes and wobbles as it floats back down to earth. Murphy’s hand slips from his briefcase as their seats jitter and jump. But Alex still stays calm and numb. “Big inhale,” Mom’s voice replays over and over in her head. “And big exhale.”
Finally, the humming and rattling stop. The airlock hisses. The arctic wind screams as the cargo door unlocks. A blinding blast of horribly white snow howls into the pitch black cargo bay. The heavy metal door slowly slides itself open.
“Be careful stepping out,” Singh’s voice beams into their brains. “Very icy.”
Alex unbuckles herself from her chair, stands and stretches and steps across the cargo bay to grab her bags. “Leave those!” Murphy calls out, still clutching his black briefcase. “I’ll bring them to you later. Your Dad’s waiting.”
Alex slices into him with her eyes. Murphy nods to the cargo door. “Out ya go.”
Snow whips and beats and blows all around the black gunship, shrieks through her blazing white hair as she looks out from the cargo bay. Not far off, a line of tall white cloaks blend in with the frigid wastes. Cold, heavy clouds vanquish the sun as the blizzard rages all around them.
Alex hops down into the sea of snow. Her skin cells harden. Her flesh thickens itself. Her systems activate low-temp mode as she treads toward the white cloaks. Ice and frost cling to her long white tunic. A towering white blast door begins to slowly open at the foot of a distant snow mound, reminding her of the vast tunnel networks lurking deep beneath her feet.
The Hudson Bay Complex. Alex curses the ground she walks on.
The white cloaks flutter and ripple in the screeching wind as Alex and Murphy march closer to them. A few of the white cloaks wear dazzling blue visors, stand perfectly still, all emotion emptied from their frozen faces. Dad’s machines. Some of the other white cloaks gaze at Alex and Murphy with mixed wonder and terror in their cold eyes. But one man smiles and glows as they draw near, his proud white cloak adorned with golden trimmings and twinkling medallions.
“General Altair!” Murphy calls out to him in salute as they wade through the fearsome snow.
“Agent Murphy! Alexis!” Dad salutes back at them. “Welcome home!”