Tracker pointed to the security devices and then signaled silence to the woman. They were in an unsecured area of the building. She nodded as Tracker handed her some clothes and pointed to a storage closet.
As she slipped into the closet, Tracker scanned the area and looked worriedly at the door to Victor’s private room. He wasn’t sure leaving Duck alone with the man was a good idea. He thought back to the time they’d first met and let his breath out slowly. This was too close to something someone had planned for her: way too close. Still, it was Duck’s show and he knew, he’d probably have killed the man outright.
He turned as the woman exited the closet, now dressed in fatigues. They were a bit big on her, but she didn’t seem to care. She was clothed.
They waited in silence for Duck to join them.
“Bad news,” Duck signed as she joined Tracker and Whisper in the hallway. “Fourth device is on-line here. This one’s set to launch if the others are deactivated.”
“Launch where?” Tracker signed as he scanned the area.
“NAN,” Duck signed.
“That’ll start a war,” Whisper’s signing slowed noticeably.
“Exactly.” Duck nodded.
Tracker looked at her as she raised her eyes to the ceiling. “What else?”
“Proprietary systems, requires simultaneous entry from two terminals to stand-down the device... oh, and Herr Rollins set it up so that the devices are locked in a deadly embrace. Take one down, resources free up and the other two go active.”
When she noticed the lack of movement from the others, she looked at them. “I miss anything?”
“What about Rollins?” Whisper signed.
“He’ll be fine as long as he can keep things up,” Duck signed back, then looked away, completely missing the shocked expression on Whisper’s face.
*** *** ***
Whisper allowed his breathing to return to normal before opening his eyes. Things were not looking good. They’d been able to get messages through to two of the three teams, but the third was still out of communications.
“Cat’s in position,” he told them using the sign for ‘mischief’ instead of ‘cat’ and indicating that she was standing-by. “Two Teams acknowledge, and are holding. No word from the third.”
Duck and Tracker looked at him for a minute: their expression said it all.
“We need to access the terminals,” Duck signed. Then looked over at Minh. “Okay, here’s the plan. We get control of the first terminal. We lock down that area. I get to work making it so that I can access the system, you two move on to the second terminal, do your thing, we shut this operation down, then grab the next skimmer out of here.”
“Is that all?” Whisper signed sarcastically.
Duck shrugged then looked at Tracker.
“Works for me,” he answered looking at Whisper.
The man shook his head then looked at Minh as she watched the exchange. He gave her the universal sign for ‘crazy’. The woman looked at him for a minute and then smiled in agreement.
They were unlike any I had met since my awakening. There was a fire within them, and it burned brightly. I did not understand their gestures, but I sensed a camaraderie I did not think humans were capable of maintaining.
They did not surrender, they did not take the easy route. They fought for something beyond themselves and they enjoyed it. I was intrigued to say the least. There were no Myrnas, no Alexes, no Victors among them. More over, there was a sense of family among them, that if you faced one, you faced them all. And, in my case, if one protected you, they all protected you.
And as for petty cruelty... I cannot say that they did not take lives, that they did not harm others, but there was no joy in it. That in itself was refreshing.
At first I thought that it was expedience they were after. It took me a while to realize that if that were truly the case, they would not have rescued me or the others, but by then, things had gotten much worse. Still throughout it all, these were a breed unto their own, and they lived by the old code.
It was truly refreshing.
Duck nodded towards Whisper as Tracker made one last check into the system. They still hadn’t heard from team three and that meant it was up to them to keep things from going to hell. Duck took a deep breath as she scanned the area, watching over them as Whisper drifted off into the Astral. Now was not the time for surprises.
Then there was Minh. It amazed her how well the woman had adapted to their current situation. She seemed to understand all too well the danger they were in. Duck cringed as she thought of what they woman must have endured, but Minh merely turned to her and smiled as if to say she’d been through worse.
Duck paused as she saw the motion detector’s light go out. She watched it warily until it began flickering in the familiar longs and shorts of morse code. She smiled at Minh and nodded towards the light.
She watched as the woman looked at it, squinted and then looked at Tracker questioningly. Duck nodded. ‘Quick on the uptake too,’ she thought to herself.
Whisper refocused on her and shrugged. “No response from team three,” he signed. “But the room looks like you can hold it.”
Duck nodded. At least there was a little good news. Together they watched until Tracker finished his scouting mission.
“Ready as we’ll ever be,” Tracker told them. “We’ve got a clear shot to the other terminal from here.”
“Tell Cat to move out,” Duck told Whisper then waited for all hell to break loose.
Duck wasn’t sure exactly when things went to hell, they just did. Victor’s men's reaction to Cat’s diversion was stronger than expected. They got out alright, but the security started locking down everything. That forced Tracker and Whisper to move on before she’d been able to secure the area.
The reports afterwards indicated that they’d done the right thing, but at the time it seemed anything but. For all intents and purposes Duck was alone. Minh was a rescued hostage, a liability. They had no way of knowing who or what she was, or what she was capable of handling.
As it was, Duck had less then ten minutes to take control of the terminal and figure out its controls and she needed every second of it. When Whisper finally gave her the signal she was barely ready. Tracker had the patch cables they’d made, and she had ended up having to play catch-up. She had to create the equivalent without anything other than memory to use as a template.
Interesting didn’t even begin to describe the situation. And with the alarms sounding there were too many distractions. She ended up activating the music chip, trying to drown out the alarms, but the flashing lights were still too much. Until she was able to get into the system, she was fighting that more than anything else. Once inside the system things were just as difficult, but at least then she was in her element.
Once she was in the computer, she was completely engrossed in the system and its security. By the time she was in place, Tracker was ready on his end. That’s when things got tense. Usually when they worked together they tried to network their machines so that they could can send files and info to each other directly.
Things usually worked better that way, but this system was different. They had to signal each and work separately. By the time they got to the missile controls they learned they had a new problem: team three had deactivated their device. That meant they had 2 minutes to deactivate the missile and the other devices.
Tracker and Duck’s long time debate of which was faster the computer or human thought was put to the ultimate test. They worked without communicating, each concentrating on their job. They trusted each to do their half of the job, and provide any necessary cover. Neither one dropped the ball. It was why they were selected to work in tandem.
By the time they were deactivating the devices, Duck was praying they managed to keep it together. By the end of their runs, her prayer had been answered. Again, without as much as a signal, they tripped the countdown on the missile, keeping it locked in its silo. They knew it was possibly suicide, but they also knew they had to destroy the system and Victor’s stockpile. They did not want a repeat performance.
As Duck exited the system, she discovered how much worse things had gotten: Victor’s security forces were trying to break in and the make shift barricade was breaking apart. It was not one of her better days.
I did not understand the work these people did. One did not meet many deckers or mages where I’d been. I knew that they were after something Victor had, but I had no idea what until Duck locked us in the control room. As I looked around, she pulled out some putty like substance and then started kneading it with her fingers.
She smiled at me as she pushed it into place around the door. I started to panic when I realized that she was sealing us in the room, but then she smiled at me.
“We have to keep them out while I’m hooked in,” she explained.
It was the first time any of them had spoken since they pulled me from Victor’s room. Her voice was a joy to hear.
“You just hang on a little bit more, and then we’ll get out of here, okay?” she asked.
Her words were carefully chosen. Stated as an assurance and yet something that made me feel as if I was in control. I nodded.
“Okay,” she told me as she handed me a gun. “You ever use one of these?”
Again I nodded. One of the things I had learned in twenty years among her kind was how to handle their weapons. It amazed me that she trusted me with it, but it wasn’t until she hooked herself into the machines that I understood why. Once she was connected she was as helpless as a hatchling.
I watched with horror as Victor’s plans played across the screen. I’d been around long enough to recognize the insanity he threatened. The weapons had been used, destroying once as they exploded, destroying again as their power was carried by the winds. Killing fast then killing slow, it was something only their kind could devise, and Victor was using it for nothing more than his own greed.
Duck continued through the system, struggling to thwart his plans with nothing more than her mind. I looked at her, this time in respect. She and her comrades were risking their lives for something far greater than self.
As the guards tried to break into the room, I heard Victor’s voice on the other side of the door. It was the first time I truly felt terror for someone else. If he broke down those doors, I knew I would be his again, but so would this woman, and that I could not bear.
As I tried to stand between her and the door, I felt her hand on my shoulder. “Its okay,” she told me. “Hope you don’t mind enclose areas,” she added as she pointed towards the air vent.
I do believe, she was smiling.
*** *** ***
Duck turned as she finished helping Minh into the air duct. “Keep moving forward and to the right,” she urged as she looked at the door. “Move as quickly and as quietly as you can.”
Once Minh cleared the area, Duck pulled herself up into the duct work then looked back at the control room. Pulling out a grenade, she set it for 30 seconds, tossed it towards the back of the room, then pulled the vent back over the hole. She was moving. She knew they had to reach an exit quickly.
“Move,” she urged Minh, speed was more important then silence now. When she reached a side vent she kicked it out. “This way,” she told Minh pulling on her legs. “Get out now.”
Minh ended up slipping through the vent legs first as she hit the ground she turned. She gasped as she found herself staring down the barrel of a gun. Victor was looking at her through the sites. The smile on his face, sending chills down her spine.
He pulled her away from the vent and trained the gun on Duck as she jumped down.
Duck looked at him as her internal counter told her she had 5 seconds before the explosion. “Victor,” she stated evenly with a nod.
“You are going to pay,” he promised her.
Duck nodded. “Someday,” she said. “But not now.”
As she yelled ‘now’ three things happened: the grenade went off, Minh dropped to the ground and Duck slammed into Victor, knocking the wind out of him. Duck trained her gun on him as Minh relieved him of his gun.
Victor was yelling for his men as Duck propelled Minh down the hallway. “Keep moving,” she urged. “Whatever you do, don’t look back.”
“Don’t look back,” they were the last coherent words I heard from Duck for the next two hours as we tried to escape Victor and his men.
I was so sure that Victor was going to shoot us that I kept wanting to look back, but her words stayed with me. Then the shot came.
Duck hit me in a flying tackle, covering my body with her own. Victor had meant to kill me, but instead, Duck had risked her own life to save mine. That one act brought home the frailty, the briefness of their lives. She had lived only a few years more than I had been forced to live as a human, and rather than fall into the traps I had, she lived those years to the fullest. Because of me, her life almost ended that day.
I, who didn’t care about this life, this world, these people, was saved by one who loved life, loved the world, cared about the same people I would have dismissed without a second thought. Saved almost at the cost of that which she loved so deeply.
I could feel the pain in her breath as she told me, “Don’t look back. Don’t move... Relax.”
And then Victor was once again towering over us. I was sure that this was the end. I had finally found that there were good people in the world, but their lives were far too short. In my heart I just knew that Duck’s life had been ended violently by one I hated.
I have since learned not to count Duck out.
Duck could feel Victor, see the laser as he lined up his site on Minh’s head. With a grunt, she tackled her, hoping that her armor would take the hit better than Minh’s borrowed fatigues. The impact propelled her into Minh hard enough that it knocked the breath out of both women.
Duck took a tentative breath, fighting the pain and accompanying nausea. She could tell by the way her breath caught that the bullet had fragmented on impact and at least one of the fragments had hit something vital.
“Don’t look back,” she groaned Minh as she forced herself to lay still. “Don’t move... just relax.”
She could hear Victor’s footsteps as he moved in on them, gun still drawn. “I told you, you were going to pay,” he gloated as he kicked Duck over.
Duck smiled as she rolled over, bringing her gun to bear. She let momentum do the work as she fired three unaimed shots. Two of them hit Victor.
She watched as Victor fell to the ground, a very surprised expression on his face. “I told you,” she told him in short breaths. “Not now.”
She could taste the blood in her mouth now as she forced herself to a kneeling crouch and saw Victor’s men approaching. She fired three shots randomly then forced herself to her feet. Her left arm was hanging limply.
“Minh, we gotta move,” she urged, but Minh was already standing and pulling her towards Tracker and Whisper.
“Come child,” she urged softly. “They will not stay back forever.”
“Course not,” Duck answered groggily. “They’re the bad guys.”
As they moved off, Minh could hear Victor yelling angrily. “Get them!”
Duck was feverish by the time they reached they rendevous point. She had no idea how she’d gotten there, or even why she had gotten there, only that she was supposed to be there, and by god, she was going to be there.
Tracker knew the look in her eyes too well. There was no reason, no thought, just the sheer determination that had gotten her through similar situations.
“Whisper,” he growled as he moved forward to cover them against Duck’s pursuers.
“Got it,” he answered as he caught Duck and lowered her to the ground before she fell. He spared a quick glance to Minh, but from what he could tell, she was uninjured. Shocked perhaps, but not in any danger.
He began his examination and growled. “Fragger.”
“What?” Tracker asked half turning in surprise.
“Fragmentation projectile,” Whisper corrected. “Shoulder mostly, but it looks like some of it went a little low.”
“Patch her up, we gotta move,” Tracker stated as he noticed the men closing in.
Whisper nodded. There was no time for a thorough job. He gave one more quick look around and then concentrated on the spell. It was slightly better than a trauma patch, but not much more. They didn’t have the time, and he had to keep something in reserve ‘just in case.’
“Got it,” Whisper told him. “But there’s no way she’s going to be moving on her own.”
Tracker nodded. “Minh, you still with us?” he called over his shoulder.
“Yes,” she answered unevenly. “Though I do not know what I can do.”
“Just keep up,” he urged. “Okay?”
“Try to leave me behind,” she answered challengingly.
“That’s the spirit!” he told her. “Whisper, you got the Duck.”
“Figured as much,” Whisper answered as he pulled Duck into a fireman’s carry. “Lead?”
“Go for it.”
With that they moved out, Whisper in the lead, Minh next, Tracker following up and covering their retreat.
Tracker tensed as he felt the guards closing in on them. They were almost to the launch, too close to give up, yet far enough that he knew they would be caught before they reached the skimmers.
“Need a diversion,” Tracker stated as he fired a shot at their pursuers. “Fast.”
Whisper nodded. “Sure it’s Whisper fix this, Whisper keep your head down, Whisper carry the Duck, who’s gained weight if you ask me... now its Whisper: ‘need a diversion.’...” he let the sentence trail off as a fire elemental appeared between them and Victor’s guards. “Something like that, or did you have something particular in mind?”
Tracker looked up as the base’s Halon system came online. “That’ll do,” he agreed, then looked back at the elemental. “He gonna be alright with that?”
“Not happy, but he’ll be fine,” Whisper assured him. “Now if you’re done playing around, can we please leave?”
Tracker chuckled dangerously. “Yeah, I think we’ve overstayed our welcome.”
At first I did not know how to take their jokes. They seemed not to care that Duck had been injured, that she was most likely dying as they carried her through the building. I did not understand the depth of their friendship, or the stress that it added to their hearts as they fought their way free.
It wasn’t until we were at the launch that I saw the look in Tracker’s eyes as he looked down on his friend. The same look he tried to hide when he smiled at me and tried to assure me that everything would be all right.
I knew that it was not true. The child was in desperate need of medical care, and I was unable to do more than hold her hand.
I felt so helpless, so... human. I had finally learned that which Yung had wanted me to learn, but I was so sure that it was too late. Too late for Duck, and too late for myself, for as the woman lay there bleeding I could feel something dying inside of me.
I did not know it then, but it was my pride.
“Keep her flat on her back,” Whisper told Minh as he deposited Duck in the front of a skimmer. “If she comes to, she’ll know to keep her head down.”
Minh nodded, but did not understand.
“It’s a signal,” he explained as he packed sandbags around her. “If she’s on her side, she know’s everything is fine. If she’s on her back, she knows something’s wrong, and she should keep her head down.”
Again Minh nodded, but she was beginning to understand.
“Don’t worry,” he urged. “Duck will hold on, she’s too stubborn to just give up. Once we’re clear, I’ll do what I can for her.”
Minh looked up and noticed that Tracker was already plugging himself into the vehicle’s control box.
As the engines fired, Whisper turned and strapped himself down. “Just hang on,” he urged, then began scanning the area mentally. When he was sure they were clear, he gave the manual control a slight squeeze. That was all Tracker needed, as he activated the throttle and pulled out of the launch.
As their consciousnesses left this world, I felt another presence on the craft. It was Azra. I looked at Duck and then back at him as he looked down on us. I was afraid he had come for her. Little did I know, that he had come for me.
I turned as I heard a faint gasp from Duck as we sat there, and I assumed she had breathed her last, but as I turned I saw that she was indeed still among the living and very aware of what was happening around her. I wonder what it looked like to her. I asked her once, but she never answered me.
As I looked at her, Azra spoke. I had forgotten how sweet his voice could be when he spoke and was so busy listening to the sound that I almost missed his message.
“You can heal her,” he told me. “But only enough to keep her going. You must not do more than her friends would have been able to. She will be in almost constant pain, but she will live...”
I looked into Duck’s eyes as I asked the next question. “And if I do not, she will...”
“I will take her home,” Azra stated.
Looking at her, I knew that she was not one to take the easy road. There was too much in the here and now for her to do. I took her hand in mine and wove the energies that had been denied me so long. It felt better than anything I could have ever expected, for not only was I whole again, but I was using my strength, my power, to make another whole.
Azra smiled at me, then faded from sight. "Welcome back," his thoughts echoed softly in my mind.
Shots from one of Victor’s gunships rocked the skimmer as Tracker maneuvered it around the swamp. He was pushing the skimmer beyond its design specifications now in a desperate attempt to put distance between his team and the base. He knew that somewhere on the other side of the base, BlackCat was doing the same with her charges.
The last thing he wanted was a firefight to slow them down. As he rounded an outcropping of rocks, it was exactly what he found. Seven Gunships blocked his way. With a thought he sent the skimmer sliding to the left and towards the grasses.
He activated the scant weapons aboard the craft then pushed it on into the tall grasses. He could feel the gunfire impact on the sides of their craft as the blockaded opened. The engine whined in protest as he tried to maintain his speed through the tall grasses. He directed more power to the hover mechanism, pulling the craft out of the water enough that the grasses didn’t provide as much resistance. It was a slight help, but it wasn’t enough. He knew that unless Whisper was able to pull off a miracle, their pursuers would catch them
Whisper noticed the change immediately. Their craft had slowed and Tracker’s aura reaked of worry, more worry than usual. He knew that Tracker’s job had gotten more difficult, it was now up to him to even things out.
Reaching out behind them he called up on the water to rise up against their attackers. With a slight prayer, he called upon his ‘friend’ the water elemental, but the reply was not a positive one: the waterway had been warded.
Whisper growled then summoned the power to him.
“Looks like I earn my paycheck today,” he growled to himself. Focusing on the area behind them he began pumping the power into spell after spell, all the while knowing that each discharge was lessening Duck’s chance of survival.
He was practically drained by the time the craft broke through the grasses and into the main tributary. He could feel the relief that flowed around Tracker as he was able to pull away from their attackers, but the relief brought another worry... Duck.
Minh held Duck’s hand tightly as a coughing fit took her and pain radiated throughout her body. “Child,” she called softly. “I...”
“You’ve done what you can,” Duck answered weakly. “I... understand.”
Minh looked in her eyes expecting bitterness or anger, but found only acceptance. She smiled. Suddenly she felt the urge to explain.
“I was looking for a reason,” she finally stated. “Looking for something I’d lost. I was looking for hope and light in your kind and I found only darkness...”
Duck chuckled then stopped as another coughing fit wracked her body. “But you didn’t believe there was a light in us did you?” she asked softly.
“No,” Minh admitted. “I found only misery and darkness, how did you know?”
“You go looking for darkness, you’ll find it. If you’d believed in light, you’d have found it... all in how you look at it.” Duck answered, then clenched her teeth. “There’s darkness out there, enough to spare, but if you are willing to look beyond it, you can find the light. Maybe even add to it.”
“I know that now,” Minh admitted. “It is odd, to find salvation in such a place as that.”
“Sometimes,” Duck whispered. “That’s what it takes.”
Minh turned as Whisper rejoined the here and now. “How is she?” he asked worriedly as he unstrapped himself and moved forward.
“She is in great pain,” Minh answered gently. “Can you not... do something for her.”
Whisper looked at her and winked. “Been trying for years,” he answered with a slight smile. “But the girl’s a lost cause.”
“Very funny,” Duck gasped, grabbing blindly for anything to hold onto.
“Easy,” he urged. “I’m going to try and work on you...”
Minh watched his expression change as he forced himself to channel the energies around Duck. She did not understand it, but there was a moment when Duck seemed to refuse his help, then there was surge of energy as his will overrode hers and he was able to weave the energies around her. For a moment she could feel the struggle, feel the pain and the fear.
Then it was over. When she looked at them, Whisper was hunched over as if in pain, his energies so depleted that it was all he could do to sit there. Then the explosions came.
Anders watched as Duck’s team entered the briefing room. They were the last ones in, but he didn’t have the heart to yell at them. They had face unsurmountable odds and come back victorious.
Victor Rollins was no more. He was shocked to learn about Victor’s... habits and when Spider had complained to him about Duck’s ‘dereliction’ of duty, he’d almost back handed the young man. Duck had done the right thing, there was no doubt in anybody’s mind, anybody but Spider’s.
The civilians had been taken wherever they wanted to go, but nobody had been able to pull Minh from Duck’s side as she began therapy. He took a deep breath as he thought about her injuries. It was a miracle that she was still alive. The bullet had fragmented on impact, with one shard lodging within millimeters of her heart and another pressing against her spinal column in such a way that the entire trip back must have been agonizing. Still she had managed to survive and would be able to return to active duty within a few months. The best part was the confirmation that Rollins had been taken out of commission for good.
He looked at the members of Voodoo and their guests. There was nothing really to be said. “Good work people,” he told them. “You did well.”
*** *** ***
Tracker looked at Duck and smiled. Although no words were exchanged, each understood the other. Tracker looked over at Minh. The other women had places to go, families long estranged that were just happy to have their children back. Minh had none.
“Minh,” he called to her. “Have you thought about what you want to do?”
Minh turned away from the window and looked at him. She hadn’t really thought beyond seeing Duck well. The confusion shown in her face.
“We were wondering,” Duck told her.
“We have a bar,” Tracker explained. “Its more of a club really,” he corrected. “We kinda won it in a poker game.”
“And we’ve wanted to turn it into something special,” Duck added.
“But it would take the right person to run it. We need somebody who understands people and can take care of the customer,” Tracker continued.
“But still knows how to treat the staff,” Duck told her. “A place where people would be happy to come there, and happy to work there..”
“And we were wondering...”
“Would you be willing to run the place?”
Minh smiled at them for a moment, then nodded. “What is the name of this club?”
“We hadn’t named it quite yet,” Tracker stated.
“But we were thinking about calling it...” Duck let the sentence trail off then mischief lit up her eyes as she shared the name with Minh. “The Playful Dragon.”
Minh gave her a startled look for a moment and then laughed.