Ducking Responsibility

Chapter Twenty-five

No one noticed the old pickup at the side of the road, or the Troll who lumbered out of the driver’s side to check on the engine. He seemed to know what he was doing, and there was no need to risk their own safety to see if he needed anything. To be honest, he seemed to have the situation well in hand.

Big D smiled to himself, then lifted the hood and pretended to look at the engine. As he stood there, Tracker and Whisper began their reconnaissance. From where he stood he had a good view of anyone coming towards them on their side of the highway. As he fiddled with the equipment, he set a mirror so he could watch behind him as well.

Hopefully they would simply look like stranded motorists to passers by. Of course, if any one knew what they were looking for, there was no way they’d be able to mistake Big D for anything but he was. But people tended to see what they wanted to see, and that was what he was counting on.

Inside the car, Tracker lay sprawled in the back seat. Again, to a casual observer he appeared to be napping. But the constant eye movement and slight twitches of his fingers were the result of controlling two high altitude remotes rather than the throes of some fitful dream.

Whisper lay in a similar state in the passenger’s seat, his consciousness winging along with Tracker’s remotes. This was the tricky phase of their mission. Whisper was cloaking the remotes as Tracker maneuvered them into position. Once they were in place, he would perform his own quick scan of the area and report back to Big D.

Big D continued to wait, his service pistol placed within easy reach as he continued to scan the area. “T1 go.” He murmured into the comm unit as he continued to fiddle with the engine.

*** *** ***

Jules looked up from his console and nodded towards Little D. On his signal, Little D stood and moved towards the door. BlackCat, Vermin and Duke rose to follow him, with BlackCat stopping and looking at Duck one last time.

“You take good care of her now, you hear?” she asked gently towards Jules.

Jules nodded evenly, but he knew that if someone managed to find them, they’d both be in serious trouble.

Still the gesture seemed to comfort Cat and she joined the others as they headed out to begin their own scouting mission. “T2 moving.” he replied into the comm system. It had taken him almost forty-five minutes to convert both teams’ comm units to a new, hopefully unused frequency with matching encryption, but it meant a much lower chance of the enemy picking up their communications. Still, for now, it was to be kept to a minimum.

He turned back to his equipment and began scanning the local communications. With any luck, he might be able to pick up on their communications instead.

He looked up as Papa Dan came over and rested a hand on his shoulder. Years of military training told him to stand, but the hand on his shoulder told him to stay where he was. When Papa D ran the show, it was more of a team than a strict military unit. He listened to them all carefully and merged their expertise with practiced ease.

“Team one in position and scanning, Team two just left.”

Papa D nodded for a minute then looked at Jules. “You watch out,” he warned. “You and Duck are going to be in the least protected position. If they get in here... No heroics, you grab her and you get out of here... You won’t do us any good if you’re dead.”

Jules looked up at his commander and nodded. “Yes sir,” he answered finally, but he had no intention of abandoning his post.

Papa Dan looked at him for a moment and then shook his head. “I mean it Jules. Once the shit hits the fan, we’ll be moving too hard and fast for you to be any real help. And I’ve lost enough friends...”

“I know sir,” Jules answered quietly. It was hard to tell if he meant he understood his orders, or that he too had lost enough friends, but Papa Dan noticed that Jules avoided promising to abandon his post should the warehouse be overrun.

He also knew better than to push it. Jules was too stubborn to leave his people stranded, even if it did mean his own life.

With a slight sigh, he headed over to Gypsy and SunDog. “Mount up people, time for us to earn our paycheck.”

Gypsy nodded and stood, ready for what was to come. SunDog stretched slightly then moved towards the door. Theirs would be the hardest of the three preliminary missions, but they needed the results from the first two scouting forays before they slipped behind the enemy’s lines and reported from there.

It was dangerous operating without a plan, but it was even more dangerous operating without an idea of what they were doing, and there was no way to plan for what was to come until after the fact.

Gypsy patted Duck on the head as he passed her by. Her fever had abated slightly, but he could see her continuing on her own mission, scouting ahead through the computer systems, looking for any information that might be of use to them.

Team three left, leaving four to stand their ground and try to keep it all together.

Jules looked over at Duck as she traveled through the matrix, looking for security and information on the area. He knew he’d have his work cut out for him later on, but for now there was very little else to do but check the equipment and be ready for when he was needed.

*** *** ***

Whisper floated along, following the path of the drones as they passed high above the enemy’s base. He could say it now, with fair certainty: Cat found the right place.

He could feel them down there waiting, lurking, searching. They were there all right, and they were waiting for something.

‘Us probably,’ he thought to himself, but it didn’t really matter. By unspoken agreement the success of this mission depending on one thing, and one thing only: Shutting them down, and there were many ways to accomplish this goal.

He knew he’d be happy with the device’s destruction. From what he’d been able to gather from Tracker and Duck’s reports, the enemy didn’t even understand the hardware. Sure, most of it was straightforward, but the interface chip itself was more of a ‘black box’ than they rest of the device. One small chip that was the difference between a device that worked and one that killed, and the people who had it had ignored the chip entirely.

It was both what promised to make the device work, and the source of its failure. Something made it seem to work only to feed back the device’s information and destroy the mind connected to it. But the holders of the black box had refused to give up on it, instead they experimented trying to come up with implantation methods that worked. The problem was, they didn’t work, and no one was willing to accept that. So they kept trying and the device kept killing. All the time, missing the key. It wasn’t the implantation process– it was the chip itself. And its secrets had died with its creator, Duke’s son.

Whisper forced himself to continue moving with the drones. Now was the time where they should be at their most alert. He sighed mentally as he realized he was letting his emotions and worse, his curiosity, get in the way.

‘You’re going down,’ he thought to no one in particular.

As he watched, Tracker’s drones completed their circuits and dipped twice. With a mental nod, he drew himself together and began his own scouting mission.

Once clear of the drones, Whisper reached out feeling the patterns and tracing them to their source. The place was alive with magic. Watcher, mages, spells... he could feel them all as he drifted by. He could feel the spells designed to detect active magic, but they didn’t seem to be alert for a ‘dreamer’, a casual passerby, which was what he was for now.

He could tell there were three distinct ‘areas of influence’ down there. ‘Three mages active, maybe more,’ he noted to himself. As he drifted by one of the watchers seemed to take an interest in him.

He forced himself to continue drifting, giving the distinct impression of dreams and sleep, but he could feel one of the protective spells beginning to activate. ‘Paranoid...’ he grumbled to himself, as he realized that they were intent on keeping everybody out, even the innocent passersby.

He could feel the spell as it subtly tried to change the patterns of his dreams. Nightmare images filled his mind as he drifted. With a slight shake of his head, he ‘woke up’ allowing his image to pop out of existence as if he had suddenly awakened from his dream and was dealing with the images.

When he looked around he saw Tracker still laying in the back, monitoring the output from the drones.

With a sigh, he pulled himself out of the front seat and went to ‘help’ Big D with the engine. Big D watched him as he moved groggily and tried to focus on the engine.

“Good trip?” he asked socially.

Whisper gave a slight nod. ‘Three active mages,” he stated. “At least as many riggers running seven remotes, standard patrolling patterns seem to converge on the central building.”

Big D nodded as he relayed the message, talking of dogs and cats to his mom.

Whisper drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Same with the mages. They’ve got spell traps and watcher spirits.”

Big D nodded again. “Mom’s not going to like that...”

Whisper gave him a sideways look for a moment, then nodded. “Nope... not in the slightest.”

*** *** ***

Duck began her search on the schematics of the buildings in question. She called up wiring charts, blueprints, building permits. She sifted through the material until she’d worked out her top three ways into the buildings in question. She relayed these to the screen and began contemplating their computer security system as she waited for input from Jules.

She’d done a preliminary survey of the systems by the time Jules had noticed her message and responded. She knew they’d need to work something out before the action started, otherwise they’d be working at cross purposes.

*** *** ***

Jules drew a deep breath as he reviewed the information Duck had provided. It amazed him that she was functioning as well as she was, but then again, given what had been done to her, having something to do that steered her consciousness away from what had happened was probably a good thing.

As he collected the information and prepared to send it out, he noticed the new message on the screen.

With a slight shake to his head he began typing. “Flash the lights if its important,” he typed with a chuckle. Trust a decker to worry about communications when the world is going to hell and there’s nothing that can be done about that. ‘At least we’ll know where we’re going,’ he sighed to himself.

He waited for her acknowledgment before returning to his communications. As he moved, he took the opportunity to check the output from the security devices. Everything was clear... so far.

*** *** ***

BlackCat took a deep breath as she looked at her companions and gave a brief nod. She and Duke were next up, with Vermin and Little D watching out over them.

She studied the Ork for a minute and then took a deep breath. There was something in his carriage that not only gave the impression of confidence, but a slight twinkle in his eye made her fairly certain, he was as innocent and harmless as Gypsy.

She smiled, then turned to Duke. She wasn’t sure if he would be doing the scouting or his ‘friend’ would. He smiled and somehow she could tell they were both going to be involved.

As she positioned herself, Little D relayed Team 1's report. “Whisper’s got three magical sources pegged. Looks like they aren’t taking any chances.”

Cat nodded then looked around. “Wish us luck,” she sighed and then began forcing herself to relax. A few minutes later, Duke sat down next to her and did the same.

*** *** ***

The area around them seemed alive with power. It was no wonder the opposition had chosen this spot.

‘Nexus...’ Tskallleh-ch’s voice echoed in her mind as she extended the word into whispered hiss.

‘Do you understand... what we are looking for?’

‘Weakness’ Tskallleh-ch answered, and again she managed to draw the word out into a hiss.

‘They are expecting us,’ Cat warned.

‘Expecting... you...’ the bug’s thought was almost smug as she prepared for her part of the mission. ‘They... are not... evolved enough to understand...’

Cat forced herself to remain calm and then contacted Duke.

He appeared to her, even as Tskallleh-ch’s image had faded into the background.

‘We tag the enemy, but refrain until the other team is in place?’ he asked her.

She nodded then looked at him as if to say ‘can you control her?’

Duke shrugged. ‘She is... her own.’

Cat nodded then began pushing forward. She could spot the first mage as he stood in the full glow of the nexus. He was drawing on it, channeling it, not to himself, but to the main building behind him.

Something told Cat that was where the others were waiting. As she watched him, she could sense Tskallleh-ch moving in on him. She fought to remain calm as the mantid appeared astrally behind the man, rearing back on her back four legs, her front ones poised to strike.

She could have sworn she saw the mantid smile as she placed her mark on the man, and then faded from sight.

‘The others are inside...’ Tskalllech-ch informed her.

‘Wait then,’ Cat warned her. When she could sense the bug’s confusion she tried to explain in terms she was familiar with. “Their hive, an intruder now, would send their soldiers out to protect... we wait until our... soldiers are ready.”

Cat waited and finally sensed a slight affirmative from the mantid.

She slipped out of her trance long enough to inform the others, then resumed her watch.

*** *** ***

Gypsy and Papa D exchanged glances as the final report came in. Team 1 had identified the drones and gotten a head count on the magical opposition, Team 2 had tagged one and was in position to deal with the others.

One look at SunDog confirmed that she too was ready to go. Gypsy smiled as the blueprints and plotted routes were transferred to his pocket secretary.

“My friends, I think we are ready,” he said as he showed them the plans.

SunDog looked at him questioningly when she noticed the three routes inside.

“Recommendations from my niece,” he explained. “I think perhaps we should stick together, no?”

Papa D gave a single nod of agreement. It only took SunDog a moment longer until she too agreed.

With a smile, Gypsy began moving towards the enemy base. They moved slowly, paralleling each other as they neared the patrolled area.

*** *** ***

Duck moved slowly through the system, placing dummy routines where they were needed, then slipping past them and continuing deeper into the building’s security. Getting in had been tricky. They had left an opening, for the transfer of their data. The line was double encrypted and supposedly one way.

Supposedly. She liked that word. At times, it was exploitable, like now. She began her intrusion as a simple ‘resend bit’, notifying the transmitting computer that the message had degraded and connection needed to be reestablished. The other machine, running on remote obliged, sending the files where she directed them. With the new ‘stable’ connection she had the in she needed. Slowly she piggybacked her code into the system, storing itself in a temporary directory until she had transferred the final bit and started that routine running remotely.

The remote process dialed out and activated a doorway into security. Not only had she managed to intercept their precious data, but she’d also managed to get herself into the system.

From their security cameras, she began counting heads and analyzing their defenses. All in all, it was not a pretty picture. She transferred her observations to the screen and flicked the lights.

*** *** ***

Jules looked up from his console and turned to Duck’s monitor. He could feel his pulse rate quicken as he read her report: 30 soldiers, loaded for bear. Duck had cross referenced their names and images from their military files. From the looks of things, half of them had been chosen for their skill, the other half as cannon fodder. Additionally, three of the top rated riggers were running remotes around the area: two from out buildings, the third from inside the main building. The final image was the cameras that were tracking Gypsy’s team’s progress to the main building.

“T4 - Handbasket!” he announced over the communications system. “Handbasket, do you copy?!”

*** *** ***

Big D froze as the message came through, he looked at Whisper as he confirmed hearing the message. He took a deep breath, grabbed his gun and closed the hood.

“T1, copy,” he commented as he and Whisper piled into the car. The tires spun, kicking up gravel as they sped back onto the road.

*** *** ***

Vermin tensed and looked at Little D. “Handbasket, as in ‘going to hell in..’?” he asked.

Little D nodded and began scanning the area. Vermin moved forward slightly, trying to sight where Cat and Duke’s consciousness lay waiting. He stiffened when he saw, not Cat or Duke, but Tskallleh-ch standing next to the building.

Fear and anger welled up until he was ready to attack, assuming that she was behind this madness. As he drew power to attack, he felt Cat’s mind brush against his own.

‘Vermin...’ her thoughts were gentle. ‘There is no time to explain... she is not the enemy.’

‘Bug...’ he objected, unable to keep the tremble out of his voice.

‘Bug...’ Cat agreed gently. ‘Ally. Now... what happened?’

Vermin turned, knowing it really didn’t matter which way he looked. ‘Message... trouble... ‘ he finally managed to force out as his thoughts whirled around him. ‘You knew.’

Cat sighed. ‘I knew. But she is necessary... if we are to succeed.’

Vermin growled slightly, but kept his thoughts to himself. They would discuss this later.

‘Very well,’ Cat assured him. ‘But for now... we move.’

Vermin nodded and then moved back to their vehicle. There was nothing else to be done, for now.

Little D looked at him curiously.

‘They know,’ Vermin told him tersely.

Little D nodded.

*** *** ***

Gypsy sighed as the message came through. A little late, but at least it had arrived. He’d already realized they’d slipped up, but it was good to know that the others were on their way. He tried to grab what cover he could as one of the drones broke away and began winding its way closer to him and the others.

‘Never easy,’ he sighed as he rolled over on his back and took aim at the distant remote.

*** *** ***

The drones were the first to pick up on the movements. As they began to track down the intruders, the dogs began barking. With a smile, their custodian opened the gate.

‘Go get ‘em boys!’ he urged as he called upon the spirit of Dog to guide him. A minute later he had his answer, not from Dog, but from Tskallleh-ch.

He felt an odd pressure in his mind as she drove pincers through his spirit. Cutting him off from the source of his power forever.

Tskallleh-ch raised her head and gave a triumphant war cry that echoed through the valley.

Cat gasped at the brutality of the mantid’s attack.

‘Come sister... come join in our triumph... come let us claim back that which is ours!’

She wasn’t sure if Tskallleh-ch was talking to her, or to her own kind. She prayed it was to her, but something inside told her, things had gotten a lot worse, for the enemy... but probably for them as well.

*** *** ***

The technician tensed as he heard one of the drones break out of its pattern and fly towards the eastern side of the building. A minute later he heard the dogs go off.

They were barking so intently that no one inside the building could miss it. The General signaled his men to fan out and prepare to defend the base. It had taken them too long to break apart the equipment and they would have to finish off their opposition here.

The technician froze for a moment as the other deckers rolled into a defensive position, under several tables and began hooking up their equipment. He trembled slightly as he forced himself to do the same. He began wondering what he could do to help as he activated his deck.

‘Something,’ he prayed. ‘Give me something... something I can do to end this.’

As he began moving through the system, he came face to face with the answer to his prayer. Duck stood there smiling at him as he became aware of the matrix. She smiled at him, bowed and then vanished a second before his teammates arrived.

‘Fan out,’ he ordered. ‘We can’t let the enemy into the system.’

He smiled as the others took up defensive positions. Things were finally looking up.

Copyright 1999 M.T. Decker

Chapter Twenty-six
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