BlackCat eased into the building, moving with practiced ease. She quietly followed the shadows passing like her namesake, to Duck’s secret hideout. The message she carried was hand-written, encoded so that only Duck or another member of the team would understand. All she had to do was place it next to the access port.
It was a simple plan really; leave the note for Duck and retreat to the rendezvous point. There they’d wait for Duck and Gypsy to meet up with them. That was the plan, at any rate. As she prepared to leave, she checked her watch.
It was almost 2300 and she could hear some movement on the second floor. She told herself, it was most likely the usual tenants, nothing to worry about, but she felt something in the back of her mind. Something very wrong was going on.
She had just finished placing the note when she felt something moving towards her. She could tell by the movements, that whatever was approaching her was a hunter. Its movements were far too measured and slow to be anything else.
She tensed as she felt the change in the building’s shielding. It was as if the whole thing had shifted, transmuted into something very unpleasant and very undesirable.
The suspicion that something was wrong had transmuted into the knowledge that something was very wrong. She could feel it in her bones.
As she moved into a defensive crouch, she could hear terrified screams from the second floor. It was as if the occupants were trying to get out of the way of something horrific, trying and failing. She moved further into the shadows, pushing herself into the back wall. Whatever it was she had sensed, she could tell it was coming into the laundry room.
The figure moved slowly; meticulously, down the row of disused washers and dryers. As she watched the movements she could sense the wrongness in the movements. It took her a moment, and then she realized what was wrong, what had bothered her: the movements had a slightly jerky rhythm to them, as if the figure was used to having more legs than just two.
She forced her breathing to slow as the creature moved closer. Then she heard the impossibly high buzzing-clicking sound she had always associated with the presence of bugs. It had started to turn away when Vermin’s voice came across the radio. It froze, all motion ceasing as it began to scan the area looking for the source of the sound
‘No!,’ Cat thought as she trembled slightly. ‘It couldn’t have heard that. Shouldn’t...’ she thought as she deactivated the device. Then she saw the antenna that had been carefully tucked into the woman’s hair.
‘Bugs...’ she thought as her pulse rate quickened as she stared at the antenna. ‘Damn bugs are on our frequency....’ She held her ground as she studied her opponent, trying to get a fix on the type of bug she was facing.
The figure moved closer, scanning the area in moves that were too articulated for normal human movement. As the figure moved closer, Cat could see the wrongness in her eyes. ‘Her’ another clue: Mantids tended to prefer female forms, since most of them were female. She felt her stomach churn slightly the creature turned and scanned the area.
The woman stopped and let out a high pitched warning call. Cat’s eyes widened fear then shifted as she realized that the warning was not about her, but Vermin who came crashing through the doorway a second later.
Even as he rolled free of the debris, Cat could see two figures turn towards him from the other end of the hallway. ‘No...’ she thought to herself. ‘Don’t see him... don’t...’
She felt her heart sink as they began moving towards him. Cat moved without thinking. Shotgun in hand she racked it, pointing it directly at the ‘woman’s’ head. “We’re not a part of whatever you’re looking for,” she said keeping her voice low. “Tell them to leave him alone... or it becomes our fight...”
The woman turned until her eyes met Cat’s. The wrongness in the woman’s gaze sent chills down Cat’s spine.
“Not... Here...For... You...” the ‘woman’ told her in slow, carefully formed words. “Leave, or die...”
Cat nodded slowly. “Vermin... go back out the way you came...”
She watched anxiously as Vermillion straightened slightly and backed up towards the door. As he heard a scream from upstairs, he froze. His expression was one of rage and loathing.
‘Vermin no... just back out the door. This isn’t our fight... go... ‘ she thought to herself. ‘Just keep moving... don’t...’
The thought died in the back of her mind as he reacted to the screams. Swallowing against the disgust she felt, Cat fired into the woman’s face with the shotgun. As she turned to cover Vermin she could see two more forms moving down the stairwell. She tensed when she realized that Vermin was still busy with the first two and hadn’t seen them.
She could feel their communications in her bones, knew that there was no way the bugs were going to let them walk away from this one. Not now. As she chambered another round, she readied a spell, hoping she wouldn’t need to use it. The only spell she had that would help right now was her ‘napalm’ spell, and Vermin was standing right where she’d need to cast it for the maximum effect.
‘Vermin, move,’ she sub-vocalized before she remembered that she had deactivated her comm unit. As she tried to activate the unit, the two from upstairs had joined the fray. There was no mistaking these two for anything other than what they were: two female mantid soldiers in true form.
Cat wasn’t sure why they were appearing in those forms, but she wasn’t really in the mood to ask questions. All that mattered was taking them out before they had a chance to hurt Vermin.
“Down,” she yelled as she released the spell. She could feel the fire as it spread in all directions, the flames hungrily striking at anything in their path, desperately looking for anything to cling to, anything that would feed their mindless purpose.
Vermin rolled under the spell and back towards her, feeling the heat as he forced himself to move away from the fire, towards Cat. Cat had already fired three rounds at his attackers. That and the fire seemed to be keeping the others at bay.
“You want to help,” Cat growled as she chambered another round.
Vermin glared at her for a minute and then pulled out his knives. “Wasn’t expecting this,” he managed to gasp as he watched one of the mantids push through the fire and stagger towards them.
Cat fired another shot as they backed further into the laundry room. “Look for a way out of here,” she yelled at Vermin.
He could hear her chamber a round in her shotgun as another set of footsteps began pounding down the stairs. Vermin was wheeling around as a man dove through the flames and then looked at them.
As Cat aimed the shotgun, Vermin put his hand under the barrel and shook his head. Cat looked at him for a minute.
“Human,” he told her as he signaled the man to join them.
“How the hell can you tell?” Cat grumbled.
“It’s not like they’ve been trying to hide,” he answered as he tried to catch his breath. “This place switched to ‘obvious hive’ about the time you stepped in. None of the ... ‘people’ we’ve dealt with were masked. Its like... finding them at home in their pj’s.”
“Nice image,” Cat muttered as she signaled the man to get behind her.
“We aim to please,” he answered as he began looking for an exit.
“Th...thank you...” the man said.
Cat noted that he was out of breath, but didn’t seemed as terrified of the bugs as she’d have expected.. “We were in the neighborhood,” she answered as she watched for signs of their attackers. She trembled slightly as she noticed the movement just on the other side of the flames.
“Vermin... if you’re going to make us an exit... now would be a very good time.”
She could hear a crash as something broke through a window, but the sounds of fighting that accompanied meant it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. She could hear Vermin snarl in pain and then the sound as one of his knives cut into something meaty.
“Get me a can of ‘Raid’,” she heard her partner gasp. “The biggest freakin’ can you got!”
Cat drew a deep breath and was about to launch an offensive spell, when she felt a surge of power next to her. The man that had joined them had placed a shield of energy between them and the main part of the building.
That left the Mantids that were attacking from the window. “Vermin?”
“Busy now...” He growled. She could hear him grunting as he thrust his blade into his attacker. She turned in time to see the Mantid warrior fall. Vermin stood for a minute looking at his attacker. She could see the darkened area spreading along his side. But she also knew the look in Vermin’s eyes. He was running on adrenaline and too stubborn to acknowledge the blow.
“Let’s go...” he growled, offering her a hand up so that she could climb up to the window.
She took his hand and scrambled from the washers, to the window. As soon as she straddled the window, Vermin dropped to the other side to cover their escape. She turned to look at the mage who had joined them, offering him her hand.
“Gotta move,” she urged. “Its not going to hold forever... Just don’t think about it and move.”
He looked at her for a minute, then back out at the barrier. It was obvious that the spell was beginning to weaken. With a resigned sigh, he took her hand and let Cat help him through the window. He trembled slightly then allowed her to lower him out the window. He was forced to drop the last five feet, but managed to roll into it, damaging only his dignity.
Cat took one last look inside and then dropped to the ground. ‘Trust Duck to pick a hive as her hide out,’ she grumbled to herself.
Like her namesake, she landed on her feet and was moving before she even thought about it. She scanned the area, ready for anything, but for now it looked as if they’d lost their attackers.
“Lets move,” Vermin growled. He knew there were no other human survivors in the building, he wasn’t sure how, he just knew. The only things breathing in there were bugs and he wanted to be very far away from them.
He got no argument from Cat. Or their new guest.
Duke watched as three of the queens guard exited the building and began pursuing them. His eyes winded in a combination of fear and surprise. Surprise that Tskalleh-ch was not fighting him on this.
‘Our device... it gave birth to the one that claimed your son, our sister.’ Her voice stated softly in his mind. ‘We must... reclaim it’s secrets or destroy it. It is not designed to merge the human mind to a machine... it will only function to create unity between human and Ko Kamikiri.’
Duke nodded. ‘I know... but... I have made you... us... hunted...’
‘It is our way,’ Tskalleh-ch agreed. ‘We cannot go against the hive and expect them to do nothing. It is the price of who we are.’
Duke thought about that for a moment, wondering ‘who are we?’
‘We are the first of a grand age,’ Tskalleh-ch answered gently. ‘We will be the father of the new breed.’
Duke knew her words should worry him, but no matter what she said, there was always something about it, that made him nod in agreement. He wondered if it was the chip they had developed, or just a part of how well they fit together.
Cat let out a deep breath as the car finally put some distance between them and the Mantids. Once they were clear she wove a healing spell around Vermin as he drove. She continued to apply pressure and mana until the wound finally closed. Then she looked at their companion and nodded.
“What to talk about it?” she asked him. There was something pointed in the way she asked, she knew that he was the one the Mantids hunted.
Duke looked at her and sighed. “I... have gone against their wishes...” he answered evenly.
Slowly he looked up at her and let out a long sigh. She was the one who healed the woman he had hung his hopes on. There was much he had to tell them, and much he couldn’t.
Tckalleh-ch would not let him speak of the original chip, that was strictly Kamikiri business. They had agreed however, that he could speak of the device that has been based off of the chip. It was not the full truth, but enough that their point would be understood. Neither of them were willing to endanger the queen’s plan.
“I...have been watching you,” he said matter-of-factly. “You and your friend... the woman... the decker.”
Cat’s eyes narrowed. “You... have been watching us?”
Duke nodded. “My son... was part of a research team in Denmark,” he explained. “They developed a new interface device...”
“The black box,” Cat growled.
Duke nodded again. “His research provided the interface that was used in its development. He was killed in an ‘accidental explosion.’ I know it was no accident... I... began trying to find those people responsible for my son’s death. To this day, I do not know who they are. But I was able to find out that they were searching for your friend. I thought that by watching her, I would have a chance to see this insanity end...”
“And the bugs?” Vermin prompted.
“I...owe them for helping me find ... these people” Duke answered. “And... I failed to live up to my commitment...” he paused, relieved to sense Tckalleh-ch’s approval of his explanation. It was the truth, at least in part. At the very least it was enough that their rescuers should be satisfied.
Vermin studied him for a minute in the rearview mirror, then looked at Cat. He could see them exchange some sort of hand signals, but he had no way of knowing what was said.
Suddenly he felt Tchkalleh-ch hide herself within him. A moment later, he could feel the woman scanning them, scanning him. Somehow he knew she would only find him. That was the wonder of the chip... perfect assimilation...perfect union of Ko Kamikiri and human spirits.
When Cat finished her scan, he could feel Tchkalleh-ch returning to his mind. ‘Suspicious...’ she commented to him.
Duke fought the urge to laugh at the Mantid’s comment. ‘It is our nature,’ he told her.
“What can you tell us about our friend?” The woman asked
Duke could tell that by the tone of her voice she was indeed concerned about the woman. “She... is missing. A friend who was looking for her is dead,” he stated. “I fear... the worst.”
He could feel both the man’s and the woman’s eyes upon him. Suddenly, he found himself bracing himself against the door as the man jammed on the brakes and steered for the curb.
“Start talking,” he demanded as the car stopped moving.
Duke drew a deep breath. He had not expected such a sudden reaction. Taking a deep breath, he nodded and began explaining.
“Since I knew they were looking for her... I had my friend watch her. He lost her at a corner grocery store when she met up with the security man from her building.”
“When did your friend die?” Cat asked, her tone was semi-sympathetic, but also very tense.
“Earlier this evening,” he answered. “Ferron, my friend, was going to the security man’s house to try and find the woman. There was an explosion...”
“Damn,” Vermin growled as he slammed a fist into the steering column.
Cat gently placed a hand on his shoulder. “We don’t know anything for sure yet...” she stated soothingly.
Vermin looked at her, and she could see the fear in his eyes: that they were too late and another team-mate had been lost.
Duke refrained from saying anything, realizing that nothing he could say would make them feel better about the situation.
“We’ll find her,” Cat assured Vermin. “And when we do... we’re going to take these people out once and for all.
Vermin nodded woodenly as visions of Persephone and her fiancee` came to mind. He just wasn’t sure how they’d find her, and if she would be in any condition to appreciate it.
Tracker opened his eyes from his half doze as the door opened. He nodded as Rory slipped in the room with a tray of food.
“Figured you could use this,” he said as he looked over at Whisper, who was sound asleep. After studying him for a moment, he turned back to Tracker.
“He do what I think he did?”
Tracker nodded. “Purged her system... Took a lot out of him.”
Rory looked at him and then back at the tray. “In that case, I should probably get some more. He’ll be hungry when he wakes up.”
Tracker watched as the facility’s chief medical officer retreated from the room. He stat up, eying the food. As he reached for it, he heard Duck groan and roll over.
Leaning over, he studied her for a minute. She looked somewhat better, but there was still a haunted look in her eyes.
She looked at him intently as she tried to place a name with the face. “I know you...” she managed to state. Her speech was still slightly slurred.
Tracker nodded encouragingly.
She trembled slightly, as if she was fighting herself on something. Tracker’s face fell as he realized what she was thinking.
“There’s nothing you can do to get any of that shit... ‘cause there’s no way I’m letting you near any.” His voice was kind yet firm. “You’ve been through enough... and I’m here to make sure its over. Ya’ hear me?”
She nodded slowly as relief and exhaustion played across her face.
“Now, you want something to eat?” he asked gently.
Duck nodded slowly. He picked up a piece of toast and greased it lightly then handed it to her. She took it graciously, but was only able to eat a few bites before drifting back to sleep.
“You’re going to be all right,” Tracker told her as she slept. “Just fine.”
It sounded a little bit like he was trying to convince himself of it. As he waited for Rory to return, he pulled out the notebooks he’d confiscated from Rodgers and Hammerstein.
As he read, his hands began to shake uncontrollably. They had more than enough information to have closed down the whole operation: a lot more information than their inside man had been able to get them. Looking at Duck realized exactly how they were planning on finishing their ‘investigation.’
Tracker’s eyes blazed as he looked around the room and realized how many of his friends had died because these men were busy worrying about their track record instead of doing the job.
He still didn’t have a name for this ‘General’, but he did have an address for the ‘Technician.’ Maybe, if they could contact him, the could get this thing taken care of once and for all. He looked at his watch. They had twelve hours until they were due to check in.
‘Twelve hours,’ he whispered to himself as he looked at Duck. She was sleeping, but this time, the trembling seemed to have diminished to a simple shiver.
Gently, he took a blanket and covered her. “You’re going to make it,” he urged gently. “Just keep fighting.”
Gypsy watched the clock carefully, trying to hide his tension and anxiety from the others. The ‘all clear’ code from Tracker’s team was all very well and good, but there had been no confirmation code from Duck.
He knew her... better than he had realized, and Duck would not rely on the other’s code unless things were worse than they were willing to tell him. He did not doubt Tracker and his friend, but he also knew that if all had truly been well Duck would have told him as much.
Slowly he began shuffling the deck of cards in his hand allowing his mind to think of nothing by the chaos he was instilling in the cards. Even as the cards were jumbled, his mind drifted to Duck’s notes and the information that had been revealed. He clenched the cards reflexively as he thought about the device and the list of potential implantees. The idea of Red laying there, mindless all but drove him to distraction.
‘No,’ he told himself. ‘They would not have given the all clear if that had been the case.’
He forced himself to think about more constructive things. Now was the time to plan action, not to worry about thing over which he had no control. If Duck were lost, there was nothing he could do but avenger her passing. Her status would have to wait until the next check in from Tracker.
‘11 hours until contact from Tracker, 5 hours until contact from BlackCat and Vermillion.’ He wondered how long he could take waiting...not knowing.
The queen watched the humans as Duke talked to them. She found his initiative and resourcefulness both intriguing and unsettling. She could have given him the world, and yet he was willing to throw it away over his son.
Yes, the device itself was important to her plans, Tckalleh-ch knew that, but the human had a more primal, individualistic reason for its recovery. She could never understand the human need for separate identification. The hive could provide all they needed.
She began to wonder if the device was truly as successful as she had originally thought. Yes, Tckalleh-ch could hide within the human; yes she could pass undetected through the human world. Truthfully they shared such a powerful bond that made them something entirely different that either one could have been, but still, Duke’s individualism, his identity and will remained.
Sadly she thought about that. The hive had not survived as long as it had by allowing impurities into it. Free will was like a cancer that could destroy the hive, weakening it from within.
She found it intriguing that Duke, for all his rebellion and willfulness wanted this project to succeed. She hated to think what would have happened if he hadn’t.
It made no sense to help the hive and yet, remain outside of it. How could he hope to gain the true benefits and enlightenment that only comes through submission to her will, to the will of the hive?
She felt her guard in her mind, seeking direction.
‘Follow them, but for now... merely watch,’ she instructed them.
‘How can he live outside our realm and still feel joy?’ she wondered to herself. The unity was all.
Copyright 1999 M.T. Decker