Sunday, December 27, 2015

Awakening



There was a roaring crowd behind Hank.  Cheers.  Music.  She thought she could hear the voice of Susanna Moyer in the background.

“Oh yeah... about the Jewel.  I’ve got it.  I’ll be on a plane tonight.”

Jahan slowly put the phone back on the table.  In a way she had it coming, but it's never a great moment when karma catches up to you.

------------------


“The deal is that they walk out.  They are free.  They have no pre-existing bonds to any of the corporations or to any government agency.  Nothing.  They... they just walk away."

"I expect they will need to be counseled, extensively, before they are ready to walk anywhere."

"We tell them as best we can what happened at Niantic and afterwards.  We tell them what happened to them.  We tell them about recursion...

"And how you’re going to try to get them back to their bodies?”

"I'll never stop trying."

“All this for nothing.”

“We go on doing what we do, you and I.  They have a chance to walk away.  They’ve given up an unimaginable amount.  They’ve given up years.  They are going to be confused and disoriented.  They are going to have holes in their lives.  We did this to them.  We’re hitting the big ‘undo’ button.” Hank met her eyes.

Jahan looked at him.  He was decided.  There wasn’t going to be a negotiation.  She thought of a hundred ways to try and work around them and knew that none of them would work.  “We won’t be able to control the corporations.”

“The good news is that none of them know anything that isn’t three years old.  If some of these folks want to return and continue research, they can do so, obviously.  We are out of the way.”  He smiled.  “Do we have a deal or don’t we?  And you don’t have the option of reneging on it.  The Azmati pact travels with me now.”

If she gave her word, it would be her bond.  In truth, 'controlling' the researchers at this point was a matter of semantics... they had been shaped by their time in the Portal Network.

She assented.

He produced the Wind Jewel.  The real one. 

He traced the familiar Glyphs... it began to glow.

The portal opened.  There, suspended in a place between the dimensions, they saw the Investigators laid out in the Abaddon Chamber.  It was as unlike the 13MAGNUS Nest in Afghanistan as it could possibly be.  Harsh.  Scientific.  Metal.  Sterile.  Gleaming and glowing with newness and every technological tool Calvin could get his hands on.  But it served the exact same purpose. 

There they were, laid out in a circle.508681705618641906192919497254845687

Calvin was amongst them. 

“What are you going to tell them?” Jahan asked.

“Nothing.  Calvin is.  He’s going to tell them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

"And after?"1907171607060408064407505037060408060505082109

"It's going to be an interesting day, Jahan." Hank looked down at the glowing spiral in his hands, then up at Jahan.  He knew she could feel it too.

The Wind Jewel began to grow warm.

The energy was palpable, blinding.  They shielded their eyes... Hank thought he felt the room shake. 

Then, quiet and cold.  The background hum of stubborn machinery.

There standing beside the long tables, some staring in confusion at 'themselves,' were the researchers.

All save one.33424b4e334245594f4e44f4e3342384a

------------------

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Ghost Town



She had heard of this place a thousand times.  She had seen drawings.  She had meditated on it, seen it in sharp focus through her mind's eye.  But actually being here was utterly different.  The XM flow was supercharged, tingling with an energy she had never felt before, like stinging spices, simultaneously painful and stimulating.  Dangerous.  This is where it had all happened.gs4c2aeponal6gdo8h

There was no sign that read ‘Niantic Project,' but the familiar blue logo appeared on sheets of paper littered throughout the facility and on occasional monitors which glowed like apparitions on walls and desks, automatically waking as she passed by them, then once again resuming their slumber.
 
The place felt haunted.  People had experienced something terrible here.  The original researchers were sentenced to a kind of death and placed in a Nest in a secret laboratory below the building.  A Nest that was only accessible by one possessing a Primal Object, like the Wind Jewel Jahan carried with her.  They had been turned into Simulacra by Calvin.  He had done it to himself, as well.

But there was something more than that...  the ghostly feeling extended further.  There were other dead here, too.  She had heard the stories about the chaos surrounding the body of Roland Jarvis.

She hadn’t known what to expect when she entered this hallowed ground.  Would the facility be guarded by HAZDATA guards playing out some government contract issued by Congressman Dasher?  Did the NIA or 13MAGNUS leave a trap for her?  Would they be lying in wait?  She didn’t know.  She had prepared for everything.  

Thus far, the building was empty, as if everybody had fled after the showdown between HAZDATA and the Corporations, like children fleeing a haunted house.  There was yellow tape in various areas from some investigation that had followed Epiphany Night.  She passed the project work area where Oliver-Lynton Wolfe’s exploding Power Cube had triggered the event, Enoch Dalby’s musical instruments, Carrie Campbell’s scrawlings over walls and floor.  At the time, nobody knew how valuable and prophetic they would be. A notebook lay on the ground nearby. Lightman's early attempts to decipher Carrie's Glyphs.w,yfm4u1pxr1rbf0n

She looked up at the crow’s nest where Calvin supervised his project.  The window was shattered.  She didn’t know when or how that had happened.

There was Henry Bowles' office where early work on ADA had been carried out and Richard Loeb’s area where ADA had begun to become truly sentient.  She saw the hat stand in the corner. His fabled gypsy fedora wasn’t there, of course.

Chapeau worried her.  She had considered having him killed or captured, but something told her not to.  Instinct.  Or maybe a distant voice.

She descended deep into the building and reached the lowest known floor, following the long dark tunnels using the map from Calvin's files.  She crossed dozens of nondescript doors before she saw it.  It was ordinary.  Just another door, nestled between some kind of hardware storage room and a room that seemed to contain some HVAC machinery.  ABADN.  She smiled.  At this very moment, Agents were battling around the world, in Okinawa, Milan, Oakland and a dozen other cities, but she stood alone in the epicenter.  She withdrew the Wind Jewel that Hank Johnson had pried from the hands of Quetzalcoatl Guzman days before and traced the Glyph pattern. 

Nothing happened.

She tried again, her brow furrowed. This didn't make sense.

Then she realized the truth.

Hank Johnson.

She had fallen for the oldest trick in the book.  She felt blood begin to pump in her forehead and cheeks.4tju7ibsehgyibn9,6n

He had switched the stone.  Probably with a forgery that he’d found in the dead Azmati’s cache.

Damn him.  Damn him.  She began to laugh, hearing it echo sharply down the long bare tunnels.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Last Piece

Sometimes it just comes down to a single die roll.

Phillips was confident that Bowles had pulled it off.  ADA was dead, whatever that means to a computational intelligence. Her ghostly voice would still play in the Scanner, helping the unwitting Ingress ‘Agents’ collect XM, but for all intents and purposes, she was dead.  Really dead this time, not just cordoned off somewhere, hiding in a Los Alamos supercomputer cluster.  Dead.7r2kpn78oecy4t


And from what he could tell, pacing through the control room, avoiding the corpses of a pair of dead techs and their expanding pools of blood, Bowles had done something else, too.  He’d tricked 855 into putting on the helmet.  855 seemed inert, a zombie. A slow trickle of saliva was running down the left side of his chin.  Phillips saw an opportunity here... An opportunity to undo so much, to hit the big reset.  If 855 were also dead, two of his primary problems would be gone, whoosh, vanished. He could breathe freely for the first time in over three years.  And he would have Omnivore. Free of the burden of containing ADA’s near constant expansion, the system could be pushed to its true potential.  And he would have the NIA. A shell of its former self, but still, he would have it. Unfettered by ADA or 855, he could rebuild.  


The trouble would stop.ec81225a6c9f77c62d7f574cbb59d5d12eyq7z5x4m


The fear would stop.


The stinking, paralyzing feeling of hiding and constantly fixing the damage from the nightmare that the Niantic Project had been.

If he killed them, he would have some explaining to do, but he was good at that. You don’t make it this high in the NIA without knowing how to talk yourself out of a corner.  And besides, if he went down, a lot of secrets spilled.  It wasn’t in anybody’s interest – even Ken Owen’s, to see him go all the way down.


All he had to do was get across the room, seize 855’s gun and kill them both.


But that would only work if 855 really was a zombie.


He had to know how much control Bowles had over 855. 


Bowles looked up. Their eyes met, and for a second, Phillips could hardly recognize him. There was something different in Bowles’ eyes.  What was it? Power. For the first time in his life, this code-jockey controlled killing power. Or was it fear?  Did he know what Phillips was about to do?


Phillips couldn’t tell, but instinct kicked in.  Long dormant instinct from his military days, from his wet ops days.


He made his move.


He rolled the die.


His last piece was in play.










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Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Scars that Remain


Bowles savored the feeling of knowing something, of understanding something, that was out of 855’s league. It was a nice change of pace after Australia and everything that had followed. His answer was almost cocky in its brevity: “She will be absent.”
 
“Not good enough.” 855’s similarly clipped response served as a biting reminder to Bowles of who actually held the power in the room.01383126092822351437251412391307230945
 
Bowles tried again. “Think of it as being like what happened with Jimmy Hoffa,” he said, referring to the decades-old case of a Teamster boss who had mysteriously disappeared and, despite years of investigation and even a couple of confessions, whose body had never been found.
 
“Still not good enough,” 855 responded in that cold, methodical voice that Bowles had been hearing for too many months now.

“Eight...” Bowles had taken to calling him that, despite many threats and protests. “There isn’t some CSI team who gets called in here to examine ADA’s corpse and identify the time of death. She is a virtual intelligence. We can’t know if she’s died...we don’t even know what it means for an A.I. to be dead.”
 
“So she could fake it.” 855 let the statement hang in the air, somehow serving as a criticism of Bowles and his plan.
 
Bowles wasn’t fazed. “Maybe Jim Morrison faked it, but since there haven’t been any Doors albums with him singing since he allegedly died, we have a pretty good confirmation of his absence, if not his death...”
 
“So how’s it happen?”
 
“It will happen in a microsecond... and then spread through the rest of the network in... maybe minutes. Then, she will simply not exist. I mean, it’s hard to prove that things don’t exist. Parts of ADA will appear to live on after her death, as well. Ingress Agents will probably be unaware of her death for some time. Her voice will still be there. She’ll still say things like, ‘I was getting worried about you...’ But those will just be the shadows. No more a representation of her than your bootprints are of you.”
 
“You still haven’t answered my question. How will I know when she’s dead?”
 
“You’re welcome to monitor the release as it happens from where I’m standing... but that’s not what you want.”

855 stared coolly at Bowles.

“You don’t just want her dead. You want her out. You want the scars she left inside you when she tried to break in to fade away. I think that’ll happen too, when she goes dark. But if that’s what you want, you’ll have to put on the helmet and get wired in.”
 
“No. Reminds me too much of being in that hospital. Her trying to get inside of me the first time...”
 
“So you’re afraid of it.”
 
“I’m not afraid of anything. I thought you’d have figured that out by now. But I am cautious. There’s a difference. What if your plan doesn’t work.”
 
Bowles smiled almost imperceptibly. The power plays were getting exhausting, but at least 855 was fairly predictable. “Actually, you’re very afraid of ADA; isn’t that why you want to kill her? I mean, you probably just think you’re angry with her, but anger is a composite emotion made up of surprise and fear. We’re just like wild animals when we’re cornered, Eight... we hide behind our anger and hope nobody sees the truth. So maybe anger is your defense mechanism, but by definition, you’re only angry because you’re afraid of her.”
 
855 looked at him, his face somewhere between “annoyed” and “seething,” and Bowles knew he’d struck precisely the nerve he was aiming for. 855 took the bait: “Give it to me.”
 
“Just once, can you just ask politely?”
 
“Or what?”
 
“Not ‘or’ anything. I just want you to ask me politely.” At this point, Bowles knew he was pushing it, but he also knew that 855 needed him to pull this whole thing off, and that despite his critical tone, he knew Bowles would succeed.
 
855 stared at him, his eyes cold but his mouth slowly curling into a frown. For a fraction of a second, Bowles thought he could read something in 855's eyes that he had never seen before: Vulnerability. “Please let me have the helmet.”
 
“Sit down and put this on." Bowles said dryly, handing 855 the helmet and then assisting him in getting it set up correctly. As soon as it was, Bowles clicked a couple of keys and waited for the show to begin. He could see the dull flashes from the Glyph sequence flashing before 855's eyes. He smiled.
 
855’s face twisted in surprise and pain. “What the hell?! She’s... I feel her again. What did you just do to me?” He rose and took a step towards Bowles.
 
“Sit back down.”

“You don’t give orders,” 855 snarled. “She’s saying to kill you, and I think I agree.” He reached up towards the helmet to tear it off.
 
There was something profoundly satisfying about the mixture of rage, confusion and -- of course -- fear that was contorting 855’s face. Bowles paused for a microsecond, savoring it. He’d been planning this moment for months; he’d set the trap and 855 had fallen into it. And with a single keystroke, 855 dropped to the floor like a marionette that’d just had its strings cut. The visor on the front of the helmet cracked, but that wouldn't be a problem. It had done its job.  
 
“Ouch...that must’ve hurt, Eight. Sorry. There’s still a lot to learn about how to run the interface ADA made inside you.” He frowned as soon as he said it; he probably should have come up with something a little more intimidating. But now wasn’t the time for witty repartee. He glanced at the monitors around him. “Looks like ADA knows something's about to go very wrong... she’s maxed her replication rate. Better do this fast.” He executed another command. He thought he felt the temperature rise in the room as the processors inside Omnivore’s local nodes began their inexorable task, spreading their work orders outwards through the network, to Omnivore's data centers around the world, and from there into every connected device where a fragment of ADA lay awake in the background. Or maybe that sudden warmth he felt was just the nerves and the excitement.
 
The expression on 855’s face changed suddenly, shifting from defensive rage to a kind of wonderment. “Gone. Like a person...” He looked up at Bowles through the crack in the visor. “There’s always that moment... that sort of mystical moment, when you’re strangling somebody and then, all of a sudden, you feel life leaving them. You can feel their soul leaving. It’s like that... She’s gone.”
 
“She’s gone, Eight, but the interface she made... those scars in your brain. I think I’m going to keep them around. Maybe use them for a while.”89666999-99-999664446633-3388866655588-8444666-66433444-4-4487-777744499777
 
855 didn’t respond.





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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Absent

Henry Bowles had once participated in a think tank that asked a deceptively simple question: Do computer crimes leave the same kinds of forensic evidence as physical crimes? The point was to figure out whether we were at all equipped for the brave new world of cybercrime, or if we were going to have to start rethinking the tools (and even the metaphors) being used. For example, what are the digital equivalents of fingerprints? Do cybercriminals “stage” scenes the way bank robbers do, or match certain profiles in the same way that serial killers do? Are the weapons used to commit virtual crimes as traceable as bullets and candlesticks? For that matter, what’s the crime scene in a cybercrime?

Five years ago, all of this had seemed like the kind of pointless, speculative enterprise of interest only to the eggheads living on the porous border between academia and intelligence. Now the specter of cybercrime was a whole lot more relevant--and had, of course, been co-opted by primetime television. Still, Bowles couldn’t help but smirk to himself as he realized that there was one question nobody at the think tank had thought to ask: Was it possible to commit virtual murder?rreacjrnzeftgrr

He checked his watch. With any luck, he’d be in a position to answer that question in a little over ten minutes. There would be no blood, no body, and no death certificate, yet Henry Bowles was nonetheless in the process of committing the first actual cyber murder in history.

The target was A Detection Algorithm, also known as ADA.

The crime scene was the basement of the National Intelligence Agency headquarters in Washington, DC, on a hot night in July of 2015.

The murder weapon was a combination of some particularly virulent code that Bowles had written during his months of confinement with 855, delivering a modified version of something his old buddy H. Richard Loeb (aka P. A. Chapeau) had provided--a bit of programming that, incidentally, had helped create the monster that ADA became. 

The assassin was Omnivore, a massive anti-crime, anti-terrorism snoop machine created in the wake of 9/11 and vastly upgraded over the years that followed. 

Bowles was the man who set the hit in motion, which made him some sort of cyber-mafia Don. Of course, he was acting at the behest of 855, who was probably going to kill him if he failed.

855 wasn’t the type to get chatty before a hit, but this also wasn’t exactly a normal job for him. “So how do we know when she’s dead?”

Bowles savored the feeling of knowing something, of understanding something, that was out of 855’s league. It was a nice change of pace after Australia and everything that had followed. His answer was almost cocky in its brevity: “She will be absent.”














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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Expected Visitors

I had not planned on coming forward with these writings at this time, however, once again it seems that circumstances have forced my hand. I make no claims as to their veracity. -FHL


===========================================================


10PM EST:  NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DC HQ - 7TH FLOOR


Most guys lie to their wives about working late, but that wasn’t going to work for Jay Phillips.  He wasn’t even married, and besides, he’d be lying to himself and that would look bad in the yearly psych review.  


The half-lie he was telling himself was that he had a lot of work to catch up on.  


The truth was that he was hiding in his office on the seventh floor of the NIA building in Arlington, Virginia. The truth was that he hadn’t left the building and its bulletproof windows with blast-resistant curtains for five days. He didn’t mind all that much; he was fine sleeping on his office couch and using the gym for showers, the local dry cleaners as a closet, and the NIA coffee shop as a kitchen.  


Why did he even need his overpriced, cookie-cutter condominium in Tysons Corner, anyway? 


This quasi-fugitive way of life started when an unattributed tip pinged his phone, saying that he was being hunted. Then the tipster said who the hunter was, and Jay Phillips fet a part of his spine tingle that he hadn't felt in a very long time.


855...what kind of guy goes by a number and no name? A scary, psycho hitman who seemed to enjoy his work too much. The NIA had used 855 in the past, but they took him off their list when it became apparent that even they didn’t know his real identity. 


And, of course, his name--or number, rather--had cropped up again when that pain-in-the-ass rogue A.I., ADA, hacked into his brain, after a botched attempt on Loeb and some puzzle genius who went by the name of Klue. Come to think of it, Phillips didn’t have a real ID on Klue, either.  


Ironically, among the piles of paper on his desk that were part of the work he was pretending to be catching up on was an article titled “Identity: What is it and does it matter?” It was some brainiac crap out of IQTech. The writer, Robert Ferris, was a typical fledgling analyst who’d been introduced to Phillips as “Bobby” and seemed like he was about 19 years old, Ivy League but with something shady lurking under the surface. There was a game Phillips played with himself when meeting somebody--”What is this person hiding?”--but he hadn’t been able to figure out what kind of skeletons were in Bobby’s closet.


With the exception of this skeleton-excavation exercise (which was really more of a defense mechanism than anything else), Phillips didn’t play a lot of mind games. He prided himself on being a bare-knuckle, blue-collar guy, which also meant that papers like Bobby’s just gave him a headache. He never was a good reader.


Predation, however, was a totally different story. Five years ago, he would have relished the idea of counter-hunting 855. He knew exactly how he’d do it, too. He’d assume that 855 had all the info on him and was maybe even getting updates from ADA, who might or might not still be living in his brain. The reports said she wasn’t, but Phillips learned long ago to assume that your worst fears are right.  


Hunting 855. Laying traps and setting blinds. Using his intel against him. It was an appealing option, and Phillips had entertained the notion for a few hours after he got the tip, but that was also a young man’s game. Much as he hated to admit it, a glimpse of himself in the steamed-up mirror at the gym reminded Phillips that he definitely wasn’t a young man. He wasn’t old and he hadn’t gone to flab, but he didn’t have the edge anymore. 


Phillips had spent too many of his days sitting in a chair, dealing with a very different kind of animal in the form of Ken Owen--as cunning as anything he’d run into out in the field. He’d actually considered arranging an accident for Owens, one of his “designer jobs,” but he couldn’t shake a bad feeling he had about the whole ordeal...as though somehow, even if he were successful, the trail would lead right back to him.


So he didn’t have a plan for how to deal with Owens, and he didn’t have a plan for what to do about 855. For five days, he’d tried to force his brain to concentrate on something...anything other than being afraid. He hadn’t had much luck. Tonight wasn’t any better.


He heard footsteps in the hallway. Cleaning didn’t usually come in this early. 


Something was wrong.


The muzzle of the Desert Eagle looked like one of those old-fashioned keyholes, with a big circle up top and a triangular opening down below. Fitting, really: If its owner pulled the trigger, it would open the doorway to eternity. Phillips was mesmerized by the gun, or at least how it looked when pointed directly between his eyes. That wasn’t like him. It didn’t even look that much like a keyhole, but for some reason, in the face of near-certain death, he was thinking poetically. Happened to him in combat, too.  


The man behind the
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gun was 855. He wasn’t saying much, so Phillips started the conversation. “Let me guess: You’re pissed off because we haven’t been using you lately.”


“I thought you were going to ask me how I got in here.”


“Bowles, you can come in out of the hallway,” Phillips said.  


He expected to see Henry Bowles emerge like a child coming out from behind his mother’s skirt, but he didn’t. He was actually taller than 855 and surprisingly formidable for a tech nerd. He looked like a video game character rendered into real life. His hair was close cut in what they used to call a scalping when Phillips was a kid. Now it’d become hipster chic.


“Hey Jay. How’s it going?” 


Was this kid for real? Phillips thought. How’s it look like it’s going? I’ve got a half-whacked spree killer pointing a gun at me. What he decided to say was only slightly less sarcastic. “Never been better, Henry. What brings you fine gents into my office today? Anybody need some water, coffee?” There was actually some sincerity buried beneath the sarcasm; Phillips had the distinct feeling that they weren’t really there to kill him. They had another agenda, and he was beginning to suspect what it was. He still wasn’t sure of one thing, though: who was the ventriloquist and who was the dummy.


855 spoke. “I’m not here to kill you. Insulting as it might sound, you’re not on anybody’s hit list.”


Bowles chimed in. “We actually need your help.  Truth is, you’ll benefit too.”


“Glad to be of assistance,” Phillips responded as 855 came around to where he was half-cowering behind his desk, stood him up, patted him down, seated him in his chair--an old Aeron that he never could get to work right--and rolled the chair opposite the couch.


As 855 put his gun away, Bowles pulled a note out of his pocket and handed it to Phillips. “Read this in a way that’ll keep it from getting picked up on any cameras.”


Phillips unfolded the message.


He looked at the three letters, A, D and A again. Then, he nodded, crumpled the paper and swallowed it.


"Alright guys, lets play."







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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Adapt or Die

“My god...”, she said as she rushed toward him.  She tried to hug him, but then realized her wrists were still tied together.

Henry Bowles looked at 855.  The assassin gave him a nod and tossed a Leatherman tool towards him, and Bowles quickly pulled the edge of its blade through Devra’s restraints.

“I don’t understand,” Devra said.  

“We’ve been tracking you since Shanghai.  Before, actually,” Henry said.  

“You... you are working with... him... now?”, she asked.  

“Okay, two things,” 855 said.  “One, I’m right here, and two, I just saved your skin.”

“Sorry,” Devra said.  “It’s all just so... so, unexpected.”

“I’ll give you that,” the assassin said.  “Tell her, Henry.”  

Henry Bowles moved toward Devra.  

“ADA got in his head. Deep in, and she did some pretty serious damage while she was in there.  He wanted me to get her out by killing her.  Which is impossible.  But I figured I still might be able to change her, and help him.  Both of which take time.  As for ADA.  She’s out in the world now.  Hard to find.  And that bought me a month, then two, then another...”

“He grew on me. Never had a sidekick,” 855 said, a smirk crossing his face.  

“Adapt or die, huh?”, Farlowe said to the man that killed him.  

“Adapt or die.”

“What do you want?”, Devra asked 855, though Bowles answered.  

“It has to do with Epiphany Night.  Back at CERN,” he said.  

“That feels so long ago,” Devra replied, almost to herself.

“Something happened to you all,” 855 told her.  

“Of course it did.  I was there.  Something did happen, and I haven’t been the same since.”

“Truer words than you know, doc.  See, when ADA got inside my head, I was just a test run.  You were supposed to be the target, but at some point she changed her mind,” 855 said.    

“What?  How do you know this?”, Devra asked.  

“Since I woke up from my coma, I’ve remembered everything I ever did.  I don’t mean I can recall things.  I mean I remember everything.  Every day.  Every conversation.  Every word.  Every breath.  Every kill.  Every meal.  Every face.” 

“She overclocked his brain. Broke its ability to categorize and prioritize,” Bowles said.  

“It was driving me insane,” 855 continued.  “But Henry made me realize that I could turn this gift, if you can call it that, into an advantage.”

“I helped program ADA.  So I approached his mind as if he was a computer,” Henry said.  

“Henry taught me how to think like a machine,” the assassin replied. “That kept me sane.  And kept him alive.”  

Devra nodded.  She was breathing easier now.  But as she watched the flaming wreckage in the distance, and the blood flowing from the bodies near her feet, she knew that there was more.  

“What does this have to do with me and Farlowe?”, she asked.  

“Farlowe?  Not much, but you like him, so I see no reason to waste a bullet.”

“Thanks,” Farlowe said.  It didn’t sound like he meant it.  “And those don’t work on me anymore.”  

“Looks like Smith found something that does, though,” the assassin replied.

Farlowe grimaced and nodded.  A dangerous development.  “We need to get scarce.”

Henry nodded and walked to what was once the angry Hulong man.  He dug around in the man’s pocket until he found the keys to the SUV.  He pulled them out and showed them to 855.  

“Let’s go.”

“Don’t you have a vehicle?” Devra asked.

855 pushed the button on a small remote he had in his hand.  When did that get there, she wondered.  There was a distant boom and flash.  A moment later, she could see smoke rising in the distance.  

“Not anymore. Try to keep things fresh.” 855 replied.  “Farlowe, you good to get into this truck?”

“Screw you,” Hubert smiled.  

“Oh, this is going to be road trip for the ages,” 855 said.  “Henry, you drive. We’ve got a few hours before we need to burn that ride.”

“Got it,” Bowles replied.  

Devra and 855 moved toward the SUV.  

“You still haven’t said what you want with me,” Devra said to 855.  

“When ADA left me, she made a mistake.  ADA’s been keeping secrets, doc.  Lots of them.  And she left one behind.  With me."

"You know that thing about gazing into the abyss?", Bowles said.

"Henry showed me how to weed out the clutter and bring it forward.  He taught me how to think like her.”  

“And you know this secret?”

“Yes.”

“And it involves me?”

“You.  And the others.”

“So what is it, exactly?”, Devra asked.  

“You’re going to have earn that answer, doc.  But I can promise you it will be worth it,” the assassin smiled as he opened the rear passenger door.  Farlowe was leaning against the opposite side of the vehicle, waiting for her cue.

Henry Bowles watched her through the rear view mirror as he started the SUV.  

Devra looked at the destruction and death around her, and the destruction and death that was holding open the door, offering her a debt she had no idea how she was going to repay.  She didn’t think long as she climbed inside the vehicle.  Farlowe quickly followed.

“Well alright, then,” 855 said as he slammed the door shut.








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Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Experts

As the dust settled around them, a figure stepped through cloud, moving toward them both.  A ghost.  A demon.  The angel of death.  

Devra realized they had met before.  

855 lowered the 45 automatic in his hand toward his side.  

“You must have a lot of conflicting emotions right about now,” he said.  

Devra and Farlowe both stood in silent shock.  

“Okay, I’ll admit that no one is ever happy to see me, but I mean, come on.  That was pretty good.  Farlowe?”

“Impressive, no doubt,” Farlowe replied.  

Devra found her voice.  

“What are you doing here?”, she asked the assassin.  

“Not killing you, surprisingly,” 855 smiled.  As he moved closer, she could see he had grown different since their last encounter.  He was bald now.  His face was covered in stubble.  He looked more fit than before, if that was possible.  A human chameleon.  He was wearing a khaki shirt and pants, as if he was a tourist on an outback safari.

“You’ve changed,” she said.

“So have you.”

“What do you want?”, Devra asked.  She was getting over the shock of the explosion and of the sudden appearance of the man who once almost took her life.  

“You, obviously.  You both, actually.  You’re going to join my team while you’re repaying this favor.”

“I thought you worked alone?”, Farlowe coughed out.  

“True.  Until recently, that was correct.  But you think I could do that?” 855 said as he gestured to the smoking, fiery debris that was once one of the world’s largest mining truck.  “I mean, security systems, no problem.  But hack a drone?  Especially one of Hulong’s, which is basically built to Chinese military specs.  Nope.  For that you need an expert.  Fortunately, I have one.”

“Hello, Dr. Bogdanovich”, a voice said from behind them.  

Devra turned to see a man walking toward them.  He had two portable computer cases with him, both slung over his shoulder.  He carried a large backpack over the other.  A long antenna extended out from it.

“Henry?”, Devra mouthed in shock.  

“As you can see, I didn’t kill him,” 855 said, sounding almost surprised himself at the revelation.

“Turns out being an expert is a remarkably good way to stay alive.” Henry Bowles smiled.


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The Angel of Death

“Your play?”, Devra asked. 

“Coming out of nowhere.  And now, that’s where we are both going, doc,” Hubert coughed.  

“Think so?  Because I don’t, Hubert.  You’re proof that there is more to life and death than we could have imagined.  I don’t fear dying... not anymore.   I fear failure.  That is my biggest regret.  That we will be face down in the sand while the world burns.  And it will burn, Hubert.  Of that, I am sure.”

Devra looked at the angry Hulong man.  He was on his phone.  His gestures were animated.  
Occasionally, he looked upward, toward the blinding blue sky.    

She followed his gaze.  Lifting her bound hands, she tried to cover the sun from her eyes.  High above, there was a small dot, circling.  

“You know if Australia has vultures?”, she asked Hubert.  

“I don’t know.  Probably.  Every other animal on this continent has evolved to kill and eat you.  Got to believe there are a few scavengers out there among the wolves,” Hubert said.      

“Sometimes the wolves fly,” Devra whispered.  As the dot circled, it descended closer.  The wings were too straight from the body to be a bird.  Farlowe looked up to where Devra was staring.    

“Drone.”

“Yeah.  Spectators.”

“Smith and friends.”

“Expecting that show we were talking about...”, Devra said.  

“Yeah.  Wish we could give them one,” Farlowe smiled.  For a man approaching unspeakable horror, he seemed content.  

The angry Hulong man approached them, nodding to the others.  

“Get them on their feet”, he said to the guards.  

The men dragged both Devra and Farlowe up against the SUV.  The angry Hulong man got in Farlowe’s face.    

“You can walk,” he said.  It didn’t sound like a question.  

“Can.  But won’t,” Farlowe said as the drone circled above, dropping closer still.  It was dull grey.  The gyro stabilized camera in its nose was tracking them now, and Farlowe could see it rotating.   

“Slap me around a little if you need to.  I’d hate for the cheap seats to not get their money’s worth,” Farlowe said.  

The man complied, punching Farlowe in the stomach.  Farlowe doubled over.  

“Stop it!”, Devra screamed.

All of the Hulong men laughed at her.  

The drone flew closer, its engine now audible.  

Devra reached out for Farlowe.   

“They won’t kill us yet, Devra.  They have a plan.  And orders from Smith.  Guaranteed,” he whispered.    

The angry Hulong man’s phone suddenly rang.  He picked it up.  Devra watched him nodding.  
“Eye in the sky.  Smith telling him not to harm the merchandise,” Farlowe continued.

From the angry Hulong man’s reaction, Farlowe knew he was right.  

The drone overhead was low now, no more than a couple of hundred feet.  It circled in a lazy arc and then zoomed right over them.  

“Time to go.  Walk or we will drag you,” the angry Hulong man said to Devra and Farlowe.  

“I’ll help you,” Devra told Farlowe.  

“Okay”, he replied.

“Which way?  Where are we going?”, Devra asked.  

“There is a contamination control building right near the entrance to the pit.  Move.  Now.   And I would remind you not to try anything stu...”

The angry Hulong man stopped mid-sentence as the drone passed directly over his head.  Close enough that instinctively, everyone ducked, including Devra and Farlowe. 

The drone made a hard turn and flew straight toward the massive three story mining truck.  

A split second later, it impacted with the vehicle, hitting it directly in its huge grill.  The fireball of the explosion was followed almost instantaneously by a shock wave that covered them all in a choking red dust.   

If you didn’t count the driver of the mining truck, the two junior level Hulong men were the first to die.  One’s head exploded before he could cough up the particles attacking his lungs.  The second had only a moment to register that in addition to dust, he was being sprayed by the inside of his associate’s head when his also was ripped from his neck by a .45 round.  

The Angry Hulong man watched both headless bodies fall toward the ground before his view was completely obscured by the cloud of sand and dust.  

Devra and Farlowe both put their hands up toward their faces as the fast moving dust hit them, stinging exposed flesh.  Through the chaos, Devra heard a scream.  The Angry Hulong man.  His voice panicked, in pain, then silenced.  

As the dust settled around them, a figure stepped through cloud, moving toward them both.  A ghost.  A demon.  The angel of death.  

Devra realized they had met before.  


















Thursday, January 29, 2015

Centerstage

“What did you do to him?”, the Hulong man asked in a voice that only partially hid his concern.  

“Nothing.  He was sitting there, anticipating being able to watch this little show you are about to put on, then he slumped forward.  Maybe it was all the excitement,” Devra replied.  

The Hulong man touched his fingers to the unconscious mining truck driver’s neck, looking for a pulse.    

“Lucky for you he’s still alive...”

“Lucky for me?  Or what, exactly?”

“Shut up.”

The man slammed the driver’s door of the control cabin shut and moved around to the passenger side.  He angrily pulled it open and practically yanked Devra from her seat.  

“Walk,” the Hulong man ordered.  

“Sure.  Why not?”, Devra replied.  With her hands zip-tied in front of her, she had to be careful as she navigated the stairs down from the front of the truck to the ground below.  Two stories down.  

And nowhere to go but lower.  

As Devra’s foot reached the hard earth, she squared herself and began walking toward the SUV where two other Hulong men had Hubert Farlowe propped up against the side of the vehicle.

“Hubert... you don’t look so good,” Devra told him as she approached.  

Hubert Farlowe forced a smile.  “At this point, what does it matter?”

He was right, of course.  Devra realized that she was fast approaching death.  And in a way that Devra still couldn’t explain, she knew that Hubert was already there.  

The angry Hulong man stepped up behind Devra.  He called out to his associates.  

“Watch them both.  And when I say watch them both, your eyes stay locked on them.  Clear?”

The men nodded.  Satisfied, the angry Hulong man stepped away.  Devra studied her captors.  Chinese nationals by the looks of it.  Ex-military.  Merciless.  Men who would have intimidated her only a few years ago.  Now they irritated her.  They let go of Farlowe and stepped a few steps away from him.  

His feet no longer able to hold his weight, he collapsed down near the back tire of the SUV.  

Devra moved to him and pulled his face out of the dirt. 

Looking at the Hulong men, she saw they were more amused than concerned.     

“This is funny to you, huh?”

Neither one answered.  

“Because the driver of that truck thought this was funny too.  He’s not laughing now,” Devra spat out the words.  

The Hulong men looked at each other and took a few steps back.  They looked toward the cabin of the truck.  Through the glass, both could see the top of the driver’s head, his face on the steering wheel.  He wasn’t moving.  Without realizing it, both reflexively reached for their weapons.    

“I’m in their heads,” Devra thought.   

What good would it do she couldn’t yet figure out, but she felt a pang of satisfaction.  A few years ago, she wouldn’t have been capable of being this intimidating.  Now with ADA’s help, she had the Hulong men questioning their situation.    

“Hubert, I told you not to follow me.  Why didn’t you listen?”, Devra asked him. 

“I tried.  But I guess since the cave, I’ve been a moth to your flame.”  Hubert smiled again.  

“What happened to you?”, she asked.  

“Dark XM.”  

She knew the answer before he said it.  “This is a Hulong mining operation.  Must be one of their largest deposits.  What happened to you... Exotic Matter makes it possible.  Now we are both being dosed with its opposite,” she replied.

“Yeah.  Smith hit me with some sort of weaponized version of it. “

“Where is he now?”

“Smith?  Don’t know.  He turned me over to these clowns and left.  Best guess, he is a safe distance away from whatever is about to happen.  But I guarantee you he is watching.”

“No doubt.  You and I are expected to put on quite a show,” Devra said.  

“I’m already on stage...”

Devra looked at the man who once was supposed to take her life, and then in the process of trying to save it had been transformed into something else.  Now, because of his concern for her, he was suffering.  And she wasn’t sure that his suffering would ever end.   

“I’m sorry, Hubert.  I’m truly sorry about... everything.”

“I know.  My fault, though.  Should have anticipated this, but Smith’s trap came out of nowhere.  Ticked me off, because that’s my play,” Hubert laughed, and then began to cough.  

“Your play?”, Devra asked. 

“Coming out of nowhere.  And now, that’s where we are both going, doc,” Hubert coughed.  











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