Rommy was coming along, but he still didn't get it. As far as he was concerned he had been issued ‘wiz equipment' and ‘nova wiz tools.' Nothing she said or did seemed to convince him that he needed to step outside the program.
It didn't help that everything else was geared towards following orders and doing as you were told. She'd been a military ‘jacker' most of her life– and the balance was well established in her own mind, but there was no way she could explain it to the young Private.
Three days of drills, orders and pt were taking their toll on all of them. For Duck it wasn't enough to keep her mind off of Bear and Quebec, but it came close. The old timers were trying to help the youngsters along, but most of them were ready to rebel.
They'd never been treated like this in their entire lives. Sure they'd been through some of the training and one weekend a month, but...
Duck wasn't sure, since she'd never seen the training given to reserves, but it did seem like they were pressing everyone to the breaking point. It didn't make sense. It wasn't anything she could put her finger on, but she was trying.
They all were.
Corporal Lewis seemed at odds with the whole thing, but when Duck tried to ask her about it she'd just answer in proper clipped military style.
Duck wasn't sure what to make of it, but she knew she had to find out and soon– especially if she wanted to keep what traces of sanity she still had.
Duck forced herself to keep up with the pace the drill Sargent had set. For the umpteenth time that day she wondered what he was thinking. As they neared the drill field he broke into a full run.
Then Duck saw the reason-- a helicopter had arrived and was unloading. The reservists watched as a special forces team disembarked. Duck's eyes widened as she recognized their insignia. Then she noticed the injured soldier being unloaded.
She could feel her heart in her throat. "Durango..."
She hadn't meant to speak, but seeing her team– hustling her replacement into the hospital was a shock.
"Wjowski," the drill instructor called.
Duck turned trying to remain calm, all the while wanting to know what the hell had happened to her friends in Voodoo.
He gave her a slight nod. "You're needed in the computer center."
She nodded, and was already moving as he called out again. "Private Rommy – you too. Do what the LT. tells you."
Duck turned for a minute and watched until Rommy moved. Once she was sure he was with her, she moved off at a jog.
They arrived to find ‘The Old Man' waiting for them.
Duck saluted respectfully. After a beat, Rommy followed suit.
"Red, I'm glad you're here," The Old Man said softly. "We've got a problem."
"I noticed sir," she answered as Black Cat and Vermillion entered the room. Between them they carried a deck that had seen better decades.
"Information?" she asked.
"Classified intel– trapped. Took out Durango."
Duck nodded again. "Sensitivity?"
"Very. We need it immediately."
Duck gave a single nod as she pulled out a data cable and looked at the equipment. "Sir, I'll get you everything that's there."
He nodded. "I know you will. Have at it."
Duck immediately moved over to the equipment and noted the burn marks around the connection plug. Sitting down Duck signaled Rommy to come over.
"BC...Vermillion, this is Pvt Rommy– Rommy, this is Black Cat, and Vermillion."
He nodded at them and realized that there was a lot more going on than Duck was telling him. "Lt Wjowski m'am?"
Duck looked at him for a moment and then sank into a chair. "Rommy..." she started. "Anything that happens in this room remains between the four of us. Is that clear?"
Rommy paused, then nodded slowly.
Duck gave him what she hoped was an encouraging grin, then concentrated on the deck. As she was arraying her equipment around the deck, she gathered what information she could.
"BC, how did it go down?"
"Raid. They were already trashing the system when we got there. Durango hooked in, dumped what he could into his deck– went into the frame and was hit... hard."
Duck nodded, still concentrating on the equipment. "Symptoms?"
"Five minutes, everything normal– then his pulse rate shot through the roof, high brainwave activity then... " Cat paused shaking her head. "Red, it was like somebody ran over his brain with a Citymaster."
Duck nodded, oblivious to the awed look that Pvt Rommy was now giving her. Duck continued to hook equipment together and then looked at BC and smiled. "Glad you kept it activated."
BC chuckled. "Well, our old decker would have throttled us if we hadn't... Good to have you back Red– even if it is just for this retrieval."
Duck grinned. "Vermin, anything to add?"
Vermillion gave her a semi indulgent smile. "Aside from hating it when you call me that, no."
Duck nodded, then turned back to the deck and Pvt. Rommy.
"Okay. We're retrieving information from this deck. Its already taken out a rather well trained jacker. Someone tainted the intel... snuck something into his system that was activated when he went to retrieve it."
Rommy's eyes narrowed slightly as he listened to Duck.
"I'm doing a core dump now– I want you to start reading through it because if I can't get the info out of the deck, its going to be up to you to read it."
"What are you going to do?"
Duck smiled at him. "Earn my paycheck," she answered. She paused for a moment and then grew serious. "I'm going in to see what I can find. We don't have time for me to analyze everything so I'm going to go in and try and trigger everything. Hopefully Durango kept enough of my mods in place that a) his security won't id me as an intruder and b) the safety features will be there to help me with the intruder-softs."
BC's eyes widened. "Duck are you nuts?"
Duck looked up at her and slowly smiled. The look in her eyes gave Black Cat the answer even before she spoke.
"Cat, I'm going in, and I'm going in hot. I need you to monitor me– astrally. You see that I'm losing– noticeably losing mind you, you dump me."
Black Cat took a deep breath and then nodded. "Just don't..." She let the request hang there as Duck attached herself to the offending deck. "Luck," she added before sliding into a nearby chair and going astral as requested.
Black Cat drifted between her own body and that of her friend's. It never ceased to amaze her how Duck could have as much of her head occupied by hardware and yet remain so alive. Duck's spirit and sense of humor radiated around the darkness– almost but not quite filling it.
Suddenly Duck's aura flared then faded to almost non-existent as her consciousness fled her own body, all but merging with the machine.
BC forced herself to remain calm as she established a base line for Duck. She focused on Duck's heart and brain activity, trying to keep the images of Durango from creeping in. After a few minutes she could discern the color changes in Duck's aura.
As Duck accessed the downloaded information, her aura changed from a peaceful mid-night blue to a reddish orange. The trap had been sprung once more.
She could feel her own pulse rate increase as Duck danced around the system. Her mind was like water– flowing around the aps, flowing away from their attacks and then reforming again.
Finally Duck's aura shifted from the bright colors of awareness and power to the dark shades of sleep and exhaustion. Cat focused her attention on Duck, worrying that any moment it would be over. She found herself reaching towards the kill switch when the dark colors once again shifted back to a peaceful shade of blue.
She could feel Duck's sense of satisfaction, and Vermin's hand on her shoulder.
"She's got it."
His words were gentle and quiet, just loud enough to assure her.
Black Cat smiled and stretched.
From the table, Duck turned and gave her a tired yet satisfied smile. "And you call that a challenge?"
Black Cat and Vermillion barely caught her in time as she passed out from exhaustion.
Images swum before her: A Cheshire Cat playing bass, a Citymaster continually plowing into a brick wall.
Duck groaned wishing the idiot driving the Citymaster would just give it a rest. As she tried to get her bearings. The base player started up again. She felt herself falling and tried to hold on until she could figure out what was going on.
It was a losing battle. Finally she gave up and let herself fall...
Duck's body twitched as she hit bottom– only to find herself in bed. Slowly her eyes adjusted to the dim light of the hospital room.
"How are you feeling?"
Duck groaned. "Cat... do you have to sound so damn cheerful?"
BC smiled. "You worry me sometimes."
"Hell, I worry me sometimes– but... you do what needs to be done right?"
BC chuckled. "We got the info... thanks."
"No problem," Duck replied.
"Get you anything?"
"If you can get the guy with the Citymaster to stop banging against the walls– I'd appreciate it."
BC bit her lip as she tried to stop from laughing.
Duck followed her gaze to where Pvt Rommy sat, rocking the back of his chair into the wall. His expression was priceless.
Even Duck started laughing, until her head hurt more than humor warranted.
Pvt. Rommy carefully planted all four legs of his chair on the floor, trying not to look sheepish. Finally Duck quieted down and then looked back up at Black Cat, her expression once again serious. "How's Durango?"
Cat gave her an exasperated look. "He's your protege, Duck– he woke up about half an hour ago and was getting ready to go back in."
Duck gave her a relieved smile then promptly passed out again.
Cat just looked at Rommy and shook her head. "Hopeless."
Pvt Rommy studied Duck as she slept. Her friends, BC and the others had already moved on– they had work to do, and he had a lot to think about.
Lt. Wjowski... Red... The Duck. Here she was trying to teach him that it wasn't enough to use just the basic tools he was issued, that the two most powerful weapons he had were his mind and his imagination. She was telling him to go beyond the standard library– a library of utilities she herself had written.
Before he thought her advice was because she didn't like the utilities, but now... now he had absolutely no idea what to think.
He'd read through the core dump until Duck had returned with the required information– then passed out. He was finally beginning to understand what she was trying to say-- that it wasn't a game. Training took on a whole new perspective. They weren't trying to make his life miserable– they were trying to teach him how to survive in their world.
Studying Duck he realized– he kind of liked her world, at least enough to learn more about it. He looked over at her, smiled, then and fired up his deck. He had a lot of writing to do.
Duck opened her eyes and looked around as she realized that the pain behind her eyes finally ebbed to the point it was tolerable. As she inventoried her body parts she heard the faint sound of key clicks and turned, surprised to see Pvt Rommy sitting next to her.
She smiled, he was completely lost in the world of his deck.
Duck sat up, relieved to find that her head was indeed still attached to her body. Her movements were tentative at first as she made sure that nothing was going to fall off. The instant her feet hit the floor, the door opened and the drill instructor walked in.
"Wjowski," he growled. "If you and your miscreant trainee are finished playing around..."
Duck looked at him and couldn't help but smile. He'd given her the surest sign that she had been checked out as ‘all right' by the doctors.
The instructor looked at her, his expression remained harsh until he noticed that Rommy was completely oblivious. Then he gave her a very slight smile.
She smiled and gave a slight nod towards Rommy. "I think he understands now."
"Good," he answered. "Cause tomorrow you're climbing... and I have specific instructions that you will be repelling down when you're finished and you will do it the right way this time!"
Duck smiled. "I do repel correctly."
"It is an acceptable method," she objected.
"Not in this man's army!"
"It's the way I was taught."
The instructor shook his head and turned to leave. "Be there– 0600."
Salizar had his deckers run secondary and tertiary checks. It all agreed with what his contacts in the military were saying. Duck was serving active training duty.
An animalistic snarl escaped his lips as he crumpled the reports in his hands. Trust the bitch to ruin his plans... again.
As her image appeared on the screen he growled. She wasn't going to get away– not this time. He closed his eyes as he went over the plan. He'd prepared for any contingency he could think of, including leaving a trail in the matrix that would lead to her if she wasn't caught inside but this– no, he would get her, it would just take a little work.
He looked back at his screen with his deckers' report. Stats, location, complete with pictures– she was indeed in training. He stared at the still image of her and shook his head. Still, this too could be used, it would just take a little more effort.
He smiled as his hand snaked out to the phone. He knew just who to call. As the phone rang, he looked back at the picture of his target.
"I will get you, and when I do– you'll wish I'd killed you."
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