Duck hovered between consciousness and oblivion. The drugs in her system did nothing to ease her mind, they merely rendered her immobile. The debriefing had started normally enough, she told them everything that had happened, from Gypsy’s failed mission in France to the raid on the General’s base. Then the questioning had turned to Aurora and the information the Technician had left in her account. They seemed most interested, not in the device, but the implantation techniques that had been used.
She had told them everything she remembered, but when she’d finished, they’d spent hours cross examining every detail. After the fourth hour of interrogation, she’d gotten tired of their game and told them as much. That had been when they pulled out the drugs.
At first they tried memory enhancers, but when those had failed they had opted for truth serums, hypnosis and mind probes, insisting that she was withholding vital information.
When that had failed to get them what they wanted, they’d set her up in an isolation tank– to think about it. The most frustrating part of the whole ordeal was that she had told them everything she knew or had read on the subject.
In the tank she’d had nothing but time to think– and remember.
Silly Wizard had spent the last three hours of his life in an isolation tank, the last thing he saw or felt were the images and information from the device, but it had been destroyed. Or had it.
She began thinking about the details. The case files the Technician had sent, the reports she’d gotten from Silly Wizard, what she’d seen in helping out her own team: they all revolved in her mind until she managed to put them all in order.
They didn’t add up. The General had been in business long before Gypsy had gone to France, long before the first of her teammates had been taken out by this thing. It was then she realized just how much trouble she was in: she’d made it to the top of the General’s candidate list and these people seemed ready to take over where he’d left off. Worse, they had every reason to hold her for questioning on the matter.
She began thrashing in the tank, trying to get out, but then she felt the cool liquid as it entered her system through the IV needle in her arm. That had been the beginning of her limbo– she floated somewhere between heaven and hell, waiting for them to make their decisions.
Tracker had no idea how long he’d searched the system. He was looking for any medical facilities that were already set to perform the transplant– facilities that the Agency could use with impunity.
He was able to rule out most of the public hospitals, but that still left all the private, research and military hospitals. Of those twelve were equipped with isolation tanks, but he knew that they could just as easily move one in from an outside source. That was when he began tracing personnel movements.
By the time he’d finished his part of the search he had narrowed it down to a list of 12 possibilities, with 5 that were highly probable. He jacked out and waited for the Technician to join him.
As his mind fixed on the physical world he was surprised to see Papa D already waiting. “They took her to DC, but they could have moved her from there. Tracker focused on him for a moment and then nodded, comparing that information against the list.
“WRAMC, Bethesda Naval, or Kimbrough at Fort Meade,” he answered after a moment, then explained. “In the DC area the mostly likely facilities for them are Walter Reed - Army... Bethesda - Naval or Kimbrough... Fort Meade.” He paused then shook his head. “Probably not Fort Meade... that’s NSA’s stomping ground and I don’t think the Agency plays well with NSA....”
Papa Dan nodded. “See if you can pinpoint it... try and get visuals if you can. I’ll get Jules on the transport.”
Tracker nodded and scanned the information he had on the facilities. He found it mildly ironic that of the top two places, one was Army and the other Navy. ‘Voodoo and Black Paw...’ he thought to himself as he looked for the most likely target.
Of the three, WRAMC was beginning to look like the better target. It was in DC, barely. It had a large campus and a large research department with lots of experience in implantation, research and a lot of Agency trained researchers. He began scanning the campus, as he waited for the Technician to emerge from his research.
The Technician was having a hard time keeping track of the isolation chamber and the other equipment. Every time he seemed to get a line on it, it would disappear in a cloud of red tape. Each time he would have to back track only to pick up the trail and end up in more red tape.
He was about to give up when he noticed a pattern. This time he followed it through to its destination: the Agency’s headquarters in DC. He was about to end his search when, out of curiosity, he allowed for one more ‘hop’ with the unit.
It had moved again, and this time it was right off his map. He had no point of reference, only three letters... DCI.
With a slight sigh, he deactivated his deck and waited for reality to set in. Tracker was waiting for him.
“I lost it...” he said glumly. “They bounced it around, got it to Agency Headquaters-- and then nothing.” he shook his head. “Nothing but an acronym... could be anything...WRMOP.”
Tracker looked at him for a minute then called to Papa D. “They shipped the unit to Walter Reed, Museum of Pathology... Could be a ruse, but if I’m not mistaken, they’ve got some of the best implant surgeons on staff at Walter Reed., and the Museum’s right on campus.”
“Check it,” Papa D ordered. “We’re only going to get one shot at this.”
Tracker nodded. “If we have one at all,” he answered with a slightly cynical growl.
“We make it happen... you just tell us where.”
Tracker nodded, then looked at the Technician. “We need to scan the whole base... look for the most likely place for them to do it. I’m figuring the main hospital, but there are a lot of other buildings there and there’s no telling what the Agency might have stocked away just waiting for this sort of thing to happen.”
The Technician nodded. “I’ll try and trace the Isolation chamber...”
“And I’ll look for The Duck.”
Duck tried to fight as she was wheeled into pre-op. Voices came in incoherent blasts of sound as she felt something tug at her hair. The tugging stopped and she felt something sharp run across her scalp. It took almost every ounce of strength she had to open her eyes and then she wished she had the strength to close them.
Next to her, duct taped to a wheel chair was Duke. He seemed almost as doped up as she was, but she could see that he was in pain. Again the sounds were garbled, but she recognized the chief agent as he knelt next to Duke and made him look at her.
The expression in his eyes said it all. The man wanted something, some information that Duke couldn’t give him. He knew he was here to watch her die.
When the agent noticed her staring at them he came over and smiled at her. He said something, but the words became a jumbled blur of sound and motion as she was wheeled into the operating room.
Agent Burnhill smiled as Saunders wheeled Duke around. “Last chance,” he offered as the door closed behind Duck.
Duke looked at him. If he had the strength he would have spit in the man’s face. But he only shook his head. It wasn’t his doing, these fools were so sure that they were withholding information. They wanted the device to work so badly that they’d invented a world where it did, and since neither he nor Duck had told them how it worked... they needed convincing.
‘They... think... we... are ... evil...’ Tskallleh-ch’s voice was weak, but he couldn’t help but hear the irony in her thoughts.
‘We will die,’ Duke told her softly. ‘You, me... the woman they call Duck... and the madness will continue.’
‘No,’ Tskallleh-ch answered quietly. ‘Secret... dies with....us...’
Duke tried to understand, but the bug’s mind was once again lost to him. He watched helplessly as the surgeons prepared to install the unit.
Tracker threw his jack down in disgust as he emerged from the matrix. He’d found Duck.
Papa Dan had been watching him intently and when he saw the expression on Tracker’s face he knew they were too late.
“They’ve got her in surgery now, WRAMC... 5th floor, Neurosurgery... Heaton Pavilion... They’ve just taken her to the tank.”
Papa Dan let his breath out sharply. “We’ve got 3 hours of post op to find a solution,” he stated. “Jules has a chopper standing by. We should make DC in two hours.”
Tracker nodded as he woodenly began gathering his gear. “Longest time in the tank was 3 hours and five minutes...”
Papa D nodded. “Lets move it then...”
Tracker followed Papa D to the chopper pad, leaving the Technician to finish his portion of the search.
Tracker reviewed the research that he had become all too familiar with over the past few weeks– anything to keep his mind off of what was happening to Duck now. Next to him Gypsy sat staring straight ahead. Everyone knew that they were most likely avenging her death rather then rescuing her.
He looked out the window and stared at the ground below. It was moving too quickly. He took a deep breath and focused on something in the distance until the feeling went away.
Tracker took a deep breath and was about to go over the notes again when a slight smile played across his face. On a hunch he stared at the ground again.
“Too fast...” he stated looking up at the others.
They looked at him as if he was crazy.
“The information... its coming through too fast...” He shook his head and began to explain again. “When the first VR was used... there was a lag time. People would react and when nothing happened, they would make... bigger movements. It wasn’t that their movements hadn’t registered, it was a lag time between the signal and the response. People using the equipment could get...out of synch with the equipment, locking themselves into a series of over compensations... What if... this is the opposite problem, and the signal is coming in too fast... information overload, and the brain keeps sending smaller and smaller signals ... basically under compensating for the problem. “
“Meaning?” Whisper asked as he tried to follow Tracker’s reasoning.
“Meaning that the real problem with the device is that its too good... it needs something to slow it down. Something that will act as a buffer between the device and the mind. A sort of preprocessor that would interpret the signals and slow them down enough that she could adapt...”
“But even if we could figure it out, how would we ... updated the device?”
Tracker smiled. “Its designed to be flash upgradeable.”
Whisper shook his head. “Once more... Try English?”
Tracker gave Whisper a slightly dirty look. “A device like that, implanted like it is... its going to need upgrades and fine tuning, but you can’t do that once the person’s closed up... flash upgrades, you send new code to the device and the coding in the bios is updated with the required information.”
“So all we need to do... is... create some sort of routine that will slow down the device... and she’ll be alright?”
Tracker shook his head. “Its not quite that easy... But it should give us a chance to figure out how to either fix or deactivate the device.”
Gypsy turned, his expression was devastated. “Could you not just... turn it off?”
Tracker bowed his head. “Another oversight in the design... There is no off switch... its always running, its just a question of ... shifting consciousness to its output.”
Gypsy studied him for a minute. “But...” he prompted.
“But when its new... it demands full attention, like a broken tooth, you’re constantly drawn to it... and finally, it just proves too much.”
Gypsy looked at him. “Can you... slow it down?”
Tracker looked at him, not wanting to give the man false hopes. “Its been done before... the problem is getting a dump of the chip’s data and getting something in place before the time expires.”
Gypsy nodded, seeming to take comfort in his honestly.
“Be there in five” Jules’ voice sounded in their earphones.
Papa Dan nodded then looked at his assembled team. “Five minutes people. Look alive. We’ve got two floors to go through to get where we’re going, and once we’re there, the real work begins.
Agent Burnhill watched impassively as they wheeled Duke out of the room. He was almost dead now. When Duck lost her fight, they’d disappear together, another mysterious death. He pulled out a phone and called in his report.
“Burnhill here.” He paused as he looked at the results and shook his head. “Looks like she was telling the truth,” he sighed. “Brain is over stimulated... just a matter of time now.”
He nodded as he received his orders. “Yes sir. We’ll be there shortly.” He looked as his partner as he hung up the phone. “Lets go.”
Saunders looked at him. “Just like that? Gee, we were wrong... sorry about your mind?”
Burnhill turned, his eyes blazing. “We’re talking about the country’s security here Mister! You lose sight of that, you’re no better than the General and his men. She gave her life in the defense of her country... just like any other soldier would.”
Saunders’ eyes widened. “But...”
“There are no ‘but’s’,” Burnhill stated as he moved to the elevator and pressed down. “Now we know that the risk is minimal and we can move on to more important things.”
He turned as elevator chimed and several men, got off. Rather than moving on or out of the way, the men surrounded Burnhill and Sunders.
“What is the meaning of this?” Burnhill demanded as he noticed a troll and an Orc towered over them.
“It seems we have a few matters to discuss,” a very calm voice answered.
Burnhill turned to glare at the man who had spoken. “Captain Ruis!” he answered, emphasizing the ‘Captain’. “What is the meaning of this?”
“Funny you should ask,” Papa Dan answered. His expression was anything but amused. “You know, we fought tooth and nail to eliminate one psycho who had been killing of our friends...only to have you pick up where he left off?”
Burnhill smiled at him, flashing his credentials. “This matter is closed gentlemen, the device doesn’t work.”
“Doesn’t work? We told you that!” Tracker countered, his eyes blazing dangerously.
“Richardson, right?” Burnhill asked as he shifted his gaze to Tracker. “We had to validate your findings.”
“Validate,” Tracker growled.
“D’s,” Papa Dan ordered as Tracker almost wiped the smile off the agent’s face.
“Thank you Captain,” Burnhill remarked snidely as he and Saunders pushed their way through the team.
The D’s held Tracker until the doors closed.
“Sorry Tracker,” D1 said as he released his left arm.
“Yeah,” D2 added as he let go.
Tracker started to walk away when the area around the elevator bank shuddered violently.
“What the...?” He gasped as a resounding ‘boom’ echoed through the shaft.
Papa Dan verified the safety of his team as they realized that the elevator’s breaks had failed. An odd smile played across Tracker’s face as he turned to the security camera and saluted.
“Lets get Duck and get out of here,” Papa D sighed as he looked at the camera and shook his head.
Tracker turned and nodded. “Ward 58,” he prompted. “This way.”
Tracker drew a deep breath as he entered the room and saw the isolation chamber. Visions of Silly Wizard came to mind as he saw Duck convulsing inside the tank. He looked up worriedly at Whisper as he grabbed the chart and began reading.
“She’s been here one hour, fifty six minutes,” he stated.
Tracker nodded as he opened up his equipment and started the countdown timer. “We’ve got a little over an hour,” he announced. “If anybody has any suggestions, now would be the time.”
Papa D rested a hand on Gypsy’s shoulder as he watched the proceedings. “You know we’ll do everything we can,” he said softly.
Gypsy nodded. “I know... “
The D’s took up watch at the door as the others arrayed themselves around the room, trying to offer what support they could, but now, it was Tracker’s show.
He looked around and noticed the cables running from Duck’s suit, up through the tank to the main computer. He plugged into the computer and began scanning the information until he found the line that linked the device to the computer. Once he’d isolated the line, he added a tap and activated the download sequence. Before he could insert a buffer, he would have to understand the code, and that would be the most time consuming portion of the operation.
He drew a deep breath and looked at the timer as the download finished. They were down to fifty minutes. Without thinking he plugged himself in and began reading through the code, trying to get a feel for its function and the areas that he would need to modify.
Gypsy sat there tight lipped as they watched Duck thrash around in the tank. He knew that the device was fighting to claim its final victim, even as Tracker and the others fought to defeat it.
Tracker had managed to download the codes from the device and was now going through the code line by line, looking for a way to slow down the information. Gypsy could tell it wasn’t going well.
For him this fight was the hardest, for there was nothing he could do here save watch. He turned his attention to Duke. Someone had wheeled him into the room and left him there, probably to die, just as they had left his niece. He moved closer and cut the man free from the chair.
Duke looked up at him and nodded gratefully. “Sorry...” he managed to gasp.
Gypsy shook his head. “There was nothing you could do,” Gypsy told him. “Tracker may have come up with something... but we only have forty more minutes at best.”
Duke looked at him. “What?”
“He thinks if he can put a buffer between the device and Duck’s mind...” Gypsy shook his head. It was a long shot at best.
An odd smile played across Duke’s face. “Not... code... Get Tracker... download... from me...”
Gypsy looked at the man. “What?”
“No time... just... do it... please...”
Gypsy studied the man’s face for a moment and then nodded. Slowly he got up and moved over to the others. He had never felt as old as he did walking towards the isolation tank.
“Tracker,” he called. “I think Duke has the code you need.”
Tracker looked up at him questioningly.
“Duke... says something about downloading the code from him...”
Tracker looked over at Duke and then back at his equipment. “Get him over here!”
‘What is happening?” Duke could barely hear Tskallleh-ch’s question.
‘We are dying,’ He answered softly. ‘As is the woman, Duck.’
‘Why are they ...’ she stopped, unable to find the words that explained her question.
‘If they download the information from our chip... you can slip through... help the woman.’
‘Too... late... nothing left...’
‘There is enough to keep her alive, for a part of you to continue.’
‘But... if I go... you will die,’ Tskallleh-ch reminded him.
‘One dies, or we all die...’ he answered softly. ‘Enough have died.’
He could almost hear her agreement, but he knew if she did not go now, there would be nothing left of Tskallleh-ch’s spirit, and then nothing that would save Duck.
‘Go,’ he urged softly.
He could feel the pull and then, he was alone.
Black Cat watched as Tracker accessed the information from Duke’s version of the chip. Her eyes flared slightly as she felt rather than saw a portion of the bug’s energies transfer as well.
‘Only way...’ she heard the familiar hiss in her mind, but the voice was very, very weak. ‘I will not... interfere with her... just...protect...’
‘Why?” Cat asked, her eyes still watching the bug’s energies.
‘I... do not wish to die...’
Cat was surprised by the vehemence in the bug’s thoughts.
‘Too much left to learn...’
‘Your word?’ Cat demanded as she let her gaze drift to Duck, wondering what kind of deal she was making.
‘Granted,’ Tskallleh-ch answered. ‘I will not change her. I will not interact...’
Cat nodded, unsure if she was making the right decision. She looked over at Gypsy as he watched Duck in the tank. There was no real choice, only the lesser of two evils.
Tracker watched the timer carefully. It had reached twenty minutes. He took a deep breath, knowing there was no time to review the code he’d received from Duke, he pressed send and watched as the code updated the bios of the device.
The timer was in the red zone when the transfer finished. “If its going to work,” he whispered. “We’ll know soon.”
Slowly Duck’s convulsions eased. After what seemed like forever, she opened her eyes and looked around groggily.
A collective cheer sounded from those gathered. Gypsy smiled as Papa D pounded his back. It had worked. He turned to thank Duke, only to find him gone. Gypsy sank to his knees overcome with emotions.
Tracker continued to monitor Duck’s output while Whisper checked her physical status.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Whisper announced. “We have a winner.”
Papa D smiled at him and nodded. “Lets move it then,” he ordered.
Tracker watched Duck carefully as she opened her eyes and tried to look around. She quickly closed them again as she realized they were in flight.
“How do you feel?” he asked softly over the comm-link.
“Freakin’ wonderful...” she managed to subvocalize.
Tracker managed a slight chuckle at that. “Just rest, you’ll be back at the base in an hour.”
Duck managed a slight nod. “Over?”
“Over and out...” Tracker assured her. “Everything’ll be fine.”
Copyright 1999 M.T. Decker