Saturday March 25 2006
Escondido

"Caitlin, hon, are you sure you're okay? I can do this alone, if I have to." They were stepping out the back door, on their way to the garage. The sun was well up, but most of the back yard still lay in the house's long shadow; from the look of it, the little space wouldn't get much sun before noon.

Kat yawned and took a sip from her travel mug. "Not a problem. Just let me get to the bottom of this, and I'll be fine. I've aced finals on less sleep." She looked down at her cup. "Which I was just starting to get ready for. Just one more year to finish my postgrad. Rats."

"Don't worry, hon. We'll find another school and get your credits transferred. You won't lose much time."

She watched their little den mother close the door, shift her purse and a little overnight bag into one hand, and make sure the alarm was armed against entry. "I've been meaning to ask you. What number do you punch in?"

"Well, my birth date would be one-oh, oh-four, nineteen-ninety-six, I guess; that's when they brought me online in the lab. But I use oh-two, oh-four, two thousand four; that's the day I met Jack." She closed the clear cover on the panel. "That's when my life began, really." They started towards the garage.

"Uh huh. By the way, I think your kitchen is gorgeous." I'll bet Sarah's bedroom is, too. Not that I'll ever set foot in it.

Anna beamed. "Thank you. I can hardly wait to settle into it and start cooking some real meals, once we're not looking over our shoulders every minute."

"I liked the little three-seat nook in the back, especially. Cozy. But I was surprised you didn't go with commercial appliances."

"No need; I'm not running a restaurant. But I bought top quality in residential stuff." Anna halted a few feet from the second of the six doors, and produced a key ring with a remote-entry fob. "This opens the garage door, too. The other kids can have the van today. Let's see what's behind door number two."

The door rose silently. No lights came on in the bay. At first, all she could see was a pair of headlight lenses against the dark interior, uncomfortably like eyes staring from a cave's mouth; then her eyes adjusted to the deeper darkness of the garage.

"What do you think?"

She was at a loss; she didn't know what Anna wanted her to say. "Well … it's kind of hard to see."

"Exceedingly. Flat black, Jack's favorite color."

"And it looks really … powerful. Muscly."

"That's why they call them muscle cars, darling."

"And it looks like it's frowning. Sinister, almost."

"Reminds you of the Batmobile?"

"God. Yes." The body was still oddly indistinct in the unlighted garage; in a flash of imagination, she pictured herself standing at the entrance to a dragon's lair.

Anna grinned. "Dodge Charger SRT8. Four hundred twenty-five horsepower, six-liter engine. Electronic suspension control. Five speed autostick transmission. Daytona steering."

"I'm a chip head, Anna, not a gear head. What does all that mean?"

"It means that if you're idling at a stop light, you can step on the gas and say, 'I wanna be doing sixty miles per hour,' and you are. You can make it corner like it's on rails, or swap ends with a twitch of your hand; I can teach you how. And, if need arises and you're on a long straightaway, you can outrun almost anything in the police fleet … including aircraft."

"Yeesh. I'm scared to get behind the wheel."

"Don't be. It's polite, and eager to please." Anna handed her the keys. "Electric seat. Run it back before you get in."

"As always." She opened the door and hit the seat button. She picked up a whiff of new-car smell as she leaned in. "I know it's black and all, but it seems harder to see than it should."

"I've made a few modifications."

She put on a smooth British accent. "What have you cooked up for us this time, Q?"

"Humph. All the badging and brightwork is off the body or painted over, including the wheels. The paint is original, but the clear coat has been chemically treated to cut the gloss. It's a black hole at night, and even in daylight, the body lines are vague enough to make ID difficult; there are lots of Chargers on the road, and several other cars have a similar body style and silhouette. The tires are filled with foam instead of air; you might shred one off the rim with a machine gun, but you won't flatten it with a pistol or rifle. Climb in."

She ducked her head to get in, as always, and then straightened out cautiously. She rolled down the window. "Hey … this isn't bad. It seems bigger on the inside than the outside." The interior was almost economy-car plain, but well laid out. The seats felt snug, but intentionally so; even the leg room was decent, and her hair barely touched the headliner.

Still outside the driver's window, Anna said, "It's a big car. Even the back seat is fairly roomy. Weight is just over two tons. Fire it up."

The inside of the garage filled with a deep, throaty rumble that suggested barely restrained power. Anna's eyelids drooped. "Is that sexy, or what? I think testosterone comes out the tailpipes along with the hydrocarbons." She pointed through the window to three rocker switches on the lower dash near the steering column; two were lighted. "Three more things. See the red lighted switch? Hit it."

She did, and the light went out. "You just disabled all your rear lights, including the brake lights. Should make you harder to follow or chase after dark." She flipped it back on, quickly. "The yellow lighted one disables your ABS and your computerized suspension and steering controls, for fancy maneuvers. Without training, though, you'll drive better with them on, so leave it alone. And as for the third switch, the unlighted one. Do you know what a caltrop is?"

"Medieval land mine: an iron ball with four spikes spaced so one always points up. They used to sow battlefields with them to blunt cavalry charges."

"They work great on car tires, too. There are a couple hundred of them in the spare tire well under the trunk floor. The rocker is a three-position switch: second position releases half of them, the third releases the rest. They slide down a chute and drop to the ground behind the car. If they're still bouncing when the next car passes over them, they'll puncture oil pans and gas tanks, rip loose brake lines … you get the picture. Be very careful with these, hon, and use them only as a last resort. If you drop them on a four-lane highway, someone's going to die."

Her gorge rose as she imagined the carnage that would result from a dozen close-packed cars suddenly losing all their tires at highway speed; she swallowed. "Right."

Anna said, with a smile and a snooty British accent, "That's all then. Do try to bring it back in one piece, won't you, Gen Thirteen?" She walked around the car and got in the passenger side. Caitlin's hand was on the wheel; Anna laid hers over it. "The keys are yours, by the way. Let Jack have first dibs on it when he's in town; otherwise, this baby belongs to our team leader."

"Um, thanks. But I don't really need a car of my own."

The little blonde's eyebrow lifted. "Then don't drive it. But I'm betting you will."

She gripped the wheel, listening to the engine purr, feeling it through the seat and in her legs. The seat cradled her hips and head firmly; she could imagine she was in the grip of something powerful, more powerful than herself. It was an illusion; from where she sat, she could rip it apart like a cardboard box … and yet, it was something that could push her around, as well. Sixty miles per hour in five seconds …

"Gearshift's under your right hand, girlfriend. Gas pedal under your right foot."

"Smarty. I'm just thinking."

"Driving is a wonderful way to put your thoughts in order. You can shift it like a manual without a clutch or just shove it in Drive, and off we go."

"This is Mr. Lynch's car?"

"You'll share it. I bought it for him, but I think you'll be driving it more. Not what I would have picked out for you … but now that I see you in it, I think it suits you."

She put it in gear, and the beast rolled smoothly down the drive. "Can you really teach me to drive like a maniac?"

"With this car, it would be easy."

"Later, maybe. Where to?"

"Take two lefts and then drive until you hit Centre City Parkway, and turn north. We'll follow it for quite a while; very scenic road."

"Meaning it's another back road with no cameras."

"That too. It'll turn into Champagne Boulevard, and then Old Highway 395 before we leave it to get on I-15 in Temecula."

"We're headed for L.A.?"

"Well, San Diego would have what I'm looking for, but it's probably a little too hot yet. L.A. is second choice." Anna locked eyes with her. "Lots of time to chat, just the two of us." They reached the Parkway, and headed northwest on a busy four-lane road that looked no different from an expressway.

"Scenic."

"Give it a few miles, hon."

"Okay. So, where do you want to start?"

"Pick an easy subject to start, if you like."

"All right. How many people did we kill yesterday?"

"Oh, hon." The commando housekeeper shook her head. "None, quite possibly. Let's recap. Was anyone in the Suburban when you demo-derbied it?"

"No, they were all outside shooting at me, except for the driver, and he jumped out when he saw me taking aim."

"So you're in the clear."

"Sure, pure as the driven snow, that's me."

"The two that Sarah took down in the garage. It doesn't take much current to kill a person, but people survive lightning strikes all the time, and they were alive when we left. They'll have medical problems, severity and duration unknown, but they'll live.

"Now the tail that Roxanne took down in the mall – did he throw his hands out?"

"Yes. Barely."

"Fine. Broken bones, maybe flattened his nose, but he didn't break his skull or his neck. The two in the car she trashed … they experienced the equivalent of a low-speed head-on collision; the commonest way for someone to get hurt in a head-on is when they get spit out of the car. That didn't happen, so I bet the airbags deployed, and they're just fine."

The road narrowed to two lanes and began to curve back and forth, passing through woods and small housing tracts. They almost had the road to themselves; occasionally they could see I-15 through the trees on their left, bustling with traffic. The big car purred, seeming quieter – and happier - at highway speed than when it was idling in the garage. "What about your tally, Anna?"

"Well, let's work it backwards. The people in the chopper and the cars are like I said before; broken bones, cuts and bruises, nothing more. The ones I shot … none of the bullets was fatal, but fifty-cals deliver an awful beating, and you can die of shock with scarcely a mark on you. But we cleared out quick enough for them to get medical attention, so I'm not too worried about them. The two men I hit in the face … I can't be sure. I don't think so. But I don't know."

They rolled through a few traffic lights and headed into deeper woods, interspersed with light industrial sites; semis appeared on the road, which she passed with ease. It really was a nice car, she decided. "There's one more, Anna."

"Oh?"

"The one you left in the bathroom."

Anna leveled her gaze on her. "It was blood on my ear, wasn't it?"

She nodded. "Nobody else saw it, you weren't turned the right way. I wiped it off, thinking it might cause a panic. Little did I know."

"Thanks anyway. For the trust."

"I trusted you the moment I met you. Your motives, anyway. Have to admit, I was a little worried for your sanity yesterday. So what about him?"

"I beat some information out of him. He may never be the same, but he'll live. I used him to spread some disinformation."

"Such as?"

"I tried to make them believe that we're new recruits in a Genactive resistance group, and that we're ready to start ambushing pickup teams and assassinating IO bigshots."

"Youch. Would you?"

She shook her head. "It'd be suicide, even if there were fifty of us. I was just hoping to get them to back off long enough for us to relocate and settle into our new hideout. Worried for my sanity, huh?"

"We all were. The girls, anyway; we saw more. It wasn't just what you did, it was the way you did it."

"Skillset files are like that. It's as if you've done it a thousand times."

"I've seen you use skillsets before, Anna. It was more than that. You were smooth, on top of your game. You were in your element."

Anna looked away, through the windshield and down the hood. "My combat-skills package, the Alpha file. It's huge, bigger than any ten other locked files I have; they put a lot of time into it. Only a fraction of it unzipped, to let me take down twenty armed men. If that was just a taste of what's inside, IO must have intended me to be one bad motherfucker. But it's nothing I'd ever choose for myself, Kat."

She felt a flush of shock. "You never cuss like that."

"Grabs the attention when I do, huh?"

"And you haven't called me Kat in, like, two years."

The little blonde paused, as if she were consulting her files. "No. Not once since I learned your given name. You think that's odd?"

"Guess not. You never shorten Roxanne's name, either. And Sarah's always 'Sarah'."

"What else would it be?"

"I can think of a few things you might call her."

Anna snorted. "Let it slide, hon. She's her own worst enemy."

"Uh-uh. Not any more. I've got a feeling she's going to have a hard time striking up a conversation in the house for a while. What is it with you two? She treats you like dirt; always did, even when we thought you were flesh-and-blood. And you always ignored it, and went out of your way to be extra nice – and that's saying something."

Anna tapped her finger on the dash, as if uncertain whether to say anything. "I'm sorry, hon. I know I shouldn't play favorites. I don't mean to."

"No one notices that; you spoil all of us. It just makes me grit my teeth sometimes, the way she's always looking for a way to put you down, like she's better than you, because … well, heck, I don't even know. It's not because you're a machine, she just uses that to get her digs in. It reminds me of the way the popular kids used to treat the nerds. I can't figure it. Or why you let her. Why do you put up with it?"

Anna stared at the dash. "I can't let her push me away. She needs me too much."

"Say what?"

She shook her head. "I know how much you've all lost. Family and friends, your homes … even your pasts, some of you. Twice now, you've had to turn your backs on everything you owned and run. But Sarah feels her losses more keenly than the rest of you. It's not self-pity, really; I think it's cultural. She feels her differences keenly, too. She's cut off and alone, even surrounded by friends who'll risk their lives for her. I'm just trying to give her as much comfort as I can."

"Well, if screwing with people's heads makes her happy, she must be in heaven right now." They were passing through country-club territory; off to the right, she saw golf courses spread their rolling expanses of green and driveways blocked by wrought-iron gates set in masonry posts. She briefly wondered what it must be like to have burglars and vandals as the chief threat to your domestic tranquility, and the health of your stock portfolio as your biggest worry. "Let's go back to the original subject, little den mother. That Alpha file of yours has more in it than how-to; there's something in there you shouldn't carry around in ignorance – it's a bomb inside your head. Isn't there some way to take a good look at it without opening Pandora's Box?"

"Not that I know of, but if you think it's that important, I'll trust your judgment and go to work on it." She smiled. "Carefully. I'll try not to snip the red wire by accident."

Conversation turned to lighter subjects: the new house and its environs. Anna seemed to have spent a lot of time researching Escondido, and she reeled off statistics on the town like a tour guide. "It's a beautiful little city, full of parks and museums. Population is about a hundred and fifty thousand, split almost even between whites and Hispanics, with a leavening of other groups. Native Americans don't live in town, but they're frequent visitors; it's surrounded by reservations. None of us stands out there. The ocean's a thirty minute drive, but there are some nice lakes close by."

"I'm sold, Anna. Really. When do we see the other half of the house?"

"The subfloors? Mostly utility, storage, and mechanicals, with a lot of empty space. I'll give a tour to anybody who's interested."

"Are you going to show it all to me, or am I going to have to go down there with a tape measure, looking for secret rooms? I'm dead serious, Anna."

Anna blinked at her. "Kat, what's wrong?"

"Guess I'm just getting tired of secrets and surprises and need-to-know."

The little housekeeper regarded her gravely. "I know it's been coming at you nonstop since yesterday afternoon. I'm not trying to push you off-balance, truly. I've had some unpleasant surprises myself, no few of them coming from inside my own head."

"Sorry."

"Needn't be. Downstairs, there's nothing I need to keep from you, and quite a bit our team leader should know about, just in case. But I have a million secrets locked up in my head: Jack's methods and connections, secrets and resources it would be risky or dishonorable to reveal; personal stuff about you guys that you'd rather die than see spread around; secrets my own brain hides from me, that it reveals on a need-to-know basis. You can trust me to keep your secrets as well as I keep everyone else's."

She snorted. "What secrets do I have worth keeping?"

"Well … what about that time at the Project, before you manifested, when Sarah made a pass at you that you didn't quite turn down?"