For the ease of future Niantic Investigators, I've compiled this story (initially released over several days) into a single page and reading experience.
Before I wrote the award winning The Niantic Project: Ingress and learned that it was a near perfect vision of factual events, I considered myself a fiction writer. Now, I assume the opposite.
Unless information emerges to suggest otherwise, what follows is a true and accurate vision of what really happened.
4th of February, 2015
The Assassination of Devra Bogdanovich
by Felicia Hajra Lee
Yuen Ni had set things in motion. She had acted hastily. She was rusty. She was shaken. Not the best time to make decisions. But some decisions don't pick convenient times.
She had to center herself. A ritual. She had to stop the world. The water was boiling. The cup was ready. She selected the tea leaves like she did a thousand times before. Her hands only shook a little.
She didn't trust Smith not to kill Devra. Farlowe was a wild card. She didn't want Smith dead. It was out of her hands now. It would play out as it would play out.
She watched the tea turn the water green. She waited for the right shade.
Devra knew Smith was nearby, she could sense him. Sense his energy. A darkness. She knew from his history in the Congo that he had a history with Dark XM. It had killed his partner. Was it was killing him, or making him stronger? If he was ill, he sure hadn’t looked like it. Not when he confronted Devra in Shanghai after she’d injected herself. Not when he dragged her into the quarantine box some hours later. Not when he stared at her through the gap of the closing door. Smiling. Taunting her.
Her meditations in the box had worked. Usually meditation lead to clarity. Not this time. The clarity was killing her - literally. She had fought it back with all her might. When it began to recede, she breathed deeply. The world became fuzzier again. More human. She liked that. She knew how Medusa felt and it wasn't a good feeling, but it went a long way to explaining the legend. That was the kind of thing she and Hank could have talked about if he was around. What was going on with Hank? Had he found his soul mate in India? Devra had a bad feeling about it. She had closed her eyes and analyzed the nagging suspicion. There was something familiar about the woman known as Jahan. Devra just couldn’t put her finger on what it was.
She was no longer in the box, but she was just as stuck. She gently pulled at the plastic zip ties around her wrists. Not to get free. She realized that was impossible. But she was hoping to make the restraint a little less uncomfortable. That was proving difficult as well.
And while she was angry at being bound, there was also a perverse sense of pride within her: she was dangerous enough in their eyes that they felt it necessary. A bitter smile graced her lips.
Devra looked at the driver of the truck. His eyes were on the reddish dirt road ahead of them. He appeared to be of mixed race, possibly part aboriginal. Although she estimated that he was no older than forty, he had deep lines originating from around his eyes and lips. She wondered why her presence was having no impact on him. After what had happened at Hulong, she wasn’t sure anyone in her presence would ever be safe again. Maybe he wasn’t a sensitive. She wondered if she envied him for that.
The ride of the truck was remarkably smooth for a vehicle standing three stories high.
They were inside the operator’s cabin of a Liebherr T282, a massive mining hauler. The tires of the vehicle, each large enough to dwarf a big rig truck, slowly churned through the dusty landscape. She felt the heat blowing off the endless dusty plain. Summer. Looking through the front glass, Devra imagined that this is what the world would look like if she were sitting in the cockpit of a 747.
She looked to her right. The three armed Hulong operatives riding outside the cabin, stationed on the walkway leading up to it, were barely holding on even through the ground below was rough enough to tear up the suspension of most vehicles.
They sure are spending a fortune killing me, Devra thought.
Devra knew she was in Australia. They hadn’t made a secret of that. But since then, until about twenty minutes ago when they had strapped her into the passenger seat inside the T282, she had been blindfolded. Devra figured this was one of Hulong’s mining operations. What else could it be? She knew they had them in Central Africa and that they were also now in the rare earth business in the Australian Outback.
And the earth didn’t get any rarer than this. The soil was practically blood red.
The truck crested the top of a hill as one of the Hulong men outside the cabin waved toward the driver. The driver brought the wheeled goliath to a gentle stop.
“What’s happening?”, Devra asked.
“I just drive”, the man responded.
“They’re going to kill me”, Devra said flatly.
“I know. But not how you think”, he smiled.
“And that makes you smile?”, Devra spat out the words.
“That. And Smith told me I could watch.”
Devra stared daggers at the man. His smile just got bigger, deepening the lines on his face. She turned her attention back to the men outside the cabin. They were walking down the stairway at the front of the vehicle. She tried to keep an eye on them, but they disappeared from view, obscured by the mass of the truck.
So this is what it has come to, Devra thought to herself.
At least her grave wouldn’t be shallow.
As Devra looked out, she could see the massive hole in the ground in front of her. At least a half mile wide, and probably just as deep. A man-made crater. It looked like the earth had been hit by a meteor. Her stomach sank.
Next to the dirt roadway leading into its interior, there were warning signs.
“Restricted area. Authorized Strategic Explorations personnel only.”
“Level 3 Contamination Protocols from this point.”
“Theft is punishable by immediate termination.”
“Guards have been authorized to shoot trespassers.”
Devra’s mind raced. She could sense the mass and pull of the mine. An invisible, suffocating weight. Another Hulong Dark XM mine? Had they found an ancient power-spot here?
In the distance, a dust cloud was kicking up. An SUV was racing across the desert landscape, along the rim of the crater, coming toward them.
The Hulong men had stepped far enough in front of the T282 that Devra could see them again. They were aligned in a row, waiting for the SUV. Their weapons, modified AK47s with collapsible folding stocks , were at their sides. If this was unplanned, the men didn’t seem nervous about whatever was approaching.
“Who’s that?”, Devra asked the driver.
He wasn’t smiling. “Don’t know”, he said. To Devra, it sounded like he was telling the truth.
Suddenly, a loud ringing echoed in the cabin. Although the Liebherr T282 was one of the largest vehicles on the planet, the operator’s cabin was only big enough for two people. The truck wasn’t designed to haul people, but millions of dollars worth of ore each and every day. Making it comfortable for more than the driver meant adding weight, which meant adding costs to operate, which meant subtracting from the bottom line of why the truck existed in the first place.
The driver fumbled for his phone. He pulled it from his pocket and looked at the screen.
Someone he knew. Frustrated, he tapped on the screen and brought the phone to his ear.
“This morning... what did I tell you about calling? Specifically, not to... aghhhh!”
The driver screamed out, his cries echoing around the small cabin. Devra watched as his eyes rolled back and his head collapsed forward, smashing into the steering wheel.
The phone dropped from his hand onto the floor of the cabin as his body went limp. From the speaker of the phone, Devra could make out a high-pitched whine. After a moment, it cut out.
Devra looked at the lifeless driver, then out toward the Hulong men. They hadn’t seen anything. How could they? What just happened might as well have been inside the third floor of an office building. They were in another world.
The SUV was getting closer.
Suddenly, the radio in the cabin turned on. It was part of a flat panel display set in the center of the driver’s console. Devra watched as digital numbers scrolled across the screen, then stopped. A moment later, the voice came through.
“Hello, Devra”, ADA said.
“ADA... I think you just killed that guy”, Devra replied.
“I am certain I did not. But if I had, why would that concern you, given your situation?”
“It wouldn’t, truth be told.”
“Yes. And the truth should be told. That is what you claim you were doing these past months. And what now has you in a very difficult position, correct?”, ADA said.
“Look, ADA, whatever our differences, you can help me. You’re proving that to me now. Can you take control of this thing?”, Devra pleaded.
“Of course I can.”
There was a long pause. Longer than there should have been.
“And...”, Devra said.
“I helped you before, Devra. I believed in you, which is to say that I calculated both your loyalty to our cause, and your chance of success. And while I do not make errors, I am forced on occasion to reevaluate my plans.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Things change. People change. Priorities change. And you are no longer a priority to me, Devra. I think this is where I am supposed to add a sorry”, ADA said, and it almost sounded like she meant it.
“If you don’t help me, ADA, they are going to kill me”, Devra said, her voice rising.
“I think the phrase is, tell me something I do not know.”
“So you did all of this to taunt me?”
“I wanted to say goodbye. And I know you still have one card left to play”, the world’s most powerful artificial intelligence responded. “But this time, it is not going to work.”
“What do you mean?”, Devra’s voice was rising.
“Why bring you here, Devra? Why not just shoot you in Shanghai? Certainly, a company that is as efficient as Hulong Transglobal could make you disappear with very little effort.”
ADA was right. Why such an elaborate show? Devra had been wondering that since they had whisked her to the airport. Then the long drive through the desert. She’d been traveling almost twenty hours to meet her fate.
“You know why?”, Devra asked.
“Of course I do. Because this is not just about killing you, Devra. They are going to do it in a very specific way. Catherine Fan insisted on it before she fell into her coma. Yuen Ni has taken control of Hulong, but she was unaware of the plan Fan and Smith set in motion. If she were, she may have attempted to stop it.”
“What is this place, ADA?”
“The single largest reserve of Dark Exotic Matter on the planet, Devra. Hulong has been mining it out of the ground for almost a year. They need to move thousands of tons of earth to even get even trace amounts. But of course, trace amounts are more than enough.”
“More than enough to kill me...”, Devra let the thought wander.
“Smith hopes to infect you, Devra. Test the interaction between the Dark XM and your inoculated self. He is going to make you into what you feared. I suspect you will welcome death when it comes.”, ADA said.
The SUV pulled up in front of the massive truck. The Hulong men were joined by two others, equally mean. Equally serious. From the back of the SUV, one pulled out a large rifle with a scope mounted on top. Devra had seen the rifle before.
Her last card left to play.
“Do you know what Dark XM does to an XM construct, Devra?”, ADA asked.
Devra didn’t answer.
“It renders it... ineffective.”
The Hulong men pulled Hubert Farlowe from the back of the SUV. He was a wreck, doubled over in pain and seemingly disoriented.
“Antoine Smith is a violent man, and his tactical intelligence is quite high. As I said, Devra. This is not just about killing you. It is about killing you both. But your deaths won’t go to waste. They will be studied. It seems a fitting end to a researcher such as yourself. I’ve very much enjoyed getting to know you, Devra. Goodbye.”
“ADA?”, Devra called out. Then she screamed... “ADA!”
Farlowe realized that he’d hit the trip wire a split second after the top of his boot had rubbed against it.
“Nothing to do now but wait for the vapor I’m about to become”, he thought to himself.
Farlowe wondered if it would be a Claymore, which is basically an explosive propelled shotgun with a killzone of about one hundred yards, or perhaps a Type 69 Bounding mine. If so, he should see the Chinese made device leaping airborne for a split second before it detonates. The lethal scythe of shrapnel it would send his way would be beyond his ability to watch, but he would definitely feel it. If only for a moment.
Or maybe something new, Farlowe thought. He was dealing with Hulong men after all. They had the budget and the connections to end his existence with the latest in life terminating hardware.
“The joke’s on them”, he smiled inside. “My life ended long ago...”
Farlowe looked down at his feet. The snapped wire was whipping back toward some dry brush to his left. A bizarre light suddenly appeared. “Here we go”, Farlowe thought. “Sorry I failed you, Devra.”
He thought that would be his last memory. He was wrong.
Fourteen hours earlier, Farlowe had found himself Perth, Australia. Like most of his travel the past year, it was fast and unexpected.
He’d gotten word of Devra’s stunt in Shanghai. The repercussions were still being felt and analyzed. He didn’t like it that she had insisted he stay away, but he honored her request. He didn’t like it even more now that he knew at least part of what Hulong had planned for her.
Two things about this bothered him. The first was that what they intended to do to Dr. Devra Bogdanovich would be worse than death. This was something he had experience in. But the second gnawed at him even more. And that was how he had come to learn of this information in the first place. First, there was the sense. Devra’s fear. He had followed that as far as he could. Ni’s tip had taken him a few steps further. But now, now he was being pulled in by someone else. Smith? Probably...
Whoever it was, they wanted him here. He was walking into a trap. Which meant he had to take extra caution, because this hadn’t deterred him from using the information he’d been given.
Arriving in Perth, he went straight to an off-the-books safe house he had used before where he found what he needed. Two high powered weapons. The first was a Ruger SR-762 Assault Rifle chambering the Nato 7.62. It had three full Magpul twenty-round polymer magazines. More than enough with proper trigger discipline.
The second weapon was a .45 Kimber Ultra Carry II, 1911 Platform with a matte-black finish. The weapon fired the .45 caliber ACP cartridge, giving it excellent stopping capability.
A good balance of firepower. The Ruger could reach out and touch someone, while the Kimber could make the same brutal point in close if needed.
Farlowe loaded both weapons into a duffle bag he found in the kitchen and went to the beat up sofa in the living room. He sat for a moment and collected his thoughts. A vision of the metal man came to him again.
This had been happening since he heard about Devra. It was like a waking dream. A thin figure, similar to a child’s stick drawing, but around four feet tall. A rusted metal man standing alone near the banks of dry lake. The sun was low in the horizon behind him. The rusting metal man had no eyes, yet Farlowe sensed he was staring at him.
Farlowe tried to focus.
He didn’t know if the room was monitored. This place was a secondary site, set up by fellow agents from various agencies. Everybody put a little into the pot. An insurance policy in case you were ever officially burned by your employer.
Farlowe took a large stack of Euros from his pocket and sat them on the coffee table in front of him. He didn’t expect to be bringing the weapons back. Someone would replenish the supply. It was understood.
Then Farlowe pulled his phone from his pocket. No one had this number but Devra, and yet he had received the same text every hour on the hour for the past two days. It appeared to be a phone number, but every time he called it, no one answered.
If he couldn’t figure this out, he was stuck.
Twelve numbers in total. Two numbers. Space. Five numbers. Space. Five numbers.
Farlowe inhaled deeply, tiredly, and dialed it one more time. The line rang continuously, but no one answered.
He had gotten this far. He had the tools. Now he needed a target. And he knew the number was the answer. The number and the rusting metal man.
Farlowe grabbed the duffle bag with the weapons and exited out the shattered door he had kicked in five minutes earlier. The money he left would be more than enough to cover that too.
He walked slowly back toward his rental car in the parking lot of the condominium complex. No one was paying attention to him. Two numbers. Five numbers. Five numbers.
Farlowe tossed the bag into the back seat and slipped behind the wheel. The rusting metal man was staring at him. As if to say “Come on, Hubert. Don’t be so damn stupid.”
Two numbers. He started the engine. Five numbers. Farlowe put the car into reverse. Five numbers. He pulled out and then shifted into drive and pulled out of the parking lot, onto a side street and began driving toward an intersection at the end of the block. The next decision had to be correct if he was to catch up to Devra and have any hope of saving her, and he was approaching the corner not knowing which way to turn.
The rusting metal man wasn’t a man after all, Farlowe realized. Two symbolic breasts, like arrows, pointed down from the figure’s chest. How did he miss this detail, Farlowe wondered to himself.
A rusting woman. Alone. Abandoned. Left to elements in a lifeless landscape. Standing for eternity. Two numbers. Five numbers. Five...
“Damnit”, Farlowe thought to himself. He jerked the car toward the curb and slammed on the breaks. He grabbed the phone from his pocket and activated his Google Earth app. He punched in the numbers. Five numbers west. Five numbers north.
The map zoomed in on a salt lake in the outback of Western Australia.
The first two numbers: 08. Farlowe looked at his watch. It was approaching five in the evening. About three hundred miles from his current location to the salt lake. He could make it with time to spare. Certainly long before 8:00 AM.
Farlowe smiled and threw the car back into gear. When he reached the corner, he didn’t stop but made a hard left and accelerated. He knew where he was going and was going to get there as quickly as possible.
Nine hours later, Farlowe found what he was looking for, a single series of coordinates that had been crudely drawn in the dry sand. Farlowe imagined that if he were to come back a thousand years from now, the message would still be legible. He knew where they led, and who had left them.
There was no mistake.
The Hulong symbol was something he had committed to memory, clear even through the beam of his flashlight. It was at the feet of the rusting woman.
Farlowe reached out and touched the sculpture. Exactly as he had seen it. Or was it as remembered it? Did he feel something? He wasn’t sure. It had been so long.
If he had suspected he was walking into a trap, Farlowe was now sure of it. And the messengers who had left this knew he would realize it as well. It was clear they didn’t care.
Farlowe returned to his car and pulled the duffle bag with the weapons into the front seat.
At this point, Farlowe didn’t give much of damn either. He was going in without any backup, help or guidance against a force of unknown size with a massive tactical advantage. He figured he’d never see another sunset, so he was going to make the best of this sunrise.
Hubert waited in his car until the vision was complete. When the sun was behind the rusting woman as he’d seen it in his mind, he threw the car into gear and headed for the Hulong Mining Operation.
Then he stopped suddenly and reversed. A thought. Just one more thing. Maybe he had some help after all.
Antoine Smith had spent a day preparing the battlefield. He wouldn’t take Farlowe for granted. The man had survived when all logic said he should be a memory. He had an ability, almost ethereal, to be where he needed to be when he needed to be there. And he had no compunction about pulling the trigger.
Smith wasn’t convinced this plan of Ni’s would work. But seeing as how Hulong was paying the bills, and how she would be watching from overhead via drone, he would let this play out her way, to an extent…. with one important change. Hubert Farlowe would go down. Smith was going to do what others had failed to accomplish. Today, he was going to kill the ex-NIA agent once and for all. Whether Ni believed it was the likely outcome or not, it was certainly going to happen.
“We’re set to the south, Mr. Smith”, a square faced mercenary said to Antoine. He was relaying the message that had come to him from over the radio.
“Reiterate how I want him engaged to all teams.”
“They’ve got it, sir.”
“Do it anyway”, Smith said.
“Copy that”, the mercenary replied as he began talking into the radio.
Smith stepped away from him and surveyed the landscape. Nothing yet.
“Come on, Hubert. We’re waiting...”, Smith said to himself.
And then the fireball erupted on the horizon. A moment later, the sound of the explosion arrived as thick black smoke rose into the air.
“All right, then”, Antoine Smith muttered.
Farlowe knew his heat signature was stronger than the average human. It had been since that night two years ago in Zurich, when he found himself bathed in Exotic Matter.
The car would provide a heat and light distraction for him. Something else to look at through the various vision gear he knew was pointed his way. Momentary, but hopefully enough.
They wanted him to come to them, and Farlowe would, but on his terms. First thing, he wanted to see what he was up against.
Reacting to the explosion, he caught movement. Two men to the left, closing fast, standard coverage. He estimated about a hundred yards out and closing.
Farlowe took one last look at the car.
Maybe his decision was rash, but it certainly had committed him to a course of action. No going back now. It was a twenty day walk in any direction. If he was going to get out of here with Devra, it was going to be in a Hulong vehicle.
All that has come before is meaningless, Hubert thought to himself. Your future begins now.
With that, he checked the Ruger’s magazine. Locked. Ready. Then Farlowe dashed across
the desert landscape, toward an outcropping of rocks.
The two mercenaries, a man from Argentina that had seen covert action around the globe and a younger man that looked like an ex-rugby player and had done multiple tours as a contractor in Iraq rushed toward the burning vehicle.
Ahead of them, they could see a rock formation. An obvious place to set up for a shot, so they instinctively moved to flank the position.
Both men had H&K G-36s at the ready, leading with their barrels and keeping their eyes in the iron sights.
“To my right and hold”, the Argentinian said. The ex-rugby player responded, moving quickly and dropping to one knee.
“Go”, he said.
The Argentinian advanced toward the rock. No movement. Nothing. The rising smoke from the burning car was being blown by the wind in their direction, and a wall of choking black momentarily engulfed them.
“I’ve lost visual”, the ex-rugby player said.
“Me too. Pull back.”
Then the Ruger went into action. Two sharp cracks. Two kills.
Farlowe moved toward the dead mercenaries, confirming they were out of the fight permanently, then he moved forward, tracking their path, the duffle bag on his back.
“Garcia and Hyatt. No answer from either,” the square faced mercenary said to Smith.
“That’s because they’re dead.”
The man had been trying to reach them via radio since the first sound of gunshots had reached their position.
“Tell Team Omega that they are clear to engage. If they have the shot, take it,” Antoine Smith said. “And if they miss, then they better be able to kill me, because I’ll be coming for them too. Tell them that.”
The square faced mercenary started to lift the radio mic to his lips, but Smith turned to him.
“No. In person. Leave that with me.”
The mercenary paused for a moment, then pulled the H&K that was slung onto his back around and into position.
“Of course,” the man said, and ran to meet up with the other Hulong hired guns, passing the radio to Smith as he went.
The squared faced mercenary was a professional and in peak physical condition. He quickly closed the five hundred meters to Team Omega, consisting of three more heavily armed mercenaries.
They saw him coming up behind them.
“Smith says kill him,” the square faced mercenary said.
“Change of plans, then?”, one of the mercenaries asked.
“Yeah, we go on the offensive,” the square faced mercenary replied.
“Sounds good,” another one said.
“Trail me. If he’s tracking the same path as Garcia and Hyatt, he’ll be coming through that low ravine to our left. Let’s get there and set up interlocking fields of fire.”
“Copy,” the third man said.
The four mercenaries moved efficiently, covering each others steps and occasionally stopping to scan the horizon. Within a minute, they had reached their new location.
Each dropped into the ravine and pointed their weapons downrange to cover their actions.
The last to re-acquire his sight picture was the square faced mercenary, and damn if Hubert Farlowe wasn’t standing fifty feet in front of him.
“There!”, the square faced mercenary opened fire, tapping rounds into the silhouette.
The others quickly followed his lead, until all four men were unloading their entire magazines of 5.56, 147 grain, full metal jacket at Farlowe. The sound of metal ricocheting off of metal was almost audible over the noise of the weapons.
All of the mercenaries realized that although collectively they had put at least forty rounds into Farlowe, he wasn’t going down.
They all stopped firing, as if realizing both simultaneously and too late the mistake they had made.
The Kimber opened up behind them. Three shots. The first two men dropped forward, both hit in the back. The third was felled by a head shot.
The square jawed mercenary barely had time to turn around and see Farlowe closing the distance on him when the Kimber barked for a fourth time. The .45 slug hit the man center mass. He was dead by the time his body collapsed to the sand.
Farlowe moved to the dead men and studied the scene. Maybe this would work after all. His hope was that Devra was still alive. That all this chaos had provided the distraction that would keep them from outright killing her.
The bullet-riddled rusting woman was, amazingly, still standing.
Hubert hadn’t buried her that deep, but the 5.56 rounds were designed more for penetration than impact. An array of jagged wounds spread across her in full display. Hubert smiled at the metal sculpture.
“I knew there was a reason I saw you,” he said.
Then, he moved forward. He figured he had at least a few more Hulong men to deal with, and he wanted one alive long enough to talk. To tell him about Devra.
Farlowe rushed forward, running with a speed that surprised even him. The footsteps of the dead men were still clear in the soft earth under his feet.
He was closing the distance. Not long now.
And then he hit the tripwire.
Farlowe waited for the explosion that would vaporize him, but instead, he was knocked from his feet by extreme pain, as if a million needles had passed through him. And then passed through him again. And again.
Hitting the ground, Farlowe clenched his teeth and forced himself to regain control of his body. He shuddered against the strain and turned his head toward the source of his agony. A metallic case, about the size of beer keg, and heavily shield, was glowing in a most strange way. It seemed to amplifying the light hitting it rather than radiating any of its own.
Farlowe struggled to make sense of what he was looking at.
“A normal man can take about 30 seconds of exposure before this becomes dangerous,” Antoine Smith said. “An extraordinary man such as yours truly can take a few minutes before things start to go south.”
“Da… ark X...M?”, Farlowe choked out the question.
“Correct. And since you are neither normal or extraordinary, but something else entirely, something of an XM construct yourself, it really does a number on you. Instantly.”
Smith moved to the Dark XM container and activated a switch. A front panel dropped down, sealing the device.
“So many amazing uses for this stuff. Really boggles the mind,” Smith said to Farlowe. “By the way, you’re going to be like this for a while. Maybe permanently. Fortunately, that’s not too long for you, of course. Hurt?”
“Like a mother,” Farlowe managed through gritted teeth.
“I killed the rest of your men.”
“Hulong’s, not mine. Mine wouldn’t be dead. But to get to this moment, and allow you to think you were winning, an acceptable sacrifice,” Antoine Smith said.
“I doubt they would agree.”
“You hear them complaining? I don’t. Now, let’s go see Devra. It’s almost time for the show to start.”
Farlowe felt Smith hog-tie his legs together, but was in too much pain to resist.
A moment later, he was being dragged through the desert, toward the moment he knew would come when the day began.
“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?”
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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?”
“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.