408 - Renegades From the Deep!

Alycia and her team are assembled at Modern Intelligence Analytics headquarters. Together with Costigan and Parker, they’re staring at a huge screen on one wall, where a video conference is starting up. To everyone’s mutual satisfaction, only Costigan is being captured on camera, and only his voice will be picked up by the directional microphone.

The call begins with two individuals: Admiral Hansen from the American Navy, and Admiral Gaunt from the Royal Australian Navy.

“Thanks for your information, Mr. Costigan,” Hansen says in opening. “The theft of a nuclear submarine is obviously a very serious matter, and I don’t think we would have made it this far into our investigation without you. But I can assure you, we’re equipped to pursue the matter now.”

Gaunt joins in. “We suspect there was a little bit of hijinks from someone close to your organization, Costigan. We’re overlooking it for the sake of the intel you’re giving us. Just give us a tip-off if you plan to send people onto RAN property, eh?”

Craig Costigan’s face remains impressively impassive. Alycia glares at John Black and Alex Shelby, both of whom can’t meet her gaze.

Instead, he pivots back to Hansen’s statement. “Admiral Hansen, I’m curious about something. Is your equipment to pursue this matter named Project Plato, by any chance?”

The American huffs. “You’re well informed, Costigan. Maybe you deserve a little intel of your own, or maybe I just want to make sure I know where you got this tidbit.”

Two more people join the video conference.

The first is a Korean woman. “May I present Ji-a Lee,” Hansen says. “A marine biologist formerly at KIOST. Held underwater by the Atlanteans for nearly twenty years. Developed a rapport with their Emperor - now in custody, at a very secure location. She’s the unofficial ambassador to Atlantis, soon to be official once things get stabilized.”

At the mention of her name, John breathes out. “Mother…”

Alycia glances sharply at him, but says nothing.

The second is an older man with a visible and well-tended beard. It’s Costigan’s turn to supply a name. “The superhero Nautilus.”

Hansen nods. “For security purposes now identified as Mr. Fisher.”

The Admiral goes on. “Project Plato is the name for the Navy’s new submarine super-carrier. We mean to build a fully functional underwater fleet, the equal of the surface fleet. We’re starting with the equivalent of an aircraft carrier. Dive deep, deploy weapons systems and smaller submersible vehicles, and project force anywhere in the underwater world. We’re sharing plans, prototypes, and other operational data with other states in the London Treaty. Anyone targeted by the Atlanteans qualifies.”

“Mr. Fisher is our technical consultant on Plato. Dr. Lee has been asked to act as a civilian consultant on the details of Atlantean technology and culture. But beyond that, we understand that a fragile peace is not served by escalation. Dr. Lee is also keeping an eye on us, as civilian oversight. She’s reporting to a Congressional subcommittee, but we’re making sure she’s in the loop as Plato progresses.”

Alycia takes a moment to educate her team on the dynamics she senses here. “Nautilus quit the HHL to become a weaponsmith for the Navy. The Navy’s using Dr. Lee to keep him in line. She can say no to him in ways the Navy can’t. Leverage over a hypergenius is a tricky thing.”

If Costigan catches any of the side chat, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he nods along, smiling only the barest amount to indicate his acknowledgement of what he’s hearing.

Nautilus - Mr. Fisher - speaks up. “Plato is going to change everything. Those squid bastards got us last time. This time - next time, rather - we’ll be on even footing with them. It won’t be so easy to get one over on us, oh no.”

Ji-a Lee speaks up. “At the same time, I feel that everyone on this call, and in the chain of command overseeing Plato, understands the need for peace. I think - I hope - everyone’s fervent wish is that it never need to be used.”

Admiral Gaunt nods. “Agreed, Doctor. The RAN intends to move forward with construction of undersea vessels using the new specs. But we’re not interested in starting a war.”

Fisher’s face radiates disgust, but he doesn’t correct anyone.

Costigan continues his earlier thought. “Admiral Hansen, based on your statement, I assume Plato is far enough along that it’ll be sailing sooner than later.”

Hansen grins. “Can’t get a thing past you. Well, that’s true. Sooner, but not today. Once she’s in the water, that rogue sub will be just a matter of time.”

His face grows serious. “It’s until then that we still need you. You see, Plato got pushed through after some recent activity. Atlantean-type EMP weapons, being used by definitely human non-state actors and possibly by rogue nations, or elements within them.”

Ji-a Lee provides some context. “The Emperor of Atlantis surrendered himself to obtain peace for his people, after the invasion. But he also gave amnesty to the Blood and True Atlanteans who’d been planning to use the invasion of the surface as an opportunity for a coup, to overthrow him. They went into exile. None of my sources know where, though.”

Hansen follows through. “This faction, who we’re dubbing ‘the Mu’, may have a pipeline to surface terrorists, and may be funneling Atlantean weapons and tech to them. No super-submarine is going to stop that kind of pipeline on the surface, and it’ll take time for us to locate their base. Costigan, anything you can do to help us identify and stop this activity would be a great help.”

Alycia privately admits she’ll grant Costigan one point here. At the mention of this kind of mission, any ordinary man would have let his eyes flicker unconsciously over to his five agents, standing feet away. He does no such thing. Even when these men know he’s got some kind of team of operatives, he refuses to give them away, and yet refuses to shut them out of the call he’s on. It would have been easy to give into the collegial atmosphere, for him to share her team’s presence. Even to his allies, he’s shielding her and her people, while still giving them as much information as he has himself.

“I’ll make some calls, see what I can turn up,” he says blandly.

Hansen snorts, and Gaunt smirks, but they leave it at that.

With the call over, John collapses into a chair.

Alycia turns to him. “You said ‘mother’. Doctor Ji-a Lee? What little I know about her comes from Summer. Do you know something worth sharing?”

The robot shakes his head. “No, I… it’s just, you know, I wish…”

He looks up, at his friends and teammates. “I wish I could have said hello to her.”

Nono and Alex both wince in recognition of that longing. Emma rolls her eyes and looks away, but can’t bring herself to say anything mocking.

Alycia shows no particular emotion - outwardly. But she does struggle for words. “John… you may be called on to interact with her. Decide soon how you intend to do that, should it come to that. But remember that we have a mission, and don’t let her distract you. Everyone on this team has a complicated relationship with family–”

She’s cut off by Parker’s callout. “Ms. Chin, your call is coming on.”

Alycia straightens up and moves to the camera.

On the screen, the face of INTERPOL Inspector Lee Yan appears.

“Inspector, thank you for responding,” Alycia says.

The detective grins. “Alycia. Good to see you again. I think I can guess what you wanted to talk to me about.”

Alycia tilts her head. She’s not used to being outguessed. She’s had only one or two meaningful interactions with this woman, and is now both curious and competitive. “Go ahead, then. Guess.”

Lee Yan nods. “Well, your mercenaries - these ‘Grasscutters’ - were former soldiers of Pyrrhus, right? It stands to reason that whatever black ops ya-ya they’ve been trained with was Pyrrhus-flavored, and hence inherited some operational DNA from Doctor Achilles Chin. Lacking the good doctor’s hypergenius, it’ll be a bit flat, uninspired, less a spider’s web and more of a coarse fishing net, but you hope to track down the Grasscutters by looking for traces of Chin-type activity. Is that about the size of it?”

Alycia is legitimately impressed, but refuses to show it. “I’m glad I don’t have to brief you on my plan,” she says with an arched eyebrow.

Lee Yan grins big, showing off a set of coffee-stained teeth. “Ha! Well, I didn’t think you’d willingly call me for any reason other than my expertise on Chin either, so it wasn’t such a grand deduction as all that.”

“I am not in the habit of making social calls to INTERPOL agents, no,” Alycia remarks dryly.

“I expect not.” Lee Yan shrugs. “I’ve taken the liberty of reactivating some of our old Chin-telligence dragnets, and I’ll inform you of any developments. In the meantime, I’ve nothing specific to report, so I’ll leave you to your other affairs.”

Alycia smiles in something approaching genuine gratitude. “Thank you, Inspector.”

The video call goes dark. Alycia returns her attention to her team.

“Alright. That’s the mission. The Grasscutters are on the back burner for right now. We’re looking for people buying weapons from the Mu faction of Atlanteans. We’re going to build a profile of known incidents, probable buyers, and likely targets. As new data comes in, we’ll refine our model. Agent R, you’ll be mentoring Comrade X. Firebrand, you’ll likewise be mentoring SNOWMAN. If anyone is unhappy with these arrangements, I’ll remind you that I made them while at my most merciful point, and any rearrangement will be much less so.”

The team splits up, with little grumbling but much turmoil.

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Alycia is in one of the side offices, working on a laptop, when Nono approaches.

“Come in,” Alycia says, without looking up.

“I, um, I have a question,” Nono says, with no self-confidence whatsoever.

“It’s about you being in charge of Alex,” Alycia says, still focused on the laptop.


“Well then spit it out.”

“How am I… how am I gonna teach them anything?” Nono finally manages. “I’m just a dumb kid–”

Alycia finally looks up, a mixture of boredom and annoyance on her face. “Where are we?”

The non-sequitur catches Nono off guard. “In your office…?”

“Where is my office?”

“Um. MIA - Modern Intelligence Analytics…?”

“Headed by?”

The lights are starting to come on. “Craig C-Costigan. Um, Sergeant Stronghold, World War II hero, uh, former director of–”

“And who am I?” Alycia asks.

Alycia can sense Costigan’s presence before she sees him. But he speaks, and Nono turns quickly to face him.

“Close your doors if you want privacy around here,” he says gruffly. “But Ms. Rodriguez, I don’t think you fully appreciate the question you were just asked. So I’m gonna answer it for you.”

“Ye-yessir,” squeaks Nono.

Costigan gestures into the office, and at Alycia. “Sounded like you know something about the War. So I’ll assume you know something about the Fuhrer, and the Reich. Well, what he was good at was talking and inspiring, not so good at organizing or managing. But for awhile, nobody knew that, and it was pretty terrifying. The idea that one madman could spread his iron dream across whole continents, wipe out freedom, just like that–” He snaps his fingers for emphasis.

“Doctor Achilles Chin was that man. He had it all. The dream, the charisma, the drive, but also the knack for running things. If not for the coalition keeping him in check - governments, law enforcement, individuals like Byron Quill - America might be fighting for its life against a unified Chin Empire, running out of East Asia and Russia.”

Costigan points a meaty finger at Alycia. “And that girl right there would have been his successor. The next Queen of the Eastern Hemisphere.”

Alycia isn’t sure what to do with the wellspring of emotions this description brings up. “Instead I’m doing paperwork for a private think-tank in North Carolina,” she says, doing her best to mask them with her usual sarcasm. “Mr. Costigan, may we help you with anything?”

Costigan gestures invitingly with a thick hand. “I was curious how you’re mentoring Ms. Rodriguez here. Please. Proceed.”

Alycia can’t really tell him to get out at this point - it’s literally his place of business - but she can scowl.

“My point, Nono, is that you have proven yourself worthy of being in company like this. As to your question, what you can teach Alex, was answered. You are capable of broad, lateral, creative thinking. You need to impress upon Alex the values of solving problems the way each problem demands to be solved. Right now they have two tools in their tool box - hacking and showmanship. Show them the value of other approaches, then oversee the process by which they hone those approaches.”

“What if I screw it up, or make a mistake?” Nono asks fearfully.

“Well then I’m going to string you up over a pit of scorpions, light the ropes on fire, and wait for you to fall in and be stung,” Alycia says, matter-of-factually.

Nono isn’t processing this well, so Alycia forces herself to explain. “If you make a mistake, then you will do what we all do when that happens. Understand why and how it happened. Then, correct it. Everyone makes mistakes. Operators understand that–”

She almost says “the mission comes first.” Almost.

Her mouth twists into new shapes, as she tries to adjust. “Operators understand the mission still has to happen. We find other ways to move forward. During our downtime, we train to ensure we have the muscle memory and mental discipline to make as few mistakes as possible. It takes me about three months between missions, of strict diet and exercise, to get back to my maximum capacity.”

She steeples her fingers and looks carefully at the girl. “Nono, all of us have much more knowledge, much greater capacity, than we can ordinarily command. It is the quality of genius that lets us integrate the many parts of our mind. You must use that genius to remember who and where you are. You must use that awareness to bolster your self-confidence and array it against your self-doubt. This assignment is as much for your benefit as it is for Alex’s. So I can’t properly say that you will do fine. What I will say is that this is something you must do in order to grow.”

Nono finally nods. “I understand,” she says, and Alycia has some confidence she actually means it.

As she departs, Costigan turns back to Alycia with a half-smile. “That scorpion thing something you ever actually do?”

Alycia has to pause and search her memory. “No, I don’t think so,” she says at last. “Besides, North Carolina scorpions aren’t very deadly.”

The New Tomorrow has thoroughly taken over the city’s business areas.

Several blocks from MIA’s headquarters, Emma is buying hot dogs from a street vendor. John Black is next to her, hands in the pockets of his windbreaker, eyeing the traffic that crawls past.

“So I’m in charge of you, huh?” Emma grins, and hands over a hot dog.

John receives it with obvious disgust on his face. “The way I remember it, we’re just partnering for awhile. Nobody put you in charge.”

Emma smirks. “Because there’s nothing a criminal like me could teach the great John Black, huh?”

The robot shrugs, and bites into the hot dog. “I’ve been training in accelerated virtual space,” he says through bites. “I’m physically superior to everyone on this team. And before you try anything, I’m pretty sure I could get to your carotid artery before you heated my chassis to its melting point.”

Emma mock-shivers. “Oooh, so combative. Fine. Finish your dog and walk this way.”

She makes short work of her own, loaded with spicy mustard and relish, then leads the way into a broad alleyway, used by trucks to make deliveries to the buildings nearby.

Once they’re well inside, some of the individuals who have been seemingly working at the delivery doors, or lounging around on a smoke break, converge into a gang, pull on masks in a swift and practiced motion, and surround them.

One brandishes a pistol. “Your wallet, pal,” he says with a sneer, aiming the piece at John.

“Buddy, you picked the wrong–”

John’s boast is interrupted by Emma’s hand on his arm. “Just give it to him,” she says, tensely, but her eyes say something else. They’re narrowed in focus, but not anger.

He fishes out his plain leather wallet, lacking even identification cards - it’s hard to carry official ID when you’re an illegal robot.

“You too, little lady,” another man says, holding a serrated knife at Emma.

“Sure, sure. Buy yourselves something nice with my fucking 27 bucks,” she spits, but drops her own wallet on the ground, out of reach of herself.

The crooks gather up the wallets, pocket their weapons, and bolt.

John turns to Emma, angrily. “What the fuck was that? Did you know those guys were here? Why did you just roll over and let them rob us? We coulda taken them, you know that.”

“You didn’t notice the earpieces,” Emma says. “Nor the guy on the roof with the camera. And you aren’t plugged into the underground grapevine like I am. Listen. Those guys? They work for Tyran Enterprises. People like them pose as criminals. They’ll stage a robbery, hoping a vigilante will show up. They get intel on all the heroes in the city, maybe even a secret identity. All that feeds back into Tyran’s big book of good guys. Then an accident happens, or a hero’s juicy details get leaked, or something. If no hero shows up, then the city is a hotbed of crime and won’t someone think of the children and blah blah blah. That means more cameras and more robots. So his Stellar Six, slowly but surely, become the only game in town.”

“And those guys? And the wallets?” John asks in disbelief.

“The guys are expendable. If one of them actually gets arrested, Tyran’ll bail them out to keep them from talking, then send them to a nice guaranteed janitorial job overseas or something. The wallets? I dunno, probably turned into the police lost & found.”

“Things are that dirty?” John’s voice is soft. “This is… this isn’t how I remember the city.”

“It’s dirty everywhere, space cowboy,” Emma assures him. “But beneath that emo facade and brittle anger, you’re just too much of a nice kind boy to see it.”

She shrugs and smiles, and somehow it’s the most genuine smile John has seen on her face in awhile. “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for you anyway. But since we’re teamed up, there is one thing I’m gonna teach ya. How to appreciate people like me, and what I do. And I’ll try to see some value in you, no matter how much of a white fuckin’ knight you are.”

Like Alycia, Alex has partitioned themselves off in an office. They too are working on a laptop. Unlike Alycia, they fail to notice when Nono comes in until she drops a manila folder on the table.

Alex’s eyes flicker to the folder, and see their own name on it. They look up, and roll their eyes hard. “What is this, are we doing this ‘study under Agent R’ thing now? I’m trying to hunt down our bad guys.”

“We’re doing this now,” says Nono firmly.

Alex works for another 30 seconds, then folds the laptop lid down slightly. “Fine. Teach me, oh mighty teacher.”

“We’re going to do some hacking,” Nono says. “Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez.” She hands over a slip of paper with a phone number and an address.

Alex looks up with renewed suspicion. “Your parents?”

Nono nods.

“What do you want hacked?”

“I want whatever video surveillance you can get. I want access to their bank account. Anything that would affect their lives.”

Alex draws in a deep breath. “Does Alycia know you’re doing this?”

Nono smiles. “Alycia trusts me. Now do it.”

Alex sighs and gets to work. In a few minutes, they present Nono with a screen packed with windows. “There ya go. Bank accounts, investment funds, school transcripts. I don’t have live video feed but I can task a satellite with a bit of advance notice, and I do have some security footage from workplaces and the like.”

Nono spends a few moments reviewing the contents of the screen. Once she’s satisfied, she opens the manila folder, flips through some of the pages, and lands an index finger on pair of names.

“Now them.”

Alex looks up with a mixture of fear and anger. “Those are my parents.”

Nono looks back, steadily, calmly. “Show me how much power you have over them,” she says.

Alex repeats their earlier steps, but with visible uncertainty. The familiarity of hacking erodes this bit by bit, and by the end they’re operating at nearly their normal pace.

Again, the screen is filled with financial, educational, and professional data. This time there is actual live footage. But this time, Nono doesn’t look anywhere near the screen. Instead, she waits.

Alex breaks the silence with a sigh and an observation. “We’re not that different, is that what you’re saying? Slaves to our parents’ expectations?”

“Aren’t we?” Nono asks gently.

Alex folds their arms tightly. “I guess. I don’t think yours treated me like mine did, though.”

“Probably not. But does it matter?” Nono steps away from the desk, and faces one of the walls in the cramped office. “This is about how we react to them.”

Alex spots a flow patch attached to Nono’s arm. “You’re cheating,” they say, pointing at it.

Nono turns, surprised, and realizes what drew Alex’s attention. “Maybe. But… it’s something Alycia said to me. ‘Remember where you are’. And I thought back to what Alycia said, about me knowing my limitations. And I have a lot of them.”

She smiles at Alex. “But I’m not a complete dunce. You’re always trying to show off. And I thought, maybe it’s to your parents, even though they can never really see it and know. And I wondered, y’know, is there anyone else you’re trying to impress?”

Alex isn’t going to answer an obvious trap question like this, but Nono doesn’t care. “Not me, of course, maybe… Alycia?.. Emma?.. or… John?”

Alex realizes too late what she’s doing - pausing just long enough for them to react subconsciously. Her face lights up when she recognizes the telltale signs at the mention of John Black.

She kneels down beside Alex’s chair, puppy-dog eyes bright and wide. “How bad do ya got it?” she asks eagerly.

“I am not answering this question,” Alex says, slamming the laptop lid closed.

“Awwww…” Nono pouts, just a bit, then stands up. “I guess I’ll have to tell John and see how–”

She feels Alex’s hand close on her forearm like a steel vice. “You are not saying word one to him,” the hacker growls.

Nono just smiles, pleased as punch. “Well that tells me something else I didn’t know.”

“Why are you playing this game with me, Nono?” Alex demands.

The girl becomes serious again. “Because it’s really important to me to do what Alycia asked - help you improve - even though I’m still not sure how to do that. But I need you to listen to me, and take me seriously. So I have to impress you. Or, well, at least get your attention.”

“You want emotional leverage over me. You’re as bad as Costigan’s old gang,” Alex grumbles.

“Then how about we be friends?” Nono asks. “Teach me how to be so confident. And maybe I can teach you how to rein it in.”

Alex stands up from their chair and stretches. “Friends buy friends chicken katsu at Teriyaki Planet. The big plate.”

“And friends go clothes shopping after that,” grins Nono.

Alex rolls their eyes. “Fine. Fine. But after that, I am coming back here and doing some serious investigation.”

“And I’ll watch, and learn from you,” Nono promises. “And I won’t ask a single question about you and J-O-H–”

Alex walks out of the office before she can finish.

Alycia calls for a meeting a few hours later.

“Status report,” she says.

Alex and Nono look at each other. Alex speaks up. “We uh, we made a bit of progress earlier, but were doing some, uh, team trust building exercises for a bit. I’ll get right back on the work, now, promise.”

Nono nods. “Oh, and some jerks held us up on the way back!” she growls.

Emma and John both start laughing.

“You two can explain the joke later,” Alycia says, reining in her own grumpiness. “Status.”

“I’m checking my leads,” Emma says. “We uh, also underwent some team-building trust building whatever the fuck that was stuff.”

Alycia nods. “That’s fine. This is an investigation that’ll take days or weeks - if I need immediate results from you all, you’ll know it. Now. Keep working, or take breaks, or go home. Do whatever will most equip you for the task ahead. But I want to hear some kind of progress by tomorrow. Understood?”

It is understood.

Alycia nods. “Dismissed.”

1 Like

Three days later, the team is ready to report to Costigan and a team of interested persons via video conference. The MIA personnel gather around to listen, while those on the screen lean forward.

Alex opens. “I correlated 132 variables in the existing EMP attacks. Location, installation size, equipment, personnel, whatever stuff I could get data for.”

Alycia moves on with the rest. "Based on Alex’s findings, I determined there was a 4-sigma indication that equipment was the common factor. Pumps, pneumatic gates, mechanical systems, and other tools for moving liquids en masse. For the non-statisticians among us, that’s a probability of one in 16,000 that these relationships are accidental.

She brings up a world map on the big screen, with a heat map indicating danger zones. “We then located other places such equipment was being used, sorting by total economic activity in the area. Again, we found a strong correlation.”

“Our most interesting candidates are shipping canals. The Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, the Houston Ship Canal, the Panama Canal, and of course the Suez Canal.”

“You’ll all remember the Atlantean tsunami attack, which targeted 16 sites around the world, including the Republic of Djibouti at the mouth of the Suez Canal. It’s possible that the Mu are repeating their old tricks, and trying to interfere with world shipping by attacking these chokepoints. It’s further possible that they’re interested in actually sinking cargo ships and raiding their contents, though that has much less evidential support.”

“In any case, it is my conclusion that the attacks so far were intended to verify the effectiveness of these bombs in a post-Invasion world, taking into account our current defenses and countermeasures, and that the real attack is yet to come.”

Alycia frowns. “My team will also remember Pyrrhus’ base, with its EMP bombs, and the later revelation that the Atlanteans produced those and were Pyrrhus’ source for them. It’s possible that the Grasscutters, inheriting that ‘operational DNA’, will be involved somehow. The Atlanteans knew Pyrrhus and may be willing to work with his successors. Each of these canals has extensive defenses against underwater assault, with detection nets extending past the effective range of the bombs. Thus, any such attack will be launched on land, not at sea.”

Costigan speaks up. “Would the bombs be a prelude to some other form of attack, or is disrupting shipping sufficient for them?”

“I don’t know,” Alycia admits. “The Atlantean invasion was meant to force the surface world to capitulate, and had the support of government insiders. We’re not sure of the motives of the Mu, but we’re on more solid ground if we look at the motives of anyone they’re allying with - a political agenda, economic interest, and so on. We’ll continue approaching the question of follow-up from that direction.”

“What’s your next move?” Costigan asks next.

John Black speaks up. “Suez is probably handled. There’s no locks to knock out with EMP bombs. There’s a, uh, mysterious robot rescue team–” He coughs meaningfully. “–and they’ve assured me they can mobilize to clear any jams in the canal very quickly, if it should come up.”

Alycia nods, and resumes. “That leaves the regional canals, and of course Panama. There’s a more worrying possibility there. If the Grasscutters are working with the Mu, they have the Virginia-class sub - and its armaments. The disruption of the canal’s defenses and mechanisms could presage the atomic destruction of the entire canal system. Such an act would disrupt global shipping for years.”

She looks at her team, from face to face to face, and smiles back at Costigan and the camera. “So we’re going to Panama. If we spot any agents, we’ll take actions we deem appropriate.”

Costigan nods in agreement. “Alright. Get going, and stay safe out there.”

John hasn’t had time to finish the aircraft construction, but the Chimeras and Spike are able to make the journey to Panama easily enough. It’s 3,400 km. While the tiny craft aren’t well equipped for comfort over long journeys, they’re able to make it in hops, stopping at the coasts of Florida, Cuba, and Mexico.

During one such stop, Alycia finishes the fabrication of a set of devices aboard Spike’s molecular lathe, and passes them out. They look like ordinary wristwatches.

“These devices incorporate two types of sensors,” she explains. “A laser probes the air for specific DNA samples. And there’s a passive nano-magnetic sensor. The upshot is that if the device detects the presence of Atlantean Blood DNA, or what I hope is a trace of the Poppet system’s nanobots in use, it’ll vibrate. This won’t let you pin down Blood spies or Grasscutters in a crowd, but it should warn you of their presence.”

She spots the team putting their new watches on, and holds up a hand. “Some of you are putting them on with the face on the inside, like you’ve probably seen me do. The sensor needs to be facing out for this to work. But beyond that, this is where differences in operations matter. Military personnel often wear it like that, but civilians don’t.”

“Why is it worn like that, anyway?” Nono asks, as she fixes her own watch.

“Chiefly light discipline,” Alycia explains. “Light reflects off the face more easily than off the band. Wearing it facing out can give you away at a critical moment. It’s easier to see the face when holding a weapon as well.” She demonstrates, miming holding a rifle and glancing at her wrist.

With that established, she looks around at her team. “We’ve trained hard to be skilled operators. Now we have to put those lessons aside, and be civilians. Or at least act like civilians, for those of us who either never were, or who’ve left it behind. The job now isn’t infiltration, but deception. Even if we have to deceive ourselves.”

She looks away, into the distance. “Or each other.”

The Panama Canal has cities at both ends. To the north is Colón, and to the south is Panama City. Alycia has concluded that if there are spies here, they’d be working out of both locations, so it doesn’t matter where they start. It’s Panama City, then.

“It’s beautiful,” breathes Nono into her helmet microphone, as the team ride their Chimera motorcycles through the urban canyons formed by the high-rises and lushly green parks.

Alycia snorts. “America pushed for the creation of the canal. Then they invaded in 1989. They’d overlooked Noriega’s activities until it was politically expedient. The invasion was censured by international observers, but of course the US suffered no consequences. This country and its people are little more than tools to the Americans.”

“Drug money is a hell of a drug,” Emma comments. “But it’s been peaceful and boring since those days, right?”

“Ships running through here means dollars,” Alex adds. “Taxes on canal traffic are responsible for most of the country’s GDP. The location is a license to print money, and people are content to profit peacefully nowadays.”

“So what are all these soldiers are for?” John asks.

He’s referring to the numerous armored vehicles, armed individuals in fatigues, patrol boats in the harbor, and other signs of a military presence that fill the city.

“The Atlanteans did that,” Alycia comments. “The Panamanian Public Forces are all that’s left after Panama abolished its army in 1903. Suddenly they discovered they need one, so the PPF has an uneasy alliance with the Americans, much like in the Second World War when the fleet needed to move between the Atlantic and the Pacific. But it’s making all the billionaires who moved their tax havens here nervous.”

Alex chuckles. “On that note, I need to check my bank account.”

Alycia sighs. “Do not endanger the mission, however tempting the opportunity to engage in a side project. And on that note, the Chimeras stand out. Secure rental vehicles for yourselves and stash the bikes. We’re tourists. Comport yourselves accordingly.”

The hotel clerk sees a pair of American college kids come through the front doors and saunter up to the desk. The girl is dressed in cargo pants, with big sunglasses. She’s taller than her companion and smiling widely. The person with her is dressed like a boy, and slouches like one, but doesn’t give off the typical American-boy vibes the clerk is accustomed to.

“May I help you?” the clerk asks. Her English is excellent, and she takes pride in it.

“Room for two,” the tall girl answers with a vacant smile. “We don’t have an appointment, sorry.”

“A reservation?” the clerk asks politely.

“Yeah, that.”

The clerk’s eyes flash between the two, attempting to read the relationship. “One bed or two?”

“Oh, two beds,” the tall girl says. “Y’never know.”

The clerk’s polite smile hardens and solidifies. This is going to be one of those bookings, then. “Of course. I’ll just need to see your ID, and a form of payment…”

The paperwork is printed, the credit cards are processed, and the room keys are provided.

“Oh hey,” the boy asks. “Is there a bar in the hotel? Or nearby?”

The clerk takes another look, with more scrutiny, at the photo IDs the duo provided.

A few minutes later, another couple come in.

The boy is taciturn. The girl is surly. The clerk sighs to herself. They’re going to be demanding, and tip badly, but at least they won’t trash the room or bring in hooligans. Probably.

“Reservations?” she asks politely.

“Nope,” the boy answers.

“One bed or two?”

“Two,” the pair announce simultaneously.

The clerk is nonplussed. They definitely don’t look related. But they aren’t getting separate rooms. A cost-saving move? But hey, it’s not her problem. She gets off shift in a few hours.

Papers and keys change hands once again, and the two head to the elevator. The clerk can already hear them bickering.

Deep in Soberanía National Park, atop a forested hill overlooking Panama, Alycia is setting up her campsite. The blinds will keep casual hikers and park rangers from spotting her, and she’s got a small electric range with a built-in battery that prevents a telltale smoke plume from giving her position away. Let the others act like tourists. She’s safer away from her team, and so are they, she reasons.

One by one, texts come in with details - room number and phone extension, short term itinerary, and so on. She studies these, then shuts off her phone.

This might be a wild goose chase. The Mu might hit Panama a week from now, or a month. This might not be their target at all. But she can’t risk not being here, just in case.

Up in the room, as Nono is standing on the balcony and staring raptly at Panama, Alex is checking out the contents of the mini-fridge and inspecting the room service menu.

They pull their sunglasses off and look at Nono, uncertain in the moment of how they feel. But if she’s going to be giving orders in the field, they reason, why not push that? It could be fun.

“Okay, boss, tell me what to do!” Alex calls.

Nono is surprised, and turns. “What?”

“You’re in charge. We’re in the field. What should I be doing?”

“Oh.” Nono pauses, and pulls her phone from her pocket, checking something. She nods to herself, and returns her attention to her roommate of the moment. “You wanted to be out there doing something. So we’re going to do something. If they’re attacking the canal, they’ll want to get close and inspect it, right?”


Nono reasons it out. “So if they’re Atlanteans, they’d come in by the water. But they can’t, because of all the security, right?”

Alex nods slowly. “Yeah…?”

The girl grins. “So it’s going to be humans scouting the place. And that probably means as tourists. They might split up from the group, and sneak through a side door or something, but they’ll be where the tourists are until then.”

“With ya so far.”

“Right. So we’re going to be tourists. We’re going to go up and down the tourist circuit and let our detectors warn us if anyone nearby is a Grasscutter. And while we’re doing that, we’ll be reconnoitering possible ways in, so we can anticipate them if they’re doing it later.”

All of this sounds surprisingly well thought out, Alex muses.

“Fine. I’ll take–”

Nono cuts them off with a smile. “There’s an aerial tram you can start on. I’m sending you details.”

Alex thinks back to a meme about how “the person you dislike the most just made a good point”, and is starting to understand the vibe.

Alex is on an aerial tram with five other people, and the tram operator.

Their hand keeps fidgeting, as they want to reach into their pocket for their phone. But nooooo, this is recon. This is what they (theoretically) asked for.

This is punishment from God is what this is.

The five strangers are making small talk with each other, or pointing and taking photos on their phones, or doing whatever the fuck it is that normal human beings do.

It’s when the tram is about halfway up that Alex discovers two very interesting things.

The first is that the detector watches don’t pick up the Poppet system until it’s actually activated, which is very important to know. The second is that one of the people on this tram - suspended in the air as it is, it has to be one of them - is a Grasscutter.

Alex pulls out their phone, and joins in the gaggle of people taking photos. But every single shot includes someone’s head. There’s not enough opportunity to snap people right in the face - that would be a dead giveaway - but perhaps there’s enough here to correlate against the Australians’ database of the people who became the Grasscutters.

They briefly consider just grabbing everyone’s shirts and tugging, just in case they can spot the Poppet system’s implantation site. But that gives them away, and very likely gets them killed right here and now. They’ve got okay fighting skills, but nothing that can equal a nanotech-augmented black ops soldier. It’s still time for subtlety.

Can they hack the cell phones of the people on the tram? Not with the rinky-dink burner phone they brought along.

Can they pull up records of people on the tram, including payment records or passports? Maybe, but again that’s something that has to be done with proper equipment.

The downsides of field work, they muse wryly.

Now is the time to find the upsides. For example, they could - gulp - actually start listening to the conversation. For example, why was the Poppet system activated just then? Did someone need to feign knowledge on a topic of conversation?

I should write an app for this. Just record ambient conversation, do speech to text recognition…

By the time the tram ride has finished, Alex has categorized the strangers as follows: the Travel Blogger, the Tourist, the Local, the Loudmouth, and the Suit.

The Travel Blogger is some kind of aspiring writer and loves big adjectives and adverbs. She sounds like she’s got just enough self-respect not to be an Instagram influencer or e-girl or something, but she’s definitely coasting on Daddy’s Money.

The Tourist is older, a really ridiculously polite person who seems afraid of giving the wrong impression about her country. She’s got the most thoroughly American accent Alex has ever heard - Deep South through and through, complete with idioms - but she’s also trying to mask it.

The Local runs a shop in Panama City. Alex knows this because he’s wearing his own merch and has asked literally everyone on the tram - including Alex - to come visit. Alex suspects it’s some kind of head shop. Medical cannabis is now legal in the country, and recreational is technically illegal but as long you don’t talk about it, everything’s copacetic.

The Loudmouth looks and sounds like a South American. He’s the new owner of some kind of bar, complete with live entertainment, and has talked extensively about it. Alex is all about supporting independent local businesses, but this dude really is trying a little too hard, and it’s off-putting.

The Suit is an older woman, also very probably American. She doesn’t talk much, but when she does, she’s got that Northeastern New Yawk-ish accent. She’s dressed in business semi-formal, the way Alex sees Parker dress around the office, and wears a lot of subtle jewelry and accents - a sort of anti-bling. It’s not clear what she does, which means she works in fucking finance or something and can afford to just fly around the world.

So - good. Five reasonably distinct people for Alex to research, once they can get back to their gear. This was a really productive tram ride, all things considered.

As they disembark and head for the next destination on the tour, three things bother Alex about this whole situation.

The first is idle curiosity. Alex has compartmentalized everyone into a neat label. But how did they see Alex? It’s sort of bothersome to think of being assigned a short nickname, even though they just finished doing exactly that.

The second is planning and prep. How are they going to positively ID all these people? Government records aren’t what they used to be, not since the Atlanteans dropped EMP bombs on every major coastal city. There’s a lot of gaps, and a lot of opportunities to falsify records - which Alex suspects was the whole point. This won’t be easy.

The third is the most troubling. Alex isn’t a big believer in destiny and coincidence. So how is it that Nono Rodriguez was able to pick the random tourist destination where a Grasscutter could be found on the very first try?

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Alex reviews their options.

On the one hand, they’re supposed to take orders from Nono. On the other hand, it was Alycia that said to do that, and Alex doesn’t mind tweaking Alycia’s nose when they can. And more importantly, the coincidence about the aerial tram is too suspicious to ignore.

If Alycia knew, and told Nono to tell Alex where to go, why wouldn’t Nono have just said so? It would be a test of some kind. Would Alex follow orders? What would Alex do as a follow-up? Alex doesn’t seriously consider it possible that Nono would independently track down the Grasscutters like this. She just doesn’t have the resources or training.

Less likely but much more scary is the idea that Nono herself is compromised. But if so, why would she send Alex to spot the people they’re hunting?

The smart thing is to go directly to Alycia.

Instead, they text John. “Hey, doing some investigation work. Need your help.”

The answer comes back a few minutes later. “Firebrand has me bodyguarding her while she messes with some local underworld types.”

Alex thinks up a social hack. “Tell her Nono might be in trouble and we need to track down the threat.”

Again, there’s a few minutes’ delay. “I’m on my way,” is all it says.

Too easy.

For this trip, they’re ditching the sunglasses, binder, and boywear they wore into the hotel, and adding a snappy pair of shoes, a sundress, and a wig. If anyone looks, it’s going to be a sullen boy and a hip fun girl taking a walk through Panama. If they meet any of Alex’s targets face to face, hopefully it’ll be enough of a disguise. And if John has any thoughts about this look, he doesn’t share them.

The pair stroll through the neighborhood of El Dorado, working on Alex’s two immediate leads. The first is the head shop the Local was hawking. Alex is able to nail down a few candidates in the neighborhood, and figures they can recognize the specific shop from the logo on the Local’s shirt. Sure enough, they find the place - a hole in the wall without even a name posted on the front door.

Alex sneakily places a wireless camera opposite the door, and nods to John.

“We going in?” the robot asks.

“Nah. You go into a place like this when you know someone and you’re buying,” Alex explains. “There’s gonna be a back door too. We want a camera on that, just in case.”

Navigating the alleyways is even more difficult than the regular streets. Alex finds a place to position a camera with at least some confidence, places it, and gives a thumbs up.

“Now where?” John asks.

“Drinks and dancing!” Alex exclaims.

John raises a skeptical eyebrow.

The Loudmouth is easier to track down. He wouldn’t shut up about where he could be found. And so here it is: the Taberna la Música.

John and Alex enter, looking for all the world like a regular pair of tourists here for a good time (that is to say, hard liquor and no consequences). They see an establishment full of similar people, drinking at the bar, sitting at tables, or cheering for the band.

The establishment itself is built on two levels, with the floor dedicated to the bar, the stage, and some tables. The more private tables, including what Alex assumes are the VIP rooms, are upstairs. The center of the building is open, meaning the upstairs patrons can look down on the floor show and enjoy (?) the music.

The music itself is bad. No, not really bad. It’s technically proficient, it’s just… 80’s hair metal being covered in a style that Alex thinks of as South American honky-tonk. If Alex had to guess, the idea is to cater to the American tourists here to reassure themselves that they’re culturally superior to these Spanish-speaking weirdos.

The bartender looks skeptically at the pair as they saddle up to the bar, but doesn’t bother asking for ID.

“Balboa,” says Alex, pitching their voice higher than usual to complete the girlwear theme. They’re not quite willing to giggle, because honestly that’d be a tryhard move here.

“Bourbon,” John says. Alex’s eyes go wide and they stare at John, as he slaps down a hundred dollar bill on the bar. Clearly he’s been picking up bad habits from Emma. Or at least, dirty money.

The beer and spirits are delivered a minute later, and the pair hold their glasses as they stare out at the tavern.

Alex, scanning the crowd, spots a familiar face. They lean over and whisper in John’s ear, letting him identify the person as well. It’s who Alex thinks of as the Travel Blogger. She’s at a table with a few folks who might be friends, but are definitely a few shades darker than she is.

For the next few hours, Alex and John hang out. Alex doesn’t want to impair themselves, and so sips carefully on the Balboa. It’s sweet, with hints of kind of a corn taste. Alex has had just enough beer in their life to know this kind of thing can sneak up on you, and so goes easy on it. John, on the other hand, knocks back shots of bourbon like it’s nothing. On the one hand, Alex realizes he’s a robot and so it really is nothing. On the other hand, they know how it looks, and expects that anyone watching will appreciate the macho vibe John’s putting out with this cavalier consumption.

A few times, Alex does manage to lure John out onto the dance floor. He’s definitely developed a neck cramp or servo misalignment or something that keeps his head and eyes from panning below Alex’s chin under any circumstances, which amuses them immensely. It’s kind of cute, kind of annoying, and very John Black.

The third time they’re out on the floor, Alex can feel the beer hitting their sense of balance. It’s probably time to stop drinking. But they’re not drunk, and not quite buzzed enough to miss details - a steady diet of beer nuts and bottled water has been holding that at bay. Sliding one arm around John’s waist, Alex leans in, and in their huskiest, most seductive whisper, says, “One of our targets is picking the lock on the manager’s office, second floor.”

John nods, playing along. He escorts Alex, with the expected amount of physical contact for their cover story, up the stairs to the second floor. The pair settle into chairs, facing each other, and Alex peeks over John’s shoulder to keep an eye on the infiltration.

The target is the Suit, the older New York woman. She’s clearly good with locks, but the office has a deadbolt which is slowing things down. She’s keeping an eye out, but not for the patrons. Alex follows her line of sight and spots the Loudmouth, speaking (loudly) with a couple of off-duty American soldiers. To their surprise, the Tourist is here with the soldiers.

Four of five of Alex’s targets are at the same bar at the same time. This is getting more and more complicated.

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The Suit emerges from the bar’s office, and loiters about for a few minutes. But it’s clear she’s going to bail soon, as she keeps scoping out the routes down the stairs and to the front door.

John leans close. “We gotta tail 'em. Split up?”

Alex curses inwardly. They want to stay and see what the others do. But breaking into someone’s office is obviously shady shit. And besides, they know where to find the Local and the Loudmouth. They’re pretty sure they can find the Travel Blogger online from her posts. That leaves the Tourist, the least likely quarry, unaccounted for. A tricky problem, but Alex also doesn’t want to be without John’s physical protection if the Suit turns out to be their guy and starts breaking out that GI Joe kung-fu grip martial arts shit.

Plus, Alex rationalizes, breaking cover by separating from John would look bad.

“Stick together,” they say.

They leave before the Suit gets a chance. Once outside, they get a good vantage point on the bar’s front door. It’s already dusk, but even so it’s a simple matter of tailing after the Suit emerges.

The trail leads to a hotel. They can’t just follow the Suit through the lobby and into her room, but Alex reasons they’ve narrowed the search to the point where hacking will identify their quarry.

“Stay here,” they tell John. “I’ll head back and get my gear, and we’ll get this figured out.”

They find Nono back at the shared hotel room. She’s working on some kind of personal project on a laptop. Alex can see it’s something chemistry-related, on a specialized app, but the details of it are way above their education in the science.

Note to self. Nono actually is really good at some stuff.

“How was the tram ride?” the girl asks brightly, as she looks up.

The tram ride? Oh yeah, that feels like years ago now, Alex realizes.

Their concerns about coincidence return to them, and a solution presents itself.

“I’m calling Charade, you can listen in,” they say.

Once Alycia answers the phone, Alex starts their report. “I was on an aerial tram at Agent R’s suggestion. While aboard, I detected traces of Grasscutter activity. I identified five suspects - the people on board with me.”

They describe the Travel Blogger, the Tourist, the Local, the Loudmouth, and the Suit.

“For safety and to avoid suspicion, I didn’t trail any of them alone. I asked SNOWMAN to accompany me to the Local and the Loudmouth’s places of business. We put a video bug on the head shop and hung out at the bar for awhile. While there, we saw the Travel Blogger, the Tourist, and the Suit.”

“Later, we observed the Suit breaking into the Loudmouth’s office at the bar. We tailed them back to their hotel - or a hotel anyway. SNOWMAN is still there, observing. I’m on my way back to get more details.”

The only question Alycia has at the end of this surprises Alex immensely. “Agent R, are you okay with all this?”

“Sounds good to me,” the girl says.

Alex can hear Alycia hum over the speakerphone. “Okay. Good work. Comrade X, continue to take orders from Agent R. Agent R, either let X pursue this matter their way or direct them how you see fit.”

Nono smiles. “You sound like you really made progress. Um, I think doing what you’re doing sounds good.”

The call clicks off, and Nono and Alex look at each other.

Alex nods, barely able to keep a smug grin off their face. Of course I made progress. Even without that suspicious coincidence, I know what I’m doing.

During the call, Alex had been packed their laptop and other kit away in a backpack. Now they sling it, and with a jaunty salute they head back to meet with John.

Alex chose not to take a taxi, and now regrets it. They’re out of breath by the time they get back to John’s position.

After a few minutes, they’ve infiltrated the hotel’s booking system, run a scan of occupants, pulled up details of phone records, movie rentals, and food orders, pulled payment details and names, correlated those with photos from international databases–

“Room 403, right?” John asks out of the blue.

Startled, Alex looks up. “Yeah, most likely. How did you know?”

“That’s the light that turned on like a minute after the Suit went in there,” John explains.

Oh for fuck’s sake.

“Hold onto me, I’ll jet us up there,” John offers.

Alex slings their backpack again, and clings perhaps a little more tightly than John is comfortable with. But his aim is good, and a brief flare of rockets is enough to get them to the roof without being detected. John lowers himself via cables to the window of 403, peeks in briefly, and reports back.

“Nobody home. Window’s open, though. Want to go in that way?”

Alex shakes their head. “Not in this dress.” After a moment, sensing that John either doesn’t get or doesn’t appreciate the joke, they get more serious. “If someone is in there, we can pass off coming in as an accident. Just in case.”

Once through the roof access door, they head to the elevator, and then to the fourth floor. The door lock on 403 clicks open thanks to a programmable magnetic card from Alex’s Swiss Army Backpack, and the pair enter quickly and close the door behind them, as softly as possible.

“That bar was really something,” Alex says aloud, for the benefit of anyone or anything listening. They gesture for John to make a sweep of the room.

The robot nods. “Yeah. Expensive-ass bourbon, though,” he replies, as he starts his check.

“You sure this is our room, hon?” Alex asks after a moment. They’ve located a laptop and cell phone, and have started setting up their kit to duplicate and download their contents.

“Pretty sure. The clerk gave us the right key.” John makes an annoyed expression, indicating his dislike of the patter, but doesn’t stop. “I might be kinda drunk though.”

Alex smirks at him. “Please, you couldn’t get drunk if you–”

A shot rings out, and John Black pitches backward.

Alex drops to the floor. Only when they’re down do they scoop the laptop and such off the bed from where they’d been working.

“Sniper,” John hisses, laying on his back. “That’s why the window was open.”

Alex grabs for their phone and speed dials. They hear the click of an answer. “Charade. Comrade X. We’re taking sniper fire. Room 403, Crowne Plaza. Window faces southwest. We can evacuate but might be targeted once outside. Advise.”

“En route,” Charade responds crisply. “Who’s we? SNOWMAN?”


Alycia responds after a moment of thought. “The sniper probably knows there’s two of you and thinks they hit one, so they’ll either withdraw or escalate. Have SNOWMAN cover the window and you cover the door. Under no circumstances let anyone see him through the window. If nothing happens in 15 minutes, withdraw through the door.”


Alex relays instructions, and John nods from the floor. The pair commence a tense wait.

Fifteen minutes pass with no word from Alycia, and no attack.

Alex smiles wearily at John. “I guess they retreated. Let’s bail.”

“Not yet,” John says. He points to an almost invisible red trail, which he’s been studying while the pair were hunkered down.

Rising, he follows it to the closet. As the door opens, the corpse of the Suit falls out, complete with an entry wound consistent with that of a sniper rifle.

The team is syncing up via video conference.

Alex is back in their room with Nono, and back in boywear. John is in his shared room with Emma. Alycia is remote, wherever the fuck she’s staying, but from the sound of it she’s outdoors. There’s no video feed.

Alex starts. “The Suit is Beatrice Abernathy. The Autoridad del Canal de Panamá or ACP has official control of the Canal, but before that it was run by the War department, now the Department of Defense. Abernathy is a DoD investigator. I’m guessing she was here following the same leads we are. Charade, should I confirm?”

“I’ll take care of that,” Alycia says.

“Roger. Anyway, what’s weird is why she was shot by a sniper, but through an open window. And how she got into the closet after that.”

Alycia fills this in as well. “Someone would have been in the room waiting to meet her. Maybe a contact or someone she thought of as a potential contact. She’d have patted them down for weapons. This person was probably a Grasscutter. All they had to do was stand out of the way as the sniper fired, then clean up and leave.”

Alex exhales. “That would have only happened minutes before we got in there. SNOWMAN guessed which room it was. If I hadn’t gone back for my kit–”

“–Then you might have been shot as well,” Alycia finishes. The tone of her voice changes, becoming more controlled. “We mustn’t let imagined hypotheticals consume our thoughts. Continue.”

Alex sighs. The face of the dead woman is still in their thoughts. But there’s nothing for it. “Right. That leaves four people. I gotta pick up the Tourist’s trail. I’ve got a basic bug on the Local and can see comings & goings to his shop. A key question is how long the Loudmouth has been here and owned the bar. If it’s more than a year, that disqualifies them automatically, right? And then there’s the Travel Blogger. I’ll work on her next.”

“Good. Firebrand, report,” Alycia commands.

“I gave a grand speech and more than a few grand bucks to some local smugglers,” Emma says. “If they catch sight of any suspicious nautical activity, they should tip me off. What I put down is supposedly a down payment for services rendered later, so if you need any smuggling done in Panama in the near future, y’know, Firebrand Import/Export is open for business.”

“We might,” Alycia says calmly, which raises a few eyebrows. “SNOWMAN.”

John’s report is terse. “I assisted Firebrand and Comrade X with their investigations. Nothing else to report at this time.”

“Roger. Agent R?”

Nono smiles. “I haven’t been much use otherwise, I’m sorry. But I’m trying to solve a problem with our detectors. They only pick up the Grasscutter nanotechnology when it’s actively in use. I want to see if there’s a way around that.”

“Good. That’s vital. Keep on that.”

The team hears Alycia’s voice take on a more contrite tone. “I’m sorry I’m not helping you all more with this work. We learned a lesson from our first encounter with the Grasscutters - they’re as skilled as any of us at field work, and there’s simply more of them than there are of us. I’m everyone’s Plan B. I’ll mobilize if someone needs support, but right now I feel it’s best if I do certain things my own way, and on my own.”

The call breaks up, and Alex gets on their laptop to start work on the Travel Blogger and Loudmouth investigation.

They can’t stop thinking about one detail though.

Nono is working on solving a problem with the Grasscutter detection watches everyone is wearing. But Alex never told her about it.

When did Nono find out?

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Why would the Suit have wanted to break into Loudmouth’s office?

The question bugs Alex. A lot of questions do right now, but this one can be answered. The hunt for Travel Blogger is ongoing in another window - an automated program sifting through Instagram posts, hunting for images that look like they were taken from Panama’s aerial tram - so they can poke around at this question now.

Abernathy’s laptop and phone had a lot of data. Alex starts sorting through it, looking at last-modified times and other indicators to see what’s most relevant. Over the next half-hour, a picture emerges.

According to this data, Loudmouth has owned the bar for two years. That’s enough to put him in the clear as a Grasscutter. That leaves the Local, the Tourist, and the Travel Blogger.

It’s not even him that the DoD agent was after. It’s his patrons. The city’s water and sewer authority has offices not too far from the bar. People working there could easily visit the bar during lunch, or after work. Alex finds names and photos of some of their employees on the phone, probably as a reference so Abernathy could visually ID them.

The Atlanteans infiltrated cities by using their sewer systems. The sewers were big enough for the EMP bombs. Panama City’s sewers are spacious and modern, but kept secure. But a sewer worker would know their way through, and know how to bypass the security. The Grasscutters can clone skills from people…

Where would the sewer system emerge, that’s near the locks?

The water and sewer authority’s computers would know.

Alex is up to their eyeballs in data collection when John texts. “Heading out on an investigation with Agent R.”

Startled, they look up and around. Nono left earlier. Going to get a snack, or something? She just didn’t come back. Alex didn’t even notice. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck!

What if there’s shady shenanigans afoot?

Alex grabs their phone and takes a chance. “Agent R’s acting suspicious. Need your help confirming something.”

They wait. Finally they see Emma’s response. “Meet me outside. I’ve got the bikes.”

Outside the hotel, Alex sees Emma aboard one of the Chimera motorcycles. Another one has been remotely piloted here, and Alex hops aboard.

“This better be good,” Emma growls.

“I’ll tell you on the way.”

“Way to where?”

Alex glances down at their own phone, now running a trace on the mobile device of Nono Rodriguez.

“The Corozal American Cemetery.”

The motorcycles link up with the stealthy Chimera craft, and Alex and Emma hover at a safe distance over the cemetery. Night shrouds Panama City, and the cemetery is a faint green-and-gray blur beneath the infinite blackness of the sky.

The telescopic optics can pick up Nono and John. They’re talking to each other.

“Activating phone tap,” Alex says for Emma’s benefit, and remotely enables the microphone on Nono’s mobile device.

“–should be here in a few minutes.” It’s Nono.

“You can trust these guys?” John asks.

“If not, that’s what you’re here for,” she says. “Here, hang onto this. If things get tense, press this button. It should gas the area.”

Through the optics, Alex and Emma can see her hand over a device.

“What about you?”

“You’ll get me out, of course,” Nono says brightly.

Sure enough, in a couple minutes a trio of men come walking down one of the paths.

“This is it,” Nono murmurs.

The man in the lead smiles. “Jackie Oliver. Or should I say Nono Rodriguez.”

Nono nods. “That’s right.”

“You lied to our Perth associates. But there was enough truth in your story to make us think you’re willing to do a deal for our particular technology. You know that we’ve found out your real name. You should therefore know it’s both dangerous and futile to cross us.”

“I understand that,” Nono says quietly. “So let’s talk about the deal.”

“Information on your associates. Truthful information this time,” the Grasscutter says.

“I’ve got something else in mind,” Nono says.

In response to that, more than a dozen shapes detach from the darkness around the cemetery and begin converging on the group.

“Get outta here, Agent R,” John says, and punches the button on the device.

He is rewarded by a sudden burst of electrical activity - a localized, powerful EMP burst, similar to the anti-robot rounds the team is using in their guns. Suddenly, Alex loses the audio feed. The burst has knocked out Nono’s phone, which they were using both to track her and listen in on her.

Emma is already on comms, trying to raise Alycia. When the connection goes through, she wastes no time. “Charade. Agent R is with a group of Grasscutters. I think that bitch is fucking us over for a chance at a Poppet system of her own. She tricked SNOWMAN into using an EMP device on himself.”

Alex waits, tensely. Any moment now, Alycia will laugh and say it’s an infiltration op, that everything’s under control, Nono is a double agent, something that makes any of this make sense.

Alycia’s voice comes over the channel. “Mission first.”

Emma gives voice to what Alex is too drained to express. “What? That’s fucking bullshit. We should–”

Alycia cuts in with a gunnery sergeant’s room-silencing bark. “MISSION FIRST. Unless this was all some elaborate plan to acquire Agent R, there’s still the risk of a bomb in the canal. Proceed with your investigation into that primary objective. I’ll rendezvous with you two at 0600 hours. Charade out.”

Through the telescopic view, Alex can see Grasscutters shouldering the motionless robot shell of John Black, and hauling it with them into the darkness. Nono walks, surrounded by members of the mercenary organization the team has been hunting.

I should have said something, Alex thinks to themselves. I should have told Alycia. I should have talked about my suspicions. I should have… John, please forgive me.

Emma is too angry to sleep. Alex is too miserable to stay awake. They’re able to catch a couple of hours.

0600 rolls around, and the pair get a text with coordinates. In the pre-dawn hours, they set their Chimeras down in the park. As they emerge, they find Alycia waiting for them, dressed in camo and kitted for a gunfight.

Before anyone can say anything, she raises a finger to her lips for silence. She slides past Alex and plugs a small device into the comms system. From the speaker, Alex can make out distant voices, that sound kind of like the three of them, talking.

Alycia gestures again, a beckoning finger commanding the pair to follow, and they obey. They enter her campsite before they see it - the blinds are extremely effective. And here they find not only the campsite but a visitor–

“Jason Quill?” Alex asks in surprise.

Jason is cooking beans on the electric range, and has some self-heating cans, vegetables, and water bottles already set up. It’s breakfast service for four. “We’ll make s’mores tonight, but breakfast needs to be calorie dense. Eat up.”

The four polish off their breakfast, and Jason collects the plates. Only then does Alycia explain herself.

“Jenny Byrne is connected in some unspecified capacity to the survivors of Pyrrhus’ base. I can’t risk tipping her off that we’re on their scent. Jason volunteered to act as our nanotech expert in her place–”

Emma butts in. “Please just tell me that Agent R is infiltrating those assholes or some fucking thing, I am not buying that she just turned traitor.”

Alycia shakes her head. “All I will say for right now is that the Grasscutters are on our Chimera comms. That’s what that little bug is for. I faked a conversation while you two were on your way over. Whatever’s going on with Agent R will have to wait. Now. What have you come up with?”

Alex explains their deductions about the sewer system.

Alycia nods. “You probably noticed that the cemetery is near both the Miraflores lock and a big sewer outlet. It may not be their base, but it’s probably the staging ground for the attack.”

Alex fist-pumps. “Yeah! So all we gotta do is go in there–”

They want to say “guns blazing”, but remember that Nono is probably in there too, and temper their enthusiasm. “–and shut them down.”

Alycia and Jason glance at each other. Then, Alycia smiles. Not happily, not in amusement. It’s a strange kind of pride, maybe? Alex isn’t sure.

“That’s not all we must do. But that is the mission,” she says. “Gear up for combat.”

The team is just inside the mouth of the sewer system when Emma holds up a hand.

“IR optics,” she whispers.

Once people have switched over to infrared goggles, she begins weaving a complicated pattern of heat with her pyrokinetic powers. Jason, Alex, and Alycia can see it.

They can see more. Down through the tunnel, there’s thin cables, nestled grenades, and other traps waiting for them. Nothing military-grade, but all of it deadly effective against the unwary.

“Everything has a specific heat capacity,” Emma explains quietly. “Metal heats differently than stone or rock. They won’t use metal here because it corrodes, but there’s not many traps you can build that aren’t metallic somehow.”

Alycia is already moving to cut cords and otherwise neutralize the countermeasures. Privately, Alex wonders how many of them she’d already spotted before Emma’s trick. But it is a very neat trick.

We need more than one person who can do a thing. The team might be short a couple people someday.

The quartet creep through the sewers. Emma’s heat trick is able to highlight otherwise-invisible footprints in the moist environs of the tunnel. They reach a junction, then another, until they find evidence of a large object having been dragged.

There are no more traps here. It would have been too cumbersome to set and reset them every time someone came through while prepping the site and moving the bomb. That’s the queue for the team to draw and prep their guns.

“That way is the sea,” Alycia whispers, pointing at the drag marks in one direction. It’s simple enough to deduce that the other way is their goal.

“Just in case,” Jason whispers. With a jaunty wave, he heads down the sea-bound tunnel.

Alex blinks at Alycia - should one of us go with him? - but the girl just shakes her head. Instead, she gestures to her MIA teammates to continue the hunt.

At another junction, Alycia silently signals for a halt. Two men are standing guard. They’ve got rifles at the ready, and both are holding something in one hand.

She gestures for a withdrawal, and whispers to her teammates. “Perimeter defense. Buddy system. Dead-man switches. We hit them, we go loud.”

Alex and Emma nod in acknowledgement.

Alycia counts down to the assault with her fingers. 3… 2… 1…

The trio charge in, guns blazing. Both sentries raise their weapons. The first is hit before he can draw a bead, and his hand loosens its grip around the dead-man switch. Before it can fully activate, however, Alycia’s EMP shot hits it. With a brief pulse of electricity, the mechanism is shut off.

It doesn’t help. Alycia realizes a fraction of a second too late what they’re using. The sentries are holding hand-held radios, and keeping the channel open by pressing down on the transmit buttons. The radios aren’t strong enough to leak out of the sewer system. But once those stop transmitting, something else can start doing so. Sure enough, she hears a squawk of static from down the tunnel.

The other gunman opens fire. Emma responds by erecting a wall of super-heated air between her team and the sentry, and his bullets evaporate into a metallic mist before they can strike. A couple make it through, but only hit Alycia on sections protected by the team’s armored clothing.

When the heat shield drops, Alex and Alycia pick off the remaining sentry before they can run for it.

“Move,” Alycia barks, and the trio move. As they run, she scoops up one of the radios from the unconscious sentries.

They come to a corner. Alycia tosses the radio out into the junction. It’s met with an immediate hail of gunfire - the Grasscutters are thoroughly covering the tunnel.

Alycia gestures to Emma, and the pyrokinetic takes point. Again, she erects a heat barrier in the tunnel. As Alycia steps out, the chatter of machine guns fills the tunnel, but the bullets are reduced to their component atoms by the controlled inferno that’s raging under Emma’s control.

“B-9!” shouts Alycia. Instantly, Emma opens a gap in the burning barrier, and Alycia and Alex shoot through it. Alycia first developed the tactic with Summer and her hard-light barriers, and has since trained with Emma. If the team is behind protection, they can open gaps through which they can shoot.

The Grasscutters begin throwing grenades - a combination of frag grenades, white phosphorus, and stun grenades. The MIA team ceases fire as Emma turns her entire attention to pushing the flames forward, detonating the grenades early or suppressing the effectiveness of their explosions.

Alycia glances up, ever alert, and shouts “Bomb! Back!”

An explosive planted in the ceiling goes off - whether from Emma’s fire barrier or from a remote detonator, Alycia isn’t sure - and the ceiling collapses, cutting off the team’s route.

“They won’t trap themselves,” Alycia concludes. “There’s another way. Alex, map.”

Alex gets immediately to work on their phone. Reception down here is shit, but they had the foresight to preload everything.

Nothing is gonna stop us from getting to the bottom of this, they think to themselves. Nothing and nobody.

The team is sprinting through the sewers of Panama City.

“Left!” Alex shouts. The team turns left. In the distance, Grasscutters open fire. Alycia and Emma take a few rounds, but again their armored clothing turns a lethal hit into a painful but survivable impact. And the Grasscutters, as yet, have no similar protection from being shot.

“Side tunnel, ladder!” Alex shouts. The team take the narrow side tunnel. This time, Alycia knows what to expect, and is looking for it. Spotting the telltale marks of an embedded bomb in one wall, she hits it with an EMP round before it can go off.

The pair drop into an older tunnel. “This way, then up,” Alex directs.

They come to a ladder. “Suppression,” Alycia tells Emma.

The pyrokinetic nods, and floods the room above with a sudden, intense heat. Anyone up there should be momentarily impaired.

Alycia scrambles up the ladder in that moment, and the other two hear a few rounds of gunfire.

“Up,” she commands, and they follow. Sure enough, a pair of Grasscutters were waiting for them. They’re now unconscious.

At that moment, rumbles shake the sewer system. Alex and Emma look around in concern.

Alycia scoops up a radio from one of them, and listens in. After a few moments, she nods to herself, and tosses the radio to Alex.

“They’re blowing the tunnels behind us,” she explains. “Cutting off our retreat. Retrieving their fallen fellows, so we can’t get hold of their Poppet systems. We only have a few minutes. Move.”

Jason Quill has used his nanomachines to pull apart a section of the sewer wall, molecule by molecule. He excavated a section of it, large enough to hold him, and has rebuilt the wall again, thus entombing himself in a perfect hiding place. There’s just enough of a gap between the bricks for him to see out.

He’s laid other tricks and traps as well. Now, he listens into a conversation between an Atlantean Blood and the Grasscutters, not a hundred meters from his position.

“Krakens lie in wait off the coast,” the Blood is explaining. “They will not be affected by the EMP. Once they surface, you will take the weapon in your truck up to the mountain.”

One of the reserve Grasscutters acknowledges these instructions. “A transport plane will be landing at the airport after the blast goes off. We’ll evacuate aboard that. The men in the truck have another way out, on the north coast.”

“Very good. I shall go relay to my superiors that all is ready.”

The Grasscutters move elsewhere to continue their plan. Alone, the Blood walks down the tunnel leading to the ocean. Alone, he passes by Jason Quill’s position, without guessing the young man is watching him. And as he dives for the ocean water, Jason releases one of his traps.

A layer of sodium is held suspended above the water by his nanomachines. The weight of the Blood’s body pushes down, easily overwhelming the mildest pressure the nanobots can exert. As sodium contacts seawater, it does what volatile chemicals always do. Jason winces sympathetically at the sound of the explosion.

Jason emerges from the brick oubliette, clambers down from the sewer exit, and shoulders the body of the battered and unconscious Blood. “Well, my fine fellow, I came to Panama on a fishing trip, and I’m glad you obliged me.”

The staging area has lots of equipment, but no people. There’s a route to the surface. What keeps the team from following it up is the screen, showing a video call to an unknown location.

On the screen are three people. Nono, the motionless robot shell of John Black, and an unnamed female Grasscutter. She can clearly see them through a camera mounted on top of the monitor.

The mercenary has a pistol out, and points it to Nono’s head as the team approaches.

“Masks off, or Nono Rodriguez dies.”

Before they can really process the request rationally, Emma and Alex both remove their masks, revealing their faces.

“You as well,” the Grasscutter orders, looking through the video screen at Alycia.

“Kill her,” Alycia says coldly. “Traitors deserve to die.”

There’s a significant pause. Neither Alex nor Emma dare to turn and confront Alycia right now - and honestly their attention is glued on the screen, to witness what happens next with Nono.

The Grasscutter moves the gun away. “You must be the mysterious Charade,” she says at last.

“You’re delaying us from finding and stopping your bomb,” Alycia says calmly. “Either make your point or we leave.”

“I thought you’d like to know why she betrayed you,” the woman responds. “Is that worth your time?”

“We’re listening,” Alycia says, after a moment’s hesitant thought.

Now Nono speaks. “I’m getting a Poppet system of my own. I need this. I’ll need this more than I ever needed any of you.” She sounds like she’s close to crying, but she holds it together.

“I’m giving the Grasscutters something they want. I didn’t give any of you up. I’m offering them a better detail. The secret of a performance enhancing drug, a nootropic I developed. It’ll help them with the mental strain of using the Poppet system.”

Alex’s eyes automatically flash to Nono’s forearm. They can’t see the skin. Is she wearing a flow patch?

The girl gestures behind her. “And I’m giving them SNOWMAN. The Atlanteans want to live forever. Their leader can use him to accomplish that. The Grasscutters will trade SNOWMAN to the Mu people and get what they need most. Bases, assets, logistics, and support. The Mu get surface forces. Everyone wins. And I become the best spy in the world.”

Alex is near tears. “Nono, this isn’t right. You… I was gonna… you said we’d be friends, and… you were gonna help me with SNOWMAN…”

Emma, on the other hand, is incandescent with fury. “You fucking bitch. When I get to you I am going to tear you apart with my bare hands. I will murder every single one of these assholes and drown you in their blood–”

Alycia rests a hand on Emma’s shoulder, and the girl falls silent, other than ragged and rapid breathing.

“Nono, I’m disappointed. More than that, I’m angry. There are few who have survived my wrath. We shall soon see if you will be one of them.”

She calmly shoots the screen with an EMP round, and the whole system shuts down.

“Up and out,” Alycia orders. “We still have a bomb. And do not unmask without orders in the future.”

The Grasscutters have brought down the route out of the sewers through which they took the bomb, but they couldn’t close off the numerous man-sized ladders providing surface access. Alycia, Emma, and Alex clamber out of one of these, and summon their Chimera units.

Emma is still fuming. She’s muttering to herself, and her face is contorted in rage and pain. For their part, Alex feels cold and confused inside. It doesn’t seem real, somehow.

As the Chimeras arrive, Alycia pulls a card from her pocket and flashes it at her teammates. “Remember they are on our comms,” it reads. She pockets it just as quickly.

What am I supposed to do with that information? Alex asks mentally. Counter-hack the system? Track down the–

They board the motorcycles and dock with the Chimeras, and fly toward the Miraflores locks.

Below them, they see American soldiers, moving in groups and operating searchlights.

“They were alerted by the explosions in the sewers,” Alycia explains. “The Grasscutters must have disabled or falsified the internal sensors, but you can still hear it. That also pulls the guard away from the checkpoints, so their truck can get through more easily.”

The Chimeras swoop low over the Miraflores lock itself.

“They won’t set it off here,” Alycia concludes. “They’ll go further north, to shut down more of the mechanisms than just this. Split up. Follow the roads. Keep your eyes open.”

“What if they just stop the truck or some shit?” Emma demands. “Go dark, hide in a tunnel.”

“The ground-scanning radar and magnetometric interference system will pick up the bomb anyway,” Alycia says with utter confidence. “No, they’ll want to drive as fast as they can or risk taking a few missiles while they’re sitting ducks.”

Alex winces. Ground-scanning radar? Magneto-what? Missiles? The Chimeras don’t have any–

Remember they are on our comms.

Clever clever.

Alex doesn’t know what’s going on, not with Nono, not with anything right now. But somehow, feeling like Alycia does is giving them confidence as well.

A minute and a half later, Emma calls out. “I got them. Nobody’s gonna survive this–”

Alycia cuts in. “Negative, Firebrand. Disposition of the bomb?”

“Back of a flatbed pickup truck.”

“Roger. I’m coming in. When I make my move, block the road ahead. Comrade X, block rear.”

Alex acknowledges over the radio.

Together, they execute their operation. Alycia’s Chimera swoops over the truck out of nowhere, and grapples lash out to take hold of the heavy bomb. As she reels it in and accelerates upward, Alex and Emma land their craft in the road. The truck lurches to a stop.

“Apprehend the drivers,” Alycia orders.

Together, Emma and Alex exit the Chimeras, weapons drawn. Soon they see why Alycia was so confident of their success. The men in the pickup truck aren’t Grasscutters after all. They’re a couple of guys being paid to haul a big piece of equipment up the road. They even show the cash, and offer it to Emma if she’ll just let them go.

“Nah. You guys get outta here,” Emma says at last. Alex can hear the anger fading from her voice, as frustration and weariness replaces it. “Don’t say nothing to nobody about us.”

The two men acknowledge in gratitude, and the Chimeras lift off.

“I’ve set my Chimera on autopilot and am bailing out,” Alycia announces.

“What about Agent R?” Emma asks. Now that their immediate business is done, other matters return immediately to mind.

“Agent R is where she wants to be,” Alycia says obliquely. “Rendezvous at camp.”

At Alycia’s forest campsite, they reunite with Jason Quill.

“What did you get?” Alycia asks him.

Jason gives a thumbs-up. “One Atlantean Blood, duly handed over to the authorities for interrogation. You three?”

“One bomb, out of play for the moment,” Alycia replies.

She turns to Emma and Alex. “With the plan underway, I can now tell you what’s going on.”

The transport aircraft landed at Panama City airport, picked up a busload of soldiers, and took off again. Just routine.

Aboard the Grasscutter transport, Nono is being fitted with her own Poppet system.

The woman the others saw earlier is standing over her. “These are precious, child,” she says. “We took these from our brothers and sisters who didn’t join our movement, and returned them to their homes and families.”

The installation itself was simple - not even surgical. The system resembles a cylinder when not installed. When placed against the human abdomen, and squeezed, the nanomachines begin infiltrating the body. The cylinder dissolves into the flesh, the circuits spread. There’s a mental jolt, like a drug trip that’s over in seconds, as they reach the brain and begin winding their way through the synapses.

Nono can feel herself changed. At a thought, she summons a menu of skill packages. Soldier. Sniper. Dancer. Desert Survivalist. Tracker.

She can be all these things, and more. She can be anything she wants to be.

The others listen with a hungry attentiveness as Alycia explains. “Nono approached me with a plan. The Grasscutters had already made contact with her in Australia. Why doesn’t she follow up on that? We have a serious problem - how to disable and destroy the Poppet system without hurting its users.”

Alycia’s face hardens. “It would be easy to kill them. No - these people have been used enough. We can’t allow them to go forward with their plans, but we can’t take their lives simply because they are lashing out at their masters and tormentors. Their human dignity must be respected. We must do better - I must do better - than has been done.”

“Nono proposed that she offer something in trade for her own Poppet system. What could justify that price? Her neurochemical research. Plus a gift to the Grasscutters’ current patrons, the Mu - SNOWMAN, who knows everything Leo Newman did about mental transfer and immortality. Leo endured torture to protect that secret. It seems likely the Mu would be pleased to have it handed to them now.”

Alycia’s fingers clasp and unclasp subconsciously, a tic that indicates she’s processing anxiety of her own even as she relieves her teammates of theirs with the good news. “If she’s able to get a Poppet system, it was all worth it. Our performance for the camera in the sewers was vital. It was absolutely necessary for the three of us to sell Nono’s cover story, to be so convincing that her defection wouldn’t be questioned. Everything we did led up to that.”

Emma clenches her own fists and shakes them. “Hey. Queen Puppet Master. What if they don’t buy it? What if Nono’s in trouble right now?”

Alycia smiles. “The second thing you must know is that Leo Newman has built his robot creations to survive anything. When John was retrieved from the Antarctic, they reassembled him and equipped him with a hypergenius brain, plus all their robotics data. Since then, John built himself a new shell.”

The female Grasscutter watches as Nono puts her system through its paces, by practicing a few martial arts moves, then acrobatics, all in the belly of the transport plane.

“It is a marvel, is it not?” the woman asks with a maternal smile.

“It really is,” Nono breathes.

“Good. Value it, child.” The woman casually draws a knife from a sheath at her hip, and flips it, catching the blade between her fingers. “If you play us false, remember that all of us can do what you can do.”

There’s a voice behind her, from the otherwise motionless robot. “Bet you can’t do what I can do.”

In a heartbeat, John Black is up and on his feet. His weapons deploy and spray down the aircraft, non-lethally but quite painfully disabling or disorienting the Grasscutters therein.

A port opens at his wrist, a hilt is ejected into his hand, and a deadly sharp blade springs outward from it, the product of advanced materials science. He adopts a fighting stance, placing himself between Nono and the others. “Open the rear door,” he orders her.

As Nono moves to comply, a half dozen men rush at John. Faster than humanly possible, his blade flashes out to cut their guns or knives in half. Elbows and knees strike at the solar plexus, or the joints.

“Let’s go!” shouts Nono. The rear hatch is open just far enough. John retracts his sword, and together he and Nono rush for the hatch and leap out into the endless sky.

“You mean–” Alex says in shock.

“Nono’s EMP trap was genuine. SNOWMAN did get a jolt of it,” Alycia affirms. “He’s just resistant to that sort of thing now. Not quite immune. But resistant enough.”

“So he played along, this whole time…” Alex breathes out, then squeals in delight. “He’s okay!”

That asshole be okay until I disassemble him for lying to everyone.

It takes a few hours, but SNOWMAN lands at the campsite. His armored shell opens, and a frazzled-looking Nono Rodriguez stumbles out.

Emma rushes to embrace her, and the others stand and softly cheer in acknowledgement.

When Emma pulls back, Nono lifts her shirt. On her skin is the characteristic mark of the Poppet system.

“You did well,” Alycia says. “We’ll debrief back home.”

Emma is still processing a flood of emotion. The relief of the reunion makes way for the bubbling anger and uncertainty and fear. “You bitch, don’t ever do that–”

She’s halfway through throwing a bunch when Alycia leaps across the intervening space and catches the fist. “I advised her not to tell anyone else. Save that for me.”

Emma shrugs, looks away for just a moment, then hauls back and decks Alycia hard enough to knock her on her ass.

While Alycia is rubbing away the pain on her chin, Nono speaks up. “I kept it a secret too. You might have tried to stop me, you know. So, I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve to go through all that. Any of you.”

Puzzle pieces begin assembling in Alex’s mind. “Nono, I thought it was suspicious when the aerial tram had our quarry. There’s no way that was luck. You knew a Grasscutter was going to be there. You couldn’t tell us without giving the game away. So you intentionally gave me a lead.”

Nono nods. “That’s right. That was to be my contact. I begged out, saying I was under observation and could we meet elsewhere.”

Alex thinks back. “It was the Tourist. The lady Grasscutter. She’s the boss of this operation.”

Emma is still unhappy. “Hey, Charade. You didn’t tell us jack shit because we had to be convincing to the Grasscutters about Nono. But if it was her plan, how did she manage to keep up the lie?”

“Because the flow patches have a bad side effect, even now,” explains John. “Continuous use of the patches induces sociopathic tendencies. In the short term, it helped her establish her cover story. Long-term use will be damaging.”

Emma turns to Alycia and smirks. “So does that mean you have sociopathic tendencies? Is that how you were able to lie, even when you knew the plan?”

“That’s right,” Alycia says simply.

Nobody really wants to tackle the ramifications of that. Instead, Alex says something that they feel might have been overlooked.

“Nono, what are you gonna do about the Poppet system you have?”

“I want it removed,” Nono says softly. “We have to figure out how to get it out of these people safely. I’m volunteering myself as test subject.”

Emma turns sharply back. “Hey. Wait a minute. I thought you were gonna replace your flow patches with it. If those are unhealthy, you can’t be using those any more. You know that.”

Nono smiles. “I know.”

“Then how are you gonna, y’know…” Emma doesn’t want to say “keep up”, but everyone can hear the unspoken words.

“She doesn’t need either of those things,” Alex says, loudly enough to command everyone’s attention. “Y’know, when I got told to take orders from her, I thought the same thing. She has to have something to keep up with us.”

“Well, no. She doesn’t. She’s creative. She’s brave. And she’s been writing spy fanfic for years. That means she’s been thinking about this shit for that long. The thing is, human beings are these amazing fucking logic machines. Sure, as a civilian her inputs to that process were garbage. Well now she’s surrounded by people who can give her good input. So now she’s generating plans like this. And it worked.”

Alex smiles at Nono, who turns away in embarrassment at the praise. “I did learn something from working under her. She didn’t have to do anything or give me any specific order. She reminded me that doing what you dream of doing is its own reward.”

The hacker smiles. “So I’m gonna take the agency training I got and help Nono get better at her dream. And I’m gonna keep paying attention, so she can keep teaching me.”

Back at MIA headquarters, another video call is in progress. Jason Quill has joined.

First up is Inspector Lee Yan. “The good news is that we’ve started seeing Chin-type activity from what are very likely the Grasscutters. I interpret that to mean that your interference in their plan damaged the relationship between them and the Mu, so now they’re hunting for alternative sponsors.”

“Logical and likely,” Alycia concurs. “That is good to hear.”

Admiral Hansen delivers his report. “We received an Atlantean Blood from a ahem, anonymous source.”

Jason’s face stays admirably unmoved.

“We’re interviewing that individual for information about the Mu. We’ve given them every assurance of humane treatment, and Dr. Lee will be monitoring conditions as well in her role as civilian oversight.”

Ji-a Lee picks up the thread. “I’ve begun overtures with the Atlanteans, to help us understand how to safeguard ourselves against the Mu. Until very recently, of course, they were the same people. Asking someone to spill their military secrets, ostensibly to protect against an enemy faction, is hmm, a very delicate question. It will take time, but perhaps this episode will help us make inroads. The Atlanteans don’t want to be blamed for anything the Mu are likely to do, and we’re giving them assurances that we’ll be very clear on the distinction. And good treatment of prisoners, even ones who are nominally the enemy, reflects well on us.”

Costigan nods. “On a personal note, madam, I want to offer you an apology. When Mr. Leo Newman was in our hmm, care, we asked him for a sort of secret of his own. An assurance to us. The Mu expressed an interest in obtaining what I’m talking about. I’ve managed to secure their objective. I think you’ll understand the nature of my apology in a moment.”

His eyes flicker off camera, and toward Alycia’s team and John specifically.

John points at himself and mouths, “me?”

Costigan snorts and narrows his eyes - who else, you fool? - and makes an imperious beckoning gesture with an index finger.

John stumbles to his feet and comes into the camera’s view.

Ji-a Lee gasps. “Leo?”

“No, ma’am. Mom. Well…” John stumbles for words. “Uh, I - Leo - built this android duplicate for AEGIS. I’m the duplicate. I was reactivated. I’ve lost a couple years, but well, I’m here now, and I–”

“What should I call you?” Ji-a Lee asks immediately.

“John Black, ma’am.”

Ji-a smiles warmly. “Well, John. We shall have to meet soon. I’m sure Mr. Costigan’s personnel can help arrange it.”

“Yes ma’am.”

John wanders back to his seat in a daze, but as he sits down he smiles.

The team is enjoying a catered meal at Costigan’s expense. “I’m not paying for your bar tab in Panama, so this’ll have to do,” he explains gruffly, before leaving them to their meal.

“To Nono and Alex,” Emma says, raising her orange juice in a toast.

The others turn and look in surprise.

Emma smirks. “I always knew Nono was the best. She proved it. But here’s to Alex as well. You picked up the thread Nono left for you and you followed it to the end. Her plan might have failed without you. And then I’d never forgive you.”

John nods. “I… I don’t want to go into the darkness again. Not like at Pyrrhus’ base, nor when I was offline before. So pretending like I was offline was kinda scary. But I believed in my teammates, that you’d make it worthwhile, and you didn’t let me down.”

Alycia speaks next. “We’ll be convening at the Quill Compound to learn how to disable Nono’s Poppet system. From there, we’ll be devising a countermeasure to disable it in the field.”

She nods to each of her teammates. “You’ve all done very well. We’ve won our first victory against the Grasscutters and the Mu. We’ll win more. We are those that hunt the hunters, and those that save lives from the shadows. Enjoy the moments of peace you have, like now. They will not come often in the future.”

The group grows solemn at those words. But momentary peace can be enjoyed too, and they dig into the food before them, and take pleasure and pride at being with the friends around them.

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So that was a lot, but I feel like it was productive and hopefully interesting.
Elements of the plot came from the classic film “Charlie Chan in Panama”, which itself had elements from Jacques Deval’s novel “Marie Galante”.
The complex relationship between America and Panama deserves more examination than I was able to give here, but I keep trying to give depth to the locations for the action and not just let them be exotic background.

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Going back to this, I feel this is one of my weakest in terms of having characters’ emotional states come out. This is really making me want to either work on a visual story, or redo how I write.