TITLE: The Ghost of Fort Meade & Four Other Stories
LENGTH: 3000 words
SUMMARY: Five things that never happened to Jake Foley.
DISCLAIMER: Not mine, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.
The Ghost of Fort Meade & Four Other Stories
Blinded By Science
His watchdog tells him via the mike in his ear that they're clear to go and he slides down the cord, encouraging the invisible infrared beams webbing the skylight to fold into imaginative shapes around him. He doesn't tell Kyle that he got the message way ahead of him because, hey, the man has to feel useful somewhere, right?
Kyle curses as though he heard the thought. "Switch your camera to night vision. It's so dark in there I'm not even sure if I'm getting a feed." And Jake rolls his eyes and interfaces with the tiny camera fixed at his ear, altering the stream to Kyle's laptop on the roof.
"Sight's for losers," he murmurs, and hears Kyle snort, even as he's spiralling down through the dark. He avoids the pressure pads on the floor, jinxes the cameras as they sweep him by, and listens to the steady, unsuspecting heartbeats of the two men at the guard station three corridors of empty embassy away.
According to their intel, the documents are in a safe in the next room, which Kyle takes the opportunity to remind him as though he hasn't been doing this for almost two years now. The state of the art electronic lock on the door leaps to do his bidding like an eager puppy, even though it's not one he's come across before. Cutting-edge security? They'd have been safer with heavy iron and a manual combination.
"You'll need your camera to search for the papers," Kyle reminds him dryly.
"I know that. Smartass."
He interfaces fully with the camera and lets its night eyes guide him by the same feed it's sending to his partner.
He doesn't need vision - not really - hardly ever - which isn't the same thing as not missing it. These days GPS tracking and the NSA satellites map him a wider picture than any ordinary human perception could contain. Likewise, security cameras give him a web of images throughout any installation, since Diane added a few gizmos to hype up the nanites' range. Sound and echo, the million tiny unnoticed noises of the everyday, will guide him through any room, street, city, sketching his immediate surroundings in details the rest of the world can't imagine. He can hear the tell-tale changes in breathing and heart rate before an enemy throws a punch; send his own retort via the rustle of cloth and the rush of blood in human veins. People are full of noise. A direct interface with any computer tells him exactly what he wants to know without ever reading a screen, even to the point where his brain can interpret graphics and, inside his head, it feels exactly like seeing.
And when he really, really needs it, 'cause a piece of paper or your average, ordinary book are, well, a closed book to him - or if Diane wants to know what he thinks of her new shoes or that thing she did to her hair - there's the mini-camera that clips onto the wire over his right ear.
"Got 'em," he says to Kyle, checking the documents through before he slides them under his t-shirt. His visual world returns to its customary blank as he tunes the camera out - and so long as his real eyes will never work again, he's more comfortable with it that way. "Piece of cake. Wanna phone home and let Lou know we're on our way?"
Of course, it took a long damn time for him to retrain himself to the rules of his new world, and convincing the NSA to keep him around became an even more dicey business than before. But stopping ninja assasins wasn't a bad start. A handy precedent to have set when he was telling them he could totally do this, after Diane confirmed once and for all that his sight wouldn't be coming back.
If he'd paused for thought a moment that day, maybe he'd have remembered, before he clicked 'upload' and opened the door the nanites would use to flood in and burn out his optic nerves, that some of Diane's lab mice went blind.
But he probably would've clicked anyway.
Half the World Away
He's had more meaningful conversations with Darin in the last seven days than in all the previous seven years since they met the first week at Georgetown. In a sense, maybe that's not too surprising. Darin is the only connection to his old life that he has left. He's still shell-shocked by the suddenness of all the changes, the climate is killing him, and his parents may never speak to him again for accepting a job promotion to Kembu.
He doesn't consider it'd be a good idea to tell them that the NSA really hadn't offered him a choice.
The phone charges may kill him before the weather has chance to, but there've been times he was desperate for the chance to talk, for just half an hour, to a friend. Mind, the NSA are paying him more now, for the priviledge of uprooting him and dropping him down on a whole other continent to do a supervisory job he neither asked nor trained for.
"Hey, man," he says down the line, "How are things in Washington?"
"Forget Washington," Darin says. "Tell me about the naked chicks. I know they go topless there - 'part from beads and grass and things - I saw Kembu again on the news last night, they got some kind of festival going on. You been holding out on me, man?"
Of course, not all the conversations are meaningful.
Jake chokes and tries to cover it. He's barely been out of his apartment and the office. He has a guy that drives him to work every day down the same route, whose English sucks but who nonetheless manages to sound exactly like every taxi driver Jake's ever encountered. They have closed, patrolled districts here for the foreign nationals. He only had the vaguest idea there was a kind of local celebration taking place. "The chicks are great. And, hey, they love geeks. You should've fought me for this transfer."
"I totally think you're full of crap," Darin says good-naturedly. "Come clean, Jake, you're sat in your room with your Playstation and your Alien DVDs. Probably even desperate enough by now to watch the Joss Whedon one. Right? Am I right?"
Reflexively, Jake nudges Alien Resurrection under the state-provided couch with his toe. "Sorry to shatter your illusions, but this is the all new Jake Foley, party edition. You should see the cocktails they make in the bars here. This transfer business is totally the coolest thing to ever happen to me." It definitely provided the biggest 'What the hell?' moment of his life, the first time he heard where they wanted to send him.
"Hey, I know you, and I happen to know that the previous winner of that position was getting the new fridge," Darin scoffs.
"It had an ice box."
"Yeah. It was a minx."
"Look..." He feels the mood change as he speaks, and wonders if maybe they could've kept up the irrelevance and easyness of the banter, and taken that away with them tonight - to bed, to bad movies, to two lonely single-occupation apartments on two separate continents when, heck, at least they used to be able to be sad losers together. Too late now. "Did you find anything out yet? 'Cause, yeah, you remember how we were saying it was kind of weird, me being sent here just like that."
He hears the hesitation in Darin's hitch of breath, the awkwardness in his grunt when he clears his throat and he knows, he knows when Darin says "No, man," that it's a lie.
What he doesn't know is what's going on with Darin, what's going on at the NSA. This last week his friend feels 'off' - Darin was never a guy for deep conversation. Something's wrong, maybe Darin needs help, and Jake's in Kembu... And he knows at least one thing now, he's sure of it. They sent him away, the bastards, and maybe they're even listening to these phone calls. "Okay... not like it was important. Anyway, you didn't tell me yet what's happening over there. You all right working in the NSA's tech dungeon without me?"
There's a silence before his friend answers - and when he does, it's Jake's real question he answers, not the one lying on top. "Yeah... yeah. There's been a lot of stuff going on; I told you about that break in, right? But I'm good. Well enough." His voice gathers life and pace again, although it does it as if he's forced it to, as though it's an effort. "Hey, I tell you I got a new place? Old place wasn't the same with just one. Plus, check this - right above a deli, man. I totally never have to cook food again--"
The first time he sees her is through the sights of a sniper rifle, but he's meeting a lot of people that way lately.
She - the target - is walking through traffic towards the offices of the Washington Post, progress stalled by a thoughtless driver when first he picks her out of the crowd. He takes in the blond hair, the height and weight that are a perfect match, and even the coat is the exact same she's wearing in one of the surveillance pictures. He's on the wire to Warner before she even turns her head, before her hair swoops back in a golden curtain and he sees her face.
"I have the target," he says, and hears the sharp release of breath that's Warner's relief.
"You have your orders, Agent Foley. She doesn't set foot in that press office. Our people in the street are standing by to remove the file. Don't screw this up. These are the kind of stories that bring down governments. I should hardly need remind you what it'll do to you - or what I will."
Jake scowls into the sights. There aren't words for how much he hates Warner. How much he doesn't want to do this. He's sure she's making special effort to find missions she knows he'll hate, just to prove to him that she can make him do them anyway. He thinks about the low-tech concrete box sunk beneath the NSA's basement, and Warner's standing promise, and he tells himself the target is an enemy of the state. His finger tightens with purpose on the trigger.
It isn't true; even on a need-to-know basis he's picked up enough to know the NSA hid the funding for the nanite project, and this woman has to die because she followed the dirt back to its source. Because either she dies today, or tomorrow's headlines are variations on a theme of 'NSA conduct government-sanctioned human experiments'.
After six months under the wing of Director Warner since the accident in the lab, that's not why he isn't pulling the trigger. "Director... Valerie, I--"
There's something familiar about this woman. He didn't recognise her from her pictures, and he's never been told a name, but seeing her there and alive in front of him, her movements spark the recognition. It's been four, five years. He hasn't seen her since college, and she's changed. She looks harder and tireder through the sights of the rifle. It's Sarah Carter, all the same. The girl he knew. The girl he was crazy about for four whole years at Georgetown.
"Shit. We have to stop this! D--Valerie, listen, I know her - I was at college with her - I can talk to her. There's no need to go through with--" Recoiling back from the rifle, babbling as the shot rings out, as his back-up shooter weighs in. In the street below, Sarah Carter falls and lies still.
"Sarah!" His brain registers his shout, and the fact he just jumped four floors off a building in front of maybe two hundred startled public eyes, only as he's landing awkwardly on the tarmac, wrenching muscles that the nanites repair almost on the instant. The Executive Director is yelling in his ear as he staggers, regains his balance. He can't make out the words, and the only ones he has for her are, "Screw you, Warner," as he yanks out the mike and tosses it away.
He still hears the tinny echo of her next command. Just as he hears the second shot the back-up shooter fires. But even the nanites can't move fast enough to avoid it.
The Ghost of Fort Meade
The technology at Fort Meade loves Dr Diane Hughes. Doors open for her wherever she goes, and she never needs to use her security codes; the lab computers never go down when she's using them, and there's always a cup of coffee waiting for her on the machine when she comes in each morning.
She still talks to him while she's working, three years down the line, even though it's been over two of those years since he communicated directly back. The newer people look at her like she's crazy, and the ones who were there... well, she's got used to the sympathy. But she knows Kyle talks to him too, every so often, and there's a janitor who sings show tunes to the presence in the building - although, like everyone else who lacks security clearance, he thinks he's serenading the ghost.
They don't know that the ghost of Fort Meade is a living, breathing being in a tank in one of the building's most secure rooms, at the end of a little-used corridor off the science labs. He likes to play boggle, although he's not very good at it. He's developed a wicked turn in practical jokes. And he's been there so long that there's a thread of his awareness infiltrating every system in the building.
So far he's stopped two major security breaches on-site and the NSA's computers are more secure than they've ever been. And Diane has to believe that there's a kind of poetry in being a building, sort of, with corridors as arteries and all the people red blood cells. And maybe life like that feels more alive than her life, driving to work each day through the awful Washington traffic and getting behind on her rent. He's not in pain; the surgeons saw to that a long time ago. He probably doesn't mind this existence, even if it has slowly changed him into something a long way from human, incommunicado on her human level. Certainly every system in the building crashed in protest the one time they tried to pull the plug.
Jake is the beating heart of Fort Meade and even the people who don't know it, they know that there is something watching over them. Something that cares.
He'll never leave the tank, this time. There's not enough left for the nanites to repair - to all practical purposes, what's there amounts pretty much to a brain in a jar - but they will keep him alive, in a sense that all the rest of the equipment that's actually, technically keeping him alive never could. In replacement of wrecked nerves, they will extend him a new artificial nervous system through a building the size of a city block. Give him awareness and stimulation and life: hundreds of lives, kept safe within his walls every day.
And it's almost so normal to her now that she can forget the horror, and forget her own guilt, and only laugh at him infesting the machines of all the bored techies and agents and directors at their workstations, infiltrating the computer to play against them and whupping their asses at all their surreptitious smuggled games.
She has a rolled-up sleeping bag stuffed in one of the lab cupboards, which she always used to use the odd occasion she pulled an all-nighter, to catch some sleep before dawn. Now, she regularly carries it down the corridor to Jake's bare little room, and she sleeps there with her head beside the glass. With security cameras for eyes and ears, he knows she's there.
Sometimes she's there more nights a week than not.
He saw her again getting onto the elevator about a month after the shootout. She smiled at him and he went up two floors and walked along three corridors he didn't need to as a pretext to keep her talking. Then they spent ten minutes standing laughing in the corridor being stared at by most of Crypto because she'd just done the exact same thing and they were both stranded half the building away from where they were supposed to be.
Since things weren't - still weren't - happening with Sarah, and since he'd already managed almost twenty minutes of conversation without tripping over his tongue too badly, he asked her if she wanted to go for a coffee at lunch. She astounded him by saying yes.
Over coffee they talked about old sci-fi movies and James Bond, and Jake admitted his not-all-that-secret ambition to be a real spy. She laughed and told him he wouldn't suit that life - those guys were all stiffs with no sense of humour. He slightly shamefacedly came clean about Darin's continued attempts to get them both dates by flashing their NSA badges at girls in bars.
"You... really don't need that," she told him, patting his hand where it rested on the table. Then she blushed furiously, and he wasn't doing much better, and it hit him that he could really like this girl and, hey, for once she actually even seemed to like him, too.
Her fingers trailed up his arm to the jagged mark scored angrily into the skin below his rolled up shirt sleeve. "That still looks pretty sore," she said, scrunching her lips cutely in sympathy.
He grinned toothily back. Without the shootout he wouldn't have met her. Right then, he wasn't particularly sorry. He puffed his chest out a bit and said, "Just a flesh wound."
James Bond would've been proud.