218 - Arachnophobia

Cairo is how Alycia remembers it. Twenty million people sit at this hub of the Arabic world, at the doorway between past and future. It inherited the crown of power from Alexandria during Egypt’s conquest in the 600s, and over the next thousand years, human habitation turned it from a military base into a sprawling labyrinth of life and color under the watchful eye of the Pyramids.

She also remembers how confoundingly difficult it is to navigate, especially if you’re not fluent in Arabic. English is like catnip to the street hustlers. SNOWMAN can get by on attitude, and Alex and Emma both have the presence of mind to watch themselves. She settles for wrapping Nono up in a shawl and telling her to keep her mouth shut, no matter what.

She finds the group a little hole-in-the-wall motel in Manshiyat Nasser, “the Garbage City of Cairo”. While the smell is bad, Alycia appreciates two things. First, this is an even less conspicuous spot than Khartoum, and it has clean water for bathing. Second, the people here have taken up a municipal function - trash collection and recycling - that the city was unable or unwilling to handle, and she admires that sort of collective spirit.

“Sleep in shifts,” she directs. “Nobody does nothing with a mobile device without Alex’s permission. And nobody speaks English outside this room.”

She’s met with grumbling and half-hearted protest, but no open revolt.

Nono finds herself in the company of Alex, having her phone vetted for use. The others are resting.

“Hey, um, can I ask you? You seem to know all this stuff. How do you uh, get good at being this super-spy type person? I feel like everyone but me is just so cool at it, and I feel lost.”

Alex looks up from their laptop. “Me? I’ve been a hacker most of my life, and queer all of it. With parents like mine, you learn how to keep secrets by instinct.”

“That doesn’t sound very fun.”

Alex’s eyes fall back to the laptop. “It wasn’t.”

Nono feels awkward. “Well, if it helps, I don’t like my parents very much either. They fight and–”

She notices Alex staring at her again and realizes that more stories about bad parents is not what they want to hear right now. She switches tracks. “So, you’re like me, like your gift is hacking and mine is chemistry, huh?”

This gets a grin. “Yeah. You could say that. Hey, I wonder, have we both had a building blow up because of our hobbies?”

Nono blinks in shock. “You hacked a building to blow up?”

Alex sighs, and Nono feels dumb again. “No. Actually, it was a big corporate hit squad that blew up the building I was in. Because I was hacking them.”


Nono starts to get up, but Alex puts a hand on her arm. They smile up at her, and Nono can tell they’re trying, and she’s grateful and embarrassed.

“The way you get good at this stuff is to have a shitty life and be a survivor. That’s the formula. I hate to say it, but there’s no secret, it’s just having to keep yourself alive and going at any cost. I mean, plus some really intensive AEGIS training I got. But mostly, it’s just that li’l ol’ mammalian instinct to scurry away from danger, and leap at the face of anyone you can’t run from.”

Nono doesn’t like the sound of that. “It sometimes feels like you all don’t accept me, because I don’t have all that stuff. I’m just a normie.”

Alex laughs, but quietly for the benefit of the sleepers. “Nah, it’s not that. Shitty parents or not, I think we all kinda envy you because you’ve had a good life next to ours. And we wanted to protect you from having to go down the path we did.”


SNOWMAN and Emma are up at the same time. Both seem content to busy themselves inspecting their gear, checking a map of the city that Alycia obtained, and just generally being too cool for conversation.

That’s why Emma’s question comes out of nowhere to SNOWMAN, and startles him just a bit.

“Hey. Space cowboy. How d’you know Nono?”

He doesn’t, really. The question is a little weird. “She knows my original, Leo Snow. I don’t have those memories, so it’s a little one-sided.”

“Basically ya woke up from a years-long coma, is that it?”


“So you’re the youngest of all of us.”

SNOWMAN growls. “Push me if you want, but I’m fireproof.”

Emma rolls her eyes. “Not insult-proof though.”

“Shut up.”

“Make me.”

From her sleeping spot, Alycia calls out. “The both of you shut up.”

Emma being Emma, that’s not going to happen. She plops down next to SNOWMAN and lowers her voice instead. “Listen. I know you’re just so dark and brooding and shit, whatever. But you were nice to Nono. I can’t always be there, and she trusts ya because she knows Leo Snow, I guess. And I’m grateful for that. So just. I dunno, just remember that it’s lonely being us, the kids who have nothing left but to fight back. The boss and Nono help anchor me. Get yourself an anchor too, okay?”

She stands and punches him hard in the head. “Later, li’l boy.”

“Eat my carbon co–” SNOWMAN’s return curse is interrupted as Alycia throws the motel room’s ashtray at him.


Cairo International Airport is divided into the “old airport” and the “new airport”. Terminal 1, to the north, and Terminals 2 and 3 to the south. A train system connects the two.

Alex’s ticket has the group on Emirates Airlines, Terminal 2. To avoid suspicion, Alycia split everyone up into two groups: herself and SNOWMAN, posing as a couple of Chinese kids heading home, and Alex, Emma, and Nono as three American college students on an impulse trip.

SNOWMAN hasn’t let go of last night, and Alycia is growing exasperated. He really is a kid.

“I’m just saying, she’s a villain and that doesn’t sit well with me, and it shouldn’t sit well with you. Why, your dad and mine–”

“She’s useful and her girlfriend is useful, and I only get the two of them as a package deal, so package your ego and play nice.”

“She’s gonna burn you, and this team. Someone like that can’t be contr–”

She feels the ripple, before anything else.

SNOWMAN stiffens and falls, like a man who’s been turned into a mannequin.

Her phone is growing hot, and she throws it away. It sparks and explodes.

The lights have gone out. Everywhere, all of them. Everything electronic, everything running on current, is now dark.

Electromagnetic pulse!

She glances out the window, and sees vehicles on the tarmac. They’re motionless. There’s no emergency lighting. It must have been powerful, to hit the whole airport.

She spots Alex, along with Emma and Nono, in the crowd ahead. Alex tossed away their backpack, which is now smoking - their laptop, and probably a whole host of other sophisticated gadgets. The team has specialized comm gear, but nothing that would have survived the pulse that just hit CAI.

This is an attack. Focus. Process.

It’s a prelude to soldiers moving in and taking control. First, they’ll go for the security office. Second, they’ll go for the generator room and emergency systems. Their gear won’t have been burned out by the EMP - they set it off. So they’ll have working comms and scopes.

Alycia is confident that her team is the target. Unless some serious HVT just happened to be flying Emirates Air at just this time, they’ll want to target the five of them.


The EMP effectively took out half her team. Alex is much less helpful minus their gadgets and Internet access. SNOWMAN is dead weight. It’ll be easy to spot the girl lugging his frozen ass around the terminal, especially on infrared.

This is one of those moments where the expedient move would be to ditch him.

Alycia hates that she’s being forced to make a choice like this.

The smart move would be to make a break for it, try to get away from the airport and the inevitable soldiers. But that’s the move they’ll anticipate. They’ll look for anyone deviating from what the crowd is doing.

What’s the crowd doing? Panicking. Alycia can hear shouts and calls and questions in two dozen languages.

How do we blend in?

She mouths the word “PANIC” to Alex, hoping they catch on. They do. She sees them relay this advice to Emma and Nono. Perhaps for the best, it doesn’t take much for Nono to freak out.

That just leaves her. She kicks SNOWMAN hard, sending him under a nearby bench, and sits down above him. Like the eight families around her, she starts calling out, demanding answers.

Sure enough, she hears distant gunshots, and the sound of soldiers approaching. There’s nothing like the sound of boots marching in unison. But she sees something else, something that makes her blood run cold.

There’s a spider on the ceiling.

It’s not an ordinary, tiny, organic spider.

It’s a big, scary looking robot spider.

It’s a Chin spider-bot.

It’s scanning the room with a quick-sweep LIDAR - light detection and ranging - system. The laser doesn’t need ambient light. It provides its own.

Alycia should look away, hide her face, to avoid facial recognition algorithms from spotting her. But if she does, she won’t be able to see what the spider is doing.

It’s very important, deep in her gut, to know just where that thing is.

Oh god he found me, he sent exactly the thing I’d be most afraid of, and it’s here, it’s found me, and I have to keep these people alive. Oh god oh god oh god.


Alycia’s reasonably certain that nobody else is looking at the ceiling. The interior lights are out, and the afternoon sun is on the western side of the terminal, while the windows here face east. She’s certain nobody has spotted the spider.

She just happened to catch some laser scatter from glass around her, and reflexively followed it back.

I can use that.

She looks around, emulating the other airport occupants and echoing their confused demands for someone to take charge. But out of the corner of their eye, she follows the light, and hence the spider.

One spider-bot implies more. SNOWMAN might be a physical match for them, but Alycia doesn’t have enough data to conclude whether she is. Hot Mess could probably handle them, but that’ll give their location away to the opposing force.

She realizes the perfection of the trap.

They drove us from Khartoum, by compromising Emma’s allies. Our choices were, basically, Cairo or Addis Ababa. I’d go to Cairo because I’ve been to Cairo. They know that.

They reduced the search space from a city to a single airport, because why wouldn’t I keep running until I felt safe? Maybe they found a way to track SNOWMAN, or al the RF coming off of Alex’s kit. Maybe Emma shows up on infrared thanks to her powers. But there’s so many ways to track us, once you narrow it down. And that’s all on me.

And now they’ve arranged it so that if I move, I’m caught. And so that staying still is the smart move. All they have to do is execute a search of the terminal, and they have me.

There has to be a way out.

She realizes it, and hates it.

This is a trap for Alycia Chin. It depends on knowing how I think, what I’ll do.

What if Alycia Chin isn’t in charge?

Nono sees Alycia approach only at the last moment. Well, she is pretty stealthy.

“I need you to use one of your patches. Then I need you to take charge of getting us out of the airport. Do you understand?”

Nono is already panicking. What’s she trying to do, make it worse?

Alycia sees the fear in her eyes, and lean in, locking eyes. “I’m quite serious. Agent R, right now we literally depend on you. Now. Are you up to it?”

Nono’s hand is in her pocket before the question is finished, and she slaps a patch onto her bare forearm.

The rush is immediate, just like it’s been formulated to be. The drug hits her brain like a hammer, and it shatters the worthless pieces, leaving a rugged revving V8 engine of intellect behind.

She’s never sure where that comparison came from, and she’s not interested in identifying the cause. Right now, Alycia Chin - no, Charade, we’re in an operation - is delegating leadership of the mission to her.

What’s the mission? Get safely out of the airport.

Four of the five members of the team are here. That leaves SNOWMAN.

“Where is he?” she asks. Context clues should allow Charade to infer–

“Under a bench, where I was.”


Alycia nods left and right, still not looking. “Chin-type spider-bot on the ceiling. Probably more in the terminal. Soldiers on the way.”

Nono’s mind throws these ingredients into the crock pot and starts stirring. She’s not conscious of how it works, only that a lifetime of spy fiction, and some actual education from actual spies, has to cook this into a workable dish.

Again with the odd analogies.

She feels the drug burning its way through her skull, like a slow fire that’s going to incinerate her neurons if she doesn’t hurry up.

Behind her, she hears Emma talking. “You can’t put her in charge of this! She’s under enough stress–”

Nono turns and smiles at her girlfriend the supervillain. “Agent M, you’re not helping. Comply or be left behind.”

Emma’s face turns purple, and she starts to yell, starts to react, but Nono is already moving past that. How’s Alex reacting? They seem ready to make a move but are waiting for someone to tell them what that move should be.

Nono screams, at the top of her lungs. “THERE’S A ROBOT SPIDER! IT’S GONNA KILL US!” Her hand shoots up, finger outstretched, pointing at the machine’s position.

People look. They see a weird robot hanging from the ceiling, scanning them with a laser beam. They do just what Nono expected. They upgrade from deep concern to actual panic.

I’d panic. I’d definitely panic in this situation. So curious to her, in her current frame of mind, that she isn’t. Interesting. She knows she ought to. She knows the drug isn’t letting her. But it’s a curious disconnect.

“Split up. Garbage City.” The words are spare, just enough to convey her intent, but her team hears and - she hopes - understands.

She starts to run.

She can see questions forming in Alycia’s mind. She doesn’t care. This is her moment.

As the crowd surges toward the exit from the terminal, Nono takes stock. Some people aren’t taking their luggage. Any of those wheelie dealies, with the pop-out handles? Yep, there’s one.

Her teammates are going their own way. The spider is focusing on those fleeing - the ones it can do the least about - not the ones who remain in the terminal. That gives her enough time to pull this off. She hopes.

She pulls SNOWMAN out of his hiding spot. He’s remarkably light - good. She throws him over the wheelie-dealie and makes for the ladies’ room.

Emma is infuriated. So soon after all the shit Nono has been through, now Queen Chin is throwing the burden of a plan in her lap? It’s bullshit.

Apparently, it’s bullshit Nono is prepared to accept. Okay then.

There’s a panicky crowd, set off by Nono’s white-American-girl panic act. Double okay then.

She glances over at Alex. They’re pulling long strips of cloth out of their pockets. What? Oh - niqab.

“Split up. Garbage City.” And Nono is gone.

Okay then.

Alycia is history, lost in the fleeing crowd. Alex hands over a niqab and starts winding the other around their own face. “Face scanning LIDAR, probably,” the hacker explains with a grin. “So when in Rome…”

Emma nods. “Okay. Get lost. I’ll give you lot a distraction.”

“Don’t die.”

“Don’t tell me what to do.”

Alex bails, leaving Emma to her own devices.

There was probably a hundred thousand dollars worth of electronic goodies in that kit, Alex muses to themselves. Fortunately, an EMP meaty enough to burn through it all means no evidence. Still, the physical gear is incriminating. They scoop up the backpack and sling it, then check the ceiling.

One spider-bot, furiously scanning the outgoing crowd. Not looking at - what? The passenger boarding bridges, the skybridges that connect airport to airplane. Alex sprints for the gate, rolling under the rope divider rather than go around. The airport personnel are just as useless as the passengers at this point, since they’re fruitlessly trying to control the crowd - or flee with it.

They reach the exterior door, the one that leads down to the tarmac, and try the knob. Locked. Luckily there’s a regulation fire extinguisher on the wall that’ll act as an improvised club, and in seconds they’re out on the tarmac.

Where next? Unlike an airport terminal, which is tightly confined and is intended to funnel people from one specific place to another, the exterior is wide open. Perfect hacker material.

So what’s the play?

Alex is pretty sure that Nono does not have a long-term plan here. They suspect Alycia did, but threw it out after realizing something about this. That it’s a trap by her dad, for her? Maybe.

Ballsy move, handing all this off to Nono of all people. Guess I gotta step up and be the big brain.

There’s two hangars at CAI, dedicated to training for the Egyptian Military Academy. If anyone at this airport has equipment capable of surviving an EMP, it’ll be them.

Alex starts to sprint.

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Nono acknowledges that the flow-state drug - she needs a name for it - isn’t perfect. It really only compensates for her shortcomings, which is emotional anxiety. It doesn’t give her the abilities she doesn’t have.

For example, she has no ability to plan long-term. She knew she needed to get SNOWMAN out of the terminal. She knows that the others are capable, each in their own way. She’s counting on that now. They’re all writing stories in their own genres, and now they’re free to do that.

Now that she’s in the bathroom, she needs a new plan. It’s dark, without even the faint echo of sunlight the terminal concourse had provided. She doesn’t speak any local language.

What do bathrooms have? Paper. What does she have? A lighter, in her pocket, given to her by Emma after her arrival in Khartoum. She sparks a light for some basic visibility, grabs a handful of paper from the dispenser, and leaves it burning on the porcelain counter.

In the flickering light, she finds three terrified-looking women, all watching her. She just smiles and waves at them, then keeps working. There’s no value engaging right now, her burning brain cells tell her.

She tugs open the suitcase part of the wheelie-dealie, eyeballs it against SNOWMAN, rips out all the clothes and other travel kit inside. Will he even fold up like this? Yep. It takes a minute, but she compacts the android into a form that’ll fit inside the suitcase.

She got onto the airplane from the US by sneaking down to the cargo loading area. She’s going to do the same trick here.

She can see her hands shaking. This isn’t good. She’s going to run out of juice soon.

She’s never taken a second dose before.

She hopes she doesn’t have to.

When she’s not doing this super-spy nonsense, Hot Mess is a pro supervillain. She knows a few things.

Things like, most people don’t like you attacking an airport.

You know who responds to airport attacks? Cops and superheroes.

You know who doesn’t want cops and superheroes? The guys who attacked the airport.

You know what gets cops and superheroes to show up? Someone telling them something is wrong. But that doesn’t happen if you control communication from the airport, or if you just blow up every radio transmitter and phone in the area. Word will eventually get out.

They’ve probably accounted for this.

You know what really gets the attention of the law, really fast? Property destruction.

Hot Mess fires a pyrokinetic blast, a pencil-thin emission of heat, straight at the spider-bot. It lances through the machine - not enough to destroy it, but enough to hurt it. That’s the point. Now it’s coming for her.

Her next blast takes out a chunk of the ceiling. She weaves together a complex pattern of hot and cold air, then amps it to incredible temperature. The resulting impulse sends her flying upward, through the hole. The spider follows.

I’m gonna set an airport on fire! This is the BEST.

Alycia watches the spider-bot peel off to attend to Emma. That frees her to deal with the soldiers she can see approaching.

They’re wearing the same kind of outfit she saw in Khartoum. Tactical gear with up-armored vests, night vision, no unit insignias or tells. Their weapons are the sort of thing you can - and they probably did - obtain on the black market. A mixture of Chinese, German, and French arms. Weapons favorable for CQB, like carbines and shotguns.

She’s moving with the mob. Not too near the front, to avoid being shot in the first wave (should it come to that), not too near the center, so she can see what’s going on, or escape if needed. The soldiers raise their weapons, and that gets the crowd’s attention. Their leader starts shouting directions in heavily accented Arabic. Alycia gets the gist - stop moving, control yourselves, we’re in charge, blah blah blah.

There’s a lot of potential hostages here. This is a bad scene. The soldiers won’t let anyone past without a visual verification.

This is still a trap for Alycia Chin. Time to be someone else.

Who would know what to do, when civilian lives are on the line, when the bad guys with guns are ready to kill, when it’s time to save everyone and you’ve got nothing?

She needs to be Jason.

Hello, hero.

Alex has some advantages. There were plenty of jets taxiing their way to takeoff, or into the terminal, when the EMP hit. Those planes are full of people, waiting for someone to tell them what to do. The pilots haven’t had orders from ATC. They might know what’s going on, but they aren’t going to be cowboys with dozens of passengers’ lives depending on them.

That means the tarmac is full of big metal obstacles that Alex can use as cover.

They run from plane to plane, using the odd vehicle to supplement their path. And they aren’t alone. Other airport personnel are running hither and yon. Sure, Alex is the only civilian with a backpack, but if you aren’t zoomed in, maybe that’s okay?

They spot a glint of sunlight. Up - left - over there. This is worth investigating.

From cover, Alex can see what they think are the barrels of rifles, just barely jutting over the top of a hangar.


Ohhhh. Of course. Expose Alycia, with the soldiers and spider-bots as the hounds, and drive her to the hunters.

I was so much happier back at AEGIS.

Without working comms, there’s no way to warn her. Alex will just have to take care of it themselves.

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Alex is putting pieces together. Although Alycia might have a lifetime of field experience, Alex has the benefit of AEGIS training, of playing Mission Control for a team that didn’t even realize they existed for a year, and of running logistics now. Any interaction of moving parts is a system, and any system designed to do something can be made to do something else. Applying knowledge and intent to a system is called hacking.

What’s the system here? Bad guys hit the Cairo airport. Plan A is their soldiers or spider-bot or whatever find and eliminate Alycia Chin. And the rest of the team? Maybe. Plan B is a spotter notices Alycia being conspicuous and calls in the snipers.

Alex realizes the snipers won’t act until ordered. They’re the trump card. They can’t give themselves away.

What’s Plan C? Probably announce that internationally wanted terrorist Alycia Chin is at the airport and let the authorities do the job. It’s not like AEGIS is going to come bail her out of this.

There’ll be spotters. Alex can’t just sneak up on snipers up on the roof of a hangar.

Air stairs. A truck with stairs on it, used to get people on and off a plane from the tarmac. Nobody uses them anymore. That means they’ll be old. Old enough to run on diesel and pneumatics, and not a complicated, EMP-vulnerable electronics package? Sturdy enough to plow through a hangar and bring down some load-bearing members?

Sure enough, CAI has one.

Alex changes direction. It takes them two precious minutes to get across the field, into the cab, and strapped in. It takes only a second to infer the controls, even when labeled in Arabic. Thank the fucking gods, the engine starts!

Choo choo, motherfuckers.

Hot Mess is having a blast.

She’s on fire.

Okay, enough jokes.

There’s six spider-bots after her now. Turns out their lasers can be used as weapons too, and she’s forced to keep a continuous smoke screen up or she’ll be sliced and diced. They can’t see her, she can’t see them, ergo she can’t just roast them. But in moments where she guesses right and comes out of the smoke, she gets a hit in.

She was hoping to blow up a few of those fuel trucks, make a nice juicy smoke plume that would get the authorities’ attention. No need, though. She can see helicopters in the distance, and hear sirens.

Ohhhhh - hostages. She didn’t think about that. Too much time around these damn do-gooders.

The guys holding the airport will tell the authorities they have hostages, once word gets out. Nobody will actually breach the perimeter (“or these poor people will get it!” - she practically salivates at the thought of saying it herself).

She’s keeping these bots busy, but she realizes they’re doing the same. As long as she’s up here, she can’t be down there, roasting soldiers to a crisp.

She feels her focus waning. It’s exhausting, doing all this running around and power-using.

Robots don’t get tired, do they.


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So, so far, so good. Everyone’s operating well independently. Alycia’s made some good guesses and some radical moves that were on point.

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“I’m Alycia Chin. I surrender.”

She realizes how narrow some of her tactics have been. On the one hand, they’re right when she’s the hunter, and her father is the quarry. But at this moment, she is terrified, and she exults, at the alien sensation she’s only fitfully been getting used to over the past year.


Freedom to define herself. Freedom to change. Freedom to author a new Alycia. To take inspiration from others.

She’s standing in the now-empty terminal, well away from obvious sight lines. Reinvention doesn’t mean being stupid, after all. Father probably sent snipers along. They’re most likely on those hangars out there, or perhaps stationed in a van on the tarmac.

Her position means the soldiers can hear her but can’t get to her without herding a bunch of civilians around, or leaving them be. Ideally, they’ll take the bait and come to her.

It’s obvious, now that she thinks about it from a new perspective, namely Jason’s. The attack on her in Mexico wasn’t an assassination. It was a death trap. Sure, it was intended to end in her death, but Father gloated. He took valuable time to talk, time that could have been spent just pushing a button that incinerated the room and Alycia with it. He gave up valuable intelligence! Who does that?

How many times has Jason Quill been put in a death trap?

How many did he escape?

And how many more times would the villain want to gloat over the hero? She’s counting on at least one, this one.

The troops wave the civilians away and approach her position.

It worked.

I can’t believe it worked.

No, I can believe it. I just can’t believe that I believe it.

One of the soldiers in back steps forward. The other troops let her through. She’s Alycia’s height and build, not the sort of burly ex-military/ex-cop type favored in mercenary employment.

She’s more than that. When her helmet comes off, Alycia Chin realizes she’s looking at a mirror image of herself.

“It is you, isn’t it,” the Mirror says with a smirk.

“It has to be. Which leaves us to ask who you are,” Alycia smirks back.

“Pyrrhus wanted a more… personal touch here. Plus, I’m to implicate you in the airport bombing. We have to blame someone.” The Mirror raises her rifle. “Which means your usefulness has ended.”

A shot rings out.

Nono is in the off-limits access corridors when the masked gunman appears.

This shouldn’t have happened. She was supposed to just get away, get SNOWMAN to safety, run for her life, basic kid stuff. She shouldn’t have to think about this. The wave of fear surging behind her should have carried her home.

Tears are running down her cheeks as she slaps on a second patch.

He’s raising his rifle.

She has all the time in the world, and everything she needs. Everything except experience.

She shouldn’t be here. He’s going to shoot or take her captive. Either outcome is a tactical failure. She isn’t bulletproof, but SNOWMAN is. The gunman only has bullets. Ergo, take cover behind SNOWMAN. She connects this with her next priority. Get the gun.

She grabs hold of the wheelie-dealie, levering it up on one knee, high enough that the suitcase is in the line of fire. The gunman opens up. Bullets rip into the fabric but stop against the android’s carbon composite flesh.

The gunman will be confused. He’ll be evaluating his tactics. Enough time to swing the suitcase in a wide arc, knocking him against the wall. There’s a crack, and a faint trickle of blood from under the helmet, and Nono doesn’t want to know anything other than that he’s unconscious, he’s got to be, there’s nothing else she can do here.

He’ll have a radio, a pistol, equipment. Nono grabs for the radio and firearms.

The world is getting shaky.

Nono had lavage once. It’s a thing where they spray high-pressure water in your ear, to clean out ear wax and other obstructions. The thing is that your sense of balance lives in there too, and you get super dizzy for a few minutes after the procedure. You’re not supposed to walk when that happens. It’s happening now.

Nono tries to walk. She finds herself falling against the corridor wall.

There’s a voice coming over the radio. “All units, converge on 7. Close in on HVT.”

HVT means High Value Target. Nono has been writing spy fiction long enough to know that.

She doesn’t want to turn around.

She’s back at the terminal. Almost. She doesn’t remember getting this far. Is that Mom calling? No, it’s the radio.

She stumbles to the access door in time to hear about the capture of the HVT. She hears Alycia’s surrender through the door, several feet away.

She looks down at what she’s got. SNOWMAN. Some guns. Lots of guys. And Alycia.

A goofy idea comes to her. It’s probably the drugs. Probably overdose.

I̵ ̶c̸a̷n̸ ̵t̶r̸i̴c̶k̶ ̶t̷h̶e̴m̴ ̴i̶n̶t̶o̵ ̷t̵h̷i̸n̷k̵i̷n̸g̴ ̷t̴h̸e̷r̵e̷’̵s̶ ̵a̶n̶o̸t̸h̴e̸r̷ ̵s̵h̸o̸o̵t̵e̸r̴.̸

She pries SNOWMAN’s arm out of the suitcase and closes the fingers around the pistol. She opens the door, pushes the suitcase out, then fires a few rounds into the air.

I̴͍͑’̸͓̈m̸̞͛ ̷̹̈s̴̟̐o̴͍͝ ̵̞͝c̵͕̈́l̵͔̆ë̴̳́v̴̖̎e̶̡̎r̵̥̓.̷͍͛


Everyone orients on the shot. Alycia can see even the Mirror’s attention waver for a moment.

She resists the urge through years of training, and does the thing she’d been planning for a long shot like this. She kicks out the leg of the soldier to her left, grabbing for his gun as he goes down. She drops out of the immediate zone of fire. The soldiers return their attention to her, but too late.

She ducks behind two of the soldiers in the outer ring around her, letting their body armor take the first few shots coming her way.

A few of the soldiers are directing fire elsewhere, and she spots it in her peripheral vision. An arm sticking out of a suitcase, holding a pistol.

What the hell?

It doesn’t matter. The soldier she’s using as a shield is badly hurt by the incoming fire, and Alycia takes the time to draw his sidearm. She sprays the area with the carbine, forcing the soldiers to drop, and fires off several precision shots with the pistol in her off-hand.

The Mirror is on her feet, pulling her own pistol. She’s doing what Alycia would do now - go for a leg shot, the place where Alycia can be meaningfully tagged without the benefit of her human shield. Alycia throws herself up and over the man in a graceful acrobatic flip.

Normally a midair ballistic arc is the worst thing to do in the middle of a bunch of active shooters. Right now, those guys are trying to regain their feet. Should have learned mixed martial arts, she briefly muses. Every fight goes to the ground sooner or later, so you learn to fight there too.

She fires at the Mirror to keep her from drawing a bead, and it’s enough to keep her safe for the second it takes to land on her feet.

It’s finally time to get out of here. She’s learned the two most important things she intended to learn.

First, whether Nono could be trusted. There is literally no reason to play a confidence game here, when a literal clone of herself had her surrounded with armed men. Nono could have left her to her fate, had she been suborned.

Second, who’s really pulling the strings. The Mirror Alycia didn’t say “Achilles Chin”. She said “Pyrrhus”.

Did he reconstitute Achilles Chin? Was there a palace coup?

Whatever happened, Pyrrus has an almost perfect working copy of Achilles Chin’s means and methods. The strategies, the tactics, it’s all there. But if it’s not Achilles Chin’s will behind events, then it’s no longer a matter of rebuilding the Chin empire. The game is new, and Alycia must defeat this new player.

She makes for the door, emptying the clip of the carbine on the way. She throws it, somersaults over the suitcase - and grabs the handle in midair - and heads into the staff-only corridor to join Nono.

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“After her!” shouts the Mirror. The soldiers begin running for the door Alycia just took.

Two snipers and one spotter, perched unobtrusively on a nearby hangar, hear the approach of a vehicle. The second sniper takes his eye off the scope long enough to spot movement, but not long enough to react to it.

Alex tears through the hangar supports, whooping enthusiastically. If they timed this right - going in through one wall, and out through a load-bearing beam - they should bring the whole thing down right behind them. And their timing was indeed right.

Three figures tumble off a very high roof, and land on hard, hard tarmac, and in the middle of a cloud of dust and debris. Their eyes, adjusted to the dim scopes, don’t cope well with the road flares Alex sets off in their faces. A few savage kicks to helmeted heads later, Alex feels confident that this particular problem is settled.

Or is it?

They pry one of the rifles out of the clutching hands of one sniper, run up the air-stairs, and level the rifle against the railing. Through the scope - thankfully still mostly aligned after that fall - Alex can see the commotion in the terminal.

They see the brief fight. They see Alycia fleeing. And they see her pursuers.

The rifle roars.

The Mirror, and every soldier with a lick of sense, hit the deck as shots start coming in. “Our snipers are compromised!” she hisses. “Stay down! Spot that shooter!”

“I see a rifle,” reports one particularly brave soldier, looking through binoculars. “Top of the air stairs.”

The Mirror scowls. “The HVT has too much lead. Scenario 1-5. All units evacuate. Tech team, call in flyers. I’ll broadcast the promo clip.”

Alex and Emma are waiting when a taxi pulls up at their hotel. Alycia emerges, looking exhausted, and pulls a sleeping Nono out of the back. She fetches a very battered suitcase out of the trunk. As the taxi pulls away, she gives the luggage a hearty kick.

Emma is the first to notice Nono’s condition. The girl is still sweating, and her nose has been bleeding. Emma scoops her up and hauls her inside.

Alycia corrals Alex for a private conversation.

“How’d they track us?”

Alex thinks. “Probably all the EM coming from my gear,” they admit at last. “It’s an anomalous amount of signal to be coming off any one person. That, or any kind of close-up scan on SNOWMAN.”

Alycia nods. “Probably the former. They anticipated some kind of departure, parked some TEMPEST gear near the only airport we’d be likely to take, then waited for a signal. Simple.”

“We got the clothes on our backs. Our luggage is at the airport,” Alex points out.

“Nothing incriminating in the bags, at least. And the phones are fried. Thank the gods for small favors.” Alycia snorts, but her shield of confidence gives way just a bit and she lets out a sigh. “I started out so confident I could do this. Now that feels far away. It would be so easy to just return to AEGIS, to - well, our various allies.”

“Just say Jason Quill, it’s not like I don’t know about you two,” smirks Alex.

Alycia scowls, but she doesn’t stop talking. “I made an excuse. I said I’d be the only one who could track my father down. The truth is, I don’t want anyone else doing it. This has to be my fight. If I can’t bring my family’s legacy to a close, how can I ever move on?”

“Got me.” Alex shrugs and grins. “Not like any of us are asking to leave, though.”

The talk is interrupted by Emma. “Hey you two. Get in here. Now.”

Alycia can tell Nono’s condition is worsening. Whatever she did, it’s pushed her past her limits. The drug? It has to be.

She’s got experience in battlefield first aid, along with a working knowledge of biology and medicine. It’s not going to be enough.

“We have to take her to a hospital,” Emma insists.

“If we do that, she’ll be identified. And then she’ll be killed.” Alycia is stern, no-nonsense, inspecting the unconscious girl’s pulse, respiration, eye dilation, and other factors. “The Chin forces drove us out of the airport. They know we’re still in Cairo.”

“Well you need to come up with an idea real fucking quick, man.” Emma’s tone is deadly.

This is, basically, due to a nootropic drug Nono invented. A brain-enhancing chemical. Alycia doesn’t have the necessary depth in neurobiology to solve this problem. But someone here does.

“Alex, Emma. Go steal whatever you need to fix SNOWMAN. Hurry.”

This is the second time Alex has rebooted the android from an EMP blast. They’re used to the procedure. As SNOWMAN comes back online, laying on the floor of the motel room, Alycia kneels beside him, puts a hand on his chest, and leans into his field of view.

“Listen up. I need Leo Snow’s expertise with the human brain. Nono is in bad shape thanks to the drug she took. She has one chance to make it out of this. You need to fix her.”

SNOWMAN’s eyeballs finish focusing. “Gimme the formula.”

SNOWMAN has a shopping list of his own. The team owns a grand total of two stolen cell phones right now, and they put them to use in directing a raid on a drug lab in the neighborhood.

By the time the two raiders return with bags full of chemicals, SNOWMAN has a plan of attack. If anything was going to go right today, at least it was going to be this. Alycia is further grateful that the robot’s explanation is both at her level and has a good chance of success.

The final mixture makes a chemical change to Nono’s own patches, and SNOWMAN dips two patches into his solution. He applies them to Nono’s neck, then starts keeping tabs on her pulse.

The next four hours are tense for everyone. Alycia orders people to sleep in shifts, but nobody does. SNOWMAN explains that his sleep cycle has been thrown off by his time offline. Alex insists on getting some new electronics and promises to keep the noise level down. Emma just plain refuses to leave Nono’s side.

It’s 4AM local time when Nono comes to. It’s 4:45 by the time she can talk coherently. SNOWMAN runs her through a TBI assessment. By 5:10, he pronounces her fit to function.

That means it’s Alycia’s turn.

“No more patches.”

“But I…” Nono is still weak, but Alycia can hear defiance still in her voice.

“No means no.”

“I don’t wanna… be useless…”

Alycia kneels beside the bed. “You’re not useless. But I get that you felt like it. So I’m going to be training you. No joke, you’re going to learn as much as I can teach. But that’s the deal. No shortcuts. No drugs.”


“Promise. Or you’re off this mission.”

That gets Nono’s attention, and she manages a weak nod. “Promise…”

Emma takes over. “Get some sleep, kiddo. I think there’s gonna be a team meeting, but it won’t happen until you’re awake and part of it.” She glances significantly at Alycia, who nods her assent.

“Okay…” That’s the last Nono can manage, and soon Emma is resting as well.

Only SNOWMAN doesn’t feel the exhaustion of the team. What he feels, and what worries him now, rest in the pack of drug patches. While the others sleep, he slips them out of Nono’s pocket and into his own.

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The video call is a surprise, especially when Jason sees who it’s from.

“Hello hero.”

He smiles as Alycia’s face fills the screen. “Hey! Where are you?”

The girl glances over her shoulder. “Cairo.”

Jason can see the news feed from another monitor. CHIN HEIR STRIKES CAIRO INT’L AIRPORT. There’s grainy footage of someone who definitely looks like Alycia Chin, definitely taking credit for the detonation of an EMP bomb. There’s a list of demands, but there always is.

“How deep are you in on the airport bombing?” he asks.

The video Alycia laughs at that. “Oh, I’m involved. Just not how you think.”

“Chasing the bad guys, as usual, huh? Gonna let me in on it?”

“Yes, actually.” Alycia smiles again. “Listen. There’s something I need to talk to you about, privately. Eyes only, and I can only trust you, Jason. Can you fly to Cairo soon?”

“Sure. That important, huh?”

Alycia nods. “Yes. It’s important. It’s very important that I see you in person.”

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That wraps up Arachnophobia! Will our heroes survive and triumph over Pyrrhus Chin and the Mirror Alycia? To be continued next week in this theater!

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My Spidey-sense starts tingling. And not in a good way.

Oh, dear.

Sneakers you wont know who to trust

“Sure thing, Alycia. Queen to Queen’s Level 3.”

Coincidentally, was just rereading Goodwin/Simonson’s Manhunter today …