Vegas, Baby, Vegas! (Part 2)
A Whateley Universe/ Loose Cannons Story
VEGAS, BABY, VEGAS!
Bek D Corbin
DATE: Monday, March 26th, 2007
“And that’s where we ran into you,” Mack finished it up. I noticed that Mack didn’t include the bit about Champion in Chicago. I shot him a look that said I approved. Okay, this guy is Brigand, a guy who’s been giving the very people who are shooting at us seven different kinds of hell for longer than any of us have been alive. But on the other hand, he’s still a supervillain, a professional outlaw, and from what Major Dad has said in passing, Brigand damn near makes a religion out of being devious and oblique.
The man himself, outside that blue not-quite-power-armor of his, was an athletic, ruggedly handsome man who looked too young to have been at this supervillain game for so long. But then, there was something about his eyes; most times, they were relaxed, even amused, and sparkled at all the right times. Then, when I think he was really thinking something over, they just… withdrew…
Brigand started to put his hand to his mouth like he was about to put a cigarette in his mouth or take one out. Then he noticed that he was doing it, and pulled his hand away. “Sorry. I’m used to smoking to help me focus. I’m quitting, but old habits die hard.”
“How long ago did you quit?”
“Twenty years or so.” Brigand waved that aside. He turned to the stocky middle-aged man who was going through the files that they’d taken from the warehouse. “So? Anything interesting?”
“Oh definitely,” Harold said without looking up from the files.
“Any ideas as to who ‘Mr. Bland’ might be?”
Harold made a ‘meh’ noise, but didn’t stop checking out the files. “He’s not a solo operator. He’s definitely working within a hierarchy. He’s got a budget, a schedule, and a working thesis that he’s defending. Scientists go renegade to avoid that crap.”
“Y’mean he’s doing horrible, gawd-awful criminal crap that will get him thrown in prison forever- if he’s lucky,” Roxie asked with squick in her voice, “and he’s still gotta stick to a budget and suck up to his bosses?”
“That,” Harold said with a pained tone, “is the price of funding. As for who the organization is? Future Dynamics Front, Science Unchained, the Invisible College, the Instrumentality, SYNERGY, WASP… they’re all ruthless enough. Though the subject’s a little… esoteric… for SYNERGY.”
“What about that guy…” Billy snapped his fingers. “Dr. Diabolical?”
Brigand shook his head. “Not his style. If nothing else, he treats his associate researchers better. Your ‘Mr. Bland’ is under a lot of pressure and he’s probably sweating blood; Dr. Diabolik has an enviable reputation in the supervillain community as a good boss to work for. No one you want to cross, but a good employer who cares about the people who work for him. I’ve heard the man himself say that the ‘produce or suffer the cost’ motivational tactic is self-defeating.”
“You know Dr. Diabolik?”
“We’ve done business now and again,” Brigand said. “Don’t let the comic book mad scientist façade fool you: he’s quite sane, very smart, and surprisingly reasonable.”
Dr. Diabolik. Reasonable. Yeah, Right.“Have you thought of going online with your story?” Harold asked, actually looking up from the files.
“First thing we did, once we got out of Sacto and to Frisco,” Suzy grumped. “We spent 3 days putting that website together, another 2 days spreading the word around the Net, and it took two hours for hackers to turn it into a bad joke. Right now, that website has a plea for anyone to help us with any money they can spare, three nasty Trojans, a phishing pop-up, and a watch program that we think was put there by the MCO. Right now, the Internet thinks that we’re a bunch of Nigerian Finance Ministers.”
Brigand let out a sad breath. “Kids, I wish that I could tell you that it’s all right, that all you have to do is go to the Police and tell them your side of the story. But it’s not. Sadly, your take on the situation is pretty much on the money. Your ‘Mr. Bland’ has done a very good job of covering himself, and even if this Commander Swive wasn’t gunning for you, the Knights of Purity are making too much good PR on this to turn around and admit that they were trying to shoot the kids they were hired to rescue. The MCO dreams about big messy scenes like you had in Sacramento, and it may be my 30-something years as a fugitive talking, but I really don’t think that going to the Cops or the Feds is a good idea.” He stopped and gave us the kind of look that you give a bike when you’re trying to figure out whether it’ll hold your weight or not. “So, do you have any plan beyond collecting this evidence? You got anyone you think will actually listen to you?”
“Yeah,” Mack said solidly.
“Oh? Who?” Mack just gave Brigand a blank look. The rest of us swapped long looks, but backed the big guy up. Brigand let out another sigh. “Can’t say that I blame you. Do you at least have anywhere that you’re heading?”
“Yeah,” Mack said in the same tone. After a long kinda tense bit of not saying anything, he added. “But we could sure use a ride out of Vegas.”
Brigand gave the look to say more, but after a bit he shrugged, like he got that that was all we was gonna give up. Then he got a call on his phone and chatted with someone in mumbles for a bit. He finished the call, held up one finger as he thought very carefully for a bit. Then he said, “My computer ninja, Summer, tells me that she’s used the information you had, along with the records from the escrow warehouse, to identify a complex that she thinks belongs to your ‘Mr. Bland’. If you raid that warehouse, not only can you pick up more information on them, and maybe some physical evidence, but if you do it the right way, the cops will pick up on who these people are and what they’re up to. You’ll have a much easier time of selling the evidence you’ve got, if they think there’s something for it to be evidence of.”
“He’s got a point,” Roxie said. “If we let ourselves be seen attacking this place and leaving evidence of what’s going on there, then the Feds will start to see a pattern, and our credibility goes way up.”
“Or, at least they’ll start thinking that maybe there’s more to this than that dork Swive is spinning,” Chris said sourly.
Brigand nodded with a ‘uh-huh!’ grunt. “Summer also says that she’s found some major leads to another place. Namely the place that I was looking for when I went in there, in the first place. But here’s the thing: the compound that I’m looking for isn’t my actual target. It’s just a stepping stone to something else which may also be a stepping stone, and the people that I’m looking for are very slippery. If they get wind that I’m after them, they may go underground, and stir up trouble to cover their tracks. Which would suck, both for me, and for the people who get stirred up in that trouble. So it would be best if it didn’t get out that it was me and my people who went into this place I’m looking for.”
“What?” Mack asked, like he wasn’t sure if he liked the sound of that or not, “You want to trade missions? We go into your place and you go into ours, and we trade what we find?”
“No, that would be asking a bit,” Brigand admitted. “Look, you have super powers, but we have a lot more experience with this sort of thing. If we go in together, backing each other, then we have a much better chance of getting out alive of both raids, than we do of going into one raid each by ourselves.”
There was an awkward silence, which was broken by Billy whining, “Awww… c’MON Mack! This is BRIGAND! This is what he does, and he’s the best at what he does!”
Mack was having a ‘weight of leadership’ moment. “So, you help us with our raid, we help you with your raid. We get the evidence from our raid and a ride out of here. And you get?”
“I get first dibs on what we find there, second call on whatever we find at your place, and a measure of anonymity,” he said reasonably. He was a very reasonable guy. Which worried me. “As I said, it would be best if it didn’t get out that it was me who went into this place. If my targets think that you are in town but not me, then they won’t take the measures that they would if they suspected that I was sniffing around.”
Mack nodded but said, “Just a second, while we talk this out.” Roxie was starting to get up, and she was pretty put out when Mack asked Rae, Marly and me to join him in one of the bedrooms. When we were safely in the other room, Mack asked, “Okay, Rachel- you hung with Krazy K and Zik-Zak, you know more about thug life than I do: what do you make of this?”
Rae slumped and thought it over, and I swear she damn near did Eddie’s ‘think, think, think’ number. “Not sure,” she admitted. “On one hand he’s got a solid rep as a ‘honorable outlaw’ and all that shit. On the other hand, he’s into all kinds of high-level secret weirdness crap, so what does that mean?” Then something occurred to her. “Now’t I think about it, his real rep is for next level and beyond kinds of sneakiness. I mean, he mind-fucks bank presidents and big company CEOs and other guys with black belts in B.S.! Mack, he knows this kind of shit WAY better’n we do. If he wants to help us, we couldn’t ask for anyone better. But no matter what we do, if he decides to fuck us, we prob’ly wouldn’t even see it comin’, ferget about stopping it.”
Mack nodded and looked significantly at Marly. Shifted uncomfortably and said, “Weelll… I get a feeling… that he wants to help us. But… there’s a whole lot of other stuff going on, too.”
“Oh, that was helpful,” Rae grumbled.
“Hey, I don’t really know that much about this mind-reading shit!” Marly whined. “And if Brigand’s half as slick as he’s supposed to be, he could be gaming me!” Then something clicked, and she smiled, “Sparky likes him.”
“Sparky’s a dog,” Rae pointed out. “He likes anyone who’ll give him a doggy treat and scratch him behind the ears.”
“No, I gotta go with Marly on this one,” I jumped in. “I mean, Sparky is one damn smart dog. And he’s had more work done on him than Carmen Electra! And even before they started wiring up his brain, I’ll bet Sparky was still a damn smart dog. Think about the kind of dog he is, Rae. He knows that there are mean, nasty people out there. He’s been kicked a lot more’n he’s been petted. And I bet he’s a pretty good judge of character. He’s had to be. Look where one bad call landed him up.”
“And what about you, Ev?” Mack asked me. “What do you think?”
I paused and thought that one over. “I know, this is where I’m supposed to be all Sherlock and come up with some well-thought out line of reasoning. And I really wish that I had one. But all I have are 3 points that are pretty dang obvious, and one gut feeling. And I don’t really respect ‘gut hunches’.”
“What’s your points?”
“One: We gotta get into Mr. Bland’s lab. Period. We need every bit of proof that we can scare up, just to get the Authorities to check our fucking fingerprints. Two: Mr. Bland, or his organization or whatever, know we’re in Las Vegas. The only reason that we got out of their lab in Sacto was pure fucking luck. I still don’t know how the fuck I got out of that cage! We can’t count on luck if they’re expecting us. We NEED Brigand’s experience. He knows this kind of crap, forwards, backwards and sideways. If we go in without him, we’d might as well just handcuff ourselves, walk up to their door and ring the bell. And Three: no matter what we do, we’re at Brigand’s mercy. Rachel’s right: he’s too fucking slick, and he’s been at this longer than all of us put together! If he decides to screw us, we’re screwed. Period. Again, Rachel’s right: we’d never see it coming.”
“And what’s the hunch?”
I racked my brain trying to put it into words. “…eerrr… no matter what, if we get involved with Brigand it’s gonna be… involved…”
“Good involved or bad involved?”
DATE: Tuesday, March 27th, 2007
The next day, Brigand had us meet him in a conference room at the hotel we were staying in. it was like being back in class, with whiteboards and chairs arranged in a semi-circle, and like all that. The problem was I had a nagging feeling that I was going into a test and I didn’t get a chance to brush up last night. And if we all didn’t ace this test, it was gonna be a very final exam.
Brigand came in wearing civvies, to wit a well-cut gray suit jacket over a white turtleneck, and black slacks. As one we greeted him with, “Good Morning, Mr. Brigand!” Hey, given the situation, we just hadda.
Brigand nodded, taking the joke with good humor. He told the man and woman who came with him to set up the corkboards. They did so, and put up papers that looked suspiciously like blueprints, schematics and personnel dossiers. “Okay, while we have absolutely NO idea what they’re doing in there, power company records suggest-”
“Hey Brigand!” Billy asked, all abuzz with hero worship, “What’s with the books and plans? Why aren’t we, y’know, doing drills with a mockup of the lab, getting over barbed wire, through gates, and stuff like that?”
Brigand gave us a warm ‘new teacher on his first day at the job’ smile and said, “Normally, I’d be doing just that. But the simple fact of the matter is that we don’t want you to do a professional job. My people will be running a parallel operation to yours, and it’s very important that you look like a bunch of raw amateurs, instead of a professional team of operatives.”
There was a pretty universal reaction of ‘HAH?’, including from yours truly.
That took Brigand back a bit and he tried to explain, “Look, you know that you’re a bunch of kids who got dragged into this, and you’re just trying to save your own skins by doing this, and I believe you. But the vast majority of people don’t believe that; they believe what that ratsass Swive is selling, that you’re a pack of super-powered mercenary killers. And if you pull off this raid looking like a bunch of trained professionals, then no matter what kind of evidence you find, the Attorney General isn’t going to listen to you, because he’ll think that you’re just a pack of supervillains with an excuse.”
We gave him another ‘HAH?’
Brigand gave a deep disgusted sigh and buried his face in his hand. He thought about it very hard for a minute or two, and then started, “Kids, what would you say if you saw a guy run into a bank, beat the crap out of three armed guards, rip the door off the vault, run off with an armload of cash- and then that same guy tells you that he’s just an accountant for an insurance company, cashing his paycheck?”
“That he’s full of shit!” Rachel said, right off the bat. “He’s gotta be a supervillain!”
“Well, that’s pretty much what you’re asking the Attorney General.” There was another general ‘HAH?’ “Look, you’re trying to find evidence that you can take to someone- if not the Attorney General or someone in the Justice Department directly, then someone who’ll take it to them eventually- with the idea that they’ll say, ‘Hey! These people aren’t super-powered terrorists, they’re just a bunch of kids who’re just trying to get their lives back!’ The PROBLEM with that is that you look like a bunch of supervillains! Well, at least from a distance, and that’s the impression that the DoJ will have to use to decide whether to listen to them at all. That mess at that mall in Sacramento? The KoP is all over that, saying that it proves that you’re a bunch of trained professionals. BUT! In San Francisco, that that scene with UNITY? The California papers are still full of that, and there’s a lot of ‘hah?’ going down, since you handled that like a bunch of run amuck KIDS.”
“But that’s what we ARE!” Eddie complained.
“EXACTLY!” Brigand said brightly. “See? You pull off a slick operation where you managed to slip past not only the Knights and the MCO, but the MSOC- who are a very tough outfit- and you’re branded ‘dangerous mercenaries’. But you crash into an office building at 70 miles per hour and thrash around like a chicken with its head cut off, and people are saying, ‘wait a minute, what’s going on here?’ The fact that you evacuated dozens of victims ON CAMERA helps a lot! People are confused about what you are. USE THAT.”
Chris raised her hand. “Brigand? How’s the Iron Butterfly doing? We heard that she got hurt when the building blew. Is she okay? She actually talked to me, she knows that we’re just kids! Okay, she doesn’t know that we’re the kids from Marty Sammish, but she gets that we’re under the gun here! I mean, I hate to sound self-centered, but we NEED her!”
“In your position, you can’t afford to not be self-centered, sweetheart,” Brigand said. “She was reported as having stabilized and brought out of Intensive Care three days ago. Past that? It’s SOP to not report too closely on superheroes.”
He paused, thought about it for a bit and continued, “Your plan about raiding ‘Mr. Bland’s’ and UNITY’s labs is a good one. BUT! You can’t just go up to the DoJ and say, ‘We got this out of these labs’. Why should they believe you? Why should they give up a slam-dunk supervillain prosecution against you, for a bunch of files and weird dinguses? No, they’ve got to KNOW that you went into those labs and brought stuff out, and they’ve got to WANT to know what you took, because all the stuff you left behind just screams ‘Black Lab!’ You have got to be SEEN going into and coming out of those labs.” He wrote ‘SEEN’ on one of the whiteboards. He paused and turned the lower-case Es into eyes.
“I’ve managed to succeed as a supervillain for going on 30 years now, despite having no super powers- okay, a few enhancements here and there, but no real powers- because I have two things that most supervillains don’t have: a competent, loyal and motivated support organization, and POPULAR SUPPORT.” He paused and let that sink in for a moment. “And YES, the popular support is a BIG part of my success. I have truck drivers moving stuff for me for with no questions asked. I have truck and cab dispatchers feeding me information. I have construction workers letting me use heavy equipment on the sly. I have secretaries and file clerks ‘losing files’ and preventing meetings of select individuals. I have garbage collectors ‘hiding’ stuff in landfills. I have warehouse supervisors ‘rerouting’ or ‘losing’ select shipments. And yes, I do pay them, very well, for doing that. But they tell me that they’d do it for free.
“Because they know that the fix is in. They know that something’s rotten. They know that ‘I’m getting mine, and screw everyone else’ is the Big Boys’ mantra. And because they SEE that I’m the only one really doing anything about it. Every time that I make the News, they see a corrupt politician on the hot seat, or a crooked businessman having his face shoved into his own shit, or some smug financial wizard having his entire fortune disappear and re-appear in the retirement funds of the people he ripped off. But the important thing is: they SEE me doing this.” he pointed to the word ‘Seen’ on the whiteboard.
“My point here is that you have to be SEEN breaking into these labs, and getting your evidence. Your problem is that you have to be seen doing all this, while not putting the lie to the fact that you’re still KIDS!”
“And… exactly how do we do this?” Mack asked, like he wasn’t sure where this was going.
“Fortunately, it’s very simple: screw up. Go in big and loud, kick up a lot of dust, break stuff, pull off the job in weird over-complicated ways, get a lot of peoples’ attention, like that- in other words, be a bunch of kids trying to act like the secret agents they see on TV.”
“HAH?” I bleated, “But that’s what we’re trying to AVOID! With the people we’re gonna be dealing with, just going in like a bunch of dumb kids will get us all KILLED!”
“Well, I said that it was a problem,” Brigand smirked. “Though I am gratified to see that it has penetrated to you that you can die.”
“Hey, having someone you know’s insides blasted all over you will do that,” I said with a twitch, trying very hard to not think about how Shawn died.
Brigand nodded with a wince. “You see, there’s your problem. You’ve got to get proof that Mr. Bland exists and that he did this to you; but you can’t gather that evidence in a way that convinces people that you’re adult supervillains pulling a scam; but then you can’t be TOO childish about how you do this, or Mr. Bland or UNITY or whoever will simply kill you, or the KoP or MCO will bag you, and not give a damn who you really are. As with so many things, it’s a balancing act; you’ll have to find out how much is enough, the hard way.”
“Well, okay,” Eddie grumped, “but you got any ideas on that?”
“Why… YES!” Brigand said with a bright smile. “If you learn anything from me, learn this: It’s all about the DRAMA!” He wrote ‘Drama’ on the white board in big red letters and underlined it. “Supercrime, the News, Politics, Finance… in a real sense, they’re all about drama, and who can sell the better story. I’ll spare you the historical analogies and stick to the one that you’ll really get: Knight Commander Swive is selling a story that you are super-powered mercenaries in the service of some mysterious unnamed organization that kidnapped 12 kids from Martin Sammish High for some mysterious reason, and then for some mysterious reason you attacked UNITY’s base in San Francisco, and now you’re on some other mysterious errand for your mysterious employers. YOU are selling a story that you are some of those kidnapped kids, and you’ve escaped, but due to a brainfart by Ramsey’s father, Swive shot one of the other kids in the back, and is now furiously trying to cover this up by screaming that you all are terrorists.
“Swive is selling one kind of drama; you’re selling another. Swive is smart enough to realize that his story will unravel if people poke at it enough, so he wants you all in the ground, with as many people complicit in your deaths as possible, before that happens. His weakness is that the longer this story goes on, the more all those ‘somehows’ and ‘mysteries’ and contradictions all start adding up and begin to look silly. He can stretch that time out and gloss over the inconsistencies by making you out to be as big a threat as he can. By making you this big threat and bringing in everyone who wants a piece of the glory for bagging you, he ensures that he’ll have a lot of powerful and influential people who’ll cooperate in covering up the embarrassing details when the killing’s done.”
“But how can he do that?” Megan asked. “I don’t mean ‘how could he do something so mean’; I mean how can he pull it off? I mean, won’t the Media get wise if he keeps pushing us as this big booga-booga threat?”
“Actually, the Media is his big weapon,” Brigand said as he crossed his arms across his chest and leaned against one of the whiteboards. “Again, it’s Drama. The Media is feeding on the hysteria that strange secret groups could kidnap American kids right out of their schools- a reasonable cause for alarm, when you think about it- and Swive is using that hysteria to cover up all the silliness. And Swive didn’t make any of this up, he’s just putting this one particular spin on the facts: to wit, that you are the terrorists responsible for the kidnappings. Swive’s strength is that he has access to, and far more importantly, credibility with the Press.”
“So what do we do?” Chris asked. Well, it was more or less her area of expertise.
“The problem with exploiting hysteria is that once the hysteria lifts, people feel very silly about what they did,” Brigand pointed out. “And they can get very nasty to people who they think were manipulating them that way. The best way to handle hysteria, especially a custom-made hysteria like Swive’s peddling, is to get people thinking. Once people get thinking, the illogic, contradictions and stupidity start jumping out at you and the thing unravels.
“So, do whatever you can to get people- the Media especially, though getting cops and superheroes in on this is always a good idea- to SEE you doing this while not acting like either cold-blooded professional killers on one hand, or a bunch of berserk psychos on the other. They’ve got to know that it was YOU who did it, and you’ve got to leave enough evidence behind of what was going on that after a while, they start putting things together on their own- remember kids, it’s always easier to get people to accept things are the way you say they are, if they think it’s that way to begin with.
“Again, USE THE DRAMA. Get them curious. Let them get sight of as many of you as possible, and have them wonder exactly what you’re up to. DON’T spell it out for them; they’ll just wonder what you’re really up to. For some reason, people don’t believe the first story, but they love piecing things together to get ‘the real scoop’.” Brigand shrugged.
“Costumes!” Chris blurted out. “Okay, not spandex and capes, but… we gotta make sure that when people see us, they know that it’s US. For instance, we gotta make sure that people see Rachel and Billy. I mean people will remember a living robot and a guy with frickin’ tentacles! And Mack… if you get that the blue glow to where people can see it right off, that’s… well, not memorable, but at least it’s something that people will notice and tell the Cops.”
“EDDIE!” Suzy said. “Eddie, if you can, get your picture taken when you’re Way Big, and using your stone-skin thingie. I mean, if people don’t sit up and notice a 30-foot tall lardbucket made of granite wearing a rainbow T-shirt, well then… what’s the use?”
Ginny shot Suzy a nasty look, but Brigand just smiled and nodded.
“Tags!” Rachel said. “Every time we hit something, we spray paint a tag! We come up with something-”
“A Cannon,” Mack said. “That’s the Marty Sammish mascot. We get a cannon stencil, and tag a cannon in blue-and-silver, the school colors, maybe with ‘Martin Sammish’ underneath it.”
“No, ‘Sacto PS 425’,” I corrected him. “That’s Marty Sammish’s public school number.”
“No, too sophisticated,” Roxie corrected me. “We want something that people will accept that a bunch of semi-panicked kids would come up with. That’s too… ‘Ellery Queen’.”
“Very good,” Brigand said. “And using that as a segue point, my next bit of advice is: Don’t Kill Anyone. And NO that’s not obvious. Kids, you’ve got to realize that you are a VERY dangerous group of people! Okay, the psychics not so much- though I’d be very careful kids, there are people who get really weirded out by the thought of someone who can read their minds- but even the guy with the weird arms…? Billy? You could really hurt someone with those things if you’re not careful. And then you got a guy who threw an entire CAR at someone back in Sacramento.”
“It was a Mini Cooper,” Eddy said defensively.
“NO, it was a Hummer!” Suzy corrected him.
“My point is that you’ve got to be very careful,” Brigand kept it up. “And again, you’ve got to be SEEN being very careful. If something happens, and, say, a security guard is caught in a building that you bring crashing down? You get him OUT! It’s better if you don’t cause that kind of damage in the first place, but I think that everyone here is all too aware that shit happens. What you did in San Francisco, getting all of those unconscious patients out of that building? First Rate. And that HeroWatch crew got it on camera! A-PLUS! Remember, you can’t just be seen as victims- you’ve got to be HEROIC victims. Yeah, I know, that’s a contradiction in terms, but we’re talking the News media; it runs on crap like that. The more heroic you look, the better your chances are when it comes time to sell your case to the Attorney General. Remember, every casualty, fatality or even an injury that happens in all of this WILL BE HELD AGAINST YOU, no matter what.”
I raised my hand, feeling like shit with guilt. “Too late. At the Country Club mall in Sacto… I think I might’a killed my old man.”
There was some burbling about that, a few questions, and like that. But all that Brigand said was, “Odd… I don’t remember anything about any deaths at that mall. And the MCO would have made sure that it was front-page news if a serving military officer had been killed by a suspected mutant.” He pulled out a cell phone with net access and typed something in. “It says here that USAF Lt. Col. Michael Ramsey made a press announcement denouncing rumors that the *ahem!* ‘cold-blooded terrorist’ at that mall was his son, and that that website you kids put up was ‘the vilest, most cynical kind of mass media manipulation imaginable’.”
I slumped down into my chair, damn near liquid with relief but not sure how to take that. On one hand, I don’t have to worry about the guilt of killing the old man driving me nuts. On the other hand, I still have to cope with the old bastard. My hands are clean… for what little that’s worth.
“Next,” Brigand picked up again, “off the strategic level and down to tactics. Here’s something that the British Commandos figured out in WWII: Quick In, Quick Out. Surprise is your best weapon. Period. BUT, it fades with every second, and I’ve never been in a situation where surprise lasted more than 10 seconds. Not every place that you go into will have preternormal defenses, but you’ll have to assume that every place you’re going into does. So, get as clear an idea of where everything is in the site you’re going into, and what you’re going to be dealing with, before you go in and then- GET IT OVER FAST.”
Mack raised a hand. “If we get it over quickly, HOW are we supposed to be seen?”
Brigand favored him with a broad smile. “VERY good. Again, it’s a balancing act: you have to be just slow and clumsy enough to be both seen and taken for a bunch of amateurs, but fast and sure enough that you get the hell OUT. Also, there’s the sticky point that you can’t be too clumsy, or people will take your act for… well… an act. Ironically, the best thing that you can do for your first raid is WING IT! Don’t think about it too hard, don’t over-plan, and go with your strengths.”
“I… I’m having trouble wrapping my head around ‘it’s a good thing to screw up’…” Billy groaned with his eyes crossed.
“That just means that you’re really getting the idea,” Brigand assured him. “Next and last is a very simple, very straightforward thing to keep in mind: GET AWAY.” He wrote it in big letters on the whiteboard. “The first rule of effective supervillainy is ‘Get Away’. The most important part of any mission is getting out. Not getting in, not getting the money, and most especially not ‘winning’- the most important part of any mission is getting back OUT in one piece. Even if everything else is a complete and utter disaster, if you come back alive, then you may not have won, but you sure as hell haven’t lost. And, in your position, even if you don’t come back with any hard evidence, then you’re still making people look. And with the places that you’ll be raiding, every time people look, the more of them are saying ‘what the HELL is going on here?’”
Okay, that was the kind of Win-even-when-you-lose thinking that we were looking to Brigand for.
DATE: Thursday, March 29th, 2007
“Okay, here goes,” Mack said, going into his pitch for our plan to Brigand. “This is the Hofstadter & Cooper Product Testing Lab on the north edge of Las Vegas. It’s supposed to be one of those labs where they test, like… cough syrup… to see if it causes cancer in rats or some shit like that.”
“That’ll teach those rats to swipe my cough syrup,” Brigand smirked.
“The thing is their power bill is, like 20 times higher than a lab like that should have,” Mack kept up. “I mean, they shouldn’t use much more electricity than, like, your basic office building!”
“AND,” Roxie jumped in (well, she would), “according to your net jock, Summer, last month they took an order for Stavorite™, which has a ridiculously high shielding rating, even better than Hazardite™!”
“Right,” Mack took over again, shooting Roxie a sharp look. “And they take in, like, TONS of this vitamin enriched oatmeal every week.”
“They take in food that you’d feed dogs, cats and rats too,” Roxie cut in again.
Mack shot her another ‘hey, I’M giving this presentation’ stare and Roxie had the good grace to blush. “Anyway, Hofstadter & Cooper looks very good for being one of Mr. Bland’s labs. SO, what we’re gonna do is send in our three best intrusion people- that would be Billy, Evan and Megan- and they look around, find what’s good and juicy. They find files and experiments, and if we’re lucky, they’ll find experiments. Maybe even people who’re being experimented on, who’ll tell the Police that they were kidnapped and those finks did horrible things to them until WE came along and freed them.”
“You have a very convenient definition of ‘Lucky’,” Brigand said dryly.
“Hey, if they’re being experimented on, they’ll be lucky that we came along!” Suzy cut in. Brigand nodded, accepting that twist of wording. He gave Mack the cue to go on.
“Okay, we’re gonna have four teams,” Mack went on. “Hey, it worked at the pawn shop. Sort of. Hey, we got OUT anyway… Anyway, first we send in a Stealth team,” he pointed at Billy, Megan and me. “Billy’s got the powers and the experience for it.”
“And he’d scream and cry and hold his breath if we didn’t let him go,” Rae sniped. Billy just scowled and flipped her off.
“Megan has that ESP thing,” Mack went on. “She can psychic them through keypads and crap like that. And Evan will go along ‘cause they’re gonna need a brainiac to figure out what’s worth taking, if anyone’s worth saving, what we need to get out, what we need to leave behind, and like all that.
“They go in sneaky, get the layout, find the crap, spot the traps, and when we know what we’re doing, we send in the Camera Team,” He pointed in turn at Chris, Roxie and himself. “We don’t just go in big and noisy, we go in with NET COVERAGE! We go in with cameras, make out like the sneak team isn’t there-”
“Hey, big studly black guy, two cute blonde chicks,” I cracked, “it’s download GOLD!”
“Right, we arrange a live podcast, post it to the HeroWatch forums and YouTube, the sneak team goes in, then we woof about being the Marty Sammish kids, and then we- the Camera Team- go into the lab. We break in- literally smash our way in- on camera, go around and find what the sneak team already found for us. On the way, we do a few shout-outs to people we know at Marty Sam, we slap on the tag on camera, and if there’s any prisoners or like that, we make a big deal about getting them out.”
“ON CAMERA,” Brigand said significantly.
“Right! If it goes off without a hitch, FINE! But what are the chances of that, hah? So, when… whatever comes rolling out of the closet, we scream for the Rescue team,” he pointed at Rachel, Eddie, Rick and Suzie. “Eddie gets them in the hard way, Rachel pins the bag guys down, Rick does his ‘poltergeist’ thing, and Suzie evacuates anyone who can’t make it out on our own. And we have our team of Lookouts,” he pointed at Marly and Ginny, “who can let us know when big trouble is heading our way from the outside.
“So- we go in quiet at first. If the sneak team gets caught, we go in hard and get them. If not, we do the podcast thing. If Mr. Bland’s people get tough, GREAT, we get it on-line, we look that much better. And then we get out. We got an exit planned, using Las Vegas’ storm drains.” Mack finished up. “Well?”
Brigand paused and nodded, and did that thing where he went for a cigarette that he didn’t have again. “Now, normally this is the part where I rip that plan apart, dissecting its assumptions and flaws. But sadly, that’s exactly what will sell this as the action of a group of desperate kids.”
“Oh Crap, we’re gonna diiieee…” Roxie moaned.
“There’s a very simple solution,” Brigand said calmly. “When they- whoever ‘they’ are- get the drop on you, my people will come busting in wearing sinister outfits, and make like they’re trying to exterminate you. You lot take advantage of that to exit while we hold down the opposition. If the opposition is the Police, it’ll sell the notion that there’s some powerful mysterious organization trying to exterminate you.”
“Do you really think that the Attorney General will buy that?” Chris asked.
Brigand shook his head. “Not the point. The point is to get as many people saying ‘what the HELL is going on here?’ The more people demanding to know what’s going on, the greater the chance that the Feds will insist on a capture, rather than accepting kills. Swive can’t risk that, at least not until he’s killed enough of you, and dragged enough high-profile people into the tar pit with him. No matter what you do, Swive is going to try and spin it so that you’re evil vicious terrorists who have to be shot before you can mutilate un-baptized babies. Trying to prove him wrong is letting him set the terms of conflict. Instead, like I said, use the fact that Swive’s story is full of holes. Get people to pick it apart.”
“And the best way to do that is to make them stop and go ‘huh’,” Suzy said, like something was coming together for her.
“Okay, I think that’s enough,” Brigand said, getting up. “Anymore, and you’ll start over-analyzing it.”
“Just one last thing,” I stopped him. “What will your crew be wearing when you come crashing in, if it comes to that?”
“What? You think that another crew of heavily armed covert ops troops might come in gunning for you?”
“Mister Brigand?” Marly peeped, “I just hooked up with these guys but… it’s not that farfetched for this crew.”
DATE: Thursday, March 29th, 2007
Blackheart was waiting in the main lobby at McCarran Int’l Airport as Rawhide and Prettyboy got off the plane separately. It was Blackheart’s SOP that when they were traveling they didn’t travel either as a group, or completely separately either. They traveled in disconnected pairs, keeping an eye on each other at a close distance, while keeping from being pegged as being together. First Rawhide and then Prettyboy texted that they were off the plane, and got return texts to meet up at the north exit of the building. By that time, most cops or snitches paying any attention would either have moved on or called SWAT. By the time that they got to the north exit, Evil Eye had the rental car waiting for them, and they didn’t waste any time where they might be made as a group.
“Oh YEAH!” Evil Eye exulted as they pulled out of the parking lot and headed towards the fabled Las Vegas strip. “VEGAS! It’s been too long!”
“So, we here to pick up some work,” Rawhide grumbled, folded up like a yardstick, even in the shotgun seat, “or get our gear fixed, or are we just gonna make some money shaking down tourists?”
“All of ‘em and none of the above,” Blackheart rasped out as he blithely ignored the rental company’s rules about smoking in the car and lit up a cigarette. “I was calling around, trying to get a lead on those fukkin’ kids what busted up the Snowfish deal, and an old buddy from Hackensack tol’ me that a couple of days ago, some kids tried to knock over Sierra Loan & Consignments.”
‘WHAT?’ was the general consensus in the car. “Who’d be dumb enough to knock over The Candy Store?” Prettyboy demanded.
“Kids,” Blackheart said simply. “According to Big Julie, the kids had one big black guy who was superstrong and glowed blue, another one who grew up real big, a guy with tentacles outta his sides, some sissyboy who threw around electricity, a fuckin’ robot, and one chick who was waving around a purple lightsaber. Sound familiar?”
“What’re they doin’ in Vegas?” Rawhide asked. “And why’d they try to knock over the Candy Store?”
“Yeah, I thought the word was they was heading down to Los Angeles, or they was soldiers for some outfit that wasn’t flying a flag.” Evil Eye said.
“Oh PLEASE!” Blackheart sneered, “That’s just MCO bullshit! You saw how they acted on the street! They was just a bunch’a kids with more power than they knew how to use right. The MCO is just trying to make them out as this big hugga-muggah threat, so’s they can look like big-time heroes when they grease ‘em.”
“Why don’t we just let the MCO take them out?” Prettyboy asked.
“’Cause there’s nothing in it for US,” Blackheart hissed through his teeth. “This way, we GET the little pricks, we get the bounty that Dugan put out for ‘em, we perk up our profiles a little, and maybe I get a little of my own back from that bitch who yanked me back in Frisco.”
“Yer taking this WAY too personal, Blackie,” Evil Eye said. “Eyes on the prize, man, eyes on the prize. First we take them down, then we hand the rest of ‘em over to Dugan, and THEN you have your fun with her.”
“Right, right,” Blackheart grumbled. “But you? Evil Eye, I know trying to keep you away from the tables is a waste of time, but I told the guys at the Luxor that you was never comin’ back, so you STAY the hell AWAY from there, hearme? Hell, stay away from the Strip, altogether. Find a game where you’re not hustling the house, and Rawhide? You stay with him, and drag him away from the table after two hours, if that’s that it takes. Prettyboy, you find a babe, do your thing. But be clean about it, ‘Kay?” He pulled his cell phone from a jacket pocket and started calling numbers, chasing down people who’d probably drifted out of his address book.
DATE: Friday, March 30th, 2007
The target was Hofstadter & Cooper Product Testing’s main lab, your basic 4-story tall poured-concrete Brutalist box with a parking lot surrounded by a chain-link fence with sensors on it. We got around that by having Mack, Chris and Roxie drop us off on the roof right next to the roof access hutch. While we were wearing jeans and dark hoodies, the Camera team had the closest thing we could come up with for uniforms. They were going to be going around with very off-the-shelf stuff, y’know the same video camera and gear that anyone can pick up at Best Buy™ and like that? But we had the good stuff, the stuff that wouldn’t set off any security systems, which Brigand kindly provided. Oh and a couple of brain-boxes too.
We’d be going in through the roof, but Brigand says that the top floors would be the mundane offices for the mainstream labs. And yes, they’d have nice, simple civilian labs doing the, well, rather icky stuff that product testing involves. But the real nasty would be going down in the labs in the basement levels. But this is where having an experienced badguy like Brigand on your side really comes in handy: he said that when you’re dealing with dangerous experiments, the first thing on most lab rats’ minds isn’t conclusive data; it’s getting OUT fast when the shit hits the fan.
And I respect that.
The lab rat’s emergency bolt hole wouldn’t go into a convenient storm drain (way too likely that whatever it was would follow them, one way or another), but rather go up to the roof, bypassing all the floors in between. The escape door would be in the same stairwell hutch as the conventional stairwell, but it would have the door that was locked without an external keyhole or keypad. When the alarm was triggered, they’d be evacuated by private helicopters that would leave without stopping to explain things to the local Emergency Responders. But even while they were very concerned with their personal safety, they wouldn’t be lab rats if they didn’t hate going or abhor the idea of walking away from all that hard-won raw data. So they’d have ‘go bags’ parked in the stairwell, packed with papers and external hard drives that were updated wirelessly. And yes, that does sound a lot like Mr. Bland and his crew of Medical Ethics class dropouts. The upside is that this makes laying our hands on the really good stuff that much easier.
Between his ‘tentacles’ and the practice locks that Brigand had him work with (hey, the Sneak Team couldn’t afford to be clumsy and noisy; that was the Camera Team’s job), Billy just breezed past the electronic lock.
Just inside the stairwell, where they wouldn’t have to waste time lugging them up the stairs, was a row of six black nylon carryall bags with cables running from the inside to sockets in the wall. Billy reflexively reached for them, but I held him back. I gave Megan a significant nod, and she touched each of them in turn. She pointed at one of them and shook her head. Of course, people this paranoid wouldn’t just leave valuable stuff just lying around like that. I marked that one with red chalk, so no one would take it. She touched three of them, and nodded: these had the goods, whatever they were. I whispered, “We can’t carry all of them, but we can’t be sure that we can come back here for these? Which is the best?” Megan touched the three again and pointed at one. I took and slung it over my shoulder.
Then Megan turned on her brain-box, which had one of those ‘PK bubble’ things, which she wrapped around herself and she dropped all five stories down the bottom of the stairwell. I had that weird gravity-ball from the power suit guys in Sacramento, so I did likewise. Billy also jumped, but he landed light as a feather using his tentacles.
Looking around, we found the door into the lab proper. In keeping with the level of security around here, it was strictly a one-way door, with nothing on this side to allow access. Billy used his tentacles to fox the entry sensors, I bladed the deadbolt open, and we were inside. The next part is sort of dull and dry and technical; our job wasn’t so much to go in and find stuff, as it was to y’know, be pathfinders and map out the place. Find where the labs and offices and holding cells and like all that were, and figure out as much as we possibly could about the place. While we were going through the place, video pickups on our headsets were sending the images back to the Camera Team. Brigand’s team was also getting the feed, and they were inputting all that into a computer, which was blocking out the layout of the place, so we could make educated guesses where important things, like the closest place to that storm drain, were. When the computer had that figured out, we’d lay a demolitions pack, and set it off at the right time.
We found the Security Guard’s office, set up pretty much like it had been back in Sacramento. But the guards here were a lot sharper and on the ball than they had been in Sacto. Hell, they were actually watching the security cameras. But we were better prepared this time. I went in first and zapped them with the ‘Hypnosis Gun’ that Megan had used on the Young Dragons just after the Snowfish thing. As the guards were staring off in to nothing, going ‘duuuhhh…’, Billy discombobulated their weapons, pulling power leads, unplugging drug reservoirs and like that, so they wouldn’t work, but all on the down-low. Megan and I quickly patched a remote link for Brigand’s computer chick, Summer, into both the Security and LAN, and now all their bases belong to us, LOL. And, quick in, quick out. As a parting shot, I told one guy, “You need to go to the bathroom BAD.” That should cover up that embarrassing lapse of memory.
That done, we started checking out closets, fuse boxes, junction boxes, and like all that, so that the computer jock could figure out the wiring. Hey, I’m sorry Shadowrun fans, but just because they had a patch into the Security network did not meant that they could magically open doors, kill lights, turn off cameras, override the controls to elevators and all that crap. To do that, the computer jocks needed as much input about wiring and plumbing and like that. Believe me, riveting drama- NOT. Still, I can see how knowing all that will let Brigand’s people mess with the system intelligently. Still, if you’re into that sort of thing, we did find one interesting room. There was this sort of hangar where they had a bunch of boxy looking robots, including one thing that looked like a scaled-down Zamboni, and other stuff with telescoping booms and like that, and Brigand tells me that they’re janitorial and maintenance robots.
What? These guys don’t hire Union? Now I know they’re evil!
Brigand had us break into one main junction box, and well, now all that mechanized squat labor works for us. More importantly, Brigand said that that gave his guys the key they’d been looking for, and from there out, it was just a matter of fitting pieces into the right place. Now we could get down to the good part- checking out the labs.
Of course, there was the nasty fact that there were people in the labs, but good security doesn’t try to cover everything; it covers the ‘choke points’. So, we couldn’t trust what the cameras showed us, we hadda eyeball it.
Megan turned out to be our ace-in-the-hole here. Not only could she breeze through any keypad they had, but she had a good idea of what was on the other side of the door, just by touching it. Saved a LOT of time not slogging through, y’know storage closets or clean-room dressing rooms, and like that. Still, it almost bit her on the ass when we got to our first real ‘Go’ room. She pulled back her hand like it bit her, and she edged away from the door and wouldn’t have anything to do with it. But here’s the interesting thing: there was a complex lock, but it wasn’t designed to keep us out; it was designed to keep whatever was in there IN.
With that in mind, Billy carefully tentacle’d his way around the lock, and opened it. On the other side was a short brightly lit corridor, with three doors on the right side, and five doors on the other. The 5 doors on the left side each had 4 clipboards hanging by them, but the 3 doors on the right each had a monitor beside them. Each of the doors had one of those little slides, so you can look in and see what’s inside. I felt my gut knot. I was massively conflicted: on one hand, this was pretty much what we’d come here to find. On the other hand, well, if it was what I thought it was, it might be pretty heinous to see. Steeling myself, I slid open one of the viewing portals. The room was lit just brightly enough so that you could see everything, but was just dim enough that the guys inside could sleep. And from what I could tell, that was ALL that they could do. There were four very bare bunks, with five guys in orange scrubs crashed out on the bunks. They looked alive, but bored out of their skulls. And speaking of those skulls, they were all shaved, and they had very suggestive sockets implanted into their temples and near the base of their skulls. Turning to the other side, I started to turn on one of the monitors, but decided against it.
Saying nothing, I waved Billy out of the corridor, back into the main hall and closed the door. Using a marker that wouldn’t be visible to the unaided eye, but should show up to the UV flashlights that the Camera Team would be using (but wouldn’t show up on camera), I marked the door with a big star and an exclamation point. Billy gave me a curious look, but I just shook my head. ‘Don’t Ask.’
The next score point was the offices. Yes, the offices. No matter what you see in the movies, 90% of scientific research is done in offices, by guys sitting at desks pounding away at computers and reading very, very thick reports written by people who never took a Humanities class. Again, Megan proved that she was more than pulling her own weight. She was able to get, just by touching various binders, which of them were considered important by the scientists. She even found some folders that had been hidden by researchers playing office politics with brass knuckles. As she went through the office, Billy leaned over and sneered at me, “Wow. It looks like you’ve been replaced, Brainiac.”
“Wow,” I gushed ingenuously, “y’mean, the next time we have to go into one of these places, I can stay behind where it’s safe?”
As Billy chewed that angle over, Megan finished up and brought over 2 binders and 3 paperbound reports. “Okay, the binders are their latest findings,” she explained, “and the folders are the reports that they make to the guys they answer to. And that’s the best I can do.” She handed me the binders and folders.
“Well, what are you waiting for, Mister Indispensable?” Billy jeered, “Get to work!”
I told Marly to let me know if anyone was coming, and got to work. When I finished, I looked up and Billy and Megan were giving me these weird looks. “You’re done?” Megan asked. “It’s only been, what two, three minutes?”
“Didn’t I say Brainiacs was weird?” Billy said.
“Again?” I asked. Billy nodded and Megan pointed to Billy, backing him up. “I wish I knew how I did that,” I grumped. Then, waving that aside, I said, “Okay, I have a rough idea of what they’re doing here, and now I know what we really gotta get.”
“Okay, Big Brain… WHAT?”
“Marly, get Brigand and Mack on the line, and have them listen in on this; I don’t want to have to explain it a bunch of times, and it’ll help when things get hinky.” When Mack and Brigand were patched in, I began: “Okay, set phasers for ‘maximum weird’; these guys are trying to create synthetic tulpas, what they’re calling ‘djinn’, the more correct form of ‘genie’. And for everyone who doesn’t have a nodding acquaintance with Tibetan Buddhism, a ‘tulpa’ is this weird-ass thing in Tibet, where monks practice concentrating and controlling their own minds by visualizing people, animals, and stuff like that. Like a little kid making up an imaginary friend, only this takes years of concentration, and according to the monks the ‘imaginary friend’ takes on a weird kind of reality. It’s like… creating a ghost, or at least like ghosts are in comics and some movies, this wispy invisible intangible thing that can still affect the world.”
[Wait a minute,] Brigand objected, [you’re telling me that they can make cohesive psychic constructs to order?]
“So you’ve heard of things like this?” I asked.
[YES, and they’re nasty as all hell,] Brigand said in a way that suggested a less than pleasant personal experience with the subject. [But again: you’re telling me that they can make these things whenever they want to?]
“No, but they’re putting in the hours to get there,” I said. “Would… this by any chance be what you’re here to find?”
[NO, this is the first I’ve heard of this. How far along would you say they are on this?]
“Well, there’s the thing. If I’m reading these reports right, then they have a solid toehold in the basics. Nothing even vaguely like practical application, but we are talking about the sort of basic breakthrough that Nobel Prizes are made of; well, if the Nobel Committee gave prizes to researchers who completely ignore ethical practices for human experimentation, anyway. They’ve got what they refer to as ‘the prototype’, which is in its fifth iteration. They’re focusing all their research here on improving and perfecting the prototype. So, Brigand, my question is: do we take it, or do we make a big deal about leaving it here for the Cops to find?”
[What are you talking about?] Mack asked [We TAKE it!]
“Yeah, that’s my first reaction too, Boss,” I said. “But I’m getting a gut feeling that it’s a lot more complicated than that. I think that this is major, and if we don’t handle it right, it could blow up in our faces big time. Brigand, you’re the expert on things like this. What do you say?”
[Well, the entire point of this exercise is to get the Authorities to stop chasing you and listen to you. I think that if anyone with any experience with exotic technology who gets a good look at that will realize that bleeding-edge probably banned research was involved. Keeping it would make you too hot, and God knows, you kids are burning up the insulation as it is. Mr. Bland, the Authorities, and everyone else who wanted a good look at that thing would be after you. They’d rip up good sections of Las Vegas to get at you, and they wouldn’t exactly be gentle on the bystanders. On the other hand, just leaving it there for the Cops to find would just be leaving too much to chance. I’d say bust in, make a big production online of finding the research materials and the prototype, and haul the prototype out. But at the first sign of any resistance, even just some street cops showing up, leave the prototype behind, preferably with the Media taping it. The Cops look at it and bring in the FBI and DPA and a bunch of other people, and then you’ve got a lot of people with clout who want to look at those research materials you took- and they’d also be a lot more interested in the stuff you’ve already got]
“Yeah, that sounds good,” I said. “The problem is that I don’t know what the prototype looks like, how big it is, how much it weighs, how delicate it is, or where the hell it is.”
“Well, I dunno about the rest of it,” Billy cut in smugly, “but I got an idea as to the where.” He pointed smugly in the general direction of the main lab area, where the relentless hum of electrical generators could be heard.
[Okay guys, we’re coming in,] Mack said all leader-like. [While we’re getting set, you guys leave the papers and drives and like that were we can find them, nice and quick. Once you got that, go and eyeball the lab. See if you can peg the ‘prototype’, whatever it is, and give us the high sign. And remember, when we come in, get out as fast as you can, and stay out of the line of sight of the cameras. Brigand, what will your guys be doing?]
[Don’t ask,] Brigand said, [it would only crib your arm. Just know that we will be there, just in case it gets hairy] Wow, that is so comforting </sarcasm>
Well, we had our marching orders. With Marly giving us the heads-up, we snuck through the halls, and between Megan’s ESP and Billy’s tentacles, we found something better than the main lab area. We found the observation room for the main lab, y’know that little secure area that watches the dangerous lab area from behind a thick bulletproof double-paned mirror that you see in all those movies? In the dimly lit room, they had cameras and monitors going, and we had to take down two research assistants before they hit any panic buttons.
Looking out into the lab area, I noticed Megan having a sort of twinge reaction to what we saw. Besides the usual instrumentation and gear and crap, and a bunch of animals in cages with weird dingbobs attached to the cages, the main area was a circle of recliner-type couches arranged in a circle facing a pillar of weird… stuff. Don’t ask me to describe it, it was just a jumble of… stuff. The people lying on the couches didn’t look very comfy. They had jacks and catheters and things sticking in them everywhere that you could stick something. Marly let out a ‘oh crap this again’ snarl. Then one of the guys on one of the couches managed to wiggle free of his straps and he pulled a few leads from his head and tried to get off the couch. There was some gabbling, and one of the lab rats yelled at us to call for Security. Then the guy sort of spasmed, and a weird sort of mist congealed around that pillar.
“Marly,” I said as seriously as I could while I was trying to keep my BVDs dry, “call Mack and get him in here NOW.”
LAS VEGAS METROPOLITAN POLICE DEPARTMENT
DIVISION OF PARANORMAL AFFAIRS
It occurred to MCO Field Operative Haines that it couldn’t be easy, being a cop in the City That Bugsy Siegel Built. On one hand, once you got off the strip, Las Vegas was a very conservative town, with one of the highest number of churches per capita in the country. On the other hand, the Strip was geared for a 24-hour bacchanalia, and that was the engine that made the entire town run. While there were other businesses, even industries in Las Vegas, if the casinos and resorts ever shut down, it would quickly turn into the world’s most outrageous ghost town. And anyone who forgot that was quickly reminded of it by a single look at the hardscrabble desert that was easily visible from the Southern Pacific tracks. There was a delicate balance between accommodating the needs and eccentricities of the personalities that kept the Strip running, and actually maintaining Law and Order. Haines wasn’t sure where the line was, but then that was the job of Detective Sergeant Ranney. Currently, Ranney was keeping order in his office by playing the KoP hotshot, Knight Commander Vernon Swive, off against the two newsfaces from that HeroWatch program, Danica Hanson and Brett Cummings. Swive was backed up by two of his men (out of armor, of course), while Hanson and Cummings were only seconded by their camera dog, McDaniels.
While Hanson and Cummings were more than upholding the Fifth Estate’s long and allegedly glorious tradition of pestering the authorities- oh, and Swive as well- strangely, it was McDaniels who brought something of value to the meeting. “HEY!” The cameraman, who had been kicking back, looking at his iPhone, “Hey, check it out! I just got a text that there’s a podcast that’s generating some buzz on YouTube!” He rattled off a web address.
“You Tube?” Swive grunted with incomprehension.
“That video sharing website?” Cummings informed him with a note of techno-disdain.
“What does anything on that-”
“They say that they’re the kids that were kidnapped from Martin Sammish high school in Sacramento, and they have something very important to show everyone,” McDaniels droned as he sent a wireless link to one of the LV Metro cop’s desktop.
Glossing over the inevitable glitches, when they got to YouTube, there was a message that said that due to unforeseen developments, they were beginning the podcast early, and would start in 8- 7- 6- 5- 4- 3- 2- 1-
And the podcast started. A slightly shaky, probably handheld, camera showed two young people, one a tall, burly African American who might be in his teens (or not), and a pretty pert-faced blonde girl of more or less the same age, both of them wearing identical silver-and-blue sports parkas and matching baseball caps with a Cannon logo. “Yo, yo, YO!” the black kid greeted the camera in the style of a hip-hop DJ, “This is Darcel ‘Big MACK!’ MacArthur, and this here beside me is Roxie ‘the Wreck’ Lockhart, and we ARE two of the surviving- and just barely after the Kay-oh-Pee got done with us- kids who was taken from Marty Sam Hi Skool in Sacto, after Principal SPADER handed us over, gift-wrapped and everything!”
“Yeah, yeah, we know, we know…” the blonde cut in snidely, “he doesn’t look much like Big Mack, and I don’t look ANYTHING like I used to. But stuff like this happens when a mad scientist throws you into a fiendish contraption. Believe me, Wanda the Fish and Zik-zak look a lot worse!” From there, she made a few call-outs to people at Martin Sammish, purely by first names and nicknames, and made a few jokes and comments that probably made sense to the persons she was addressing. ‘Big Mack’ did likewise, though with a more ‘Yo! MTV Raps’ style.
“Oh please!” Swive sneered, “This is even more pathetic than that website they tried to pull…”
“Any chance we could trace the link?” Ranney asked one of his men.
“It’s definitely in the Meadows…” the man said back as he worked his desktop furiously.
“Now we know that y’all aint takin’ us that serious, and I can’t say’s I blame you,” ‘Big Mack’ continued. “So, we’re gonna send a little PROOF your way that the KOP can’t hack!” He jerked a thumb at the wall behind him. “This here is the Hofstadter & Cooper Product Testing lab in Las Vegas. They SAY that they test cosmetics on rabbits and pain killers on rats, to see that they’re okay for us humans to use.”
“And that’s a little sleazy,” the blonde admitted. “But we got information that what they’re REALLY doing makes that look like Mother Theresa material! Mack, let’s go down to the lab, and see what’s on the slab!” With that, ‘Big Mack’ hauled off and punched a hole in the reinforced concrete wall with his fist, and then widened the hole with his bare hands, like it was Styrofoam.
“Do we have an address on Hofstadter and Coo-” Ranney started.
“23000 Newton Road,” the subordinate cut him off.
“SWAT is mobilizing,” another one said.
“The Power Suit Squad says that they can be there in five minutes,” another one said. “But they’re gonna want ground units and helicopters to secure the area, so civilians and the Press don’t-”
“Patrol cars already on the scene-”
“Air Metro has dispatched two choppers, and is waiting for okay from the Shift Commander to add a third-”
As Las Vegas Metro scrambled to answer what could be a major incident, Hanson, Cummings and McDaniel ran out of the room, and Swive nattered at Ranney to allow the Knights to mobilize. Ranney was holding that the Vegas Power Suit Squad was more than up to it. Strolling casually in the general direction of the motor pool, Haines pulled out his own smartphone and accessed the site at YouTube. The two kids had gone in and stopped to spray paint a ‘Cannon’ tag on the wall of the lab. He noticed that they used a stencil with a folding flap so that they could spray blue on the top half of the tag, and silver on the bottom. If there were more incidents like this, they could tell if they were using the same stencil. He also noticed that the guy held the stencil in a way that would leave fingerprints that CIS could lift. Then again, it struck Haines in both cases that might just be the entire point.
They ran along the corridor, ignoring closed doors until they came to one that they picked for no discernible reason. ‘Big Mack’ ripped the door open, to uncover what looked to Haine’s practiced eye like a captive subject holding pen. They ripped open cell doors, revealing disoriented, surprised and terrified subjects. They did try to calm down the subjects, but gave that up, and simply told them to wait for the Police to get there. Haines recoiled in disgust at what they found inside the single holding cells.
Back out in the corridor, they were pelting down the hallway when they were intercepted by five men in light body armor who were carrying nonlethal capture weapons. Roxie yelled “Chris, Do it!” The camera tilted up to the ceiling and then backwards, and there was a diffuse flash that obscured the scene for a second. Then, when the camera swung back, Big Mack was among the men, manhandling them with ease. Roxie had pulled a few of the weapons from the men’s hands, and took one of them out with a simple touch.
By this time, Haines was in one of the LVMPD cars along with Ranney and Swive, and they were on their way out of the parking lot with the sirens wailing. “I’m calling in four lances of Knights,” Swive said decisively, “A strike team, a support team, and two exterior teams in case they manage to exit the building.”
“No,” Ranney said just as decisively. “We are not blowing our budget, just so that you clowns can hog all the credit if the bust is good, but blame us for everything that goes wrong!”
“Ah, you may want to reconsider that,” Haines said, showing his smartphone to the other riders. The camera had changed viewpoint and was no longer showing the corridor, but rather a wide-open area, which was a scene of pure undiluted chaos.
Do NOT ask me when it went pear-shaped, let alone how. Megan was looking at the Jack Kirby-style pillar of techno-whatever, and she was damn near having a fit. Looking at her kind of spooked, Billy said, “Well… at least we don’t have to guess what the ‘prototype’ is, right?”
I pulled Megan down, away from the window, and got her so that she wasn’t facing the lab. I held her face, looked into her eyes and tried to will her to focus on me. She did manage to get her marbles back in order, but I think that that was more because she wasn’t looking at the Kirbitron than anything that I did.
“How long ‘til Mack and the others get here?” Billy asked, still looking through the window into the lab.”
“They’re getting in position,] Marly answered. [They’re at the wall, and Roxie’s using her electricity to find a weak spot in the concrete]
“Screw that noise,” I said as the ‘test subject’ fought off the lab rats in their cleanroom suits, and managed to get off the couch and away from the headset. He was in a frenzy and thrashing around like he had fire ants all over him. I also noticed that the fog around the Kirbimatic pillar was growing thicker. “Things are getting very interesting. TOO interesting. Odds are that they’re gonna call in Security any minute, so a big noisy entrance in I’d say the next 4 or 5 minutes would be very useful. Billy, when we hear the big crunch of Mack coming in, we give the security goons and lab rats a few minutes to respond. Then we go in, and we don’t take the Kirbizon, but we unplug it and disconnect all the major leads and security bolts and shit, so Mack can just rip it out of its socket on camera without slowing down too much. Megan, you punch us into the lab, but don’t go in!” Megan gave me a sort of wrung out thumbs-up. “And, just for the record: when the Camera Crew gets here, stay out of the camera’s way if you possibly can. Remember: DRAMA! The Camera Crew went in here cold, and just ran into everything this way ‘cause we’re in the right and GOD is on our side!”
“So who’s writing the background music for this?” Megan asked with a snide quirk of her mouth, “Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer?”
“Oh, this is a John Williams movie, all the way,” I assured her. “mmMAYbe a couple of Vangelis tracks thrown in.”
Then there was a big thud, like someone ran a truck into the side of the building. “Gee, someone’s knocking…” Megan said sarcastically. And sure enough the security thugs who’d been thumping the not-quite-escapee back down onto the couch stopped dead. They handed him over to the lab rats, and ran out, probably to get their hats and bats. We counted to 200 and bolted for the corridor, and Megan punched us through like we’d been practicing it for weeks. Billy and I carefully eased into the lab, looking to catch the four lab geeks by surprise. But the second that we stepped into the room, the lab rats all turned and someone said, “Who the fuck are THEY?”
“Ev?” Billy peeped, caught just as flat-footed as I was, “I thought you had the psychic invisibility dingus turned on.”
“Billy? I DO.”
“SECURITY!” one of the eggheads hollered, “We have a breach!” With that, the lab rats were on their guard, we were the ones caught by surprise, and let’s just say that for a bunch of test tube jockeys, those guys were hella scrappers. The guy who’d been fighting to get off the couch managed to slip out of his bonds again… and then, I admit it, I have no idea what happened. We were mixing it up with the lab rats, which really should not have taken as long as it did, when suddenly things went all to hell. That mist around the Kirbyometer grew and sort of congealed.
Then it got really Lovecraftian. The congealed mist formed a circular lamprey-like central, well, you couldn’t call it a mouth… well, a maw maybe, and glittering eyes ringed the maw, and long thorny- tentacles? Tendrils? Whatever- lurched out of it and reached for us, and if it wasn’t a shoggoth, then it was still definitely one of those Things That Should Not Be that Conan the Barbarian is always fighting. And it wasn’t just reaching for us. It wrecked one of the racks of cages with the animals, doing some truly STRANGE shit to the metal and plastic of the cages (I didn’t know that fiberglass could DO that!). It drew some cats, a couple of rabbits, and what I think was a Border Collie into is… mouth, I think will do… and what happened to those poor critters would make a hungry coyote go vegan.
Well, I may not have iron thews or move with panther-like grace and it’s been a while since I trod the jeweled thrones of the Earth under my sandaled feet, but I DO have a kickass sword! So I ‘drew’ that energy sword of mine, gave the requisite blood-curdling yell and leapt at it putting the force of my leap into my stroke. Hey, it works in all the anime!
I really wish that I knew what happened next.
The camera team had just gotten to the lab, and Roxie stared gape-jawed into the scene she saw. It was something that would have made even a more hardened doper than she was seriously consider going into rehab. The lab was a scene of pure chaos, dominated by a weird gelatinous thing that looked like something out of a very existentialist horror movie, a thing that was a snarl in the very fabric of space (and presumably time, those things always went hand in hand- or tentacle in tentacle), a tangle of polychrome bubbles that sent out tendrils and had a maw that didn’t have any fangs, but didn’t really NEED any either. It was lashing around, doing really horrible things, and then suddenly Evan, apparently channeling way too much anime, did the jumping strike move, and hit the thing square in the center where it’s… -could you really call that an ‘eye’?- …locus was.
The thing exploded, or erupted, or… damn, what a time to not have a thesaurus!... blew up all over the place. But instead of giving a sanity-rendering yowl and withering away, as any good, union-dues paying Thing That Should Not Be would, it sort of… shattered… into hundreds of lesser abominations that squiggled all over the place.
Checking to see where Evan was, if he needed help, because he was apparently the one best suited to handle the smaller fry, Roxie spotted him sprawled out on the floor. “SHIT! EVAN!” she gasped. Blazing her way through all the Yog-Sothoth suds, Roxie got over to Evan and checked. He- or rather, she- was still breathing, but was clearly out like a light. “She’s DOWN!” Roxie informed the room. “Taking that thing out took all the fight out of her!”
“Any chance we could bag a few of these, and use ‘em later to shut her UP?” Billy asked as he used his tentacles to bat the not-shoggoth-shards away from himself.
“Get everyone OUT of here!” Mack yelled at the top of his voice. “RAE, if you guys ain’t comin’ yet, GET IN HERE!” he yelled into Chris’ camera.
Megan had been skittering around, grabbing binders and notebooks, and either keeping them or simply throwing them aside after touching them. She looked over to where Roxie was holding Evan and raced over to them. She dropped the force bubble that had protected her, and widened it so that it protected Roxie and Evan as well. The shattered bits of tulpa did strange things when it interacted with the bubble, but the bubble stayed intact. Together Roxie and Megan pulled Evan to safety. When they were securely behind a protective barrier, Megan looked at Evan and said, “What?” then she blinked and with an unsure look on her face said, “Oh, right, right… he turns into a girl for no real reason every so often, right?”
“Usually when he’s over-used his powers,” Roxie said. She leaned over, peeled open one of his eyes and looked into it. ‘He’s out of it. The last time he did this, he was unconscious for over eight hours.”
“He’s done something like that before?”
“As a matter of fact, he did it while using the same ‘gee, I watch too much anime’ vaulting strike move,” Roxie let out a tisk. “Still, he’ll probably turn back into a guy while he’s sleeping it off.” She looked around. “Here’s hoping that he CAN just sleep it off.”
But, while Evan may have paid the price, at least it bought something. His big blow to the thing’s center seemed to have destroyed the ‘tupla’s’ core cohesion, and all the snarling shards were more death throws than a chain reaction. Chris put her power to isolating as many of the major snarls in force bubbles, which caused them to sputter out.
When the last of them was done, Mack let out a big exhausted sigh. “Okay, Ev’rybody all right?”
“Evan’s down for the count,” Roxie reported. “Again. Billy, Megan and I are kinda chewed up as well.”
“Crap,” Mack gasped. “Okay then, we’ll just…” he looked around for Rachel or Eddie, but the backup team wasn’t there. “Crap,” he said again, only stronger. “Roxie, Chris, Billy- help me get that thing taken down so’s we can get it the hell out of here- oh, and us as w-”
Mack was cut off in mid-speech as three doors slammed inward simultaneously, and six men in ‘urban camo’ gray power armor with slightly hunchbacked hardplate torsos and helmets and flex-armor everything else darted into the room in pairs.
“Oh crap, these guys again,” Roxie groaned.
“And before anyone says anything stupid,” Haines snarled at the collected Law Enforcement types huddled around the laptop set on the hood of one of the LVMPD squad cars huddled around the R&D building, “NO those are NOT MCO Shepard units! Shepard armor is, by charter, a specific shade of blue, clearly marked… and to be honest, nowhere near as sophisticated as those things are. And NO, that is NOT a MCO Tac-Ship on top of that building, no matter WHAT they say! Again, MCO vehicles are always the same shade of blue and clearly marked.”
“Pity,” Swive said with a touch of admiration as the six power units moved in with practiced precision. “’Cause these guys are kicking some serious ASS!”
As they watched the girl in the football jacket and cap bolted up and threw some electricity from her hands. One of the powersuit units stepped forward and not only drew the bolts of lightning away from his comrades, but used the force to drag the girl into his arms. Once she was secure, he applied pressure to her midsection, forcing the air out of her lungs. There was a brief moment of real fight as the big black kid body-checked that power unit, but another unit stepped in immediately, laid hands on him, and did something not immediately apparent to the camera that brought him down as well. From there, the fight folded with speed as the six mystery men shot down first the glowing girl and then the boy with the squid-arms. They simply took the girl cradling the unconscious… girl?... in her arms, and bore them out of the sight of the video camera.
“Does your Astro Division have anything that could intercept that Tac-Ship?” Swive demanded of the locals.
“It’s still illegal for a police helicopter to be armed,” Ranney said. “But Nevada Civil Air Patrol DOES have something and it’s en route.”
“Give us the authority to go in there,” Swive insisted.
“Why?” Ranney asked, “They’re already leaving.”
“We HAVE to secure the building before the demolitions charge that they set on their way in gets detonated,” Swive spelled it out. “That’s part of their SOP, to destroy any objective evidence, like they did at that ‘Snowfish Autism Research’ place in San Francisco.”
“We were WATCHING them every step of the way,” Cummings, the news-face said.
“And it would NEVER occur to them to just TURN the camera and tape one while the other’s planting charges,” Swive sneered back.
“Actually, he has a point,” Haines said evenly. “Even if those three didn’t plant charges, it’s pretty much SOP with black labs to plant scuttling charges in their facilities. Everyone watches NCIS these days.”
“Do you know how much these guys charge for an hour’s work?” Ranney asked, aghast.
“A helluva lot less than a Negligence lawsuit from the building’s owners, if it goes up because you didn’t show Due Diligence,” Haines pointed out. “Besides, there are prisoners who need to be evacuated, remember?”
Ranney stood there for a moment, mouth open with disgust and dismay. Finally, he pulled himself together and said to Swive, “Suit up. If the Power Suit Squad isn’t here by the time you’re ready, you can go in.”
Roxie struggled to come to full waking, but when she was completely clear, she wished that she wasn’t. She was in a restraining cage that kept her arms and legs strapped to some kind of Hannibal Lector frame. She was stacked side-by-side with Billy and Megan, who were in similar frames. There were two vivid orange cables that connected her cage with Billy and Megan’s. The message was clear: if Roxie tried to burn her way out of the cage, she’d electrocute Billy and Megan. Across from her were Mack, Evan and Chris. Their cages didn’t have any suicide switches like Roxie’s, but all three of them were well and truly out of it.
Roxie could make out that they were in a narrow compartment that reminded her of the seating area of a paratrooper plane, or at least the ones she’d seen in old WWII movies. The fact that she felt a subtle rocking motion similar to the times she’d flown helped. The men in the gray power suits were standing around without their helmets, holding onto straps like men on a bus. Two of them were standing near the cage with Evan in it, looking from him (or, rather, her) to Megan and back. They muttered something about wondering which one was ‘Subject 8’, and how they’d figure it out. They finished that by simply deciding since they were going to hand both over anyway, they’d just let the eggheads figure it out.
Just as they’d settled that, a panel flashed and a voice over an intercom stated flatly, “Procedure 23.”
‘Procedure 23?’ the armor jocks wondered among themselves, but the voice on the intercom was very insistent. Grumbling in the way of field troops faced with inane orders from on high, the armor jocks shuffled around the front of the compartment, and backed into racks. The ‘hunchback’ part of their breastplates opened up, as Roxie remembered having done in Sacramento, and then an amber light over each part of the rack lit. The men moved forward, away from the racks, hatches closed, and a green light shone. One of the armor jocks pounded on the forward door and demanded, “And what’re we supposed to do if Blue Thunder catches up with us? Nevada CAP ain’t gonna just wait for us get our power units back on, y’know!”
The unexpected response was the door suddenly slamming open, right into the armor jock’s face, taking him by surprise. Brigand, in his blue and black armor, burst into the compartment, catching the power jocks flat-footed. He beat them about the heads with single-sticks, and one by one threw the jocks into one of his men, who grabbed the jock as another Brigand minion used a hand shocker on him. The first three went down easily. The second two were more trouble. But the last one actually gave Brigand a fight, and Brigand had to wrestle him down onto the floor mat for the guy with the shocker to get him down.
“Well!” Brigand said brightly as he got up, “Not quite according to plan, but then, as the saying goes, ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’”
“WHAT?” Roxie gasped, “You planned all that?”
“NO, as I was just saying, this isn’t quite according to plan,” Brigand corrected her. “Believe me, if I was planning this, I wouldn’t find myself in an unidentified airship over Las Vegas with Blue Thunder closing quickly.”
“Blue Thunder? Who’s Blue Thunder?”
“Not ‘who’, but ‘what’,” Brigand answered as he disconnected the orange cable from Roxie’s cage. “Blue Thunder is Nevada Wing Civil Air Patrol’s Rapid Response Interceptor airship. Back in the 1980’s there was a very popular movie called ‘Blue Thunder’ about a heavily armed attack helicopter. So, when Nevada CAP got that kickass interceptor that they’d been lobbying for forever, someone decided that it should be called ‘Blue Thunder’. The thing is, Blue Thunder is very expensive and like most State level governments, Nevada likes to get its money’s worth. So, when they field Blue Thunder, they like a nice big noisy splashy bang for their buck.”
“You mean… they’re gonna shoot us down?” Brigand nodded. “What’re we gonna DO?”
Brigand handed Roxie an odd packet. “To sum it up in one word: JUMP.”
To Be Continued