418 - The Golden Dragon

The team is sitting around a campfire, burning at the center of the hangar of Pyrrhus’ old base in the Antarctic. Somewhere far below them is the city of the Stone Builders and all of its unguessed mysteries. Above them are tons and tons of ice. Behind them is John Black’s unfinished stealth jet, already showing signs of frosting over.

Jason suggested the team build a new base in the previous story, City of Clones – Ed.

John went shopping in Argentina, and is now passing out grocery bags. One by one, people accept a bag and pull stuff out. Hot dogs and hot dog buns, hard-boiled eggs, lip balm, and other essentials for surviving the Antarctic in the short term.

Once hot dogs have been cooked over the fire, squabbling over relish and mustard has settled down, and people feel the comfort of warm food in their bellies, Alycia leads off.

“Let’s review. Most of the actual base is buried. The Stone Builders’ city isn’t, but it’s much less accessible to us. It’s also a foot deep in water. So for now, we’ll build out as needed, using a standardized design that includes plumbing and electrical distribution. Alex has already submitted a proposal and Jason and I have marked it up.”

Alex makes a vague noise that suggests a number of emotions about what “marked it up” means, but doesn’t say anything specific. Alycia resumes.

"I’d like to divide our efforts into two groups. Emma, Alex, and John - you’ve all got ideas or experience where infrastructure is concerned. I believe our priorities are shelter, heat, and our logistics chain - starting with potable water, food, and medicine. After that, we need power and climate control. It’s a desert that’s 40 C below zero out there.

“Jason, Nono, and myself will concentrate on the operational side of things. Alex, you’ll be tasked with certain things to support this effort, such as satellite Internet access and communications, but mostly this is us thinking about how we do business as an independent black ops team supporting the rest of MIA.”

Her voice quavers as memories come back. “Due to the recent - the recent data leak - I - I think it’s important to establish new parameters without sacrificing our overall goals.”

Her eyes find those of her teammates. “And of course, none of this is mandatory. Nobody has to be here. I know you’ll all be tempted to complain about the conditions. It will be miserable. If it gets too much, and someone leaves, I won’t say a thing. If you stay, I will extend some leeway toward healthy stress relief, but I will see that discipline is maintained and we stay on task. If we don’t do this properly, we die.”

At first, Emma’s main job will be human heater and humidifier. But she’s got another skill set, and perhaps the most practical experience of anyone on the team: building villain lairs. And she loses no opportunity to point this out.

“I learned everything about base building from Mr. Big,” she says, repeatedly. Fortunately, it’s not just an empty boast.

Villains have a fundamental problem: they want to carry out complex operations, but they don’t want to be detected and shut down by the authorities. For mid-range villains, this has led to an evolution in thinking. How do you lay out your base? What do you need? What are things you might overlook in your planning - things that architects or home builders might account for, and villains have to, but the average person might not think of? And Emma’s got answers, thanks to her apprenticeship under a veteran supervillain.

Alex is a fountain of ideas for technology. They’re the first to realize that appliances should be bought in Argentina, and that means building the base on the Argentinian power standard - the Type C and Type I plugs at 220 volts. “If you have any American devices, do not plug them in or you will explode,” they caution the others.

John is working out of the jet. He’s got a basic molecular lathe, graphene batteries, and the only reliable source of electricity in a hundred miles. Most of his time is spent manufacturing bigger and more specialized machines. He has to repurpose some of his robot shell spare parts, leading to the eerie sight of disembodied robot arms moving parts around and independent robot hands dexterously assembling bits.

It’s demanding and time-consuming effort. There’s grumbling and arguments and even some shouting. But the first time a load of laundry successfully goes through the old washer-dryer the team procured, everyone cheers.

The operational side of things is more challenging, as everyone admits.

The team needs to stay connected to the world - but without lawful access to a satellite, much less one of the few birds visible from Antarctica, they risk losing that connection at key moments. They need a secure way to connect with the rest of MIA. With that connection, they need to stay on top of current events, as well as analyze trends to spot oncoming problems.

“We could just let Costigan and Parker tell us where to go,” Jason finally points out, and Alycia has to admit it’ll have to do for the moment.

Dozens of other points need to be settled. Once a team gets a mission, how will they execute on it? How do they get from place to place? How will they organize as a team? How do they communicate? What are standard protocols? What are the exception cases?

While Alycia and Jason both understand the ins and outs of black ops, they understand the orthodoxy, and the team is in a very unorthodox situation. The unorthodox is Nono’s area of expertise, which must be carefully explained to the self-conscious girl.

“You don’t know what we know,” Jason says. “But what we know may not be a good idea here and now. The two of us also tend to think alike, and you don’t. Diversity of viewpoints is critical in spotting errors.”

Alycia nods in agreement. “You may protest your ignorance of the realities of spycraft. It is your ignorance that will force us to explain our views to you, and thereby engage in reassessment of our assumptions. Along the way, you will learn what we know because we are explaining it. To be an effective partner, you must not take what we say at face value. Ask questions. Challenge assumptions. Don’t just nod along. Don’t let us become sloppy in our planning.”

Nono nods earnestly at this explanation. “I’m beta reading your spy fics. I get it.”

Alycia and Jason glance at each other, with just a hint of uncertainty.

John and Alex are working together in the “ops center” - a common space found between the six cells the team are using for private rooms. The android is working on wiring. Alex is working on the satellite problem.

They aren’t talking - at least, not right now. Alex is getting increasingly frustrated with the constraints of providing Internet access. John is still thinking about an email Otto sent him - advising him to talk to Alex about something. It’s made him feel awkward and he doesn’t know how to negotiate it.

Finally something breaks the ice. “Imma build a satellite!” Alex shouts, pounding angry fists on their worktable.

John hears this, climbs out of the crawlspace under the floor, and peeks over the edge of the table. “We can probably do that, actually.”

Alex perks up. “What?”

“Launch our own satellite,” John says. “I can just go to space.”

Alex peers at him, and digests this, and returns to their laptop for some hurried calculations. “Would that even work? Geostationary orbit… but if anyone detects it, the jig is up… can you just put a thing up there and just have it not move?.. God dammit, if I had regular access, I could just look this up but noooo, Jason Quill’s gotta move to Antarctica.”

They stand up, kick the leg of the worktable, and wince when it doesn’t avoid their foot.

John speaks gently - for him. “Hey. Uh. You got a DVD player?”

Alex is again blinkered, and looks at him for elaboration.

John hesitates, and doesn’t make eye contact at first. “I uh. So. I got the uh. Anyway, Otto burned a DVD of the Robot Romance trilogy for me. Toei anime from the 1970s. Like if you need a break, I thought…”

Alex tilts their head. “Usually you hate it when I try to get you to do stuff like this.”

“I don’t hate it exactly,” John explains, or tries to. “It just… Well, you did it so much, it got annoying any time you’d say anything like it. So I’m trying this other thing, to see if it’s any better if I’m the one suggesting it.”

Alex reluctantly takes this in. “Okay. So. Is this about robots being romantic?”

John looks shocked and appalled. “No, it’s super robot battles. Combattler V and Voltes V and Daimos. This was pretty formative stuff for me. I mean, for my technology, so it’s got a really important place in my heart. Uh, let’s see, one of them has a big fuckin’ yo-yo…”

Alex grins. “Sure, let’s try it out.”

John retrieves the DVD and pops it in. “It’s not like a playable DVD,” he explains, “it’s just these files…”

“I have done this sort of thing before,” Alex says indignantly.

There’s only the one chair, so Alex puts the laptop on it. The pair sit on the floor together, leaning against a wall and only slightly against each other, and start watching.

Two members of the team are hanging out in the hangar.

Nono has a notebook and pencil. She’s jotting notes about the team structure, the base, and other things she’s been asked to think about. She’s dressed in a parka and mittens, so actually writing with that pencil is difficult. A thermos of hot chocolate sits beside her, untouched.

Emma is dressed similarly, if only so she doesn’t have to worry about regulating her own temperature while she works. Like Nono, she’s using her mind. Today, she’s using her mind to psychically melt down the prodigious blocks of ice John Black has been carving out of the continent and bringing back. The resulting flow of mineral-rich water pours into holding tanks.

Jason Quill has prepared a chemical refinery to turn what’s in those tanks into pure, fresh, and importantly drinkable water. But right now, if anyone wants to drink, do dishes, run laundry, or avoid drying into a mummy from the ultra-low humidity, the source of that water has to be obtained manually.

Of course, Emma is smug about her vital importance to the team. But running her powers for long periods is also exhausting.

“I’m getting burned out on this,” she observes to Nono, as she ends one session of thawing. “Ha ha, pyrokinetic humor. Burned out.”

Nono looks down at her notebook for a moment, then up at Emma. “If you were building a villain’s lair somewhere else, you wouldn’t have to do all this. But you’d have to do something else, to keep the authorities from finding you, right?”

Emma plops down next to Nono and impatiently beckons for the thermos. Nono struggles to pull off a mitten, uncap the thermos, and pass it over. The sudden shifts in temperature makes her blow on her hand for a moment, wince, then put the mitten back on in a hurry.

Emma drinks, and sighs contentedly. She motions with the thermos, and Nono leans forward to get a sip of it as well.

“No pre-existing utilities to leech off of. But no authorities to bust us for doing so. That’s what you’re saying, right?” Emma asks, and Nono nods in confirmation.

The pyrokinetic thinks. “Yeah. I guess. Like, someone would be doing security wiring, alarms, that kinda shit. You think the effort would be about the same. Fair enough. Alycia’ll probably demand that anyway, knowing her paranoid ass, but we don’t have to do it now, and more importantly, I don’t have to do it. So I’m still gonna complain about this.”

Nono smiles and tilts her head, watching as her partner speaks. “You think that homeowners have to do the same kind of thing? Like if you get the worst house in the world, a real fixer-upper, what would you be doing?”

Emma cradles the thermos gently, and goes for another sip of the life-giving hot chocolate. “Is that what this is? Home?”

Nono rallies. “Sure. Why not? Did you ever read ‘My Side of the Mountain’?”

“Uh, no? Every side of the mountain is mine.”

Nono smiles. “I read it when I was… when I was thinking about running away. I thought I’d mine it for ideas. I didn’t know it was fiction at first. But it’s about a boy who lives in the mountains.”

Emma perks up. “Oh. Like that kid who went to Alaska and got eaten by a bear?”

Nono blanches. “No?! God. Why did you–? Anyway. It goes into so much detail, I thought it must be real. But even so, Sam has to travel back to the city and then to the mountains again to figure out where he feels most at home. And even when life is hard, that’s sometimes the price of having a home of your own.”

Emma lets out a long sigh, and watches her breath as it becomes visible. “I guess if the two of us were gonna finally find a home, it’d be at the ass end of this godforsaken planet, huh?”

“I guess so,” Nono grins. She doesn’t have a cup, but she takes the thermos cap and clinks it against the metal of the thermos Emma holds, in as much of a toast as circumstances permit.

Comparing the molecular lathe John Black started with to Jason’s nanobots is like comparing a stone axe to a Gatling gun. As a result, Jason been busy indeed in all aspects of the base’s setup - his new home.

When he gets a break, he most often spends it keeping Alycia happy. The stresses of leadership, both internal and external, are wearing on her, and he can see the signs. So today it’s table tennis.

For the two of them, actually playing the game is physically involved but not mentally demanding. It’s like listening to music while you talk to someone.

“You promised me research into the Stone Builders,” Alycia says at last.


“They’re long gone. We’ve seen what’s left of their tunnels. How do you propose we proceed, given the paucity of artifacts from which to work?”

Jason grins. “I’d hoped you’d ask. We can start with their corridors. Larger than us. Does that mean they were as well? The niches in the room suggest storage. Storage must be accessible, thus suggesting certain parameters for reach and height. If they indeed worked with stone, the sizes of the niches and the density of rock can suggest a range of strength for a typical specimen. You won’t store things you can’t lift.”

Alycia hums. “Good, good. Reciprocity, then. Building a city underground suggests they either had no need for natural sunlight, or had an adequate substitute. We can rewind the climate of the continent at the time and establish temperate zones. Likewise, the only entrances we found were made by Pyrrhus, or bored down from Plateau Station. Finding the original entrances and exits of the city may prove fruitful.”

Jason casually smashes the ball over the net. “They left somehow, after all.”

Alycia catches it on her paddle with similar ease. “And our families found the city. And then Pyrrhus made a base here. And then so did we.”

She stares at Jason across the table. “I realized the hidden reason you suggested building a base here.”

Jason’s blue eyes are wells of innocence. “Oh? What is that?”

Alycia catches the ball on her paddle, deflects it into the air, and catches it on the edge of the paddle. She balances it there for just a moment, before firing it back across the net.

“Contracting with the Quill Foundation as ‘Alice Chan’. Working for AEGIS. Then MIA. I was someone else’s asset. I could be corralled, but I had a measure of freedom. In my heart, I never had to commit.”

She gestures around with the paddle in the moments the ball isn’t on her side. “You’re making me put down roots. Establish myself. Settle down. Trade my mobility for…”

She looks confused, and frowns. “For something. I don’t know.”

Jason sends the ball over the net with a graceful backhand. “A place of your own, maybe?”


Alycia’s frown deepens. “Freedom can also mean being unmoored and adrift. And being tied down to one place can also mean stability and safety. The river can become uncontrollable rapids. The lake can become stagnant. It all depends on perspective.”

Jason grins. “So am I tying you down? Giving you stability? Or…”

He catches the ball, and sends it back in a lazy arc. “Am I inviting you to explore the possibilities, until you know where your heart is truly at rest?”

Alycia smiles at him. “Then we are exploring each others’ worlds, aren’t we.”

“Exploring, mapping, invading, colonizing…” jokes Jason, and Alycia smashes the ball right at his head.

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John and Alex have cooked up a compromise for communication. They don’t launch a satellite, which could be detected (and shot down). Instead, John remote-operates Spike - the unpiloted support CHIMERA unit - into the upper atmosphere, Alex selects a satellite to hack into, and the team gets a few hours of high-latency Internet via a tight-beam downlink.

Costigan, Parker, and other employees of MIA are still off-grid and establishing “alternative accommodations”, the way this team is. But Parker isn’t giving up. She’s already queuing up work for the team on a secret server. With the downlink established, Alex downloads the files, and Alycia calls a meeting to review them.

The message that grabs everyone’s attention is from INTERPOL inspector Lee Yan. It’s a video message, with gigabytes of data attached. The woman, according to Jason, is an expert in Doctor Achilles Chin, and aside from that was able to track the team down in during their visit to Hong Kong. So what does she have for the team now? Everyone’s curious.

“There’s a delicate situation going on in China. Secrecy is vital. On the one hand, recent information about a certain person leaked out, which is of course inauspicious. On the other hand, I’ve been asked to reach out to whoever I can that I trust. That includes your team. So here we are.”

“A certain individual - the ‘Golden Dragon’ - is a financier and political influencer of tremendous power. They are preparing to make a move which may upend decades of relative stability between China and its neighbors. The government can’t act officially without tremendous repercussions. In fact, they’ll go after you if they get word you’re on the case. The idea here is to find something - anything - some kind of influence or leverage that will either dissuade the Golden Dragon, or at least buy the government a little time to get ahead of the situation.”

On screen, the woman’s face betrays her great concern. “If you take this on, if you make progress, I don’t need to hear about it until you’ve got something to deliver. In fact the less I know about it - officially - the better. And if you made it this far into my message and decide not to tackle it, hey, thanks for humoring a cop.”

She flashes one of those self-effacing smiles, and the video clicks off.

The others look to Jason and Alycia immediately.

“The name is familiar,” Alycia says. “But that’s all I have. Either my father never interacted with the Golden Dragon, which seems unlikely given this description, or he never involved me in those interactions. That’s hardly surprising. Compartmentalization was one of his regular tactics.”

Jason shrugs. “I got nothing either. Dad and Rusty typically worked with official government entities when we traveled internationally. If you weren’t trying to take over the world with all your billions, we mostly ignored you.”

“They could be too big for us, much as I hate to admit it,” Alex says. “This is final boss stuff, we’re still on disc one of the game.”

John nods. “We’re here 'cause we got spanked by a gang of cyborg mercenaries. What makes us think we can tackle someone at that level?”

Emma scowls and points at John. “Next time you’re doing some maintenance, be sure to install some testicles.”

She turns back to Alycia. “Maybe we’re small fry. But it sounds like this was an all hands on deck thing. It’s not just us, it sounds like a bunch of favors are being called in by everyone here.”

Nono nods quickly. “Maybe we can, y’know, poke at the edges of whatever this is, and get something useful? We’re not being asked to break into someone’s secret fortress and kidnap them or anything. Right?”

Alycia glances at Jason as she speaks. “I want to pursue this, but I have a selfish reason for doing so.”

The others look at her curiously, and she elaborates.

“I thought my father had briefed me on his enemies, including the people who’d specialized in his activities. People like Byron Quill, intelligence experts in America, Britain, Russia, and China, that sort of thing.”

She takes a long breath. “I had never learned about Inspector Lee Yan. The oversight… bothers me.”

“Maybe she just sucked,” Emma suggests.

“Except that Dad consulted with her,” Jason counters. “I remember that much. He wouldn’t go to someone who couldn’t help.”

The others look at each other, and shrug.

Emma still looks skeptical, and yet… “Okay. And I get the motive. Know your enemy, all that shit. Mr. Big teaches that a villain should have a relationship with their enemies. They should know 'em, keep track of 'em, understand how they think, all that. But what I don’t get is, if Achilles Chin is gone and Pyrrus is nuked, what does it matter?”

Alycia composes her thoughts. “My father was in many ways a mystery, even to me. But his influence shaped my life. In some ways, it still does. To deny him that power and thus escape it, I have to understand him. Even on seemingly small matters like this.”

Alex speaks up with a sudden grin. “What is this, Feel Team Six? We got a mission. I’m excited! Let’s crush this.”

John’s smile is half smirk, half sympathy. “I guess if we’re careful, we can get something done. Maybe impress the Inspector enough to get her to open up a bit? But… I get wanting to suss out what your dad was thinking, and for your reasons. I’m with ya.”

Nono puts up a fist, and lets out a small but earnest cheer.

Jason gives a thumbs up as well. “I’m mostly curious about any power player that big who escaped our notice, honestly. This ‘Golden Dragon’ must be someone amazing. We gotta step into a larger world somehow, and if the mission can succeed without us, that feels like a good safety net.”

Alycia nods to acknowledge her team. “Very well. We’ll review the information packet and construct a plan of attack.”

The ‘Golden Dragon’ owns an entire artificial island, northeast of the island of Zhoushan and the rest of the archipelago around Shanghai. Smoke plumes and chemical disposal barges indicate that some level of industrial activity takes place, but only on parts of the island. The airspace is strictly controlled. Private helicopters can be seen landing there, but nobody’s sure whether the Dragon lives there or simply uses it for business.

“We’re breaking into someone’s secret fortress,” Nono concludes glumly.

“It’s ideal for our talents,” Jason asserts. “A small mobile team, good technical infiltration skills, and a couple of unfortunately famous faces. We could go blend in somewhere, do this socially, but we’d stand out without more training and technique.”

“We need to get better at that,” Alycia adds with a scowl in Jason’s direction.

Jason holds up his hands and smiles winsomely.

Long-range infrared photography reveals clear signs of heat radiating from specific spots on the island, as well as the water around it.

“They might be desalinating sea water, or using it for cooling,” John suggests. “Maybe there’s vents I can get into.”

Jason frowns. “They’d probably have screens covering the inlets and outlets, if only to keep random fish from gumming up the works accidentally. And anti-Atlantean measures have been rolled out in the last year for secure systems with a path to the ocean. A cautious enough security system would monitor the screens, maybe by running an electrical current through them and tripping an alarm if the current breaks. The new DSC systems do that, for example.”

Alex brightens up. “Why couldn’t John run current through the screen himself?”

“That would be a pretty delicate operation,” Jason muses. “But possible. Let’s put that in our pocket and continue.”

Emma is peering at the screen. “Hey, Golden Boy. You’re pretty boring. That island’s gotta be sitting on something, right? So how about boring a tunnel up from below, like you did back at Clone City?”

Alycia shakes her head. “We’d need a good idea of where to emerge, or we might come out in a chemical tank or something else equally dangerous. Possible, but it would demand extreme caution.”

Alex is reading through what the government has concluded about the Golden Dragon’s interior defenses. “If I can get a direct connection, I should be able to handle the security system. According to these invoices, they’ve bought the good stuff, but it’s still the standard good stuff. And I’ve hacked Rook.”

Nono pipes up. “Hey. Uh, Mr. Quill - uh, Jason? Er, anyway. Jason’s nanobots can move matter around, right? Maybe we don’t drill through the ground. If there’s screens on the water inlets, maybe we don’t cut through it, but move the material of the screen out of the way? That shouldn’t break any electrical current or fiber-optics or whatever, right? Then John can enclose Alex and swim inside, they mute the security system, and the rest of us come in?”

Alycia looks sharply at Jason. He considers the possibilities, and nods. “It could work. I could send a nanobot payload along with John, preprogrammed. If the bots don’t encounter what we expect, nothing happens and we move to plan B.”

Other plans are discussed, discarded, or deferred. At the end of the meeting, Alycia approaches Nono, who still looks deeply uncertain.

“This is what it’s like,” Alycia says quietly. “There’s nothing special or mystical about planning an operation. What you absolutely need is good information about the situation. But once you have that, all you need is clear thinking and a rational mind. Your suggestion is good. If it fails, it’s because we didn’t know enough.”

Nono smiles appreciatively. “I guess we’ll find out. But thank you. I needed to hear that.”

Alycia nods, with a stern expression. “Even if this succeeds, though, don’t let it go to your head. Your life will be full of constant learning. You can never afford to rest on your laurels.”

John and Alex have been prototyping living arrangements using the stealth jet’s airframe. As a result, the jet is now quite comfortable beyond just the cockpit. There’s seats, snacks, and plugins for electronics. The Chimeras are parked aft.

Shanghai is 8,000 miles away. The stealth jet can make a suborbital approach in a matter of hours with a very low chance of detection. So while the interior may be comfortable, the flight itself is not - crushing acceleration on the way up, a queasy few minutes near the Kármán line that delineates Earth and space, then a terrifying sustained dive back toward the planet.

The jet deploys pontoons for a sea landing, and coasts to a stop miles off the coast of China.

“The jet is naturally buoyant,” John explains. “Carbon construction. We could flood it to dive, but there’s also no airlock. So we might be noticed if we hang out here for too long.”

Alycia shakes her head. “We shouldn’t need to be here long. The Chimeras can get us close to our objective. I assume you can remote-operate the jet into a holding pattern at high altitude? Good. For now, let’s observe.”

She takes the lead in opening the dorsal hatch, leading to the roof of the jet, and climbs out. The others follow her up the narrow access ladder.

Alycia ticks off possibilities. “We’re looking for patrol boats. Submersibles. Sentry towers. Autonomous drones. Emplaced cameras. Anything that might spot our approach.”

The sea is salty and the air is hot. Alex lugs some of their spy drones up and out, and starts setting things up to get a closer look at the distant island. Jason’s got binoculars and is scanning the horizon. The others loiter about, happy to just be out of the plane after the rough ride they experienced.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing someone, honestly,” Emma mutters. “Been feeling cooped up in Antarctica and then that jet. Like a hot dog vendor or–”

There’s a flash around Alex. The hacker yelps, and engulfed by a dimly glimpsed shadow, disappears in yet another flash.

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