JUNE 14, 1992
One hundred and seventy feet above the concrete launch pad, Roberta Lincoln crawled out onto one of the horizontal swing arms of the towering rocket gantry. A small green gecko scurried out of her way as the fortyish American woman clambered on her hands and knees across the steel bridge toward her target: an Ariane rocket primed for takeoff.
The more things change, the more they really do stay the same, Roberta thought wryly. Twenty-five years ago, her longtime friend and supervisor, Gary Seven, had crept across a similar elevated platform to sabotage another rocket launch. His mission then had been to prevent a weapon of mass destruction from being launched into orbit, initiating a full-scale outer space arms race. A quarter century later, Roberta's agenda was pretty much the same. The only difference is that this time I'm the one performing without a net.
Just to play it safe, however, she clipped one end of a safety cord to the metal grating beneath her, keeping the other end securely attached to her belt. A cool, dry wind rustled her honey-blond hair as she came within reach of the powerful European booster rocket, designed to place commercial satellites in orbit high above the Earth. Roberta briefly wondered what kind of bribes and/or extortion Khan had employed to get his hands on the Ariane, let alone transport it to this remote launch site in the South Pacific, previously occupied by the French government's now-defunct nuclear testing program.
From her lofty perch upon the gantry, Roberta could look out over the entire atoll: a circular ring of greenery surrounding a large moonlit lagoon. Leafy palm trees and mangroves covered much of the island, although she could also spot the lights of the Mission Control center, nestled amidst the lush tropical flora.
"Let's just hope they don't spot me," she whispered to herself, acutely aware that her green camouflage shorts and tank top, which had blended perfectly with the tropical shrubbery on her way here, now clashed alarmingly with the industrial-red paint job on the rocket gantry. According to their most recent intel, Khan himself intended to be present for this launch, and Roberta sincerely hoped to get in and out of Muroroa without actually running into the man himself.
The last thing I need right now is a reunion with that smug, so-called superman, she thought. She and Seven had their hands full these days, coping with the crisis in Bosnia, not to mention all the other international mischief stirred up by Khan and his genetically engineered siblings. In their eagerness to assert their self-proclaimed destinies as rulers of the Earth, the Children of Chrysalis, as Roberta still thought of them, had sparked civil wars and unrest all over the globe, in Eastern Europe, Liberia, Somalia, Peru, and elsewhere. This had not made her and Seven's primary mission -- preventing World War III -- any easier. And to think that, after the Cold War ended, I had briefly thought that Seven and I could retire! If anything, their job had gotten even more complicated since the Berlin Wall came down.
And now Khan had to up the ante with this stunt! Roberta scowled and glanced toward the horizon, glimpsing a faint rosy tint where the night sky met the Pacific. The Ariane was scheduled to launch at dawn, so Roberta knew she had to act soon; the sun rose very quickly this close to the equator.
Her all-purpose servo device, cunningly disguised as a silver fountain pen, projected a beam of white light onto the outer casing of the Ariane's main rocket, which was flanked by two solid-fuel boosters, intended to provide the initial thrust upon lift-off. According to the diagrams she'd memorized earlier, the rocket's primary guidance system was just behind the metal panel directly in front of her, bearing the snazzy blue logo of Arianespace, the French manufacturer of the rocket. Roberta's plan was to tweak the controls so that the rocket would self-destruct harmlessly in the upper atmosphere, taking its insidious cargo with it. With any luck, Khan's latest scheme would be over before it even began.
That was the plan, at least. Trying hard not to think about the twenty-five tons of liquid hydrogen stored beneath her, just waiting to be ignited, she switched the servo to laser mode and began cutting a hole in the side of the rocket with what she hoped was surgical precision. The ruby-red beam traced a charred black line around the company logo, quickly forming a complete loop. Roberta gave the melted metal a few minutes to cool, then carefully lifted the newly created circular segment away from the rest of the rocket, revealing the intricate circuitry beneath.
Pretty smooth, she congratulated herself. A few deft moves and -- voilà -- Khan's high-tech hardware was more exposed than Sharon Stone. Grinning triumphantly, she cautiously laid the displaced metal disk aside, making sure it wouldn't topple off the edge of the gantry, and turned her servo back into a flashlight. She gripped the slender silver instrument between her teeth, to keep the incandescent beam focused in front of her, then reached carefully into the electronic innards of the Ariane satellite launcher.
A high-voltage jolt caused her entire body to stiffen in shock. A moment before she lost consciousness, she thanked heaven for the safety cord binding her to the steel platform. At least she wasn't going to fall to her death!...
"She's waking up, Your Excellency," a gruff male voice intoned, penetrating the fog receding from her brain. Roberta struggled to lift her eyelids, half-surprised to find herself alive and not electrocuted.
She suspected the good news ended there.
"Thank you, Joaquin," a familiar voice replied, confirming Roberta's worst expectations. Oh no! she thought, genuine apprehension sending a chill through her recently dormant body. As far as she could tell she seemed to be lying sideways on some sort of couch or cushion. Not him!
Blinking, she opened her eyes to see a tall Indian man looking down at her with an amused expression on his strong, handsome features. Piercing brown eyes inspected her as they might an exotic animal securely caged in a zoo; that is, with total confidence and an unchallenged sense of superiority. He was clean-shaven, with thick black hair tied neatly behind his head, and wore a spotless white Nehru jacket with matching cotton slacks. "Ah, Ms. Lincoln," he greeted her with a mocking pretense of warmth. "How good of you to rejoin us!"
"Hello, Khan," she said icily. Raising herself to a seated position, she tried to stand up, but found her legs still a little too wobbly. A quick glance around revealed that she was in a luxuriously appointed office decorated with traditional Polynesian art. An original Gauguin hung on one wall, while an authentic Melanesian wood carving of a cruising shark sat atop an executive-size desk. A colorful mat, woven from dyed pandanus fibers, carpeted the floor. Roberta did her best to meet Khan's gaze defiantly, despite a profusion of tropical butterflies in her stomach. "Long time, no smirk."
Looming a few feet behind Khan, a large, muscular brute with a sullen expression and light-brown hair glowered at Roberta. A plain black T-shirt was stretched tautly over a Schwarzenegger-size torso, above a pair of simple gray slacks. Compared to Khan's crisp, snow-white suit, the scowling bruiser's attire was dull and unremarkable, except for a large brass belt buckle that bore the visage of a snarling grizzly bear. "You will address His Excellency with more respect!" he warned her balefully, raising a meaty hand as he stepped toward her ominously. She flinched in anticipation of the blow, which would no doubt carry the full force of genetically augmented bones and sinews.
But Khan shook his head, dismissing his henchman's concerns with an airy gesture. "No need to stand on formality," he insisted. "Ms. Lincoln and I are old friends." He smiled coldly at her. "Isn't that so?"
In a manner of speaking, Roberta admitted silently. She had first met Khan Noonien Singh eighteen years ago, in a vast underground laboratory hidden beneath the scorched sands of India's desolate Great Thar Desert. Khan had only been four years old then, one of hundreds of genetically engineered children produced by the top-secret Chrysalis Project, but he had already possessed the confidence and charisma of a born (or, in his case, manufactured) leader. Even after she and Gary Seven had shut down the Chrysalis Project, they had kept careful track of Khan and the other superkids, now scattered throughout the world.
Impressed by Khan's obvious brilliance and potential for good, Seven had even made a determined effort to recruit the teenage Khan into their own covert peacekeeping operation, but that bright idea had backfired spectacularly; in the end, Khan proved too ambitious to keep under control, and he had turned against her and Seven, stealing all their information on the Chrysalis Kids in the process. That was three years ago, and Khan had already rounded up several dozen of his supersmart and superstrong siblings, including Joaquin here, and enlisted them in his grandiose campaign to "save" the world by placing it under his complete and total control. Unfortunately, Roberta had the sneaking suspicion that Khan was just warming up....
"What's up with the close shave?" she asked him glibly, stalling for time while she recovered from her shock-induced trip to dreamland. "The last time I saw you, back in eighty-nine, you were sporting a respectable-looking beard. I thought that was mandatory for all male Sikhs?"
Khan nodded, smiling appreciatively. "Very good, Ms. Lincoln. I applaud your cross-cultural erudition." He thoughtfully stroked his smooth and stubble-free chin. "With all due respect to my heroic Sikh ancestors, however, I eventually came to the conclusion that I should not be bound by the traditions of the past. I am a new breed of human being, after all. A new and superior kind of warrior. Thus, on my twenty-first birthday, I shaved off my beard, in recognition of the revolutionary turning point that I, and the others like me, represent in the history of human evolution. Henceforth, I resolved, I would make my own traditions, chart a new path for mankind."
"I see you're still as humble as ever," Roberta observed dryly. As discreetly as possible, she searched her pockets for her servo, but the versatile device eluded her fingers. Had she dropped it back on the gantry, or had Khan and his people confiscated it? "Frankly, I always kind of hoped that your delusions of grandeur were just a phase you were going through, something you'd outgrow eventually." She stopped fishing for the servo and started looking for an escape route; from what she could see, the office had only a single exit. "I guess that was wishful thinking."
Khan scowled, his bogus bonhomie slipping. "Hardly delusions, Ms. Lincoln," he said curtly. "Or have you forgotten how easily I have eluded you and the enigmatic Mr. Seven these past few years, despite the considerable resources at your command?"
True enough, Roberta conceded. Using data stolen from Seven's advanced Beta 5 computer, Khan had even found a way to protect his strongholds against transporter technology, forcing her and Seven to use far more primitive techniques in their periodic attempts to infiltrate Khan's hideouts and headquarters. Just to reach Muroroa, in fact, Roberta had needed to teleport to another island, several miles south of this one, then brave the treacherous currents and coral reefs in an outrigger canoe until she came close enough to the forbidden atoll to jump overboard and scuba-dive the rest of the way, dodging sharks, moray eels, and poisonous jellyfish as she swam to shore not far from the rocket launch pad. A damp wet suit, along with a set of oxygen tanks, were presumably still hidden amidst the sword-shaped leaves of the bushes at the edge of the shore. Sadly, the scuba gear was too far away to do her much good at the moment. Some South Seas vacation this is turning out to be, she thought sarcastically.
"Maybe we've been keeping our eyes on you all along," she challenged Khan, then wondered if she had said too much. What if Khan demanded to know the name of her chief informant? "Imagine our disappointment when we found out what you were up to here. Even Seven never thought you'd go this far...."
Khan's face hardened. "Seven has always lacked vision," he said scornfully. "That is why he is content to skulk in the margins of history, when he possesses the means to do so much more. And why I broke with him years ago. The problems of the world require bold, decisive action, not timid, cautious half-measures of the sort you and Seven specialize in."
Roberta didn't back down. "We put out fires. You start them. That's a big difference, as far as I am concerned."
"Fire can be a transforming force, Ms. Lincoln," he stated, "clearing away the rotting debris of the past and making room for new growth." He lifted the carved wooden shark from his desk, crushed it to splinters within his fist, then wiped the dusty residue from his palms. "But enough philosophical debate. Your presence raises crucial questions: Where exactly is Gary Seven at this moment? Can we anticipate his arrival as well, in an attempt to rescue you, or perhaps complete your mission?"
I wish, Roberta thought. In fact, Seven was currently attending a key environmental summit in Rio, while recovering from injuries sustained during the fall of Kabul a few months back. Despite his own superhuman physique, the result of years of selective breeding on a planet light-years away, Seven was in no shape to stage a commando raid on the secluded and well-protected island.
"For someone with a superior brain," she told Khan, "your math needs work. Seven is in his sixties now; he lets me handle all the house calls."
This was a slight exaggeration, but close enough to the truth that she hoped Khan would buy it. Over the years, she had indeed taken over more and more of the field work, leaving Seven to concentrate on the big picture. One of these days, we really do need to bring in a new junior operative, she mused. Heaven knows I could use some backup right now.
"So Seven is finally feeling his years, is he?" Khan's voice assumed a magnanimous tone, leading Roberta to suspect that he had taken her protestations at face value. "In a way, this saddens me. In his own fashion, he was a worthy adversary."
A buzzer sounded behind Khan and he strode across the spacious office to answer the intercom on the desk. "Khan here," he declared crisply. "What is our status?"
"We're about ten minutes from launching, sir," a disembodied voice spoke from the intercom. Roberta thought she detected a trace of a Scottish accent, along with the distinctly deferential tone. Her heart sank at the implications of the announcement. She hadn't prevented the launch at all; the Ariane was still ready to deliver its obscene payload into orbit. I've failed, she realized.
"Excellent," Khan pronounced, switching off the intercom without waiting for a reply. "I'm happy to say, Ms. Lincoln, that your feeble attempt at sabotage cost us merely half an hour, not nearly enough time to cause us to miss our launch window." Stepping away from the desk, he stared down at her like an adult scolding a wayward child. "You should have remembered that you were dealing with an intelligence deliberately engineered to exceed your own; anticipating sabotage, I had the foresight to install a fail-safe advice into the Ariane's guidance systems against any such interference." He smiled condescendingly, pleased by his own remarkable foresight. "My apologies if my countermeasures came as something of, well, a shock to your system."
Very funny, Roberta thought acidly. "Well, as surprises go, it wasn't exactly up there with The Crying Game." She'd be damned if she was going to feed Khan's already gargantuan ego. "But, yeah, I suppose it caught me a little off guard."
Too bad my informant failed to mention Khan's sneaky little safety precaution, she lamented. Guess that was one secret Khan was keeping under even tighter wraps than usual....
"Your spirit is admirable," he acknowledged, annoyingly unshaken by Roberta's faint praise, "even if your accomplishments are not." He marched toward the office's only exit. "Bring her," he instructed Joaquin, who grabbed her roughly by the arm and yanked her to her feet. His bruising grip reminded her of Carlos, the hulking guardian of the old Chrysalis Project -- and one of the project's earliest genetic experiments. She wondered if Joaquin's muscles had been souped-up with gorilla DNA, too.
Following Khan, Joaquin dragged her out the door. A short flight of steps later, they arrived on the roof of the Mission Control building. The sun was newly risen, Roberta noted, providing her with a panoramic view of the picturesque island and its enclosed lagoon. Rising high above the swaying palm trees, on the opposite side of the tranquil blue waters, the Ariane and its attached launch tower looked incongruous amidst the idyllic South Seas scenery. Observing her gaze, Khan threw out his arms expansively. His pristine white suit reflected the bright morning sunshine. "Welcome, Ms. Lincoln, to Chrysalis Island!"
Roberta refused to concede even the loveliness of the setting. "I thought the whole place belonged to the French," she retorted.
As a matter of fact, as she well knew, the French government had established the Centre d'Experimentation du Pacifique (CEP) on Muroroa back in 1963, as a testing site for atomic weapons, many of which had been exploded underground in artificial caverns carved out of the island's basalt core. Less than three months ago, however, France had suspended its nuclear testing program indefinitely, much to the relief of most of the world. Little did that world know, Roberta mused, that Muroroa was now playing host to something just as nasty -- and possibly even more dangerous -- -than underground nuclear explosions.
And she didn't just mean Khan.
"Our Gallic friends were under enormous international pressure to close this facility," he explained. Roberta recalled seeing news footage of anti-nuke protests on Fiji and the other islands. "Thus, I managed to 'persuade' certain French authorities to let me take it off their hands -- discreetly, of course." Roberta could just imagine what kind of "persuasion" Khan had employed. Extortion? Blackmail? Assassination? It wouldn't be the first time, she thought; although she and Seven never uncovered definitive proof of Khan's involvement, they had their suspicions regarding a number of recent tragic events, such as the explosive death of that big-name Indian politician last spring.
"Indeed," Khan continued, "this entire complex is perfectly suited to my needs, being equipped with its own electrical generators, desalination plant, airfield, communications center, and so forth, while its location near the equator makes it an ideal site for launching satellites into orbit." He looked out over the sprawling compound, which was guarded on all sides by a high, fully electrified fence. "We have, of course, made key renovations, improving on what the French left behind."
"I can't wait for the guided tour," Roberta said, not entirely sarcastic. With any luck, she would get a chance to scope out Khan's new real estate, before or after she attempted to escape.
A small cluster of people had gathered atop the roof to witness the launch of the rocket. Loudspeakers mounted at the rear of the roof provided a countdown toward the rapidly approaching lift-off: "Launch minus two minutes." Khan toyed with his wristwatch, synchronizing it with the countdown, before strolling across the whitewashed rooftop to join the others. He gestured for Joaquin to bring Roberta along.
"Okay, okay, I'm coming!" she muttered irritably as the thuggish henchman hustled her across the rooftop. Looking away from the distant gantry, Khan's associates eyed her with varying degrees of curiosity, seemingly none too concerned by her status as an unwilling captive.
"Launch minus one minute, thirty seconds."
Khan ignored Roberta's protests as well. "Permit me to introduce a few of the brilliant minds that I have assembled, at great effort and expense, on this island. This is Dr. Liam MacPherson," he began, indicating a lanky, red-haired man in a white lab jacket, "a superlative astrophysicist and the head of launch operations. Doctor, meet Ms. Roberta Lincoln, an uninvited guest at today's event."
MacPherson gave Roberta a cursory examination before turning his attention back to the prepped and pregnant rocket on the launch pad. A compact headset kept him in touch with Mission Control and he stroked his beard, a tuft of coppery bristles, absentmindedly as he whispered instructions into his mike. Roberta didn't take the snub personally, figuring that MacPherson was naturally preoccupied with the Ariane's imminent departure. "Pleased to meet you, sort of," Roberta murmured, even though the carrot-topped astrophysicist was clearly not listening. "Let's do this again sometime."
"And this," Khan continued, moving onto an exotically beautiful woman strikingly clad in a silk indigo sarong and matching top, "is the most exquisite Ament, one of my wisest and most trusted advisors." Gleaming black pearls, native to the Tuamoto Islands, shimmered upon her earlobes, the nacreous beads as dark and lustrous as her shoulder-length black hair. Cool, amber eyes looked Roberta over silently, conveying an air of haughty amusement. Her lithe, languid body seemed both youthful and timeless.
Roberta disliked her on principle. "Nice pearls," she stated flatly, figuring that if you can't say something nice about a person, you can always compliment their jewelry.
"Thank you," Ament said coolly. Her low, husky voice had a faintly Arabic accent. "They were a gift from Khan."
He nodded, his hands clasped behind his back. "I wrested them myself from the giant black-lipped oysters found only in these islands. Did you know, Ms. Lincoln," he expounded, "that a Polynesian pearl diver can descend up to forty meters in search of treasure? A remarkable feat, for an ordinary human, although, of course, easily within my own abilities."
"Everybody needs a hobby," Roberta said dryly. A little more pearl diving, a little less geopolitical powermongering, she reflected, and the whole world would be a happier place.
"More like an invigorating diversion," Khan stated by way of clarification. He walked to the edge of the rooftop, the better to observe the rocket on its launch pad. "Not that today requires any stimulation beyond what we are about to witness."
"Launch minus sixty seconds," the loudspeaker announced, calling an end to the introductions. A hush of anticipation fell over the small grouping on the roof. On the launch pad across the turquoise lagoon, the massive metal structure of the gantry retreated from the Ariane, leaving the slender rocket alone upon the launch, pointed up at the sky like a gigantic blue-and-white hypodermic. An appropriate image, Roberta thought, given the high-tech poison carried in its payload.
"Launch minus forty-five seconds." Plumes of white steam billowed from the base of the Ariane as its twin booster rockets fired. A deafening roar assaulted Roberta's eardrums, like a dozen jumbo jets taking off at once, and she fought an urge to clamp her hands over her ears, unwilling to show any weakness in front of Khan and his fellow Übermenschen. Instead, she crossed her fingers, hoping in vain that something would still go wrong with the launch, that the Ariane would blow up on the launch pad. I'm sorry, Gary. She was barely able to hear her own thoughts over the volcanic fury of the unleashed engines, which were straining mightily at the bolts still holding the rocket to the concrete pad. I tried to stop him.
"Launch minus thirty seconds." The roar increased as the Ariane's main engines kicked in. Twenty-five tons of liquid hydrogen ignited, sending a rush of superheated gases through the engine nozzles, propelling the massive spacecraft against the pull of gravity.
"Look, Ms. Lincoln!" Khan shouted in her ear, striving to be heard even over the thunderous din. Roberta tried to pull away from him, but Joaquin's heavy hands clamped down on her shoulders, holding her in place. "How fortunate you recovered just in time to behold my greatest triumph to date!"
Lucky me, she thought, unable to look away from the fiery spectacle.
"Launch minus one second..." The towering rocket rose from the launch pad, borne aloft by a blazing pillar of fire. Gigantic clouds of steam, produced by the explosive union of the Ariane's red-hot exhaust with a flood of cooling water released in conjunction with the blast-off, swelled outward, hiding the launch site behind a churning, turbulent curtain of vapor. "Lift-off!" the loudspeaker exulted. "We have lift-off!"
Almost against her will, Roberta tipped her head back to follow the rocket's meteoric ascent. She held her breath, still praying that, somehow, someway, the Ariane, along with its malignant cargo, would go the way of the Challenger, spiraling out of control to a catastrophic end. Please, she prayed, let Khan's diabolical plan blow up in his face!
But nothing of the sort occurred. The lift-off was flawless, with the Ariane's upward trajectory achieving escape velocity within less than a minute. As the rocket disappeared from sight, leaving only a snow-white trail of vapor behind, Liam MacPherson breathed a sigh of relief. Beneath his lab coat, his shoulders slumped as the weight of his worries evaporated in the cool trade winds. Ament led the rest of the onlookers, excepting Roberta, in a round of polite applause.
Khan's flawless profile remained turned to the sky, toward the apex of the vapor trail. Roberta wondered if the Indian prodigy's superior vision had allowed him to follow the rocket's soaring climb longer than she had. "Ah, Lucifer, child of the morning," he declaimed proudly, twisting the Old Testament to his own vainglorious purposes. "How thou art risen!" Lowering his gaze at last, he savored Roberta's crestfallen expression, his dark mahogany eyes gleaming in triumph. "I trust, Ms. Lincoln, that you appreciate the full purpose and potential of my Morning Star, my bringer of light?"
More than I'd like to, Roberta thought unhappily, knowing that her job had just gotten a lot more difficult. "You stole the technology from us, remember?" Her voice hardened at the memory. "The day you raided our office and murdered our computer?"
Images of a younger Khan firing a hail of bullets into the good old Beta 5 flashed before her mind's eye. She could still hear the gunshots....
"Technology," he reminded her, holding up a finger in correction, "that Seven and I personally acquired from the ageless Dr. Evergreen, and not without considerable effort and hardship. I am as much entitled to the fruits of that enterprise as your unbearably self-righteous superior."
Roberta knew what Khan was referring to, even though she had not taken part in those events. It had been that ill-fated mission, back in the winter of 1984, that had finally convinced Gary Seven that the precocious Sikh youth was too reckless (and ruthless) to be trusted. Just like his mother, she thought, recalling the late Dr. Sarina Kaur, founder and driving force of the Chrysalis Project. Kaur had been utterly ruthless, too, and fanatical enough to choose death rather than abandon Chrysalis, which had ultimately been consumed by a fierce thermonuclear conflagration beneath the deserts of Rajasthan. Roberta couldn't help wondering if Khan had ever figured out that she and Seven had been indirectly responsible for his mother's tragic demise. Probably not a good time to bring that up, she decided.
"Excuse me, sir," MacPherson broke in, "but the rocket has achieved a low polar orbit. We're ready to deploy the satellite." He tugged on his beard nervously. "Perhaps you'd care to join me in Mission Control?"
Khan must be a tough boss, Roberta guessed from the scientist's apprehensive manner. Even for another superman. She'd recognized MacPherson's name, of course, from Seven's database on the Chrysalis children. She pretty much knew the entire list by heart.
Khan scowled momentarily, unhappy to be interrupted while fencing verbally with Roberta. Larger aims took precedence, however, and he nodded curtly. "Of course, Doctor, I will be with you shortly." He gave Roberta a parting bow. "We will have to continue our reunion later, Ms. Lincoln. The Bard once wrote that, 'Unbidden guests are often welcomest when they are gone,' but in your case I'm inclined to enjoy your company a while longer." He reached into the pocket of his immaculately pressed white slacks and retrieved a familiar silver instrument.
My servo! Roberta thought, dismayed to see the device in Khan's possession.
"I look forward to chatting with you," he stated, "about the many singular technologies at your superior's disposal; in particular, your miraculous means of teleportation." He deftly rolled the servo between his fingers and across the back of his hand. "I confess that, while I have developed ways to block your ingenious matter-transmission beams, I have not yet succeeded in duplicating them." After tantalizing Roberta with its proximity, he returned the captured servo to his pocket. "Perhaps, with your assistance, I can remedy the situation."
Not if I can help it, Roberta thought fervently. She could barely imagine a worse scenario than Khan Noonien Singh adding teleportation to his arsenal. "You've got the wrong girl," she insisted. "I have no idea how the darn thing works. As far as I'm concerned, it's magic."
This wasn't entirely true; after nearly a quarter-century of broadcasting her atoms around the planet (and elsewhere), she'd learned her way around a transporter coil or two. There was no reason Khan needed to know that, though. With luck, a little old-fashioned sexism would add a veneer of plausibility to her protests. Girls never look under the hood, right?
Khan did not challenge her proclamations of ignorance, but his menacing tone made it clear that she was hardly off the hook. "Perhaps, then, your superior, the ever-manipulative Mr. Seven, will be willing to share his secrets -- in exchange for your continued good health."
Stepping away from Roberta, apparently content to let his implied threat linger in her mind, Khan addressed Joaquin: "Put her in one of the holding cells on Level M-2. I will interrogate her later, at my leisure."
Yippee, Roberta thought acidly. I can hardly wait.
"But, Your Excellency!" Joaquin blurted, looking chagrined at the prospect of leaving Khan unguarded. His basso profundo voice emanated from somewhere deep within his cavernous chest. The bear's-head belt buckle snarled silently. "Your safety..."
"Will not be endangered by your brief absence," Khan assured him. He laid a fraternal hand on the bodyguard's broad shoulder. "My friend, while I appreciate your devotion to duty, I am quite capable of defending myself, especially on my own island." He released Joaquin's shoulder and turned to follow MacPherson. "Go. You shall find me in Mission Control, overseeing the next stage of today's historic accomplishment."
Placated, Khan's looming flunky grunted in assent and took hold of Roberta's arm. "Hey, watch the grip!" she yelped, unable to resist being pulled toward the stairs. "I've still got bruises from the last time you manhandled me!"
Despite her loud objections, plus a great deal of squirming, Roberta paid close attention to her surroundings as Joaquin forcibly escorted her down several flights of stairs, into the lower regions of the former atomic test base. Sealed white doors, labeled in French, hid much from her view, but she took what mental notes she could on the facility's layout and capacities. A little extra reconnaissance could make all the difference later on, she reminded herself.
In particular, she kept her eyes peeled for any sign of biological research. According to their best informant, Khan intended to use Muroroa as more than a launch site for his incipient space program; he was also reputedly converting much of the complex into a laboratory capable of advanced biogenetic experimentation. Seven feared that Khan was deliberately trying to re-create the Chrysalis Project in order to duplicate his mother's success at human genetic engineering.
Just what we need, Roberta thought tartly. A second generation of Chrysalis kids. Like the first batch hasn't been trouble enough....
Seven's fears, not to mention hers, seemed confirmed when, precisely four floors beneath the sunlit rooftop, they passed what looked like a sturdy metal airlock, bearing the universal symbol for biohazardous material.
Genetic Testing And Development, read the heavy block letters on the airlock's exterior, printed in both English and Punjabi. authorized personnel only.
Clearly, the signs had been posted after the French cleared out. Roberta couldn't help wondering, and worrying, what sort of genes were being developed on the other side of the sealed metal door. Nothing warm and fuzzy, I bet.
The sudden whoosh of air escaping from the doorway announced that someone was preparing to exit the bio-lab. Stalling in order to see who it might be, Roberta deliberately tripped over her own feet. "Oops!" she declared, throwing out her free arm in hopes of breaking her fall, but Joaquin halted her clumsy descent by yanking hard on her other arm, nearly dislocating her shoulder. Unlike her stumble, the resulting cry of pain was totally sincere and spontaneous.
"Up," he grunted, easily pulling her back onto her feet with just one hand. Roberta felt like a side of beef hanging on a grumpy, unfeeling meat hook.
"I'm sorry," she stammered, milking the moment for all it was worth. "I guess I'm still a little woozy from that high-voltage hello your boss arranged for me."
A few feet away, the airlock door swung open, disgorging a statuesque Indian woman in a stained white lab coat. Clearly surprised by what she saw, the woman stared at Joaquin and his blond-haired captive with a baffled look on her face. She protectively clutched a three-inch floppy disk to her chest. "What is this?" she murmured. "Who -- ?"
"An intruder," Joaquin explained gruffly, while Roberta compared the woman's well-made features to the photos in her own memory. Their eyes briefly met, and a shudder ran through Roberta as she saw the horizontal black lines bisecting both of the woman's dark eyes. The inky streaks across her corneas were, Roberta knew, twin legacies of the disastrous chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, many years ago, created when the other woman had squinted to see her way through the clouds of poisonous gas. Seven and Khan were both at Bhopal, Roberta recalled, although they had managed to avoid being scarred in this manner. Numerous survivors, however, had been permanently marked, including one of the Chrysalis children.
There could be no doubt: This was Dr. Phoolan Dhasal, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, who, like Khan, was also a product of Sarina Kaur's illicit experiments back in the seventies. Roberta was familiar with Dhasal's work, having once forced herself to wade through the precocious Ph.D.'s groundbreaking paper on the introduction of transgenic exons during late-stage RNA processing. Dhasal had also been one of the youngest contributors to the Human Genome Project, before mysteriously disappearing several months ago; her presence on Muroroa provided the final proof that Khan was up to hard-core genetic hanky-panky here in the South Seas. I need to report this to Seven, pronto.
Joaquin did not prolong their chance encounter with Dhasal. Within moments, they had left the entrance to the bio-lab behind, descending even farther into the bowels of Khan's new outpost. By Roberta's calculations, they were well beneath the island's surface, in some sort of sub-sub-basement, far from waving palms and fragrant trade winds.
They finally stopped in front of a door marked Detention. Joaquin placed his sizable palm against a sensor plate mounted beside the door. A thick steel door slid open with a whoosh and they entered a stark white hallway lined on both sides with detention cells, perfect for confining, say, any pushy anti-nuke demonstrators who might have sneaked onto the island during the good old days of atomic testing. Nice of the French to leave these for Khan, she thought somewhat less than sincerely.
Bulletproof plastic doors, four inches thick and reinforced with thick metal struts, barred the entrance of each cell. Joaquin tugged open the door of the nearest cell and unceremoniously thrust Roberta inside. "Stay," he ordered redundantly before locking the door back into place. To Roberta's relief, he did not stay to keep her company, but quickly departed, no doubt anxious to resume his post watching over Khan. Thank my lucky stars, she thought.
Rubbing her injured shoulder, she took a minute to inspect the latest stop on her Pacific excursion. The accommodations were spartan -- a stool, a cot, a toilet -- but clean and comfortable as jail cells go. Frankly, she'd been imprisoned in worse places during her two decades-plus as an alien-sponsored secret agent babe. The first Chrysalis, she recalled, had not been equipped with detention facilities at all, so she and Seven had ended up locked in straw-carpeted cages with a menagerie of test animals. This, by contrast, was a definite step up.
Not that she intended to stay all that long. Pressing her face against the transparent plastic door, she checked out the scene beyond her cell. As far as she could tell, she was currently the only prisoner. (But not the first; to her amusement, she noticed a Greenpeace logo carved into the seat of the wooden stool.) There were no flesh-and-blood guards in sight, either, only security cameras mounted opposite every cell door, where no prisoner could reach them. "Hello! Anybody there?"
No answer. Welcome to solitary confinement, she thought.
Roberta languished in the cell for half an hour or so. Time enough, she lamented, for MacPherson and his staff to place Khan's so-called Morning Star into a low polar orbit, where it could do the most harm. "No use crying over launched satellites," she muttered, trying to maintain a positive attitude. Gary and I will just have to keep Khan from ever activating the damn thing, one way or another.
Only because she was listening for them did Roberta hear the stealthy footprints in the corridor outside her cell. A low hum stirred the air and the unblinking red lights atop the security cameras went dead. Moments later, a solitary figure appeared on the other side of the thick plastic door.
"About time you got here," Roberta said.
Copyright © 2002 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.