Persephone stiffened as she heard a key slip into the deadbolt of her apartment. Gypsy had dropped her off only a few hours earlier and she was still trying to get a handle on what had happened. Their return trip had been long, but uneventful. The only bad thing about it had been being out of contact: communications were too risky to chance on the long ocean voyage especially when some one was looking for them.
The last thing either of them wanted was to continue the cloak and dagger intrigue, but the field of battle had not been theirs to decide. Now, in the safety of her apartment she had begun to unwind. Unannounced visitors were not part of any plans she had made.
She drew her gun and eased around the corner where she could have a protected view. As she lined up her sights, a familiar voice called softly. "Yala?"
"Daniel?" she called back in relief as she lowered her gun.
As he opened the door the rest of the way Silly Wizard smiled at his fiance. When he noticed the gun, he raised his eyebrows.
"Was it something I said?" he asked innocently as he closed the door behind him.
"Get in here silly," she growled at him. She was smiling, but he noticed that she hadn't put the weapon away.
"Ma'am, yes ma'am!" he stated as he locked the door. She waited for him to finish before leading into the living room. When he looked at her, he pulled her close and held her tightly. "Yala," he sighed. “I’ve been so worried.”
"I was afraid I'd never see you again," she admitted as she melted into the embrace. "It was terrible. We were set up."
"I know," he told her soothingly. “I know.”
She pushed away from him at that comment and studied his face. "What do you know about the mission?"
'Wiz bowed his head. " ‘Black box, need to know.’ Military’s already lost a lot of good people on this one.”
"Daniel?" she called worriedly.
"Heartbreaker and SunDog got too close to it. They're gone," he stated dully. "Whoever it is almost took out WEJ and Tonka in the process. They've cut into us pretty deep."
"Damn," she swore softly, then studied him again. Noticing the rings around his eyes she led him to the couch and began rubbing his shoulders. He stiffened as she began working the knots loose. She knew him well enough to know that when he had this much tension in his shoulders, something very big and stress inducing was on his mind. It also meant that he knew a lot more than he was telling her.
“What do you know?" she urged.
"Nothing really," he gasped as she hit a particularly tight group of muscles. "Only that you were sent to France to find the box. Only thing was it wasn’t there. It was set up, but they weren't after you, at least not directly."
"No, they wanted Duck," she growled in agreement. He was surprised by the lack of question in the matter; she'd already figured out that much.
He let out a snort. “Sometimes I forget just how observant you are.”
“Just remember that,” she warned. “You ever cheat on me... I’m going to know.”
He smiled and laughed. “Like I would ever be stupid enough to forget what I’ve got right here, or what you could do to me.”
As she continued to massage, she took a deep breath. “Out with it, I know this isn’t a social call.”
Wiz nodded, then turned to face her. There was so much he needed to know, and he needed to see her expression as she reviewed what had happened.
"I need you to tell me everything that happened, then I'm going to need to check with Gypsy and see what he can tell me."
"You're going off on your own aren't you?" she asked worriedly.
"Guilty," he answered. "We have to know what's going on, and since you and Gypsy were involved, even if on the fringe, it means you're in that much more danger."
She nodded then glared at him. "How did you know Gypsy and I were after it... and that we came up empty?"
"I've been trading notes with Duck," he admitted. "As to coming up empty: you're still here, you're still alive, if you had even gotten close to the real thing, you’d be dead."
He watched as his message sank in. Whoever they were up against was playing a very different kind of game. One that was leaving a wake a mile wide.
"Yeah," he told her. "Its that bad. Now, I need you to tell me everything that happened."
Yala nodded then looked around the room. "Agency sent us out: said something about a prototype that the French had stolen from the Swiss. They said it was up to us to get it away from them before they figured it out."
He watched her expression as she recalled the mission. "Things were bad from the start. They were watching us. It was supposed to be only me and Gypsy, but Duck was tracking us through the system, Gypsy’s insurance plan I think."
Daniel nodded encouragingly. "That was the first thing they were looking for I think: a decker that was willing to work outside the confines of the mission."
She bowed her head. "And we practically handed them the Duck." She let out a long breath and looked up at him. "They wanted us dead, and they could have killed us at almost any time..."
"But then they'd have lost the trail to the Duck," Daniel agreed. The more he talked to Yala, the more he knew he needed to see Red before things got out of hand. She was in a lot more danger than either of them had suspected.
“Duck got us out of the compound,” she added as she thought back, then snorted. “He took out two of their drones, even after we warned him off.”
Wiz nodded. He’d known ‘Duck’ long enough to experience that stubborn streak.
"We haven't heard anything from him," she added finally. "Gypsy's headed back to base to see if he can get a message through."
Daniel's eyes narrowed for a minute. "You've never met the Duck have you?"
She shook her head. "Of course not, he's our decker," she answered with a shrug as if that answered the question.
Daniel shook his head. He could never understand the army's need to keep their deckers tucked away all safe and sound. This was not a safe world, and you needed to be flexible if you were to survive, and that meant working with your team.
"Sorry," he explained. "Remember, I'm a decker."
She nodded and let out a snort. "I think after this, maybe we'll get to know our deckers as well."
He smiled at her. "I'll be back shortly, I'm going to try and talk to Gypsy about all of this. You keep your head down and watch it near the windows."
She nodded and held him tight. "You be careful, like you said... they're looking for deckers who are willing to take the initiative."
He nodded grimly as he kissed the top of her head. "Tuesday." he told her.
"Tuesday?" she asked.
"We were going to set the date when you got back," he answered. "Tuesday sounds good to me."
"I'll check my calendar and get back to you," she laughed.
"Don't keep me waiting," he urged as he opened the door. "Give me an answer when I get back."
"I'll be here," she promised. “And you know the answer.”
He smiled at her one last time, then was gone.
Gypsy narrowed his gaze as the siren sounded the second warning. He had gotten back less than 15 minutes earlier and instead of reporting in, he had opted to watch. Now he was glad he had waited: something was very suspicious about the whole alert.
He focused his binoculars on the infiltration team that was now entering their base. 'Infiltration hell,' he thought to himself. 'They have the clout to close down an entire base to get what they want.'
They moved with practiced ease as they closed in on the main building. This time of night, it was usually unoccupied. The only people in the building would be security: now safely tucked away in their ‘watch rooms’, and the deckers who were in the computer lab.
For a minute he thought about France and how close they’d come to giving Duck away. He began to wonder if it was their own men who were after the decker.
Focusing on them he noted everything, from the balaclava each member wore to the black BDUs and night vision goggles. Nothing escaped his notice, it was hard not to: everything they wore and carried was all military issue. Suddenly he realized they weren't betrayed in their mission, but rather set up. These were their own people, but 'who or what were they looking for?' was the question that ran through his mind and again, the answer came back: Duck.
When they entered the main building, any doubt he had vanished. They were hunting The Duck. He silently prayed for the decker, but he knew there was nothing he could do for him now. He was about to leave, when he noticed another man skirting the perimeter.
He tensed as he watched the man, and held his gun ready. As he watched, the man turned and gave him the hand signal for friend. Gypsy watched warily as the figure quietly made his way to his hiding place. He was dressed pretty much the same as the search party, but when he removed his helmet and balaclava, Gypsy sighed in relief.
'Daniel!" he mouthed as he recognized 'Yala's fiance. "What are you doing here?" He signed.
"Looking," came the answer, then he pointed towards the main building.
Gypsy nodded. "They are searching..." he signed the obvious.
"For Duck," Daniel agreed.
"I thought as much. Duck is there then?"
Daniel nodded worriedly. That’s what all of this had been about: singling out the military deckers and jackers. Worse, from the looks of things, it was their own people: their supposed brothers in arms. Still the big question remained: ‘Why?’
Gypsy nodded as he watched Daniel’s face. He had reached the same conclusions and the same question. "I think the answer is in the box," he signed.
Daniel nodded. "Let me handle this," he urged pointing towards the base.
Gypsy shook his head.
"I'm already AWOL," Daniel signed quickly. "You keep out of their way. Something tells me I'm going to need you, and you're going to need to be in the good graces of the powers that be."
Gypsy nodded. Suddenly he realized that if the box had been in France, he and 'Yala would both be 'targets' like their decker now was.
"You be careful," he urged silently.
Daniel nodded, then moved out. 'You too old man.'
Duck tensed as the search party drew closer. Somehow they had not only entered the base: they had taken control. A general lock-down had been ordered as the automated defenses had been activated, yet the intruders were able to move with ease. Whoever they were, Duck was worried.
The only warning the decker had, had been the lock-down order itself. A general alarm, that required every one on base to return to their quarters, or one of the base 'safe' areas. Duck had been in the matrix, trying to find their opponents when the alarm sounded. Precious seconds had been lost as the warning constructs had been generated and the message relayed. By the time Duck had exited the system, there had been no other option but to hide.
As it was, Duck had barely managed to dash for cover before the searchers had arrived. Even with a full security lock-down, they were able to move about freely: that worried Duck more than anything. These people had been able to declare a class 1 emergency with full lock down, and yet were allowed to move around unmolested. The whole thing wreaked. The people Duck had been looking for were within 50 feet, and there was no way to find out who they were, not without being added to the fatality list.
There had been too many fatalities already and Duck had no intention of appearing on the list of ‘victims.’ Staying off that list was going to be tricky though, the enemy now controlled the area both physically and electronically. Worse, any doubts of the opposition’s training vanished as they moved down the hall with practiced ease. Their movements betrayed them: these people were military.
The place was still except for the searchers and the one they were looking for. Somehow they had managed to trace the decker’s signal back to the computer lab. Fortunately the Duck never decked directly from the lab: there were too many eyes there.
Long before the trouble began, Duck had taken the precaution of tapping the line and wiring an extra station where no one would expect it. Even when decking from the base, no one ever knew it.
Still it was only a matter of time before they spotted the splitter and followed it to the patch cable in the ceiling. From there it would be easy for them to trace the cable to the janitorial closet. Even if they didn't find the cable, Duck knew that node was no longer safe to use. It might be a concern later on, but right now there were more pressing problems.
The air was getting stifling as the search continued and all Duck could do was wait. Wait and pray. Wait to be discovered, pray that nobody turned the fans on. The fans were the major concern. If they came on, Duck would be dead in a matter of minutes. Then again, if they discovered the hiding place, Duck knew the end results would be the same. Still a bullet was probably preferable to the fans.
The fans provided the building with fresh filtered air; they also provided Duck with a temporary hiding place. The air system consisted of three fifteen foot fans serviced by matching tunnels and a shaft that ran through the middle of the building. The shafts were wide, with no alarms or sensors. They didn't need any: anybody within the main shaft would be buffeted by gale force winds and dead within a few minutes.
Currently the fans were turned off: that was standard procedure when the base was put on alert. The fans were automatically cut off in case of gas attack. It was the only place the decker could remain undetected with the search party tearing the base apart. The only problem was, it was also a death trap: once the alert was canceled, the system would begin the process of restoring the building's air supply.
For ten minutes, the system would work at maximum, pushing fresh air through the system at three times the normal rate. There was no way Duck could survive the system's reactivation.
Silly Wizard took a deep breath as he donned his mask and prepared to enter the compound. This was what he was trained to do: break in, infiltrate and open things up for the rest of the team. Only this time, he was trying to open up an escape route for the Duck.
He did not understand the army's need to cloister their deckers away: they were military weren't they? He and Tracker were two of the best when it came to infiltration decking. Duck, had managed to get a lot of the requisite training for the job, but again, even the decker’s own team had never met her. He snorted: they didn’t even know Duck was a she. ‘If they only knew,’ he thought to himself as he started forward.
He froze as he heard the familiar hum of a patrol drone: he was in the middle of the killing zone. He took a deep breath and held it as the machine scanned for movement and heat signals. Mentally he verified the functionality of his suit.
The suit was designed to give false readings on sonar: making it seem closer to the source than it was; trick IR imaging by matching the surrounding temperature. It gave him some protection, but not much. They systems were currently set to attack anything that didn't belong there, and he definitely fit that criteria. Fortunately the suit seemed to be working and as far as the drone was concerned, he wasn’t there.
He was about to move when a second drone passed by. It was trailing the second: that was not standard. He got a very good look at the second drone and his pulse rate increased.
The second drone was armed for bear and it was not part of the standard security sweeps. Whoever had initiated the lock down was not relying strictly on the base's own security. Silly Wizard was not pleased by this revelation.
'Well, looks like I earn my pay tonight,' he told himself as he watched the second drone lurch forward and then double back before moving forward again. 'And whoever's running that drone is keeping it as unpredictable as possible.' Something told him that the thing was on random control, not actively seeking anything, but designed to catch the unwary.
'Catch the unwary, but let the wary through?' he wondered. Somebody is testing our people, and if they fail, then they're dead. He drew a deep breath and moved on, afraid to think about what would happen if they passed.
Duck tensed as somebody tested the door: if they found the hiding place there was no way the decker could keep from being caught. Scanning the area Duck to come up with a plan. They knew they wanted the decker, but they didn’t seem to know who she was. That was the one good piece of news. Duck liked keeping her identity a secret. It had taken far too much work to get into the military, and yet remain unknown, but now, Duck was very glad she’d taken the extra steps to remain a mystery.
It was one advantage to the profession: most people felt that deckers were to be used behind the scenes, remain anonymous so that they couldn’t be used against their team. That was the big reason Duck had chosen the Army: they didn't even give their deckers standard military training and that made the ruse possible.
A smile appeared in spite of the situation: the army didn't teach their general purpose deckers to shoot. As far as Duck knew, only the Navy and the Royal Marines treated their deckers like any other soldier. Duck smiled. If these people were UCAS operatives, then they wouldn't expect an army decker to be quite as versatile. It was the one bright side in all of this: they probably wouldn't expect the decker to be a threat outside the matrix. Still Duck had no desire to put that theory to the test.
When the pushing and pulling on the other side of the door stopped, Duck let out a slow breath. Things hadn't changed, but at least for now, she was safe.
The technician shook his head as the General glared at him. "I tell you Duck was here," he insisted. "I had a signal strong a clear until the alert sounded. There's no way he could have slipped through."
"Then where is he now?" the General demanded .
The technician shook his head. "I don't know."
"You traced his signal to the lab, right?"
Again the technician shook his head. "His signal came from the lab, but he never appeared on any of the screens."
"Couldn't he have faked his connection?"
The technician drew a deep breath. "Connections can be faked, but this connection terminated in this room..." he let the sentence drift off as he scanned the room. "Unless..."
The General regarded him for a minute, then growled, "well, I'm waiting."
"If he tapped one of the lines, took it outside the lab..."
"Pull the ceiling tiles, I want this man found!" the General growled then headed for the door. "You've got fifteen minutes. You don't have him by then, you're our new guinea pig, got that?"
"Yes sir," the technician answered tensely. He'd seen what had happened to the first two 'guinea pigs' on this project. He had no desire to join them.
Duck looked around and examined the walls of the air shaft. Every duct out of the shaft had been sealed. Looking up, the decker realized that the only other hope lay in the intake vent, four floors straight up. A small rail ladder was the only thing standing between the decker and oblivion.
Taking a deep breath, she grabbed a hold of the railing and pulled herself up. By the time she’d reached the top of the ladder, the effort had taken its toll. Winded, the decker began inspecting the fan and its connection. Time was running out.
‘There has to be a way,’ she told herself as she began inspecting the grating around the fan.
Silly Wizard knew he was in for a fight: the search party was expecting trouble, looking for it even. They may have been looking for Duck, but he knew that if they found him instead of Duck, he’d be the one in trouble. At least they hadn't found her yet, and he had every intention of keeping that way.
‘Okay,’ he thought to himself, then smiled: Duck knew her way around the base better then most. If there was a way of this little trap, he was pretty sure she'd find it. That left him to create a diversion and give her the chance she needed.
He ducked into the ditch surrounding a basement window and slid the window open. As an alarm sounded, he ran to the next. His objective was simply: make them think she'd escaped.
"We've got movement," one of the riggers shouted. "South wall."
The General smiled. He knew that if he waited long enough, the decker would make a break for it. "If he gets to the gate, bring him in; otherwise, you know what to do."
The team’s rigger nodded. "Yes sir!"
The technician cringed: these were their own people.
"Rogers?" the General called.
"Yes sir," the technician answered. 'Good work... selling out your own,' he thought to himself. He knew he had to do something before things got out of hand. Looking at his reflection in the screens, he knew it was already too late.
*** *** ***
Silly Wizard felt his pulse quicken as he fought to maintain the balance of leading the invaders away from Duck while remaining undetected himself. He’d been lucky so far. All the detectors had been searching for the bio-signatures that the suit suppressed. Still he knew he had to remain unseen. The suit would only protect him from mechanical detection: all it took was one person looking the right way at the wrong time and all the technology in the world wouldn’t be able to save him. He forced himself to move on. ‘Don’t think,’ he told himself, knowing that thinking too much could be just as dangerous as not thinking enough.
He was getting closer to the gate, and he knew that meant the worst of the defenses were yet to come. Drawing a deep breath he reviewed the plans he’d memorized for just this occasion. All he needed was to take control of one or two of the remotes that were searching for him, then he’d be ready to make his exit.
Finding what cover he could, Wiz propped himself up against one of the buildings and began scanning the frequencies. He was looking for a signal that would match one of the circling remotes. He smiled as he found the frequency and reconfigured his own control systems. Switching to ‘view’ mode he tapped into the remote’s output. Once he was sure that he hadn’t been seen, he began feeding the remote a new set of command sequences.
The commands were sent with a delay code. If everything went as planned the remote’s owner wouldn’t even know it had been compromised until after it had finished providing him the diversion he needed.
Scanning one last time, he tried to find one of the base remotes. If he could reprogram one of them, it might provide him with a little cover when he did make his move. These people were military, they had all the access codes and they knew the standard procedures way too well, it was time to shake up their world.
As the first remote began reporting its location and began chasing the false image ‘Wiz had fed it, he moved into position. He was so close to the gate now he could taste it. Suddenly gunfire erupted inside the courtyard. Three remotes were locked in mortal combat with imaginary targets. As the sirens sounded Wiz slipped through the gate and faded into the darkness.
He carefully stripped off his infiltration suit and folded it up. Now if they saw him, he’d just be a man on a bike. He smiled to himself: another job well done.
He was completely unprepared for the surge of electricity that swept over the bike and through him. He fell stiffly to the ground, still twitching from the jolt.
There was no way he could have seen the figure that shadowed him as he headed back towards his bike and watched as its trap was sprung. With a smile the attacker pulled out a wrist comm and reported in.
“General, we have your volunteer,” he said as he inspected his work. “Outside the south gate.”
“Pack up operations,” the General ordered. “We’ve got what we came for.”
The technician looked at him for a minute and then nodded. Maybe this one would prove the one they were looking for and all this insanity would end. He tried to comfort himself in the thought as he packed up his gear and headed towards the door. Checking his watch he realized that the time limit the General had given him had expired. If the Duck hadn’t broken cover, he would now be the one they were carrying off. He didn’t know what they were doing, something told him he didn’t want to know.
It was bad enough that he knew that people were dying, and they weren’t the only ones with something to gain from all this. Still, these were their own people.
He paused as he heard a thumping sound. Turning he realized it had to have come from the air containment system. It was the one place that was closed to them, the one place where somebody would be able to stay, undetected.
They’d written it off, the doors were locked by the alert, and anybody crazy enough to hide in there, would be dead as soon as the alert was canceled.
He thought about that for a minute and nodded to himself. It was a risky thing to do, but it fit with the Duck’s profile. ‘I hope you’re as good as I think you are,’ he told himself as he keyed the door open and left. The decker would have no more than 2 minutes to find the door, but it was 2 more minutes than he would have had otherwise. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
Duck stiffened as the system released the door catches. That wasn’t due to happen until the system had purged itself of any contaminated air. She watched warily, but the door never budged. She could hear the turbines whine as the fans prepared to kick in.
Her eyes widened and she began moving down the ladder as quickly as possible. She dropped the last twenty feet and rolled out the door, gun drawn. There was nobody there.
With a relieved sigh, she pushed the door closed and darted back into the closet. It wasn’t really safe, but it would have to do for now. She stiffened as the fans cut in and the first fresh air caressed her skin. It served as a reminder of just how close she’d come to dying.