Advancer: Asset 08 (Part 2)
Advancer: Asset 08
by Bek D Corbin
“The ‘tree’ disappeared…” Cornell said dyspeptically at the debriefing the next morning.
“We’re operating on the theory that the ‘tree’ was an energy configuration comprised of Vis that had gathered within that point due to an intersection of telluric energy lines and created a cohesive matrix-” Fulbright, or Control 04, the Research Head, started.
Cornell gave him the ‘what are you yammering about?’ glare.
As Fulbright wilted, I jumped in. “Look, the theory is that there is a kind of Telluric - that means ‘of the Earth’ - energy, a form of electromagnetism that travels under the earth in lines. These are called ‘Ley Lines’ - long story, don’t ask - and they’re supposed to have psychic or mystical properties, especially where two or more converge. What we’re thinking is Vis is either a form of this Telluric energy, or they affect each other in some way. Apparently there’s a convergence, or point where several lines cross, at the property on East Fifth Street, which may explain why the Artsy types loved it so much. Or not. Given the nature of New York, the ley lines must change pretty regularly, what with building, excavation, passing trains and so on going on all the time. Anyway, a convergence was created at East Fifth, and a pretty good charge was built up. How long it’s been there, who knows? Probably a couple of years, given the recent history of the building. So, this charge draws the scuttlers, those creepy little shadow things-”
“Really minor goblins,” Hunter said with the voice of experience. “Second or third echelon at best entities, basically jumped-up psychic vermin that latched onto the node and bred like cockroaches.”
“Right,” I said, taking back control of the narrative. “For some reason, they used the trails that they leave to create channels that both contained the charge, and focused the telluric energy it to it, sort of cultivating the charge.”
“Cultivated?” Cornell asked. “They know what they’re doing?”
I shrugged. “Who knows? They could just be acting on pure trial-and-error, adjusting their trails when the charge grew or dwindled. You see similar behavior in animals in all sorts of ways, from ants to raccoons. It could go either way, so it’s a non-factor. Anyway, the scuttlers apparently cultivated the energy to the point where it took on form, which just happens to have some rather, ah, intriguing implications.”
“The energy took the form of a tree, which was guarded by a serpentine… we’re not sure what to call it,” Control 07, a research assistant whose name I’m still not sure of, stepped in. “The Tree and the Serpent is a major mythic image. It shows up all over the place, starting with the Garden of Eden, and goes on to Greek, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Celtic and Norse mythology. In almost all of them, the hero kills the snake or dragon or whatever they call it to gain wisdom, or power or whatever reward is offered.”
“Yeah, there is some great stuff there!” Oracle gushed. “I came across a thesis by a guy who says that we shouldn’t label Chinese dragons or Meso-American feathered serpents as ‘dragons’, ‘cause they’re associated with the sky, while classic dragons are chthonic - y’know, associated with the Earth - and aquatic, and they tend to have more than one head, like the Hydra.”
“Fascinating,” Cornell said repressively. “And that point of all that IS?”
“It’s ALL OVER THE PLACE!” Oracle went on, not picking up on Cornell’s tone. “Get this: in Japan, one of their greatest legends is of a warrior fighting a nine-headed ‘dragon’ in a river and finding the sword that’s allegedly in their Imperial Regalia in its tail and-”
“That’s a legend,” Cornell said flatly. “We need facts to give our Senate Oversight Panel.”
“You asked for implications,” Control 07 said, standing his ground. “Especially since they put some of the input that King Pellinore has given us into a new perspective.”
“King Pellinore?” I asked, baffled.
“Subject 227,” Hunter answered. “He’s an Advancer that we’ve had to deal with on occasion. He’s very powerful, and quite insane.”
“He’s a real nice guy,” Enforcer said. “But-” he twirled a finger at his temple in the ‘loco’ gesture, “-crazy as a bedbug.”
“Let me guess,” I hazarded. “He thinks that he’s King Pellinore, the figure from Arthurian legend, primarily noted for perpetually hunting after the ill-defined ‘Questing Beast’.”
“Bingo. Don Quixote, big time. We keep catching him and putting him away, and he keeps escaping. He’s not really all that dangerous - well, not usually. He HAS hacked a couple of people apart with that sword of his, claiming that they were possessed by demons.”
“Which, given some of the things we’ve seen - like that zombie in 08 and 05’s report - is quite possible,” Control 07 said. “Now, here’s the thing: Pellinore is constantly questing for the Holy Grail.”
“Well, Pellinore was one of Arthur’s knights mentioned as questing for the grail,” I said.
“Ah, but the way that he spoke of it, the ‘grail’ he was searching for wasn’t a physical object, more like… an event,” 07 said. “When I spoke with him, he described ‘sacred groves’ and ‘mystic springs’ where he ate or drank thereof, and he was greatly restored in ‘faith and vigor’ as he put it.”
“Like when I ate one of Grace’s ‘fruits’,” Witch said carefully.
“Well, one recurring theory in Cultural Anthro circles is that the ‘grails’ of pre-Christian mythology were things like sacred groves, or mystic pools, or the Black Cauldron of Annywn,” I allowed. “You’re thinking that Pellinore’s ‘grails’ are these large Vis charges that build up in places? He comes looking for them, defeats whatever guardian - well, I think from the correlations between what happened to me and various myths, these things ‘grow’ a ‘guardian’ (or whatever) for some reason; what are the odds that I ran into the only one? - and charges himself up on them?”
“Something like that,” 07 nodded. “And here’s something else - according to Pellinore, every time he partakes of the Grail, it moves somewhere else, and he has to find it again.”
“So, when he accessed the ‘Grail’, Pellinore upset the delicate balance that created it, and the energy moved along the telluric trails somewhere else, or simply dispersed,” Fulbright guessed. He looked at Hunter. “As happened with Asset 01.” He shifted his attention to me. “But why didn’t it disperse right after YOU did a lot more than just take one of the ‘apples’?”
I shrugged, but Meg had an idea. “Well, from what I’ve heard, Pellinore just defeated the dragons or whatever. But Grace bonded with the dragon!”
“You’re saying that she became part of the *ahem!* ‘grail’s’ equilibrium?” Fulbright asked.
“It’s a theory,” Witch said off-handedly. “There’s definitely more to it, but at least it’s something. And, if that’s the case, it might suggest a reason why Advancers - or, at least the ones that know about ‘Grails’, however they explain them to themselves - are so hard to track down. They’re moving around, using whatever system that they contrived to track down more grails.”
“Is this Pellinore guy still under lock and key?” I asked. “I’d like to talk to him, see if I can get a better idea of what system he’s using.”
“Nah,” Enforcer said sullenly. “Pelly only stays with us long enough to get rested up and well fed, and then he practically just walks out the door, on the quest again.”
“Oh-Eight, what’s this about you ‘bonding’ with a ‘dragon’?” Cornell asked, sounding like a high school principal with a rambunctious student on the carpet. I spelled out what had happened (again, I was up half the night writing the damned report!) and had the snake show herself. She draped herself around my shoulders and looked around the table curiously. There were the expected reactions to a good-sized milk-white python with sapphire blue eyes appearing out of nowhere. “WHY isn’t that thing in a containment unit?” Cornell demanded.
“I didn’t have a Poke’ ball handy,” I sniped back.
“All the containment units we had were filled with either ‘scuttlers’, as Oh-Eight calls them, or with those ‘apples’,” Hunter said.
“Besides, I’m sure that Grace’s in charge of the relationship,” Meg said. “My impression of the snake is that it’s… smart, but very… young, I think is the best word. Inexperienced, and very curious.”
“And friendly,” I said, tickling the snake under the chin. “Like a puppy. A big, white legless puppy that turns invisible and eats scuttlers.”
“You say it’s friendly,” Cornell said in the voice of iron authority. “I say that it’s a security hazard. Put it in a containment jug.”
“We have dozens of goblins in jugs,” Fulbright said. I got the impression of some power jockeying going down. “What we don’t have, is any real objective information about creatures like that which aren’t contained. I got more information about free-roaming entities from an hour of examining 08 and that snake than I did from weeks of studying readouts from the jugs.” He fixed Cornell with his eyes. “We really need a high-energy physicist.”
Cornell strummed his fingers and looked like he was sucking on lemons. Hunter added, “And, let’s face it: out here, it’s an asset; in a jug, it’s just more inventory.”
Cornell let out a gusty breath of annoyance and nodded, passing on the issue. “Okay, Hunter, Witch, Oh-Eight… any side effects from eating those ‘apples’?”
“B’sides bein’ kicked outta the Garden of Eden?” Bad Boy sniped.
“We scanned and examined all three of them, SOP,” Forrest said. “No signs of any physical changes, but the QPI scan suggests that Merlin’s base power level has increased significantly. Whether it’s from bonding with Cecil over there-”
“I’m not calling her Cecil,” I said, stroking her head. “I’ve decided to call her Delphi.”
“After the Python of Delphi that Apollo slew to gain the Oracle?” Oracle asked.
“That, and the fact that I’m not fool enough to give you an excuse to code-name me ‘Beanie’.”
“OR, from ingesting the ‘apples’, I’m not sure,” Forrest said in a ‘teacher pointedly ignoring disruptive students’ manner. “Merlin, you should spend a lot more time with Enforcer, learning to control that, if you don’t want to degrade.”
“WHAT?” Bad Boy jumped up and bleated, not picking up the part about the danger of degradation. “You mean you assholes got a big upgrade, and I didn’t get SHIT?”
“Hey, all I got was a big boost in my energy reserves,” Meg said matter-of-factly.
“SO?” Bad Boy went on like that for a bit, ranting like a pissed-off fourteen-year-old, ignoring shouted instructions for him to sit down and shut up.
Finally, I got pissed off at Bad Boy bad-mouthing me, and accusing me of hoarding it all for myself, ignoring the fact that he’d saved my ass from that zombie (whine, whine), and shouted, “BAD BOY! Sit DOWN! Shut UP!”
Bad Boy stopped flummoxed, looked at me like I’d pulled an anime hammer out of nowhere and clobbered him with it, sat down and shut his mouth with a click. He looked at me, genuinely spooked.
Around the table, there was an eerie silence. Everyone was looking at me, only slightly less spooked than Bad Boy was. “Whooaa…” Sherlock breathed, finally breaking the silence. “What was THAT?”
Meg got her cool back, took a deep centering breath and said,” That was definitely a Vis effect. I THINK that it’s like what I do, when I’m working people, only with a nitro booster. Where I use tweezers, she uses a sledge hammer.”
“Well, a sledge hammer IS the best thing to use on Bad Boy,” Enforcer said, kidding. “Hey, Oh-Eight! Think you can teach me that smack-down technique?”
“If she’s going to teach you anything, it’s going to be how to do that ‘spirit camera’ thing,” Fulbright said. “We thought that that first camera of hers was a special thing, somehow attuned by being a crucial part of the act that triggered her Advancement. But now, it seems that she can bind a goblin into any camera. If we can figure out how THAT works, maybe we can stop using those clunky water heaters that we’ve had to lug around with hand trucks. Still, we’re going to have to confiscate that one too, for analysis.”
“What? AGAIN?” I yelped. “You already GOT one of those! Hey, I NEED this! I stashed one of those ‘apples’ in here!”
“Oh, now I KNOW that we’ve got to confiscate that,” Fulbright said.
“Actually, I think that that would be a very bad idea,” Meg said warningly. “Cornell, do you remember the exact terms of the pacting that I laid on Oh-Eight?”
“Why?” Cornell asked, suspiciously.
“Well, as I recall, you never made Grace subject to orders, like you did with Bad Boy and me. You just laid some very general terms, the real stickler of which was that she ‘abide by her contract’. Now, as I recall, there is absolutely JACK in her contract which says that she has to hand over her private property.”
“And this camera IS my private property,” I tossed in, “I still have the receipt.”
“AND?” Cornell growled.
“Well, the driving force of any contract is that both parties are so bound,” Meg spelled out. “If you violate the contract, which is the lynchpin of the pact, there’s a good chance that Grace will no longer be bound by either one of them.”
As I perked up on that opening, Cornell snarled at Meg, “You’re supposed to work for US.”
“She was,” I stood up for Meg, who had just stood up for me. “She didn’t create that point, she just spelled it out for us. You could have ordered me to give up this camera, broken the pact, and the first that you would have known about it was when I was over the hill and far away - once *I* figured it out.” I speared him with a glare. “And you KNOW that I would have figured it out, eventually. Meg just did it in a way that keeps faith with both sides of the issue.”
Cornell slumped back and gave me a sour glower. I win two! Yay me!
“Okay, but we still need to analyze it,” Fulbright maintained.
“Oh sure!” I breezed. “As long as I get it back! You have until 3 PM, Wednesday.”
“I’m not sure-”
“Three Pee-Em, Wednesday,” I said in the voice of ‘Don’t give me any shit, Jack’, and juiced up my eyes in the way that I think I had when I slapped down Bad Boy. Fulbright backed down.
“Merlin?” Cornell said in an equally ‘don’t give me shit’ voice, “Never EVER do that to Me.”
Later, still a little logy from lack of sleep, I put in an appearance at Hatch’s office and did some token work. Hatch was bitching with Cornell about the Agency taking over the West Fifth property, Piechowski and the other grad students were going over the doctored video tape that the Agency had let Hatch have, and I was reading a very interesting Cultural Anthropology thesis (no, that is NOT an oxymoron; there are a few of them, and I had one of them in my hands) on the nuances of serpent imagery in various cultures and myths. Delphi was invisibly exploring the office.
Then there was the thunderous sound of 60 25-page essays being dumped on my desk. “And what is the meaning of THIS?” Krause snarled, fury in her dull brown eyes, as she snatched the top essay from the stack and shoved it in my face.
“It looks like a fair grade for the work presented,” I said, barely sparing the paper a fleeting glance. “A ‘D’.”
“ALL of them?” she demanded, going red in the face.
“No, there were two of them were actually very good. I gave them ‘As’. Oh, and there were three of them that bought their essays online. I gave them ‘Fs’. Big red ones.”
“I gave you this work-” she started.
“NO, you sluffed this work off on me, which I did as a favor, Krause! If you don’t like the caliber of my work, then DO IT YOUR SELF!”
Red as a beet in the face, Krause slammed the essay back on top of the stack, and shoved the stack in my direction. “DO IT AGAIN!”
I could feel Delphi coiling protectively (if invisibly) around my shoulders and hissing. I had to get rid of Krause before Delphi showed herself and raised a stink that could cause me a lot more trouble than Krause could. I picked up the stack of papers, stood and shoved them in Krause’s arms. “LOOK, KRAUSE,” I snarled, giving my eyes the juice that I’d given Bad Boy. I gave her a blistering stream of the old rancid, as PG Wodehouse would put it, and finished off with, “And DO YOUR OWN DAMNED WORK!”
Krause wilted, went wide-eyed with fear, accepted the stack of papers back and evacuated the department posthaste.
A stunned silence fell on the office. I could feel everyone looking at me. Nonchalantly, I said, “On that note, as the only one here who didn’t get any sleep last night, I’m going home.” Okay, not the nicest thing to do, but absence should give them a chance to rationalize what just happened. Sticking around would only make things worse. Still, ‘Note to Self: Don’t scare the shit out of the civilians unless you absolutely have to’.
Wednesday, I was just coming home from work (note: I was right; Hatch, Piechowski and the rest just put what happened down to my being REALLY cranky from lack of sleep) and I was putting the key in the lock when a car drove up. I tensed reflexively, when I recognized Fulbright and ‘Control 07’. It turned out that Fulbright only wanted to return my camera to me (three hours late), “And I wanted to discuss a few things outside the office.”
Oh, wonderful - office politics. Fulbright and C-07 spent a few minutes taking in my apartment with barely disguised amazement and a touch of resentment. I get the impression that the Agency doesn’t provide digs like these for the Controls. Which would go a long way toward explaining Cornell’s attitude. “The tests with this camera have materially different results than the tests with your first camera,” Fulbright explained. He rattled off a long chain of techno babble, much of which I followed and recognized as pointless filler jargon. I made coffee and waited for him to get to the point. Finally, he said, “I think that your camera may function as a token.”
“A token of WHAT?” I gave him his cue.
“‘Token’ is another term that we got from King Pellinore, which we didn’t have any real context for up to now. He used the term, which means a relic of a pilgrimage to a sacred site, to refer to a crucifix that he carried. He claimed that the crucifix had miraculous powers. I don’t know about ‘miracles’, but when he didn’t have that cross with him, we had a lot easier time keeping him at the asylum. Pellinore claimed that he ‘blessed’ the cross at every grail he found. We think - and I stress think - that what he means, is that the ‘token’ was somehow attuned to the node that the grail formed at, and serves as some sort of connection between the holder of the token and the node. I want you to hold the camera the next time that you meditate to restore your Vis, and experiment with how the camera affects your restoration.”
It seemed reasonable, and I wondered why he wanted to discuss that outside the office. Then, Fulbright started going on about how he and Cornell were butting heads over the West Fifth property. Cornell wanted to turn it into some sort of Advancer trap, while Fulbright wanted to turn it into a Grail lab, with an eye towards re-creating the Grail at the node. Fulbright was explaining that he thought that if I put a recommendation in writing (read: put my personal ass on the line, like my personal ass would mean anything in this fight)… when my cell phone went off. It read out one of the Emergency codes, and instructed me to call back in ASAP. I did so, and got a message to pack an overnight bag and be out front in ten minutes. Fulbright was getting a message too, which saved me from shooing him out the door. Twelve minutes later, a car pulled up with Oracle driving. Oracle was bubbling over at finally getting to go into the field.
“A case has come up?”
Oracle just kept bubbling over, and I couldn’t get a straight answer out of her. Ten minutes later (oh, and a word to the wise: if you’re ever in a car with Oracle, DO NOT LET HER DRIVE, the woman is a maniac behind the wheel) we were at a heliport, and we caught an air taxi to JFK (thereby sparing the drivers of NYC from Oracle’s driving), where we were double-timed to a waiting government jet. We waited another ten minutes (mostly for Sherlock and Witch to catch the jet) and then we were off. Once we were airborne, the briefing began. I was introduced to another ‘Control’, Control 09, the head of Tactical Support. No name, (I asked), he was just ‘Control 09’. I’ll bet that his mother called him ‘Offspring 02’ or whatever.
C-09 pulled down a monitor screen. “This is an observation mission. For the past two months, we’ve been tracking an interesting train of events in the Minneapolis- St. Paul area. As a matter of SOP, we keep track of unusual incidents in ERs and Observation Wards across the country. Beginning two months ago, there was a strange string of admissions: healthy young men admitted unconscious, in what appears to have been states of profound exhaustion. They’d all been found in bed, either at their homes or at motels, and examinations showed that they’d recently had sex.”
“Y’mean they fucked themselves into the hospital?” Bad Boy jeered. “And they say that kids don’t have what it takes anymore…”
“They all recovered, after several weeks of rest, regaining consciousness after several days. Last month,” C-09 tried to keep it professional, “we sent a medical team to examine the latest victims, and they found that all the victims detected as being very low in the energy that we call ‘vis’, which are normally present in the human body.”
I raised my hand. “How did you determine the presence or normal levels for Vis in the unadvanced body?”
“Not relevant, not my job,” C-09 cut that off. “Let’s keep tracked, people! While the victims were fuzzy as to exactly what happened, their friends all reported that the victims had gone club-hopping the night before they were found, and they all hooked up with girls. Or, quite possibly, A girl. Singular. The same one. The associates describe the girl as being white, blonde, blue eyed, Scandinavian in general appearance, attractive, hovering at about six feet tall depending on footware, chesty, curvy, leggy and as having a note-worthy, ah, ‘caboose’. She was described as being friendly, and as seeming to be in her late teens to early twenties, with a ‘girl next door’ charm.”
“Yeah,” Oracle grumped, “if you live next door to Little Annie Fanny…”
“The point here,” C-09 kept on track, “is that Subject 454 MAY be an Advancer who is using sex to recharge her Vis at the expense of her bed partner. OR, she may be a Predator.”
“Predator?” I raised my hand. “Is that my cue to start making Arnold Schwarzenegger jokes?”
“A ‘Predator’ is our chosen term for a non-material life form that either manifests a solid form, or enters and integrates itself with the living body of another person or creature, as a means of acquiring Vis from other beings.”
“So… you’re saying that we’re going after a demon?”
C-09 stiffened up ramrod straight. “A demon is, by definition, a being of supernatural evil. We have no evidence that the ‘predators’ we have faced have been, in fact, either supernatural or evil. They are definitely preternatural, in that they do not appear to operate by the accepted principles of nature. On the other hand, they don’t appear to operate by the generally accepted principles of Magic or Supernature, either. They do not react to the presentation of religious symbols or holy water or silver or salt or ‘cold iron’, they show no need for permission to enter a dwelling, and they can enter places of worship without any undue distress. And as for being evil, the majority of those predators that we have met show no particular inclination to cruelty or corruption; they merely want to feed. They are dangerous, but not per se EVIL. So, classifying them as ‘demons’ is uncalled for.”
C-09 cleared his throat and abandoned the topic. “We have been able to compile a composite sketch of Subject 454.” An obvious computer composite picture of a young woman with a longish face, a touch too much chin for the current fashions, a long straight nose, full lips, great cheekbones and large round blue eyes appeared. The face was framed by long straight blonde hair.
“Whoa!” Bad Boy blurted out. “Sir! For the sake of my fellow assets, I bravely volunteer to throw myself on that sex bomb!”
“Very funny. Now sit down. A couple of days ago, we sent Hunter and Enforcer to Minneapolis to do a little preliminary groundwork. At 9:20 local time, Hunter called in, saying that he’d spotted her entering one of the trendy clubs near the University of Wisconsin in Minneapolis. If she follows the pattern that we’ve seen so far, she’ll mingle and dance for roughly three hours and leave with her chosen partner of the evening at some time between midnight and one in the morning. She will accompany her partner to wherever they’d agreed on, and do, ah, ‘the act’ for two to three hours.”
As one, Bad Boy and Sherlock bolted to their feet and saluted. “SIT,” C-09 hissed in a complete failure of humor at the first thing that Bad Boy had done that I actually thought was funny. When Sherlock and Bad Boy had sat back down, C-09 continued. “We have a very narrow window of opportunity. It took us almost 45 minutes from the time that Hunter called to the time we took off. It will take us roughly two and a half hours to get to Minneapolis without calling undue attention to ourselves. Given the hour, the weather and other factors, we can expect a probably 45 minute to an hour transit time from the airport to the club area.”
“So, if we don’t get there in time, why can’t the Lone Ranger and Tonto put her in the bag by themselves?” Big Boy asked.
“Bad Boy, we are NOT the ‘Advancer Cops’,” C-09 spelled out painfully. “Also, to the best of our knowledge, if she IS an Advancer, she hasn’t technically committed a crime.”
“Oh?” I peeped, “’Grand Theft Sex Drive’ isn’t a felony?”
“I expect that from Bad Boy, Oh-Eight; I expect better from you. Our mission is to observe her, and determine her true condition. If she’s a Predator, then she is under undue and coercive influence from a (legally) outside force, and we are technically rescuing her when we drop the bag on her. If she’s an Advancer, then we contact her and talk things out.”
I raised my hand. “And, exactly HOW do we determine whether she’s possessed or Advanced?”
“THAT is where the close observation comes in.”
But he never exactly said HOW they did it. Instead, he put a map of First Avenue, Minneapolis’ (current) hot club area up on the display, and highlighted where Hunter and Enforcer were. He then showed the problem: just following them wasn’t enough. We had to be all over both Subject 454 and her ‘date’, front and back, without either of them twigging to it. If they got into a car, we had to be able to tag it with a tracker without being noticed. If they walked, we had to be able to be exactly sure where they went, without being seen by them (or the Cops). “Why doesn’t Hunter tag them with a tracking device?” Oracle asked.
“She’s not carrying a bag, or wearing anything that Hunter can place a tracker in, without it being screamingly obvious. And, while it is very tempting to send Hunter and Shutterbug in to follow them in Stealth mode, we can’t be sure that whatever Subject 454 is can’t sense them.”
I raised my hand again. “Excuse me? ‘Shutterbug’? Who or what is ‘Shutterbug’?”
C-09 smiled nastily. “YOU are ‘Shutterbug’… Shutterbug. It’s been decided. That’s your call sign, Oh-Eight. ‘Shutterbug’.”
“Shutterbug?” I squeaked with disgust. ‘Shutterbug’? How… precious…
“DEAL with it,” C-09 said repressively, and from there, the discussion was all about who would be covering what directions, and who’d go in and so forth.
Then C-09 handed out reinforced leather backpacks. They turned out to be ‘Go Bags’ with various things that they thought might be useful that we wouldn’t necessarily have on hand. The bag held: a pair of handcuffs that looked like it might be able to hold Arnold Schwarzenegger on PCP, a thing that looked like binoculars but was actually a low-light imaging device, a film camera with some ‘entity film’, three ‘Leatherman’ style multi-tools, a roll of duct tape, a camping mirror, a sturdy butane cigarette lighter, four candles, five glowsticks, a waterproof box of matches, three sticks of colored chalk, a ‘space blanket’, a collapsible ten-foot pole, a telephone line bugging kit, a First Aid kit, a Marine Corps K-bar knife, three candy bars and three ‘survival’ bars, three ‘instant nutrition drink’ packets, a saw-chain, three thermite pencils (!), a spare smart phone, and a special packet of clear plastic stickers that we were told were tracking transponders. It also had an envelope containing a picture ID confirming that I was a bonded agent for a Bail Bondsman, a carry permit, a warrant for the return of one ‘Louise Farber’ to New York City, and a plain envelope containing $1000 American in used twenties, tens, fives and singles.
They also issued us each a Glock .22 pistol, with a box of bullets and one of those very expensive silencers. “What?” I quipped, “No gold sovereigns?”
“Okay, for the newbie, just because we’re issuing out a handgun does NOT mean that you’re obligated to USE it. As a matter of fact, I’d be quite obliged if it was returned to us UNUSED. And Bad Boy? We want the thousand BACK, or a reasonable excuse for using it.” Then he demonstrated the preferred instrument of retention, a thing that looked like a prop from a low budget martial arts flick. It turned out to be ‘non-lethal multi-weapon’ with a blinding strobe flash, a ‘pepper sprayer’ and a taser that could put down a charging rhino, built into a squared metallic tonfa.
When we landed, Control-11 and Control-12, who had been sent with Hunter and Enforcer, were waiting for us with wheels for each of us. I lobbied for the jazzy Jaguar, but instead, I got stuck with the VW Bug. The cute red VW Bug. Oh well, at least it’s newer and in better shape than the POS that Sherlock got stuck with. But then, he does look like the kind of guy who’d drive a car with lots of primer and bondo showing. We drove off in a rough convoy and kept in touch with our cell phones and Bluetooths.
As the rookie, I was assigned to one of the parking lots near First Avenue, in case that’s where her - or, worse luck, his - car was parked. Oracle wasn’t happy about her assignment. “WHAT? I came all the way to Minnesota, just to sit in a VAN and play Tac-Ops AGAIN?”
Once we were in position, it was wait time again. We’d busted our humps getting here, and now we had to wait. Some things never change. Hunter wouldn’t even let us chit-chat, so we wouldn’t be distracted. Then, finally, at 12:35, she left with a guy. They walked to where he was parked, which was covered by Sherlock. Sherlock estimated that Subject 454(b) was 25, a recent graduate of UW Madison with a four-year Humanities degree who worked in a Law Office, probably got the job through family contacts, was saving up to go to Law School, was moderately intelligent, reasonably glib, and in good physical condition. He played tennis, basketball, some baseball, and skied and jogged, but wasn’t serious about any of them. Then Bad Boy started up a betting pool on how far Sherlock had his head up his ass. I put five down on the family contacts and the saving up for Law School being wrong. I was wagering that Sherlock saw a UW Madison bumper sticker on 454(b)’s car, and extrapolated a lot from that.
They went to a complex of upscale condo-plexes, and we discussed how to set up our ‘acquisition’. I offered to set up the surveillance equipment on the subject. “No dice, Shutterbug,” C-09 insisted.
“But I have a Masters in Engineering and years of experience with gear like this!” I argued.
“Eyes and ears only, Shutterbug. We watch, period. We follow her home, we learn as much as we can about her. We can only act if it’s proven that she’s a danger to the lives or safety of others.”
I got one of the outlying positions, still being the rookie. Oracle ran the car’s plates. I lost my bet. He wasn’t saving up to go to Law School, he was already going to Law School. Why he was going out and partying on a Wednesday night when he was in Law School was answered by the fact that judging by the data, he’d gotten greased into Law School by his family. So, no joy there.
It was about 2:10 in the morning when I got word that Subject 454 was doing the après-sex fade. Apparently Lawboy wasn’t as athletic as Sherlock had guessed. I started up the Bug, and listened as my colleagues chatted back and forth, watching her leave. She was described as wearing a long gray coat over a short blue clubbing dress, and ‘walking like the cat that’s been at the cream’. There was a bit as she tried to hail a taxi and then, “She’s coming your way, Shutterbug.”
I turned down the lights of the car, but warmed up the engine. I pulled that light-amplification rig out of my go-bag. I peered into the darkness with them. “I got her. Gray coat, no hat, blonde hair, dancing shoes. She’s heading… wait a minute… A van just pulled up… Hey, who still drives a van these days?” A man popped out of the shotgun door of the van and stepped in front of her, and sprayed something in her eyes. “SHIT! Someone’s pulling a snatch! Red van, company logo on the side-” As I related that, the side door slid open and three guys piled out. One of them jabbed her with something, and the other two got her into a straightjacket with practiced ease. “They’ve got her, I’m-”
“Maintain surveillance, Shutterbug, do NOT interfere. We don’t know who they are. We need to find that out. Let them take her wherever. We find out who they are, THEN we decide what we’ll do. Just follow them, and let us know where they’re going. Describe the van, and get the license plate number.”
Yeah, all that sounded good, but it turned out to be a lot more complicated than that. “Control, we got a problem. The license plate on that van just changed.”
[What? They stopped and changed the license plate?]
“No, it fell off, and there was another one behind it. It was probably held on by some electromagnet gimmick. That’s the kind of trick that you only play when you expect someone to be following you. And if they’re looking for someone following them, then I think that I need someone to take over, ‘cause I’ve been following them for ten minutes.”
[Good call. Shutterbug, fall off when you see the white pickup pull up on your right]
We played tag with the van for the better part of a half hour, and it didn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular.
[Have they made us?] Hunter asked.
[No, I get the impression that they’re pulling some sort of SOP evasion maneuver] Meg answered. [The problem is, they’re tooling around the warehouse district, and if we keep too close to them, they’ll spot us, ‘cause there’s no one else around at this time of night]
And it worked, ‘cause we lost sight of the van. We were thrashing out how to set up a search pattern to find it without being fucking obvious, when an ambulance came tearing through, sirens blaring.
I set after it, and called in, “Oracle, I need to know if there’s a Pace-American Ambulance company in Minneapolis, and if unit #8324 is one of theirs; I’m following them just in case.”
[Shutterbug, get BACK here, we can’t just go chasing off after anything and everything!”]
“Control, what are the odds of an ambulance answering a call around here at this hour, just when our bunny goes missing? And if you were moving a woman around in restraints, and probably heavily sedated, what would YOU use to do it without raising any eyebrows if you got stopped?”
[Control, she’s right! There’s no Pace-American ambulance company in Minneapolis or St. Paul, but there IS one in Decatur, Michigan. And they recently reported their unit #8324 as missing]
[Okay, good call, Shutterbug. Keep an eye on them. Everyone else, spread out in a- JESUS CHRIST!]
“Control, what happened?” I asked nervously.
[Sneaky BASTARDS! A freight train just cut us off.]
“Give ‘em their due,” I said admiringly. “That’s a very nice move!”
[Yeah, I’ll write ‘em a fan letter,] C-09 growled. [AFTER we catch their asses! Shutterbug, stay on them. Let us know where they’re going. The rest of you! Head north, and we’ll try to get around the tail end of this motherfucker]
Oh, lovely! Out by myself, on the tail of kidnappers who know what they’re doing and can take on an advancer, without backup. Just what I wanted.
Fortunately, the guys in the ambulance were using the sirens, so they could go as fast as they wanted, so following them was mostly a matter of just keeping up enough to keep an eye on their lights. Of course, there was the fact that I was speeding, just to keep up with it with the lights off, but at three in the morning, out in the boonies, that was a calculated risk. Twenty-five minutes later, they got where they were going. “Control? This is Shutterbug. Our bunny has just pulled into a small airport in what my GPS is telling me is ‘Brooklyn Center’, and is called Crystal Airport. I see a Lear Jet on one of the runways. I think that they’re pulling an ‘emergency medevac’ scam.”
[Good work, Shutterbug. I’ll have Oracle get the controller to stop the liftoff]
“Nice idea, Control, but I don’t think she’s gonna have TIME to do that. Hold the phone, I’m gonna try something…”
* * * * *
FIVE HOURS LATER
[GOD DAMN IT SHUTTERBUG, WHERE ARE YOU?]
“Well, assuming that you’re not reading the GPS built into this phone, I’m at Centennial Airport outside Denver, specifically at a coffee shop, paying WAY too much for some breakfast burritos and coffee.”
[DENVER? How did you get to DENVER? That air ambulance was scheduled to go to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix!]
“What? You mean they filed a fraudulent flight plan?” I sniped. “Have modern kidnappers no sense of decency?”
[Shutterbug, WHY did you pull such a harebrained stunt?]
“Hey, do NOT lay this on me! I was trying to plant one of these stupid tracking transponders on her gurney before she got loaded, but the stupid forklift they used caught me as I was planting it, and loaded me along with the gurney! I was lucky that I didn’t get squished! I didn’t have any chance to get off the jet before it took off!”
[WHY did you turn off your phone? We could have tracked it!]
“Yeah, and it could have interfered with the jet’s navigation system. They would have searched for the source of the interference. Hiding on a Lear Jet is hard enough without them actively LOOKING for you! Anyway, they’ve removed 454 from the air ambulance and they’ve got her in the infirmary, waiting for something. She isn’t making any fuss, so they must have her sedated seven ways to Sunday. Just a second, Delphi says that something’s going on.”
[Delphi? You brought that stupid snake of yours along on this?]
“And why not? An effectively invisible snake that’s in contact with me? Besides, have you ever tried to find a snake-sitter on short notice? I left her with 454. Just a sec… Another air ambulance has arrived. I guess they’re switching rides again.”
[Okay, nothing fancy, Oh-Eight. Just read off the registration numbers on the side, and we’ll track its destination.]
“Oh right, they’d never file a bogus flight plan again. Okay, it’s Five- oh, wait a minute… Control, you are not going to believe this but those aren’t real alphanumeric characters on that plane. They’re bogus ‘sort of characters’ that could be read at least a dozen different ways, if you’re not looking at them properly. Probably why they’re not pulling this at Denver International. And Delphi says that they’re loading her up. Oh shit, here we go again…”
Seeing no conceivable way of hitching a ride on 454’s gurney again, and not trusting that the opposition wouldn’t detect the trackers, I beat the gurney to the air ambulance, and slipped in invisibly while their attention was focused on the gurney. This time, I was able to find a lot more comfortable place to hide, and I actually managed to finish my breakfast burritos. Delphi proved that a girl’s best friend is her python, by snagging me some coffee. Or not. The only thing nastier than airport coffee is airplane coffee.
Five hours later, I was proving that I really was superhuman by keeping a lid on my pressing business to go to the bathroom, when the plane started to descend. We circled for a while, moved on, circled again and finally came down. The landing was rough and we came to a stop with a hard jerk. Using Delphi, I checked out what the opposition was up to. During the flight, they had crated 454 in a wooden box, gurney and all. I had Delphi go with 454 and watch what they did, as I waited for the right moment. The right moment came, and I headed right for the toilet.
Oh, right, like you WOULDN’T!
I managed to take care of business and get off the plane without being spotted. I was helped by the fact that they were loading the crate with 454 in it into a covered truck, and they were also loading some other stuff from another truck at the same time. The guys who’d grabbed 454 went back to the plane, and the guys with the truck climbed into the cab, so I took the opportunity to scramble into the back of the truck, where Delphi was waiting for me. I put one of the trackers on the crate, and then checked my smart phone. According to my GPS, I was in an unincorporated part of Wallowa County, in the most northeastern part of Oregon.
What kind of evil mastermind sets up his secret lair in OREGON?
Well, it was time to check in and get yelled at again. But check this: No Bars. Not one of ‘em. Nada. I have a very bad feeling about this. I had Delphi crawl up and keep an eye peeled for what looked like their probable destination. Twenty minutes later, Delphi let me know that they were coming up on a compound of some sort. I poked my head up on top of the covering, and spotted some hefty trees with branches overhanging the road. I did a Gene Autry dismount by jumping and grabbing one of the branches. Delphi managed to wrap herself around me as I jumped.
I pulled myself up onto the branch and clambered over to the tree. As I watched, the truck pulled up to a gate in the fence that surrounded the complex, which opened automatically. There were some signs on the fence. Pulling out my ‘binoculars’, I set the magnification up on high, and took a look. It was allegedly the Nez Perce Bronze Foundry, but according to a newer sign, there was toxic waste, which was being cleaned up by Sardus Waste Treatment®.
Toxic waste. Well, that was one way of keeping people at arm’s length.
I thought it over for a bit, and then used the cover provided by the woods to get as good an idea of the layout as I could. The foundry turned out to be a quad formed by high buildings, though only one of them appeared to have a second floor. One of the buildings had extensive brickwork and major smokestacks. One of the others had a large skylight built into the roof. As I watched, I got the impression that the building with the windows that suggested a second floor was the office building. The one with the smokestacks was the actual foundry, where they smelted and poured the bronze. The building with the skylight was the cooling house, and probably the storage place for the bronzes. And the last one was the garage and general storage building. But then, I know exactly bupkiss about bronze founding, so I admit that I’m talking about my ass. Still, that’s the best that I could do with such little information. My guess was that the interesting stuff was going on in the foundry, since that’s where they’d claim the real nastiness with the ‘toxic waste’ was done. It was also the most developed, with the stonework, the power leads, the furnace and all.
Exactly what they were doing, I had no clue. So, the obvious thing to do was go and find out.
Now, classically, I’d go in after dark. Of course, if I did that, odds were that 454 would be in a world of hurt by the time that I got inside. I mean, so far, 454 hasn’t really done anything wrong, aside from fuck a few guys into the hospital. Where was she when I was in college? So, despite the fact that it was two in the afternoon, I decided to go in.
Hey, everybody expects you to go in when it’s the middle of the night!
While the complex’s designers had quite inconsiderately built it wide and open, without any convenient nooks for me to sneak in, there were a few unavoidable blind spots, what with sheds, coal bins, and like all that. I spotted one, and went over the fence with a power jump. Luckily, they hadn’t put up barbed wire or anything. Hey, they were counting on the threat of toxic waste to keep people out.
Figuring that my opposition was sharp enough to lock all the doors that weren’t in plain sight, I considered climbing up the outside of the building and going in through the vents on the roof. Then I kicked myself for being an idiot, and sent Delphi in under the door that was on the far side from the quad, and had her open the door from the inside.
Y’know, I think that pythons are going to be THE hot, must-have companions for Advancers?
The Foundry was a large open area filled with lots of cutting edge technology, but what really caught your eye was a brightly lit, plastic-shrouded ‘clean room’ where three or four figures were huddled over something that was uncomfortably reminiscent of the ‘Alien Autopsy’ hoax tape of ten years ago. I peeped in, and was relieved to see that while they were huddled over 454 and they were going over her with various probes and sensors and like that, they hadn’t opened her up, and they didn’t have anything that looked like surgical instruments with them. Okay, I had a little time before anything got too nasty, so I gave the foundry a better once-over. My eye was immediately drawn to a network of laptop and desktop computers that were networked together. I also found a 3-terabyte external hard drive, which made my work a LOT simpler. I simply hooked it up to the network and had one of the units download everything onto the external.
But when you’re talking that much raw data, it still takes time to download it all, so I kept busy. I disabled the flash on my smart phone and started taking pictures of everything. As I looked around, the big thing that struck me was that this place was like a mad scientist’s M*A*S*H unit - it was designed to be packed up and moved in a hurry. All the heavy equipment was built onto pallets, and even the heavy electrical conduits were modular, and could probably be broken down and packed within a couple of hours, leaving little if any sign that they’d been. The whole setup smelled of people who had a lot of practice in moving.
One thing that stuck out, largely because I had no idea what they were, was a group of large plastic shells, sort of like oversized port-a-potties. They were marked ‘M-1’, ‘F-1’, ‘F-2’, ‘M-2’, and ‘M-3’. I stuck my head into ‘M-1’, and it was like a scene out of a horror movie. Illuminated by a single energy-efficient fluorescent coil bulb was a man strapped and chained spread-eagle onto an upright frame. He was naked, and he was inserted and cathetered to a fare-thee-well, with a drool siphon and dam set in his mouth. His head was covered with a plastic cap that was transparent for some reason, as it showed that his head had been opened, and the top of his skull removed, and there were various probes inserted into his gray matter. There were electrical looking devices strapped to various parts of his body. His face had the slack, totally uncontrolled sag of a total idiot. But the worst thing about him was that his body looked like it was the most advanced state of elephantiasis on record. The left half of his body was grossly swollen and discolored, and the right half was dotted with large, swollen lumps here and there. Every so often, he twitched and made some wet, sodden noise. I felt unclean just looking at him.
I forced myself to take pictures of him from as many vectors as possible, and got out of there before I caught something.
‘F-1’ was less gruesome, but only slightly so. This one was female, and she was dressed in an overall and laying in a reclining chair with support equipment beside it. She had similar deformity, but she wasn’t as bad. She was still obviously mindless, but she had a strange ceramic cap attached to her head, with a mass of cables and leads set into it. I snapped pictures of her, and got the hell out of there.
‘F-2’ was also female, but she was strapped and chained to an upright frame as ‘M-1’ was. Her head hadn’t been opened, but her scalp was shaved and there were plastic caps studded here and there over her scalp with fine wires connecting them, which suggested that they were covering cerebral implants. She was emaciated, but her skin was leathery, and there were traces of, I shit you not, scales here and there. She twitched and spasmed periodically.
‘M-2’ was actually an improvement over his predecessors. He was massively over-muscled for his frame, but it actually looked functional. His head was also studded with caps, but they were smaller and more sophisticated appearing. He was also strapped and chained to a frame. ‘M-3’ had a ceramic cap over his skull, and he was straight-jacketed and muzzled like Hannibal Lector. He was constantly growling and struggling within his chain-reinforced restraints.
Nah-ah. No WAY am I letting them do that to 454, or whatever the hell her name really is. Not this guy. No matter what she did to those guys in Minneapolis, she doesn’t deserve this. Hell, Ted Bundy didn’t deserve THIS!
I drew the Glock from my backpack, screwed in the oh-so expensive silencer, and set out to dish out some justice at bargain rates.
But, just as I was about to go over to the Dark Side, I heard one of them say, “Hurry, hurry, he’s coming, he’s coming!” Okay, color me total nerd, but I was curious as to who it was that had them in such a twist. I withdrew to the shadows and waited and listened. They were talking in near-panicked hushes, going over technobabble details and filling out forms and waving instrumentation that I freely admit I had NO IDEA as to what it did over 454’s strapped body.
One of them removed a dermal medication patch from her neck, and was tearing another one from a strip of them, when another one of them muttered, “Oh crap, he’s here.”
Intrigued, I strained to get a good look at the man who had these guys in such a dither. Two men walked in the door. The one in the lead looked like the other one’s intern or assistant or butt-monkey (hey, six of one…), about twenty or so, skinny, pale, with short brown hair, a beak of a nose and general weasely cast of face. He wore aviator glasses and a look of perpetual dissatisfaction. Strolling behind him with the air of a guy who knows that he can beat up anyone in the room and doesn’t feel the need to prove it, was a larger man in jeans and a biker jacket with a knit cap. He was lithe and graceful, and he had a hard face that didn’t need the mirrored shades to be intimidating. But it was the nerd who took the initiative. “So! Is she ready for me YET?”
“Yes, Dr. Duncan,” one of the guys in the clean suits said nervously, collecting all the forms and handing them to the kid. “Here are our preliminary tests.”
‘Dr. Duncan’ pulled the sheets from his hand as though the clean-suit guy had been holding them out from him. He flipped through the pages so quickly that I thought that he was just checking to see if all the forms were there, but he actually appeared to have read and digested all of the twenty-plus pages in less time than it took to tell it. “Fine! It looks like you didn’t screw up too badly this time.” He then spent more time informing the assembled researchers how incompetent they were, and how lucky they were to be his assistants in such a groundbreaking endeavor.
I set my smart phone to record and taped 20 minutes of this as Duncan waved a thing that looked vaguely sensor-ish with three 6-inch pads and some sort of odd canister over 454 and rattled off stuff that some of the lab rats hurried to take down, and others just resorted to taping. Whatever it was, he was working the hell out of that dingus, ‘cause he was reeling off figures that I was just barely keeping up with. I recognized biological, medical, and physics terms, mixed with the odd ‘chakra’ and ‘meridian’ and ‘nexus point’; either he was woofin’, or this guy was somehow mixing Western Science and Traditional Chinese and Indian esoteric disciplines, something that people have been trying to do for over a century and not getting very far.
As he did this, Duncan peppered his diagnosis with snide comments as to how his assistants were doing, keeping up with him, repeating his comments without context and generally shitting all over four guys who were each old enough to be his father. I had a jolt of recognition, and felt a stab of sympathy for four guys who I’d been willing to shoot in cold blood five minutes ago. I’d seen guys like Duncan in almost every college that I’ve been associated with, and I’ve had to shoo more than one out with a baseball bat after they tried to sabotage an observation. Duncan was your basic Angry Science Nerd and intellectual bully, made all the worse and more unbearable by the fact that, apparently, he really WAS every bit as smart as he kept saying he was. Duncan knew that he was a genius, and his favorite pastime was ramming that down other people’s throats. Oh yeah, M-1 and company were definitely Duncan’s handiwork. Mercy? Compassion? Common decency? Those were bourgeois notions that a ‘true genius’ shouldn’t have to labor under. Yeah, I’ve seen this sort of self-appointed Nietzschean ‘superman’ before, again on campus, and again, I’ve had to chase them away from real work with a tire iron.
Duncan went on like this for the better part of an hour. Then, suddenly, he put his sensor gizmo aside. “Very well. She’s stable, there’s no sign of intrusive presences and I don’t see any signs of the higher developments in her. She’s effectively a clean slate. We’ll begin with the RGT-primary series, and see if we can prompt some higher functions before her brains come leaking out of her ears.”
One of Duncan’s flunkies stepped outside the clean room and started wheeling over a gizmo that looked like a hair dryer designed by Dr. Mengele. Sharp probe things on hydraulic punches, lots of wires, and like that, but it was the small rotary saw that really did it for me. I readied my Glock and was picking my first target. I figured that I’d have to take out the Hardass first, then Duncan, and after that, I’d have to figure out how to get 454 the hell out of here before any more enforcers showed up. Despite my fury a little earlier, I am really NOT cut out for wetwork; even the thought of killing a little shit like Duncan was giving me flutters in my stomach.
Then, surprising everyone, the hardass spoke up and saved everyone’s ass. “Yo, Duncan…”
“Yeah, right… Doc, yer gonna have to ramp down and wait. Eginhard isn’t here.”
“Doc, you know the orders. Yer not supposed to work on any Breakthroughs unless Eginhard is here, ridin’ ramrod.”
Duncan let off a blistering stream of the old rancid, but hardass stood firm. “Hey, Doc, I hear you. But you don’t pay my bills, y’know? And the boss says, you don’t do nothing to any of the Breakthroughs we bring you, unless Eginhard’s here. They don’t want a repeat of what happened in Flint two months ago.”
“Well then, where IS he?” Duncan grated out through clenched teeth.
“He’s in Eugene, takin’ care of some business. He said that he should be back by five or six.”
“Which means that he won’t be back until TEN!” Duncan snarled.
“Ah, he ain’t that bad,” Hardass drawled. “Six, seven, tops. Hey, look at it this way, Doc: now you got a chance to sit down, really read what the Boys here gave you, and go over what you wanna do. Walk your way through it with a pen and paper, and spot any glitches before you open her up. Go through it with the Boys here, spell it out for them.”
Duncan slumped and grumped, “Well, they probably would be more useful if they had the slightest idea of what they were supposed to be helping me with…” he shuffled out of the foundry like a pettish child, with Hardass and ‘the Boys’ following him. One of them stopped, turned back, and stuck the dermal patch on 454’s carotid artery. Then he hurried to rejoin the others.
When the straggler was well out of sight, I stepped back into the open. From the way the Boys were treating him, Duncan was either an Advancer or a flaming genius of the Linus Pauling school, or both. It was 2:15. If I got to a telephone line within an hour and called the Agency, they might get here before this Eginhard, whoever the hell he was, got back and Duncan could get to work. Maybe. Iffy. Too many variables. Murphy’s Law dictated that Eginhard would get back at five or earlier, and that the Agency task force was back in New York for some bizarre reason, that Control 09 would have to jump through all sorts of hoops to do anything, and there would be a general outbreak of foot-dragging and obstruction, and Duncan would have 454’s cerebellum opened up like a glitchy motherboard by the time anyone got here. My first instinct was to get 454 off that gurney and load her into one of the trucks parked outside, and be halfway to Portland by the time that Duncan stopped lecturing at the Boys.
But the odds were that Duncan’s boss had at least one of the County Mounties on the payroll, and getting picked up for a GTA would be playing right into their hands. And there was NO WAY that I was putting myself in a position where I’d wind up on a gurney next to 454, with Duncan planning how best to mess up my wiring. No sir!
I needed a way of buying time that wouldn’t get me busted while I waited. I walked over to where the straggler had left the spent dermal patch. Pulling on latex gloves, I carefully removed the fresh patch on 454’s neck and replaced it with the spent patch. Then I loosened the restraints so that they looked like they were tight, but 454 would have some room to move in. Then my experience as a ‘roadie’ for all those paranormal observations came in handy. I played little tricks with the electronic gear, so that it would be one overload or other foul up after another, paying special attention to that sick little dingus that Duncan had been so hot to use on 454. As my piece de resistance, I had Delphi plant one of the thermite pencils I’d been given inside the big semi-portable electrical generator that they were using. When they started using real power, it would take a bit to build up the right charge in the right place, but it would set off the thermite and *whoosh!* there goes the generator! <heh-heh> I was having way too much fun with that.
Examining the thing that Duncan had been using to examine 454, I discovered that it folded up and had its own carrying case and everything. How considerate! I packed it and the external drive away and decided that it was time to leave. I was scouting around for a way out, when I got a whiff of something cooking. Following my nose, I found the compound kitchen, where they had a big pot of potboil on the stove. Locking the door to the kitchen, I helped myself to a takeout container of potboil soup, and pretty much as much food as I could carry.
Hey, there was a rumbly in my tumbly.
I thought briefly about tapping into the complex’s phone lines and calling the Agency from one of the offices. Tempting, but it really was pushing my luck. I went for the fence and was in the woods before anyone saw me. Though, that invisible bit probably helped. From the woods, I followed the phone lines about a mile, until I got to the second junction box I found. Using the Utility key that was in one of the multi-tools, I opened up the box, used the wiretap kit, and patched my smart phone into the land lines. “Control, this is Shutterbug. Patch me over to Control 09 or Hunter or whoever is running the Minnesota field trip.”
Almost immediately, I got C-09’s dulcet tones in my ear. [Oh-Eight, where the fuck ARE you?]
“Well, according to my GPS, I’m in an unincorporated part of Wallowa County.”
[Wallowa County? Where the hell is THAT?]
“What, you haven’t heard of Wallowa? Why it’s just THE hottest new spot! Check the most northeasterly corner of Oregon.”
[Why haven’t you called in before this? It’s almost THREE, and your last check in was at Eight in the morning!]
“No Bars. Hey, Oh-Nine, there’s no wireless out here. Back ‘o beyond here, Green Acres-ville, I saw Arnold Ziffel trotting down the road a while ago. I’m calling you on a land line. And, speaking of that, prepare to receive, I hope these lines will handle this…” I sent him one of the snapshots that I’d taken of M-1. Four minutes later, the download went through.
[Shutterbug, are you shitting me?]
“I’ll let that slide, Oh-Nine. No, that’s real. Hit ‘record’ and take this down, ‘cause I don’t wanna spend too much time here. I’m up on a telephone pole here, literally.” I spelled out the situation, with the foundry, the setup, M-1 and friends, ‘the Boys’, Duncan, Hardass, Eginhard, ‘The Boss’ and 2.35 terabytes of information. “So how fast can you get here? ‘Cause Duncan’s gonna cut into 454 as soon as this Eginhard character gets back from Eugene. And these assholes need to be busted, fast and HARD.”
[We’re in Denver, we can get there in a couple of hours, that’s not the problem. Shutterbug, get this straight: we are NOT COPS. We are a research outfit! Whenever we get into any kind of seizure situation, we have to work through legitimate branches of law enforcement. Arranging any kind of strike will take time, including search warrants and all that kind of boilerplate]
“In other words, tack on another three to four hours,” I snarled. “Well, I’ve done the best that I can to slow them down. Well, I guess I’ll jest mosey on over to the Shady Rest hotel and set for a spell with Uncle Joe, ‘till you get here. GET HERE.” I hung up. I wasted a few minutes using the power from the phone line to move a few files from the drive onto my smartphone, shinnied down the pole and went back into the woods.
Setting up a watching post in the woods for the compound, I kicked back and divided my time between watching the foundry, eating and reading the files I’d transferred to my smart phone.
As I’ve said before, I have a Masters in Engineering, and I’m a pretty well-rounded guy (or whatever…), and I found the files very thick going. I got about half of it, maybe a sixth I could barely follow the gist of it, and the rest was totally over my head. And this was the ‘dumbed-down’ version that Duncan was writing for whoever was paying the bills. As near as I could tell, Duncan was trying to find out how people Advanced (they called it ‘Broke Through’, if you didn’t pick that up), how the whole thing worked, how Degeneration worked (they had their own term for that, too), and whether it could be done artificially to people. There were several rather sinister chapters on ‘Control Techniques’. There was a big chunk of stuff on ‘egregores’ that really assumed that you knew what the fuck he was talking about. And there was some stuff on ‘Intrusive Presences’ that I really would have preferred a larger reference file on.
Half past six, I had to shut down, as it was getting dark, and my smart-phone screen would have been pretty obvious in the gloom. At about 7:30, a SUV drove in. Looks like Hardass was a little generous. At roughly 8:15, I was starting to get nervous. The lights in the Foundry proper were on, and there still wasn’t any sign of C-09, Hunter, or even the local sheriff’s deputies. I was starting to think that I might have to go in again and get 454 out the hard way. Then the lights in the Foundry flickered, and the lights for the entire compound went out. I grinned broadly. Well, they weren’t going to be doing anything outrageous tonight, not in the dark. Then I saw a tongue of flame climb up from the corner where the big generator was. I’d planned for the thermite pencil to wreck the generator, but apparently it also set the generator’s fuel tank on fire as well. This just got very interesting.
Using the low-light feature on my binoculars, I made out guys frantically scrambling around the compound. They were moving trucks and cars around, and it looked like they were trying to decide what to hide from the fire department. Then a window broke - no, it was broken by a body being thrown through it. Someone shoved the body, which was halfway through, completely through and then someone climbed through, and headed for the fence in an all-out dash. She jumped over the fence (I guessds that it was a she by the blur of bare legs as she ran) in a single graceful leap, and I figured that the fair damsel had come to and decided to save herself. Go 454! When she cleared the fence, she lit out for the woods.
She wasn’t coming straight at me, but she was headed in my general direction, as I had picked the part of the wood that was closest to the compound, for obvious reasons, and she was headed this way for equally obvious reasons. The obvious reasons being the two guys who had also leapt over the fence and were a good ten feet behind her and closing. I jumped from the bough I was in to the nearest tree and ninja-traveled through the branches until I was ahead of all three of them. I pulled out the tonfa and I’d already had the Glock prepped with the silencer. I was as ready as I could be. 454 hit the woods just below me, and I called Delphi to my hand. As the two guys came racing below me, I threw Delphi down onto one of them. Delphi isn’t venomous, but predictably the guy panicked when a white snake dropped out of nowhere, wrapped itself around his neck and started squeezing. Both 454 and the second guy stopped to see what the first guy was yelling about. I took advantage of that to put a round into the second guy. My shot got him square in his center of mass and he went down.
I dropped to the ground and put a round into the center mass of the guy that Delphi was keeping busy. He went down, but the bullet hadn’t taken him out. I was setting to take another shot (hey, like I said, I really don’t like shooting people, and it isn’t getting any easier) but my shot was ruined when the second guy, who apparently hadn’t gone down either, jumped me and grappled at me. Then 454 got into the act, and tore him off of me. The Glock wasn’t doing me that much good, so I dropped it and shifted to the tonfa. The first guy had just managed to tear Delphi off of him, when I clocked him alongside the head with the tonfa. I rang his chimes well enough that I was able to shift to the shocker and zotzed him. He twitched and was fazed, but that didn’t take him out either, so I was reduced to battering him senseless with the tonfa.
After my guy was securely down, I checked to see how 454 was doing. She was doing okay. She was sparring with her guy in a way that suggest that neither had a lot of fancy Shao-Lin type training, but they’d both been in a lot of fights. Very FAST fights. 454 kept coming down on her guy’s instep, and I swear that I heard bones snapping at least twice, but he kept coming. It took some maneuvering but I managed to get a clear shot over 454’s shoulder, and I squirted him square in the eyes with the pepper spray. As he reacted, 454 tore the tonfa from my hand and used it to bludgeon him to the ground and gave him a few extra hits to the head.
As she finished up, I stepped back and held up my hands. “Chill out. I’m on your side.”
“How do I know that?” She asked warily.
“Hello? I’m the one who shot these two guys?” I walked over, got my Glock and unscrewed the silencer. “Not that it did a lot of good.”
I knelt by the body of the first guy and felt under his jacket. “No body armor. Okay, I’m impressed. He took a 9mm round at close range and kept coming. I’ve heard of guys doing that, but PCP was usually involved.”
“Who ARE you?” 454 asked.
“I’m the Girl from UNCLE,” I responded glibly as I searched both of them, coming up with two wallets, a large caliber automatic, a set of knuckle dusters, some keys, a pair of handcuffs, and a Baby Ruth bar. 454 grabbed the Baby Ruth and quickly snarfed it down. “Y’know, I bet that you haven’t eaten in about a day, give or take. I have some food in my backpack. You want?”
Letting her keep the tonfa, I walked over to my hiding tree, where Delphi lowered my backpack down to me, and then followed onto my shoulders. “Your… snake… it listens to you?”
“Yeah, I know, amazing isn’t it? Most pythons these days, they think just because they don’t have any legs, that they know everything, and they don’t have to listen to the biped, but Delphi-” I went on with this comedy routine as I searched the two trackers better and 454 finished polishing off most the rest of the food that I’d snaffled from the kitchen. Which took less time than it did to write it. “Okay, pull off his pants and that jacket, and figure out whether you can wear any of these shoes.”
“Because, I don’t have a car, and the second that they figure that these guys ain’t comin’ back, they’ll send out someone even meaner, odds on that Eginhard guy. We’ll have to hoof it, and lay low. It’s dark, but there’s a waxing moon out, and you stick out in that tiny dress. Not that you don’t look smokin’ hawt in it, but we really do have to keep a low profile. Here, tuck your hair in this,” I pulled the knit cap from one of them, and was surprised. “Well, I’ll be a son of a bitch…” shining a light on his head, I found a pattern of studs along his close-shaven head, which were connected by a pattern of wires that uncomfortably reminded me of the old school Brainiac from Superman comics. Snatching the baseball cap from the other one, I found a similar set of studs on his head.
“What’s THAT?” 454 asked.
“I’m not sure,” I admitted as I snapped a picture of it with my smart phone. “But I’ll lay you odds that it has something to do with the reason why these two could jump over that fence, and keep up with you, and come back from getting shot at close range.”
We pulled the clothes and shoes off both of them, and handcuffed them together over the branch of a tree. Then, we lit out at a trot. “Where are we going?”
“I have no idea,” I admitted. “Just away from here, and hopefully, out of the reach of Duncan and Eginhard.”
“Duncan? Who’s Duncan?”
“Loud guy, glasses, no real chin, looks like a college kid, talks like Russ McLaughlin, makes noises like he’s in charge of everybody?”
“Oh, you mean that nasty little twerp who tried to give me orders to get back onto that stupid gurney?”
“’Nasty little twerp’? Yeah, that’s Duncan, all right.”
For a half hour, we ran. We passed out of the woods, crossed a couple of fields, avoided a couple of farmhouses, and generally ran just so that we wouldn’t be standing around in one place too long. When we stopped for a breather, she asked me, “Where are we, anyway?” We did the ‘Wallowa’ comedy routine, and then she asked, “What are we trying to do, if we don’t know where we’re going?”
“Look, all we have to do is stay at large until my backup gets here.”
“You have backup?”
“You bet your sweet bippy I do.”
“’You bet your sweet bippy’?” she echoed. Then she reached over, grabbed me by the jacket and asked intently, “Who was the ‘Sock it to me’ girl?”
“aaah… Judy Carne, on ‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In’.”
“What was ‘the Fickle Finger of Fate award’?”
“That was a booby prize that Rowan & Martin used to hand out to people who’d done something egregiously stupid in the news, back in the Sixties.”
“Okaaayyy… what kind of watch does Mickey Mouse wear?”
“A Spiro Agnew watch,” I answered, remembering the old joke and brief fad.
“’You can take Salem out of the Country, BUT…’”
“’You can’t take the country out of Salem’,” I recited the old TV cigarette ad.
“You’re like ME!” she bleated happily, relief beaming from her face. She pulled me to her in a big hug, the difference in our heights meaning that she buried my face in her bosom. Like I minded. “You might just have been a Rowan & Martin fan, or a nostalgia buff… but you’d have to have lived through Sixties TV to get that ‘Salem’ bit!” She squealed, and gave me a crushing hug, that was, to be honest, about 50 psi too much for real comfort. She let me loose from her bosom and burbled, “You’re like ME! You remember the Sixties, but you’re YOUNG, so you must have rejuvenated, like I did!”
“Yeah, that, and a bunch more.”
“Your backup… you called yourself ‘the girl from UNCLE’…”
“Yeah, they know about Advancers, or Breakthroughs or whatever term you’ve coined for what we are. Look, Four- ah, by the way, what’s your name?”
“Oh, I’m Jill Sorensen, I’m a teacher- or, at least I WAS a teacher at Mary Richards Middle School in Minneapolis,” she said with a note of lingering regret.
“Hi Jill, call me Grace. Let me guess: you were a teacher, in your middle age or early ‘Golden Years’ until, some time about two or three months ago, something really weird happened. You managed to get home, but you fell into a deep sleep that lasted a week, maybe ten days or more. When you woke up, you were almost a skeleton, your teeth and hair had fallen out and you smelled like something had died. But, as you recovered, you discovered that not only did you recover completely, but you were suddenly young again, and really strong. Oh, and your sex drive was in overdrive.”
“Yeah!” she breathed, amazed. Then the penny dropped. “Oh. Of course. It happened to you too, right, right.”
“Just letting you know that it’s NOT a fluke. Indeed, you’re the reason that I’m here.” I explained about the Agency (at least in terms that couldn’t be construed as violating security) and our mission. “Jill, when you had sex with those guys, you put some of them in the hospital - literally.”
“Really?” Jill said, her big blue eyes wide. “I just thought that they were, y’know, being GUYS, and rolling over and going to sleep instead of cuddling or anything!”
“That’s how the Agency found you. And, most likely, how Duncan and his buddies found you.” The conversation having lagged, I pulled out my smart phone and checked the time. “FUCK! It’s past TEN! I called those assholes at THREE! Where ARE they?”
“Maybe… they’re HERE, and they just don’t know where we ARE?”
“There’s a ‘walkie-talkie’ function in these things and we’re WAY out of the range of any routers. I’m not getting any answers when I use the walkie-talkie band. I’m just gonna have to find a junction box and use land lines again to find out what the holdup is.”
We managed to find a junction box, and I was up on the pole.
“Control, this is Shutterbug, where the fuck ARE you, we’re out here with our asses waving in the air!”
[That’s what you get for going out and playing maverick, Shutterbug] C-09 said snidely. [What do you mean ‘we’?]
“I have Subject 454, aka Jill Sorensen, formerly a teacher at Mary Richards Middle School in Minneapolis, here with me.”
[You broke in and took her?] C-09 yelled.
“NO, she busted out on her own. I sort of helped with that. But there’s something else, here Control: the guys they sent to fetch her? They had studs in their heads. Implant studs. I think that they were some sort of artificial advancers.”
[Artificial Advancers? Are you SURE about that, Shutterbug?]
“As a matter of fact, NO. But these guys were keeping up with a real Advancer in a full run and hand to hand combat, and they both shrugged off 9mm rounds at close range without body armor. By the way… it’s never come up… but can *I* shrug off small arms fire like that?”
[We’ve seen it. It’s something that’s mostly associated with Combatants, not Hunters]
“Fuck. Oh. Right. I just remembered: WHERE ARE YOU YOYOS?”
[We’re in Enterprise, the county seat]
“That’s nice. Why aren’t we picking up your walkie-talkie band?”
[Shutterbug, there are some complexities at work here]
“Oh Crap… ‘complexities’… that’s Agency-speak for ‘We’re screwed’, isn’t it?”
[Shutterbug, like I told you, the Agency has NO Police Powers. We HAVE to go through local law enforcement, and we have to follow the law. We have no proof that these people have committed any crime, which is the only way that the judge will authorize a search warrant]
“WHAT? They grabbed a woman off the street, dragged her halfway across the country, and they were planning to fucking LOBOTOMIZE her!”
[We only have YOUR word on that, Bug. And now that 454’s not there anymore, we don’t even have that. AND we can’t tell the judge that Advancer issues are involved, since he’s not cleared for it]
“What about four people that are being held captive and subjected to highly illegal procedures that has hideously disfigured them?”
[Again, we only have YOUR word on that. A position that we are IN, because you went off all ‘Lone Ranger’ on us]
“I TOLD you, I was only trying to plant a tracker the first time,” I snarled. “And I knew that there was no way of tracking the second plane. AND, I called in the second that I was physically able. AND, I managed to not only find Jill, err, Subject 454, but a ton of hard data.”
[Which we can’t use as evidence; since you STOLE it, it’s tainted.]
“Yeah, there’s a taint here: your procedure! Tain’t one thing and tain’t another! You say that we’re not cops, but you keep expecting me to abide by their rules. Okay, from what I remember, police can act with reports from civilians regarding felonies in progress as due cause. I, a civilian who happens to work for the Federal Government, aver that person or persons unknown are using the Nez Perce Bronze Foundry to restrain four persons who I have reason to believe have had mayhem, in the form of illegal and unauthorized experimental surgical procedures, done to them. Miss Jill Sorensen can claim that she was abducted by persons unknown, yet connected to the Nez Perce Bronze Foundry, in Minnesota and was brought across state lines without her consent for illegal purposes. I have video footage of a person connected with the Nez Perce Bronze Foundry examining Miss Sorensen, and making statements to the effect of his intent to commit mayhem in the form of illegal and unauthorized experimental surgical procedures upon Miss Sorensen. There! Is THAT ‘Law & Order’ enough for you?”
[Shutterbug, you gotta come here and make that statement to the judge and show him that footage, in order for him to have grounds to issue the warrant]
<growl> “Okay, okay, but can you at least come and pick us UP?” Unfortunately, none of us were exactly sure where Jill and I were, so we had to go find a house and call from there. The people we woke up were Oregon farm folk, sharper than you’d think, but still not quite sure what to make of Jill or me. But, since we were calling the County Sheriff, they didn’t have any problems with us using the phone. Mister Fisk (the man of the house) was regaling us (well, more Jill than me, but she does seem to have that effect on guys) with the impact of the economy on his farm (a favorite topic of farmers), when Mrs. Fisk came in and told us that someone had driven up.
Jill and I walked out the door into the blinding glare of the headlights, when we realized that the police-style rack of lights on the roof of the SUV was bogus. This wasn’t the local deputies. I grabbed Jill and pulled her along just in time to avoid the bullet that would have hit her dead center. I heard Mrs. Fisk scream, and then we were out the back and headed for the fields. Then we heard the sounds of shattering glass and a few more gun shots. Jill stopped, turned around and to my amazement, charged right back for the Fisks’. I paused, muted a snarl of pure frustration, and went after her.
Five of the goons were charging right at us, three ahead and two backing them up at a good safe distance. The guys in the lead were armed for bear with body armor, assault weapons and light amplifying gear on their helmets. The second that Jill started charging at them, the three guys in the front opened up with automatic fire. They were good, they hit her dead on, and I was hoping against hope that they were using rubber bullets or something nonlethal like that. Jill stopped, but she didn’t fall. Rather, she set and sort of waded into the hail of fire. As the guys in body armor set and poured it on, the two guys behind them stopped and did something weird with these things they were wearing like amulets on their chest. They held them against their foreheads.
Sensing something nasty coming down the road, I decided to use these guys’ assets against them. I pointed the tonfa at the center man and pressed the button for the blinding strobe. Blinding strobe flash + light amplification gear = optic overload. As the shooters reacted to being blinded (or at least their gear going offline) Jill charged in and took the fight to hand-to-hand. I was about to flash one of the guys with the amulet-things, when I saw what they were up to. There was a flurry of some sort from one of their amulets, and a big hawk just flew out of it and powered up into the sky. A second later, the damn big bird, it must have been the size of a fucking CONDOR, knocked me to the ground with a power dive. As I kipped back to my feet, I heard the growling coming in my direction, and turned just in time to see the Hound of the fucking Baskervilles come loping at me. I flashed it with the tonfa, but it didn’t react, and it jumped on me, going for my throat with its teeth, and knocking the tonfa out of my hand. I wrestled with it for a bit, and fell back on the old reliable - I wasted a lot of Vis charged up my camera, and zapped the damned thing off of me.
The hound flew back and didn’t move for a bit. I looked over at the two amulet guys. One of them was fucking freaking, and the other one was concentrating. Then that stupid condor power-dived me again. But this time, it pulled a tight turn and came right back at me. It battered at me with its wings and tried to pull my camera away from me. But that was its big mistake. It stayed in one place long enough for Delphi to jump it. Delphi got the buzzard’s head in her jaws and wrapped her coils around it. The buzzard fought fiercely, and I had an image of the classic battle of the Eagle and the Snake, which is immortalized on the Mexican flag and in various mythic images all over the world. It is a battle that, once joined, cannot be broken until one or the other is dead, and the victor consumes the vanquished. Of course, the Eagle of Aztec legend didn’t have a thoroughly pissed Advancer bopping it on its feathery noggin. Delphi passed her mouth over the buzzard’s head and well, the damned bird just sort of melted in her mouth. Like an M&M. Delphi sort of slurped it up, gave a satisfied burp, and coiled up to go to sleep.
The buzzard’s wrangler gave out a sound like a mother whose baby has just been swallowed by an alligator, and the other one sent that damned dog at me again. This time, it looked PISSED, and it was pulling out all the stops. Eyes blazing, it charged at me and jumped straight at the camera.
Bad move, Cujo. I ‘took its picture’ and it flowed into my camera, the same way that the ghost, the rat and the scuttlers had. The dog wrangler gave out the same tortured ‘my baby!’ scream that the bird wrangler had, but he came screaming incoherently at me. I put him down in less time that it takes to say it. Jill was sitting there, on top of the mangled mess of goons, her clothes in tatters, and exhausted, but more amazed at what had just happened with me. “What the FUCK was THAT?” she asked.
“Din-dins,” I said puckishly, as I took the amulet from the dog wrangler’s neck. The bird wrangler turned and ran. Jill started after him but she was looking too ragged. “MAN, I am tired,” she moaned. <phew!>
I had an instinctive flash of recognition. “Jill! Listen to me! You’ve over-extended your power. This is dangerous! You need to recharge!”
“Recharge?” she asked blurrily. “How?”
I handed her my ‘trap’ camera, which still had a pretty hefty charge from the scuttlers in it. “Here! Tap into this!”
She took it, but looked at me, puzzled. “Tap into it? HOW?”
I tried to explain how, but I totally spaced. Dammit, we didn’t have the TIME! Lacking anything better, I grabbed her, pulled her to me and gave her a big kiss before she could react. I passed along some Vis through the kiss. Jill squeaked in shocked surprise, then pleased surprise, and then cooed as she went for the big kiss. Tapping into my camera, I passed along enough Vis for Jill to stabilize, and then broke the kiss.
“WOW!” Jill gushed, “Is THAT what I’ve been missing?”
“I was passing energy along to you, through the kiss,” I explained.
“So…” she grinned at me wantonly, “Wanna top off?”
The big Svenska blonde of my teenage dreams was asking me to go under the bleachers and neck. And wouldn’t you know it? We’re in the middle of a frickin’ crisis! “The Fisks, remember?”
Jill started to charge back to the farmhouse, but I stopped her. “Odds are, these guys’ buddies are holding the Fisks at gunpoint. We just go in there, they’ll just put guns to Mr. & Mrs. Fisks’ heads and tell us to put our hands on our heads and let them put us in fucking CHAINS, and there won’t be a fucking thing we can DO about it. We have to go around back, or go in through one of the upstairs windows and get them by surprise, or send Delphi in invisibly… no, no good, she’s out for a while… but we can’t just go in there and take them on directly. Well, not unless you have some weird power that will just make them… stop… and give… up…” I stopped and planted my face in my palm.
“What’s the matter?”
“Never mind, I just realized that I was being an idiot. Let’s go. Do as they say at first, but wait for a signal from me, and do whatever you think best.”
“Don’t worry; you’ll know it when you see it.”
Sure enough when we stepped through the door, two more of the gun goons where holding assault weapons on us, and way at the back of the room, a guy in lighter body armor was holding an automatic at Mrs. Fisk’s head. Mr. Fisk was on the floor, looking like he’d gotten the Rodney King treatment. “Don’t move!” yelled the guy holding Mrs. Fisk hostage. “Go down on your knees, put your hands on your heads, and submit to being handcuffed.”
Figuring that a Bene Gesserit trick is either very subtle or very blunt, I decided to keep it as brief and effective as possible. “DROP!” I yelled, giving them the ‘Angry Eyes’ trick that I’d slapped Bad Boy down with. Reflexively, Mrs. Fisk dropped to the floor, as her captor and the two goons dropped their weapons. Seeing her cue, Jill jumped the two goons, and I drew my Glock and held it on her captor. I had him down and shackled with his own cuffs by the time that Jill finished.
“What was THAT?” Mrs. Fisk quailed.
“It’s a long story, and we have no time,” I apologized. “Call the sherriff, tell him what happened, and have him send some deputies to pick these guys up. Tell him that we are commandeering their SUV and driving it to Enterprise, to give a statement about what’s going on. And, I’m sorry, you deserve a better explanation, but that’s all I can tell you.”
We got into the SUV and drove off for Enterprise as quickly as we could. And, wouldn’t you know it? We got LOST! We had a map, but a map doesn’t do you a lot of good if you don’t know where you are in the first place, and well, this part of Wallowa County wasn’t really designed with tourists in mind. After a couple of major wrong turns and ‘Oh, the map goes THIS way’ moments, we’d found a good-sized crossroads. We were trying to find it on the map, when Jill spotted a truck driving down the road. “Hey! Maybe we can get directions!” Jill said and started waving the truck down.
Okay, I admit it, I had an ‘I’m a GUY, I can find where we are on this stupid map without any help’ moment, and I was about to tell Jill that, when it registered that the guy at the wheel had just turned his lights up high and was speeding up. “JILL! MOVE!” I got out of the truck and jumped to the side, as Jill literally leapt over the speeding truck as it crashed into our truck’s side, knocking it over on its side. “DELPHI!”
I know, I know, it was a total brainfart, but Delphi was still inside the SUV and scared, and I jumped up on top of the side of the car to rescue her. BAD move. As I kicked in the remaining glass in the door window, something hit me from behind, and I felt enough electricity to fry a grown rhinoceros shoot through me. It didn’t take me out, but I was dazed and stunned long enough that when I shook my head free of the stars that were running amok between my ears, my arms were bound to my side by something that was doing its level best to crush me. Looking around, I spotted Jill slugging it out with two guys and - I shit you not - a big fucking BEAR. Or at least something that looked bear-ish in the poor light. I awkwardly kipped up to my feet, only to have my legs suddenly bound the same way as my arms were. “Delphi!” I called, sensing that she was down there and not hurt. Scared, but not hurt. She did the best she could with the tummy full of big bird, and she was right with me and about to start gnawing at the whatever-it-was that had me hogtied.
Then a hand came down and grabbed her. “Well, well, what is THIS?” I twisted around and looked up. Standing over me, carrying what looked like a huge deformed double-barreled pump shotgun with a box magazine, was a guy, looked to be about 19 or 20, who, God help me, looked just like Eddie Haskell, the smirking butthead on the old Leave it to Beaver show. Not Ken Osmond, the grownup guy who played Eddie way back when, but Eddie Haskell, the Eternal Jerkass himself. He held Delphi up, and gave that smug snickering chuckle. “Well, lookie what we got HERE… The Boss’ll give me big bucks for bringing this little baby in…” Delphi split off a head and tried to bite him, but he just tucked that shotgun from hell under his arm and smacked her with his off hand. “Hey, Campbell! Get one of those cans over here, I got me a big bonus!” A guy in a thick plaid coat brought over something that was a metallic cylinder, about 8 inches thick and 20 or so inches long, with metallic sidebars on four sides, one matching set maybe twice as long as the other. ‘Eddie’ pulled open one end and stuffed Delphi into it and sealed it.
“NO!” I screamed and thrashed as my python got shoved into the can and ‘Eddie’ sealed the lid. ‘Eddie’ just looked at me as I writhed in frustration and gave that sadistic snicker.
Then one of the guys fighting Jill yelled, “HEY! EGINHARD! A little HELP here? She’s pounding the shit outta my BEAR!”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” he drawled. He set the can down on the car door, unslung the ‘shotgun’ and aimed it at Jill. He waited for a clear shot, got one and some sort of bizarre scroll of mesh wrapped itself around Jill, forcing her arms to her side. Jill kept fighting, kicking furiously with her feet and struggling to break free of the mesh. “God dammit,” Eginhard muttered as he casually hopped off the side of the overturned SUV, “gotta do everything myself…”
Eginhard casually sauntered over to where Jill was maiming one of her attackers with repeated stomps on the instep, as the bear was staggering back, weakened somehow but still game. He gave a loud whistle and crooked a finger at Jill. Then, as she paused and looked at him, confused, he pulled some bit of sleight of hand and suddenly a pepper sprayer appeared in his hand and he squirted it in her eyes. As she reacted, she adjusted her stance just enough, and Eginhard let off another round, which bound her legs together. “See? Now, was that such a chore?”
The guy who called Eginhard over was fussing over his bear. “Oh God! That bitch stole a ton of Boo-boo’s Vitae! You gotta make her give it back!”
“Oh?” Eginhard replied in a tone that suggested that he didn’t give a damn, “And how are we supposed to do that?”
“I DON’T KNO-oohhh…” the bear wrangler’s rant stopped in mid-whine as a blur came up behind him and he suddenly pitched forward. Then Hunter came out of nowhere and clocked one of the other guys bear-baiting Jill and clocked him soundly with the familiar tonfa. Eginhard tried to peg Hunter with the snaregun, but Hunter not only easily dodged the net, but he pulled one of the other guys into its path, so that it wrapped him instead. I barely recognized Enforcer as he came up on Eginhard and they traded a flurry of blows that battered the snaregun to bits. Eginhard resorted to a smoke bomb and made a classic screen villain getaway.
Hunter and Enforcer looked around avidly for him, but they couldn’t see anything. I, on the other hand, felt something land on the SUV near me. “HEY GUYS!” I yelled, “OVER HERE!” Wondering what Eginhard was up to, I suddenly flashed on the fact that the canister containing Delphi was right near me, easily portable, and from Eginhard had said, might be regarded as a mitigating factor for his failure just now. I kicked the canister down into the cabin of the SUV. If he wanted Delphi, he’d have to work for her. I had a sense of snatching victory- or at least Delphi- out the mouth of defeat- or the hand of Eginhard. He swore as he became visible, and grabbed me. He hauled me up in front of him in the classic hostage-taking maneuver, and I felt a very sharp knife at me throat.
“HOLD IT!” Eginhard yelled right in my left ear. “NOBODY MOVE, or she GETS it!”
Oh, right. Like I’m really gonna just stand there and scream in the best ‘damsel in distress’ manner. Plumbing or no plumbing, I’m still a GUY where it counts. I snapped my head back into his nose, which took him by surprise. As the knife lifted away from my neck I twisted around in his grip, faced him and snapped, “This is for Delphi!” Then I let him have it with a burst from my camera, which ripped right through my bonds, and knocked him clear off the car. He dropped his knife, which I caught in midair and sliced through the bonds around my legs, all in one fluid movement. But Eginhard had badass moves of his own. He kicked the SUV, putting it rightside-up again, pitching me off the side, and kicked in the window of the car on his side. He reached in, nabbed Delphi’s can and was out of there, in one smooth move.
Yeah, smooth move, like Ex-Lax. He was carrying Delphi with him, and I knew where Delphi was at all times. If he’d just RUN and gone invisible, and not gotten greedy, there would have been no way that I could have tracked him. Instead, as I lit out, I knew exactly where he was. He was a real fox on the run, I’ll give him that, but I had the better plan - I was gonna run him into the ground. It was a matter of who had more Vis, him or me. And I had a (reasonably) full camera. I let him run, and even extended the chase a couple of times by cutting him off when he tried to get a way out. Finally I caught him in the middle of a field, breathing hard and out in the open. I launched into him, using the grip of his own knife as a fist load, and finished him off with, “And THIS one’s for the BEAVER!”
He went down, and I shackled him with the handcuffs that they seemed to have regarded as standard issue. Then I opened the canister and let Delphi out. Delphi was overjoyed to be out of the can, and she hugged me tight and gave me sweet snaky kisses with her tongue. Then she stuck her tongue out at Eginhard in a way that had nothing to do with either kisses or smelling. *NYEH!*
In running Eginhard down, I’d gotten lost – AGAIN - so I used my smart phone again, and finally, they had that walkie-talkie thing up and running. I smell the biggest rat this side of Sumatra… Hunter directed me to an access road where I met up with Sherlock, who was driving an SUV and paying way too much attention to Jill to be driving at night. “Hey, Enforcer… Where’s Hunter?”
“Running the guys we busted in over to Enterprise.”
“Cool. Look, Control Oh-Nine said that there were ‘complexities’. Let’s simplify this a bit.” I handed him the goblin can, the ‘wrangler amulet’, Duncan’s gizmo and the hard drive. “Control doesn’t know about these. There’s no need to bother him with that. Well, I did tell him about the hard drive. Is there any way that we can download the stuff from this onto something?”
“Sure!” Sherlock handed me his laptop and a cigarette lighter adaptor. “Just burn a disk! Make a few copies. Hey, I could get lost for a half hour or so…”
I signed my statement for the very grumpy county clerk with the general sense of dread that Spiderman must feel when he’s taking off his mask in front of someone. It wasn’t my real name, but it was out there, a matter of public record, and Duncan and Eginhard’s boss would have no problems in finding it out.
I wonder how many ‘Grace Merlins’ there are out there.
“Why am I signing this?” I asked. “Odds are the first things that they hauled out of there were the pods containing M-1 and the others. Everything else is suspicious but not incriminating. Well, except for the files on their vivisection techniques.”
“Which are suspect and inadmissible,” said a sleek and well-dressed but otherwise utterly unremarkable nonentity who sort of oozed ‘minor official or lawyer’. “No, your statement will be used against you during the counter-proceedings.”
“Oh, thinly veiled threat of retaliation, stock defense technique #247,” I sneered. “Let me guess: you’re Eginhard’s lawyer.”
“And you are the woman who committed grand theft auto, breaking & entering, and felonious assault on innocent men.”
“Innocent men don’t kidnap a woman on the street, sedate her, move her over state lines, file bogus flight plans, mark aircraft with misleading characters, break into private homes, threaten innocent bystanders, commit vehicular assault, and hold women hostage. And yes, we have enough hard evidence to begin indictment proceedings. The assault on the Fisks will be enough to keep your clients in jail while the Department of Justice decides exactly which Federal charges they want to press,” I said with a ‘go ahead, TRY to scare the little girl into making a mistake’ grin in Lawyer-guy’s direction.
Lawyer-guy gave me a ‘sucking on a lemon’ look of generic disapproval, and then looked at the rest of us. He focused on Hunter. “You look like you’re in charge of this Reform School outing. Let’s talk.” He led Hunter off to another room, where he asked the bailiff for privacy.
Twenty minutes later, Control 09 came up to us. “How’s it shaping up on this end? Their local lawyer has been giving me both barrels on this - THANK YOU, Shutterbug - and I’ve just now been able to convince the judge that Sorensen isn’t a clear and present danger to the people of Wallowa County. And he says that his clients are bringing in a real shark.”
“Yeah, we’ve already met Mister Jaws,” Enforcer said. “Hunter’s talking to him right now.”
“What? Where?” We pointed at the door that Hunter and the lawyer had gone in. “Oh crap…” he ignored the bailiff’s objections and stormed in. There was the sound of some shouting, and then it got quiet, and then ten or so minutes later, they all came out.
Oh-Nine was sullen, Hunter was downcast, and the Law-Thing was smug. Looking at Oh-Nine, he smirked, “Call me when you’re willing to talking things out. There’s no need for things to get any nastier than they already have. Things like this happen all the time in circumstances like this. All that’s really needed is to reduce the redundancy and bring things under a single roof. If you’ll excuse me, I need to see to their release. When can we expect Miss Sorensen to be transferred back to our custody?”
“Excuse me?” was the general reaction on our side. “Transfer? Custody? Jill? What the hell happened in there?”
“Zip it,” Control 09 snarled. “Miss Sorensen will accompany us. Whether she is transferred to your custody is a matter of whether your claims check out after we examine her. IF she is as you claim, then we’ll talk. But if she isn’t-”
“Then our people over-reacted and badly exceeded their authority,” Law-guy shot me a snarky look. “You should know about things like that. Breaking and entering. Assault with a deadly weapon. Battery. Arson.”
“Arson? There was a fire?” I asked blithely.
“IF they exceeded their brief, our men will be reprimanded.” He shot me another chilly glare. “See that you do so as well.” On that cue, he exited.
I looked suspiciously at C-09. “Okay, what the HELL was all that about?”
Control 09 glared at me. “What it’s ABOUT is procedure. We’ve got to let those birds go.”
“BECAUSE… they work for US!”
to be continued