SNOWMAN is back in Hong Kong. Without Alycia to restrain him, he’s approved Nono’s use of the modified patches. And under Alex’s supervision, he and Emma serve as Nono’s partners for an intense few days of spycraft and combat training.
Unfortunately, without Alycia the team is also without the driving force it’s become accustomed to. Everyone had their role, and hers was to compel them all forward, to unravel the mystery of the new Chin empire. Alex and Emma are talented in their fields, but neither are interested in leadership. SNOWMAN has Leo Snow’s force of will, but it hasn’t yet been tempered with compassion and the sacrifices that love demands. Nono has the heart, and perhaps the brains, but not the iron and not - yet - the training.
This conflict hangs over the team until the time when Alex gets a ping on their laptop. They study it, mouth agape, and then report to the group.
“Hey gang. Parker dropped a note in my office inbox. Leo Snow has a package for us. Wants a voice call to talk about it.”
The secure line is established, and Leo comes on the call. There’s no preamble - he just jumps in. SNOWMAN grimaces at hearing his voice, but says nothing.
“Jason Quill dropped a load of data on a shared server we’ve been using to collaborate. Some kind of ultra-fishy satellite uplink from a Russian military network. I think you lot should have a look at it.”
Alex looks at the others, then speaks up. “Sure, we can arrange receipt. Why us?”
“Because he sent a ton of encrypted data that I can’t access, and one big blob that I recognize. He sent me a connectome. I recognize the neural signature. This is Alycia Chin. He’s got a digital recording of Alycia.”
SNOWMAN speaks up. “Leo. It’s John Black.”
There’s a pause on the other end. “Yeah?”
John grimaces, but speaks through his clear discomfort. “Hey. Send me specs on the Heart Factory. We’ve got enough stuff to build another one here. I can analyze the connectome.”
“I dunno, man.”
John’s fists clench, and he takes a breath. Exhaling releases his anger too, and he draws another, calmer breath. What he says in words makes no sense to his team, but mean everything to the man he addresses.
“I’m Faulkner, I get it.”
I’m someone close to you, a neighbor. You don’t know if you can trust me, and you don’t like me, but you can’t escape or deny that closeness.
“But Faulkner got a plate.”
At the Washington family’s cookouts, it was protocol to share what you had with people who came, because the act of social bonding is more important than our personal feelings. Everyone shares similar needs, and it’s up to us to meet the needs of others when we can.
“Even scrap’ll hold if the weld’s good.”
We’re joined right now by common purpose. It’s strong and important, enough to overcome our differences.
“I’m not gonna Big Mally on you.”
I won’t disappoint you. I understand how much this means to you.
The pause at the other end is longer. But Leo speaks. “Alright, mate. I’ll zip the software. But I want to hear you say it.”
John nods, then speaks in a solemn tone. “Before the omnipotent witness, I swear to use this power only for good.”
Alex works out a way for Leo to send the files, and the call disconnects. Only then does the hacker turn to John with raised eyebrows. “Personal code, huh? Shared experiences as an unbreakable cryptographic encoding mechanism?”
John casually shrugs, but his eyes are fierce and intense. “That Heart Factory zip? You give it to me. You don’t archive it. You don’t slip a copy to AEGIS. You treat this with respect.”
Alex holds up their hands. “I gotcha, buddy. No shenanigans this time.”
Nono is on the ground - or rather on the pads the team has put down for training. Emma is standing over her, arms folded.
The girl rises, already sore. She lunges again, and Emma grabs her arms and tosses her back to the mat in a Judo throw.
The practice continues. Nono isn’t learning how to fight - that comes later. Right now, Emma is teaching her to fall.
Nono isn’t complaining. She’s just doing the routine, coming in and getting thrown, over and over again.
Emma is honestly a little worried about it. They’ve been doing this awhile, but the other girl hasn’t said anything.
Nono frowns. “I can keep going.”
“You think you can. Your body hasn’t told you otherwise yet. It will. Now go do your warm-down and get showered.”
After Nono’s gone, Emma flops down in a corner and buries her head in her hands.
I thought I was gonna be an honors student. Then that flamed out, ha ha ha. I thought I was gonna be an amazing supervillain, but that turned really weird. I assemble a squad of hard-hitting henchmen, and they betray me. I started working with heroes, and now I’m training the goodiest of do-gooders.
I know what I want to be. I just can’t fucking do it. Nono knows too, but she’s on her way. Finally, finally, she’s not complaining about it, she’s sticking to it.
What the hell is wrong with me?
Early the next morning, there’s a polite but loud knock at the door.
This shouldn’t happen. Everyone mobilizes. Nono isn’t armed, Emma and John don’t need guns, and Alex isn’t a front-line fighter by choice. Nevertheless, they feel ready for action. SNOWMAN answers the door.
There’s only one person outside. She’s on the short side, wearing a rumpled coat, with spiky black hair and a lopsided smile. “You are Leo Snow? Or his replica?”
“Who the fuck are you?” SNOWMAN asks.
The woman produces a badge. “Inspector Lee Yan. INTERPOL. May I come in?”
Silent glances are exchanged, eventual responsibility falls on Alex’s shoulders, and they shrug. “Yeah. Hey, welcome to the Wild Side.”
The others stare at them. “What? Satellite o’ Love was an MST3k thing, but the name came from a Lou Reed song. Take a Walk on the Wild Side? No? Buncha cultural philistines you are.”
“What are you here for?” Emma interjects.
“Well I’m not here to arrest you.” The Inspector steps into the building and John shuts the door behind her. “I’m here to ask you lot some questions, actually.”
“Who do you think we are?” Emma asks.
Lee points from person to person. “A robotic replica of the American superhero Link. Hot Mess, apprentice supervillain to Mr. Big. Nono Rodriguez, American schoolgirl.” She falls short with Alex. “You, I have no idea about.”
“Let’s keep it that way,” grins Alex. “I’ve got a reputation–”
Emma cuts them off with a wave. “Questions, fine. First one’s ours. How did you find us?”
Lee smiles. “May we sit down? Is there tea?”
Nono nods. “I’ll make some.”
Emma turns and scowls. “Hey! She’s a cop. ACAB.”
Nono doesn’t stop, only calls over her shoulder. “No reason for us to be rude!”
“I tracked your team as far as Cairo,” Lee Yan explains. “You disappeared after that, but for a handful of things. First, Cairo reported a luxury jet missing. I suspected that was your team, leaving the area. But where? Second, a group of cryptocurrency miners contacted a local triad, to avenge them on some - if you’ll forgive the terms - pushy outsiders and gwailou. The triad roughed them up and sent them on their way. Third, assuming that they’d been betrayed by their political patron, they came to the police and offered information. Their descriptions of their attackers matched your team.”
The group look at each other, then back to the Inspector.
“Okay, so… what’s your questions for us?” John asks.
The Inspector smiles. “What is your team’s relationship to Alycia Chin?”
“Oh, she’s the worst,” Alex says immediately. “So bossy.”
“She’s kinda pushy and arrogant, but I think we’ve got a working relationship,” John admits.
“I’m still trying to figure her out, but she’s helped me a lot,” Nono confesses.
Emma scowls. “You fucking dingbats, she’s asking, is Alycia with us or against us?”
Everyone ‘ohs’ quietly. Emma takes charge of the conversation. “Look, she’s not a supervillain terrorist or anything. Well, not now. Whatever else she is, I don’t know if we can talk about that with you, I ain’t gonna narc. But we’re working with her on something important, something that’ll promote the public good.”
Lee Yan nods. “Interesting. So the rumors were true. And that means…” She gestures at Alex. “You’re with AEGIS.”
Alex throws up their hands. “Does everyone know who we are, or just you?”
Lee grins. “Just me. Everyone else thinks I’m a lunatic for following this case.”
“Okay, well, now what?” Emma asks. “Like, if we think you’re gonna report us to the Man, we’re gonna fuck up your shit. Even if you have all of HKPF out there waiting for us, it’s not gonna go well. Half of us are bulletproof. The other half–”
Lee forestalls further boasting by holding up her hands. “Nothing of the sort is going to happen. I’m not here to enforce the law. I’m here in the service of what the law is supposed to serve. I’m here on behalf of public safety. And the public needs to know - are they in danger from the daughter of Doctor Chin? You want me to believe that they aren’t. I’m willing to be convinced. Now I ask you for evidence.”
Nono is quiet, and confused, but speaks her mind regardless. “I’m sorry, but isn’t that wrong? Haven’t we done some awful things? We stole a jet, we fought a lot of people. Oh my god, so many people… There was the airliner–”
“I suspected that was you in Link’s robot jet, the flight from Mexico to France,” Lee smiles. “Were you going to add kidnapping to your list of crimes, Ms. Rodriguez?”
“I mean yeah? So… aren’t we the bad guys?”
Lee smiles gently, and leans forward. “I watched an American remake of the Sherlock Holmes character. Someone asked this question. The Watson character gave this answer. ‘There aren’t evil guys and innocent guys. There’s just a bunch of guys.’ I thought it was a wonderful answer to a difficult problem. The Christians have a saying as well. ‘You shall know them by their fruits.’”
“So you have lied, stolen, fought. All things the law condemns. If it meant arrest, would you have done it again?”
Nono pauses. “I mean, we have to, don’t we? To stop - uh, to stop the bad guys. I mean, the guys. Guy? I dunno. But serious bad things. So, yes. I’d do it again if I had to. It’s been terrifying and weird, but…” She tightens her hands into fists. “We’re bad guys doing good guy things, I guess.”
Lee nods, then turns her attention to Alex. “I assume you’ll be packing up and leaving this place soon. I’m here, so you’ve been compromised, et cetera. I’d like to stay until you finish your business, at least. You’ll have a hostage if the police invade, but more importantly, I want to know more about this business. Is that acceptable?”
Alex looks to their teammates, then back to the INTERPOL Inspector. “Can ya cook?”
“Rice omelets, spaghetti, and char siu,” Lee admits.
It takes two hours to perform the analysis. Against their better judgement, Alex invited Lee Yan to have a look, and the Inspector’s ability to form connections out of raw data has been a positive benefit. At the end of it, Alex present their findings to the team and its guest.
“The BBEG’s lair - sorry, Big Bad Evil Guy, it’s a D&D thing - Anyway! The villain’s lair is here, buried under Antarctica. There’s hidden entrances. There’s a lot of active nanotech going on here, so I’m speculating they’re holed up here to deal with the inevitable heat problems that come with nanotech. We got a whole lot of access codes, schematics, patrol schedules, automated sentry system overrides, the works. This is the fuckin’ master key to unlocking this place. Jason Quill really came through.”
John Black goes next. “The connectome is an Alycia Chin, but not the one we’ve worked with. Someone forked her.”
Emma giggles, with a perverted leer on her face.
“Forked, not-- Jesus.” SNOWMAN throws up his hands. “Okay, I’ll explain. A connectome is a digital map of a human brain’s internal wiring. The one we have here is like, at some point in the past, someone got a hold of a copy of her brain, and then created a clone of Alycia recently from that copy.” He illustrates with two fingers together, then separating. “Like a fork in the road. This is what we’ve got ahold of. This is probably the work of our villain.”
“You can just say ‘Doctor Chin’,” Lee Yan announces blandly. “No need to tiptoe around it on my behalf.”
“It may not be Doctor Chin himself,” SNOWMAN replies. “Like this Alycia, it might be a copy or clone or duplicate. We’re still not sure.”
“Well can you like, bring this Alycia to life and ask her?” Emma asks.
“I’m not going to do that,” SNOWMAN says firmly.
“Yeah, but then how–”
“Fine. Then what’s our play?”
Alex chimes in. “Alycia hasn’t reported in. That’s in-character for her, but it’s also fair to ask if we think she’s been captured or killed or whatever. So we could just go down there. We could wait to hear from her, and hope for the best.”
Everyone is quiet.
Nono’s voice is subdued, but there’s nothing else to drown it out. “We should go down there, and stop this for good.”
“Not really the smart move, hon,” Emma answers softly.
Nono looks up, eyes harder than Emma’s ever seen them. “The smart move is to go home. Stop doing all this nonsense. Let Doctor Chin do his evil. Leave his victims to their fate, like those people at the mine. I don’t care what’s smart, Emma. I want to do what’s right.”
Emma backs down with a shrug and a smile. “Fine. How we getting down there?”
John’s voice is quiet, like Emma’s, and his eyes are similarly set. “I’ll get us a Phoenix.”
Alex shrugs. “Alrighty, well, guess that’s a thing. Everyone dress for cool weather. So hey, uh, Inspector, what happens now?”
Lee Yan smiles and rises. “Now I return to my superiors. In a few days, I tell them what I’ve found, and that regrettably you left Hong Kong before I could make an arrest. But I’ll have enough to convince them that the Alycia Chin problem is being handled by AEGIS, that things will be calm in the settlement, and I think we can leave it at that.”
“Nice, enigmatic, makes you look good - I approve.” Alex thumbs-ups.
The Inspector is halfway to the door before she turns. “Oh, there’s just one more little thing…”
Alex blinks. “Yeah?”
“The next time your team comes to China, I expect you to tell me. Professional courtesy.”
Then she’s out the door, leaving the team to their collective thoughts.