Tracker slept fitfully as he watched over his companions. Whisper had finally drifted from exhaustion to sleep, and he knew in a few hours, he’d be digging into the pile of food his cousin had left.
Duck, on the other hand, was beginning to feel the pangs of withdrawal. Listening, he could hear the shudder in her breath as her body craved the chemicals that Whisper had worked so hard to remove. In the dark, she shivered.
He started to get up when he caught some movement out of the corner of his eye. He froze.
The form moved smoothly, almost as if it was moving on wires. In the dark it looked like a collection of black scarves. It turned, almost as if it sensed him watching it.
Tracker’s eyes widened as he realized that this apparition was not the product of his exhaustion, but something very real, and yet... not tangible. He could feel his chest tighten as the thing once again moved in on Duck.
He tried to move, but it was as if something had bound him to the chair. He watched, his pulse rate skyrocketing as the thing bent over her, inhaling as she exhaled, then breathing its breath back into her.
Tracker strained against the invisible bindings that kept him from moving. He was helpless as the thing seemed to fade with each breath Duck took. It turned one more time and smiled at him...
Tracker awoke with a start. The lights were on and Rory was checking on Duck’s pulse. He turned and smiled when he heard Tracker move. “Mornin’” he called cheerfully.
Tracker stared at him for a moment and then nodded. “How is she?”
Rory shrugged. “We’ll know in a few hours,” he sighed. “She eat anything?”
Tracker nodded. “A few bites, not much...”
Rory nodded. “She’s going to have a few rough days ahead of her, but... he got her through the worst of it,” he said nodding towards Whisper.
Tracker looked at him, wondering if the vision had been a dream or something more sinister, but refrained from asking.
“Anyway... I’m going to go get some shut eye before I fall down,” Rory told him. “Tell sleeping beauty he owes me dinner and an explanation.”
Tracker nodded, forcing his expression to remain calm. Something told him he did not want to stick around this place any longer than necessary.
As Rory headed out, he looked at the clock. It was 0430. Tracker pulled out the notebooks they’d confiscated from Rogers and Hammerstein and began reviewing them in earnest. After an hour, he pulled out his deck and transferred the information. It would make sharing the information easier when he got back to base.
Tracker stifled a yawn as he looked around the room. The world outside was beginning to brighten as the sun finally rose over the horizon. It was 0630. His companions were beginning to show signs of waking.
Whisper muttered something in his sleep and rolled over, but Duck just lay there, staring off at something only she could see.
After checking on his companions, he settled back down into the chair and pulled out Roger’s notes. He’d been able to piece together quite a bit from them, but he still had a lot of unanswered questions.
One question had been answered though. The technician had been sucked into this mess, trained and planted by Rogers and Hammerstein. He was working under the name of Mark Rogers, but it seemed even the Interpol Agents referred to him as ‘the Technician.’
Part of him felt sorry for the man. He’d gotten in way over his head, but he was the one who had put himself into that position. He could have gone to the police, or made the whole thing public. He had warned Duck, and in turn Tracker himself, but the man was far from innocent.
Willing or not, he had helped set-up Duck and had all but given the ‘General’ Silly Wizard. He could feel his anger building over the whole thing. He took a deep breath, trying to clear his mind. Still, the anger still remained.
“Ain’t going to do you any good....” Whisper groaned from the room’s second bed. “I miss anything?”
Tracker looked at him for a moment and thought about the dream he’d had earlier– if it was a dream. “Your cousin says you owe him dinner and an explanation.”
Whisper snorted as he pushed himself off his bed and shuffled over to Duck’s. He stiffened as he checked her pupils. “How long since Rory was here?” he asked suddenly.
Tracker looked at him questioningly. “Two - two and a half hours... Why?”
Whisper shook his head. “Something is very wrong here...”
Tracker looked at him, then looked at Duck. “Talk to me...” He urged as visions of last night’s dream came back to him.
Whisper looked at him, his eyes narrowing. “You saw something...” It wasn’t a question.
Tracker nodded slowly. He looked at Duck and took a deep breath. “Woman, dressed in black... almost ethereal... it was almost as if...”
“As if she was made of smoke...” Whisper asked when Tracker’s sentence drifted away.
Tracker nodded, almost mechanically as he tried to remember. “She... leaned down and... it was like...”
“Your friend inhaled the smoke?”
Tracker’s head shot up, his eyes wide as he realized it wasn’t a dream. “What was it?”
Whisper concentrated on Duck for a moment then turned towards Tracker. “Hospitals, places like this... they gather... usually around suffering.”
Tracker watched tensely as Whisper paused, letting his breath out slowly. He forced himself to remain calm as Whisper gathered his thoughts and tried to explain what was happening.
“They’re the spirits of those who’ve passed before... those who suffered. It’s said that... they are locked in their suffering, trapped. Some say they are trying to help, to redeem others, save them from their fate... others say they’re looking for company...”
Tracker looked at him and then back down at Duck. “We have to reach her!”
Whisper nodded, but he knew the chances were slim, it had taken him way too much energy to get through to her in the first place.
Duck shivered as she felt something move inside her. Her senses were muddled, but she could feel something almost like a hunger inside her. It seemed to spread until nothing else existed.
She could feel the pangs as her mind turned on itself, trying to find a way to get what her body needed. Suddenly she was freezing. The cold seemed to numb everything except the hunger, the craving.
She knew she was shivering uncontrollably, but she didn’t have the strength to move. As she tried to focus on the feelings, her mind was filled with visions of what was happening.
A dark room, a bed, its sheets soaked with sweat. A woman: the images were more sensations than actual pictures. The sensations filled her mind until she all but became the woman.
It was almost like the BTL’s... almost, yet different. She could sense that this too had a purpose, but it was trying to tell her something. She concentrated on the experience.
Exhaustion warred with desire. She could smell the object of her desire, in the air, on her breath. She wanted it, needed it... and it was killing her.
Duck was startled by the suddenness of the realization. She was the woman... the woman was afraid that this was true. She knew it.
As she thought, the cravings seemed to lessen, but as soon as her mind drifted, the pain, the call was there, demanding to be satisfied.
Cold. Dark. Despair. The sensations became her world. Filling her until even the craving was silenced. The vision was moving now, almost as if it was following a path that it had for years... Descending into pain, followed by numbness... then pain again as the craving tried again to make its presence known.
Duck tried to breathe, but the craving was haunting every breath. She could feel the vision trying to rise above the sensations her body fed her. Ghost pains, Ghost cravings... fear... They overrode everything else.
Then, in the dark a light finally shined down on the confusion and Duck understood. She smiled as she sensed the presence nod approvingly and pass through her. She smiled slightly.
Whisper tensed as Duck began shivering uncontrollably. He placed his wrist on her forehead and then pulled it away sharply. “Compress...” he called as he searched the room for a washcloth.
Tracker joined in the search and found one in the bathroom. He ran it under the faucet and then handed it to Whisper.
Duck trembled slightly as he patted her face with it.
“Easy,” he urged gently as tried to help her cool off.
Her eyes shot wide open as she stared at him for a moment, the recognized Tracker. She turned to him and managed to gasp. “Deck...”
Tracker moved closer trying to understand.
“J...jack me in...” There was a plea to her voice and an odd sort of clarity.
Tracker stiffened slightly as she spoke and then nodded. It made sense. Quickly he pulled his backpack out and began laying out his equipment. He found himself wishing he had ‘Wiz’s deck with him, it would have been more... comfortable for her, but he only had his own.
As he untangled the cables, he loaded the details of the investigation and a simulator to keep her busy. Once the cables were prepared he looked at her one last time.
“I’ve loaded all the information we have... and a simulator routine so you can adapt the environment to suit you.... if you need anything else, ping me with a system message and I’ll see what I can do...”
Duck nodded, but he could see the strain in her eyes, without further preamble, he plugged her in and activated the deck. When he finished Whisper was staring at him.
Tracker shook his head and chuckled slightly. “She’s got the right idea,”
Whisper shook his head in frustration. “What?”
“Withdrawal can’t hurt you... if you can’t feel it... if... your mind... is elsewhere...”
“Like in the matrix,” Whisper sighed.
“Or an approximation thereof,” Tracker agreed.
Whisper sighed. “Wish we had thought of that before I tried to heal her...”
Tracker grinned at him for a moment then looked down at Duck as her expression relaxed. She was at home now, in an environment she could control. After everything else she’d been through, that was probably the best thing for her.
“How long before we report in?” Whisper asked.
“‘Bout four hours,” Tracker answered as he looked at his watch. He looked at Duck again, then back at Whisper. “That... spirit thing... it helped her didn’t it?”
Whisper shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. It may have, but then again, she could have figured it out on her own...I’ve only just met the lady, but I can tell you, she’s stubborn as hell and she’s a survivor.”
Tracker nodded. He knew the kind. Once again his thoughts were drawn to Silly Wizard and what had been done to him. He shuddered when he realized that Duck had almost ended up the same way, without the implant. “We need to bring them down, fast and hard, before anybody else has a chance to get a hold of that thing.
Whisper nodded. “That means heading back to base.”
Tracker nodded. “I’ll go get the car.”
Vermin watched the traffic in his rearview mirror as he mulled over what Duke had told them. He had been following Duke’s directions to the security man’s house, when he finally pulled over and stopped.
Cat looked at him questioningly.
He looked at her, resignation shone in his eyes. “There is nothing we can do for Duck...”
Cat’s eyes widened as she shook her head. “No... we don’t know for sure...”
Vermin looked up, his eyes meeting hers. “No, we don’t... but we are being distracted from the real mission. You found where they held Yala...”
Cat nodded. “That can wait until we’re sure.”
Vermin shook his head slowly. “No... Cat... it can’t. They know you found them... how long do you think it will take for them to bug out of the area?”
Cat looked at him for a minute. In light of their recent encounter the phrase seemed to take on a new meaning.
“How long you figure it’ll take them to clear out their base?” Vermin clarified.
Cat paused, as she forced herself to think of evacuation, not bugs. She began calculating. “Full surgical, recovery... equipment, staff... Under normal circumstances... I’d say at least a few days... but if these folks are military... Mobile... They could be gone already...”
Vermin nodded. “We need to get there and verify...track them if necessary.”
Cat nodded, then looked at Duke through the corner of her eyes as if to say, “what about him?”
Vermin bit his lip. There was still something that bothered him about the whole hive experience. He could almost understand the man working with bugs if it meant avenging his son, but it still didn’t sit right with him.
Duke for his part seemed lost in his own thoughts as they had driven through the city. He was practically oblivious of their scrutiny.
“Do you have somewhere where we can drop you off,” Vermin finally asked, turning towards him.
Duke’s head snapped up, surprise showing in his eyes. “Sorry... “ he apologized as he looked around.
“I asked if there was somewhere I could drop you off?”
Duke looked at him, a hint of something in his eyes, but Vermin couldn’t place it. “I... here would be fine,” he finally answered, but after a pause added, “but I would ... like to see this through.”
Vermin took a deep breath, then looked at Cat. He was too much an unknown, and he brought a lot of trouble with him. Part of him wanted to protect the man, but he had made his own deals, and would have to live with them.
“When we find the men behind this,” Cat swore softly. “They will be dealt with...”
“And the device?” Duke asked pointedly.
“It will be destroyed...” Cat’s eyes blazed as she spoke. She’d lost too many friends over this thing and she would not lose more willingly.
Duke nodded. “That is ... all I can ask for...” he sighed.
‘What are you doing??? They will...’ Tckalleh-ch’s voice echoed in his mind.
‘They are people of their word, Tckalleh-ch,’ he answered, soothing her objection. ‘But we will be with them... trust me...’
‘Send a signal to your clan... summon them here...’
‘But they will ... attack...’
Duke took a deep breath as he looked out the window at the quiet city. ‘That is the idea... but it must be while they are still with us... they will not abandon us...’
‘How can you be sure?’
‘They could have left... unharmed, but... the man... he could not walk away... then or now... just do it, there is not much time.’ He could feel her trying to follow his reasoning, but in the end, she merely allowed herself to trust him. Running on instinct, she sent out a silent signal to her queen, then waited..
In less than a minute they were there. Not just her clan, but others, shifting through the shadows. As one shambled towards the car, Duke gasped.
Vermin looked up, his eyes widening as he saw the shambling figures. Without a second thought he floored the accelerator, leaving their pursuers in a cloud of exhaust. On some level he hoped they at least found it noxious if not lethal.
Tckalleh-ch seemed amused. ‘He... does not like us...’
‘No,’ Duke agreed. ‘But he likes our enemy even less.’
‘Still... I do not think he would be helping us if he knew the truth,’ Tckalleh-ch warned Duke.
‘No,’ Duke answered slowly. ‘Probably not. The woman... perhaps, but not the man... his... fear of our kind drives him. The woman understands... she may not like us... but she understands.’
‘How did you know they would protect us? How can you predict the movements of one... outside the hive...not of the unity?’ Tckalleh-ch was puzzled.
‘They follow a code of their own... but they are honorable.’
He could feel Tckalleh-ch mull that over as she tried to apply hive logic where there was none. ‘They are not of the hive,’ she finally commented. ‘But... of their own hive...’
‘Close enough,’ Duke assured her. It was something she would never fully understand, having never been outside the hive. But for now, they had bigger problems.
When they were finally away from the city, Vermin looked back at Duke, then signaled Cat over the radio.
‘I don’t like this,’ he told her in low certain terms. ‘Something’s up here and I can’t put my finger on it.’
Cat nodded. She could feel it too, but there was no supporting evidence. Still, she knew that they had lost the bugs from the Apartment building, and that they found them as soon as they’d stopped... as soon as they had started to drop their guest off. Involuntarily, she looked at him in the rearview mirror. It was almost as if...
She shifted her attention, catching the briefest glimpses of something as it faded from sight. Her eyes widened. She was about to warn Vermin when the world seemed to swim around her.
‘Please... do not...’ the voice spoke slowly in her mind. ‘He... would not understand...’
Again Cat’s senses detected the difference and realized why the bugs had been able to find them so easily.
‘Forgive me... but... it is very important that we destroy the device... it could mean great power to our enemies... and death to your people.’
Cat tried to pull away, but the entity that spoke to her would not let go.
‘I am sorry... but this is important... I... will not force you to help... HE will not let me...’
Cat swallowed as she realized that if not for Duke, the one speaking to her, would have attempted assimilation to gain their cooperation.
‘The device must be destroyed... ‘
Cat nodded: at least they agreed on that. ‘What... do you propose?’
‘I can hide from them... they must know you are coming... you must summon your hive mates... and attack while their workers are ... busy ... evacuating their hive...’
It took Cat a few minutes to sort out the spirit’s analogy, but when she did, she had to nod in agreement. The remaining problem, was dealing with Vermin, and that would prove interesting.
Gypsy sat up as he felt his phone tingle in his pocket. It was still several hours before anyone was due to call. Apprehensively he pulled the phone out. It had stopped tingling, but on the screen was a one word message: ‘spuszcza!’
He smiled to himself as he translated the one word into a volume of information. There was only one person who would have sent him that message: Red. It meant that things were a mess, but she was maintaining her sense of humor, and that she would be back.
More than that, it told him something was happening. He only had to wait to find out what. As he sat staring at the message, the phone began to vibrate again. He turned it on and was surprised to find Cat on the other end.
“We found them... at least where they were when they had Yala.’
He smiled. Trust Cat to not waste time on preamble and get right down to business. “Tell us where and we will join you.”
“Us?” Cat asked warily.
“Us,” Gypsy confirmed. “I have found some friends who have shed more light on the subject.”
“Me too,” Cat added with an odd grin. “Time is running out, they’ll be moving if they haven’t already.
Gypsy nodded. “We will arrange a meeting. Call back in 20...”
Cat nodded. “Till then...”
Gypsy listened as the line went dead, then looked at the message from Red one last time. “So the children are returning to the nest,” he sighed in relief.
Standing, he nodded towards Papa Dan. “Two of my wayward ones are returning to the roost... they know where they held Persephone and ‘Wizard.”
Papa Dan nodded. “May was well make it here, from the sound of things, we’ll be heading out as soon as we meet.”
Gypsy nodded. Things were finally beginning to come together.
Copyright 1999 M.T. Decker