He looked over at Jade and saw the guilt and rage that threatened to consume her.
"Chere," he called to Jade. "Death, she just another place."
Jade turned towards him and forced her breath out slowly. She had just killed one of her team, her friend, she did not want a repeat performance.
"You can't fix this," she told him. "Nobody can. It was my doing, and I can't forgive myself for it."
He could tell she was forcing herself to remain calm, but he could also see the guilt and pain in her eyes.
"Non chere," he told her. "You can't take it back, and I can't fix it. But Mere Matte, she has the gift, if anybody can, it be her."
Jade buried her head in her hands and shuddered. There was no way anyone could undo what she had done.
"Chere, you tink like dat, MindBender, he already win."
She looked up at him. For someone who barely had a grip on reality, he knew more about what they faced than she ever hoped too. It was then she realized that Briar's power was a kind of madness and Gris, he'd been fighting his own madness for so long that dealing with MindBender as easy as dismissing his own madness.
"Teach me to fight it," she pleaded.
Gris nodded. She'd heard the voices in her heads too. Worse, she'd listened to them and Felix, he paid the price for her mistake. The thought ‘this is why they fear you,' drifted through his mind for a moment then vanished. He had no use for the words, so he dismissed it. Just one more voice who's message he didn't need to hear.
"So maybe old Gris ain't as mad as they think," he told her. "You see, Mere Matte make it all better."
She thought about what he'd said, but she didn't have the heart to remind him: Mere Matte had been murdered by the Briar. It was too late for her, and too late for Felix. The only hope was that somehow they would be able to put an end to the Briar and his power base. The problem was it kept growing while it kept wearing them down. Very soon it would be too big for them to control.
"Get rolling," Wulf called over the radio. "We need to get Merc to a doc pronto."
Gris nodded as he put the van in drive and brought it around to where Wulf was waiting with Merc. The man did not look long for this world.
Wulf eased himself down one step at a time. Sometimes he wished Mercury could have done his job on the ground level. It would have made carrying him out the building a lot less strenuous.
"That's it Merc," he stated as he tried to catch his breath. "You're losing weight."
"Boss, I'll do anything you say, just don't drop me," Mercury countered groggily. "How you going to get me out of here?"
"You listen to me and you listen good," Wulf ordered "You just concentrate on breathing, you hear me. I'll worry about everything else."
Merc tried to respond with a smart-assed comment but all he managed to get out was a cough. Wulf knew it was bad then. By the time he'd gotten to the man, Mercury had already taken a handful of trauma patches and had managed to stop most of the bleeding, but there was no getting around the fact that his condition grave.
He signaled the others. There was nothing more they could do here. Sable was on his own for this one. His team had to regroup. Bury the dead, and keep the living alive. The fight would have to wait.
"Damnit, can't you get this thing to go any faster?" Wulf growled as Mercury started coughing up blood.
Gris shook his head as he tried to get more speed out of the old van, but it was no good. "This ‘bout all the beastie can do," he stated. "We be there in three."
"Three may be too late," Wulf growled. He was not about to loose another teammate. "Merc, you hang on now you hear me?"
Again Merc tried to make a smart-assed comment, and again he failed. "Drek," he groaned.
Jade pushed herself out of the front captain's chair and staggered back to the passenger cabin. "Easy muscle head," she urged gently as she took Merc's hand in hers. "We'll get you there."
Merc nodded as he tried to focus on something other than the pain, but it was no good. "Can't do it," he managed to gasp.
"You can and you will," Wulf demanded as he assumed a drill instructor's tone. "You hear me soldier?"
"Nice try Wulf," Merc answered softly. "But you forget, I was drummed out for insubordination."
Jade's eyes flared in a half smile as she met Wulf's startled look. That was more like Merc. Always with a wise crack. "Merc?" she called softly.
"Ain't going anywhere," he gasped. "Just get me to the doc."
"Soon," Wulf promised as he checked his surroundings. "We're almost there."
A minute later the were at the hospital emergency room.
Gris left the van idling as he ran in and got two orderlies with a gurney.
Duck paced the confines of the bus as she tried to think. They needed to setup a communications network. Something simple enough that others could use it, yet secure enough that Briar wouldn't be able to compromise it. Then there was the question of equipment. The mission pack could keep them going for a few days, and money wasn't a problem yet, but they had to plan ahead.
"Duck, could you please sit down," Whisper grumbled. "You know, you used to be a nice normal girl before you started dating Bear."
"Me? Normal?" she countered as she tried to sit still.
"Okay, bad choice in words. You ever try a more meditative exercise?"
"You mean like yoga, or tai chi?" she countered.
"I was thinking more like Chi Kung," he countered.
"You mean, ‘Stand like a Tree?'" she asked as she remembered the exercise he'd tried to teach her. "I was always more into Kata forms."
"Someday, I'm going to get you to sit still long enough to do it," Whisper told her. "Then you'll understand."
"Whisper darlin', I get plenty of zen time when I'm jacked in. When I'm not, I need to move," she told him. "I'll have plenty of time to sit down and sprout insight when I retire."
"Yeah, right, people like us don't retire," Whisper countered. "Can't quit the game, and even if you try to sit a round out, the game drags your right back in."
Duck looked at him and noted the bitter expression on his face. "So why all the philosophy?"
Whisper started a her for a minute, then looked over at Tracker. "You know, I've never seen you two when our backs weren't up against the wall somewhere. Closest thing we have to normal lives is debriefing," he told her.
"Look Whisper," Duck urged. "Way I figure it, we do what we do so people can have normal lives. Me, I dance with the technology, pushing it past its limits, finding out exactly what I'm capable of. You, you're a power dancer. Magic's you're calling. Its the same thing. If you're doing what you love, why worry about labels as general as ‘normal.' Who decides what's normal anyway?"
"So, what you're telling me is I need to stop worrying about it?"
"Just about," Duck told him. "To be honest, I rarely have the time to worry."
Whisper chuckled. "Is that why you started dating Bear?"
Duck shook her head and grinned at him. "Hell, I was in trouble long before Bear and I got together." She told him, as she started pacing again. They still needed to come up with a solution to the communications problem.
Allison watched Ange as she hung up the phone. "Nobody's heard anything," she told him.
"None of your people saw anything that happened down in the club district? Especially after Briar ambushed Duck and Tracker there?" He asked in disbelief.
Ange shrugged. "I can only tell you what they tell me."
She let out a long sigh. Every time she thought she had a handle on things, Briar would pull something and her people would take the brunt of it. They were fighting a losing battle and there was nothing she could do about it. They'd fought to a standstill, but it was only a matter of time until it started all over. Only this time, Briar would be too strong for them to withstand.
Allison nodded. "How bad is it?" he finally asked.
"We're losing," she answered blandly. "The Briar keeps growing and we can't keep up with them."
"I'm sorry," he told her. "I thought we could handle it. I thought Masters was a fool for calling on outside help, especially Duck and Tracker. Now, I see we were fools to wait as long as we have."
"What gives with you and them?" she asked him. "One minute you're sing their praises, next you're ready to hang them out to dry."
"I thought I knew everything there was to know about them," he told her. "A couple of two bit hoods with a gift for matrix programming. First time I met them, got the drop on me. They attached a mock bomb to my van. Their way of introducing themselves," he added.
He stopped as he tried to explain what had happened. Every time he thought he had a line on them, it turned out he was almost completely wrong. The psych profiles were there and they seemed right, but the skills and reasoning behind them were completely inadequate.
"They aren't what you expect, and just when you think you've got them figured out, you find out just how little you really know," he told her.
Ange looked at him and shook her head. He just didn't get it. "Don't bother trying to figure them out," she advised. "Just ask yourself two questions. ‘Do you trust them?' and ‘Do you like them?'"
Allison thought about it for a minute and then nodded. "Do I trust them, yes." he stated with a nod. "Do I like them, I think that's the big question. They're good at what they do, but being around them is like being in the middle of a comedy sketch. Would I want to spend my down time with them, I don't think so."
"There you have it," Ange told him. "You don't have to like some one to work with them. You don't have to understand them to trust them."
"What do you think?"
"Honestly? Briar wants them for a reason. Couple that with the fact that they've managed to get a handle on the situation, and come up with a workable plan...in a matter of hours. They're good, almost too good," she commented. "They're professionals. Then there's Whisper. I trust him implicitly, and according to him they'd do anything for him, no, he said as much about them. As for their brand of humor, I think their appeal all depends on which side of their whimsy you're on."
He thought about it and nodded.
"If it helps, they like you," she added.
"That's what they said," he countered. "But they sure as hell have a strange way of showing it."
"They don't coddle you. They expect you to carry your weight. They did the same thing with Halifax. They simply expect him to carry his weight, they expect nothing more, and they'll accept nothing less. They're warriors."
"I keep forgetting that," he admitted.
"That's part of their draw as well. They've been through this sort of thing before, and they know they have what they need to see them through all of this insanity. I have a feeling, they've done it before."
"Then let's see what we can do to help," he urged.
Ange nodded. Wheels was right, the man was cute, but completely clueless.
Boomer surveyed the area carefully. He hadn't seen or heard anything about the others, so he had no choice but to assume that they were still at liberty. Right now, his primary concern was damage control, and that meant getting a hold of the van and, more importantly, its contents..
It had been towed into the impound lot over an hour ago, and there'd been no other movement since then. He had hoped to see Ranier, explain what was going on, but again, that would have to wait. Somehow he knew this all fit together with the black roses and the attacks on their clients, but he had no idea how.
He tried not to worry about Duck and Tracker, he knew they could take care of themselves, but he also knew they're resources would be tight. If they had to ditch their van, then they'd only have Duck's mission pack. Granted it was legendary for having just about everything you could possibly need, but supplies run out and even Duck's preparations could foresee everything. No, they're going to need more gear if they were to stay out much longer.
Then Boomer smiled. He realized their first priority would be gathering their untraceable resources, things they had stashed away around the city for just such an occasion. Need dictated that they get as much as quickly as possible, and that meant the ‘Buffalo.' The Buffalo was a converted four wheel drive transport with a lot of extras, including a computer command center and weapons systems. He'd been with Duck when she'd dropped it off at the storage locker almost two years ago. It was their best bet for meeting up.
That meant all he had to do was ‘liberate' the van from the impound lot, elude the police, get over to the storage locker without being seen and wait for Tracker and Duck.
‘No problem,' he told himself sarcastically. He found himself wondering if Lightning would miss him while he was in prison.
Lightning was busy overseeing the evacuation process. As she watched, several of the younger members of the Wilson clan stripped down the last few pieces of equipment and loaded them into the waiting trucks.
She knew this was the least dangerous part of the operation, but she'd learned early on that the least dangerous operations were usually where people got careless, and that was when people tended to get hurt. Davy and Geoff trusted her with their lives, she was not about to let them down.
They had warned everyone that the move was going to be dangerous, but they'd all gotten used to the old base being a safe place. Nothing was safe anymore. Not with the rate the Black Roses were showing up. Davy and Geoff always boasted that they hadn't lost a Wilson yet, Lightning was not about to be the one to ruin the record.
The first phase of the evacuation had been completed over a week earlier. All the non-combatant members of the family had already been relocated along with the essential equipment. Those who still remained at the old base, were all ex-military. Davy was taking as few risks as he possibly could.
The equipment they were now loading would serve as a decoy while the rest of the family was moved into the new base. The decoy and subsequent diversions were Bear and Geoff's bailiwick. While they were providing the diversion, she and Davy would provide the cover for the actual evacuation.
"We're all set," Bear told her.
Lightning wheeled around and then smiled. It never ceased to amaze her how some one as big as Bear could move as quietly as he did. She prided herself on being alert, yet somehow Bear always managed to get the drop on her. What really got to her was the fact that it only happened when he didn't mean to surprise her.
"Sorry," he added when he noticed her hand had gone reflexively to her gun.
"Bear, I'm going to put a cowbell around your neck so help me," she joked as she took her hand off the gun.
"Good reaction time though," he commented.
"Good, hell, you could have killed me and lifted my wallet, before I even twitched." Lightning groused.
"I meant the reaction time from ‘somebody's behind me' to the ‘oh its just Bear' stage," he told her. "I've come way too close to being perforated by my own teammates not to notice and appreciate the restraint."
"Duck included?" she asked curiously.
"Duck especially! That girl is more paranoid than any three of us put together," Bear grinned. "You ready for us to get this circus rolling?"
"I am," Lightning told him. "Big question is how your guys are doing?"
"Fine. Geoff figures we'll be holed up for about a week, after that we just clear-out and come back here."
"You guys be careful," Lightning urged.
"Aren't we always?" Bear asked.
"Honestly?" she asked. "No. Not by any stretch of the imagination."
"Why all the concern?" Bear asked nonchalantly
"Look, you're almost as much of a trouble magnet as Boomer is, and to be honest, I don't want to have to deal with Duck if anything happens to you. It was bad enough when you were incarcerated," she added as she shook her head. "No way I'm going through that again."
"Nothing's going to happen," he assured her. "We'll be back here in one week, mark my words," he added with a wink.
Lightning watched as Daniel TwoBears strode off to the lead truck and climbed in. She knew that Bear knew how to take care of himself, but she just couldn't shake the feeling that it was going to be a lot longer until she saw any of them again. Bear especially.
Tracker stretched as Duck continued her pacing. Whisper had filled him in and he understood her reaction. Somehow he knew that the newest information was the least of their worries. If anything it was merely an offshoot of the real, deeper problem: Briar.
They needed to get a move on and start to get a handle on the situation before the Gang Busters were put at too much more risk. That meant they needed to figure out the communications problem and fast. Already, there was too much that they knew and hadn't been able to pass on to the others. They needed to get the information to Rico and the others, but they didn't want Briar knowing how much they'd been able to figure out.
He had a feeling that there had been others who had been where they were: knowing what Briar was and unable to pass that information on to anyone. He wondered how many times the information had been lost. It was that communications vacuum that had helped Briar build his power base. People not knowing what they were up against until it was far too late. He forced back the thought ‘like us.' Tracker was not about to surrender.
The only thing outsiders would have would be isolated, seeming unrelated bits of information. Taken alone, it would only be considered mild weirdness. It was only when viewed as a whole that it had added up to one very unpleasant situation, and nobody seemed the wiser until Briar went gunning for them.
Still, he couldn't think of anybody he'd rather be in the middle of it with than Duck and Whisper, except maybe the rest of Black Paw, Voodoo, the Backer Brothers, Pueblo Force and maybe some serious shock-troops thrown in just to be on the safe side. It may have been a little bit of overkill, and completely out of the question, but it was a comforting thought.
He turned his thoughts to the problem at hand. They needed to create a communications network that couldn't be easily compromised. One designed for the fact that cells would be lost. It did not look good at all. Then he had a thought, LoTech, a former merc who's services they occasionally used had specialized in unconventional communications, maybe he could help them.
"Duck," he called. "How about LoTech."
Duck turned towards him and shook her head. "He's too easily swayed," she answered as she signed ‘money.'
Tracker nodded. There was that.
Whisper on the other grinned at them and started signing rapidly. "Encoded visual messages. Get the folks from Galludet enclave to translate, be your code talkers."
Tracker thought for a minute as he tried to translate what Whisper had said. He kept forgetting that Whisper had spent the first thirteen years of his life in the enclave. "Think it'll work?" he signed back at Whisper and Duck.
"Historically speaking," Whisper signed back. "Some of the best codes were ones that could only be decoded by dedicated people. To crack the code you'd need enough visuals to get a half decent sample. After that it would still take at least a few months to break it completely."
"Or one day if you can crack the mind of one of the talkers," Duck countered sadly, thinking about the one they call MindBender. "From the sound of things, they've got somebody who could break somebody and they'd never even know it." They've got mind altering mages, and the all powerful Briar. He doesn't understand machines, but from the stat's we're getting, that's not going to last all that long either."
Whisper nodded. "Basically there's nothing you can come up with that they won't be able to break. Not with the resources they've already gotten."
"And we're running out of time," Duck agreed.
"Hey wait, I'm supposed to be that abysmal dark cloud at the end of the tunnel, you're supposed to be the optimist," Tracker grumbled. "Now I've got to come up with something cheerful."
"Sorry, I must have mixed up the que cards," Duck told him. Her face lit up as she hit on the solution to their problem. "Its so simple it's beautiful! Wait, just a minute..." she added with a whoop.
Duck closed in and nodded at them. "Combine methods, mix it up, no two ways about it, this could work." She signed excitedly, mixing ASL and American Indian Sign talk with bits of Polish and military sign. "Something that has several parts, each with different keys. Machine encode and visually encrypted. Each requiring people to decode it and only one person knowing a part of the whole."
"Duck," Whisper called as he grabbed her hands and held them still. "Pick ‘one' sign language to use, no fair mixing...them... up..." he stopped as he understood what Duck was trying to say.
Tracker just grinned and shook his head. "Okay, that's the first step, a visual code that takes several people to translate. We mix that with varied delivery methods, and we might just make it work, at least long enough that we might have a chance."
"Ah, now that's the Tracker we all know and love," Whisper grinned.
Candide listened as her watchers reported to her, but what they told her made no sense. The woman, Wjowski was up and around. She realized that there was quite a bit more to ‘Duck and Tracker' than anyone had realized.
Even more frustrating was the fact that Whisper seemed to have come to life. Even now she could now sense his power as it spread protectively over the camp. Somehow, something had gone horribly wrong.
Patience my child
‘Their strength is growing,' she told him. ‘There is something about those two, they must be stopped and soon.'
They will be, but for now we must know how the work. We must know our enemy before we absorb them.
Candide shuddered. For the first time since she had escaped MindBender, she felt something was wrong, that he might have done something to her. She drew her watchers around her protectively, as she probed her own mind. She felt something buried deep inside, but it evaded her probes. She felt a cold disapproving presence and felt its power welling up around her.
She called to her watchers to protect her, but there was nothing they could do. The real threat was inside her own mind, eating away at her from the inside.
Candide screamed as MindBender's spell burned through what remained of her mind. Destroying everything including that one spark that had told her something wasn't right.
"Fool!" MindBender swore as he unleashed his wrath on the girl.
For the second time that day, he felt his control slipping away. First the voodun, now the girl- mage. At least he had stopped her in time, before she'd undone all his work. He growled as he realized he hadn't taken enough time with her.
He turned to Fen and snarled. "Believe me, I won't make the same mistake with you," he told him as he lashed out. Fen fell to his knees from the force of the mind-blast. "You will have no secrets from me. Your mind is open only to me," he added as he eased himself back into a chair and took over Fen's mind.
He could feel Fen's confusion and pain. It made him feel better, but only slightly. As he probed deeper, he found the deep seated hatred he harbored for MindBender and what he had done to him.
MindBender lashed out again, savoring Fen's screams. "That was just a teaser," He gloated into Fend's mind. "Your hatred burns, but that too will be mine," he promised.
Fen whimpered as everything that made him who he was was once again laid bare.