226 - Yours, Mine, and Hours

Alycia expediently solves the problem of getting out of Cairo by just stealing a plane. It’s a small luxury jet, rented to the rich but not wealthy of Egypt who can’t yet afford their own but want to arrive in style. With the CAI computers wiped out by the electromagnetic pulse, she estimates that tracing its departure should take days.

The jet is a Stratos 716X, big enough for six people with bags. The jet’s effective range is a quarter of their planned journey - 4,424 nautical miles between Cairo and Hong Kong. A combination of Emma’s memories, Alex’s hacking, and Alycia’s expertise find them refueling points near Ardebil, Bayramaly, Andijan, and Ürümqi. All of these are run by smugglers, resistance fighters, or other folk who ask no questions and take cash as payment.

Of the four stopovers, Ürümqi is by far the largest and most modern. Home of Xinjiang University and the Xinjiang Silk Road Museum, the city enjoys tourists and students from around the world. Emma and Alex take the opportunity to steal replacement electronics, not only for themselves but for SNOWMAN.

The EMP at the Cairo airport burned out most of his fancy spy gadgets, and some of his power distribution capacity. He’s effectively got a respiratory infection, and must relax at all times to avoid losing power and passing out. Although Alex is distraught, Alycia can sense a certain smugness from SNOWMAN about it. She thinks she understands.

“Leo always built for reliability, didn’t he,” she says finally.

“Yeah. I’m not Inspector Gadget,” SNOWMAN mutters.

“Well you get second pick of the parts,” Alycia says sternly. “I need to build a radar jammer. We’re flying over China now, and nape-of-the-Earth flying won’t fool their air defenses.”

“Fine with me. Means I can get a nap.” SNOWMAN turns over and closes his eyes.


Alycia sends the jet’s autopilot on a course far out to sea, bails out, and navigates an inflatable boat back to Hong Kong. It won’t do to have the jet - and her group - traced from Cairo to here, assuming the smugglers all kept quiet. She painted over the identifying numbers, of course, but there’s only so many stolen luxury mini-jets in the world.

By the time she gets back, Alex is ready with a location and a plan. Now the team sits in the back of a “borrowed” van, outside the former school that’s been repurposed into a data center.

“Didn’t China outlaw crypto mining a couple years ago?” Emma asks curiously.

“Pff. Listen. That just means someone in charge wants a cut of their profits,” Alex explains. “Cryptocurrency mining is just one more way for China to get at the West. But they want it controlled, like everything else. So the miners have a choice. Work for free for the Party, or go to jail.”


“Alright alright alright. Here we go…” Alex watches their phone, then gives thumbs up.

The signal is for when the crypto miners make their monthly payment to their Party sponsor. Until the next payment, nobody will come bother them. That gives the team a month in which to work - assuming nothing else goes wrong.

Alycia realizes that’s a big assumption.

The actual takeover is fast. It’s not hard for Alycia to direct Emma and Alex in close-quarters battle against a bunch of untrained fighters. She’s planted Nono across the street with binoculars, a radio, and orders to inform her if any cars pull up. None do, and the silenced gunshots don’t attract any noticeable attention.

The crypto miners themselves are receptive to the group’s offer. With Alycia playing Good Cop and Emma as Bad Cop, the deal is presented: here’s a sack of cash, we’re taking your stuff, get out and we won’t shoot you in the kneecaps. Oh, and don’t expect your political patron to avenge you - they’d lose face by even acknowledging you. The miners know what’s up, take the cash, and get going under Alycia’s hawklike observation.


Alex is badly needed to repurpose the crypto rig. They rope Hot Mess into helping, not only to be a gopher, but for her powers - “the key thing here is to keep all this stuff cool, and nobody can manage temperature like you”. The flattery, if not the reasoning, seems to work.

This leaves Alycia to work on SNOWMAN, stripping out the now-useless modules. The core systems are intact, but the power system will need a graphene breeder to fix. He’s got four hours of casual activity in him, or about two minutes of high-tension combat, before he has to shut down again. He’s no longer got his arsenal of weapons, flight system, and other goodies. Alycia soon discovers he’s still got his smart attitude, but also his intelligence.

She tells Nono to help out, mostly to give the girl something to do. It’s during servo maintenance that he speaks up. “Alycia, I’m going to help Nono reformulate her patches. But I want her to keep using them.”

“I said no,” Alycia says firmly.

“You haven’t listened to my reasons.”

“Fine. I’ll listen and then say no.”

The next comment gets her attention enough to put down the soldering iron and really listen.

“The patch stimulates exuberant synaptogenesis in sites associated with hypergenius.”

Nono shakes her head. “No, it just lets me enter flow state–”

SNOWMAN cuts her off. “That’s what you thought. Listen. Human cognitive bandwidth is about 110 baud, or bits per second. Flow state is about filtering out unwanted stimuli to allocate that bandwidth to a given task. What your drug is doing is widening that bus - making you capable of exceeding that 110 baud limit. You’re not in flow state, you’ve just got more capacity to focus on a task despite distractions.”

Alycia chimes in, realizing what’s going on. “A typical hallmark of genius is the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated things - to recognize patterns. Our brains make connections through synaptogenesis - the formation of synapses, or connections between brain cells. But the rate of that formation matters. Exuberant synaptogenesis is the term for how babies learn - so in essence, Nono, you’re learning as fast as a young child learns. You’re gobbling up all this data, and fitting it into a new understanding.”

Nono nods uncertainly. “Why does it hurt so bad?”

SNOWMAN answers this. “Imagine taking your family car to street racing. Imagine doing horrible horrible things to the engine, the manifold, every part of that car, so that you can get racing speeds out of it. You’re driving your brain harder and faster than it’s meant for. That’s how all hypergenius works, to some extent - it just overclocks you, big time, to keep up with a bunch of extra quantum information that’s coming in via Posner molecule formation. That’s why my dad put a chip in my skull, to regulate neural activity so I don’t just burn out from being a Formula 1 all the time.”

Alycia frowns. “But you think you can make it safe?”

SNOWMAN sounds surprised. “Sure. I just need to find the precursor enzyme that controls ANGPT1 expression, and that’ll let us stimulate angiogenesis at the same accelerated pace.”

He glances from face to face. “Uh. In layman’s terms, your brain engine wants to go all-out, but you don’t have a fuel injection system to keep it up, so the engine eats itself to keep up with the demands of street racing. But with it, the more you do spy shit while on the patches, the more of a hypergenius at spycraft you’ll become.”

He looks to Alycia. “I’m assuming you don’t have a chip. I’m guessing that’s because you’ve kept physically active your whole life. That’d stimulate the necessary development.”

Nono looks at Alycia eagerly. SNOWMAN looks at her with a confident smile, sure of his own reasoning.

She sighs and shrugs. “I’ll think about it. To be honest… my father’s chemical tampering with my brain makes me very wary of anything similar. But… I’m willing to be reasonable. If you’re sure you want to take the risk.”

Nono’s eyes, she sees, are set in determination. “I am.”

God help me if she gets hurt doing this. But… maybe it’ll work out.

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Lee Yan’s investigation has been pulling in a significant number of resources. Her senior officer is also her mentor, and he counsels her as the pair walk to the budget review meeting where they’ll be justifying all of it.

“Present only what you can support. Whether any of this will pay off legally or not, they’ll want you to argue for it against all the other nuttiness going on in the world as usual.”

“A bloodhound can’t just leave a trail,” quips Lee.

“Maybe not. But it can be leashed if it misbehaves. I don’t want that to happen to you.”

The pair arrive at the conference room, enter, and take their seats. In due course, Lee is asked to rise and explain what she’s got.

“We began in Khartoum, in Sudan. A strike team, bearing no identification, attacked a hotel room in which four young people were registered. Officially the four were American students.” She gestures and the LCD projector casts a series of grainy passport photos onto the wall screen.

“Earlier in the evening, a bank was robbed by a pyrokinetic villain. There’s no camera footage. A Sudanese hero engaged them, but was defeated, and the attacker got away.”

Police photos of the hotel room. “The Khartoum police found signs that the room was barricaded from the inside. The door was welded shut, as was a door on the roof. The bulk of the strike team was at street level, but there was no sign they engaged with anyone. If anyone in that group brought welding equipment, they took it with them.”

The slides flip back to the bank report about a mysterious pyrokinetic, to make Lee’s point for her.

“Theft of a vehicle from the University across the street. It wasn’t recovered.”

“One of the strike team was injured and taken by Khartoum police to the hospital. He died, but not due to his injuries. It’s thought that he ended his own life.”

More slides go by. Photos of the injured man, along with a toxicology report of the poison, and a report on an unidentified chemical in his bloodstream.

Lee steeples her fingers. “Ladies and gentlemen, I believe the five people in the hotel room were a separate covert operations team, and included one pyrokinetic.”

So far, so good, she thinks, glancing at her boss. He gives her the subtlest of nods.

“Go on,” one of the directors says.

“We pulled records of known pyrokinetics, including from AEGIS’s database.” Lee’s slides show five images, only one of which remotely resembles the passport photo from earlier.

“Emma Agney, aka Hot Mess, aka Emily Anderson, aka Emilia Ackerman, etc. Affiliated with an American supervillain named Mr. Big, but known to be operating independently for the last year. Sighted in Halcyon City.”

A school yearbook photo flashes up. “Thought to be associated with this girl, Nono Rodriguez. This is relevant to us because Ms. Rodriguez also disappeared from her home, and a tracer on her cell phone follows her to the airport - and then simply stops, forever. She did not purchase plane tickets. Otherwise non-notable.”

More slides, this time of the airport attack. “A day after this group disappears into the night, probably in the stolen van, international terrorist Alycia Chin strikes Cairo International Airport.”

Several people sit up in their seats. Another director asks the question they’re all wondering. “Lee Yan, do you have evidence that these incidents are connected?”

“We can circumstantially place this mystery group at the airport at the time of the strike,” she says. “Drones, resembling robot spiders and about the size of a large dog or small pony, were spotted by numerous civilians. Cairo police and the Mukhabarat graciously supplied us with photos of some wrecked drones found on the roof of the airport, near where a hole had been blasted through it. The drones and the roof show clear signs of damage from intense heat - such as a pyrokinetic would wield.”

“In addition, the soldiers that accompanied Chin into the airport were dressed and armed in a fashion virtually identical to the Khartoum strike team.”

Another director raises her voice to speak over the hubbub that results. “What are your conclusions thus far, Inspector?”

I hoped they wouldn’t ask me that quite so soon.

Lee Yan nods in acknowledgement of the question. “It’s too soon to draw conclusions. The data we have suggest that Alycia Chin may have attacked this Emma Agney and her team. But we lack much evidence, and crucially we lack a motive.”

“Chin provided a list of demands, but as far as we can tell, the Cairo attack was mostly a demonstration of some new EMP weapon,” a lesser functionary says. “There’s no need to involve this other team in the scenario.”

“We heard rumors she had been turned,” another director says, drawing attention. “If she’s now working for the CIA, or AEGIS, or the Chinese, that changes everything.”

Lee places her palms together and draws a breath. “There is still much to learn. We don’t know enough yet. But, ladies and gentlemen, the daughter of Doctor Chin is involved, and for that reason and others I feel this case is worth pursuing further.”

The presentation devolves into chaotic discussions. Other matters are discussed and disposed of in due course.

It’s not until Lee is back at her desk that she learns the outcome. Her senior gives an enthusiastic thumbs up while walking toward another meeting, but that’s enough.

Now perhaps we can learn the truth.

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Leo Snow can build an android shell in a day and a half. SNOWMAN isn’t where Leo is now, but he’s still master of his own tech. It takes less than a day to get him back in some kind of working shape.

The crypto farm is a whole lot of GPUs - computer video cards - wired together. Alex promises that an unholy alliance of open-source software, some extremely classified algorithms, and something they call “Omnislash Version 6” will be ready to handle the traffic, once SNOWMAN taps into Hong Kong’s data pipeline.

The android makes an exploratory dive, reports back on what he found, receives a briefing from Alex on what to do, and goes back. Eighteen hours later, a flood of data coming through fiber-optic cables routed through sewers and pipes is ready to feed into the farm. Alex’s software is ready, and they strut like a rooster as the dashboard metrics flip over from red to green, one by one.

Emma is now the full-time cooling technician. She hates it, and she complains about it, but Alycia promises her due compensation for her time, once the project pays out dividends. Privately, Alycia finds this the best part of the whole plan, since Emma will hold Alex responsible if it fails, and that keeps the both of them out of her hair.

That leaves SNOWMAN and Nono. The robot neuroscientist is busy reformulating Nono’s wonder drug, and as per usual doesn’t play well with others. So Alycia takes it upon herself to step up Nono’s training. Demanding physical exertions, a grueling exercise routine, and a strict diet are where she starts.

“This isn’t what you promised,” Nono pouts.

“These are the fundamentals,” Alycia explains, somewhat impatiently. “Everything else depends on your body and mind being a high-performance tool for your will and your skills to employ.”

By the time Alex reports interesting findings, Alycia has gotten Nono’s routine down from ninety minutes to a solid hour.


Alycia spends an hour reviewing the data. She spends another hour double-checking it.

“This is indeed Chin-type activity,” she concludes.

“Cool. Then we’ve got actionable intel. When do we leave?” SNOWMAN is antsy, ready to be out doing stuff again.

“Not yet. I want to emphasize that my father’s style is to weave a web of influence, then tug on the strings of that web to achieve his ends. We’ve found strands of that web. We’re only ready to strike once we spot the spider.”

SNOWMAN throws up his hands and walks away. In his place, Alex brings something else to the group’s attention.

“Hey remember those dudes in Khartoum? The guy who took a fall? He didn’t make it.”

The room is solemn for a moment. Nono, who threw the vase responsible for his fall, cringes. Alex keeps going anyway, doing their best to sound reassuring. “Hey that was all self defense, but listen, it wasn’t the fall. He poisoned himself. The Khartoum cops got the report from the hospital. Also, anyone know an Inspector Lee Yan of INTERPOL? Because they requested a copy of the report.”

Alycia shakes her head, and glances at Emma, who does the same.

Alex clears their throat. “Okay, well, uh. I’m really curious how we’re not all gonna be arrested after all this is over. But anyway! The report. Those guys pissed the Khartoum cops off really bad, and the General Intelligence Service even got involved. So they went over everything with a fine-toothed comb. Get this. The guy was kitted out like a soldier, but the medical examiner noted he’s got calluses and scars that look like he’s a manual laborer. He’s ethnically a Khalkha Mongol.”

Alycia thinks. “Some of the intel pings were in Mongolia. That may be worth investigating, while we figure out the rest of our plan.”


Emma finds Nono crumpled into a pile in the corner, crying.

She sits adjacent, and strokes Nono’s hair gently. She’s not sure what to say, so she pulls Nono’s head down onto her shoulder.

Finally some kind of words come. “Training is tough, huh?”

“Yeah…”

This isn’t sad sobbing. This isn’t terrified blubbering. This is just a human being giving into their own weaknesses. Emma has heard it plenty of times. She used to exult in causing it.

“I’m not gonna tell you I told you so.”

Nono doesn’t respond, and Emma winces. She tries something else. “How about instead, I told you so and I was wrong, because you’re still here, toughing it out?”

The crying retreats into sniffling.

Okay, good, that worked…

A need for honesty burns at her, and she opens her mouth before she can really stop herself. “I cried a lot too, or used to. Things were hard on me too. Now I only cry on the inside. You haven’t failed, Nono. You’re just… you’re just not finished succeeding yet. The stuff you’re doing is incredible, but it’s gonna be tough too. And I’ll be here with you.”

Nono sits up slightly.

Emma watches her, feeling like maybe there’s something she’ll say. When it turns out there’s not, she tries a question. “Hon, why is this so important to you, anyway?”

“Because–” Nono’s explanation is interrupted by a hiccup, but she tries again.

“Because… my folks… people at school… nobody notices me. Nobody cares. There’s nothing special about me.”

She rubs at her eyes with a forearm, ineffectively. “But… then there’s people like the Ponies, an’ you, an’ Leo, an’ Alycia, an’ other folks, and they care, they listen, they want me in their lives, and…”

She coughs. “An’ then I go back home, or I go to school, and it’s just invisible weird Nono again. Little Nono who doesn’t matter, or who’s a freak, who’s gonna light something on fire, who’s ugly and plain. And… and…”

She starts slapping a fist against the wall. “And I-- am-- worth-- more-- than-- that.”

She draws her legs up and hugs them, forehead against knees. “I am gonna be better than that.”

Emma rests an arm around Nono’s shoulders, and leans in. “You’re already worth the world, hon.”

The rest is silence, but now silence is okay.


Alycia is cleaning her guns when SNOWMAN interrupts her.

“I’ve figured you out.”

Her eyeroll doesn’t interfere with the cleaning, which she could do eyes closed. “And I’m sure you’re here to share your marvelous insight.”

SNOWMAN props himself up on the table where she’s sitting. “You gotta be the one to do this. Sure sure. Not because you know your dad best - sure, that helps, I get that like nobody else on the planet gets it.”

“As insights go, that’s rather unspectacular.” Alycia spares him a withering glance and keeps working.

“Nah.” SNOWMAN swings his legs up, adopting a cross-legged sitting pose on the table, staring down at her. “Tomorrow - metaphorically - is the day you nail your dad, or your brother, or whatever the fuck is out there waiting for us. You’re thinking about the day after tomorrow. When does Alycia Chin get to stop being a terrorist? When does she get a normal life? Stop the life of gun battles and black ops and infiltrations? When is it over?”

Alycia lets out a long breath, and puts the pistol’s pieces down. She stares up at the android. “I had a talk with Leo about this, actually. I asked, basically, how does he deal with the constant observation AEGIS has on us? He compared it to having a disease, with AEGIS as my physicians. That I might be contagious for life, so to speak.”

SNOWMAN takes this in. “Huh. Yeah, I can see that analogy.”

Alycia raises an eyebrow. “What? No impassioned pleas for empathy for your situation? No attempt to say how trapped you are in a similar dilemma?”

The android snorts. “All you’d give me is sarcasm. Your defense mechanism.”

Alycia draws back ever so slightly. “Sorry,” she says finally. “I’m not good at caring for other peoples’ situations.”

“And maybe I need to get better at looking past my own needs,” concedes SNOWMAN.

Alycia nods in acknowledgement. “Fair enough. And so, what about this day after tomorrow?”

“Well, I figure, if you’re the one who brings down the remnants of the Chin empire, all on your own - minus us, but we don’t count - I mean without shit such as an AEGIS strike team or the vast Quill empire - if you pull that off, you figure there can’t be any doubt any more. People will have to accept you as Good People, in spite of whatever shit you did before. Did under your dad’s thumb, I’ll add, because that distinction matters.”

Alycia looks thoughtful. “So I see the defeat of Pyrrhus Chin as my real redemption?”

“Maybe.”

She resumes the gun cleaning. “I’ll admit it’s not a bad theory. Now, what’s your point? Are you trying to earn your Psychology merit badge?”

SNOWMAN hops off the table. “Nah. I just came to say that if that’s your deal, I sincerely wish you luck and I’ll do what I can to make it happen. I mean obviously, here we are.” He gestures inclusively at the school-turned-crypto-farm they’re bunked out in. “But beyond that, y’know, as far as some of us are concerned, you’re already Good People. Just remember that.”

He walks off, only halting when she calls out. “Hey, SNOWMAN.”

He turns, and smiles. “Call me John. John Black. We’re all about reinventing ourselves on this team.”

“John. Thank you. That means a lot.”

The android waves, and is gone.

Alycia briefs the team. “Alex is going to stay here to collect data. Emma is going to support them.”

Emma groans audibly and petulantly. Alex smirks.

“The rest of us are going to Mongolia.”

Nono raises her hand. “Um, what’s in Mongolia?”

Alex answers. “We found Chin-style intelligence traces with a four-sigma probability. Some of our traces led to a series of mines. Our guy from Khartoum could have been a miner, based on his build, scars, and so on. Sooo I pulled stats and looked for anomalies. We found one that looked obviously wrong. They’ve had no reports of accidental injury or death for months.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?” asks a perplexed Nono.

“There are always deaths in a mine,” Alycia says hollowly. “Always.”

“So…” Nono struggles to understand.

“So maybe nobody over there cares about death any more,” John interjects. “Like the guy in Khartoum.”

Alycia nods. “Like guys who are taking a drug that addicts them to despair.”


The Tavan Bogd Group owns numerous subsidiaries and affiliates that include food service, mining equipment, restaurants, vehicles, even banking. It’s not huge - 10,000 people is a small American company - but does everything they need.

Alycia, John, and Nono hop on a train. It’s 1000 miles to Baoji via the ultra-high-speed rail, and another back to Ürümqi via slower, but newer, rail lines. The trip still takes long enough for Alex to rustle up truck routes from the Support Services Mongolia LLC’s computers, and by the time they arrive in Ürümqi, a truck is lined up that’ll take the Turpan–Ürümqi–Dahuangshan Expressway through the Gobi desert.

“Stay in the back, out of sight, at all times,” Alycia instructs Nono.

“Guess I’m not ready for infiltration stuff,” she mumbles.

“You’re too white to pass as Mongolian, actually,” Alycia says sternly. Both she and the robot John Black have noticeably Asian features, and Nono concedes the point without further argument. But just in case, Alycia brings a couple of chadors along. A legally sanctioned reason to cover the face is never a bad disguise.


Permits have been issued and papers are in order. Alycia remembers the days when she was expected to forge handwriting and understand how physical documents were passkeys to forbidden areas. Now, Alex is the master of access.

Well, not where we’re going. The mine will be low-tech, and my skills will be relevant once again, she tells herself, consolingly.

The Gobi is cold and rocky, but what makes a desert a desert is the dryness rather than the hotness. Alycia and Nono make a point of staying hydrated, while John smugly goes without food or water. Eventually the terrain elevates, and the peaks in the distance become towering mountains that overshadow the little truck.

“I thought it was just gonna be sand and lizards and stuff,” Nono breathes. “This place is so beautiful.”

“There are perks to being on the run,” Alycia admits. “The world, and its people, cannot be fully appreciated when you live in only one place.”


Tavan Tolgoi is a coal mine owned jointly by a government-owned company and the Mongolian Mining Corporation. It’s nothing the size of Oyu Tolgoi, but it’s still a huge undertaking.

The truck arrives, and is waved through the gate. John steers, while Alycia devotes her time to watching and studying.

There are further guard posts, but they wave the truck through dispassionately. Alycia isn’t sure if they’re drugged, bored, or just tired of working in this gods-forsaken desert, but they’re definitely not exhibiting even a token of caution.

The plan is rough, because nobody knows what to expect here. But in broad terms, Alycia wants a blood sample from a miner, and Nono is ready to analyze it for the despair-inducing drug the new Chin empire has been producing. John will hang out doing robot shit, Alycia presumes, and can intervene if things get dangerous.

The truck itself is loaded with pallets of food and other supplies necessary to keep a big operation like this fed. Alycia waves to a foreman, confirms his questions, and unlocks the rear doors. Another worker is on the way with a forklift. Good enough.

Alycia’s Chinese is much better than her Mongolian, but the foreman understands Chinese. Where’s the front office, where we can drop off paperwork? It’s over that way, through the door, on your left. The noise of the mining operation would be deafening up close, but from this distance it’s just an annoyingly loud rumble that sometimes requires one party to repeat a word.

After the foreman leaves, and the first load of cargo is being taken away, Alycia calls to Nono. “New plan. Agent R, get that chador on, tuck your hair in, and come with me. SNOWMAN, hang out and stall those guys if they get suspicious.”

“Roger,” the robot calls.

It takes a few minutes, and Alycia has to wait for another pallet to be removed, but Nono emerges, dressed down as much as possible. Alycia still fiddles with the fit of the garment for a moment, then beckons.

“I want to try an experiment,” she explains. “Everyone - everyone - here seems unmotivated. You and I are going to walk through the facility. Walk with a purpose, whatever happens, unless I tell you to do something else.”

“Ohhh.” Nono brightens up. “Bathroom spying.”

“What?”

“When I had Agent R need to infiltrate a place and look like she belonged there, I’d have her pretend she needs to go to the bathroom pretty bad. That would give her the intensity needed to pass herself off as someone who shouldn’t be questioned.”

Alycia pauses. “That’s… Not bad, actually. Alright, yes.”

“I won’t have to act for this part,” Nono confesses.

Alycia nods in renewed understanding. “Yes… yes. Very well, let’s go.”

The pair enter the mining offices. Alycia does drop off the manifest, something she should have no need to do at all - the electronic version is already in their computers, right? But the office worker doesn’t seem to care.

Experimentally, Alycia reaches across the counter, but the office drone looks up sharply at her, and she plays it off like she’s stretching after a long drive.

Interesting. So there are limits to the effect. If things all seem to be routine, nobody pays much attention. If something deviates from expectations, they start to wake up.

“Can we use your bathroom?” Alycia asks.

“Down the hall, between rooms 4 and 5.”

“Thank you.”

Next experiment. Will the office folk think about them after they leave? Alycia and Nono spend a full hour in the office complex. They rig the toilets to collect samples, head to the infirmary to see if there’s anybody already suitable for a blood draw, even discuss (but reject) knocking someone out and drawing some blood directly. At the end of the hour, Alycia has acquired enough samples to take back to the chemistry kit, and satisfied herself that nobody seems alerted by their wandering through the complex.

The truck has been unloaded for fifteen minutes by the time they get back. SNOWMAN is doodling designs on the blank pages of the truck’s technical manual. Nobody seems intent on shooing them away from the mine, so Nono starts work on the analysis. Just in case, she’s already checked the food they’ve brought over from China - no trace of the drug there. If these people are indeed the victims of Chin’s tool of despair, it’s being brought in from elsewhere.

Curious, Alycia hops back out of the truck and studies the ground for tracks. The sandy soil is such that tire tracks and footprints won’t last long, but she’s bored and that’s never a good thing. Predictably, she finds only the truck’s tracks coming in, along with the forklift’s distinctive wheels.

How about a helicopter? She sees a few spots nearby that are both level enough to accommodate a chopper and accessible to the forklift, but nothing actually paved and labeled as a helipad. Night landings in this terrain would be difficult, but possible.

She spots SNOWMAN’s hand out the window of the cab, beckoning her back.

“It’s the stuff, it’s the formula Mr. Bazar talked about,” reports Nono.

“The despair drug.” Alycia’s thought processes ramp up immediately. “Application. The lab we found created tablets of the stuff. They may import premolded tablets in bulk, import powder and make tablets locally, or even synthesize the stuff here with a molecular lathe or similar tool.”

“A lathe takes a lot of energy,” SNOWMAN points out. “Halcyon’s energy grid and my graphene batteries could handle the load, but a place like this?”

“It’s possible they’ve got a synthesis pipeline somewhere in the mine,” counters Alycia.

“Good point. Okay. How do we track this down?”

“Find when the miners take the drug. Work backward from there to find the local source. Stake it out if applicable to see when, how, and from where it’s created or delivered.”

“So someone’s gonna have to go be a miner,” SNOWMAN says. “Guess that’s gonna have to be me.”

“Correct. Agent R and I will leave, set up camp somewhere, and keep watch on comings and goings.”

Alcyia looks from face to face. Nono and John both nod.

A leader should say something decisive and inspirational here, she tells herself.

“We’re… we’re close to our objective now.” She swallows, throat unaccountably dry for a moment. “This is what everything we’ve done has led to. You’ve both … uh, you’ve both really done great.”

She is secretly proud to see them both smile in acknowledgement of the compliment.

“That’s why I’m going to drive you both twice as hard from now on.”

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Reconnaissance, day one.

Alycia locates a suitable spot for overwatch, high up and away from the mining complex. She brought binoculars out of habit, and there’s enough tarp, rope, and other things in the delivery truck to construct a makeshift camp that’ll keep the two girls from being burned by the sun or chilled by the desert.

Food and drink aren’t hard to come by. They just delivered some via truck, and can go steal more from the office as needed. The miners and other workers here sleep in barracks, and there’s at most a skeleton crew at night to ward off stray animals. As for the truck itself, Alex files a series of electronic missives that paint the picture of a hijacking and disappearance. It won’t hold up under any scrutiny, but it’ll keep the authorities from coming here with questions.

SNOWMAN’s plan for infiltration is easy: “walk in, tell them I’m a miner, and get started”. Alycia, ever doubtful despite the generally lifeless attitude of everyone working here, phones home for Alex to do some computer wizardry so the Mongolian Mining Corporation’s computers have a record of him.

“You’ll also need to speak Chinese.”

“I don’t.”

This leads to a practice session where a few key phrases - “yes sir”, “no sir”, “right away”, and so on - enter John’s vocabulary, and Alycia grudgingly promises to sit on the other end of a radio link and prompt him when to say what.

He sneaks in, and Alycia listens to him stumble his way through a few key explanations. Miners need uniforms, safety gear, and tools. But the two of them manage, somehow, and SNOWMAN is off to the mines.

He’s swallowed an enzyme that will react when the drug enters his system, whether via eating, a tablet he’s given, or some other means. When he feels the reaction, he’ll know where he was and what he was doing, and that’ll provide the next link in the chain.

By the time he’s actually down there, working in the coal mine and humming “16 tons” over the radio, Alycia is thoroughly disgusted with how sloppy this whole plan feels, and thoroughly appalled by how successful it’s been in spite of that. But most of all, she’s horrified at why it’s working. Up until now, a drug that induces despair was an awful theoretical, a reason to pursue her family in whatever permutation of existence they occupy. Now, seeing a whole complex filled with human beings who just can’t care about anything, she’s resolved to bring this whole thing down, and thwart the ambitions of anyone who’d do it to living people.

This cannot be forgiven.


Reconnaissance, day two.

It’s definitely introduced at meal times. That makes sense, given that the cafeteria is the one place everyone is guaranteed to come and consume something. It’s not in the food, either, but in a pack of tablets and capsules everyone is expected to take. For the miners, this includes a hefty dose of Vitamin D to compensate for the time they spend underground. For others, it’s a multi-vitamin that supplements the canned, fried, and microwaved food staples that keep the place going.

Nono is having a hard time roughing it, but Alycia notes a marked reduction in sniveling since Hong Kong. There’s still basics of wilderness survival that Alycia must impart, but that takes time and the student is receptive.

For that matter, John hasn’t said much. Hard physical labor means nothing to a superhuman android so he wouldn’t complain about that, but Alycia expected more grousing about being stuck underground, or smug asides about robot superiority.

Leo Snow was always empathetic, sometimes dangerously so. Maybe these peoples’ plight is worse for him, since he’s working side by side with them while I’m up here.


Reconnaissance, day three.

Alycia snuck into the cafeteria overnight and found where the pills were kept. She pocketed a few samples, just in case. She found nothing indicating an origin, other than that they’re packaged in plastic, so on a morning call via satellite phone, she asks Alex for advice.

“If we bring the pills back, can we analyze them to determine place of origin?”

There’s a couple minutes of typing over the line. “Actually, bring the packaging back, you can analyze the plastic to get a solid trace on origin.”

Alycia privately acknowledges things were simpler in Halcyon. She could just bop down to Jason’s lab to analyze something like this. Nor does she have a squad of soldiers she can dispatch for something like this. Out here, it’ll take days, rather than minutes. “At least we can rule out local production,” she says at last. “These tablets were packaged for transport.”


Reconnaissance, day five.

Few people visit the mine, as expected.

Alycia has done some calculations in her head. “Number of miners, estimated volume for storing the tablets, tablets per unit volume, daily rate of consumption, all mean they restock once every two weeks, give or take. We have to be ready to trace the delivery back to its origin, but there’s other lines we can pursue too, and we’re losing out on those by staying here.”

“I can stick around,” John suggests. “I’ll disappear into the mines, sneak back to the camp here, and take over observations. Whatever truck or helicopter they use, either I can sneak aboard, or Alex can track via satellite.”

Alycia grudgingly sees the logic in this. She turns to Nono. “We’ll go back to Hong Kong. You’ll do the forensic analysis of the packaging.”

Nono hesitates, but nods. “I think I can do that.”

“Alright. We’ll head out this evening.”


During the afternoon, a car pulls up. Two women wearing paranja - the Central Asian equivalent of the full-coverage burqa - step out. They’re greeted, as the team’s arrival was, and escorted inside.

“That’s wrong,” Alycia comments, and rises.

“What’s wrong?” Nono asks.

“The people wearing those garments. They drove here themselves, no male escort, no nothing. I’m going down there.”

Nono, worriedly, takes up the binoculars as Alycia slides down the slope. Now it’s just her, all alone in the wilds of Mongolia.


There’s a fence to keep wild animals out, but Alycia long since cut a hole in it. Now she hurries down the hill from her camp, sprints to the fence line, ducks through the hole, and makes for the main building.

The visitors have a ten-minute lead on her, but she’s confident Nono will alert her if they leave the building again. There wasn’t much traffic inside the offices, this looks like some kind of official visit, and they’ll probably be received in one of the limited number of conference rooms.

She makes a mental note of the car’s make, model, and license plate, and parkours her way up to the roof via the forklift. Any building in a desert, hot or cold, needs ventilation and air distribution, and she pops off a vent cover and hops inside.

The air is horribly hot and stale, but Alycia mutes her instincts to flee, and crawls. Not here, not here… yes, here.

The meeting is already in progress. Watching through the ceiling vent, she can see the two women and a television screen. A video conference call? Probably.

She’s missed the first minutes of the call, but it goes on long enough for her to gather some useful information. What she hears makes her blood chill.

First, there’s someone named “senior commander Saito” who wants to meet with the mystery party on the other end of the call. Second, it’s about obtaining more of the drug. The call is about negotiating a time and place for the trade.

Alycia finally learns the name of the drug itself: “Cháwǎn”. The word means “teacup”, and Alycia bitterly understands the allusion. The Tao Te Ching says, “shape clay into a vessel; It is the space within that makes it useful.” Her father, and apparently her brother Pyrrhus, want to shape people the same way, and pour their wills into the waiting hollowness. But who are these other people, who want the same thing?

It’s the third bit of intel that really worries her, though.

“We have information for you as well,” one of the women announce. “There is a spy named Leo Snow. American. He infiltrated our territory recently. He may pursue your operation. His associates are–”

“Jason Quill, Alycia Chin, and other members of the Menagerie,” the mysterious voice on the call announces. “The master knows of them. Snow and Chin have disappeared, but we are close to picking up their trail. Quill is being dealt with by us.”

Alycia retreats into the vents. “Agent R,” she whispers into her comms. “Change of plans. Instruct SNOWMAN to get into the vehicle parked out front. You are to take the truck back to Hong Kong, tonight. I’m staying here.”

“You sure?” John asks over the radio.

“I’m less sure of everything now,” Alycia admits. “But this is it. This is the endgame. It’s do or die.”

“Well, good luck on the doing and not dying,” John quips.

Alycia is sure Nono is going to say something now - express uncertainty about her part of the job, say she can’t do it, say it’s scary, something. But no. “Wilco, Charade. Over and out.”

Is she taking the patches again? Or is she, herself, growing into her dream?

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Once in the car, Mina Onnanoko removes the clothing that conceals her nature as an Atlantean Blood. While her lieutenant drives, she reaches for the satellite phone and places a call.

After an exchange of passcodes to confirm her identity, she gives her early report. “There was someone in the ventilation system during the meeting, listening in. We don’t know who, but we weren’t to investigate, only schedule the exchange. I’d like to set up an observer and see who comes and goes from the mine.”

The voice on the other end is harsh, firm, accustomed to authority. “I will relay your message to Senior Commander Saito. The unknown party is most probably Alycia Chin, one of the Menagerie, and one of Snow’s known associates.”

Mina acknowledges with a grunt and a nod. “Very well. Orders?”

“Your idea of monitoring the mine seems sound. Do you expect your quarry to leave immediately, or reinforcements to arrive in the same time frame?”

Mina thinks for a moment. “No. Either the spy is tracing the supply of Cháwǎn, or is after us. We swept for tracking devices before departing and found nothing. Therefore they will remain there, at least for the time being. Just in case it’s bugged anyway, we will trade cars at the rendezvous and return to base.”


John Black, clinging to the underside of the vehicle, can barely hear the specifics of the call. It turns out that it doesn’t matter because he doesn’t understand whatever fucking gurgling that was. But he gets the gist. Some kind of inhuman creatures are driving this Mongolian crossover SUV he’s clamped onto, they checked in with more of their kind, and now they’re on their way to have a big BBQ or some shit.

He doesn’t have a built-in radio any more, and left his earpiece behind. It wouldn’t help anything - he’s too far from anyone else right now to call in. All he can do is hold on, and find ways to pass the time.

99 bottles of beer on the wall, 99 bottles of beer…


An hour of driving passes. The car stops, and the two occupants get out. John can see another vehicle waiting for them. There’s a sign nearby that reads “Номгон”, and a building in the distance. And… that’s it.

Trading cars, to defeat a tail? What’s the fucking point? This is Mongolia. It’s been a desert the entire time he’s been watching. If the vehicle was being tracked via satellite, doing a swap out in the open like this would accomplish nothing.

He rolls out and scuttles toward the replacement vehicle once his quarry have gotten inside. He spots an interesting detail on both figures. Head tentacles? Like Ninjess, of the HHL.

He’s got less time to find handholds this time around, and finds his ass dragging on pavement for a minute before he works out a solution. Once rearranged, he considers his options.

Squid-headed people were definitely not part of the original deal. He should find a way to call this in. But at the same time, he wants to know where they’re going. He’s not equipped to do both.


Another hour of driving gives him no further insight. But they’ve entered something like a city, which at least has more options than the desert. John saw a sign flash past - Баяннуур хот - and has no idea what it means.

Maybe it means I need to learn Chinese.

The vehicle pulls up near a lake. The two occupants get out, once again attired in their concealing garb, and start walking toward it.

John detaches himself from the car and tries to sneak out from under it, but something about the scrape of robot on pavement gives him away. The two figures wheel to spot the source of the noise, and he rises to meet their gaze.

“Leo Snow,” hisses one of them, a woman by the sound of her voice.

God dammit, they recognize me?

He has never met this woman in his entire god damned life. He has no idea how to proceed. That means it’s time to swagger.

“The one and only.”

“Where is your partner?”

The fuck? Which partner? Pneuma? Alex? Alycia? “Handling business elsewhere,” he replies boastfully. Which is fair - anyone they might conceivably mean can get shit done.

“Good. Then we will dispose of you here and now,” says Squid-Head Woman. She gurgles a command to her partner, who retreats and reaches for a cell phone. She herself drops into some kind of martial arts stance John doesn’t recognize.

John rolls up his fists, gets up on the balls of his feet, adopts an orthodox boxing stance, and starts bobbing. His mouth curls into a sneer.

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Nono Rodriguez is not licensed to drive a truck.

Yet here she is, wearing an uncomfortably hot chador, driving a delivery vehicle across the Gobi desert, on the other side of the planet from home.

She ran away from her parents. She told them she was moving in with some girl (technically true…?). None of her usual friends are here. Someone who looks like her old lab partner in school is here, but he’s a military robot.

Being lost at sea must feel like this.

The group brought something called “SatSleeve”, letting them use their regular mobile phones via satellite. Alex told them this was illegal in China, and to throw it away if caught. Nono glances at her phone. It would be easy to call Emma, easy to just start bawling. But she’s not going to do that.

What is she going to do?

Keep driving, she supposes.


It ends up that Emma calls her. The truck was technically reported as stolen. Nono can’t just drive it across the border. So what’s the plan?

“We found some helpful dudes that need a job done for them,” Emma reports. “They’re gonna come pick you up, then I’m gonna go help them out with their job.”

“What kind of job?” Nono asks nervously.

“Just, y’know, a job.” Emma’s voice is casual, but it doesn’t help Nono feel more at ease.

“Emma, if you’re going to do something illegal–”

Emma cuts her off immediately. “Listen, sweet cheeks. Everything we’re doing right now is illegal. You’re already up to your eyeballs, same as the rest of us.”

“But we’re trying to do the right thing,” Nono protests. “We’re trying to help people.”

“The right thing and the legal thing got nothing to do with each other, ‘Agent R’.” Emma pauses. “Having any regrets about this life yet?”

Nono has to think about that. “No,” she says finally, but her heart isn’t in it.

“Fine.” Emma describes a spot to wait and what car to expect. “We’ll meet in Xi’An. See ya soon.”

“See ya.”


The men and women who arrive by car give Nono the biggest “bad guy” vibe she’s ever gotten. They don’t talk, just wave at her to approach the car and get in. One of them gets out and walks toward the truck she’s leaving behind. A minute later, he’s back, and Nono is wedged in the back seat between him and another man.

As they drive away, the truck explodes behind them.

Nono flinches, but she doesn’t scream.

The trip is uneventful, thank god. She doesn’t say anything, and they don’t ask anything. The one piece of human interaction comes when the woman in the front passenger’s seat pulls a water bottle out of the glove compartment, and hands it back. Nono, uncertain, shakes her head and folds her hands in her lap. The woman shrugs, uncaps it, and drinks it herself.

She wants to ask who these people are, what they do, what Emma will be doing for them, what’s going on. She strongly suspects she will regret knowing the answers to any of these questions.


Emma is there when Nono is let out of the car. The villain waves at Nono, walks past her to the car, and leans in to exchange a few quiet words. Some kind of deal or clarification is going on, Nono guesses.

The car pulls away, and Emma rubs her hands together. “Repayment arrangements, check. Girlfriend recovered safely, check. Up for some sightseeing?”

Nono collapses, and Emma rushes to her side.


The two find a comfortable place to sit down, out of the way of watchful eyes. The chador is off, and disposed of.

“This is just… it’s all just…” Nono can’t find the words.

“‘Overwhelming’,” Emma suggests.

“No, it’s…” Nono makes a breakthrough. “Everyone’s got all these stories.”

“Eh?”

Nono rubs her hands together in agitation, as Emma watches curiously. “Okay, we’re doing, uh, we’re doing questionable things in, well, what I guess would be an exotic foreign land in someone’s spy fiction story. But these people aren’t, y’know, exotic foreigners, they’re just… People. Like folks here are watching us and thinking, hey, it’s two American girls on holiday. We’re the exotic foreigners.”

Emma squints. “Yeah, and…?”

“Well, um, my point is that nobody is an exotic foreigner, but everyone’s stories are just really weird compared to each other! So, fess up. Those people want you to rob a bank or something, don’t they.”

Emma scratches her cheek with a fingernail, looking away, trying to play this off. “Blow up a rival triad’s armory, but yeah.”

Nono nods emphatically. “Okay, good, blow up an armory. Meanwhile, there’s um, there’s uh, like a wedding going on a block away or something? And the story there is a happy day for everyone involved. And then a block away, it’s, uh, it’s like bankruptcy and betrayal and something, someone’s business going under?”

“I’m not following you, hon.”

Nono stands up, and clenches her fists. “I’m saying that I can see all these stories, I get it now, everyone’s got their own trajectory for what they do and all that. I just don’t know how to fit into any of it! I know schoolwork and I know chemistry, and like, I can write fiction, but this is real stuff! I don’t know how to fit in. I’m not comfortable with all this, the way you all are.”

She points in the direction of the long-gone car. “You just…you figured out how to get in touch with organized criminals around here–”

“They’re from Hong Kong. 14K.”

“Okay, whatever! My point is that you just, uh, made a deal with some people to do this thing, the way I’d go write a book report!”

Emma nods in delayed understanding. “Okay, I getcha. This ‘Agent R’ persona you wrote for yourself is this suave super-spy, but you aren’t. You’re Nono the Chemistry Student, Nono the Shy Schoolgirl, Nono the Civilian.”

She stands up as well, and pokes her partner in the forehead with a finger. “That changes in here. The thing the boss taught me about villainy is that you gotta be a villain to be a villain. You gotta embrace a role, put on a mask, yadda yadda. Like an actor, fake it 'til you make it. But you’re still trying to be ordinary American ingenue Nono, while we’re out here in the shit.”

Nono’s eyes are wide. She’s taking all this in. “Yeah. Yeah. I get it.” She pauses, now stumped by her own next question. “Well, who am I supposed to be then?”

Emma shrugs. “You gotta figure that out, kiddo. Now come on. I wanna get back to Hong Kong. Alex promised me unlimited dim sum at Duen Kee, and they roast meat ridiculously well.”

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It’s okay to do this. This is still me. I’m just accessing an intelligence asset.

This is how Alycia justifies things to herself as she dials Summer’s number a third time.

No answer.

I swear, the one time I need her…

Who else…?

With trepidation, she dials Aria Newman’s number.

The answer is immediate. “Hello? Who is this please?”

Alycia sighs. “It’s Alycia Chin. Listen. I need to talk to you and Leo. Is this a good time?”

The sound of machinery comes from the background. “I’ll get him,” Aria promises.

Alycia takes this moment to dial Alex and conference them in.

With four people on the line, Alycia lays out her question. “In running down a very important lead, I heard about someone named ‘senior commander Saito’, who apparently knows Leo from somewhere. I need to know the story there.”

“That fascist fuck,” is Leo’s first reply. And Alycia, over the next four minutes, hears a very condensed version of a trip to Atlantis.

This is a lot to take in. “So… an imminent invasion of some surface target… a plan to rescue human beings held captive underwater… I think I begin to see.”

“See what?” Leo demands.

Alycia, in turn, explains the basics of Cháwǎn. She omits the specifics about Pyrrhus Chin. It’s not time yet.

Leo is quick on the uptake. “Saito wants the drug so he can dose the human population of Atlantis. If we mount a rescue, nobody will care about escaping. He’ll have his hostages, and our counter-attack will be for nothing.”

Aria chimes in. “Alycia, this ‘Sepiaverse despair drug’. How was it actually derived? In other words, who or what did they study to actually engineer it?”

“I don’t know. We haven’t gotten that far in our investigation.”

Aria’s voice sounds concerned, even over the static of an international phone call. “How secure is this line?”

Alycia doesn’t say it, but somehow she’s proud. Instead, she answers the question. “I’ll vouch for the security of the call.”

This satisfies Aria. “Summer told me about the time she and Jason went to the Sepiaverse. But before that, they visited Amir–”

“Jason’s brother. I know him,” Alycia confirms.

“Well, she said that after that, they were pretty sure he wasn’t this world’s Amir, but that he was from the Sepiaverse.”

Alycia feels a void in the pit of her stomach. “If they got to him, that would explain how the drug was made… but who would know about him? Jason, and Summer, and now you… Have you told anyone else about this? Did she?”

Aria’s voice is firm. “No. It’s not something either of us would share casually.”

Leo comes back on the call. “Alycia. You have to destroy the source of this drug. We can’t let Saito get his hands on it. There’s thousands of lives at stake. Including my mother’s.”

No pressure.

“That’s what I’m committed to doing,” she says. “I’ll let you know how it goes.”

Alex chimes in. “Hey, Ms. Newman, any chance you know where Amir’s holed up?”

“The Florida Keys. I’ll have to ask Barbara for specifics.”

Things feel like they’re coming together for Alycia. “Right. I’ve got a lead on the meet between Saito and the Cháwǎn suppliers. If we disrupt it, that may prevent me from tracing it to its ultimate source. Leo, if we give you details, can you intercept it before it gets to Saito?”

“Yeah. Probably.”

“Good. Then as long as nothing goes wrong, I hope to have positive news for you soon.”

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Everything has gone wrong.

John knows he isn’t supposed to be fighting here. He’s supposed to stay out of sight, figure out where these goons were going, and report back. He’s screwed up the whole plan.

But fuck it. Fighting is fun.

His opponent is older, presumably more experienced, definitely trained - he’s studied enough fighters to recognize the signs. She’s got a muscular neck, from training in grappling and taking hits, and good overall muscle tone. She’s breathing right. Most of all, she’s constantly gauging distance, constantly adjusting, but always keeping her feet positioned for that next move.

What’s he got? He doesn’t have Leo’s quantum instincts for fighting, not any more. He’s got the inherited muscle memory of all those fights, though, and the training he received. He’s got robot strength and durability.

So it’s going to be technique against power.

I should go for the joints. A good crushing blow to disable. If I can get one of her arms out of commission, that should open her up–

He goes for it.

Mina Onnanoko sees the punch coming, fast and off-center. She glides around it, grabbing hold of the arm, and sends John sprawling across the ground with an expert flip.

John now realizes that he’s got one big additional disadvantage, and that his opponent has just learned it. As a carbon-allotropic Newman robot, he weighs maybe a third of what an equivalent human would. He can project force, but he lacks the sheer mass to resist certain kinds of grappling moves.

He kicks off the ground into a backflip and lands on his feet, before Mina can exploit his brief time on the ground. Feeling a distinct lack of dignity, he tries to regain some by pointing at the other squid-head, the one on the phone with their presumed superiors. “Hey! After I take care of this bitch, I’m coming for you, you tell your boss that while you got him on the line!”

Fast as lightning, Mina has drawn some small knives and hurled them at his head and torso. John dodges, but one clinks off of his synthetic skin, doing nothing worse than tearing the sleeve of his already-battered shirt.

“I see. Not Snow. Another of his robots,” she muses aloud.

“Imma beat your ass and go out for calamari later, you fucking ninja wanna-be.”

Instead of taking the bait, Mina waits, still in a ready stance. John realizes that he’s the one on the clock here. They can just bring in reinforcements, while he’s got nothing. And if he goes after the lieutenant, squid woman here can make the phone call instead.

He charges in, feints a punch, and goes low for a leg sweep. Mina hops over and back from the sweep. As she’s in the air, John launches himself from the ground - a move a biological human lacks the strength to accomplish - and tackles her. She orients and comes down in a crouch, already grabbing hold of him to set up another throw. Instead of resisting, he lets it happen and lands on his own feet - and then stumbles forward, as Mina flows from the throw into a side-kick aimed at his spine.

He takes stock of his options. She’s good at Jujutsu and either Shotokan or Goju-ryu Karate. She doesn’t need to beat him, just hackey-sack his ass, so she’s keeping him off balance.

This is not a fight you need to win.

He hates that realization, hates that he’s gotta back down, run away, do anything but win. Hasn’t he taken enough L’s in the last few years?

He charges the lieutenant, still gurgling at some unguessable superior on the phone. The lieutenant is ready for this move and tosses the phone at Mina and drops into a fighting pose.

John is ready too. Abruptly he leaps into the air, aiming at the phone, and grabs it. He wraps it in his hands, correctly guessing they’ll want to deprive him of it. Yep. More of Mina’s knives come at his hands, but bounce helplessly off.

He lands, and thumbs the phone off - no telling what they might be able to do to it remotely, he’s hung around Alex long enough to get a sense of the possibilities.

There’s one other asset the squid folk have here. The vehicles. John rushes the car, slides under it, comes up with all his strength. The vehicle flies into the air and comes down on its roof, crumpling immediately. Before Mina can reach him and throw him again, he runs for the replacement ride and does the same.

And before they can act any further, he leaps, with all his robotic strength, into the air. A hundred meters at a time, he leaps and lands, leaps and lands, leaving the frustrated ninja behind.

They know about me. I didn’t learn what I wanted. But I’ve got something Alex can use.

Time to get back to Hong Kong, and report this failure, and hope the phone makes up for it.

That leaves Alycia in Mongolia, and the rest of the team heading back to Hong Kong. We’ll see what happens between Saito and the drug traffickers next time!

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