For the third time in almost as many minutes, Tracker looked at his watch. Gypsy shook his head, understanding the need to know how much time had passed but knowing the futility of the gesture as well. It had been a very long night and neither of them had rested much.
Lethargy had settled in around noon, and now as the sun started to set he found himself dreading what the night might bring. His thoughts started to stray to Red and the danger she had put herself in. He forced himself to stop, worrying about her did her no good. He reminded himself that Red knew how to take care of herself.
Looking out across the horizon as he thought about France; the failed mission; the seemingly endless double crosses; their escape. Duck was there for them almost throughout. If it hadn’t been for the team’s decker, they’d never had made it through, he knew that much. He was glad the decker had contacted him before he and ‘Yala had headed out. He shook his head, he had been wondering how he’d get a hold of the decker, and the decker had contacted him instead. It was almost as if Duck had had a sixth sense on the matter.
But that led to more questions: if Duck had been so...intuitive then, where was he now? Why hadn’t he contacted anyone on the team? The questions didn’t stop there and the more he thought about them, the closer he came to the truth.
They’d survived their mission, largely due to Duck, yet once they were back, the whole mess seemed to start all over again, and noting could have prepared him for the loss of Yala. He thought about the men that had questioned him and shook his head.
They had known he’d be there, worse, they’d known what he looked like. There was no way of them knowing that unless it had been an inside job. He began wondering what else he had missed.
Tracker had come to O’Donnel’s looking for answers as well, but he had pretty much found his leads there. No, his actions were not premeditated, he did not know what to expect. The situation had presented itself and he had followed through. He had come knowing there might be trouble, but the others?
Gypsy stared into the distance as he thought about Wayne and Red. Neither of them had seemed surprised by the attack, or his actions for that matter. He knew Red was good at thinking on her feet, but Wayne had played along with him without so much as a questioning glance. No, they both had been expecting trouble. Then there was Red’s driving.
He had taught her some evasive maneuvers, but her actions indicated that she had had plenty of practice and recently. She had driven well, and when she had given up the controls to handle the car’s weapons, she had handled them with the same practiced skill as the car’s controls. Thinking back she had controlled him as well. She was more controlled, more focused than he had ever seen her before. It was almost as if she was someone else.
‘As if she was someone else,’ the phrase sent shivers up his spine. From the age of eight until almost eighteen he had practically raised her. He had watched her grow from a child to a young adult. At the age of eighteen she had moved out, taking a job with her father’s company, Aerocomm.
He knew the job had ended badly and that she had spent the next four or five years abroad. They never talked about what she had done for those years, but he’d seen the change in her eyes. She had lived on her own, and there was a strength and confidence there that only comes from facing your fears and triumphing over them.
He knew better than to ask her about it. They had fallen back into old patterns that of uncle and niece, protector and protected. Thinking about last night, he began to wonder just who had been protecting whom. Gypsy looked around and shook his head. He had always respected Katya’s privacy, but suddenly he had to know. As he stood, Tracker looked at him questioningly.
“I must check on something,” he explained as he got up and headed inside. He stopped on the stairs and called out to his guest. “If you would like there is food in the refrigerator.”
Tracker studied the horizon for a moment then nodded. After a moment he stood and headed for the kitchen. “Can I get you anything?” He asked as he passed by the staircase.
“No,” Gypsy answered, “I will be down in a few minutes.
Tracker nodded and headed down the hall to the kitchen. Gypsy watched him, then turned and looked at the old Grandfather clock. It was time to answer a few questions.
Gypsy sat on the bed in his niece’s room. It seemed more orderly than he remembered her ever being. When he opened the closet, he noticed that all the shirts were hung facing the same way, military style. The bed itself was another clue. Katya had never made the bed as a child. She would toss the covers aside in the morning and roll herself back up in them at night. But that seemed a thing of the past. Her bed was made.
Not only was it made, but with nice crisp hospital corners: military style. He shook his head as he looked around and recognized other tell tale signs. Everything screamed at him, telling him that he had been blind.
He closed his eyes as the pieces started falling into place. Red had returned to the farm and his life right before Duck had joined the team. He hadn’t thought about that in years, but it had seemed odd at the time. Now he stared at his niece’s things and realized the answer had been in front of him all this time.
‘Duck,’ he thought, wondering why he hadn’t seen it sooner. He laughed slightly as he realized, he’d taught her too well. ‘Just like me,’ he sighed. He was still laughing when he entered the kitchen.
“What’s so funny?” Tracker asked as he looked up from a plate of spaghetti.
“I am a fool,” Gypsy sighed as he shook his head. “A blind old fool,” he added.
Tracker studied him, waiting for an explanation.
“Come with me,” he said as he headed for the basement.
Tracker looked at the plate of spaghetti for a moment, then followed the older man. He could smell the dampness as they headed down into the workshop area and recognized the smell of old circuitry and solder.
“I thought it was cute,” Gypsy explained said as he moved between a table full of old parts and soldering equipment. “When Katya wanted a work space of her own. A place where she could ‘fix’ things like her uncle. She was eleven, and I gave her a place and a few things to fix. I figured it would keep her out of trouble.”
Tracker’s eyes narrowed as he began to wonder exactly where Gypsy was heading. He stopped as his host turned on a work light and moved to another table. There he found more circuitry and the remains of two food delivery units.
Gypsy pulled out a diagram and compared it to the bags. He let out a slow chuckle as he showed it to Tracker. It was the plans for concealing a completely functional deck in one of the units.
“It would seem I was wrong,” Gypsy sighed. “And it would seem I have known the Duck for a very long time,” he stated shaking his head.
Tracker looked the equipment and the plans and shook his head in disbelief. “Red?”
Gypsy nodded. “My niece.”
Tracker nodded. It all fit: the way she acted, the way she talked about things, even the tip off of knowing ‘him’. It made sense, in a very strange sort of way. Just the sort of sense he’s expect from Silly Wizard’s protege.
‘Trust me... she takes a lot of getting used to. There are things she does that make me want to shake her and ask what she thinks she’s doing, and then I see the results...’ His friend’s words echoed in his ears.
“It would seem she fooled us all,” Gypsy sighed. “And now we must wait for her return.”
“Any idea how long she’ll be gone?”
“She might be back as soon as tonight, but probably not until tomorrow night,” Gypsy answered reluctantly. “It all depends on how illusive the information is. She will also take her time getting here. She will not want to lead the enemy here.”
Tracker nodded. When he looked into the older man’s eyes, he could see the worry and tension there. “She seems quite capable of taking care of herself,” he observed.
Gypsy met his gaze and let out a slow breath. “She is,” he answered, but the worry only seemed to intensify. “So was ‘Yala.”
Tracker nodded then looked around the room again. “That’s another thing that’s been bothering me,” he sighed.
“What?” Gypsy asked, his eyes narrowing.
“I was thinking about ‘Wiz and ‘Yala: the attacks on our people,” he paused shaking his head. “Either our opposition has changed methods or there are a lot more of them,” he sighed.
Gypsy studied him for a moment questioningly.
“Heartbreaker and SunDog were killed outright,” he began slowly. “So were several of you people... Hercules and...”
“Diogenes and Raster...” Gypsy supplied when Tracker paused. He felt the pangs of loss as he once again went through the roster.
Tracker nodded. “But Wiz and ‘Yala... they were ‘killed in an auto accident’.”
Gypsy’s eyes narrowed for a moment and finally he understood where Tracker was leading. “So you think what happened to them was something different.”
“Possibly,” Tracker agreed. “And those two men that tried to nab you...”
“They were looking for the Duck,” Gypsy agreed. “And they knew that ‘Yala was dead.” He shivered as he remembered the smile on the man’s face as he told him that ‘Yala would not be joining him.
“Exactly,” Tracker agreed. “They were looking for something, the others seem to be trying to cover it up.”
Gypsy thought about that for a moment and nodded. “That would seem to match what has happened,” he agreed slowly as he looked over the table one more time. “Come my friend, there is nothing here for us, and it is well into suppertime.”
Tracker looked at the man and nodded, but his attention was once again drawn to the plans. “Very clever,” he commented as Gypsy looked over his shoulder.
“Very clever indeed,” Gypsy agreed with a combination of pride and worry. “But hopefully she has enough sense to ask others for help.”
Tracker nodded as his own thoughts strayed to ‘Wiz. He had not been willing to ask for help and he had ended up a casualty. He prayed Duck, had the sense to look for backup. She was going to need it.
Black Cat scanned the area as Duck continued to journey through the matrix. She could tell from her friend’s expression that she’d found a lot more than she’d bargained for. She wanted to ask about it, but she knew that would have to wait. She knew that Duck and Devon would be vulnerable as long as they were tracking down information, and it was her job to stand guard, but it was not easy.
BC was used to taking a more active roll when it came to investigations, but her activity would have to wait. When the deckers were finished, it would be her turn to investigate her way. Then Red would be covering her. She shook her head as she reminded herself that Duck would be watching her.
She’d know Duck as ‘Red’ for so long that it still took some getting used to. She found herself once again wondering how Duck had managed to pull off getting into the military under an assumed name. That in itself was simply asking for trouble. Still, not only had she managed to enlist, she’d also managed to wrangle a slot on her uncle’s team.
It was a team that was slowly collapsing in on itself. It was up to them to stop this thing before it claimed any more lives. The thought sent shivers down her spine: now was not the time to let her guard down.
She took a deep breath and scanned the area once again. She knew worrying about the past now would not do any of them any good. They’d just have to handle the fallout when it happened. In the meantime, they would deal with what was happening now.
She finished the scan and when she was sure they were still safe, she turned back towards her comrades. Wayne nodded at her as they both waited for Devon and Duck to return from their respective immersions.
Ferron studied Duke’s expression as he split his attention between probing their ‘guests’ in the storage area and shielding them from the attention of others. He had been relieved that the woman had returned safely, but now she was not alone. It was hard to tell if the added company was a good thing or a bad one.
Duke’s breathing slowed as he shifted his concentration, then returned to the present. “She is in good hands for now,” he assured Ferron. “They are looking out for her.”
Ferron nodded, but he was not so sure.
“They are her friends, they will protect her,” Duke assured him. “They will not interfere with our plans.”
Ferron nodded, knowing the risk Duke was taking. If he failed, they would both be summoned before the hive. He understood Duke’s commitment to finding his son’s killers, but he also knew that they could not afford to compromise the great plan. Too much had been sacrificed already to let personal feelings get in the way. Still, he could not turn his back on the man especially after the death of Duke’s son. Now they were the only two of their kind.
“May the mother forgive us,” he sighed.
Duke studied him for a moment and then nodded. “This will not endanger the plan. I shall not allow it,” he added. “If I fail in this... please, end this unworthy’s life, and continue our assigned duties.”
Ferron nodded praying that it wouldn’t come to that, but knowing that if it did, he would carry out his friend’s wishes. It was after all, in the best interest of the hive.
Duck kept her eyes closed as the emerged from the matrix, pretending to still be linked in. She listened carefully for any sign of trouble before continuing. When she was sure that there were no surprises waiting for her she let out a sigh and looked around.
“So?” BlackCat asked softly.
“Very big, very nasty, very hush-hush,” Duck answered slowly.
Cat studied her for a moment, hoping that Duck would elaborate, but knowing that she wanted to verify what she’d found before proceeding. She nodded knowing this part was Duck’s show. Duck poured herself a glass of water and drank it as she thought about the information she’d received and waited for Devon to return from reviewing the information on ‘Rogers and Hammerstein.’ She wanted very much to compare those notes with the ones she’d been sent.
She checked her watch then turned as Devon’s breathing shifted ever so slightly. “Welcome back,” she told him as she poured another glass of water and handed it to him.
He took it graciously and sipped it slowly. “You would not believe these two,” he told her between sips.
Duck waited for him to finish drinking before asking him to elaborate. Instead of explaining it, he presented her with a chip summarizing the information they’d retrieved. Duck smiled and slotted it.
Cat studied Devon as he watched Duck’s expression. He was surprised when all she did was nod slightly when she finished reading the information.
“Well, that kind of goes with the information somebody sent me,” she finally sighed. “Although its more of an explanation of how they achieved their oh so impressive record instead of what they’ve been working on..”
Devon looked at her questioningly as Duck pulled a chip from her deck and handed it to him. “They aren’t as clean and wonderful as Interpol would have you believe,” she sighed.
As Devon slotted the chip and began reviewing its contents Duck started a diagnostic running on her deck.
Cat shook her head. ‘Deckers,’ she thought with a sigh.
Duck looked up at her and smiled. If Cat didn’t know better, she’d have sworn Duck had read her mind.
Devon let out a low whistle as he looked around the room. “That would do it,” he commented to Duck. “Now what?”
“Zyrebien ,” Duck answered. “They had this thing, and I want to know if they were the ones watching ‘Yala and Gypsy and trying to track me down or if they were still trying to protect this thing.
Devon nodded as Duck prepared to activate her connection. Devon took up his position at the hithcher jack on Duck’s system. It was the closest he could be to being inside her head, and he didn’t want to miss a bit of it. When she looked at him, he gave her a thumbs up, then they were ‘down the rabbit hole.’
Again connections whizzed by at a frightening pace. Devon sensed the difference immediately: Duck was not on a fishing expedition this time, this time she had a direction and a place she wanted to attach through. He was surprised when he found himself in a hotel’s main computer system.
He wanted to ask Duck about it, but for now, all he could do was watch and wonder. Sometimes he wasn’t sure the passenger seat was really the place to be when running with Duck, but it was always an ‘E-ticket’ ride.
Cat tensed as she felt something brush up against her shielding. At first she thought that someone was trying to penetrate it, but instead, whoever was behind the probing, turned it outwards, as if it was looking for anyone who might be trying to penetrate it.
She gave a worried look to Wayne. “Something’s out there,” she whispered.
Wayne nodded as he looked down at his gun, then over at Duck and Devon. For the time being, they were safe, but he knew that could change at any minute.
Cat nodded as she slipped outside her body and stepped onto the astral plane. If something threatened her and the others, she had to know about it now.
The area around her shimmered as Cat looked around. She was surprised that the building no longer seemed run down and unsafe. Against the back drop of the neighborhood, it practically shone. As she looked around she realized that whatever was shielding them, was also shielding the building, keeping its true nature hidden.
Oddly, she found herself unable to probe deeper into the building, only towards the outside. The outside where another watched and waited. She took a sharp breath then relaxed: it was Vermin. She made a mental note to ask him about the building, but for now, she forced herself to relax, whatever the mysterious force was, it was working for them. That in itself was a refreshing change.
Duck looked around the hotel system and verified that whoever had broken into Gypsy and Yala’s rooms had left something watching for her or any other deckers that might return to the area. What she was planning was dangerous, but if it worked, perhaps the factions would go after each other and leave her and the others alone.
Something about getting them to fight amongst themselves appealed to her. She watched the construct as it patrolled the system. When she was satisfied, she mimicked its image and slipped out of the system, propping the ‘door’ open behind her. She would not be linked through the system, but after she’d gotten what she’d came for, she’d make sure the trail led right back to the hotel.
‘Two phases,’ she smiled to herself. ‘First phase get the intel, second phase, set up the owner of the construct.’
Phase two had been setup, now she needed to gather the intel. Slipping into Zyrebien’s security system was not as easy as the last time, but Duck had expected as much. They knew their system had been used against them and they’d patched the holes: well at least the holes they’d found, but there were still a lot of holes, if you knew where to look.
Duck allowed herself a slight smile as she slipped into the power controls and proceeded with a routine systems check. Outwardly she appeared as a maintenance routine, checking and verifying the power flow. As she proceeded, she activated her construct’s chameleon attribute and faded into the background. She was in.
Devon tensed involuntarily as he got a view of the IC waiting for them at Zyrebien Systems. For a moment he thought Duck had not seen it, but he had no reason to fear. Duck had already slipped into a simple subsystem, once again posing as a bot.
What Duck was doing was risky, she was sacrificing power for stealth. As long as she remained undetected, it was fine, but once she was detected, she was, pardon the thought, a sitting duck. Something about the thought scared him, and another made him laugh. Duck was just crazy enough to pull it off.
He looked at the information that was feeding back into her recorder and realized that they now knew more about Zyrebien’s power requirements than he really wanted to know. He thought about it for a minute, wondering if it was a waste and realized that Duck used every bit of information to either give her direct information, or details that could later be used to obtain more information.
As always, he forced himself to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Duck could feel her pulse rate double as she approached the area she needed to access. She felt, rather then saw, the stone lions that guarded the vault: black stone lions. As she began analyzing the lions, she noticed the slight ‘tick’ of the nearest one’s tail. It could sense somebody was near and was beginning its own probe.
Duck smiled appreciatively as she reviewed the results of her analysis. Whoever had programmed the lions was good, perhaps too good. They were built using a derivation of the French Military;s library.
She shook her head, this was looking more and more like a chess game where a war was waged on one level, while it was manipulated from another. Worse, the manipulators seemed to be playing from whatever side of the board they felt like. UCAS Military code being used against UCAS military, French being used against its own. Duck was beginning to wonder if the French were as tired of this game as she was.
‘Ah well,’ she sighed to herself. ‘I’m still on the clock.’
She watched the lions as she exerted her will over her own body. The increased heart rate did nothing for her under the current circumstances, so she slowed it down. The adrenalin was her enemy so she allowed her body to negate its effects.
She knew that this situation was not a case of 'fight or flight': allowing adrenalin to rule here, would be tantamount to suicide. No, this required planning, stealth and finesse. She had to find a way around the lions. As she felt her pulse slow, her mouth muscles flexed into a slight grin: a plan was taking form.
Devon shuddered inwardly as Duck made her move on the node. Instead of trying to slip in behind the IC lions she strode between them. His breath caught as he saw them start to open their eyes and focus in on Duck. Everything seemed to slow as they glare from the eyes all but blinded him. He could see messages passing between the two constructs. They were communicating faster than he could think. They were dead and he knew it.
But instead of running away, Duck reached out, intercepting the messages and altering them with a thought. He could feel Duck's chuckle as each lion closed its eyes and continued its silent watch, allowing her to continue on through the entryway.
Behind those doors were the details to Project Aurora and she aimed to know all about it. About the project, the device and the mysteries that had cost her too many friends.
As the door opened, her eyes widened. Facing her was a third lion, waiting, eyes wide open.