Chapter Eight

Lightning closed her eyes as Rico rewound the tape. She'd watched the footage three times, but there were too many images to process it all at once. "Try it again, one quarter speed," she suggested. "Even slower on the remote's pass."

"You got it," he stated as he activated the tape. It started with Duck's feed. They walked out of the Club, and looked around. The line was gone, the streets deserted. Duck was moving even before Tracker shouted. They both were. Cars on either side of the door. She watched the area scan Duck made and looked down the building. "Hold it right there!"

Rico stopped the tape. "What?"

"Look at the building across the street," Lightning instructed. "Second floor from the top,"

Rico looked then shook his head. "I don't get it?"

"Sniper's on the garage," Lightning pointed out. "Their attention would be drawn there. There's a lens in the fourth window from the left. See that glint?"

Rico nodded as he adjusted his system to get a better focus on the object. "Sniper rifle?"

"Not unless you want a nice view of your victim's face," Lightning said as the lens came into focus. "That's a photography lens. Meitlner optics, one of the best for up close pictures from a distance. Mostly used for sporting events."

"So somebody was watching Duck and Tracker," Rico growled.

"And seeing how they react," Lightning agreed.

"But why?"

"That my friend, is the ten million dollar question," Lightning stated. "Any word on the boys?"

Rico looked down at his comm board and sighed. "Yeah," he answered glumly. "We better go see Davy and Geoff."

"Rico?" Lightning asked worriedly.

"He's in trouble," Rico answered. "They all are."

"How bad?"

"Bad enough we need to talk to Davy and Geoff," Rico told her.

"Then lets get this over with," Lightning sighed. "The sooner we know what's going on the better off we'll all be."

"Tell me about it."

*** *** ***

"Tell me about it," Rabbit urged.

Kenny closed his eyes and shook his head. "I was playing in the park with my brother, Geffen," he stated. "Man grabbed him from behind. When I tried to stop him, he ended up shooting him and taking me instead."

Rabbit bit his lip and nodded. "Then what happened?"

"He made phone calls, mostly, he just threatened me..." Kenny's voice drifted off.

"Look, Ken," Rabbit urged. "That's bad enough, but believe me, I know there's more, there usually is when you repress something this long. What did he do to you?"

"He buried me," Kenny stated slowly. "He locked me in a crate and buried me."

"Kenny," Rabbit called softly, then snorted. "No wonder you never liked going for things in the closet."

"And slept with the lights on," Kenny added.

"See," Rabbit looked at him with wide-mad-rabbit-eyes. "You knew... You knew there were creatures that lurked in the dark..."

"Rabbit?" Kenny called, half laughing, half worried.

"Feel better?" Rabbit asked as he focused in on Kenny.

"Not really," Kenny answered. "There are so many more questions now. And then there's what Minh told me..."

"And that would be?" Rabbit asked, then added, "and when did you talk to Minh?"

"She hid us from the van that was patrolling." Kenny explained. "She told me something about making the long journey home. She told me that my brother needs me, but I thought she meant you..."

"Word of advice," Rabbit commented. He smiled when Kenny looked up at him expectantly. "Don't think too much about what Minh tells you, you'll drive yourself crazy. When it happens, you'll understand her, and not a minute before."

"Come again?" Kenny asked. "Try English this time."

"Dragon ladies don't make sense," Rabbit announced.

"Minh is hardly a ‘dragon-lady,'" Kenny countered.

"Shows how much you know," Rabbit told him.

Kenny watched as Rabbit flared his eyes at him. He could never tell when Rabbit was gone and when he was just messing with him. Sometimes he wondered if his brother even knew.

"Now, about the shooting..."

*** *** ***

Lightning paused in the doorway as she looked from Davy to Geoff. Davy had that ‘haven't been to sleep yet' look . Geoff, looked exactly the same as he always did: crisp. His cloths looked as if they were fresh pressed and as always, his eyes were hidden behind his mirrored shades.

"So what have our boys done this time," she asked as she took one of the seats that was waiting for them. Rico closed the door behind him and took the other seat.

"Last night, they went down to the club district to try and get a line on what happened to Tracker and Duck," Davy stated. "When they got there, there was the report of gunfire. Reports say..." Davy paused as he started to go over his notes.

"Three to Four shots fired," Geoff offered. "Two sets of shots about five minutes apart."

"A LoneStar sniper was killed," Davy told them evenly.

"Descriptions of the suspected shooter match Rabbit," Geoff added.

Lightning looked at the brothers and could tell they couldn't believe it themselves. "They're all wanted now. Police identified Rabbit, and put that together with a traffic stop they made with Boomer and Kenny. They didn't find Rabbit, but being his brother, they figure he's some how involved."

"And they're watching the rest of us rather heavily." Geoff added.

"They aren't the only ones," Rico countered. "Lightning spotted a camera in Duck's footage."

"Actually I spotted a lens," Lightning corrected as they watched her expectantly. "There's a lens pointed at the front door of the Playful Dragon. Its almost as if somebody wanted to see how Duck and Tracker acted under pressure."

"Okay, get me as much information as you can from those tapes," Dave stated abruptly. "Meeting in one hour," he announced then turned to Geoff. "Get the evac moving."

Geoff nodded, then headed for the door. Rico stood and nodded towards Lightning. "You heard the man," he sighed.

Lightning nodded.

*** *** ***

Justin groaned as the sun hit his eyes and pierced the back of his skull. He'd been hiding in the storm drain all night. He was more afraid of what waited for him above than what lurked down below. He could hear movement above him now. Traffic going along its way, oblivious to what had happened the night before.

He knew he had to find out what had happened, but he was afraid. Afraid of the news that waited for him. Afraid of what he'd seen, afraid of everything. He tried to fight the fear, but it was strong.

Yes little one... it feeds on fear... give it what it wants and it will have you

Justin gulped as he heard the voice echo in his mind. As he looked around he saw something moving in the water, coming closer.

If you give it to the fear... it will win...

The voice seemed to come from everywhere. He tried to move further away but the sounds and explosions from last night surrounded him. It was as if he hadn't woken from the nightmare... ‘It will not have me,' he swore to himself.

Easy little one... you are one of mine... and we shall meet very soon...

Justin tried to scream but all that came out was a gasp. He could see it in the light now as it swum towards him: water mocassin

Easy my child... Easy...I am the one you have looked for...I am your friend

Cotton mouth. Justin felt a sharp pain in his leg as something bit him. His leg burned as the venom flowed through him.

We are one... One...

"One," Justin gasped. Colors swirled around him as he slipped into the water. Time ceased to exist as the colors took form and he sat at the feet of the great one. He could feel the power burn within him until he felt nothing else. He barely felt the hands that pulled him out of the water or the ones that carefully cradled him afterwards.

"We found him," a voice called.

"Gently," another voice ordered. "Is there any sign of the others?"

"One," Justin murmured.

There is much you must learn child. And time is of the essence....

Justin's mind was filled with pain, then images, then whispers. He screamed, but there was no sound. Only the whisper of things to come.

"Get me an anaphylactic kit," the second voice yelled. "We're losing him!"

‘Rosco?' Justin thought, ‘why is Rosco here?'

He is afraid for you child. We all are... you must listen to me... The one you call Briar, it grows, and it learns. It is not a he or an it... it is, and as it grows it will try to control us all. Spirit given flesh given tech... it will devour... You are my child, I am your spirit, we are one... just as I have called on you, you will call on me...

"Damnation!" he heard a third voice swear. "He's the only survivor. We have to know what happened."

"I know, I know..." it was Rosco again.

The voices getting stronger now, and Justin found himself at a lost. "Don't leave!" he yelled.

I could never leave you child...any more than I could leave your brother...He is the healer, you are the fire.

"Fen?" he asked in disbelief. "You're with Fen?"

No child, the other one... his name is clear...

"Clear!" Rosco yelled.

Justin felt a surge run through him as his heart started beating. The voice was leaving him, but he felt somehow whole.

water...I am your are my sword we are one...

"Come on Justin, hang in there," Rosco pleaded. He'd lost too many friends and he wasn't about to lose another. "Stay with me buddy."

"Rosco?" he asked wearily.

"I'm here Justin, just hang with me okay?"

"Okay," Justin answered. The voice was gone now, but he felt it in his heart beating within him like a drum. It was willing him to live, feeding him the strength he needed. He felt its power surge through his veins.

Alone we are weak. Together, we are strong...

*** *** ***

"You are weak," Mind Bender taunted. "Weak and useless."

Fen heard him now, over the nightmare, offering to end the terror and guilt. Offering him release. Something told him it was a lie, but the nightmare was too much. It should have been him. Kenny...

Then images came unbidden. Kenny freeing him from the kidnapper, fighting to protect him, telling him to run. Then he saw it, something that Bender had missed. The look in his brother's eyes, telling him to live, to be safe, to survive. Kenny had sacrificed himself, and all he wanted in return was for his brother to live.

"I didn't roll over and die then," he swore to himself. "I'm not going to do it now."

Mind Bender felt Fen slip out of his grasp. "I'll have you," he swore. "You will break, just like the others. In the end, they all do."

*** *** ***

Whisper shook his head as he slipped out of his trance. It had taken a lot more effort to get through Duck's shielding than he had expected.

"Here," Tracker urged as he handed him a cup of water.

"She get worse, or am I losing my touch?" Whisper whispered as he took the cup.

"She's gotten a lot worse," Tracker told him. "Last year she ended up getting censured in Quebec. Took three doses of Sepherax, and then..."

"Three?" Whisper asked in shock. "They gave her three hits of that drek?"

Tracker nodded. "Bear says its almost impossible to get through now."

"How bad was it?" Whisper asked.

"Bout as bad as you can imagine," Tracker stated. "Maybe worse. Took her back to the time she'd been at the Archer's Fist's tender mercies, then left her there."

Tracker's pulse increased as he remembered the newscasts he'd seen. It was the closest he'd been allowed to the entire case. It had almost driven him insane, watching what they did to her in the name of justice. The Sepherax had driven her insane.

"It was bad."

Whisper nodded.

"How about you?" Tracker asked, in an attempt to change the subject. Duck didn't like dwelling on things, no reason for them to.

"Well, you know I retired," Whisper stated in a half question.

"After the thing with Alex?" Tracker asked softly.

Whisper nodded. "Jen figured that was the last straw and either I stopped risking my life on a daily basis or I come home to an empty house."

"How is she doing?" Tracker asked.

Whisper's expression hit Tracker hard. The utter loss reflected in the mans eyes. Tracker had been there himself and recognized the look. "No," he gasped.

"Briar took her." Whisper answered woodenly, then he saw the understanding in Tracker's eyes. He'd forgotten about Joanna. "She's alive, but she's not Jen any more."

Tracker nodded. He was beginning to understand what Briar was, what he was doing. But he still needed more information.

*** *** ***

Halifax bounded into Ange's office.

"Where are they? Can I talk to them?" he asked excitedly.

In the three months she'd know the decker, she had never known him to get excited. Now he was bouncing off of the walls. She gave him a long look.

"What is so special about these two?" she asked.

"Tracker and Duck? You've never heard of them?" He asked in disbelief. When he saw she hadn't heard of them he took a deep breath. "They're like required reading for military deckers," he explained. "Marti never stopped talking about the hacks they made, smooth, simplistic, works of art."

His exuberance waned a little when he mentioned his sister. Briar had taken her, and failing to turn her to their cause, had killed her as a warning.

"They're over in 177," she told him.

Halifax froze and looked as if the world had been pulled out from under him. Bus 177 meant they were hurt, or dead.

"They're fine," she assured him. "Whisper's with them." When she saw him still looking deflated and worried, she stood up and nodded towards the door. "Come on, lets go check on them." Sometimes, most of the time, she didn't understand the young man.

*** *** ***

Candide watched them from the safety of Bus 67, the girl's dorm. She didn't understand why the woman had resisted her efforts to heal her. It would have been so simple. Now she'd only managed to complicate things.

The plan had gone so smoothly. He had told her that the enemy would come to her. That they would be in need. It would have been so simple, but then Carmen showed up and ruined everything. He got what he deserved though, she could have been shot, or worse.

Now she would have to wait. ‘Let her lay there in traction, she'll need me soon enough, and then, when she lets me in, she'll get what she deserves,' she told herself.

It was all her fault, more to the point her father's, but since her father wasn't available, she'd exact her revenge the only other way she could. Through the daughter.

She smiled to herself. Ange didn't trust them, that would make things twice as easy. Now all she had to do was keep that meddling fool Whisper out of it. Shouldn't be too difficult: one mention of ‘Jen' and he was practically useless.

‘Man couldn't beat me in a fair fight if he tried.' she thought. He hadn't danced with the power like she had. In an off handed sort of way, she owed her power to Briar. If he hadn't tried to ‘recruit' her, she'd still be sitting in her classes, dreaming of the power she now held.

She would ‘thank' him by destroying those who created him. Starting with that stupid woman in the infirmary. She smiled to her ‘friends' as they watched over them. Soon she would know all their secrets.

*** *** ***

Duck groaned as she rolled over.

"How are you feeling?" Tracker asked her as he helped her sit up.

"Like somebody used a drill press on my head," she groaned.

"Well it's the only way I know to get through that thick skull of yours," Whisper groused. "Next time though, I'd appreciate it if you had some aspirin waiting for me."

"Only one man in the world bitches like that," Duck countered.

"Only one person gives me cause to," Whisper grinned. "Welcome back to the land of the living kiddo."

Duck grinned back. "Well, I didn't want you to get bored."

"If I remember correctly things were never boring when you're around," Whisper countered with a laugh.

"Yeah, but I seem to be getting hurt more these days," Duck groused.

"No, you're just feeling it more," Tracker chided.

"Must be getting old," Duck sighed. "How bout you?"

"Older than I care to think about," Whisper admitted sadly.

Duck looked at him, her smile fading. Then she squinted slightly at Tracker. "Jen: black roses," Tracker sub-vocalized.

Whisper shook his head. "Tracker, you don't have to worry about my tender sensibilities," he stated as he tapped his temple. "I'm still on the same frequency," he reminded them over the comm-unit.

Duck chuckled. "So much for grace and tact," she chided.

"That's us, Grace and Tact," Tracker agreed.

"Where does that leave me?" Whisper asked softly.

"Malpractice suit?" Duck suggested.

"I heal you and this is the thanks I get?" Whisper whined.

"Whisper, how long have we known each other?" Duck asked as she batted her eyelashes at him expectantly.

"Twelve, thirteen years," Whisper answered slowly, as he tried to figure out exactly what she was setting him up for.

"And you honestly expect things to change now?" She countered.

"Aw come here wench," He groused as he swept her up into a hug. "Doesn't that man of yours ever feed you?" he asked as he set her down. "You're nothing but skin and bones... and armor, a deck. Only two predators? Wait there's the third, " he added as he patted her back. "Ooh baby, you added a control rig. Don't you know what hardware does for me?"

"Whisper?" Duck called innocently.


"Have I ever told you that you're one sick, perverted individual?" She asked with a grin.

"Not since the last time I saw you two..." he countered. "I still owe you for what you did."

"And we owed you for... oh lets see, there was Chile," Duck started.

"Oh, yeah, definitely Chile," Tracker agreed. "How about Chicago?"

"Eh," Duck stated with a shrug. " That was a toss up."

"Toss up?" Whisper asked indignantly. "I saved your hoops, no two ways about it."

"Hoops?" Duck asked. "When did you start saying ‘Hoop?' And as I recall, our butts didn't need saving until after we pulled your sorry ass out of jail."

"Where I wouldn't have been if I hadn't defended your honor," Whisper objected.

"Which wouldn't have needed defending if you hadn't made that remark to the barkeep's wife," Duck stated, effectively seeing and raising his objection.

"Which I wouldn't have made if you had been doing your job!"

"My job? Didn't you read the briefing where it said, and I quote : ‘under no circumstances are you to make any lewd comments or suggestions to the barkeep's wife'?"

"Children," Tracker countered. "You're causing a scene."

"Which was my point exactly," Duck stated then winked at Whisper.

"Exactly!" Whisper agreed.

Tracker shook his head as Duck sat back down.

"Well, now that we've gotten that out of the way, anybody seen my cleaning kit?" she asked.

*** *** ***

Ange had no way of knowing what Halifax had expected to see when she brought him to the bus, except that it definitely was not what he got. Duck was up and cleaning her gun while Whisper and Tracker seemed to be having a heated debate about the proper placements for explosives.

Whisper, who had always struck her as rather quiet and sullen was joking boisterously with Tracker while Duck occasionally interjected some witticism that made the other two laugh.

"Ah, Ange," Whisper smiled as he stood to greet her. "Now that they're feeling more themselves, allow me to introduce my friends."

Ange stepped forward. "I'm sorry if I... Aw, hell, can we just start over?"

"I'm sorry, have we met?" Tracker countered with a smile. "Hi, I'm Tracker, the lady to my left, currently failing to field-strip her predator, is my friend and compatriot, Duck."

Duck rewarded Tracker with a glare, then smiled at Ange. "Thank you for everything," she stated as she tried to find a place to put the parts of her gun and failed.

"Please, sit, take it easy. From what I hear you've had a rather interesting few days," Ange countered as she took a seat and smiled at Halifax. "This is Halifax, our decker extrodinaire."

Halifax, who seemed mortified by the introduction, bobbed his head. Ange could tell he was still having a hard time matching the two of them up to the deckers his sister had told him about. If she didn't know better, she'd have guessed they were just your average runners, talented, but nothing to write home about. But having seen them in action, she knew there was a lot more to them than met the eye.

Duck grinned and pointed to one of the seats. "Take a load off," she stated with a wink. "What you packin'?" she asked when she noticed the case he was carrying with him.

"Aw, I just built it myself," he answered shyly.

"Finest kind," Duck countered with a grin.

"What about you guys?" he countered.

"Well, right now we're between decks," Tracker answered.

"We had to ditch everything," Duck explained. "All we've got is my combat rig."

"Combat rig?" Halifax asked as he looked around.

"I'm wearing it," Duck explained. "Its wired into by armor, main unit's here," she stated indicating the inside of her right thigh. "Has a glove interface, Tracker developed. It's fast, but it doesn't hold to much in the storage department. Most of the programming we have to do on the fly."

"Its designed to take abuse," Tracker commented. "Body armor doubles as protection for the unit."

"Its still in its experimental stages, but we've worked most of the kinks out," Duck told him.

"I was wondering how you broke into security," Allison commented from the front of the bus. "I never even would have noticed it."

"That's the idea," Tracker told him. "What good is stealth if you advertise what you've got?"

Ange watched the exchange and shook her head. "Why don' t you all explain what brought you here," she suggested.

"You don't ask for much," Allison commented then nodded. "May as well, and here's as good a place as any."

"Duck, Tracker, you start," Ange stated.

Duck and Tracker exchanged looks and nodded. "Over the past two weeks, there have been several incidents with our friends and clients," she told them. "Each incident involved a black rose. Last night, we met at the Playful Dragon to discuss the matter. A bouquet of black roses had been delivered to me there."

"We were ambushed on our way out," Tracker added.

"That was you?" Ange asked in disbelief.

"Okay," Duck began. "What did you hear about it?"

"Just that Briar ambushed a couple of runners in the club district," Ange answered. "We left an observer there to see if anything developed. Please continue."

"Well, we got away. Figured the van was hot, so we broke down our gear and headed out on foot," Tracker stated.

"Got a room in the 12th street where we knew Masters would find us," Duck concluded.

"You knew he'd find you?" Allison asked in disbelief.

Duck gave a slight shrug. "Man sent a coded message, usually if he wants to meet, its something big. And from what we've seen, it was something very big indeed."

"So, he brought us in to Aerocomm's main security installation with the promise of explaining what was going on," Tracker continued.

"Which he managed not to do," Duck pointed out.

"Instead, he showed us the remains of two Decks that had been destroyed by Black IC, supposedly on matrix sites that we manage." Tracker stated

"We started investigating the decks, when that little weasel-boy Max came to and had his security buddies come out after us."

Tracker nodded. "Duck got hurt, we escaped. Allison brought us to you."

"Duck got hurt, we escaped?" Allison stated in disbelief. "You wouldn't believe what they did, I was there and I don't believe it, for that matter, I really don't understand exactly what they did. But believe me it involved more than ‘Duck got hurt, we escaped'. A lot more"

"I would like to know how you two managed to ‘escape' from Aerocomm's facility," Ange agreed. Even though they were Whisper's friends, there was always the possibility that they'd been compromised.

Whisper shook his head and grinned, "looks like you two finally have to spill the beans on how you do it." Then he looked at the others, still smiling and said, "this ought to be good."

Halifax grinned and winked at Whisper. "For those of you who don't know, they specialize in breaking in and out of secure facilities," he explained.

Duck shrugged. "You start," she told Tracker.

"Okay. We were in a conference room in the heart of their security campus. We'd spent two hours analyzing the decks and found they each had counterfeit Duckware. We noted the softs and firms, software and firmware that each deck had and cataloged it"

"About that time, Max started trying to gas us," Duck added.

"By the way, how did the Weasel know where to find us?" Tracker asked looking at Duck and Allison in turn.

"My fault," Duck answered glumly. "His gun had a transmitter, led him straight to us."

Tracker nodded. "Okay, so Duck and I set up a rope slide, I went first. Then Allison, then Duck. I got through without any problems. Allison was almost hit by a roto-drone. By the time Duck went, they had their chopper in the air."

"They opened fire and I had to drop," Duck stated plainly.

"That's where Duck got hurt."

Allison looked at the two of them. "I thought she was a goner for sure. She was on the wrong side of the fence, injured and there was a chopper out after her."

"If there's one thing I've learned working with these two is: never count the Duck out." Whisper interjected. "Tracker's the best in their field. She's the most stubborn. If there's a way out, they'll find it."

Duck blushed as Tracker continued. "Duck told me she was okay, and that things were pretty messed up on her side. So, since we were already separated she headed back to handle the security systems and I led Allison to a safe point."

"When did she say she was alright?" Allison asked. "I heard what she said, it was more like, Charlie Foxtrot something and then she named a place."

"You two still playing geography?" Whisper asked shaking his head.

"Still works," Tracker answered. Then looked at the others. "It's an old travel game," he explained. "The first person names a place, the next one has to name a place that starts with the last letter of the preceding place. The game continues until somebody either misses or names a place that's already been called."

"As long as the other one responds correctly, we know they're alright and or in position," Duck added.

Allison shook his head. "Okay, that explains some of what happened, but what about the ‘Charlie Foxtrot'?"

"Military speak," Duck answered quietly.

"Things are messed up and nobody knows what they're doing," Tracker added.

Allison still shook his head. "I don't get it."

Halifax sat thinking about it for a minute then grinned. "Cluster..."

"Give that man a cupie doll," Duck responded with a nod.

"So, we hid in a drainage ditch," Allison stated getting back to the story. "What did you do?"

"Slipped through a hole in your security," Duck answered then shrugged. The guards had already figured it out, she may as well spill the beans to Allison, her supposed ally. "One, you all don't guard the drainage ditches. You haven't in the 20 some odd years I've been running from you. I simply swam back to the center of the base, by-passing the guards that were trying to trap me along the fence. That brought me into the courtyard which is where I wanted to be."

Duck watched them absorb what they said. "The next hole was designed by your architects and a security firm that was trying to save a few bucks."

Allison shook his head, he still didn't quite follow.

Duck nodded and held out her hands. "The buildings in the courtyard are cantilevered. There's an overhang at the base where the lights are inset. That overhang, has about a six inch ledge on the underside, and enough room for a fully grown Duck to contort her way in. I simply wedged myself in up there, and then went to work on getting into security. That's where the security firm's saving a few bucks comes in. Your lighting is tied directly to the main security system, and all the security programs seem to take for granted that nobody would be coming from the lighting system."

"You'd have to be crazy to try," Tracker agreed.

"From there, I simply broke into your security system and took it over." she explained.

"But what did you do once you were in?" Allison asked, torn between amazement at what she'd done and horror that his security had been breached so easily.

"I took over the monitoring system, the cameras to be exact." She told him with a smile. "Then I simply recorded a full cycle of normal activity and looped it back through. Anybody watching would see that instead of what was really going on."

"And then?" Halifax asked excitedly. It was no wonder to him that they were the best. He would never have thought of looping the tape back.

" I took some pictures of the two of them," she stated nodding at Tracker and Allison. "Cut and pasted them onto footage from different cameras and viola, instant escape, far away from where they actually were. When I was finished, I gave Tracker the timing and told him to use the jammer."

"I didn't hear a thing," Allison countered.

"I told him Buffalo Soldier, a song by Bob Marley, classic Reggae, he responded with ‘No woman, no cry,' another song of his." Duck translated. "I was trying to implicate a third song ‘Jammin', hopefully bringing to mind, the jammer. When the alarms went off, he turned it on, and jammed their communications thus adding to the confusion."

"Which cleared the way for us to break back into the central area, and meet up with Duck." Tracker added taking up the story. "Since they already had the drop on Duck, the safest thing to do was make them think that we were captured. They escorted to the chopper Max had waiting for us, which we commandeered and took to the park."

"You still make it sound too easy," Allison complained.

"Its what they do," Halifax countered. "And they're the best at it."

Duck and Tracker looked at the young man for a second. They were not used to being known outside of the military. "You know, you just stated something that Aerocomm's security has never seemed to grasp about us," Duck commented.

"My sister, she told me all about you two," Halifax answered slowly. "She's a military Jacker. At least she was before Briar got a hold of her."

"Exactly what is this ‘Briar' and what is he/they up to?" Duck asked softly.

Ange glared at Allison.

"I guess its my turn," Allison stated with a sigh. He paused as he thought about what had happened and all the lives that had been destroyed by what had started as an interesting idea.

"Three years ago, Aerocomm started project Sable Briar." He stated, then added, "Black rose. The idea was to combine the powers of magic and technology. It was supposed to be an artificial intelligence system capable of working and researching magic. About six months into the project, one of our researchers, Ellingsworth noticed something about the system and took the project in a whole different direction."

Allison stopped and looked around. They hadn't learned to full story of what Ellingsworth had done, until well after the fact. When all that was left was damage control.

"The project wasn't progressing the way he wanted. He wanted power, and he knew that the computer just wouldn't give him the power he needed. Magic needed willpower, not computing power. So he took the knowledge base from the project and created Briar. His first attempt was a failure. He'd used a cloned inert organism, and gave it a mind. But even that lacked the intuition he needed. "

He stopped. What had happened was too horrific, too insane to grasp. "So, he tried again. This time, he used his research assistant, a man called Reiger, and gave his body to Briar. With the knowledge and magic available, Reiger became Briar."

"So Reiger was transformed?" Duck asked.

"No." Allison answered softly. "Briar took over Reiger. It is using his body, but it is so much more. Its more of a collective conscious. It gains power by expanding its influence, but Reiger's body is its focus, its root."

"Just how does it 'expand its influence'?" Duck asked.

"At first it sought out like minded individuals. People who would serve it willingly. Then it started 'recruiting.' Making people want to be a part of it."

"Then it started bending people's minds," Whisper added. "Making them think they were still acting on their own."

"That continued until they recruited a mage named Tredaegar. He was powerful in his own right from everything I've heard. All his magic was oriented towards the mind. He can make people see things, even think things. He does their 'breaking' now." Allison added.

"Breaking," Duck commented. "As in taming them, bringing them into the fold?"

"Yeah," Allison nodded. "But it gets worse. If he fails, then the subject ends up dead, or worse, compliments of Ellingsworth."

"Worse?" Halifax countered, "what could be worse?"

"Zombies," Duck answered as she thought about the man and woman she'd seen the other night. "Take away that which makes them human and make them serve anyway. Imagine the psycology of it. If you don't come over to our side, we'll still find a use for you."

"How did you know?" Ange asked in disgust.

"There were two in the team that ambushed us outside The Dragon last night," Duck answered. "Two Zombies, three bikers, a couple of snipers, a mage with two friends out back."

"Its been building itself up hasn't it?" Tracker asked pointedly. "Spreading its influence."

Allison nodded. "It started with mages and muscle. Ellingworth kept working on the machine end of things. I think that's the one thing we've got working for us. The man just doesn't understand machines."

"But Briar's figured that out hasn't he," Duck asked. "And now its going for the Techs, learning what we're capable of."

"Hence the games," Tracker added with a nod. "Why else would it let the hunted know they're being hunted, unless..."

"You're studying them," Halifax added in disgust.

Ange watched as Duck and Tracker as analyzed the information presented and reached their conclusions. In the matter of minutes they had realized implications that she had only begun to realize. She was mildly surprised when Duck started questioning her.

"What information do you have on Briar, missing persons, convertees, names, dates, locations?"

"Halifax started a database, but its still rather sketchy," she answered.

"Can I see what you have?" Duck asked.

Halifax paused as he looked to Ange for her approval. After a moment, she nodded.

Copyright 1998 - M.T. Decker

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