Geoff had just finished his shower and was starting to unwind when the phone rang. Shaking his head, he walked towards the phone, he didn’t seem to be able to relax without something interrupting. Smiling, he picked it up. His smile faded when he heard the voice on the other end.
"I see," he answered woodenly. He felt his heart sinking as he thought about who was on duty.
The caller was offering to send a car around, but he stood there woodenly.
"That will be alright," he answered in a measured tone. "I’ll be there."
He dropped the phone as his hand clenched into a fist. He fell to his knees. ‘Lord, please, let them be well,’ he prayed.
The dial-tone was the only answer. He forced himself to stand up, and dress. There was work to be done. He relied on his training to keep himself objective, but this was family. As he dressed, he went over the roster. ‘Davy, Gina, Tommy, Rico, Eclipse, Bear... Joey...’ Joey’s name echoed in his mind.
*** *** ***
Joey tried to remain calm, but it was getting harder. Bear’s strength was giving out and it was only a matter of time. Worse, there was nothing he could do, but watch as Bear pushed himself beyond his limits, straining to give them one more minute, then another.
He was helpless, and that only made it worse. He heard Mr. Alberts coughing and turned. He was still a medic. He was still on duty. These thoughts kept him going as he turned his attention from the hopelessness, to the things he could do.
"Easy there," he said as he dusted Mr. Alberts off. "We’ll be out soon enough."
"Lad," the old man answered. "It was a good ride, either way."
Joey looked at him and nodded. He just prayed it wasn’t over.
Geoff parked the car next to the line of news trucks that had taken up the side street. He watched as they unpacked their cables and prepped their equipment. He slunk away from the trucks, the last thing he wanted was to be interviewed by these vultures. Not until he’d seen for his own eyes, not until he knew how bad things really were.
As he arrived, he saw two stretchers being eased out of the ruins. Gina was watching from the ambulance, but there was no sign of Davy or the others. He realized that the second stretcher had to be carrying Tommy. There were four men struggling to carry it and it was way too big to be anybody else.
As he tried to reach them, some one blocked his way. "I’m sorry sir, but you have to stand back."
Geoff looked at him in disbelief. "My family," he managed to state.
"Yeah, right. Tell me another one bub," the officer countered. "Sam, we got another one claiming to be..."
"Geoff," Ranier called as he moved to the tape. "Its okay. This is Geoff Wilson," he told the officer as he raised the tape for Geoff to duck under. "I’m sorry, about all of this."
"Its okay," Geoff answered, then inhaled sharply. "Where’s Davy?" he asked as he recognized the expression.
"They’ve already shipped him off to the hospital. He’s critical," Ranier told him gently. "We just found Tommy and Rico. They’re bringing them out now. From what I’ve heard, they’re seriously burned, but they should be okay." He paused as Geoff let the information sink in. "We don’t know about the others yet."
Geoff nodded as he took a deep breath. "What happened?"
"Reports say three blasts," Ranier told him. "Official report is going to read ‘gas leak’.
"Right," Geoff growled darkly.
"Tell me about it," Ranier agreed. "I’ll get you a list of what we find, but if this is what I think it is, then we’re going to be pulled from the case before we can even file it."
Geoff could feel the growl starting deep in his throat. ‘Davy, Tommy, Rico...’ He hadn’t been able to protect them, he hadn’t thought that whoever had been messing with them would go this far. ‘Davy, Tommy, Rico, Eclipse, Joey, Bear,’ it was all his fault.
"Don’t do this to yourself man," Ranier urged. "This is the first case we’ve had with this kind of escalation."
"Then why?" Geoff asked. "Why here, why now?"
"I don’t know," Ranier told him. "When I find anything out, I’ll tell you."
Geoff looked at him for a minute and then looked around. "You know what’s been happening?"
Ranier nodded. "I’ll try and catch up with you at the hospital, right now, I’ve got to find out as much as I can. I can give you one piece of good news," he offered.
Geoff looked at him evenly, his eyebrow raised slightly.
"Boomer and the others are fine. At least they were earlier today."
Geoff nodded. It wasn’t much, but at least it was something. "Thanks," he answered.
Ranier nodded. "I wish it could be more, but we’ve been tracking these people for almost a year now, possibly longer, its hard to tell. But for now," he added as the reports started crowding in. "We both have our rolls to play."
Tracker smiled to himself as he went over the code Duck had transferred to him. She was right about one thing, it was ingenious. The effort and design indicated a high level of planning and intelligence, but why frame Duck?
He mulled over the details all the way back to the warehouse. When he got there Finagle and Mercury were waiting for him, well, for the truck at any rate.
"If you don’t mind," Finagle stated as he held his hands out for the keys.
"Be sure and refuel when you’re done," Tracker countered as he handed the man the keys. He wasn’t entirely sure he trusted the newcomers, but he knew that Boomer did. That would have to do for now.
"We’ll check in ‘round midnight," Mercury promised. "Then Boomer and you are up for patrol."
"Who set the schedule anyway," Tracker grumbled.
"Your friend Whisper."
Tracker shrugged. They needed to work out a chain of command, two teams and two loners did not make for good teamwork. He watched them climb into the truck and head out. Then he went upstairs, he had a lot of work ahead of him.
They had to find the source of those chips and put them out of business. Too many people were already gunning for them, the last thing they needed was a decker war on their hands.
He reviewed Duck’s notes and then got down to the real work. As he started going over the code in detail someone knocked on the door.
"Yo?" Tracker answered
Whisper walked in.
"Yeah," Tracker called as he looked up from the code distractedly. When he saw the look on the man’s face he sat up straight. "What?" he asked worriedly.
"Explosion," Whisper answered woodenly.
"Wilson Travel. Took out the clinic too," Whisper told him. "Reports are coming in."
"We don’t know yet," Whisper answered as he activated the office’s vid. "reports are sketchy so far."
"Where are the others?" Tracker asked worriedly.
"Boomer and Kenny are watching in the break room. Mercury and Finagle are still out scouting around in the truck. I haven’t tried to contact Duck and Rabbit yet, I wasn’t sure ..."
"No, there’s nothing they can do," Tracker countered. "It would be better if they heard..." he stopped as the news opened with a live video feed.
*** *** ***
As the images played across the screen, Boomer stared at them in disbelief. It was too much to comprehend at first, but then the pieces fell into place. Kenny, sitting next to him, had the same shocked expression on his face.
He got one more look at the destruction before the camera focused in on the reporter. Her words, driving home the reality of what they were seeing.
"I’m standing outside what used to be the Wilson Family clinic. Reports are sketchy at this time, but it seems that an explosion, caused by a gas main leak, ripped through the building less than a half an hour ago. We have reports of three injured at this time, one critically. The police are still looking for survivors, but hopes are slim for those remaining unaccounted for. This tragedy could have been much worse, but it seems that only two patients were in the clinic at the time of the explosion. Names are being withheld at this time, until their families have been notified."
‘Three injured, one critically...’ the words echoed in his mind as he tried to think. ‘Who...who would have been there?’ Then the cameras focused back on the scene.
He looked at Kenny when he recognized Gina staring at the ruins. Geoff was holding her. Geoff, not Davy.
"We have to go to them," Kenny whispered.
"We can’t," Boomer reminded him softly. "We do that, and Aerocomm’ll snatch us up and use us as bait. Use you as bait," he corrected himself.
Kenny looked at him in horror. "This is to catch us?"
Boomer looked at the screen and shook his head. "I don’t think so, but they’ll use it to their advantage."
"Then who?" Kenny demanded. "Why?"
"I don’t know," Boomer answered as he turned back to the screen. "I don’t know"
"Boss, we’ve got a signal!" one of the rescue team called.
Ranier turned and smiled encouragingly at Gina and Geoff, then joined his men. "What do you have?"
"Four signals," the man said. "Mage confirms. Looks like one of them cast some kind of force wall, that’s the good news. The bad news is its starting to deteriorate."
Ranier looked around. "How soon can you get to them?"
"Not soon enough," the man answered. "Not unless we get some heavy equipment in."
"But won’t that just make things worse?"
"Normally yes, but the mages are saying that the force wall should hold against anything we dish at it. The only thing that’s going to break it is time."
Joey sat up as he heard the debris shifting around them. He looked at Bear hopefully, but he knew that he was near the end of his strength.
"Bear?" he called softly. "They’re almost here."
"When they get here," Bear told him, each word taking more effort than the last. "Take Mr. Alberts and go."
Joey bit his lip. "What about you?"
"Just go," he growled. He knew he’d never make it. "Tell Duck I... I’m sorry."
Joey closed his eyes and nodded. He pushed himself away, closer to the source of the disturbance. He could feel the edge of Bear’s shield and realized there was nothing he could do to help. Once the shield broke, the only thing that would be holding up that area was Bear.
Tracker watched in morbid fascination as the camera’s focused in on the wreckage. The police were focusing in on the area that had been the clinic as the police moved in a bulldozer. He turned up the volume as the reporter droned on.
"...activity. Reports now confirm that the three men already taken from the scene worked for Wilson family travel and have been identified as David, Thomas and Ricardo Wilson. We will have more information on them as it becomes available. But right now, the drama that is unfolding is at the clinic itself, where police are trying to rescue what looks like four survivors..."
‘Survivors!’ the words echoed through his mind. ‘Four.’ He clenched his fist as he watched the rescue unfold.
The camera focused in on the area as the bulldozer began pushing away debris. Tracker stiffened. If they were using the heavy equipment... no, a bulldozer would only make things worse, unless they knew that something was protecting them from the shifting wreckage. Magic was the only answer he could think of, and that would have to mean Bear. He prayed that was the case.
Suddenly the ‘dozer stopped and several rescue workers swarmed the area, pulling away the last blocks of concrete that stood between them and their goals. As they began pulling people from the pocket, the camera zoomed in on the scene.
He didn’t recognize the first two men, but then he saw Joey as he too was lifted from the wreckage. As near as he could tell, they were all miraculously unharmed. Then he saw the cause of the miracle: Bear.
He felt a gasp escape as the area behind Bear blurred as it started to move. Then a wave of destruction swept over Bear. Dust filled the picture, but he had seen Bear’s expression. He knew, and there was nothing he could do.
Tracker covered his mouth with his hand as he realized he had seen his friend for the last time. His next thought was of Duck.
Tracker held his breath as he heard Duck and Rabbit on the outside stairs. 'God help me through this,' he prayed as he heard the door to the main office open.
Rabbit entered first, smiling at him, then came to a dead stop as he looked at Tracker. Tracker watched as the horror played across his face.
"No!," he managed to gasp before Duck bumped into him. Tracker saw the happiness melt away from the man's face as he stared at him.
"What gives?" Duck asked as she looked from Rabbit to Tracker. "Tracker?"
He heard it in her voice, the sudden shift from happy to worried. Then she knew something was wrong, she'd seen it in his eyes.
"I'll go check on the others," Rabbit stated quietly, but Tracker could see the pleading in his eyes. 'Let it be wrong,' as he placed a hand softly on Duck's shoulders then headed down towards the break room.
Duck took a deep breath as she steeled herself against the news. "Tell me," she asked softly.
"There's been an explosion. They're saying it was a gas main...the Wilsons..." Tracker told her then shook his head. "Lets go into the other room," Tacker urged as he put an arm around her and led her towards the couch.
"No," Duck pleaded softly as she realized that Bear had been working at the clinic. "God no."
Tracker bowed his head and let out a slow breath, he knew all too well what this was doing to her. "Only confirmation we have is the news," he stated the stopped as he saw her face. "Gods darlin' I'm so sorry," he sighed as he pulled her close.
"I have to check on the others," she whispered as fought to keep her breath under control.
"Boomer, Kenny and Rabbit have each other," he whispered . "Its just you and me here okay?"
"How can it," she demanded. "How can I?"
"You take each day as it comes," he whispered. The words of wisdom a friend had shared with him when his world was crumbling apart. Words Duck had given him when Joanna had died. Even as he said them, they twisted like a knife in his heart. "Ah girl, I wish I knew..."
He felt her nod as the sobs escaped. He held her tightly as she rode the storm of emotions until she relaxed in his arms. Then he helped her onto the couch and held her as she stared out the window.
"What do the reports say?" she finally asked.
Tracker bowed his head as he ran a hand gently through her hair. He took a deep breath as the images of the last few hours worth of news played through his mind. The story had been repeated but by then they were listing names. Bear was dead, Davy not too far behind him, Eclipse still missing... He gave her the run down.
"It was just after eight. Travel was closed down, Tommy and Rico were in the vault going through old records with Eclipse. Two patients at the clinic. Bear and Joey were on duty. Gina and Davy were just coming back from dinner..."
Tracker closed his eyes as he saw the scenes as they had played out in the news. "Joey, the two patients, Tommy and Rico were the only survivors inside. Tommy and Rico survived because they were in the vault. From the looks of things they were burned pretty badly. And Davy... Davy threw himself on top of Gina, saved her life, but it may have cost his own... Rescue workers reported that Joey and the patients were shielded from the blast, and subsequent collapse by a man they described 'as big as a mountain. It was Bear. He held the load until they were able to get the others out. Then his strength just gave out before they could get to him. News folks couldn't explain it, but I saw the vids, it was Bear, alright. He knew he couldn’t hold out, but he forced himself to hold on until they were safe...."
"Any word on the others?" Duck asked numbly.
"Eclipse was working with Tommy and Rico, there’s no word him, the others...Boomer says they've been moving the operation elsewhere. Figure everybody else was involved with that..."
Duck nodded and sighed.
"It'll be alright," Tracker stated softly as he gently patted her head. As they sat there, he couldn't help but remember Joanna.
He was in the base hospital, his arms were covered in her blood, Joanna's blood, when Duck ran into the room. She didn't say a thing, just held him as he stared at her in shock.
They had been jogging.
"John," wait-up she had called. Ten years later he could still remember her smile as she ran towards him then raced past him towards the top of the hill and her laugh, the laughter that could make any room light up.
He could also remember the squealing tires and the roar of the semi as it barreled over the top, completely out of control.
She died in his arms.
Duck had already driven over 300 miles that day when she heard what had happened. She'd dropped everything, plead hardship and drove another hundred to be there for him. Joanna had always disliked Duck, and Tracker could never figure out why.
That night he understood. Duck knew him better than any other human being in the world. She knew things about him that Joanna could never even imagine. She knew what Joanna's death would do to him, and she was the one he turned to when his world started to unravel
He wanted to die, but Duck was there, caring for him. Trying to get him to live. And when he couldn't find a reason, she told him, "You take each day as it comes."
She opened her heart for him. Let him know he wasn't alone. When he wanted to quit, she told him about her mom, and how she quit and what it did to her. She tore open wounds so old and deep that they were both crying. And she did it so that he could find it in himself, the reason for going on.
When she had to go back, she made him promise to not quit. There were times when he wanted to, but the promise held him there, until he finally found the reason.
Duck would call him at least once a week to make sure he was alright. He knew it was wrong, but he had gotten tired of her checking in on him, so one night he went out drinking when she was due to call. By the time he'd gotten home, he'd forgotten all about Duck's fretting, but when he'd stumbled back to his quarters she was there. And the look on Duck's face that night... she was afraid she was going to lose her best friend the same way she'd lost her mom.
The morning came, and with it a hang-over like nothing he'd ever had before or wanted since. Duck was still tense, but she hadn't left. That made him feel a little better, but he still felt like shit.
"Tracker, you're my best friend," she told him softly. "I can't see you like this."
"Then leave," he told her. He didn't mean it, but seeing her torn up like that only made him feel worse. "Leave!"
He'd started crying then, "Leave me, before I lose you too..." he gasped. She held him then, like he was holding her now. They stayed that way for quite a while, until he was all but lost in the pain, until he'd cried himself out. Duck reached him with her only other weapon, her humor. When nothing else worked, she simply asked him if he felt like fooling around.
He knew she didn't mean it, but it got him to laugh. He laughed until he cried. And when he was done, Duck was still there.
"Thanks," she stated sarcastically, then asked, "Feel better?"
"Freakin' wonderful," he told her as he tried to get up. Then he looked at her and smiled. "you're such a tease."
It became their code for 'We'll get through this, somehow.'
In time he learned to go on, then he learned to live, then to love again. And Duck was always there when he needed her.
The years passed. He dated again, but there was always a special place in his heart for Joanna. Now seeing Duck facing the same loss, he didn't know if he could take it.
Duck stared at the screen in disbelief. He realized they were showing the video again. He waited until the reporters started discussing what had happened and cut it off. There was nothing else worth seeing.
"I better call Gran," Duck stated as she pushed herself up.
"It can wait," Tracker urged as he saw the look in Duck's eyes.
"No, it can't," Duck answered sadly. "I have to talk to her. She'll know for sure."
Tracker nodded. He had held Joanna in his arms, knew her death was real. Duck only had words and blurred images to go on: words, repeated from a newscast.
"I'll take the bike, ride into town, use the phone by O'Donnel's," she told him.
"That far?" he asked worriedly.
"I need to think, and I don't want to make the call from anywhere near here."
"Do you want me to come along," he asked.
Duck thought for a moment then shook her head. "Find out as much as you can for me?"
"Are you going to be alright?" he asked worriedly.
"No," Duck answered. "Not really."
With that, she headed towards the door. "Watch out for Rabbit for me will you?"
"Promise me you won't quit," he urged, but the door was already closed.
Duck leaned against the door as she gathered her thoughts. Every step, every word told her he was gone. The halls echoed from the emptiness. 'This is not the time,' she told herself. 'We have a job to do.'
She forced herself to move on, their lives were still in danger, and calling friends or family only increased the risk, but she knew she had to talk to Gran.
She pulled her hair up into a bun, and then pulled the helmet off the back of the bike. She was about to put it on, when she noticed something slick and shiny on the straps. Her gloves were coated with it as well. As she tossed the helmet aside and activated the comm unit, she heard something behind her. She wheeled to face the source, and relaxed. It was Whisper.
He held out his arms, his expression pure understanding. Duck tried to force the images of Bear from her mind, but they were always there. She smiled bitterly as he put a comforting arm around her. As he held her, she felt the sting as he shot her with a dart gun.
She tried to turn, but found her muscles weren't responding. Suddenly she was like a puppet that had been unstrung. She felt the pain as her legs gave out from under her and she landed on the concrete. There was no controlling fall. She tried to roll with it, but nothing responded.
In desperation, she tried calling into the com-link, but found she couldn't even make a sound. She was completely helpless, and there was no way to tell her friends, less than a block away, that she needed them. She tried to scream, but again, she couldn't make a sound.
She heard a van pull up next to her and the sound of three sets of feet as the occupants jumped out of the van. She could see their feet as the surrounded her, but she was immobile.
"Quick," one ordered in a harsh whisper as they picked her up and tossed her into the waiting van. The last thing she saw was Whisper watching them haul her away. His blank expression filled her heart with dread.
As the van started to move, Duck strained her ears to find anything that would help her figure out what was happening.
"How long will that stuff be effective?" One man asked cautiously.
"It could last for days," another man answered. Duck could tell from his slow words, the man was savoring it.
"What if she's got filters 'n stuff?" the first man asked again.
"Don't worry 'bout it," the second man drawled. "Drug's already out of her system. Soon as she dropped, it was done. That's the beauty of this stuff. It destroys all the body's neurotransmitters then goes away.. She won't be able to move until her body produces more and by then, Mind Bender'll be done with her."
"I thought she had to be conscious for him to do his thing," another man interjected.
"Ah, but there's the fun part. She's completely aware of what's happening to her, and there's not a thing she can do about it," the man stated.
Duck could feel his breath on her cheek as he leaned over her. Her pulse quickened as he ran a finger down her throat , then traced her collar bone. He moved his hand away, and then slapped her. Laughing , he picked her head up by the hair and then let it drop. "Not a thing she can do," he laughed.
Duck could feel him reaching towards her again, but something stopped him.
"Bender wants her in one piece," she heard the third man interjected.
She could feel the second man leaning over her again, felt his breath as he whispered in her ear. "You're going to wish we'd killed you like we did your friends."
Duck tried to move, but there was no response from anything. She could feel a tear slide down her cheek.
"Here, you'll want to watch," the second man added as he propped her up and propped open one of her eyes.
Once he had her eye opened, the man held a remote trigger in front of her. "Say good-bye to yer friends bitch, and welcome to the Briar!"
Duck watched helplessly as he hit the switch. She could hear a faint rumble in the distance, as the night's sky lit up behind them, then nothing but the hum of the van's tires on the road.
"There, there now," the second man stated in mock conciliatory tones. "Just rest your head and leave everything to us." With that, he positioned her head so it was resting on his shoulder. Duck cringed as he patted her head, but there was nothing she could do. Inside, she was screaming.