The black Escalade is idling at the drop-off curb. No AEGIS mook on the sidewalk, though, fixing me with a sunglassed stare, or anything in a similarly charming vein. (They do try, but I’ve been stared at intimidatingly by experts; American intelligence just doesn’t have that “I’d as soon throw you in an acid pit as waste a bullet” aura to it.)
I open the back door, quickly take in the driver, the shotgun, and a lack of anyone else – all right, this must be a crisis, if Parker’s not here – and slide in.
The vehicle is moving before I can buckle up. And – ah. The little screen in the ceiling to keep kids entertained with Hollywood pabulum is active, and there’s Special Agent Parker now.
“Alycia, sorry to interrupt your studies, but we have a developing incident.”
The whole matter takes on a sudden air of a Mission: Impossible movie, and I stifle a giggle into a smile.
“On the seat next to you are clothes and weapons. We don’t have everything you specced out, but it’s as close as we could get with the notice available.”
I open the suitcase sitting there. Clothes are on top – looks like some of the earlier discussions we had, cobbled together, some light point armor, mask, etc. Prototype stuff. Should serve in a pinch, but hopefully without pinching. I’ve been in the field in poorly fitting kit before and it’s not a happy time for anyone.
More important is the weaponry beneath it. Nothing fancy, but better than harsh language – a pair of stun batons, 9mm pistols with several clips of gel rounds to knock folk out (kinetically, not chemically, which means they can also blind or cripple, and are potentially lethal to children. Watch the zone of fire, Alycia).
There are also a couple of clips of what look like more conventional rounds, marked with red tape. A question (or check) for later.
No grenades, flash-bang or otherwise. No bladed weapons. No vortex blasters (which I as fine with, to be honest; those things aren’t all that safe for the user, either). No sniper rifle. But I can wreak appropriate havoc against at least human targets with what I have.
Parker’s continuing as I sift through suitcase, then start stripping off my school gear. The exterior windows are smoked enough to keep passing vehicles from seeing anything, and I’m not worried about the AEGIS agents – I’ve been under camera surveillance my entire stay at their little facility, including showers and bathroom breaks, and living with troops in the field gets one past untoward modesty pretty quickly.
At any rate, I’m not distracted from Parker’s briefing, especially the next little bombshell. “Special Agent Waters convinced Director Costigan, at Link’s behest, to approve Link speaking, in person, with Rossum the Minion Maker.”
She pauses for a moment. If that’s to let me express shock and surprise as to the identity of Leo’s father, she’s disappointed. Nor do I say something like, “Oh, I knew that.” Leo gave me the information in presumed confidence, and there’s no advantage sharing with my keeper that I did / didn’t possess it.
“Waters and Link traveled to a secure site where Rossum was apparently incarcerated.”
Which is an intersting turn of phrase, from someone who is precise about her language. Conclusion: she hadn’t known about Rossum’s incarceration, or where he was being held, or (likely) that Waters and Leo were headed there. Until things went (in the presumed conclusion of the tale) pear-shaped.
I’ve begun pulling on the costume (oh, yes, some retailoring will definitely be needed) when the screen changes. Security camera footage showing Leo and Waters outside of a cell, Rossum within, the walls papered in some fashion the image is too fuzzy/small to make out.
“At which point, every Rossum-templated Rookbot in the East Coast went berserk and/or rogue – and are currently headed toward that super-secret prison, some of them at great speed.”
Thrice-damned robots. Of course. Leo had mentioned that Rook Industries had been playing around with Rossum tech, which sounded like an extraordinarily bad idea, but Rosa Rook was never one to let a bad idea get in the way of profit. Except when it backfired on her, and even then she had a remarkable ability to come out on top. She’d need that ability, if suddenly all the Rossumtech bots she’d acquired / swiped / backward-engineered had gone off their rockers.
(Leo had also told me, during his remarkably helpful debriefs of the team’s brief-but-action-packed history, about his speculation as to Rook having a duplicate or clone of his father, based on some message overwritten into part of “Aria”'s memory matrix. I withheld judgment on the matter, particularly since “Rossum had the opportunity to do reprogramming on my robot’s brain” should have, with any sane inventor, led to, “and that’s why I had to trash that robot and build one anew,” but it clearly hadn’t, which made Leo a somewhat less reliable narrator.)
Note to self: avoid being in a room, alone, with “Aria”.
I don’t care for robots, for a wide array of reasons. This mission is sounding like I’ll either be able to work out some anger toward them, with extreme prejudice, or else I am doomed to be killed by them.
And then things get even better.
“Simultaneously,” Parker image continues (in real time, I think, though I haven’t conversed with her yet), “Link, either in collusion with Agent Waters, or of his own accord, started attacking the AEGIS agents there.”
Okay, that’s interesting.
Her dry pronouncement is accompanied by security cam footage, showing that Leo’s fighting ability against the Dread Queen wasn’t a fluke. It’s a virtuoso performance of mayhem, though he’s clearly pulling his punches, trying to disable the agents or render them unconscious rather than kill them.
That must be clear to Parker as well, but she doesn’t comment on it. “We’ve been unable to raise Rook on the phone, but the bots are all clearly hostile. Your mission assumption going in is that Rook and Link have allied to free Rossum.”
I’ve pulled the face mask on, so Parker doesn’t get to see my jaw drop. Nor do I suggest that she’s clearly gone mad. I’ve talked with Leo. Unless he’s a far better actor than I want to dream him to be, his antipathy toward his father is profound. We didn’t exchange notes or compare “parents behaving badly” anecdotes (that can wait for some encounter involving alcohol), but the way his voice tightens, the shoulder tension, the jerky gestures when his father comes up in conversation – Leo would only be likely to free his father if he planned on killing him.
The idea that he’s cooperating with Rook on this only adds marginally more lunacy.
Do I tell this to Parker? Not at all. Argument at this point could cause her to question my obedience, to question whether I’m in on Leo’s shenanigans (which, I confess, look a bit suspicious in the security footage), and to question, most importantly, whether I should be allowed into action. Truly, with a word from her, the doors will all lock, a screen will come down between me and the front seat, and I’ll wake up with a tranq-gas hangover back in my cell – or worse.
So I simply nod. Time enough to evaluate what’s going on, and act accordingly, once I’m out from under.
The Escalade pulls up to the docks, amidst some warehouses. Nobody’s around.
I step out and –
Parker has continue to natter on, providing coordinates of the prison island (how terribly American), but I’m not paying more than mnemonic attention.
I’m looking at beauty.
* * *
It’s part motorcycle, but with a demi-cockpit and seat-width windscreen, and the wheels are horizontal ground effect ducts, and there’s some sort of gently humming cyclotronic power plant behind the cockpit, and some very intriguing weapons mounts at the fore (lacking alas, the actual weapons) …
Vyortovian. Oh, my …
The tech is clear, just from what I saw at (and above) the battle in Halcyon.
It’s gorgeous. I want to take it apart and put it all back together.
“Don’t break it, Charade,” says Parker – this from a tablet that the shotgun is holding, having exited the vehicle as well. “But it should get you to the installation with the greatest expedition.”
“Well,” I say, speaking for the first time. My voice feels hoarse. “I appreciate a pragmatic approach as much as the next person.”
The shotgun hands me a sheet of paper. User Guide for Vyortovian Hover Bike Model KA-47. Of course. It’s all in English, and a quick scan indicates its provenance is lab examination of the vehicle and translation of some maintenance documents acquired by unspecified means.
I confess I’m not a User Guide sort of person. When presented with a new machine – or a new software package – I tend to experiment. Look for the options / settings available, and play with them.
In this case, given the need for speed, I take a look. There are a couple of interesting items (e.g., the command sequence to dump the gravitonic cyclotron if a black hole is starting to develop) that wouldn’t be immediately obvious, or that might be too easily done by accident. It only takes me about thirty seconds to read through, but it’s worth the investment. “RTFM,” I mutter.
“So, Charade, your mission parameters.” My attention is dragged back. The shotgun has put the tablet onto a mount on the craft’s dashboard – a mount that is poorly configured, spot-welded by AEGIS engineering hacks to some of the few metallic parts on the dash. I slide onto the saddle of the hover bike so that I can see the screen._
“Ah, there you are. Yes, your mission parameters: Prevent Rossum’s escape. Take down Rook’s robots. Take down Link.”
Even assuming …
“Lethal force is authorized.”
I clear my throat. “I’m more than happy to – tackle those robots, Agent Parker.”
She looks at me. After a moment, she says, “That will do. For the moment.”
There’s a curved monitor screen actually built into the cycle’s dashboard. I’m watching a scrolling set of news media videos showing the, um, cloud of Rookbots, in the hundreds or perhaps thousands, all presumably converging on the specified site in the Bermuda area.
Daunting. Even if I can use “lethal force” against their numbers.
“You’re rather optimistic, Agent Parker.”
“I have faith in your ability to prevail.”
“Ah. Faith in the Daughter of Achilles Chin.”
“I was rather thinking of faith in Alycia Chin.”
She can’t see my smile, either, so I simply nod.
The shotgun hands me a small jewel case. I open it. It’s the earbud comm that Leo had given me for the Menagerie. (It’s not like they were letting me keep it overnight in my cell, right?)
“Thanks, my good man,” I tell the shotgun, and insert it in my right ear.
Otto’s on comms. “-- guys, we need help, lots of robots, Leo’s downstairs, but we can use anyone here who can, did I mention the lots of robots?”
“On my way,” I tell him. I have more to say, but not in mixed company.
“Good hunting,” Parker says to me. I give her a thumbs up, and flash it to the shotgun as well. Then I start the power-up sequence, grab the handlebars, hit the pedals, and –
Shit, this thing is fast.
* * *
“Otto, this is Charade,” I tell him under a minute later. The tablet has dropped out of mobile range, so it’s just the Menagerie comm. “I’ve been briefed by AEGIS about the situation. They’ve told me that Leo attacked a bunch of AEGIS agents, and that Leo and Waters are breaking Rossum out of his cell, with the cooperation of all those Rookbots.”
“What? No way. Definitely not.”
Of course not. I knew it. “Well, the security cam footage I saw certainly seemed to show Leo attacking the AEGIS security detail there.”
“Well, yeah, he did that.”
“Um. And where’s Leo right now?”
“He’s downstairs, breaking Rossum out.”
“Otto --” I can’t say that I’ve chatted with Leo’s car-bot that much (and why don’t I feel any apprehension about him, vs Leo and Jason’s fembots?), but he struck me as fairly simple-minded and straightforward. “Otto, you told me that was a false accusation.”
“No I didn’t.”
“I meant that Rook’s not involved in what Leo’s doing.”
“I’m not sure that’s comforting, Otto. What’s Leo up to? Why is he freeing Rossum? Why is he attacking AEGIS agents?”
“I – don’t know. I mean, that’s Leo, it’s his call. I can’t speak for him.”
So, what, I should go charging in there, and --?
Well, I committed to tackling those Rookbots (and isn’t that going to go well). But if Leo’ somehow flipped, or been somehow compromised – what’s the right course? What’s the important goal here?
Am I prepared to take him down? If lethal force is both authorized and required, will I use it?
A set of faces flicker across my memory, and I feel chill water about me feet and –
I don’t know what I’m going to do there, but I continue to accelerate, flying across the waves, racing the storm of robots.
* * *
“Change of plans.”
I look up from one of those taped clips that AEGIS gave me. Something pointy and armor-piercing. Appropriate against Link, certainly. Also helpful against all those damned robots, more to the point.
The voice on the comm has shifted. Otto’s hemming and hawing has stopped. His master’s voice has come on. “We’re meeting at Rook HQ. I need everyone there.”
And there it is. Sooner than I expected, but –
I’m under orders from Agent Parker, regardless of my negotiation. Use this. Go there. Do that. Very simple. Father was adept at clear-cut orders, once I learned to understand them.
If I turn aside, disobey – what happens? Do I just keep on running? Does Parker remotely power down the hovercycle, or trigger some hidden explosive presumably planted on it? (Note to self – scrub the bike.) Do the jaws of the trap close again, and I’m back in the white cell until they decide I’m more trouble than I’m worth, or worth less than the trouble I’m causing, and dispose of me one way or another?
On the other hand –
I have a Menagerie comm. Does Parker? Not that they would have given her one, of course, but she’s had this one in her custody after I handed it to her. QEncrypt protocols are actually pretty good, but I wouldn’t want to assume anything.
At any rate, though, as far as I know, I’m on my own to make this decision. The tablet was on mobile frequencies, long left behind with the shoreline. I can’t consult with Parker, clear any deviation from plan.
But, then, I’m a field operative. I have to have a certain amount of discretion as to my activities. I’m trained to be flexible, to adapt to changing circumstances, to remember the mission parameters and go after the ends, not the means.
Prevent Rossum’s escape. Take down Rook’s robots. Take down Link.
The former goal is, if Leo has been successful, unattainable. Except I sincerely doubt Leo’s broken him out just to send him on his way. Rossum will be with Leo, in some fashion. “Escape” in that context become making sure he stays under restraint and control until he can be tossed back into a cell. I have one he can use –
The second? If the Rookbots are going in pursuit of Rossum, or to Leo’s aid (again, highly unlikely), then they’ll be following them toward Rook HQ.
And that’s where Leo should be. If, for some reason, it seems best to take him down.
Why, look – with a bit of thought, I can do precisely what I want and still argue I’m obeying orders. That brings a smile. Father wouldn’t let me get away with that, but Parker might. And it’s what I want to do, anyway. It’s where the action is, and the team.
I yank hard on the handlebars, and the hoverbike inscribes a wide arc (even as maneuverable as it is, you don’t turn on a dime at over 400 kph). The ducts drive a huge rooster tail of sea spray above and behind me. I’m sure it’s dramatic as all hell to see, and it feels pretty darn good, too.
* * *
The noise should be incredible, but the bike it itself nearly soundless, and the helmet cockpit area of the bike has some sort of magnetic wind screen that keeps the wind and sound to a minimum.
Which means I can hear the ongoing chatter on comms. The ghost has joined Link (and his father) aboard Otto (another data point in understanding her powers); Agent Waters is with them, too, and I can hear him in the background on his own comm trying to convince AEGIS that, no, he hasn’t gone rogue, nor has Leo, it’s all some horrible misunderstanding. Mercury is running over toward the black glass tower that is Rook HQ. But Concord is the one who makes it there first, apparently.
There’s confused chatter between him and Rosa Rook (the voice is highly recognizable), as he informs her that the Rookbots are on their way, and she tries to determine why the hell that would be, and why it would be part of any sane plan. "Why are they coming here? They just left here."
Then Mercury arrives, and they have some sort of holographic circuit (which this cycle probably has, too, but it wasn’t listed on the “user’s guide” and I really don’t think this is the time to be randomly playing with controls), and Leo’s on the line confronting Rook with Rossum, and Rook’s confused because – well, yes, it turns out Leo was right and she does have a damned clone of Rossum building robots for her, so what he (the original) doing with Leo?
And then Rossum (the real one, with Leo) starts nattering on that the robots were part of his contingency planning, that at the appropriate moment he’d be able to trigger them to “come and get me.” He explains, “They respond to their master,” then adds, “Thanks for stepping up production, Rosa!”
Yes, oh, thank you eversomuch, Rosa. On the bright side, I’m sure that will play well in the Halcyon Herald. And perhaps we can make use of her stupidity.
“Ms. Rook, this is Charade, pleasure to meet you, be there shortly – and might I suggest that if Rossum is correct and these robots respond to their master, that we may be able to leverage the clone to our advantage.”
I’m making it up as I go along, and I can see a variety of scenarios how this might play out, but they all seem to be to some advantage against the hundreds-to-thousands of robots pursuing Link/Otto/Rossum toward Rook’s HQ in Halcyon. If we can get the clone to call off the attack, it’s all good. On the other hand, if Rook takes my idea and uses the clone to turn the robots to her command – well, then, she’ll be in the open as an arch-villain and a target for us, AEGIS, and any other supers around.
And, of course, neither of those turns out to be the case.
Rook goes to her own phone, puts it on speaker, is getting hold of the folk she has with Rossum’s clone – and there’s an audible beeping noise, and people shouting, yelling about how Rossum (the clone Rossum, to be clear) is wearing a bracelet or something, and it has a blinking read light, and he’s just sitting there and laughing and _laughing …
And then Otto reports that the bots chasing them aren’t quite doing that any more – they’ve altered course, just a bit.
And the penny drops for just about everyone at that point, and I think several impolite words and am echoed, after a sort, by the real Rossum, over Leo’s comm.
“Well, this is frustrating …”
I’m ready to hit many, many things. I suppose I’m just lucky that the opportunity is about to present itself …
author: *** Dave H.