Disclaimer: I own nothing, make no profit and put the toys back in the sandbox when I'm done playing.
Thank you: ladyshain, mitchy and mostlyarmed for fantabulous in all ways betaing
Under his feet the treadmill feels slower than usual and the really – incredibly - annoying squeaking sound it makes every third rotation is definitely louder. The ballpoint Diane is tapping against the counter-top has less than half its ink left, it sounds hollow; he's almost certain he should say something about the refined audio but there's no casual way to mention that he can hear echoes in her pen.
There's a new beep amongst the humming, chiming chorus of active machinery around him. He's intimately aware of every instrument in the room and a new tone stands out like a new face in a family.
He's just about bored enough to let his mind wander, literally, towards the whatever-it-is. He's not really that curious, but he's more than tired of running and Lou is pretty firmly against him 'exploring' outside the lab environment. Crash one mainframe and they never let you forget it.
The geography of circuits imprints in his mind faster than he can see but nowhere near faster than he can process. Fingerprints of machines he knows like the back of his hand, better, flow past and then at last there's unknown territory. It's either, he thinks, a two billion dollar data cruncher or a coffee machine.
A near-physical jolt gives him a second of double vision as he pulls himself free of code that has wrapped itself around his mind like an affectionate cat, and back into the real world.
Diane is staring at him from across the room, the pen unmoving in her fingers. There's the faintest smell of burned rubber and the tread under his sneakers feels warmer than it should. He winces and steps off the running machine, fairly sure it stopped at least half a minute before he did. There goes another one.
She blinks, smiles and then lays the ballpoint down with a lightly ringing sound. It's only a third full now. "You're done. You can go, if you want. The diagnostic isn't going to compile before this evening at least and I know there's that thing Lou wants you for ..."
He pulls the towel from around his neck and wipes it over his face; habit not necessity. He feels like he's jogged the length of the corridor instead of run a couple of marathons at full speed. "You want me to come back after?"
"No, it's okay. I'm sure you have, you know ... things ..." She colours and he ducks his head with a grin.
"Right. Those many, many things." He balls the towel and throws it back over his shoulder in the rough direction of the treadmill. "I'll come back this evening."
"Well, I won't be here."
He tries not to sound sceptical, mostly because he isn't – he's just surprised. And maybe a little sceptical. "You have things?"
It turns out surprised sounds a lot like sceptical anyway because Diane frowns. "I'm cooking."
"Cooking? For who?"
"Me! I have a class Wednesday and then I cook Thursday. You could come over, if you like. It's chilli. You like chilli?"
He watches her expression, marvelling at the speed indignation becomes embarrassment and then blends into shyness. He could just listen to her pulse to monitor the changes but he's almost certain that's twenty percent cheating and eighty percent creepy. "I like chilli."
"Okay, so." She tucks an errant strand of hair back into the dishevelled bun and nods. "Seven-thirty."
"Do you want me to bring anything? You know, like wine or-"
They stare at each other and it hasn't been the same, not really been the same, since the time they almost .
Diane's eyes flicker quickly over his face and then away. "No."
"No." He tries not to let the disappointment show and wonders if he fails as her blush deepens and her heartbeat speeds and then slows.
"Beer. Mexican. We should do this properly."
They stand grinning at each other for long enough he debates setting the security cameras to loop back just in case the NSA starts to investigate them for being too happy, or something.
Then he scrubs his hands palm down on his sweats and remembers what he swore last night he'd tell his Doctor in the morning. "Uh ..."
Her smile fades into wary curiosity. The Doctor is in. "What?"
"There's this ... uhm ..." At four a.m. he was sure he had the perfect way to explain it. He should have made notes.
He shrugs. "I have itching."
"Itching?" Her hand hesistates half-way to her glasses and then goes on, straightens them absently and finally drops unerringly to the PDA on the desktop. "Where?"
"Hands. Palms, mostly. Don't look like that."
"I'm not looking like anything."
"Exactly. You get frozen face."
Her jaw flexes and she smiles the frozen away. "This is studious face. Listening face. Best friend face. Face that really isn't going to ask any questions."
Now he's colouring too; he can feel heat rising from his neck up and he thinks, if there was any kind of justice at all, he should be able to use the nanites to stop that. "Diane."
She's grinning now and that's not good but he guesses throwing diagnostic equipment at him would be worse. Slightly.
"Since yesterday. I thought maybe I was allergic to something. Then I wondered if I can be allergic to anything any more. Can I? Be allergic?"
"Well, sure, but the nanites will probably neutralise anything symptomatic of at least a mild allergy before you even notice. I still wouldn't recommend peanut cake with a side of peanut juice if, you know, you were allergic to peanuts or something."
He's ignored as she turns his hands over in hers and then shakes her head. "Okay, you know what? I'll look on the scans tomorrow morning and if nothing comes up there then we'll run some more tests."
Kyle's head and then his hand, holding a manila folder, appears around the door. He looks ready for business but there's no air of urgency and his pulse is steady. "You guys done? We have a briefing, Jake. Five minutes. Shower. Suit."
"So I can go play with the other kids?" Jake turns the most over-done puppy eyes on Diane he can muster and sends a short and wordless plea to the heavens that she won't mention anything about itching while there's a witness who will never, ever let it go.
The corner of her mouth slides up in a smile. "Seven-thirty."
He grins. "Mexican beer."
Yuri Folger – Russian-German, thirty-four, average build, no distinguishing scars or tattoos - is a son of a bitch. Jake thinks he would have come to that conclusion anyway but it's nice to have it verified by three FBI Special Agents, a CIA profiler and fifteen – fifteen – previous girlfriends. They're the lucky ones; they lived long enough to form the impression.
Lou paces back and forth in front of the view screen that holds Folger's frozen image and Jake doesn't need any nanite help at all to read the anger between the lines.
"The FBI passed this onto us when they came across evidence he's running import-export with more than the traditional Russian Mafia staples. He's selling Intel and he's being doing it for months. His latest was a CIA NOC list."
Kyle's head tilts a question and Lou nods and Jake looks between them and wonders if he'll ever figure out how to speak 'experienced'.
The viewer clicks through blurred images of a dark-haired man who, as far as he can tell, has managed to avoid looking directly into a camera since birth.
Lou's voice is a flat score to the flickering pictures. "We've traced several information leaks back to him and so far it's looking like he's got people in the Company and in the Bureau. It's reasonable to suspect this Agency is also compromised."
Jake glances down just long enough to register the plastic cup he's trying to drink from is empty and when he looks back Lou is staring at him. Kyle's looking over with a troubled frown and Jake wonders if he's not getting the full implications. It's bad but-
"The likelihood of a criminal organisation being able to get this deep for this long in multiple agencies and remain undetected is improbable bordering on impossible. He has some kind of edge."
They're still staring at him and he opens and shuts his mouth twice before he can finally form something coherent. "You don't think I-"
Lou looks gratifyingly bemused, suddenly comprehending and only slightly dismissive within the space of a few seconds. "Of course not. The first leaks we've been able to find pre-date your current employment status by a few weeks. But only by a few weeks. There's no evidence that the NSA has been compromised but that may only be because Folger didn't want us suspecting anything."
And then he gets it. "You think he got the nanite research. You think there's someone else like me out there."
"Doctor Gage was willing to sell the research to Vaughn, it's not unimaginable he'd sell it to someone else, had possibly already done so with earlier trials."
"There could be another Jake out there." Kyle looks less than thrilled. Jake tries not to take it personally.
Lou stops pacing long enough to take a step towards them both. "Kyle, I want surveillance on Folger and any and all known associates. I want to know what he's doing and where he's going before he does." Kyle nods and he's already scrawling something into his PDA. Jake keeps listening because he's willing to bet good – okay, reasonable – money that his assignment won't be playing gopher for Agent Duarte.
"Jake, I want you to look through every data-bank – every back-up, every redundancy, remote sites, everything. Any signs of tampering, a single byte that doesn't look right, logins that have no business being there, I want to know about it. Is that something you're capable of doing?"
A month ago he could have said no - he would say no now, but he never has been very good at lying. He can do what Lou wants and that makes him more dangerous than ever and, some day, the risk he represents is going to outweigh the good they think he can do.
And then he'll just disappear. Maybe Lou will be the one to order it.
His attention focuses beyond her as she clicks the viewer one last time and a list of names scroll. Twenty, twenty-five, names and - how thorough - their dates of death and their next of kin. Lives that were taken because someone knew too much. Someone he can help stop.
When he looks back to Lou she's smiling hard-edged but almost sympathetically; he has to smile back. He's learning: when you've been played, you've been played and there's no point bitching about it.
"Yeah, I can do that."
It's six-thirty before he's finished the system check for the Agency and its satellites – literal and metaphorical; it's taken a little less than six hours to process records dating back over fifty years and flag files that show anomalies for further analysis.
It's another half hour before his head stops spinning enough he can take a shower without risking death by misadventure and it's fifteen minutes after that he manages to find Kyle and let him know he's leaving. The look of reproach is perfunctory, Kyle's a good guy and he understands about definitely-not-dates you can't miss. It's not like they can do anything else until the results of his finds come back. Jake keeps telling himself that.
So he has fifteen minutes to make it across town to Diane's apartment, including picking up some beer on the way. He skids on the just-polished tiles of the corridor, pushes through the stairwell door and then jogs quickly down towards the south parking lot. He debates his chances of being able to change every light between him and his destination to green without being detected.
Not good. And Lou had displayed no sense of humour at all last time he'd been caught doing it off the clock.
There's a patter of light footsteps in low heels behind him. "Jake!"
Even if he didn't recognise Diane's voice - or her heartbeat or the way she breathes or that little catching sound her glasses make against her hair - he'd be able to see her. The garage has emptied enough she's very visible as she hurries to catch up, especially with her arms full of files and notebooks, clutched awkwardly and most on the verge of escape.
He wonders if she's using hard copy so he can't access it and regrets it because he knows it's paranoia but now it's always going to be right there at the back of his mind.
Two fast steps and he reaches her quickly enough to steady top and bottom until she has the middle under control; knows from experience trying to take anything from her will only result in catastrophic pile failure. And being glared at. For hours.
"Car." She staggers towards her new blue Mini and he pops the trunk without thinking about it. Almost literally. The files and folders tumble into the small space between spare tire and gas can and apparently it's okay when it's a controlled fall because he's not being glared at.
She's flustered, though. "I'm sorry, I was collecting some copies of Doctor Gage's theory notes from records and they've got someone new there." A scowl and then her expression brightens. "She's very good, though. I'm sure she'll get right up to speed."
"I'm not exactly standing on your doorstep. We can rain check-"
"You're not getting out of it that easily. You doubted my chilli making skills."
"Hey, I did not doubt your skills. It was honest surprise. You just don't look like you would cook ... and I should just quit while I'm behind, right?"
"Really should." Her gaze darts away but not quickly enough to hide the amusement then grudgingly returns. "I guess it is kind of late. How's next Thursday?"
"Next Thursday's good but I'm not writing this one off yet. Lauriol on 18th Street. The chilli probably isn't as nice as yours-"
"- but I hear it's worth trying."
"Okay." Her smile is tentative but so is his own and he pretends he doesn't notice that she has his PDA monitor in her pocket.
They take Diane's car – it needs running in and the radio actually works – and they make it to the restaurant and all the way to dessert before a blonde woman on the stair balcony pulls a semi-automatic from her shoulder bag and fires twice into the ceiling.
Jake discovers a new appreciation for industrial chic as he pulls Diane down under their solid metal table. The blonde's voice rises in a screech, shouting something about staying down and staying alive, handing over watches and money and Jake's not really listening because what people are saying really doesn't tell him much. He sends his awareness, focus, whatever out and through and over until video from the security cameras is playing behind his eyes and giving him a 3D of the room beyond the table.
He's sending out feelers to the electrics on the woman when Diane moves and his concentration breaks as he tries to pull her back. She might be startled but she's not scared and it's all he can do to keep her in cover.
She speaks rapidly under her breath. "There's another three-"
"Four, plus one on the door outside and one in a van out back."
"No, and they've got-"
"Diane, I know."
The lure of the unknown proves stronger than the lure of armed invasion and Diane allows herself to be pulled back to relative safety. "How?"
It's not the time for evasion; there are two men with bad intentions working their way to the table. "I can see them through the cameras and I can track their heartbeats - they're not scared like everyone else in here so their pulses are slower. They're using ear buds and throat mics loud enough I could hear them from, like, Montana and they're carrying HK USP Compact Tacticals. That's heavy duty."
When she frowns there's a line he always wants to smooth away.
"Okay, when this is over? You're coming clean, Jake. Everything. What do they want?"
"Some guy in the kitchens, no name yet. I'm guessing they're turning over the place to cover."
Two heartbeats come closer and the security camera construct in the back of his mind shows a would-be hero crouched behind the bar ready to stand up bravely and die quickly.
Diane's moving again and he pulls her back, tries to impress the importance of staying right where she is. "Stay here. Exactly here. Phone Kyle. While staying here."
And he has to move before she replies because the hero is leaping out waving a steak knife and the two gun men are turning that way and there's no world in which that's ever going to end well.
"Hey" He shouts as he spins a chair hard at the head of first man and is rewarded with a crunching sound and a bullet going wild - up and out one of the huge windows - as his target drops. The second gunman taps at his throat mic with one hand and raises his HK with the other as he turns to face the bigger threat. It takes nothing to block the output of the mic; even less to spin-kick the man's gun away and then back-hand him into unconsciousness.
The hero is standing holding his knife with a stunned expression Jake doesn't have time for right now because the woman on the stair balcony is turning her gun his way; he's not close enough to hit her and if he never has to shoot anyone again in his lifetime it will be too soon.
When he's quick he's really quick and the woman has just enough time to register he's jumped up fifteen feet and landed a foot to her side before he disarms her, rips the throat mic away and wonders what he's going to do now.
He didn't bring cuffs to dinner. He bets Kyle brings cuffs everywhere.
Her jaw sags and he tries to look apologetic as he punches her out with as little force as he possibly can.
That leaves two in the kitchen, one in the van and one on the door. He can hear Diane talking and focuses his attention that way just long enough to identify Kyle's voice emanating from her cell phone. She's telling him about the two outside; good - Jake can concentrate on the others.
The swing door to the kitchen opens under his touch and he slides his gun from its holster. Sheer muscle memory has him falling into the room clearance techniques while his attention roams over the scared faces of the floor-hugging staff, through the appliances and finally to two hearts beating calmly next to one doing a mile a minute. They've moved into a room beyond the kitchen. Storage, maybe.
They're not moving, which is good, but there's no camera there for him to get a feed from and something is distorting what he can pick up from their comms. He crouches on the cold tile floor next to a heavily made-up middle-aged woman with a horrible dye job and perfectly manicured nails. She's pale but at least she's not sobbing.
"Ma'am, I need you to help me."
She looks as if he's spoken Sanskrit. Backwards. But she nods dubiously after that seconds hesitation and whispers, "how?"
"The room back there," he points, "does it have a back door?"
"No, it's got a big window though."
"Big enough for people to get through?"
"Is the window usually locked? Open?"
"They say it should be locked but it's probably open. It gets really hot and-"
"It's okay, I'm not the health inspector."
She smiles and he's surprised enough to smile back without thinking. It's kind of surreal.
"Okay, I need you to try and get these people out of here and into the main dining area. It's really important you don't let anyone leave, though. Just to the main room. There's a woman in there called Diane. If you can tell her what you told me about the window she can pass that on to the cops."
The waitress's eyes begin to glaze with overload before he's even half-way through talking and all he can do is mentally cross his fingers in hope and gently pat her on the shoulder as he stands and makes his way towards the end of the kitchen.
He slides his feet over the tile so he doesn't trip and he keeps his eyes up and searching as he edges along the wall towards the door of the room. Two voices and he doesn't need to enhance them much to hear. One is male and the other female. Unfortunately, they're speaking in what he thinks might be Russian or maybe Polish. Czech? Could be Czech.
Kyle probably knows all three languages. Fluently.
A third voice pipes up, thin and scared. Another man and - from the tone - the owner of the dangerously rapid pulse. He's trying to placate the other man and the woman and from their clipped-sounding responses, it's not working.
Kyle and his team will arrive soon, maybe the cops too, but they may not be in time; Jake takes a breath and swings around the corner of the door, holding his gun two handed in firing position.
"Weapons on the ground. Now. Hands in the air!"
A slender, balding, man in white cooking overalls flings himself to the ground; another man and a woman raise their guns and dive left and right. They'd probably have surrendered for Kyle.
He throws himself into the room because most people expect their targets to go the other way and it buys him enough time to land on one knee next to the woman and punch down hard while she's trying to adjust her aim. A bullet knocks a chunk of plaster into his face from an inch to the left of his head and the man the other side of the room has given him no option. He turns and fires and aims centre mass because that's how Kyle taught him.
The heartbeats around him decrease by one and he fights the urge to throw his gun as far away as he can; settles for dropping it back in its holster. At the sound of scrabbling he crosses quickly to the window to haul the fleeing cook back by the collar.
"Trust me, you really don't want to go that way."
To prove Jake right there's the rattle of automatic gunfire from front and back and Kyle's voice raises loud and hard in the alley way beyond as he demands the driver put their weapon down and hands up.
Naturally, they do.
It turns out that there are a few ways to avoid the attentions of a determined scientist with an information disclosure grudge who may or may not blame you for a violently interrupted dessert.
The first involves wandering aimlessly around Washington with your cell phone off and a blood-alcohol level just a little higher than it should be. PDA trackers are thwarted and consciences are convinced to sleep and it's fine but then you close your eyes for just a second and a dead man falls with your bullet in his chest over and over again.
The second involves going home and playing computer games and banking on the chance that, at five a.m., said scientist has probably fallen asleep on her keyboard trying to help you out. Then you realise your conscience is awake again and it's complaining of dry mouth and a headache.
The third and most successful, despite a slight hangover and mild sleep deprivation, involves entering the bullpen at seven a.m. and being assigned, with Agent Duarte, babysitting duty for a nameless and resolutely silent ex-cook in a secret safe house at seven-oh-five.
"You know Diane's pissed, right?" Kyle's leaning back in his chair and he hasn't taken his eyes off the cook sitting, reading, on the bed but Jake can hazard a guess who's being spoken to.
"Yeah? I haven't seen her."
He's behind Kyle and he can't see the man's expression and he knows, knows, that one eyebrow is rising. "That would be the effect of hiding, yes."
"I wasn't hiding."
"Hey, I'm just glad something out of escape and evade actually took."
"... what did she say?"
"Something about your ancestors. She was up all night analysing your diagnostics so she wasn't too clear."
"Thanks. I feel bad. I feel terrible. I'll make it up to her. But she doesn't know where I am now, right?"
Jake jams his hands in his jacket pockets and leans back against the door. There's thrum of electric through the walls that in turn comforts and agitates and it's just quieter with the wood to act as a breaker.
The cook is staring at them with a pensive expression and Jake smiles because what else is there to do? "It's nothing for you to worry about, it's a friend."
Kyle snorts and Jake ignores him because talking to a guy who doesn't talk back has a special kind of appeal right now. "Are you hungry? Thirsty? If you want something else to read we can-"
"I saw you move. Fast. Strong.Too fast and too strong." The cook's words are accented but not heavily. "You have the nanites."
Kyle's completely still; Jake wills the same impassiveness into himself and his pulse jumps and tells him he doesn't entirely succeed. "Want to tell me your name?"
"Do the nanites breed?"
"I-", he glances at Kyle in time to see the slight shake of the head and says nothing.
Minutes pass and he expects the cook to go back to his magazine at least but the man just sits and stares; one microscope short of a clinical study. Diane never makes him feel like this but Jake recognises the signs of curiosity taken just a little too far.
Two scientists who like to cook chilli; maybe it's not such a stretch at that.
He retreats back to the door and lets his mind be pulled into the wiring and through the security systems. He checks and re-checks and pretends for a little while that it's vitally necessary and there aren't two men on the door and another four alternating drive-arounds.
When his eyes open again the scientist formerly known as 'cook' is watching with something like fascination – nanites must be right up there with Spider Babies and Bearded Women - and Kyle is on his cell.
Lou's cadence is tinny on the like but recognisable and with a little effort he could listen in if he wanted, but it's crossing more of a line than he wants to. It's practically his job description: hold the line or be the line and he's seen what happens when things get even a little bit blurry; it always starts small.
Kyle flips the cell closed and stands from the threadbare easy chair; rolls his shoulders and slips the phone back in his pocket. "Anatoly Machnev. Doctor Anatoly Machnev. Nano-technician." The man on the bed's eyes brighten and his expression sharpens; his heartbeat trips over itself speeding up. That can't be healthy. "He's supposed to be in WITSEC so he can, amongst other things, help bring down one Yuri Folger's racket."
"This is way beyond co-incidence." The connection is there, it just makes no sense. Kyle doesn't look like he's had a sudden revelation either; that makes Jake feel weirdly better.
"It's beyond belief. The Feds want us to keep him nice and safe while they do some house cleaning." Kyle leans into Anatoly's personal space; an Agent Duarte-shaped eclipse. His smile is warm and pleasant and it even reaches his eyes and Jake wonders how the hell Kyle does that. "We have quality time. So how about it, Anatoly? Feel like talking to us now?"
The not-very-good Doctor squirms and leans back and has nowhere to go. "I have nothing to say."
"You know, it's funny. Classified information getting passed around here, there, everywhere. CIA. FBI. Maybe even the NSA. I mean, what are the chances Folger knows you're here, do you think?"
Anatoly's breath is coming in shallow, terrified gasps but he's still trying to claw at straws. "I am protected. I am necessary. I gave information-"
"That was yesterday, Anatol'." Kyle crouches to look the man in the eye. "What are you going to do for us today?" His voice is kind and gentle as he methodically strips the man's options away; Jake wonders how the hell he does that as well.
Fingers twist in the bed cover for five and a half rapid heartbeats and then Anatoly slumps; even his greasy hair seems limper. "What do you want?"
Kyle accepts the capitulation with a nod. "Folger."
"Russian Mafia, more or less. Unremarkable. My testimony is on record with the Bureau."
"Unremarkable until nearly a year ago, when all of a sudden he starts trading in more than girls, guns and drugs. And it was about a year ago you went into protection, wasn't it? You didn't tell the FBI he was playing with new toys and twenty-three men and women have lost their lives."
Jake twitches aside the revolting yellow and brown checked curtain; the light outside is fading and it's starting to rain. Two young women are huddled into a phone booth to make a call. He lets the curtain fall and turns back to watch Kyle pick Anatoly apart.
"All this Intel gathering he's doing? Maybe selling it's a bonus. Maybe he's just been looking for you." The doctor visibly blanches; it doesn't matter whether it's true or not as long as he believes it. "So, tell me, why should we protect you?"
"Folger heard about research into a technology that would allow ..." Anatoly gestures to Jake; Jake wonders when he graduated from freak-show to show-and-tell. "I don't know how he acquired it, but he did.
"I owed a – a substantial amount of money. Folger told me I could pay it off in kind if I advanced the project far enough for human testing. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't make it work. When I knew I would fail, I ran. I told the Bureau what I knew because I wanted protection, I didn't tell them about the nanotechnology project because I didn't think it mattered."
"And because you're smart enough to keep something off the table. Okay," Kyle stands and rewards the man's cooperation by taking a step back, "what were you doing at the restaurant?"
"I work there. You can check my records, you can ask them!" Anatoly's gaze is pleading, he's desperate to be believed. "However Folger is getting your Intelligence, it is not by my efforts."
Jake runs a hand across his eyes; tries to will the headache crawling behind them away. "Okay, so you're saying it's a complete coincidence we were in the same place. That I just happened to be there to stop you from getting killed?"
"Perhaps." Anatoly's shrug is helpless. "And I am not ungrateful, Agent Foley, but there is nothing more I can tell you."
The itching in Jake's palms begins again and it occurs to him exactly three point eight seconds too late - when an electro-magnetic pulse is shutting him down and Kyle's spinning towards a slammed-open door - that there's one system he never checked.
Diane knows the corridors well enough she can run through them at full speed with her eyes on the PDA and not hit a single wall, door, fake potted plant or trash can. There are other people of course, intellectually she knows there must be; she doesn't know how many have to rapidly swerve or jump away to avoid a collision. Right now she doesn't really care.
She has to pull up fast as she runs through the door of Lou's office because its owner has a six-man TAC team locked and loaded behind her and that makes an impression on anyone.
Lou crosses her arms but no one shoots and Diane takes that to mean she should explain herself. "Jake went off-line for three minutes. He's back up now but the GPS is ... it's like he's in twenty different places at once and his physical readings are- wow. Off the charts. Both ways."
"The safe house was breached."
She can't read anything from Lou's tone and her chest constricts so tightly so suddenly she's surprised she can still speak. "Is- is anyone hurt?"
Lou's expression softens very slightly. "The two Agents on the door have concussions and Kyle caught a couple of broken ribs, but no one was killed. Jake and Anatoly are unaccounted for but we have teams out looking."
"Okay." It's not okay, but Jake unaccounted for is still a definite step up from dead. "Okay, well they need to be careful. The only thing I've seen effect all his systems like this was the EMP DuMont used on him and, Lou, he might not know who he is and-"
She swallows back the rest of her panic and tries to draw herself up and she hates that her hands have to hold on tight to the PDA to stop them shaking. A breath. Two.
Lou's smile is small and crooked and barely tepid but at least it's there. "You still have the fix from before?"
"Yes, but your guys, they can't spook him or shoot him or-" she shakes her head and feels more curls escape the bun, "because that doesn't work. So you can't put that executive action dead or alive thing on him again."
The carpet under her feet is surprisingly interesting; the pattern repeats itself about every two feet square but it's out by about three inches, so it looks much more random than it really is. She raises her head to Lou's silence. "I think I know what happened."
Deputy-Director Louise Beckett raises one hand and points to the door; the TAC team files out with heavy boots and rattling automatics. The last one politely closes the door behind him and it seems an anachronistic gesture from a storm trooper.
Lou perches on the edge of her desk; ankles crossed, hands by her side and fingers curled loosely under the desktop. "Talk to me."
"I think he's been hacked." She winces. Lou looks interested.
"I remember you warned about the possibility. But your analysis indicated the risk was negligible."
Diane raises her chin; it's not so much different to thesis defence. "And I stand by that. It would take a phenomenal amount of knowledge – not just about computers but about the nanites. There was no indication Gage's research wasn't secure and-"
Lou waves one hand and the argument is swept away; dark eyes don't blink. "What aren't you telling me?"
"There's some indications of upgrading, or at least re-writing. Not in the diagnostics, they're completely clear, but at the restaurant he was doing things he just shouldn't have been able to do. I mean, he's gotten really good at improvising but not like this."
"And he couldn't have just gotten better?He's been pushing himself even harder since the incident with the Junshi Clan."
"The nanites aren't a skill. Using them is, sure, but they're static. A computer program doesn't spontaneously change. The nanites learn and adapt but they don't just come up with something completely new. It's like Excel suddenly becoming a- a football game."
"How is this something you didn't notice, Diane?"
Now there's the trace of frustration and she lets her own show. "I have no idea. It's possible they shut down when not in use, become undetectable if you don't know they're there. Or-"
"The machines you use to monitor Jake are exactly that. Machines."
Her stomach is turning over on itself, she's sure of it. "Yes, he could have been manipulating the readings. But if he has it can't be on purpose, he wouldn't even know where to begin."
"Someone does." Lou's gaze stares into the long middle distance and Diane wonders if she's meant to go. The knock at the door startles her but Lou only stands and calls out an 'enter'.
Kyle's favouring his left side and there's a tightness around his mouth and Diane's almost certain a couple of broken ribs aren't something you're meant to be walking around with. Lou and Kyle stare at each other for a long moment and she guesses Kyle wins because Lou's the first one to look down at the folder he's carrying. "What do you have?"
"Results. Jake went through the entire system like you wanted. He flagged files with questionable accesses. The techs have just finished working through and there are some that come up."
Lou takes the folder and flips through it. "What does this tell us?"
Kyle starts to cross his arms and then thinks better of it. "It gives us a time line. There's two distinct types of access. The first few months have footprints, not many unless you know what to look for, but there. Relatively low security information, as well. Then about four months ago, the footprint is gone, they only got flagged because of the access dates not tallying with the user periods."
There's silence for a long moment before Lou's eyes narrow in the face of Kyle's air of patient expectation. "Four months."
There's volumes in two words and then Diane gets it too. "When was DuMont put back in prison? That was-"
"Less than a week before the first 'clean' hack shows up." Kyle shakes his head, mouth set in tight lines of disgust. "I'm going on record and saying I don't believe in co-incidences where DuMont's concerned."
Lou's expression suggests she agrees. "All right, so we have some theories. What else do we have? Diane, can you do anything for Jake from here?"
The Palm is still flickering random readings but Diane taps at it on the outside chance it suddenly springs to life. It doesn't. "No, I don't think so. He might be underground, or behind a lot of metal. They might even have constructed some kind of firewall for him." There's a horrible thought; she pushes it to the back of her mind where she can work on a just-in-case solution without actually thinking about it. It's getting busy back there.
Lou's moved on. "Kyle, do we have any idea where Folger would be likely to have taken them?"
"None. All of his known locations have been empty for months. The FBI gets hits from all over but investigations never turn up anything."
"Any of his people talked?"
"Not three words between them unless you count 'lawyer'. No ID and they seem to know at least a little something about interrogation rooms. No cracks. We can work on them but it could take a while. No chance any of his suspected clients will roll either, the FBI's tried that route already."
"What about Gage, any associates who might also have been approached by Folger?"
Diane can answer this one and she speaks quietly while Kyle's rifling through his file. "None with enough access. He didn't like to share credit. Apart from me, there's only one other person with enough familiarity with the project and the ability to do this."
And they find themselves inexorably back at the name they've been trying to avoid.
Sometimes, when they're young, Kyle looks at the bad guys and he can't see what they've done, what they're capable of; it's not written there. He's never had that trouble with DuMont. He can see things etched on DuMont's face that the kid's twisted up self probably hasn't even thought of yet.
Right now they're staring at each other across an interview table and DuMont is smiling like he knows something, but that's not new and it's nowhere close to conclusive.
Kyle reaches out and taps a blurred photo amongst several spread over the tabletop. "Yuri Folger."
DuMont doesn't bother to look but his smile widens to a smirk. "Nice name. German? Russian?"
So he knows something.
"We don't have time to play your game. Ante up or I'm walking out of here."
"Ante up? Did we skip the colorful sports metaphors entirely? That's disappointing. Are you planning to hit me again?"
"And we're done." Kyle's chair screeches as he stands and the discomfort of the noise almost takes his mind of the complaints of his ribs as he leans forward to begin gathering the photos.
He's at the door before DuMont speaks quietly. "Vanessa Cardounel."
He leaves his hand on the door handle but looks back just enough to see DuMont's strangely impassive expression. "Her body turned up in an NYC morgue three weeks after you were arrested. Coroner ruled massive organ failure."
DuMont's eyes close and the barest hint of a smile touches his lips for just a moment. Kyle wonders if anyone had told him. "I don't know where Folger is, but I can help you find him. I've shown you mine, Agent Pretty-eyes. Show me yours."
Kyle leans back against the door. "You blew your chance at a commuted sentence and you know that so don't waste my time. You're not getting within five feet of a computer or cell phone."
A bland smile reappears. "I want a transfer to some place with a view and I want protection. If I give you Folger, he'll come after me."
"But that kind of thing doesn't worry you, DuMont. You're the pin-up poster-child of control-freak egomaniacs everywhere. And you're saying you need help?" It's not professional but something about DuMont just begs to be provoked and Kyle's self-restraint is battling a couple of heavy duty painkillers.
DuMont's smile only flickers for a moment. "No, you need help. I just want something more interesting to look at and the peace of mind to enjoy it. An agreement in writing, Duarte. With my lawyer present. Then you get what you want."
It takes four phone calls, three hours, two signatures and one more painkiller to make the deal and now it's Kyle, Lou and Diane facing DuMont across the interview table and that little smirk is still there.
"The nanites are effectively encrypted, but the key is the carrier's genetic code."
Diane is torn between repulsed and interested and has the strangest urge to wash her hands. "That's still a near infinite combination."
DuMont's passing glance is impressively dismissive for a man on the wrong side of the interview. "The operative word is 'near' and no, I'm not going to tell you my algorithms because I don't see a large check with my name on it in your hand.
"Once you're in it's just data retrieval. Everything Jake sees, everything he hears, it's all in those happy little machines just waiting to be leeched." His head cants back in speculation, "but it's more than that, isn't it? What's got your knickers in a bunch, Lou? Can I call you Lou?"
Lou demonstrates what 'dismissive' looks like from a pro. "If this is your work, how does Folger have it?"
He shrugs and for the first time there's a crack of unease. "I turned him down but Vanessa probably tried to make a deal. The nanites she injected herself with were unstable, they'd have been eating her alive within hours. Maybe she thought he could get them out of her."
Kyle scrawls something in his notebook. "More people stealing your toys, DuMont. You don't look upset about it."
"Please. After Banatech all my code has my signature and my back-doors." He doesn't look at any of them. "If Folger's using anything he got from Vanessa, I can shut him down in seconds."
Kyle looks up. "Which means you can trace him." DuMont's expression freezes; he doesn't reply. "Shutting them down's not enough for you. If someone steals your ball, you take it back, burn their house down and salt the earth."
DuMont looks too self-satisfied to make a convincing protest, doesn't even try. "Very good, Agent Duarte. I feel much better about the security of this our fine nation."
Diane can't help but hear the sound of the clock on the wall ticking seconds away, even if it is digital. "Your code was a leech – passive. It couldn't re-write or upgrade the nanites?"
The smile becomes a fleeting and speculative grin. A beat and then he shakes his head. "No, but a modification piggy-backing my way in wouldn't be impossible."
She hadn't thought it was possible for her stomach to tighten any more. "Okay, so how do we trace them?"
"You get me to a computer. There's one in the Warden's office, isn't there?"
Kyle and Lou make identical snorts in unison.
DuMont only studies the table before him with apparent fascination. "Impasse. I've done everything I agreed to. I'm getting my room with a view whether I help you any more or not."
They leave him in the room, two guards to company, and step into the corridor to discuss their options. Like they have any.
Lou keeps her voice low, although it's not like they really have to whisper. "Who's our best computer tech?"
Diane shakes her head, she doesn't have a clue. Kyle has to think for a moment and then his mouth quirks a little. "Matthews. Jake was bitching about him last week, he only does that when the someone's good."
"Get him down here with a stripped computer. He's going to watch over DuMont's shoulder and he's not going to blink once while he does it. Kyle, make DuMont work for this. I want full documentation, names, dates, everything he wants to keep back."
Matthews does seem to know what he's doing and DuMont's smile is slowly fading and, by anyone's standards, that's going to be a plus. He looks tired but then he's had Kyle's full and undivided attention for the last two hours and DuMont's good but he's not that good. Diane hopes.
"The last time they used the software to leech was yesterday. Jake was running through your systems and they just went along for the ride. The good news for your oversight committee is, he processed so much information they would have crashed any five machines trying to harvest it all. Of course, the bad news is you're all still stunningly incompetent."
Kyle holds his hands behind his back to avoid any tragic accidents. "Enough commentary, can you trace it back."
"I have traced it back, where do you think I'm getting the information from?"
His finger rests on the return key and Kyle has visions of burning houses. The finger stabs down but not as quickly as Kyle's hand tugs at the keyboard cable and renders it moot.
DuMont is silent as he's pulled away but Kyle is powerless to resist a little wave and a parting shot. "You look good in orange, Kevin."
Matthews takes the vacated seat and gingerly avoids both keyboard and mouse though neither are plugged in. "I can't tell you what this is, but I can ell you where it is." His PDA is in his hand and he's tapping through commands with the speed of long practise.
"National. They're at the airport. Terminal B." He flips around the Palm and shows the map the satellites above are refining by the second – miles to yards to feet.
Lou's calling in the cars and Diane's hovering and Kyle's trying to remember what Terminal B looks like. "There's a lot of underground there. It's built over the older parts of the original airport, now it's got the electrics and parts storage and everything else you can imagine. No wonder Diane's getting no readings."
Jake can't move his legs and, honestly, that's a worry. He can't move his arms either and he's got some doubts about his head too. He strains the limits of his vision trying to see more than a long concrete floor and a hazy door and thinks Kyle would have managed to get thrown on his back not his stomach. Next to a gun. And a TAC team.
And that's all the mental-babbling he's going to let himself indulge in.
His fingers jerk as life begins to return to them and he braces himself to try to at least force a sitting position but right now he'll settle for rolling.
Rolling it is. The ceiling isn't much better than the floor – same concrete, fewer doors.
A dark blur appears in his vision and slowly focuses into Anatoly's head, complete with worried expression. He can just about feel a hand on his shoulder but he's still too numb to tell whether it's trying to help or restrain. Sudden vertigo and a brand new view of the room tells him the former as he's push-pulled into sitting, sprawling, against a cold – yes, concrete – wall.
His throat convulses but he manages to form words and spit them out while it's not looking. "How. Long?"
"I have no idea. At least perhaps two hours since I awoke. I didn't know if you would, your pulse is remarkably slow when you're unconscious. Perhaps the nanites use your dormancy to enter a rest cycle themselves. It's really quite-"
Anatoly must notice some of the antipathy he's being stared at with and stops talking abruptly with a small, faintly apologetic, attempt at a smile.
Jake's palms have stopped tingling and graduated to a low burn. He scrubs them along the floor to try and force the sensation away and then applies his efforts to pulling himself up the wall and to his feet.
The room is empty and windowless with only one door and a questing exploration of anything with an circuit in the area reveals only the strip lighting, himself and something far above that he can't immediately identify. There's a chill with an edge of dampness and an uncomfortable closeness. Stale air.
Anatoly's anticipated his next question. "I have no idea where we are. I suspect underground but only because I can't envisage a place such as this above ground."
He swallows and his throat hurts but at least it's stopped trying to choke him. "Maybe you're just not imaginative enough."
Two EMPs and that embarrassing incident with the metal detector have knocked him out before but none of them have left him feeling like this. "Anyone been in?"
He nods and walks – fine, weaves – to the door. It's locked, of course, but he'd have felt really stupid not checking if it hadn't been. The floor beside it looks particularly inviting and he slides down the wall into a crouch and lets his head hang.
Looking within his own system isn't something he's tried before. Diane said in passing a long time ago she had no idea what it would do and, anyway, there there's been no reason to try. But there's a reason now and he warily begins to walk with nanites.
The machines themselves are so small he doubts he could direct them to do anything complex and, as he knows full well their functions are extremely complex, he decides not to try. Billion dollar vegetable probably isn't a good look on him.
But he can run a rudimentary diagnostic and there's things in there he doesn't recognise. Has no memory of. Things that just don't belong. Things he has no idea of, no control of. Things that could be anything at all.
A descent into spiralling paranoia is abruptly pulled back by the sound of soft steps coming closer down the corridor outide the door. An echo suggests space out there, wherever they are is definitely built on industrial scale.
Maybe they're trying to be quiet on his account but it's a wasted effort when he can hear the rush of blood around the bodies of whoever-they-are. Men, he thinks, and there's something alien in one of them; it makes a watery mechanical sound and there's a faint electrical pulse. Pacemaker.
When the door opens he's ready to spring – for any given value of 'ready' or 'spring' – but decides on the better part of valour when he's met by the unhappy end of two rifle barrels that seem to be getting larger the longer he looks at them.
He holds his hands out to his sides and shuffles a few paces back; three men, he stores their faces in memory on the off-chance he'll ever be close enough to a computer to upload. The two carrying the rifles are dressed in black casual with a buzz-cut a piece and he labels them "Thing One" and "Thing Two", but he probably won't tell Kyle that. Ever.
It's the third man, in an expensive suit with a two-hundred dollar haircut, who has the pacemaker and almost unnaturally pale grey eyes that the surveillance photographs never caught. His voice is deeper than Jake expects and there's no trace of German or Russian, but a too-generic All-American that says the accent is learned, not natural. "Agent Foley."
That's polite. Jake likes polite when guns are involved and tries to keep that theme as he replies. "Mister Folger."
Folger's attention moves beyond him and Jake turns to see Anatoly, something small and fluffy caught in the headlights. The expression of politeness hardens into something cruel and amused and Jake takes one step right so he can look Folger in the eye.
"Anything you want from me, you're not going to get it if you harm Doctor Machnev." He sounds sure and confident because he's too nervous for anything else, but no one else needs to know that.
Pale eyes track back to his with a glint of something not quite close enough to amusement to be reassuring. "What I want from you doesn't require your cooperation, just Doctor Machnev's."
"Oh." He's just not used to being the least valuable commodity in the room anymore. It's novel, but he could have lived without the experience a little longer.
"I can do nothing." Anatoly tries to hit a pitch between honest and desperate and even Jake could have told him that isn't going to fly.
Folger's hand waves away the claim. "It's a medical procedure, Doctor, not developmental. I have faith in your abilities."
And now Jake gets his place in the scheme of things. He thinks maybe he even gets the motive as he listens to a mechanical heart always on the edge of stuttering. "It won't work."
Unsurprisingly, the attention's back on him. "Excuse me?"
"I can hear the pacemaker, Yuri. This isn't about secrets or making money, is it? That was just raising the capital so you could advance your version of the nanites far enough along to use on yourself."
"Astute, Agent Foley. Why won't it work?"
"Because it can't. Let me guess – first you tried to make your own from Gage's notes but that was a no go because Doctor Machnev's not up to the job. Doesn't matter, you were able to use some of their functionality to access the research at the NSA. Somehow along the way you figured out how to hack me and got the goldmine but it still wasn't enough. So now you want to ... what? Harvest directly from the source? The nanites are keyed to me but the kicker is the calibrator isn't on-board."
Anatoly looks sticken, he gets it.
"What? You think they're going to design something that can be picked up by any bad guy going and de-constructed? Right." He tries not to grin, it's not that difficult given the situation. "We're the NSA, have you met us?"
Folger studies the ceiling for three and a half slow heart beats and speaks at last without looking down. "So, were I to believe you, I would be led to understand neither yourself nor the doctor is of any use to me?"
He opens his mouth, considers and then shuts it. The man has a point.
"Doctor Hughes." Anatoly's voice is thin and scared and it should be because if Folger doesn't kill him, Jake will. Anatoly steps quickly back. "She is his handler and she worked with Gage. Between us, she and I, we could help you."
The ache in his palms spikes into pain and it feels like something is writhing under his skin but when he looks there's nothing there. What he wants to say is something short and certain like 'touch her and die', but "what did you do to me?" is out before he can focus enough.
Folger looks wary. "Some minor modifications, some developments. Did you know your nanites could be fed a picture, a name, and then work off all communication bands and surveillance sources in range to locate the target? Programming in a behavioural directive was harder but the latest research we acquired had made significant progression in that field."
Well that explains Machnev but he's not sure he wants to dwell on the implications even a little bit.
A radio on Thing One's belt crackles and it takes an effort of will not to just disable it. It's in a language he doesn't speak – Russian, he guesses – but the sound of panic is universal.
Yuri's expression is stripped back to bare-toothed rage; fingers begin to tighten on triggers and Jake flips a circuit in the pacemaker, creates a jolt out of time, and tries to pretend it's not murder as the man stiffens and begins to fall.
Thing One and Thing Two are moving closer and he reaches for them with no clear plan. Maybe it's instinct, maybe programming. His right hand grips Thing One's wrist, his left only brushes Thing Two's neck, but the effect is almost instantaneous in both.
The screaming is mercifully short-lived but the smell of burning blood lingers and he doesn't think he'll ever forget the wet, slicing sound the nanites make as they rip cell from cell. In the seconds it takes for the pounding feet running down the corridor outside to become a TAC team pouring a broken down doorway, Thing One and Thing Two melt into a pool of grease on the concrete floor.
By the time Kyle pushes his way through there's only two men left alive: one Doctor, catatonic and one Agent Foley, trying to peel away the skin of his hands faster than the nanites can heal it.
"You're saying you re-formatted him?" Lou's tone is cautious, unsure she's grasped the concept being presented.
The door of the office is slightly ajar and Diane feels she should lower her voice when she replies, but she doesn't. If Jake is listening he'll hear, door or no door, but she doubts he is. He's not doing much of anything right now. "Basically, yes. It's like a controlled reboot. I put him back to the original settings, installed the stable upgrades we developed and then put a rudimentary firewall in. We're working on building a much stronger one, but obviously that's-"
Lou nods. "What functionality has he retained?"
"His senses are certainly more enhanced. He can't run surveillance through his own head any more, and he can't process and filter information like he did with the ... history of everything NSA."
Diane winces, Lou doesn't have to say anything – her expression is enough. "And we're pretty sure he can't turn people to mulch. It's not something we can test safely but the symptoms he was describing have gone."
When Lou speaks this time it's measured and careful and Diane begins to realise the nano-report isn't why she was called in. "Kyle has some concerns. Jake's field operations have taken a significant downturn – he's not using any of his enhancements at all."
She slips her hands into the pockets of her labcoat and makes tight fists where they can't be seen. "He's still a good agent."
"Yes, he is. But he's being assigned to cases that require more than that, Diane. He's going to get hurt. Or he's going to get Kyle hurt. I'm going to have to take him off fieldwork and you know Director Warner will think the only use he has left after that is a lab-rat."
"No, Lou-", the rest of the words tumble over each other; die choked off. All she can do is shake her head.
"It's not my choice but it's a choice that will be made."
And they're running out of tactics, she knows they are. Jake walks and talks and sometimes he even smiles but he's not in there. "He's not talking about it, he just keeps asking me to check the nanites all the time and washing his hands when he thinks no one's looking. What on earth do you think I can do?"
Lou shuts her eyes. "I don't know, Diane. What can you do?"
The only thing left. Diane turns and if she slams the door just a little on her way out, no one's going to call her on it.
"So Kyle's insisting that I spent a week dressed as a nun undercover in a convent. He keeps leaving the Gideon bible in my desk drawer. And it's not the same one, either. My locker is full of them. Is he staging midnight raids on hotels? Because stealing bibles has to be about as low as it goes and I didn't spend a week dressed in drag, right? You'd tell me, right?"
He'd keep talking but he's having breath issues and his water bottle is empty and he has to have almost done his ten miles on the mill by now because he only gets this bored after the ninth.
Diane's attention is on her monitor and a notepad she's scribbling in; her tone is absent but at least she sounds honest. "There was no drag. You spent a few days going through some records for Lou and then you and Kyle were helping the FBI with something. Then you revisited amnesia land."
The something beeps and the running machine slows, he steps off the treadmill reaching for his towel. "But why don't I remember anything? Two weeks. Last time it all came back."
At last she turns to face him and it's easier to live with the tightness in her expression when it's mixed with exasperation because that feels closer. "I told you, it was a stronger hit. DuMont knew what he was doing with his EMP, he was very precise. These guys weren't after you, they were trying to wipe records or ... whatever, ask Kyle that part."
And he can because it's a story Kyle will back up, once the Gideon ploy's lost its shine, and Lou too if she's asked. They've even planted a few files on their server, and on the FBI's, in case Jake goes looking and Diane's gaining new insight into what 'frightening efficiency' really means.
She drops her pen in the drawer, it's out of ink. "Okay, so you're done."
Jake nods and pulls the towel around his neck, his breathing's starting to return to normal. "You want me back later? 'Cause I can drop back in this evening."
"I'm going to a class, I'll be leaving early." He's not sure why she smiles but he hopes it means he's forgiven for whatever worries his amazing dancing nanites had caused.
"A class? Did they discover a brand new science or something?"
The smile grows. "Every day. But this is cooking class. Pasta."
"Wow, well that's-" he grins, "so when do you cook for us?" He wanders closer, heading behind her chair.
"Sometime never." Her finger stabs out and switches off the monitor before he manages to sneak a look at what's on there. It's an old game and it feels like it's been weeks since they played it.
"No way, I'm getting a free dinner. I'll bring Boggle."
He tilts his head, not sure whether to be more surprised she's given in or that she wants him to bring wine but, either way, he's not going to complain.
"Wine. White." Her smile is sweet and brittle. "We should do this properly."